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Amy Tenbrink: When I thought the patriarchy was a meritocracy, I wanted to conquer and rule it

Sirens Studio takes place October 23-24, 2019, just prior to the official start of the conference, and gives attendees the opportunity to enrich their learning in the form of small-group workshop intensives. We’re thrilled to interview a few members of our tremendous faculty on their work, reading, inspirations, and workshop topic! Today, we’re chatting with Amy Tenbrink, who will lead the career development workshop “Negotiating Your Professional Life” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

FAYE BI: You’re immensely accomplished in your professional world, currently serving as Executive Vice President and Associate General Counsel–Revenue and Business Development for a major media company, and before that negotiating billion-dollar deals for one of the country’s largest television providers. (I’ve heard horror stories about your leaving for work Tuesday morning and not coming home until Friday!) How did you get here? What do you love most about your job—and what challenges have you faced?

AmyTenbrink

AMY: I’m going to give you this answer and then I’m going to explain that, yes, I know all the reasons that this answer sucks.

How did I get here? I do the work. If you want to be undeniably successful at something—including sitting on the bleeding edge of media industry strategy and negotiating mind-bogglingly large deals—you have to do the work. You can’t miss opportunities, macro opportunities like jobs or big projects or micro opportunities like chances to impress a CEO or change the course of a negotiation, because you’re not willing to do the work. And that means late nights and weekends, certainly, but it also means working when you’re exhausted or when you’ve been yelled at or when it takes three times as long to teach someone else to do it as it would have taken to just do it yourself. It means doing the work when the work is boring or you hate the person sitting across from you at a negotiating table or you’re supposed to be having dinner with a friend whom you’ve already blown off four times. You do the damned work. To the best of your ability. Every time. No excuses.

And yes, that sucks. I know every reason that that sucks because today’s corporate culture is built for (male) executives who have (female) spouses at home managing the ranch, so they have the luxury of not ever having to worry about groceries or report cards or getting the house painted. I know every reason that that sucks as a woman, not only because for so many reasons we rarely have that particular luxury, but because we’re “not tough enough for business” (a CEO of mine once said that, honest to God) and sometimes approach problems with a lure rather than a hammer and don’t look like corporate America’s very homogeneous idea of “success.” I can only imagine the many, many reasons that that sucks as a person of color or an LGBTQIA+ person or a person with a disability. I have lived that day where you learn that the meritocracy is a myth (the day you realize you’ll never make a promotion, even though you’re clearly better at this than every man who has ever sat in that same chair with a better title than yours). I have lived that day where you realize that you have to work twice as hard and show up three times as prepared and be four times as impressive as a man in order to even enter the same playing field (the day I realized that my male business counterpart with the same title who worked a paltry seven hours a day made 50% more than I). I know.

And I know what I’ve sacrificed to do this. I’ve never really cared about marriage and kids, but if you do, as a woman, I don’t know how you even begin to balance that with being a corporate executive in America, at least not without outsourcing your personal life, which also sucks. I worked, minimum, 70 hours a week for more than a decade. I currently travel about 40% of the time. I live in hotels and airports and on a laptop and with my cellphone. And this works for me because I love what I do, and I don’t care about marriage or kids, and my fish can feed themselves (good job, fish!)—but I can easily see that I’m the exception, never the rule.

But even through all of that. Even through a thousand things that weren’t fair and weren’t just and were downright ignorant or absurd or offensive, I did the work, every day, no excuses. Because in any job, in any area, you make a daily estimation of how much work you’re willing and able to do for that job. And my answer, every time, was “a damn lot.” And that’s how you become a media company executive in America in 2019.

So given all of that, you’d hope that I love what I do, right? I do. I’m relentless, I’m ambitious, I’m brilliant, and I have a hard-wired need for a daily dose of conflict. What I do puts me in the same room with other relentless, ambitious, brilliant people. What I do takes my whole brain and sometimes parts of my brain that I didn’t even know I had. What I do gives me a quotidian battlefield of negotiations and contracts and consumer strategies. If you’re going to do something 70, 80, sometimes 100 hours a week, by God, you’d better love it. Not all of it, but an awful lot of it. And I do.

 

FAYE: What advice would you give young negotiators or anyone else entering a challenging corporate field? How about for all those young female professionals who are called bossy, pushy, or aggressive?

AMY: Two things. Two impossible, non-negotiable things.

First, become comfortable being uncomfortable, and even more than that, become comfortable making other people uncomfortable. Many people, but especially women, are taught an obligation of hospitality, one that applies not only in your home, but in every interaction that you have. We are expected to make people feel comfortable. We are instructed to please, to chitchat away awkward pauses, to always find the right thing to say to make the other person happy.

There is a time and a place for that. Some of those times and places are even at work. But by definition, women’s ambition makes people uncomfortable. Women’s demands make people uncomfortable. Every time I ask for equal pay at work, everyone is tharn in their discomfort. They will assuredly try to make this about you and how if you were just more polite or more patient or more whatever, the meritocracy would work for you in the end. That is bullshit. Unless you’re willing to sacrifice your ambition, your assertiveness, and your self-respect, I recommend that you start getting comfortable with the idea that you will sometimes make any number of people (starting with your boss) very uncomfortable. Which is not to say that you have to go into every room with a figurative sword (or a literal one), but that you can, and perhaps should, let those awkward pauses linger, that you shouldn’t mask your ambition, that you should bring up pay disparities, and that you should mention that you’ve done more than enough to earn more time in the CEO’s office. Because the meritocracy is nothing more than a tool of the patriarchy meant to make you feel uncomfortable for being bossy, pushy, or aggressive.

Second, now that we’ve talked about doing the work, let’s talk about what work that actually means. Because for all that women and people with other marginalized identities have to work exponentially hard to end up in the same place as cisgendered, heterosexual, white men, we also spend a lot of time doing work that no one cares about. Or that perhaps people care about, but that we’re certainly not getting paid to do.

Planning team birthday parties. Taking meeting notes. Listening to your (usually male) colleagues complain about their bosses (or their wives). These are easy things to understand: You’re (probably) not paid to be social planner, executive assistant, or psychoanalyst. If your company wants these things done, they could, in fact, hire a social planner, executive assistant, or psychoanalyst to do them. They are not paying you to do them—so do not do them.

Somewhat harder is the notion that—especially for people who work higher, further, faster, baby—you’re probably exceeding your boss’s expectations. And there’s some value there, at least in earning a reputation as someone who exceeds expectations. But just like you aren’t getting paid to plan birthday parties, you’re also not getting paid for the difference between your boss’s expectations and your higher expectations of yourself. In a utopia, the amount of time that we spend on a task would line up perfectly with the value of that task to the company. For a frustratingly easy example, I have a professional colleague who recently negotiated a promotion, and as part of that negotiation, she asked her company to assign pieces of her salary to each of her buckets of responsibility. The company assigned—I kid you not—$0 to one particular bucket. She assures me that, even though that bucket remains in her job description, she will spend 0 minutes doing any of those tasks. Things are so rarely that clear, but to maximize your value to your company, without spending every waking moment working, spend some time figuring out how to align your boss’s valuation of each project with the time that you spend on those projects. It’s hard, but ultimately, you’ll be much happier and much more successful for it.

 

FAYE: You have several bodies of professional work: corporate attorney, media executive, non-profit chief executive officer, and Sirens chair. All of these are hard science: law, budgets, strategy, and the like. How does fantasy literature fit into what you do 100 hours a week?

AMY: It’s revolutionary. It’s aspirational. It’s necessary.

I grew up in the upper Midwest, learning all the skills necessary to be a housewife. I cook, I clean, I sew, I hostess. I do most of these things badly, and most of them with a bad attitude, much to my matriarchal family’s dismay because, for all their belief that the women of our family are invincible, our needles are our swords and our cakes are our shields and I never feel like a bigger failure than when my house is a disaster.

And I went from that to corporate America, which is still run, every day, in every way, by the patriarchy. I spent the first 15 years of my career thinking that I could rule that world as is, if only I worked hard enough. I have spent the last five years with the increasingly ugly realization that no part of that world works for me or anyone else with a marginalized identity.

I want a revolution. I want to see what the world looks like when it’s run by women and people of color and LGBTQIA+ folks and people with disabilities. I want to see worlds that either topple the patriarchy or are so far beyond patriarchal rule that they can grapple with other issues. My quotidian reality is so firmly entrenched in a power system that doesn’t work for me that I need my reading to be something revolutionary, something aspirational, something so untethered from our daily notion of reality that authors and readers alike can dream big and imagine something different, something just, something worthy.

The best opportunity of speculative fiction, in my proverbial book, is to write those worlds, those power structures, those societies. And again in my book, the best speculative fiction does.

 

FAYE: You’ve mentioned that there’s a subgenre of adult fantasy about lawyers, accountants, and negotiators. What makes this sort of fantasy successful for you? What about these books get law, negotiation, or strategy particularly right?

AMY: One of my great loves in fantasy literature—and relatedly, one of my never-ending disappointments—is revolution books. I love a good revolution! But I know enough about legal structures and economics and strategy to be able to spot, immediately and with little patience, what these books gloss over or even get wrong. I’ve been known to yell about supply lines and crop burnings and hyperinflation at Sirens.

But sometimes, a book gets what I do really, really right—and when it does, I’m a fangirl. So rather than wax poetic for days, let’s focus on three authors whose characters do what I do in speculative spaces and do it really, really well.

Yoon Ha Lee (Conservation of Shadows, Ninefox Gambit) spends a lot of time observing people. He’s never told me this, but he doesn’t have to, because I’ve read his work. The best negotiators are, first, observers. After all, the point of a negotiation is to get someone else to do what you want them to do—and the most effective way to do that is to morph into the version of yourself that will be more convincing to them. Some days you’re a beauty; some days you’re a beast. But to figure out if you should be beauty, beast, buffoon, or bitch, you have to figure out the person sitting across from you. This is basic human interaction, but it’s almost impossible to get right, at least in a way that feels right to a negotiator. We live, after all, in the spaces between words, the eye twitches, the flushes, the reluctant smiles. But Yoon gets it right, every time, not only in his negotiation sequences, but in his strategies, his tactics, his conversations. He establishes his characters with an eye toward how his other characters will manipulate them later on. His books ring true to a negotiator because he gives a negotiator-reader the details you need to see the tactics, the strategy, and the manipulation play out. It’s one thing for an author to tell a reader a character has been manipulated; it’s another thing entirely for an author to give you a critical detail about a character’s personality in a casual conversation on page 24, only to have someone exploit that trait 200 pages later. To a negotiator and a strategist, his books are simply true in a way that few authors can manage.

K.B. Wagers (Behind the Throne) writes indomitable women. But truly, a lot of people write indomitable women. What’s rare about Katy’s women is that their women know that they’re indomitable, powerful women and they negotiate, strategize, and lead like they are. Hail’s aggression, in particular, is a thing of beauty, her violence even more so. She’s willing to use all the tactics a man in her position would use—and Katy does us all the favor of writing this like it’s no big deal. Hail bluffs, she threatens, she advances, sometimes she breaks a bone or two. And that’s glorious, the fact that Hail gets to do this and it only enhances her reputation—because I know what those tactics inevitably do to the tactics of our real-world female negotiators. But Hail’s also willing to play against type, to use patriarchal stereotypes and expectations as a weapon, an infiltration, and Katy is willing to break down what that means and how that works in a way that inevitably demonstrates the idiocy of the patriarchy. Long live Hail, a female negotiator we should all aspire to. I’m going to steal her tactics.

Fonda Lee (Jade City) writes indomitable women, too, but in a world that—at least in the first book in her Green Bone Saga series—feels a lot like my corporate America. It’s very patriarchal, it’s very toxic, it’s very violent. Lee’s world is, in so many ways, my world—and she writes these women who navigate this world with grace, with violence, and with immense power. Ayt Madashi, more than any other character in speculative fiction, is who twentysomething me wanted to grow up to be. Back when I thought the patriarchy was a meritocracy and I wanted to conquer it and then rule it. SPOILER: Reading about Mada going from fucking owning Hilo in a negotiating room to flipping tactics entirely and recruiting Shae? That’s the sort of facility and skill and power I aspired to—and frankly, that I still aspire to. Mada’s power is based on brilliance, strategy, and yes, aggression, and as a negotiator, I love her for every minute of it.

 

FAYE: This fall, you’re presenting a career development workshop intensive titled “Negotiating Your Professional Life” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

AMY: We all, every day, end up negotiating lots of things, whether we realize it or not, whether we want it or not. Sometimes it’s as simple as whether we volunteer to take notes during meetings. Sometimes it’s more complicated, like negotiating for a raise. Sometimes it’s literally sitting down across the table from someone to negotiate a contract. But whether you realize it or not, and whether you want it or not, people are negotiating with you. So I’m going to share some of what I do, and the tactics and strategies that I use, to help people more actively manage those daily negotiations. Schools don’t teach this, but by God, they should.

So we’re going to do some workshopping. Negotiation is, fundamentally, about a third preparation, a third creativity, and a third tactics. We’re going to discuss what that preparation might look like. Is it research? Is it practicing what you want to say? Is it gearing up to be uncomfortable? Then we’ll work though some exercises on creativity in negotiations. The best negotiators are able to come up with innovative solutions to impasses. If your company can’t offer you the salary you want, is more vacation time a good compromise? Is hiring a junior person an option?

Then we’re going to talk tactics. We’re going to see what awkward pauses actually feel like. We’re going to talk about personal space. We’re going to use smiles and knowledge as weapons.

Come prepared to work! But also come prepared to gain a much greater understanding of how the world around you, especially in your professional life, actually works—and how you can more successfully navigate that.

 

FAYE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

AMY: As women, we think we’re invincible. I think we think we have to be invincible. That’s the great con of the meritocracy, right? If you’re just smart enough and you work hard enough, you’ll succeed. Which, of course, means that if you don’t succeed, you’re just not doing enough.

Which works on us because our foremothers spent sunrise to sunset demonstrating their love through work. They cleaned house and baked bread and darned socks and you knew your mom really loved you because she took care of you. Not because she was amazing and powerful and skilled and still wanted to hang out with you. Because she took care of you.

Hallie Tibbets, my best friend, is a magnificent woman. She’s been a music teacher and a non-profit professional, she co-founded Narrate Conferences with me 13 years ago and Sirens 11 years ago, and she is now an editor of books for children and teens. She is immensely brilliant and immensely accomplished and I say this both because she is, but also because God knows, I wouldn’t have listened to her if she weren’t.

But she taught me to forgive myself. She taught me that, if I were as forgiving of myself as I am of others, I would be a much happier person. She taught me that, if I hate a book, I get to bail after 50 pages, rather than finishing it out of some ridiculous idea that I’d fail the book if I didn’t. She taught me that sometimes “tomorrow,” or “next week,” or “fucking never” are all acceptable answers, not failures. She taught me that I am fucking extraordinary and that I am not letting myself down when I don’t do what I set out to do if it no longer makes sense or it’s a waste of time or it doesn’t fucking need to be done.

And because of that, because of all that work that she did, I was able to believe a Fortune 50 company’s negotiators when they called me a superhero in the middle of a negotiation and offered me a job. Or when my boss finally convinced me that I didn’t have to be certain before I spoke up. Or when I read a book about a “budget of fucks” and it was an epiphany. Or when I’m able to read 150 books a year because I don’t have to finish them if I don’t like them.

Because of her, I am much smarter, much happier, and much, much more disciplined in where I expend my time and energy.

Everyone needs someone in their life who speaks truth to your power. For me, Hallie is that person. Also, she is good at cuddles even though cuddling me is something like cuddling a grumpy cactus.


Amy Tenbrink serves as Executive Vice President and Associate General Counsel-Revenue and Business Development for Univision Communications, the leading multimedia company entertaining, informing, and empowering Hispanic America. In this role, Amy both leads the legal team with respect to all revenue-generating businesses and other initiatives for Univision (including content distribution and advertising sales) and serves as a strategic business advisor with respect to those same businesses and initiatives. Prior to this role, Amy served as the Senior Vice President Business Affairs for Univision, and led the content distribution legal team in deals ranging from traditional MVPD distribution to innovative digital arrangements. Before joining Univision, Amy was Director and Senior Corporate Counsel for DISH Network, where she first supported a wide range of business units (including consumer, commercial and advertising sales) and later, led the legal team for DISH’s content acquisition group, which negotiates billions of dollars in content deals annually. Prior to her work at DISH, Amy worked in private practice, focusing primarily on technology, intellectual property, and finance. Amy holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California and the Georgetown University Law Center.

For more information about Amy, please visit her Twitter.

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I draw upon the richness, beauty, and pluralism of my heritage

We’re pleased to bring you the second in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2019 theme of heroes! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink speaks with Ausma Zehanat Khan.

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AMY: What does heroism mean to you? Does the gender of the hero affect your definition?

Ausma Zehanat Khan

AUSMA: It means different things depending on the context. There are the heroic acts of everyday life, where you’ve lost a loved one, and you battle through the pain for the sake of your children or others who matter to you. Or you step in for absent or incapable parents when no one else will, to nurture a child to their full potential. You stand with a friend who’s being bullied at school, or you attend an interfaith event after a synagogue or mosque has been vandalized. There’s heroism in all these things. But in a political context, I would consider dissenting voices in the face of mainstream conformity heroic. And through years of research in the field of human rights, the people I find heroic are often the most marginalized or vulnerable in their societies, with the organs of the state working to harm them further, and they still have the courage to stand up for themselves and others, despite the severe price that will be paid—torture, murder, disappearance. . . a long list of cruelties and abuse. So aid workers, journalists, artists, university professors and teachers, labor organizers, women’s rights activists, and human rights activists of all kinds, represent heroism to me.

When it comes to gender, I consider most women heroic. When you look at systems of oppression that have historically operated against women and continue to do so to this day around the globe, it’s easier to understand the context of that heroism. The denial of education to women and girls, the lack of fair employment and career opportunities, the lack of employment parity or adequate childcare, sexual harassment in the workplace . . . then there’s child marriage, sex trafficking, the aborting of female children, the curtailment of reproductive rights, domestic violence, sexual violence, rape culture and a surrounding environs of toxic masculinity, plus oppression in the name of religion, and on and on. The fact that women still transform their societies for the better while battling these challenges, which are amplified for women of color and other marginalized groups, is the kind of heroism we take for granted, but shouldn’t.

 

AMY: You’ve spoken about your faith and your work as Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine. Islam features prominently both in your mystery series, in which Esa Khattak is a practicing Muslim, and in your Khorasan Archives series, which seems to be set in a fantasy Middle East and Central and South Asia. What do you want to convey when you write about your faith?

AUSMA: In both my series, I write about identity, faith, exclusion and belonging, power and oppression, and the experience of being Othered. Part of that experience of being Othered is to know that my speech and actions reflect on the Muslim communities I come from, and to give that due weight as a consideration, even when I’d like to be less serious or a little more playful. I’m conscious of the gaze that may be reading my words. I’m conscious that writing for me is not only the opportunity to tell a story, but also the opportunity to change a narrative about people like me, i.e. Muslim communities in the West, that is so often dehumanizing and destructive. So my writing is a speaking back to a prevailing climate of anti-Muslim animus founded on ignorance and fear.

I try to overcome that ignorance with stories that draw upon the richness, beauty, and pluralism of my tradition and heritage. I often describe my work as a kind of counter-narrative . . . because the dominant narrative about who I am or where people like me belong isn’t something I recognize as truthful or authentic. It’s fearmongering, it’s prejudice, and in some cases, it’s hate.

At an event recently, I was asked if I felt the need to justify my humanity in some way or to justify Esa’s humanity, and I have to admit the question rocked me. “Is that what I’ve been doing all this time?” I asked myself. “Justifying my own humanity? And if yes, how did I fall into that trap?” Later, when I’d thought about this question more, I realized that although the trap was there in front of me, I was simply telling stories in my own voice about things I knew intimately from the inside, things that I thought mattered. If that felt like a kind of apologetics, that said more about the surrounding context in which a question like that could be posed than about the work I was engaged in.

Sometimes I just want to sit down and write without carrying all of this, but I don’t think I’d be writing at all if I wasn’t addressing precisely the question you’ve asked.

 

AMY: One of the prominent themes of The Bloodprint, the first of the Khorasan Archives—and indeed, of The Unquiet Dead, the first in your non-speculative mystery series—is the intersection of ignorance and complaisance. So much of The Bloodprint is Arian’s (and the reader’s) dawning horror that, within a generation or two of the advent of authoritarian rule, many of her people have accepted the terrible changes: They don’t remember (or care to remember) any differently; they’ve found the changes not so bad; they’ve adapted, acclimated, adjusted to their new reality. Arian finds herself fighting not just the Talisman, but the ignorance and complaisance of her own people. Why is this theme so important to you, and how much, if at all, does your work reflect the past or present state of the world?

The Bloodprint

AUSMA: With the Khorasan Archives, I set a difficult task for myself. As a Pashtun/Pathan1 woman, I wanted to examine the patriarchal elements of Pashtun culture that have been warped to extremes by the Taliban, but somehow manage to accomplish this without demonizing Pashtuns in general, and with some understanding of the social and political factors that would drive generations of young men to join a group like the Taliban. Central to that was an examination of the Taliban’s rigid and dehumanizing interpretation of Islam, an interpretation that strips women and minorities of their status as equal human beings entitled to dignity and freedom, and whose view of religion and society is fundamentally nihilistic and joyless.

It is extremely challenging to write a series that attempts to be self-critical and reflective in a prevailing climate of anti-Muslim animus, but as much as I’ve been looking outward at Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism with my crime series, I’ve also been looking inward at problems of patriarchy and orthodoxy and how both have contributed to the dehumanization of women and minorities in many Muslim-majority societies. There’s a lot of debate about whether vulnerable communities should air their dirty laundry in public, but one, as a person of faith, I am for justice even when it is against myself, and two, these are conversations we need to be having to halt or reverse the present moment of crisis and decline in parts of the Muslim world.

This crisis and decline can be attributed to several factors, a few of which I’ll mention briefly here. 1) One of these factors is the entrenchment of authoritarianism in some parts of the Muslim world, and the use of fundamentalist orthodoxy as a cudgel to beat down Muslim populations who aspire to dignity and freedom. This same rigidly intolerant creed also serves to oppress vulnerable minorities like Yazidis, Hazaras, or in some places Shia Muslims. This is the antithesis of everything I know and believe about the grace, beauty, pluralism and ethical framework of the Islamic faith. So as someone who is deeply engaged with these issues, my writing has to find a way to address them. This was the idea at the heart of the Khorasan Archives. But note that in my series, redemption comes from within, it is not imposed by external forces who possess more enlightened views or who have built more egalitarian societies. Arian and Sinnia and all the women of the Council of Hira have the gifts, tools and knowledge to reclaim their tradition from the established patriarchy and to use it as a means of empowerment and deliverance. That’s the whole point. If we move away from Jahiliya (the Age of Ignorance), the things we already venerate and hold dear are the answer to tyranny and despair. The only way to defeat the forces of ignorance is with an ethical reading of our own tradition. That was what I wanted to write about.

2) Having said that, those who argue or even campaign on the premise that ‘Islam is the problem’ are willfully ignoring the social and political conditions that have led to the present moment of crisis and decline that I’m speaking of. (Of course, the Muslim world reflects tremendous diversity, and no singular analysis applies to all parts of it—I am only speaking to those parts of it that represent this moment of crisis.)

There are social ills that have contributed to this crisis: poverty, economic stagnancy, the drug trade in Afghanistan in particular, high rates of illiteracy, war generations come to manhood with few other prospects than war or criminal activity, and corrupt governments that often operate as kleptocracies, who ruthlessly exploit religion and/or religious divisions in order to maintain power and control over resources that should rightly be allocated to the common good. In circumstances like these, a group like the Taliban was likely to come to power. There might even be periods when a group such as this would be welcome because it could provide stability in lieu of endless war.

So to return to your question about the Khorasan Archives, I don’t think that acceptance of the Talisman’s control represents complacency, or at least, not just complacency. To me it represents human despair at the lack of any other option—with the even more troubling understanding that the Talisman are Arian and Daniyar’s people. People become inured to hardship and suffering because that may be all they’ve ever known. In my series, the Talisman seek to control knowledge because knowledge is the key to freedom. By the same token, the poverty and illiteracy they promote ensures that they maintain their power and privilege. It’s a lot to grapple with, I know, particularly in a fantasy series that also includes magic, blood rites, ghost cats, and romantic rivalries, but I felt like it was a story that I was uniquely positioned to tell. It was just important to me to tell it from the inside.

1 In the Pashto or Pakhto language, ethnic Pashtuns are called Pashtuns or Pukhtuns. Urdu-speaking Pashtuns, like my family, use the term Pathans to identify ourselves, but the term Pashtun is more broadly known.

 

AMY: In reading The Unquiet Dead, it inquires relentlessly into what “justice” means, for both the dead and the living. Further, I would assume that your background in human rights law, with a research specialty in the Balkan War, vastly informed, at the very least, The Unquiet Dead, and perhaps more of your work. What does justice mean to you?

The Unquiet Dead

AUSMA: This is a question with a lot of depth to it, so I’ll try my best to grapple with it. We often see justice defined in these rigid or binary ways that fail to take into account other important factors, such as the imbalance of power between different groups in society, or the surrounding political context of socioeconomic deprivation, or in the case of certain societies, of the ruthless suppression of political and civil rights. So depending on the context and the issue, justice may both look and feel very different to different groups in society, depending on the place they occupy. What I mean in particular is that what seems so clear to someone with power, privilege and control feels very different to the person on the receiving end of those things, or whose interests conflict with those in power.

When we see a foiled terrorist plot for example, as in my novel The Language of Secrets, we want the hammer to come down swiftly and hard on the young men involved in the plot, regardless of how or why they were radicalized. Political commentary, public response, media coverage . . . isn’t willing to afford the same space to reflect on the humanity of these young men as might be afforded to someone like Dylann Roof or Alexandre Bissonnette, two young men who enacted violence against vulnerable communities. In the case of the crimes Bissonnette or Roof committed, we did see an exploration of the circumstances that had shaped them—an exploration that afforded them their humanity—without much attention being paid to the larger problem of the radicalization of young white men. So if we think that race, class, religion, and other social indicators don’t affect how we determine justice, we haven’t been paying attention.

To me, true justice allows for compassion, complexity and nuance. It centers our humanity. Depending on the circumstances, it could include rehabilitation, re-integration, restoration or even amnesty, if there is accountability first. Justice can be redemptive, as in my novel, A Dangerous Crossing, which addresses the devastating war in Syria and the refugee crisis. It can be restorative, as in A Deadly Divide where a mass murderer must account for their deeds, or it can be experienced as a pro forma ritual carried out without the long-term impact that a community in need is looking for, as in The Unquiet Dead. The Unquiet Dead was about a local crime linked to the Bosnian genocide, and the question I was exploring was why it wasn’t enough to mete out traditional methods of justice to the criminals who had enacted that genocide—why didn’t it feel like enough to the victims of those terrible crimes? The idea that justice should look the same to everyone fails to account for the depths of the horrors experienced. . . it also suggested to me that while observing the forms of justice is extremely important, there are still some crimes for which nothing can atone, crimes for which there should be no impunity. So in my books, these are the issues I’m wrestling with . . . how to convey that complexity and nuance, and how to decide where that line should be drawn.

 

AMY: Why did you delve into speculative fiction to write The Bloodprint (and its sequels, beginning with The Black Khan)? What can you do in a fantasy realm that you couldn’t in your mystery series?

The Black Khan

AUSMA: My mystery series closely parallels real life events, so I have to do an enormous amount of research and fact-checking to ensure that I have credibility in telling these stories in a way that they’ll resonate. What I love about writing crime fiction is that it’s the perfect vehicle for exploring the meaning of justice, and for understanding the nuances of justice when applied to different communities. Creating a diverse cast of characters also allows me to explore the different points of view around an issue without, in most cases, casting judgment, though there are some issues such as war crimes or crimes against humanity where the record is clear, and I don’t hold back. Mainly, my stories offer the opportunity for reflection or for viewing a subject from the perspective of voices that are usually marginalized.

So all those considerations weigh upon my mind when I’m writing a crime novel and that weight has only deepened as my series has progressed.

My fantasy series isn’t much lighter in tone or in terms of subject matter, but there’s more freedom to be inventive with the worlds I build. I’m free to indulge my imagination in writing these books, which don’t have to adhere as closely to reality.

I also turned to fantasy because I’m interested in the history and mythology of the Islamic civilization, and particularly of the different cultures along the Silk Road. There’s such richness and texture to these histories that the epic sweep of fantasy felt like the perfect medium through which to explore them. I often say that my mystery series looks outward to the tensions that exist between different communities, but with my fantasy novels, I’ve been looking inward to a culture, heritage and history that I know and cherish. And of course, with fantasy, there’s much more room to play.

 

AMY: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

AUSMA: It would definitely be my mother. I come from a conservative Muslim family and an even more conservative Pashtun culture, and there were things about this in my upbringing that limited my choices and the risks I was allowed to take. Things like studying away from home or studying abroad. But even though my mother’s upbringing was so different from my own, she whole-heartedly supported me in completing the education I wanted to complete in the face of external pressure for me to get married relatively young. My mother had an arranged marriage at the age of 18, which was the custom at that time, whereas I married a man I chose for myself when I was 31. My mother’s marriage was filled with laughter and love, and my siblings and I grew up in a home that was imbued with its blessings. But that doesn’t mean that things weren’t very different for my generation than for hers—so the extent to which she must have struggled with her children’s independence is something I’m only beginning to appreciate.

I realize now that my mother’s ability to adapt to these huge cultural and generational shifts is a reflection of her strength of character, her intrinsic sense of her own worth, and her willingness to take risks that must have seemed overwhelming at the time. She wanted me to have choices that she didn’t have, and I can only hope to be as courageous when it comes to thinking new thoughts or standing up against the sometimes suffocating weight of tradition.


Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She is a former adjunct law professor and was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women, and is the award-winning author of both the Khorasan Archives (The Bloodprint, The Black Khan) and the Rachel Getty and Essa Khattak series (beginning with The Unquiet Dead). Originally from Canada, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband.

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

 

Mishell Baker: My heroes’ special superpower is survival

We’re pleased to bring you the first in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2019 theme of heroes! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink speaks with Mishell Baker.

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AMY: What does heroism, especially in the context of speculative fiction, mean to you? Does the gender of the hero affect your definition?

Mishell Baker

MISHELL: Gender doesn’t affect my definition at all, and my definition seems to differ greatly from Joseph Campbell’s. A hero isn’t someone who has to be dragged reluctantly into doing what’s right even though some prophecy or mentor has laid the path out for them and placed helpful signs along the way. A hero is someone who is told, “You can’t, it’s hopeless, better people than you have failed, turn back now,” and who decides they’re going to ignore all that and do what’s right anyway. Not because they’re confident they can succeed, but because they simply can’t live with themselves if they don’t at least try. That’s the kind of hero we need in a day and age when all the signs are pointing backwards. We need someone whose internal compass points relentlessly forward anyway, someone who ignores official signs and doesn’t wait around for a gold-embossed invitation.

 

AMY: For readers who haven’t yet read Borderline, Millie is magnificent: a cynical, disabled filmmaker with borderline personality disorder who, much to her surprise, becomes a quasi-detective in a noir-ish, faery-filled Los Angeles. Prior to the opening of Borderline, she attempted suicide, and you’ve mentioned that you wanted, in creating Millie’s story, to depict her phoenix-like rise following that attempt. “I guess you could say she’s given up on giving up.” That determination, that she’s given up on giving up, is so evident in Millie: She’s relentless, despite her ignorance of faery, her endlessly troublesome job, her dysphoria, and a million other things that you throw her way. Why did you want to give Millie this story arc and this determination?

Borderline

MISHELL: Because I can’t imagine anything more important in life.

Every time I write something, I try to entertain, but I also understand that I have a captive audience for at least a little while, and I want to give them something that will last beyond the several hours or days of escapism I’m naturally also hoping to provide. The books that have meant most to me in my life are those which have saved me the trouble of living through something myself in order to learn from it. We have enough hard lessons in our own lives; sometimes it’s nice to grow as a person simply by reading about what someone else is living through.

Millie’s determination is, at times, the only thing she has going for her, when everything both inside and outside of her seems to be turning against her. We see so many heroes, especially in fantasy, that possess some special power or aptitude that saves them in the end. I wanted to write a story where the “superpower” is simply… survival. Continuing to try, again and again, even when everything repeatedly falls to pieces. Millie does have some assets, to be sure—she’s clever, and gutsy, and knows how to see the humor in situations. But she’s no demigoddess. She just keeps picking herself back up, even when she loses friends, or pieces of herself. And I want anyone who reads my books to carry that idea with them, just in case chaos starts raining down on their own lives. I want them, even if it’s only subconsciously, to have the idea that all they need to do is keep moving forward, and that will be enough to turn a disaster into a good story.

 

AMY: You’ve spoken at length about how Millie’s borderline personality disorder is surprisingly helpful as she navigates the unknown rules of a fantasy world—and I’ll add, becomes a hero. Would you share a bit about crafting a hero that is so far outside the mold of hypermasculine, sword-and-sorcery stereotype?

Phantom Pains

MISHELL: I think it actually came more naturally to me than trying to write a standard hero. Neither I nor anyone I’ve ever been close to has ever done what was expected of them in life or moved smoothly through social situations. In my life history, the people who had the characteristics of the typical fantasy hero were people who ended up very unlikable: the powerful preyed on the weak, the beautiful mocked the ugly, the talented basked in attention and glory while the kids who were struggling got kicked off to the sidelines. So when I pick up a book and the author immediately tries to convince me how beautiful, special, and powerful a character is, my first instinct is to mistrust that character, even resent them.

I’m used to thinking of sympathetic people in terms of how they fail to fit in, how they chafe against the fabric of the society that surrounds them. So if I know I have to cast someone in a role, be it hero, sidekick, or villain, I think my natural inclination is to ask myself, “What is expected of someone in this role, and who would seem to be the worst possible fit?” That’s what interests me the most: watching someone who is forced to do a job they would appear to be terribly suited for, and finding a way to hack their own hidden strengths and find a different way to play the role that is somehow just as effective.

 

AMY: The pace of your work is full-speed ahead! In many ways, that’s driven by the actions of your main group of characters: They don’t wait, they act. They don’t discuss, they advocate. They don’t dither, they decide. And then I think of something, perhaps related, that you once said in an interview, about how gaming has influenced your writing process: “I’m constantly thinking of the reader as a person who wants to take the wheel. I can’t give readers actual choices in such a linear form, but I can try to imagine what they’d choose, and I can decide at a given point in the story whether it’s best to gratify their desires or frustrate them.” Why are you so focused on reader interactivity? Aside from speed and compulsive readability, what do you think it brings to your work?

MISHELL: I’m an extrovert. It’s a bit of a curse, actually, as a writer, since it’s by nature a solitary profession. But even when I’m writing alone, I’m not alone. I’m always in a sort of conversation with an invisible reader. I can almost hear them yawning if I start to dwell too lovingly on a description or an inner monologue. I feel a constant sense of tension, of push and pull, between myself and this imaginary person who is always just on the verge of wandering off to do something more interesting. “Wait, wait!” I call after them as they start to turn away. And then I make something explode, to bring them back.

A lot of writers say they write for themselves. I’ve been told that’s healthy, and possibly it is. But I have never written for the sake of self-expression. I couldn’t do that any more than I could wander around the house speaking eloquently to empty rooms. I have to imagine that reader. It is interactive from my end from the very beginning, whether I want it to be or not. My measure of success for myself is always the effect on the reader. I don’t care much about purging my inner demons or making myself understood—perhaps decades of therapy have taken care of that urge—I care entirely about creating an experience for another person.

As far as what it brings to my work, I think it affects the way readers view me. I think it’s obvious from the way I write that I’m not reaching for some inner pinnacle of artistic perfection, but reaching outward instead, and readers seem very inclined to reach back. I’ve heard authors urging their readers not to be shy, to get in touch; I’ve never had to do that. My readers seem more-than-usually inclined to contact me online and in person, and that makes me happy.

 

Imposter Syndrome

AMY: Once upon a time, I loved Los Angeles—and not so differently, Borderline and its sequels love Los Angeles, a bright, electric, pulsing sort of Los Angeles. Was it important to you that your Los Angeles be so gloriously sentient? And how did you go about getting that vibrancy and that adoration on the page?

MISHELL: This is one of the areas in which I think my BPD actually helps me. I simply describe Los Angeles as I see it, as it makes me feel. I think any writer can manage to translate only a small percentage of their emotion onto the page when they write. I have a theory that since I tend to experience emotions an order of magnitude more intense than that of a neurotypical person, my paltry percentage of expression may come closer to capturing the average person’s entire emotional experience.

To answer the other part of the question, I wanted to make Los Angeles a vivid, breathing character in the story simply because, when I started writing the first book, I had an injury that left me housebound and a new baby that chopped up my mental focus like a tiny Cuisinart. I wasn’t able to do a lot of research on exotic settings and cultures, so I was sort of stuck with trying to take what was immediately around me and make it sing as though it were an alien planet. And Los Angeles, frankly, kind of is. I think you know what I’m talking about.

 

AMY: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

MISHELL: Oh gosh, where to start. One of the things about having BPD, about missing that outer layer of skin over your emotions that most people have, is that you are deeply impressionable, and can be dramatically influenced for good or ill by the people who appear in your life, even briefly. But I’ll choose one, because she’s a fantastic writer in her own right (in both senses of the word) and I truly believe one day I will have to stand in a long line to compete for the honor of being her biggest fan – Wren Wallis.

Before I met Wren I actually had a bit of a fear of other women, an internalized misogyny that came both from media brainwashing and from my unfortunate experiences at an all girls’ private school in the South. I really bought into the destructive messages the media gives us about women and the “false” friendships between them. But about a decade ago I met Wren, and she was the kind of person who calmly stood between me and the people who behaved as my high school classmates had. Wren’s patience, honesty, loyalty, and genuine love for humanity with all its flaws forced me to rethink the stereotypes I’d been fed.

The irony is that I initially met her online and the only reason I had the courage to befriend her in the first place was that I thought she was a man. I’m glad I made that mistake. Now she’s like a sister to me, and my friendship with her ended up being the “gateway drug” to many fulfilling relationships with people of all genders. Maybe this isn’t the flashiest answer I could have given, but sometimes it’s the quiet people, the ones who rarely draw attention to themselves, who can have the greatest impact on a life.


Mishell Baker is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Fantasy & Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Redstone Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. Her urban fantasy series The Arcadia Project, released by Simon & Schuster’s Saga imprint, includes Borderline, Phantom Pains, and Imposter Syndrome. The series is narrated by Millicent Roper, a snarky double-amputee and suicide survivor who works with a ragtag collection of society’s least-wanted, keeping the world safe from the chaotic whims of supernatural beasties. When Mishell isn’t convention-hopping or going on wild research adventures, she lives in Los Angeles with her co-parent and two changelings.

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

 

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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

 

Sirens Guest of Honor Interview: Anna-Marie McLemore

We’re pleased to bring you the first in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor. We’ll cover 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 discuss 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 first guest of honor, Anna-Marie McLemore.

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AMY: Your work is so often based on families: biological families sometimes, as with the feud between the Palomas and the Corbeaus in The Weight of Feathers, but just as profoundly, found families, such as Aracely’s mothering of water-tower-born Miel in When the Moon Was Ours or Estrella’s shocking discovery of Fel in La Pradera in Wild Beauty. Perhaps similarly, your work often addresses the legacies of those families, from the aforementioned feud to the Nomeolvides women’s immutable ties to La Pradera. Why is the idea of family so important to you, and by extension, your work?

ANNA-MARIE: I love that you include found family in this question, because that’s a concept that’s there for so many of us, especially in the LGBTQ+ community. For better or worse, family makes you. No matter your family’s size, no matter if they’re the ones you grew up with or the ones you found along the way.

Sometimes family is something you push against: Cluck and Lace from The Weight of Feathers will always carry their families with them, even as they realize that their own survival may depend on taking paths that lead away from them.

Sometimes family is something you find in the moment of becoming yourself: When Miel spills out of the water tower in When the Moon Was Ours, Aracely becomes someone who exists in the space between mother and big sister to her; at the same time, Aracely also becomes an older sister figure to Sam, the boy who finds Miel in the first place and who hangs the moon outside her window.

Sometimes family is made by common languages: Wild Beauty centers on five cousins who are not only Latina, not only blood-related, but also all queer. They know the strength of community and family. As curious as they may be about the strange boy who appears in the gardens, they wouldn’t make him part of their family if they couldn’t tell how much he respects that sense of community.

The family I grew up with and the family I’ve chosen both hold space in my life, and I think that ends up showing in my books. You’ll find that again in Blanca & Roja, a Latinx reimagining of “Snow-White & Rose-Red,” so it’s all about sisters, but it’s also all about the families we make.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Blanca & Roja is due out in October.)

 

AMY: To me, the most profound, most present theme in your work is a trinity of acceptance, redemption, and forgiveness: Cluck’s saving Lace’s life, Miel’s love of Sam, the Nomeolvides’ welcome of Fel into their home. In your work, acceptance frequently creates a necessary foundation for redemption and forgiveness, and those are lessons that are important to a number of readers. What about those themes speak to you as a writer?

ANNA-MARIE: I think I often end up writing stories about how those around you can sometimes love you before you know how to love yourself, and how you do the same for them. Lace and Cluck in The Weight of Feathers recognize in each other the things that make them outcasts from their own families, and find those things beautiful in each other before they can in themselves. Miel and Sam in When the Moon Was Ours desperately want to show each other unconditional acceptance and love, but can’t until they feel safe acknowledging the ways in which their own hearts are broken. In Wild Beauty, Fel comes into the Nomeolvides family’s lives with a lot of humility, both for good reasons—he recognizes them as the queens of La Pradera—and for tragic ones—he carries a lot of free-floating shame without having any memory of what it’s attached to. They treat him as family in a way that reminds him of his own value, and he’s their reminder of the tremendous power they have as a community of Latina women.

In Blanca & Roja, acceptance becomes even more intertwined with the idea of redemption and forgiveness. In addition to being a reimagining of “Snow-White & Rose-Red,” Blanca & Roja is also a reimagining of Swan Lake, so in many ways it’s a story about the roles we get cast in—as women, as queer women, as women of color—and how we can write our own stories instead.

 

AMY: The first work of yours that I read was The Weight of Feathers, which you set in California’s Central Valley. I grew up in rural Michigan, and your Central Valley read to me as an almost sentient character full of that so-called American quiet desperation. Similarly, La Pradera, the magical garden in Wild Beauty, drives not only characters, but the plot, as the Nomeolvides women react to its apparent power and rage. How do you choose and create your settings?

ANNA-MARIE: The settings usually choose me, or, I should say, they choose my story. In The Weight of Feathers, the smaller towns of the Central Valley matched with the idea of the Palomas’ and Corbeaus’ traveling shows. Wild Beauty is so much about heritage and legacy and the terrifying truth that sometimes lives beneath that which is beautiful. So La Pradera, with its stunning gardens, enchanting magic, and bloody history (I won’t share more, because spoilers) became the perfect landscape for the story of the Nomeolvides women.

 

AMY: When the Moon Was Ours is a transcendent fairy tale, especially for readers who don’t often see themselves in such stories. Wild Beauty is both a story of magical women and incisive commentary about class and social struggle. Would you please share a bit about including and balancing both individual identity and societal themes within your work?

ANNA-MARIE: I love that you use the term fairy tale, because that’s really my heart as a writer. Even before I started writing fairy tale reimaginings like Blanca & Roja, it was my heart as a writer. My fairy tales are usually queer, brown, or both, because those are the communities I know. The fairy tales that are truest for me to write are ones grounded in identities I know.

In the process of taking myself seriously as a writer, there was an aspect of awakening, of realizing that my existence—as a Latina woman, as a queer woman, as a woman who loves a trans guy—that all of that was politicized, whether I wanted it to be or not. That it always had been. Leaving identity politics out of art isn’t a luxury I have, and knowing what I know about my own communities, it’s not one I want.

I want to write fairy tales for my communities. I want to write stories that are honest—in all their blood and history—and also hopeful—in placing LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color at their centers, in giving them space to claim the magic that belongs to them. A story about a Latina girl with roses growing from her wrist and a Pakistani-American trans boy who paints the moon cannot exist without acknowledging what it’s like for these characters to navigate their hometown. A story of five queer girls of color can be filled with enchanted gardens and ball gowns and still carry an understanding of the characters’ identities. I may not go around constantly thinking about being a queer Latina, but I never forget it completely, because the world never forgets, and because I have to choose, over and over, to be proud of it.

 

AMY: Your craft is, in a word, exquisite. Lyrical, poetic, honest, unforgettable. Would you please tell us about your writing process?

ANNA-MARIE: That’s so kind of you to say. In terms of writing process on a craft level, I sort of say everything at once and then pare back. I’ll describe something three ways, and then only one of those three ways will end up being the right one. So much of the magic in writing is letting your brain and your heart go wherever they want, and so much of the power of revising is in deletion, in pulling back, in distilling.

 

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?

ANNA-MARIE: My mother. If she were a fantasy character, she’d be the queen who’s equal parts brilliant and stylish, or she’d be the most glamorous of witches. I won’t say we always agree, but she’s so often been my model for finding power in being a woman and in being Latina.

 


 

Anna-Marie McLemore is the Mexican-American author of The Weight of Feathers, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and won the 2016 James Tiptree, Jr. Award; and Wild Beauty, a fairy tale of queer Latina girls and enchanted, murderous gardens. Blanca & Roja, a magical realism reimagining of Snow-White & Rose-Red meets Swan Lake, is forthcoming in 2018.

Anna-Marie’s historical short stories are forthcoming in the anthologies All Out, The Radical Element: Twelve Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls, and Toil and Trouble. Her shorter work has previously been featured in The Portland Review, CRATE Literary Magazine’s “cratelit,” and Camera Obscura’s Bridge the Gap Gallery, and by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

For more information about Anna-Marie, please visit her website or Twitter.

 

Guest of Honor Interview: N. K. Jemisin

We’re pleased to bring you the last in our series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor. We’ll cover 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 discuss our 2017 theme of women who work magic—particularly women who have power and wield it. We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Beaver Creek this October! Today, Faye Bi interviews N. K. (Nora) Jemisin.

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FAYE: It’s a pleasure to be interviewing you! I’ve long admired your keen ability to write about power, oppression and pain, and your dynamic characters that make bold decisions. Recently, I came across your Worldbuilding 101 presentation, which starts with geography and climate and moves to sociocultural factors and magic. As a lapsed anthropology nerd I’m impressed by the breadth of your process. Do you go through this exercise each time you develop a new world? Do you have a similar process or comparable tools for character-building?

NK JemisinNORA: I do use that Worldbuilding 101 process (plus a little more; I actually do a more advanced worldbuilding seminar to accompany the one you saw) to develop worlds and cultures. I do not use a systematized process to create characters, however, because individuals should not be designed by formula. Mostly with characters, I just try to make sure that they are people, with rich internal and external lives.

 

FAYE: You often set religion front and center in your stories, often literally, where gods are main characters in The Inheritance Trilogy to constructing a new religion in the Dreamblood duology. What draws you to writing about religion and faith as recurring themes in your books?

NORA: Mostly I think of epic fantasy as rooted in the ancient epic story form—i.e. Gilgamesh, the Illiad, etc. Ancient epics were often concerned with people’s relationships with deities, and the deities themselves were very people-like, with human drama and human egos and human frailties.

 

FAYE: Jane Jacobs once wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” You’ve set much of your work in cities, from your short stories “nonZero Probabilities” and “The City Born Great” (both of which are set in New York City) to your fantasy cities such as Sky, Shadow, and Gujaareh. What fascinates you about the city? How much of that fascination is a response—or conversation—with the association of epic fantasy with feudal pseudo-Western Europe?

NORA: It’s hard to explain why I love cities. I just do! I’m not sure what my interest in modern cities has to do with feudal pseudo-Western Europe, though. After all, most feudal pseudo-Western European fantasies also center on cities—yeah, there’s a superficial association of such fantasies with the romance of rural spaces, but it’s false, because they never stay rural. The farm boy chosen one always ends up having a showdown in the center of power. The coalition of heroes always has its fateful, game-changing meeting at the Citadel or the White City or the City in the Trees. Fantasy is about people; people gather in cities. Writing fantasy is a quintessentially urban-centric exercise.

 

FAYE: You’ve mused before that much of epic fantasy delivers “white male power and centrality”, which is the very definition of conservatism. Do you think the definition of epic fantasy has expanded in recent years? What makes an epic fantasy “progressive”? In your opinion, what are some cornerstone books that make up today’s progressive epic fantasy canon?

Well, thing is, as I mentioned in that old article, there are plenty of writers of epic fantasy who don’t fit into the boys’ club; it’s a stereotype that epic fantasy is a boys’ club. Certainly, the best-known writers tend to be white guys writing white male power fantasy, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of the genre. I wouldn’t say the definition has changed at all in recent years, but thanks to some discussions that have taken place prominently on social media and other fannish spaces, there’s greater awareness that the stereotype is a stereotype, and more interest in interrogating that stereotype.

And to clarify, what makes epic fantasy conservative isn’t a focus on white men, but a focus on supporting or restoring an authoritarian status quo; that is the definition of conservativism. Progressive fantasies are less concerned (or not concerned at all) with restoring the monarchy or putting down the rebellion or bringing the old ways back. Progressive fantasies might also interrogate power structures in our own world, such as the ones that suggest only cis-het white men can be heroes.

 

FAYE: Lastly, tell us about a remarkable woman of fantasy literature—an author, reader, agent, editor, scholar, or someone else—who has changed your life.

NORA: My agent, Lucienne Diver! She’s basically the person who “discovered” me, at least in the sense of helping me transition from being a neo-pro short story writer into a pro novelist. She’s also been one of my staunchest supporters, even back in the days when I couldn’t sell a novel, and she’s also talked me down from giving up or setting manuscripts on fire more than once! She’s also ferocious in negotiations. A great person to have in my corner.

 


 
N. K. Jemisin is an author of speculative fiction short stories and novels who lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. Her works include the Inheritance Trilogy, the Dreamblood Duology, and the Broken Earth series. In the Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods), gods dwell among mortals and one powerful, corrupt family rules the earth; three extraordinary people may be the key to humanity’s salvation. The Dreamblood Duology (The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun) is set in the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, the city of dreams, where once the only law was peace but which now knows violence and oppression; it’s a tale of culture and empire, war and religion, and the realm of dreams. The Broken Earth series (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky) is about Essun, who searches for her daughter in the land of the Stillness, which is long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon and there is no mercy. Nora’s work has been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the World Fantasy Award and shortlisted for the Crawford Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. She won a Locus Award for Best First Novel (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in 2010), the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award (The Broken Kingdoms in 2010 and The Shadowed Sun in 2012), and the Hugo Award for Best Novel (The Fifth Season in 2016 and The Obelisk Gate in 2017). Her short fiction has been published in Clarkesworld, Postscripts, Strange Horizons, and Baen’s Universe. In addition to writing, she has been a counseling psychologist and educator (specializing in career counseling and student development), a sometime hiker and biker, and a political/feminist/anti-racist blogger. Nora currently writes a New York Times book review column named Otherworldly, in which she covers the latest in science fiction and fantasy.

For more information about Nora, please visit Nora’s website or Twitter.

 

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 9, Issue 9 (August 2017)

In this issue:

 

GUEST OF HONOR: VICTORIA SCHWAB

We’re interviewing each of our Sirens 2017 Guests of Honor about their inspirations, influences, and craft, as well as the role of women in fantasy literature, as befits this year’s theme of women who work magic.

Victoria Schwab

This month, we interviewed Victoria Schwab about writing to conquer fear, how much she owes to J. K. Rowling, all manners of monsters, ambitious characters, and being ambitious herself: “When I sit down to construct my characters, I first ask myself what they fear, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it. Thus, their ambition is one of the pillars of their design. And one of my own pillars, too.”

Our feature on Victoria also includes a review of A Darker Shade of Magic by B R Sanders, as well as a list of books recommended by Victoria herself centered on badass ladies and their power.

 

SCHEDULE & PROGRAMMING SUPPORT

The conference schedule for 2017 is up! Click here to see how many of your favorite things we scheduled across from your other favorite things!

There’s still time to sponsor our programming sessions; the cost is $35 per presentation. Thank you again for all your support!

 

INCLUSIVITY AT SIRENS

In our latest community post, Kate Larking shares with us her experience at Sirens versus the other literary conferences she attends: “One thing that unites us at Sirens is that we love developed, complex voices in speculative fiction. We embrace worlds that are different from our own and seek out the experiences of those who live within them.” Read the rest of her post here.

 

MENUS

Registered attendees, please check your inboxes for the full menus for this year’s conference. (You can also view our menus on our Conference and Sirens Supper pages.) If you have any allergies or dietary restrictions, please email us at (help at sirensconference.org) by September 8—after which, we’ll assume you can eat from our standard menus.

 

REGISTRATION TRANSFERS

Although Sirens is officially sold out for 2017, we have several attendees looking to sell their registrations (and sometimes other Sirens tickets as well). If you’re looking to sell yours and you’d like a signal boost, please tweet at us (@sirens_con) or feel free to post information on our Facebook. Please keep an eye on our Twitter for any announcements.

 

9 SIRENS SHUTTLE TICKETS REMAINING

Sirens offers a $95 round-trip shuttle from Denver International Airport to Vail, significantly cheaper than commercial shuttles which can cost upwards of $200. We encourage you to buy your shuttle ticket soon, even if you don’t have flights yet—there are only 9 spots left before our shuttle is sold out!

 

HOTEL RESERVATIONS

We are close to filling our block at the Hotel Talisa for the third and final time. If you have not yet made your hotel reservation, please do so as soon as possible. We have only four rooms left on the main nights of Sirens, and on September 22, the hotel will release all remaining rooms. Any reservations made after that date will not receive the Sirens discount. For more instructions on how to make your reservation, please visit our Hotel page.

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

Practical Magic

Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink read Alice Hoffman’s modern classic Practical Magic this month, which she admired for its focus on “a bunch of women…all doing the best they can. Sometimes solutions are magic, sometimes they’re determination, sometimes they’re taking your fears in hand and charging forward.” Full review on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

An Inheritance of Ashes

This August, Faye read Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes for her Reading Challenge pick! She found it “a quiet book…full of surprises, and not shiny at all, in the best way possible.” Find out what that means by checking out her review over on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

SIRENS REVIEW SQUAD

The Guns Above

Longtime Siren Casey Blair read Robyn Bennis’s The Guns Above, which she loved for its complex world-building, amazing female characters, and masterful tone: “If you love wit and self-awareness in your fantasy to go with your airships, I highly recommend checking this one out.” Read her full review here.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT…


Interesting Links


Fabulous, Free Reads!

 


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

 

Sirens Guest of Honor Interview: Victoria Schwab

We’re pleased to bring you the next in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor. We’ll cover 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 discuss our 2017 theme of women who work magic—particularly women who have power and wield it. We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Vail this October! Today, Amy Tenbrink interviews Victoria Schwab.

S15_author_interview_graphic

AMY: You’ve said many times that you have an adversarial relationship with fear—and that, therefore, once you knew that you were afraid to write a book, you knew you had to. You’ve now written 12 published books, with more on the way. What still scares you about being a writer? How do you manage that fear?

 Victoria SchwabVICTORIA: Honestly, one of the most important things to realize is that fear doesn’t go away. Fear is something I experience every time I sit down to write—fear that it won’t be good enough. Fear that I won’t nail the style, the flow. Fear that the idea in my head won’t translate to the page. Fear that even if I succeed in finishing the book, it won’t be successful or well-received. Fear is a creator’s constant companion, so the challenge becomes learning to embrace (or at least acknowledge) it and then continue to create in spite of it. Sometimes that means tricking your brain into turning off your self-editing mechanisms for a short period of time, giving yourself permission to suck, or simply acknowledging that the only way out is through. I often switch to pen and paper, because for some reason it’s easier for me to ignore all those external voices when it’s just ink and page. I can cross things out, make mistakes, and keep going.

 

AMY: You have a master’s degree in, more or less, monsters – though, as you’ve noted, in studying monsters, you’re truly examining what humans and society find monstrous. (In 2011, Sirens, too, examined monsters, and we delved deeply into the concept of the monstrous feminine (or the idea that women’s femininity, or sexuality, or unconventionality is viewed by society as monstrous). We hear you!) From your Monsters of Verity duology (featuring literal monsters) to Vicious (with its monster-slash-antihero protagonist), monstrousness, and perhaps relatedly, society’s othering of certain people are consistent themes in your work. Why do these themes speak to you? Who is your favorite monster, monstrous human, or antihero that you’ve created? Why are they your favorite?

VICTORIA: I’m so glad you phrased it that way, because the concept of “othering” is exactly what I love exploring, specifically the concept and creation of outsiders—both those born outside a society, and those born within a society but made to feel excluded. I’m fascinated by the multiplicity of forms, and the societal commentary, how outsiders are judged compared to insiders, how you can be from a place but not of it, and how outsiders can become insiders and insiders can be relegated to outsiders. Asking me to choose a favorite is a rather monstrous thing to do…I love them all for different reasons, but Victor Vale, from Vicious, is the closest thing to an autobiographical character I’ve ever written, so he occupies a special place in my heart.

 

AMY: In an interview with the Washington Post last year, you said, “I really just have no interest in weak females and dominating men.” Many Sirens would applaud this statement. But how difficult is it for you to subvert societal stereotypes and perceived norms in your writing? Do you find yourself accidentally writing weak women or domineering men?

VICTORIA: Not as difficult as you’d imagine. I simply write the kind of people I want to read, to be friends with, and/or to be.

 

AMY: You write about ambition in a way that few writers do: unabashedly, unashamedly, not only for your white, cishet male characters, and not only when ambition leads to reward. As a woman, I found Lila Bard’s unrelenting ambition to be a safe haven in a storm of literature where women are judged for seeking leadership or power. As a reader, I was fascinated that Vicious turned on its characters’ ambitions, which brought them first very close together and then drove them very far apart. How ambitious are you? And are you proud of that ambition?

VICTORIA: I am extremely ambitious, some would say to a fault. I am distrustful of ambivalence, have an aversion to mere contentment, and have a fear of stasis that leads me to be constantly striving for more. When I sit down to construct my characters, I first ask myself what they fear, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it. Thus, their ambition is one of the pillars of their design. And one of my own pillars, too.

 

AMY: My last question referenced power, and I find power a particularly interesting fantasy literature construct, especially in your work—whether it’s the contrast of politics of the four Londons in your Shades of Magic series or the leadership styles in This Savage Song, or the characters’ pursuit of literal power as seen in Vicious. You’ve also stated that you took great care in your Shades of Magic trilogy to ensure that non-white and non-heterosexual people were given immense power. Can you share some insight into your process for crafting power structures, be that social class, political theories, magical ability, or societal stereotypes? How do you ensure that your fictional power structures don’t suffer the same failures as our real-world power structures—and if they do, that you’re crafting those failures with intention and transparency?

VICTORIA: I’m certainly fascinated by power dynamics, both in relation to relationships (hence why my love of siblings, familial, and adversarial relationships outweighs straightforward romance) and in relation to the larger world. In the Shades of Magic series, the power structures of the world are molded to the individual Londons. The power dynamics within that world are driven not by gender or race but by magical prowess. In Vicious, the literal powers are determined by the psychology of those at the time of death. In the Monsters of Verity duology, the power structures are molded by morality and the absence of it.

As to your second point. I think a key element of power structures ARE the flaws, the cracks in the system. The world—along with its powers and paradigms—is the first thing I design when starting a series. The people who populate the world come next, because I want them to be a product of their environment, its strengths and its weaknesses.

 

AMY: Lastly, tell us about a remarkable woman of fantasy literature—an author, reader, agent, editor, scholar, or someone else—who has changed your life.

VICTORIA: I’m going to say J. K. Rowling. The most obvious reason is that before Harry Potter, I was not a reader. That is to say, I was competent, even proficient, but I had little enjoyment. I’d never been so consumed with a story that I forgot the act of reading. She opened a door in me that has never closed. Then, long after I’d experienced Harry Potter, the longing for that kind of world, for magic and whimsy and darkness and a place you wanted to stay beyond the pages—those things led me to write A Darker Shade of Magic, which took my career—and my craft—to an entirely new place.

 


 
Victoria Schwab (also known as V. E. Schwab) is the product of a British mother, a Beverly Hills father, and a southern upbringing. Her first young adult novel, The Near Witch, was a dark original fairy tale and her next one, The Archived, is about a world where the dead are shelved like books (and has a sequel, The Unbound). Victoria’s first adult novel, Vicious, is about two brilliant and highly disturbed pre-med students who set out to generate their own superpowers and end up as mortal enemies; the series will continue with Vengeful, expected to be published in 2018. Vicious received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which named the novel one of its best books of 2013 for SF/Fantasy/Horror; the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association awarded it the top fantasy book in their 2014 Reading List. The first book in her adult series, A Darker Shade of Magic, is about Kell, a magician who can move through multiple versions of London, and Lila, the pickpocket who steals a talisman that could end them all (its sequels are A Gathering of Shadows, which is already out, and A Conjuring of Light, expected to be published in 2017). Most recently, Victoria published the first book in the Monsters of Verity Duology, This Savage Song, in 2016; the sequel, Our Dark Duet, is expected in 2017. When she’s not haunting Paris streets or trudging up English hillsides, Victoria’s usually tucked in the corner of a coffee shop, dreaming up monsters. She loves fairy tales, folklore, and stories that make her wonder if the world is really as it seems.

For more information about Victoria, please visit Victoria’s website or Twitter.

 

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 9, Issue 8 (July 2017)

In this issue:

 

GUEST OF HONOR: ZORAIDA CÓRDOVA

We’re interviewing each of our 2017 Guests of Honor about their inspirations, influences, and craft, as well as the role of women in fantasy literature, as befits this year’s theme of women who work magic.

Zoraida Cordova

Our interview with Zoraida Córdova addresses Latinx identity, being drawn to fantasy and magic from a young age, bruja magic and religion in Labyrinth Lost, and becoming a young adult author in the wake of We Need Diverse Books: “I feel more comfortable writing POC protagonists now because it’s in the zeitgeist. I don’t want diversity to become another publishing trend. Because unlike vampires and dystopian novels, POC are real.”

Our focus on Zoraida and her work also featured a review of Labyrinth Lost by B R Sanders and a fantasy book list compiled by Zoraida herself!

 

ACCEPTED PROGRAMMING

Got your planner ready? Visit our Accepted Programing page for the full lineup of this year’s topics, summaries, and presenter biographies. Our brilliant presenters will be examining everything from witches to beauty, inclusion to activism, and so much more—in the form of papers, panels, roundtables, workshops, and afternoon classes. Thank you, presenters!

All presentations are available for sponsorship for $35 per presentation. You might choose to sponsor a friend or family member, or select a presentation on a topic that speaks to you, or show your support for underrepresented voices. Should you like to sponsor a programming session, we will include your name next to your chosen topic and in the program book, provided we receive your donation by August 15. Thank you for your support of our programming.

 

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.

 

INCLUSIVITY AT SIRENS

This month, we’re thrilled to share a post by s.e. smith, who often has to contend with questions like, “What is someone who’s not a woman doing at a lady conference?” Their response is perfect: “Sirens isn’t a lady conference. It’s a conference celebrating women in fantasy, and one where people of all genders participate in the conversation and work to push it further.” Read the rest of their post here.

 

REGISTRATION UPDATE

We have one registration remaining for 2017! If you’re planning to attend and haven’t registered yet, please do so immediately at this link—or pass it along to a friend.

 

HOTEL TALISA

All of the Sirens programming and events will take place at the Hotel Talisa, and we’ve negotiated a fantastic deal on standard room rates: $139/night for 1–2 people (plus tax and resort fee). But rooms are filling up quickly! We’ve already expanded our room block three times, but when these rooms are gone, you’ll have to book at the Hotel Talisa’s regular rates or find a roommate. Right now, we have only six rooms left in our room block for the conference dates. For more instructions on how to make your reservation, please visit our Hotel page.

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

The Forbidden Wish

In July, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink read Jessica Khoury’s The Forbidden Wish, which she found “full of marvelous reader delights,” but also “troubling.” Read her review over on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

Vassa in the Night

For the Reading Challenge this month, Faye read Sarah Porter’s Vassa in the Night, a “dark and poetic” modern-day retelling of the Russian folktale “Vasilisa the Beautiful” set in Brooklyn. Read her review on the blog and on Goodreads.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT…


Interesting Links

 


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

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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