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Sirens Review Squad: The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Violet Kupersmith’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Alyssa Collins on Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel.

The Frangipani Hotel

In “Boat Story,” the first story of Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel, a granddaughter asks her grandma for a story she can use to complete a school history project. Over an overripe papaya, grandmother and granddaughter have the following exchange:

“What kind of story did you want me to tell you, con?”

 

“I’m after the big one.”

 

“Oh dear.”

 

“Leaving Vietnam. The boat journey. That’s what I want to write about.”

For me, this exchange frames the entire collection. Eventually Grandma does tell a story, just not the right one. By the end of the telling (and I won’t spoil it for you) Grandma has introduced her first rule of Vietnam and consequently the first rule of The Frangipani Hotel: “it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want.” This slight of hand is the magic of the work. In nine vignettes, Kupersmith builds a world that expands outward from her mother’s homeland of Vietnam across the Pacific to the urban United States, and back again. Yet, just like Grandma, Kupersmith resists giving readers stories they expect. For the majority of US readers (of which I am a part), any working knowledge of Vietnam and Vietnamese culture is wrapped up in a history of colonialism and conflict. To tell that story, the story we ask for would be to limit a place and its people. Telling the expected story locks Vietnam into a historical moment and a geographic place, but for Kupersmith’s characters, Vietnam is always simultaneously central and peripheral, past and present, whole and fragmented, a place to escape from and to return to. It is always with you and impossible to know if one is truly free of it. And it’s within the movement between these binaries of place and time that ghosts, magic, and horror blossom.

I really loved this collection! The beauty of it is that the stories are literary popcorn. While reading, I wanted to dip in for just one more mouthwatering story. And there a moments that are literally mouthwatering. (Everyone eats in these stories, making it my kind of book!) Kupersmith uses dishes, like bánh mì, bún bò, and egg rolls, to anchor the unfolding of stories. Thus, the telling and consumption of stories (and by extension of history, culture, and ancestral knowledge) is inexplicably intertwined with the preparation and consumption of food. The moreish quality doesn’t end with the descriptions of delicious food and its consumption; it’s also built into the shape of the tales with stories building to or past climaxes in unexpected ways. Violence and monsters lurk in the wings of the stories just as often as they feature on the page. The storytellers in Kupersmith’s stories stop and start, or divert their stories in surprising directions, and often it’s the anticipation of action that fills out the dénouement. This structure drew me in over and over even as the stories themselves would end.

The particular wonder of this collection, for me, is that unlike a light and salty snack these stories are laden with questions about being, history, and pain. They grapple with what it means to carry intergenerational trauma, to deal with the remnants of foreign invasion and colonialism, to immigrate and assimilate. But the stories are never heavy; they move quickly, aching with equal bouts laughter and horror. We easily move from the urban hunting grounds of a parched river spirit with a hankering for white men (“Reception”), to the rural bamboo backyard of cursed twins (“The Red Veil”), to the clever nursing home machinations of a mother trying to convince her busy daughter to visit (“Descending Dragon”). And that’s to say nothing of the folkloric elements. The monsters in Kupersmith’s folktales are often just as bewildered, as unstuck in time and place, and as angry as their human counterparts. They are difficult to summarize, but leave quite an impression. The one image that has stayed with me is of a woman surrounded by black flies. She has white markings on her fingers and is carving bread for the perfect bánh mì. Covered in flies, she continues to cook, hanging between worlds, neither fully living nor fully dead.


Alyssa Collins is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of the University of Virginia and a 2016-17 Praxis fellow in the digital humanities. Her work explores the intersections of race and technology as depicted in 20th century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. When she’s not writing her dissertation she writes about race, superheroes, television, and embodiment around the internet.

 

Book Friends: Violet Kupersmith

Introducing … Book Friends! A new feature of this year’s Guest of Honor weeks, where the Sirens team recommends books that would be friends with a guest of honor’s books. Today, we curate a list of titles we feel would complement Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel. If you enjoyed her work, we hope you check out these other reads!

Sirens Guest of Honor Interview: Violet Kupersmith

We’re pleased to bring you the third in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor. We’re covering a variety of topics relevant to Sirens with each author, from their inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2018 theme of reunion, as well as the themes of our previous four years: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Beaver Creek this October! Today, Amy Tenbrink interviews our third guest of honor, Violet Kupersmith.

S15_author_interview_graphic

AMY: Women have a long history with ghost stories, from using them to examine cloaked feminine themes to finding themselves in the strange position of, after establishing the genre in the 1800s, now needing to reclaim them as our own. Why did you choose ghosts, hauntings, and horror as your medium for your work in The Frangipani Hotel?

VIOLET: In my family, only women see ghosts. I think this is part of the reason why I was drawn to them when I started writing about Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora. In the American imagination the dominant narratives about the war and its legacy are Western, male, and soldier-centric, so I set my stories in the realm of the supernatural—one of the few spaces where the rules aren’t set by men. Ghosts can act as a stand-in for female characters, giving them agency in a society where they are denied it, and working in the horror genre allows me to shine a light on the kinds of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American characters who are scarred by the war but generally overlooked in stories about it: women in nursing homes, first-generation teenagers who work at grocery stores, long-haul truckers. In so many ways, the Ghost is the perfect metaphor for the immigrant: both are liminal beings, hovering between worlds, and here, both are feared and other-ed. And I think that there’s something fitting about using a literary genre which is often unfairly dismissed as silly or lowbrow to tell stories about a marginalized people. Each is able to empower the other.

 

AMY: Your work frequently, and often subversively, explores culture: its transformation following devastation, its vital connections, its loss and sometimes desperate preservation as people’s lives change. In “Skin and Bones,” Thuy eats her culture, literally, and finds a connection she didn’t think was there through Vietnamese foodways, while the American grandchild in “Boat Story” seeking an “A-plus” refugee story, hears an account of her immigrant grandparents and a boat, yes, but not one she ever expected. Conversely, your work, too, is often about invasion of culture: the American expansion in “The Frangipani Hotel,” where a single American businessman, looking for a Vietnamese woman to take out on the town, stands in for hundreds of thousands of American soldiers; or the American ex-pat in “Guests,” who can’t see her own condescension in her artificial competition with Vietnamese girls for her boyfriend. On your website, you share a bit about your family’s experiences and legacy. For you, how do written versions of stories intersect with the history and culture that you’re writing about?

VIOLET: My stories definitely feed off of my own neuroses about the place my ambiguously-brown Amerasian self occupies between these two cultures, and my hyper-awareness of the fact that I exist because of cruel historical circumstances that put my mother on a boat to America, where she met my father. I’ve always felt a bit like an amphibian, able to move between both worlds but never belonging wholly to either. When I started writing what would eventually become The Frangipani Hotel there was this common assumption, from both my relatives and from outsiders, that the pinnacle of the collection would be something like “My Refugee Family’s True and Terrifying Boat Journey,” that it was the ‘big story’ I had inside me and had been waiting to tell. And I bristled at this. I did want to honor my family’s legacy, but on my own terms. I’ve threaded their experiences into my books in fragments, because our story is one of brokenness, not boats. It started long before they left the shore and it’s still unraveling.

 

AMY: The Vietnam War is woven into every inch of The Frangipani Hotel, sometimes as a literal intrusion as in “Descending Dragon,” but more often as a looming shadow of memory or of devastation. Even—or perhaps especially—the American businessman in “The Frangipani Hotel” reads strongly as the personification of a modern-day capitalist invasion, a deliberate echo of American soldiers, while the Vietnamese men of “One Finger” relive their war-time horror in exacting, horrifying detail. How do you prepare to write work that, like this, is so inherently tied to such a complex, horrific tragedy?

VIOLET: To me, the Vietnam War is like a big, metaphorical black hole. You can’t see the thing itself; instead you see the material bending around it, the light that’s being sucked in. And that’s how I approach writing about it as well—I know that if I, personally, set out to write a realistic story about a bombing, or a battle, I would never be able to capture it in a way that would feel true to the reader, or give it the emotional gravity it deserves. I can’t face it head-on. This is another reason why I turned to the supernatural in my fiction—it lets me avoid writing explicitly about war while doing exactly that, on some level. The ghosts act as both a kind of shield and a conduit. I have to make monsters of my own in order to address the real ones in the country’s history.

 

AMY: You lived in Vietnam for a number of years, and spent much of that time exploring Vietnamese folktales and, I imagine, researching The Frangipani Hotel. What did you love about Vietnam? What surprised you about Vietnam? How did Vietnam change your writing and your stories?

VIOLET: Sometimes I hear myself talking about Hanoi and I realize it sounds like I’m talking wistfully about an ex-lover. It’s embarrassing. I can’t think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound silly, but I think Vietnam is just enchanted. Old-school, Brothers Grimm-style enchanted—equal parts dangerous and divine. The entire country seems to run on a dreamy and feverish, ‘It’s-4 AM-and-anything-could-happen’ kind of energy, for 24 hours a day. Everybody you meet has at least one truly weird story that they’re willing to tell you. And there is no other place on earth that has better food (there is a reason why the character in my stories I identify with most is sandwich-gobbling Thuy). The biggest surprise was a sad one. I arrived expecting that when I encountered discrimination it would be because of my Americanness. I was prepared to bear this. But instead, every time it was because I was a woman. The anger that I’ve felt about this, in particular, has seeped into my writing; my upcoming novel is simmering.

 

AMY: The nine stories included in The Frangipani Hotel explore a veritable mountain of themes: modernization and reclamation of folktales, an unmistakable indictment of the Vietnam War, the legacy of suffering and loss, the preservation of culture, everyday spirituality as immutable tradition, and about a thousand more. Of all the themes in your work, which do you most hope readers will discover and consider?

VIOLET: I think that in each of the stories the reader can latch onto the idea of inheritance, of what we are handed down—regardless of whether or not we want it or even feel we deserve it—from our parents, our parents’ parents, our nations. The skins, stories, memories, and trauma that we are given, the dangerous weight of these inheritances, and the lengths we have to go to in order to free ourselves from them. And I think that buried within this theme is an even trickier question: what we are owed by our histories, and what do we owe them? This was what I was attempting to answer when I wrote The Frangipani Hotel, and what I hope readers will ask themselves too.

 

AMY: Sirens is about the remarkable, diverse women of fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, even a character—who has changed your life?

VIOLET: My mother is four-foot-ten and—I do mean this as a compliment—she is the scariest person I know. She is a survivor, a scholar, and an activist, and she possesses the kind of fearlessness that I can only write about. Growing up, she always gave in when I demanded bedtime story after bedtime story after bedtime story. Ghosts do occasionally talk to her. She is a remarkable woman in every way.

 


 

Violet Kupersmith is the author of The Frangipani Hotel, a collection of supernatural short stories about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and a forthcoming novel on ghosts and American expats in modern-day Saigon. She spent a year teaching English in the Mekong Delta with the Fulbright program and subsequently lived in the Central Highlands of Vietnam to research local folklore. She is a former resident of the MacDowell Colony and was the 2015–2016 David T.K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Her writing has appeared in No Tokens, The Massachusetts Review, Word Vietnam, and The New York Times Book Review.

For more information about Violet, please visit her website or Twitter.

 

Where Are They Now: 2012 Guests of Honor

This fall will mark our tenth year of Sirens. With our conference theme of reunion, it’s the perfect chance to reflect on past conferences and revisit some old friends. In this series, we check in with our past Guests of Honor to see what they’ve been up to these days. If you attended Sirens that year, please share with us your memories of 2012 in the comments or on social media, and take a stroll with us down memory lane!

In 2012, our theme was tales retold, and our Guests of Honor were Nalo Hopkinson and Malinda Lo. Our third invited guest, Kate Bernheimer, was unable to attend.

Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo HopkinsonFalling in Love with Hominids

Nalo’s recent publications include her second short story collection Falling in Love with Hominids in 2015, and the story “Waving at Trains” in the Boston Review’s 2017 literary issue (check out an interview with Nalo on that work). She is also part of a quartet of fantasy authors re-launching Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Universe, as the writer of the third installment, House of Whispers, coming in September 2018.

Nalo’s book Brown Girl in the Ring was the inspiration for the feature film Brown Girl Begins, which screened in select North American cities in February 2018 and had a limited release in Toronto in March 2018. You can view the trailer here.

You can find more updates on Nalo’s work over on her Patreon page. Her future goals include finishing her novel-in-progress, currently titled Blackheart Man, and making a solid start on her next novel, Duppy Jacket, and continuing her graphic novel Nancy Jack.

Where She Is Now: “I now live in Southern California in the U.S., and am a professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside, where I’m a member of a faculty research cluster in Science Fiction.” (Source) Earlier in 2018, Nalo was named the 2018 recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Award, as part of Eagle-Con. (Source)

 

Malinda Lo

Malinda LoA Line in the Dark

In October 2017, Malinda’s novel A Line in the Dark was released to tremendous accolade, with Teen Vogue calling it a “twisty, dark psychological thriller that will leave you guessing til the very end.” It was a Kirkus Best YA Book of 2018, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2018, and one of Chicago Public Library’s Best Teen Fiction of 2017. Malinda’s next novel is Last Night at the Telegraph Club, a “story of love and duty that explores the complicated overlap between the city’s Chinese-American and LGBTQ communities” set in 1950s San Francisco. Publication is planned for 2019.

Malinda is also a frequent contributor to anthologies and other group works. Her short story “New Year” can be found in All Out edited by Saundra Mitchell, published this past February; she wrote the essay “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” for the Maureen Johnson-edited How I Resist: Activism and Hope for a New Generation, out this past May; and you can find Malinda’s short story “Meet Cute” in Fresh Ink, a We Need Diverse Books YA anthology edited by Lamar Giles, coming out later in August.

Malinda also collaborates with a team of writers on the Ellen Kushner-led serial novel, Tremontaine, which is about to begin its fourth “season” in September 2018.

Where She Is Now: She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog. (Source) Malinda also provides an in-depth update on her blog for the year 2017 going into 2018.

Upcoming Appearances: Brooklyn Book Festival on September 16, 2018 in Brooklyn, NY; Boston Teen Author Festival on September 22, 2018 in Cambridge, MA.

 

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 10, Issue 8 (July 2018)

In this issue:

 

GUEST OF HONOR: KAMERON HURLEY

We’re interviewing each of our 2018 Guests of Honor about their inspirations, influences, and craft, as well as the role of women in fantasy literature, as befits their corresponding reunion theme.

Our incredible interview with Kameron Hurley covered everything from ambitious worldbuilding to personal history, creative versus promotional energy, the writerly life, what revolution looks like for her, and World of Warcraft: “I enjoy playing a defensive character, known as a tank, who can endure an incredible amount of damage and whose role in a multiplayer instance is to protect the rest of the party … This is the same mindset I’ve taken to approaching my writing life. The rejections, the failures, are all hits. I’m a tank. My purpose is to endure until the end.”

Our feature on Kameron also includes Manda Lewis’s review of The Stars Are Legion (in which she called the book “pungent”), our Book Friends feature which suggests books we feel would complement Kameron’s rich body of work, and a revolutionary book list curated by Kameron herself!

 

ACCEPTED PROGRAMMING

Quills at the ready! Check out our Accepted Programming page for the full lineup of this year’s topics, summaries, and presenter biographies. In one of our richest years of programming yet, our presenters will examine everything from found families to distressing damsels, counterpart cultures to writing as self-care, and so much more—all in the form of papers, roundtables, panels, workshops, and afternoon classes. Thank you, presenters!

All presentations are available for sponsorship at $35 per presentation. You might choose to sponsor a friend, select a topic that speaks to you, or support an underrepresented voice.

Sponsor Programming

We will include your name next to your chosen topic in the program book, provided we receive your donation by August 15. Thank you for your support of programming at Sirens!

 

SIRENS SUPPORT

For other ways to support Sirens, we accept monetary donations of any amount, as well as items or services for our auction. Please visit this post to learn more about how we use your support to help keep the price of Sirens as low as possible.

 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW: GUESTS OF HONOR

To celebrate our conference theme of reunion, we continue to reflect on past conferences and check in with our past Guests of Honor to see what they’ve been up to these days. In 2011, our theme was monsters, and our Guests of Honor were Justine Larbalestier, Nnedi Okorafor, and Laini Taylor. Read the full post.

 

REGISTRATION AND TICKETS UPDATE

We currently only have 6 tickets remaining for the Sirens Studio. If you’d like to register or purchase a ticket, we recommend you do it soon!

Register or Purchase Tickets

 

HOTEL

Before you know it, Sirens will be just around the corner, and we strongly recommend you book your hotel room at the Park Hyatt at Beaver Creek as soon as possible. Please click here for reservations information. If you’re looking for a roommate, please tweet at us @sirens_con and watch our Twitter account for other attendees also looking!

 

BOOKS AND BREAKFAST

Sirens veterans know that we select a variety of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books related to our theme—and invite attendees to bring their breakfast on conference mornings and discuss them. View our 2018 selections, and check out our new spotlight on rebels and revolutionaries, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

The Memory Trees

For this month’s book club, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink reads and reviews Kali Wallace’s The Memory Trees, which she considers “one of the best examples of both a non-ghost hauntings book, but also a fantasy book where the magic and the impossible provide another avenue of exploration.” More thoughts on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

Communications Director Faye Bi reads the most delightful first Wollstonecraft Detective Agency book, The Case of the Missing Moonstone, as part of her 2018 Sirens Reading Challenge this month: “Freaking adorable. Positively charming. If these books were animals, they’d be big-eyed puppies, ones that I would want to snuggle forever.” Read her full review on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT …


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Book List: Kameron Hurley

For our 2018 theme of reunion, we chose Guests of Honor with work exemplifying the themes of the past four years: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Today, Guest of Honor Kameron Hurley shares the “unapologetically revolutionary books” she recommends for the rebels and revolutionaries theme. If you enjoy her work, we hope you check out these other reads!

 

The Female Man
1. The Female Man by Joanna Russ
We Who Are About To ...
2. We Who Are About To … by Joanna Russ
Parable of the Sower
3. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Power
4. The Power by Naomi Alderman
Planetfall
5. Planetfall by Emma Newman
Infomocracy
6. Infomocracy by Malka Older
The Broken Earth
7. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
Ancillary Justice
8. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Sultana's Dream
9. Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Ammonite
10. Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
The Mount
11. The Mount by Carol Emshwiller
Everfair
12. Everfair by Nisi Shawl
The Summer Prince
13. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Afterwar
14. Afterwar by Lilith Saintcrow
American War
15. American War by Omar El Akkad

 

Kameron Hurley is an award-winning author and advertising copywriter. Kameron grew up in Washington State, and has lived in Fairbanks, Alaska; Durban, South Africa; and Chicago. She has a degree in historical studies from the University of Alaska and a Master’s in History from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, specializing in the history of South African resistance movements.

Kameron is the author of the nonfiction collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, which contains her essay on the history of women in conflict “We Have Always Fought,” which was the first article to ever win a Hugo Award. It was also nominated for Best Non-Fiction work by the British Fantasy Society. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous online venues, including The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, Huffington Post, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly, and she writes a regular column for Locus Magazine. Kameron’s space opera, The Stars are Legion, was published by Simon and Schuster’s Saga imprint in February 2017. Her epic fantasy series, the Worldbreaker Saga, is comprised of the novels The Mirror Empire, Empire Ascendant, and The Broken Heavens (forthcoming in March 2019). Additionally, her first series, The God’s War Trilogy, which includes the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. Kameron’s short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed, Vice Magazine’s Terraform, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons.

Kameron has won two Hugo Awards and a Locus, and been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her work has also been included on the Tiptree Award Honor List and been nominated for the Gemmell Morningstar Award. In addition to her writing, Kameron has been a Stollee guest lecturer at Buena Vista University and taught copywriting at the School of Advertising Art. Kameron currently lives in Ohio, where she’s cultivating an urban homestead.

For more information about Kameron, please visit her website or Twitter.

 

Sirens Review Squad: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Kameron Hurley’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Manda Lewis on Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion.

The Stars Are Legion

Pungent. Can a story be pungent? That is the word that keeps coming to mind as I try to describe this wonderfully brutal, disturbingly weird, and fantastically creative space opera set in an extremely oozy, sticky, slimy, living world-ship. I quite loved it.

In The Stars Are Legion, Kameron Hurley gives us an epic journey of a damaged heroine who is trying to uncover her past as well as achieve a goal she doesn’t remember setting out for. Zan wakes aboard the world-ship with no memory of who she is, how she came to be there, or whom she can trust. The world-ship belongs to the Katazyrna family, who claim Zan as one of their own—although she seems more like a prisoner. The ruling matriarch, Anat, is attempting to conquer another world-ship owned by the Mokshi family, and Zan has been the main force in trying to achieve this, over and over and over again. The Mokshi, it seems, have the ability to move among and away from the Legion of dying world-ships—an ability the other ruling families desperately wish to control. Zan’s faulty memory is blamed on these repeated attempts to capture the Mokshi, but we’re left feeling like there is a much larger mystery to solve as she interacts with her supposed sister, Jayd. While Jayd refuses to provide answers, the narrative hints at a deeper history and relationship, as well as a dangerous plan that Zan must follow without fully understanding it.

A botched alliance lands Zan, near death, at very center of the world, a biological waste processing hold complete with recycler monsters. Zan finds herself in the company of a lost and discarded woman from another world, and a smart and cheerful engineer from a level above. Together they begin a harrowing ascension to the surface where Zan will have to decide if she is to carry out the scheme devised by Jayd and her past self.

This is where I fall in love with the story. Hurley’s vivid worldbuilding unfolds as we journey with Zan though the many levels of the world-ship. It’s wildly imaginative and kept me curious for what could possibly be next. The world-ship itself is fascinating; I found myself trying to imagine how the mix of technology and biology evolved to the point of creating this life-sustaining environment. One of the details I particularly liked was that the all-female population aboard the ship gives birth to things the world needs to sustain itself—not just children, but biomechanical pieces and so forth. The themes of birth, rebirth and reuse come up throughout in many ways. I am in the early motherhood years of my life, so all of the emotions and physicality associated with birth are still at the forefront of my mind. Grossness and bodily fluids are a part of my everyday life, so much of this text felt viscerally real and completely natural. This is what you deal with when keeping something alive—a person or a world.

There are so many more things that make this book an amazing read. The characters are complex and interesting women—many are unlikable or even terrible. Both Zan and Jayd are unreliable narrators, which keeps you guessing, mistrusting how you feel about them and wondering whether you want them to succeed. The various levels of the ship present different cultures and societal norms, and different ways of interacting with the world. There is also a plethora of ideas around identity, agency, and body autonomy presented throughout that make for great discussion.

The Stars Are Legion is, for me, an excellent blend of dark fantasy and weird fiction in a unique sci-fi setting filled with a strong cast of characters who have complex and often disturbing relationships. I enjoyed the ride, but it is not for the squeamish.


Manda Lewis holds a BS degree in aerospace engineering and a Masters of Tourism Administration, and served in the Air Force for seven years. She currently works for a children’s museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, hosting after-hours special events. She is also the caretaker of two small humans who look like her and often have dragon tea parties. Manda has always made it a habit to draw, color, and doodle on just about everything within reach and loves themes far more than anyone really should. Manda has been a volunteer for Phoenix Rising, Terminus, and Sirens for the last ten years.

 

Book Friends: Kameron Hurley

Introducing … Book Friends! A new feature of this year’s Guest of Honor weeks, where the Sirens team recommends books that would be friends with a guest of honor’s books. Today, we curate a list of titles we feel would complement the works of Kameron Hurley, the author of the God’s War Trilogy, the Worldbreaker Saga, The Stars Are Legion, the nonfiction collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, and the just-released Apocalypse Nyx. If you enjoyed her work, we hope you check out these other reads!

Sirens Guest of Honor Interview: Kameron Hurley

We’re pleased to bring you the second in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor. We’re covering a variety of topics relevant to Sirens with each author, from their inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2018 theme of reunion, as well as the themes of our previous four years: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Beaver Creek this October! Today, Amy Tenbrink interviews our second guest of honor, Kameron Hurley.

S15_author_interview_graphic

AMY: In a recent series of tweets, you said, “The older I get, the more I feel an artist ruins a piece of work by being expected to talk about it endlessly … The audience brings half the experience to the work. All this creator bloviating takes that away from them.” Edith Wharton once said something similar, that in reading and writing ghost stories, she was conscious of a “common medium” between author and reader, where the reader actually “meet[s] [the author] halfway among the primeval shadows ….” As you gear up for another book release, and all the promotional time and energy that that requires, what are your thoughts on the intellectual, emotional, and experiential exchange between writers and readers?

KAMERON: I don’t recall where I first read that half of the reading experience comes from the reader themselves, but I’ve seen this truth borne out time and again. There are many books I’ve read and adored at a certain time in my life that would have meant nothing to me before or after that time. I remember talking to people about the short story by Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life,” and the movie based on it, Arrival, and not understanding why there were people who didn’t find it brilliant and cathartic. What I realized, on speaking to others, is that you either connected with the emotional truth of the film, or you didn’t. That work evoked the feeling of knowing how difficult and hard and painful and tragic life is but doing it anyway. It’s the feeling that even knowing what you know now … that you would still make the same choices. And that simply didn’t connect with some people. In a discussion with my agent about the book Twilight, she noted that what it did very well was convey the feeling of being in love for the first time. This surprised me, because the book hadn’t connected with me at all. I couldn’t get into it. When she said that, though, it occurred to me that maybe I hadn’t connected with it because I simply didn’t share that feeling; it didn’t convey that feeling to me; it didn’t resonate with my experience.

This is why you can have novels that get a thousand five star reviews and a thousand one star reviews, and how you can get novels that … well, simply have no reviews, or only middling reviews, because they didn’t connect with anyone on any level.

I’ve also found that I’ve been able to go back to works that I didn’t connect with or understand when I was younger, and have found them much more evocative on second attempt. One of those was Joanna Russ’s book, The Female Man. I tried to read it when I just turned twenty and kept bouncing off it. But when I came back to it as I neared thirty, it connected. I’d experienced enough sexism in my life by then that I totally got it.

As you noted, I have less of an interest in speaking deeply about the particular meaning my own work has to me in case it contradicts what a reader took away from it. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes that’s important. There are readings of my work that make me think someone was reading something entirely different from a completely different political perspective. But hey, all I can do is hope that they return to the work after a decade or so and find something different in it. That’s probably the real magic of any creative work, that its meaning for you, as a reader, a viewer, can change depending on when you experience it. Just telling someone, “The Female Man is about sexism,” isn’t going to get them to connect with it. They have to come to it on their own.

 

AMY: The thing I admire most about your work—and I admire many, many things about your work—is that it’s so very unflinching. It is unafraid of conflict, not only between characters, but between the work and the reader. Its presentation of topics such as gender, sexuality, and abuse are, frankly, challenging in their naked honesty—and in their great aspiration. I find your work quite similar, in that way, to the works of authors like Carmen Maria Machado, with her very fuck-you feminist approach, and Sarah Pinborough, with her brutal truth-telling. How much of this do you draw from yourself, and what is it like for you, as a writer, to put pieces of yourself—your hope, your rage, your grief—on the page?

KAMERON: Every great writer puts pieces of themselves on the page. For many of us, this is how we process our own experiences, emotions, and impressions, whether that’s in response to something we have done ourselves or something we’ve seen, read, or heard about from others. War and genocide feature heavily in my work; I’ve never been to war, nor been the target of genocide, but I was watched after often by my grandparents. My grandmother grew up in Nazi-occupied France, and my grandfather’s primary duty after the war was driving truckfuls of bodies out of concentration camps. Most of my family has served in the military, many of my friends. Violence, addiction, family tension, abuse, mental illness, are all things that my extended family has struggled with. My grandmother’s house was the center of the universe for my father’s side of the family, so all of the trauma and grief experienced by that side of the family came through there. I either saw it or heard about it. So while my parents kept us fairly safe and coddled out in the country in the evenings, during the day, until I was twelve or so, we were intrinsically connected to what was, on the face of it, a pretty complicated family bound by love, abuse, addiction, and mental illness. Nothing but love to them all, but whew! Looking back, we were all a hot mess.

As a kid, you don’t know that, of course. It’s just how your family is. Your grandpa grabs you by the hair and knocks your head against the wall. He throws your cousin down the stairs. He calls your aunts whores. Your grandma throws plates and runs after you with a wooden spoon. All strung together like that, it looks like a horrifying life, but the truth is that human beings are complicated. There was always essential love in our grandma’s house. We always knew we were loved and wanted. When my cousins came out as lesbian and me as bisexual, my grandmother the hardcore Catholic thought that was fascinating more than anything; it allowed her to imagine how things could be different. She got a kick out of it, I think. When I look back now I see how isolated she must have been. She had to teach herself English when she finally came to America with my grandfather. People made fun of her accent. She would have my dad go with her to doctor’s appointments so the doctors would take her seriously. She had bouts of deep depression where she’d close all the curtains in the house and just call all her kids and cry about how unloved she felt.

But oh, there was love! She crafted creative lunches for us every day, filled the pool outside and let us romp around the garden and run the hose to fill up puddles in the yard for our GI Joes and My Little Ponies. We were treasures, to her. This dichotomy, this darkness and light, has always fascinated me. It’s something I explore a lot in my fiction, certainly: these abusive families who still care fiercely for one another, but don’t have the tools to love properly, and these human beings who have all the best and all the worst of what makes us human, and who muddle along trying to find their way.

I grew up white and middle class, and believed wholeheartedly in the myth of fairness and equality. “A woman can be anything,” my mom told me, often, “she can even be president!” My parents said, “If you just go to work every day, and work hard, you’ll be rewarded. You’ll make it.” And while I felt I was treated just the same as anyone else in my immediate family, once I went out into the world I was shocked, grief-stricken, and then profoundly angry about the lie I’d been told about fairness and merit. White families like mine can yammer on all day about how life is fair, but it doesn’t make it true. I understood this, as a woman, once I joined the workplace and was treated not as someone with merit, but as, simply, a woman. I was a woman first to the world. I went away to grad school in South Africa, which effectively opened my eyes to the bigotry and racism in our own country. It’s funny, how so many of those who are privileged in certain ways, as I am, have to step outside their own experience, their own family, their own country, to see the world for what it truly is. Travel was transformative for me in the same way that reading fiction has been. It allows me to transport myself someplace really different. To not only imagine, but to see, truly see, the world around me.

I went through a period after the election where it was difficult for me to write anything that was emotionally resonant, for me. The experience of writing is very often a cathartic one where I’m drawing on and processing real emotions that I’ve translated onto the page for my characters. After the election I didn’t want to feel anything at all, so I spent a lot of time just going through the motions. There were words there, but nothing behind them. Nothing mattered. I had to stop the book I was writing and take a break. When I returned, I began a new project, and whenever I got stuck, I consciously pulled on my own real experiences, on the things that interested me. I made myself feel those experiences again, through the lens of the characters, and it made for a much more powerful book that may be my best work to date. We’ll see what folks think when The Light Brigade comes out in March.

So yes, of course, I’m there on the page. So is my family. The people I’ve encountered. The joys and horrors I’ve read about. You take it all in, you remix it, you try and understand it. That’s really all storytelling is: trying to make sense of this wacky world we got born into.

 

AMY: Your work is tremendously ambitious. The Stars Are Legion is often summarized as “lesbians in space,” and while it certainly is that, I find that description shockingly simplistic for such a rich, vibrant story of a panoply of women that also interrogates a panoply of issues—love, power, revenge, motherhood—from a uniquely female perspective. Your work’s structures, from the gloriously unreliable point-of-view characters in The Stars Are Legion to the sheer complexity of the narration in the Worldbreaker Saga, are necessarily and unusually complicated. Your fantasy worlds, cultures, and societies are minutely detailed: You consider the impact that your fantasy-world creations have on the functioning of society, such as, as you’ve mentioned, what consent looks like in a consent-based society. Would you please share a bit about your writing process? How much of what you do is research or brainstorming? How do you get all of this from your head to the page?

KAMERON: I do a lot of research up front to get the gears turning, then research during the revision process to fill things out, to lend the book some color, some vibrancy, to find those telling details that make a scene or a person memorable.

I tend to look at the writing process like an oil painting. You do an underpainting first, then a second or third layer of increasing detail, and a final finishing layer where you’re adding highlights and low lights.

In the initial research phase I’m often just collecting quotes and anecdotes and ideas from books, articles, random tweets, memes, snippets of dialogue, all of those things. I generally have a character and a “big idea” in mind first, and I’ve learned that the next best step after that is to figure out what they want and what I want their emotional journey to be. That part of the process I used to never figure out until the end, which was an exhausting and backward way to write. I ended up spending a lot more time in revision when I did that. I had to learn that “plot” isn’t just “things happen” but how events unfold that impact the emotional journey or emotional state of the character. What’s their essential emotional wound or emotional driving force? Those deep emotions—a driving force, a wound, a passion—are really key, for me, in whether or not a story or novel of mine works.

A novel like The Stars are Legion could be summed up as, sure, lesbians in space, or an abortion allegory, or a sentient organic worldship adventure, or simply “a space opera” and in fact, it’s all of those things. But the core emotional journey, the question it asks, is if we are more than the sum of our memories; if evil truly is capable of change, and if some abuses are simply too much for a relationship to recover from (spoilers: yes). That is the emotional journey Zan takes throughout that book (and to a lesser extent, so does Jayd). The book could have all the squishy grossness and adventure, but without any kind of emotional core, it would be more forgettable, I think, and certainly less satisfying for me as a reader or writer.

But hey! It is indeed the world building that compels me to write science fiction and fantasy instead of historicals or literature set in the present. Worldbuilding has the ability to strip away all the trappings of what we believe to be “true” and asks us to interrogate it. How could things be really different? Who would we be, if the world was different? Who would we be, with different social mores? Different cultural expectations? It’s the same thing I learn from traveling, but even more disorienting. You can’t ignore just how many things you take for granted when you do really deep, immersive worldbuilding. You have to owe up to how lazy your brain can be.

 

AMY: You’ve talked a lot about failure—and how difficult it is to reconcile failure with that especially American brand of rugged individualism. You, I, and most Sirens attendees struggle every day with the overwhelming juxtaposition of that mythic American meritocracy with inescapable systemic biases. What advice do you have regarding failure and perseverance for women and nonbinary people who live in a society that encourages cishet white men to “fail fast” while demanding insta-perfection from everyone else?

KAMERON: I have been using my own anger and disappointment to fuel me for many years. When I was fourteen, I read an interview with Kevin J. Anderson where he said the secret to being a writer was, in one word, “Persistence,” and that really stuck with me. The truth is, of course, not fair or equal. Many of us are going to have to work harder than others to succeed. Many of us, despite all that enduring, will not make it to the bestseller lists or even be able to make it as full-time writers. But we’ll have another kind of success, which is the success of continuing to be a part of this field, continuing to produce exceptional work, long after others have given up.

It sucks, yeah. It sucks that we have to work harder. That we don’t get the attention. That we have to slog in obscurity for longer (or for infinity). But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to build a career. We, too, can get lucky. Being really, really good helps, too. I’ve been conscious that I need to level up my skill with every book. I can’t coast along writing the same thing, at the same level. I made a goal of being the very best writer—not necessarily bestselling or making the most money, because I can’t control those—but being an exceptional writer, among the best in the world. That’s a lofty goal, but it means that my journey is infinite, that I will need to keep pushing, that I can never sit back and rest on my laurels. That isn’t for everyone, but it works for me.

It’s funny—when I play World of Warcraft, I enjoy playing a defensive character, known as a tank, who can endure an incredible amount of damage and whose role in a multiplayer instance is to protect the rest of the party. The purpose of the tank is to endure. To take the hits. And to keep swinging. It’s my favorite type of character to play. This is the same mindset I’ve taken to approaching my writing life. The rejections, the failures, are all hits. I’m a tank. My purpose is to endure until the end.

Maybe not everyone sees that as inspiring or motivating, but I do. There is something about knowing that—if nothing else!—you can outlast your opponent that I find deeply satisfying.

 

AMY: So much of your work is revolutionary. So much of what you advocate is revolution. In the epilogue of The Geek Feminist Revolution, you explicitly state that you want to change the world. So, tell us, what does the revolution look like to you? And what can the women and nonbinary people writing, publishing, and reading speculative fiction do to join you in that revolution?

KAMERON: Revolution is a break from the status quo. An assault on the system. This can be a political revolution, a violent revolution (not my preference), a peaceful transfer of power, an abolition of current power structures. Revolution can also be quite personal—calling out an act of sexism or racism, refusing to participate in an immoral act that reinforces the status quo, refusing to carry out an order, refusing to serve a fascist, not complying with a request to detain an immigrant, even calling out a friend or colleague for perpetuating a stereotype.

Revolution on a grand scale requires us to find our people, to organize with others. But there are also the quiet, individual acts of resistance that groups can rally around—Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus, suffragettes chaining themselves to park benches, a restaurant owner refusing to serve the mouthpiece of a fascist regime.

Resistance leads to revolution, and increasingly I’ve found that simply continuing to do our work, to speak up, to participate in interviews like this one, to create our podcasts and our essays and our stories, is also an act of resistance. The trolls that tried to shut me up with death threats early in my career have now become far more organized and vitriolic. They are desperate to silence us now more so than ever. The simple act of being here, of speaking up, of not looking away, of not repeating the party line, of voting, of protesting, of not being still, not shutting down … that makes them very angry.

And, you know, I’m a tank, so—I like to make them angry.

 

AMY: Sirens is about the remarkable, diverse women of fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, even a character—who has changed your life?

KAMERON: I found the work of Joanna Russ to be transformative in many ways. I read a great deal of feminist science fiction in my early 20s, and I found Russ’s work to be the most blistering, the angriest, the most unapologetically revolutionary. She was full of a white-hot rage and not afraid to show it.

In particular, her story We Who Are About To … channeled that anger to its ultimate, grimly realistic end. I also saw a great deal of myself in her semi-autobiographical work, On Strike Against God, which helped me understand my own sexuality. No small feat!

Whenever I’m concerned something I’m writing is “too grim” or “too angry” I think of Russ. We should be unapologetically angry. The system isn’t made for us. It’s literally there to reduce our voices and power in the world. That should piss us all off.

 


 

Kameron Hurley is an award-winning author and advertising copywriter. Kameron grew up in Washington State, and has lived in Fairbanks, Alaska; Durban, South Africa; and Chicago. She has a degree in historical studies from the University of Alaska and a Master’s in History from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, specializing in the history of South African resistance movements.

Kameron is the author of the nonfiction collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, which contains her essay on the history of women in conflict “We Have Always Fought,” which was the first article to ever win a Hugo Award. It was also nominated for Best Non-Fiction work by the British Fantasy Society. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous online venues, including The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, Huffington Post, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly, and she writes a regular column for Locus Magazine. Kameron’s space opera, The Stars Are Legion, was published by Simon and Schuster’s Saga imprint in February 2017. Her epic fantasy series, the Worldbreaker Saga, is comprised of the novels The Mirror Empire, Empire Ascendant, and The Broken Heavens (forthcoming in March 2019). Additionally, her first series, The God’s War Trilogy, which includes the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. Kameron’s short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed, Vice Magazine’s Terraform, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons.

Kameron has won two Hugo Awards and a Locus, and been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her work has also been included on the Tiptree Award Honor List and been nominated for the Gemmell Morningstar Award. In addition to her writing, Kameron has been a Stollee guest lecturer at Buena Vista University and taught copywriting at the School of Advertising Art. Kameron currently lives in Ohio, where she’s cultivating an urban homestead.

For more information about Kameron, please visit her website or Twitter.

 

Where Are They Now: 2011 Guests of Honor

This fall will mark our tenth year of Sirens. With our conference theme of reunion, it’s the perfect chance to reflect on past conferences and revisit some old friends. In this series, we check in with our past Guests of Honor to see what they’ve been up to these days. If you attended Sirens that year, please share with us your memories of 2011 in the comments or on social media, and take a stroll with us down memory lane!

In 2011, our theme was monsters, and our Guests of Honor were Justine Larbalestier, Nnedi Okorafor, and Laini Taylor.

Justine Larbalestier

Justine LarbalestierMy Sister Rosa

Justine’s latest novel is My Sister Rosa, which came out in November 2016 and was recently released in paperback in December 2017. In this contemporary young adult thriller, Che begins to suspect that his “smart, talented, pretty” ten-year-old sister Rosa is a psychopath, while their parents brush off the warning signs as her “acting out.” My Sister Rosa was a Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book of 2016 and a Publishers Weekly Best Young Adult Book of 2016. It also recently won the 2018 Adelaide Festival Young Adult Fiction Award.

Where She Is Now: Living in New York City with occasional returns to Sydney.

 

Nnedi Okorafor

OkoraforBinti: The Night Masquerade

Nnedi’s popular Binti trilogy concluded in January 2018 with Binti: The Night Masquerade. The series’s first two novels have received several accolates; Binti won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella, and Binti: Home is a Hugo and Nommo award finalist for 2018. All three novellas will be reissued in hardcover with brand new covers—and a foreword from 2017 Sirens Guest of Honor N. K. Jemisin—on July 24, 2018.

For young readers, Akata Warrior, the sequel to Akata Witch, was released in October 2017. It recently won the Locus Award for best young adult novel.

Nnedi is also making a huge splash in the comics world, having written four issues of Black Panther: Long Live the King and contributed to Marvel’s Venomverse War Stories No. 1 anthology with “Blessing in Disguise.” She also has several projects in the works or announced and coming later this year: Antar: The Black Knight, LaGuardia, and Wakanda Forever (of which the first issue was just released).

Filmmakers and studios are also adapting Nnedi’s work: her short story “Hello Moto” was turned into a short film by award-winning filmmaker C.J. “Fiery” Obas called “Hello, Rain.” Nnedi’s award-winning novel Who Fears Death has been optioned by HBO and is now in early development as a TV series with George R. R. Martin as executive producer. You can also check out Nnedi’s unmissable TED talk, on “Sci-fi stories that imagine a future Africa,” which was recorded last November.

Where She Is Now: She lives in Chicago with her daughter Anyaugo and family. Nnedi is also a full professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Buffalo.

Upcoming Appearances: Special Guest at AMA-Con, held August 4-5, 2018 in Amarillo, TX. Speaker at the Sigma Tau Delta International Convention in March 2019.

 

Laini Taylor

Laini TaylorMuse of Nightmares

Laini’s most recent work is Strange the Dreamer, an “epic fantasy about a mythic lost city and its dark past,” featuring a junior librarian and a blue-skinned goddess who appears in his dreams. Originally published in March 2016 as an instant New York Times bestseller, it went on to win a 2018 Michael L. Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature in the United States. Laini recently appeared at the American Library Association’s annual conference in New Orleans to accept her award. The paperback of Strange the Dreamer was released this past May.

The second and final book, sequel to Strange the Dreamer, is Muse of Nightmares, which comes out on November 27, 2018.

Fans of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy will be delighted to know that Night of Cake and Puppets, the novella featuring Karou’s friends Zuzana and Mik and originally published electronically, came out in hardcover in September 2017.

Where She Is Now: “I live in Portland, Oregon, USA with my husband Jim Di Bartolo, who is an amazing illustrator and who I’m always begging to draw me things, and with our wee droll genius, Clementine Pie.

Upcoming Appearances: With author Jeff Giles, at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills, Oregon on July 12.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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