News

Mexican Gothic Holds the Precise, Beating Heart of Modern Women’s Horror

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Mexican Gothic

On page 186 of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Noemí, our heroine, is mid-conversation with Virgil, the heir apparent of High Place, a crumbling family mansion in rural Mexico. She is in Virgil’s bedroom in the middle of the night, after experiencing a disturbingly vivid sexual dream featuring Virgil and his aggressive masculinity. The first words of the following exchange are Noemí’s:

“Were you in my room?”
“I thought I was in your dream.”
“It did not feel like a dream.”
“What did it feel like?”
“Like an intrusion,” she said.

As a reader, this is the sort of revelatory writing that requires that you put the book down and find something, anything—in this case, a Bath and Body Works coupon—to mark the page. Because this exchange is the precise, beating heart of modern women’s horror.


Let’s begin with a bit about Mexican Gothic. Noemí is a socialite in 1950s Mexico, mostly happy with her rounds of dresses and parties and beaux, but still, always, a girl who wants more: currently, a master’s degree in anthropology. When her family receives a nonsensical letter—troubling for all its nonsense—from her cousin, Catalina, Noemí’s father agrees to permit her to pursue that master’s degree, if only she’ll go check on Catalina and her new husband, Virgil, at High Point. Noemí takes the deal and is soon on a train, suitcases in tow.

Moreno-Garcia draws Noemí cleverly: She’s an assertive girl, but also a pretty one, and one who is accustomed to things being just so, one who thrives on appearances and flirtations and delicately upending social niceties with just the right amount of perceived danger. Because of who Noemí is, High Point reads initially as simply off-putting: dusty, moldy, faded, the home of an impoverished family unable to keep up with either cleaning or modern conveniences like electricity. Similarly, the household’s exacting rules—no talking during meals, no unsupervised time with Catalina, no second medical opinions—are designed to imply merely that Noemí has encountered a society foreign to her, one that a pretty girl cannot manipulate with smiles and teasing. But over time, through alarming conversations with her cousin, who seems only sometimes lucid, and forbidden conversations with locals, who share legends and mysteries, but rarely more, Noemí realizes that High Point is more menacing than simply unkempt, and the rules more dangerous than simply irritating.


Shirley Jackson’s seminal work of feminine horror, The Haunting of Hill House, was published in 1959, the same decade as the setting of Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. In 60 years, though, women have gained new terrors—and new insight into familiar terrors. Jackson’s work is about mothers, domineering, demanding mothers who, even after death, haunt our lives. How almost quaint, through a 2020 lens, to focus on the issue with mothers, rather than the issues with the heteropatriarchy that so often make them that way. Moreno-Garcia’s work, while clearly an heir to Jackson’s, goes deeper and is not so willing to elide the roles that men play in women’s terrors.

Mexican Gothic is a work about intrusion, specifically a work about men’s innumerable intrusions into women’s lives. Without spoiling the mystery or the jump scares, Moreno-Garcia’s work turns on the many, many things that men take from women and the sacrifices that women are required to make to perpetuate men’s power. This isn’t a work about Noemí’s mother, who is nearly absent from the book, even in reference. It is a work about her father, in his wealthy naivete; Howard, the ailing, racist head of the High Point family; Virgil, the skillfully abusive heir apparent; and Francis, the weak-willed cousin. And it’s a work about the women who enable them—Florence, Francis’s mother and the household disciplinarian, and Catalina, Noemí’s compliant cousin—and Noemí, who does not.

At its best, Mexican Gothic uses its horrors to lay bare the quotidian horrors of women, forced to endure a lifetime of male intrusions.

At its worst, we need to talk about Moreno-Garcia’s use of rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. Mexican Gothic is about male intrusions into women’s lives and, in many ways, very specifically about male intrusions into women’s bodily autonomy, both small (you may not take the car alone, you may not speak during dinner) and large (you may not leave High Point). In exploring those themes, Moreno-Garcia turns, often, to rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. With a single exception (the final horror imposed on a woman, revealed at the book’s climax), in this work that is so much about bodily autonomy, Mexican Gothic assumes that rape is the ultimate intrusion that a man can force upon a woman. Regardless of whether you agree with that, Mexican Gothic uses rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault liberally—and in my view, too often. We know that Howard and Virgil are threats and, by the midway point of the book we know enough about High Point’s history to know that they are both sexual threats. Because we know that, most of these scenes read as unnecessary, no longer a horror that Howard or Virgil is imposing on Noemí, but a horror that Mexican Gothic imposes on its readers. Men intrude on women’s lives in so many ways; must the second half of Mexican Gothic rely so heavily on this one?

Setting aside its arguable overreliance on the horrors of sexual assault—if you are able to, of course—Mexican Gothic is a must-read for anyone interested in both female horror and its evolution. Moreno-Garcia takes Jackson’s themes from 60 years ago and transforms them, erasing the mother in favor of striking at the heart of the heteropatriarchy itself. In a world where we are all told to be more likeable, where our options are always limited, and yes, where we all fear assault, Moreno-Garcia’s house of horrors will be all too familiar.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and handles strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president of a major media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape, plans literary conferences, bakes increasingly complicated pastries, and reads 150 books a year. She is a co-founder and current co-chair of Sirens, an annual conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, flagrant ambition, and a well-planned revolution.

New Fantasy Books: September 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of September 2020 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 12, Issue 8: August 2020

This month:

This summer has been A Lot, hasn’t it? So many of us are dealing with so many different kinds of trauma. Isolation and health, racial justice and social reform, political and personal and professional pressures mounting and mounting and never seeming to crest.

We know it’s tough. We are so proud of our whole Sirens community, because we know how hard you work and how much you care. We hope that we can provide a forum to further all these conversations, inspire you to both thought and action, and also give you a respite when it’s time to step away, rest, and replenish yourself.

2020 Sirens at Home

While the “villains” year of Sirens may be postponed to 2021, we are busy planning for Sirens at Home, which will take place October 22-25, 2020. Even though we won’t be together, that doesn’t mean that we cannot gather and have some of those conversations that we would usually have at Sirens.

Keep an eye out for announcements in September, but we’re planning panels, discussion groups, safer spaces, Books and Breakfast, book recommendations, and even an at-home version of our Sirens Ball. So read those books and pull together those costumes because we’ll have more information for you soon.

2021 Sirens Registrations

If Sirens at Home is making you ready for 2021 when we all hope to be together again, you can register now. And if you register for 2021 by September 1, 2020, we’ll send you a Sirens at Home care package this October—including a limited edition T-shirt!

Sirens Essays

Our summer essay series concluded this month! In “Women of Feral Souls,” author Artemis Grey takes us on a rich journey from isolation to community, exploring the ways in which souls reach out to one another: “Living deeply in oneself, as I and many other feral souls do, gives you nearly impenetrable armor, but that armor creates an island: atolls of emotional vacancy crowned with wary cliffs interrupted only by deeply embedded linns wrought of warning and disinclination, against which churn and froth the waters of humanity.”

Interviews

In August, we continued introducing you to some of the amazing members of the Sirens community! This month’s interviews feature academics, publishing professionals, and a whole lot of love for fantasy fiction.

  • Scholar Adriana De Persia Colón tells us about her academic work on Boricua fiction and ethnoracial identity. “I also love that SFF can tackle complex issues such as imperialism and colonialism, for example, while having action-packed plots and adventures.”
  • Rine Karr, reader, writer, copyeditor, and tea-lover, tells us what she loves about fantasy fiction and how it relates to her background in anthropology. “There have been many times when I’ve found solace and strength in the actions of a character in a fantasy story.”
  • Editor Diana Pho takes us inside her process for preparing a book for publication: “Once I get my mind wrapped around a story, I get so involved in the building blocks of the narrative—re-tooling a line edit, constructing an editorial letter, or sorting out a reverse outline—that it is its own creative high.” She also tells us about her work as a playwright, ongoing conversations about diversity in publishing, and highlights of her con-going life.
  • Isabel Schechter, builder of speculative communities and author of essays on race and representation in science fiction and fantasy, discusses fandom spaces in-person and online, now and in the future, and shares some of her favorite con experiences from Sirens and elsewhere. “I have been able to make connections at every convention I’ve attended. I remember being on a panel about found family and I started bawling and soon so was everyone else in the room.”

Sirens Chats

When did you last get to squee about an amazing read to another human, face-to-face? It may be virtual, but we invite you to join us online to share what you’re reading, what you’re loving, what you’re doing. Here are the dates and times for the next four Zoom chats. If you’re not yet on the list to receive reminders, email help at sirensconference.org, and you won’t miss a thing.

  • Tuesday, September 1 at 5 p.m. PDT/8 p.m. EDT
  • Thursday, September 17 at 6 p.m. PDT/9 p.m. EDT
  • Saturday, October 3 at 12 p.m. PDT/3 p.m. EDT
  • Monday, November 16 at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST

We also have a text-only chat option, ideal for the camera-shy or just camera-exhausted! On Thursday, September 10, 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT, we’ll have September’s Get-To-Know-You Twitter chat! Simply follow #SirensChat and answer questions with the hashtag to join in!

2020 Reading Challenge

We hope that you are hard at work on the 2020 Reading Challenge because the deadline for completion is still October 1, 2020. (Surely you did not expect that Sirens would give you two years to read 25 books!) We’ll be rolling out our 2021 Reading Challenge during Sirens at Home later in October. So get those books read for this year—and clear your reading schedule for 2021!

Books

Reading is at the core of all we do at Sirens, and August has been another fascinating month for fantasy fiction. Here are some of the books that have been on our brains:

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

Our staff loves to share their excitement and reading recommendations with you, too! Here are a couple of August’s new releases that have brought delight:

Erynn’s Pick: Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar

Star Daughter

Normally wearing a mask of quiet mediocrity, seventeen-year-old Sheetal Mistry is learning to shine under extreme family pressure from both her paternal extended desi family’s push for perfection and the manipulative politics of her star mother’s celestial court relatives.

When high emotions incite her star fire into a chaotic flare, critically injuring her mortal father, she must seek out her estranged mother and allow herself to become a political pawn, performing as a human champion for the stars in order to save his life.

Thakrar’s coming of age story is a sparkling spin of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust in a world inspired from Hindu mythology. Beautifully descriptive and full of family, friends, traditions and feelings sometimes so supernal they can only be expressed in music, Star Daughter will illuminate her space on your bookshelf.

Cass’s Pick: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Bookish and the Beast

I have loved the whole Once Upon a Con series, and the third installment is as delightful and charming as Geekerella and The Princess and the Fangirl were. Bookish and the Beast picks up the story of antagonist Vance Reigns, bad-boy actor used to a life of privilege and fulfilling the “hot villain” trope in the Starfield universe (the Star Trek analog which this series uses as the basis for its in-world fandom). When tabloid scandal forces him to hide out in a small rural town, he encounters Rosie Thorne, a girl feeling trapped by her life, struggling to decide both who she wants to be and how to become that person.

And, of course, they hate each other at first—except it turns out that they’ve met before, at the ExcelsiCon masquerade the year before, when they had started to fall for each other. So much of this story is about taking down those masks and barriers. Vance, as with all Beasts, has a lot of work to do! But he and Rosie both grow and learn that there might be more strength in trusting each other than in keeping protective walls around their hearts. The book also features some great rep: Both main characters are bisexual! One of the secondary characters is nonbinary, we see two gay men as parents, and queer characters from previous books make cameo appearances as well.

I adore that these books are YA romances for geeks. Reading them as an adult has both made me affectionately think of my own youthful romances and yearn for the day when we can go to conventions again, because surely I’m not too old for my own magical moment, right?

 


Forward into fall!

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

 

Exclusive Sirens Interview: Isabel Schechter

We’re getting to know some members of the Sirens community! In this attendee interview series, we talk to scholars, creators, professionals, readers, and more: about their love of fantasy literature, their current work and passions, why they chose to attend Sirens, and what keeps them coming back. We think you’ll find that the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens communications team member Faye Bi interviews Isabel Schechter, a longtime member and builder of speculative communities!

 

FAYE BI: You have been part of science fiction and fantasy fandoms for over twenty years. What are some of the ways that fandom has evolved for you, both online and in person? What do you hope for the future of SFF spaces and fandoms?

Isabel Schechter

ISABEL SCHECHTER: The internet has done a lot to shape the evolution of fandom, but part of the draw of fandom is that no matter the technology, it’s about the ability to make connections. Before LiveJournal, Dreamwidth, Facebook, and Twitter, if I wanted to communicate with fans that weren’t local to me, I had to wait a year for a convention to reconnect with other fans. Today, I can connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

This year, because of the COVID pandemic, most conventions were cancelled or held virtually—something that would not have been feasible twenty years ago. Although it wasn’t the same as being with people in person, it did provide at least some way to connect with friends and loved ones. Hopefully some conventions will make program recordings available to all attendees—no more need to be in two panels at once! Some conventions (Sirens included) have started hosting Zoom events for convention attendees to connect with each other outside of conventions during the pandemic, and I would love to see that kind of connection continue once the pandemic is over.

I would also love to see fandom become more diverse and inclusive. WorldCon (the World Science Fiction Convention) and related fannish conventions have been working on this, albeit sometimes only because social media activism in fandom has forced them to learn from their mistakes. There is still work that needs to be done to get programming to be more reflective of and inclusive of all parts of the community. There also has to be a greater push to get WorldCon convention runners and convention site selection voters to be more open to having the convention take place in locations outside of North America.

 

FAYE: You are a member of a number of SFF communities and have attended so many SFF cons—and you’ve even written about how to create a welcoming community. Besides the POC dinner you mentioned, what are some other moments of connection that stand out? And what are some of your favorite con memories?

ISABEL: Fandom has not always been as welcoming as it is today, and it still has a long way to go in this area. RaceFail in 2009 laid bare the ugliness of racism in science fiction fandom and the science fiction industry. It was such a horrendous experience that my chest still gets tight when I think about it. That experience was the antithesis of welcoming. What came out of it, however, was a realization in White fandom that POC did exist in fandom and we needed to be treated as valued members of the community. Codes of Conduct were created and have been improved upon yearly, Con or Bust was created, and POC dinners and meetups are now regular events at some conventions.

I have been able to make connections at every convention I’ve attended. I remember being on a panel about found family and I started bawling and soon so was everyone else in the room. I’ve gotten cramps from laughing so hard at the Not Another F*cking Race Panel (a WisCon institution). I’ve been quite undignified at several WorldCons by jumping out of my seat and yelling in a most unladylike manner at the Hugo Awards ceremony because a friend just won a Hugo. I’ve also gone into a Spanish-language reading at a WorldCon thinking I hated poetry and walked out thinking I simply had to read every single poem written by one of the authors participating. I have danced at too many convention dances to count.

One of my most empowering experiences in fandom was at the 2018 WorldCon in San Jose, California. That was the year that John Picacio started the Mexicanx Initiative. There were more than fifty Mexicanx fans and creators at the convention because of the Initiative, and although I am not Mexicanx, I am a Latina, and it was affirming to be surrounded by people who spoke my language (literally), who ate the same food, and who danced to the same music. There were also so many POC (not just Mexicanx) attending the convention that we had to split up into multiple groups for the POC dinner.

 

FAYE: Along with Michi Trota, you are the editor of The WisCon Chronicles Volume 12: Boundaries and Bridges, recently available from Aqueduct Press! How did you get involved in this project? What did you love about it? Can you tell us anything about your next creative project?

ISABEL: I attended my first WisCon twenty years ago. At the time, I had no real fannish friends or connection to SFF fandom, but now WisCon has become an annual family reunion of many of the most important people in my life. I have had several essays in previous volumes of The WisCon Chronicles, and I was honored when Aqueduct Press invited me to edit this year’s volume. I have benefited from being a part of the WisCon community and I wanted others to share their experiences and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

It was important to me that the collection of essays represent the experiences of a variety of attendees, and invited Michi to share my vision to help bring to light diverse WisCon experiences. The collection includes essays from new and longtime fans and con-goers, writers at all stages of their careers, privileged and marginalized people, and even two pieces in Spanish. The part I am most proud of is knowing that I provided a space for those voices to be heard. It is my hope that they will continue to be heard.

For my next project, I would like to write about women’s friendships. Until I found WisCon, I had very few female friendships and a lot of internalized misogyny to deal with. I’m grateful to the wonderful women in fandom I’ve become friends with who have helped me grow in this area, and want to explore this aspect of women’s lives.

 

FAYE: What people might not know about you is that you are also a graduate of divinity school! What role does faith play in your SFF reading and community?

ISABEL: First, I have to say that while I believe in God, and that works for me, I don’t expect anyone else to believe the same thing. I don’t believe that my belief is the only right one, nor is my religion the only right one. And I absolutely don’t believe that atheists are incapable of being good or moral people just because they don’t believe in a higher power. Religion can be a wonderful thing that inspires people to act justly and righteously, and it can also contribute to pogroms, crusades, and inquisitions. The wonderful part is what I choose to practice.

I once heard someone at a convention say something about the role of how/why/what if in the relationship between science, science fiction, and religion that really struck me. What I took from that has helped inform my reading of SFF.

I have never believed that science and religion are mutually exclusive, and am perfectly comfortable believing that God created, well, Creation, and simultaneously knowing that evolution is real and provable. If we really are created in the image and likeness of God, then doesn’t it make sense that we should strive to learn about everything in Creation, and even do our own part in creating so as to live up to that image and likeness? Religion explains why we were created, and science explains how Creation works. And then there’s science fiction, which asks “what if?” What if we could use science to create a new world by terraforming? It would take longer than seven days, but even so. What if we could use science to go beyond reproductive technologies like IVF and create living androids? It would be more complex than using ribs, and we would have to be careful not to treat living beings as mere things to serve our needs. What if we could create a society where peace and equality were fully realized? And not just in idyllic gardens. What if?

 

FAYE: Why did you first decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens?

ISABEL: I was intrigued by a hundred-person convention focused specifically on women in fantasy. I regularly attend conventions with a thousand attendees, and WorldCons with several thousand attendees, so a hundred people on such a focused subject was well outside the norm for me.

I asked a friend about her experience with Sirens, and based on her feedback, I decided to attend. Sirens’s programming is thoughtful, and I’ve learned a lot. One of my favorite program items is the one where folks from the conference committee recommend books, and I am ever so grateful that Sirens arranges shipping so I don’t have to figure out how I’m going to fit all my purchases in my luggage!

Sirens’s programming was the initial draw, but the other attendees are really why I keep coming back. I’ve met smart, nice, funny, and welcoming people at Sirens. I know that they are committed to making Sirens a place where people can come together and discuss women and fantasy literature in a thoughtful, engaged way, and they are genuinely interested in keeping the community going outside the conference.

 

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?

ISABEL: It’s simply not possible to name only one person. Although there are certain women who have played an immeasurable part in my life, I didn’t get to be who I am because of any one person or interaction. There is no one turning point—each has built on the one before.

There was my seventh and eighth grade teacher who told me I could do and be more than the narrow role my culture has assigned me. There was the friend in high school who lived her life without apologizing for having sex on her terms. There was my Jewish mentor who set an example of a Jew By Choice that was every bit as “real” as someone who had been born Jewish. And all the women in fandom that welcomed me into the community and treated me as a human being worthy to be valued.

Each of these women has been the person I needed them to be at that particular point in my life, and all those points together have shaped me into the person I am today. As I continue to find more of these kinds of women, I will grow and change, refine and expand my understand of my identity and my role in the world.

 


Questioning and rebelling against authority was frowned upon for girls in Isabel Schechter’s family. Anyone who knows Isabel is not shocked that she was considered an ill-behaved girl. Although other parents punished their children’s inappropriate behavior by revoking their television privileges or not allowing them to go out with friends, Isabel’s mother tried to be more strategic and instead revoked Isabel’s library privileges. Sadly for Isabel’s mother, this did not result in good behavior and instead led Isabel to check out the maximum number of library books allowed at one time (twenty-one!) and then stash them around the house for when the need arose. It arose quite often.

Isabel’s childhood love of books led her to discover the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, a popular gateway drug to science fiction and fantasy. Even though she was an avid reader, Isabel did not encounter organized science fiction fandom until adulthood. In the twenty-five years since then, she has been attending fannish conventions, including twenty years attending WisCon (the foremost feminist science fiction convention), and is a frequent panelist at conventions. Isabel has also volunteered as staff for a variety of conventions, including WisCon, WorldCon, and the successful bid to bring the 2017 North American Science Fiction (NASFiC) to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Isabel’s essays on race and representation in science fiction and fantasy have been published in Invisible 2: Essays on Race and Representation in SF/F, Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and several volumes of the WisCon Chronicles; and she is coeditor of The WisCon Chronicles Volume 12: Boundaries and Bridges. She is Puerto Rican, feminist, child-free, Jewish, vegetarian, and a Midwesterner living in Southern California, and embraces the opportunity to represent the fact that no one of those identities excludes any of the others.

Faye Bi works as a publicity director in New York City and spends the rest of her time cycling, reading, pondering her next meal, and working on the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas.

Books and Breakfast: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

For our 2021 conference, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted our graphic selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona; and our adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Today, we’re showcasing our three young adult selections: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Slice of Cherry, and Wilder Girls. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens next year.

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Girls Made of Snow and Glass

In this take on “Snow White,” sixteen-year-old Mina, missing a heart, escapes one abusive household for another—where she can capture the love of the king for herself, even his power, provided she is ready, so young, to become a stepmother. She’s to be mother to Lynet, who has been conjured to life in her mother’s image from a snowfall. And as in “Snow White,” the two are set at odds. Mina has been loved too little, and wants the crown any way she can have it. Lynet, conversely, has no desire to be queen, and would be happy enough to spend her days with her girlfriend and to be looked on as something besides the embodiment of her mother.

The evil stepmother is a classic villain: cold, beautiful (but in a scary way), a usurper. In Bashardoust’s version, the stepmother must take that role, whether she wants to or not, and her relationship with Lynet, close in age, is complex and painful. It’s bittersweet that the two have been positioned as enemies, and the wedge between them makes the story compelling. Rarely do we see mother-daughter relationships in stories about young adults; even more rarely do we see them in fantasy books for young adults. Mina and Lynet’s intertwined stories provide a rich exploration of relationships between women—with all the twisty, messy, emotional resonance that non-romantic relationships have in real life, and don’t always get their due on the page.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is full of icy atmosphere and fairytale references, but at its heart—no pun intended—it’s a story about love. What we do to receive love. How we choose whom to hate, and whom to mark as villain. How villains can be created by society. And it’s also about mothers and daughters, and how we make families. How we tell stories, and how the telling makes heroines and villains. And how, in the end, we can choose the stories told for us or choose to make our own.

Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

Slice of Cherry

Kit and Fancy Cordelle are sisters, daughters of the infamous Bonesaw Killer, a serial killer who ravaged Portero, Texas, before being caught and jailed. But no matter how strange Portero is—if you’ve read Reeves’s Bleeding Violet, surely you remember how strange Portero is—no matter how much Bonesaw Killer fan mail still arrives at the house, and no matter that neither Kit nor Fancy had anything to do with their father’s murders, Kit and Fancy are ostracized. Surely the apple couldn’t have fallen too far from the tree—a convenient statement when one seeks to oppress Black girls. But never mind that: Kit and Fancy will tell you that they don’t mind. They’re the best of friends (as Fancy says, practically the same person).

And despite their previous innocence, they are perhaps not so different from their father after all—or perhaps assumptions are a powerful catalyst: Kit and Fancy both harbor a desire to harm, to carve people up and stitch them back together, to pull them apart until they crack, to kill. Unlike their famous father, though, Kit and Fancy will be the first people to tell you that they harm only those who truly deserve it, those who touch or invade or harm first. They’ll also tell you that they’re smarter than their father: They use a mysterious doorway to another world to cover their tracks. And everything would be fine, perhaps—Portero surely won’t look too hard for a few missing predators—except that, despite Fancy’s assertion, Kit and Fancy aren’t the same person at all. Kit wants to grow and change, make friends, and have a boyfriend, while Fancy wants to stay in her tiny, controlled world, happily basking in the gore that she and her sister share.

Slice of Cherry is, in every way that matters, a Black feminist revenge story. In Kit and Fancy’s vigilantism, Reeves claims violence for Black girls harmed by the world. Kit and Fancy are broken by their father’s crimes, their mother’s absence, the town’s ostracization, and seemingly everyone’s assumptions. But that brokenness creates neither victims nor, despite the carnage, villains. Kit and Fancy take their power, claim their power, every time they cut an attempted rapist, every time they stab an intruder. Don’t shy away from the danger and violence of Portero; Reeves’s story of Black girls who are cast as villains but who will not be victims is one for our world, too.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls

As you begin Wilder Girls, the students and instructors at Raxter School for Girls in rural Maine have been quarantined for 18 months. That’s when the Tox began ripping through the country, causing grotesque mutations in people, fauna, and flora alike: second spines, new organs, scales, eventually death. Outbreaks are individual and unpredictable, but at this point, the girls are just holding on, relying on supplies from the outside world, and hoping for a vaccine.

Hetty, one of the students, is unexpectedly chosen for Boat Shift, one of the few jobs that can get a girl off school grounds, in this case to retrieve those all-important supplies. With this new responsibility comes new knowledge, and Hetty sees the transformations and destruction around her in a new, even more desperate light. And that desperation pervades Wilder Girls, which is built on the dawning horror that things can always, and so often do, get worse. Without giving too much away, after 18 months of increasing desolation, Hetty finds a villain—and it’s worse than she could have imagined.

The foundation of Wilder Girls is its (almost) all-female cast—and the possibilities born of crafting a book around only female characters. The mean-girls trope you often see in YA is absent—jettisoned along with boys and the omnipresent white heteropatriarchy—and instead Power creates girls that are just girls: sometimes smart, sometimes ambitious, sometimes mean. Sometimes they get along and sometimes they don’t. Some are heroes and some are villains and some are neither. This isn’t some quarantine-created feminine utopia, but rather a cast of real girls who are real people in an impossible situation. You might call it a feminist utopia. And that is magnificent.

Diana Pho: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re getting to know some members of the Sirens community! In this attendee interview series, we talk to scholars, creators, professionals, readers, and more: about their love of fantasy literature, their current work and passions, why they chose to attend Sirens, and what keeps them coming back. We think you’ll find that the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens communications team member Faye Bi interviews Diana Pho, a speculative fiction editor, playwright, and scholar!

 

FAYE BI: Diana! People know you as a highly acclaimed speculative fiction editor, formerly of Tor, now at Serial Box. As the handler and curator of several award-winning novels (including some of our favorites here at Sirens), what do you most enjoy about editing?

Diana Pho

DIANA PHO: Hi Faye! Thanks for bringing me in to chat on the Sirens blog. 😊

I’m a reader who enjoys thinking about and picking apart story-worlds. I love to do a deep dive into how a fictional society is structured, why a magic system works that way, what happens when a certain tech changes a person’s life, etc. My favorite moments in editing is hitting that “ah-ha!”—whether it’s by myself or when talking to an author—about how to address an aspect of the manuscript that isn’t quite working. Writers and artists often talk about “being in the flow”: when they get a burst of sudden inspiration or they become so swept up in the immersive work that hours pass by in a flash.

The same thing happens to me when doing a developmental edit. Once I get my mind wrapped around a story, I get so involved in the building blocks of the narrative—re-tooling a line edit, constructing an editorial letter, or sorting out a reverse outline—that it is its own creative high. I don’t think writers know how much editing is an artform in itself. A “good editing day” for me is a combination of deep thought, strong soundboarding between myself and the text (and the author!), and having sudden epiphanies about characterization. I just love being in that headspace.

 

FAYE: What’s more exciting—the acquisitions or the development? What are some things you always look for in a manuscript or project?

DIANA: As much as I touted my love of developmental, I think acquisitions has a different type of excitement. I read manuscripts first as a reader. Is it interesting? It is telling me something worthwhile about the world, the human condition? Am I entertained? Did I have a strong emotional reaction worth having from the text? So for acquisitions, I read with anticipation: I want to be surprised, to be entertained, to feel invested in these characters, to be introduced to new worlds or ideas that stay with me after the last page. And if I’m satisfied after the cold read, then I think as an editor: how can I make this manuscript even better?

Any project that can answer those questions for me is a project worth working on. Once I’m pondering how to improve the manuscript, then on some level I’m already sold on the book.

For a more “Hey, these are the SFFH genres I’m looking to acquire” answer, my Manuscript Wishlist Profile is where I keep those updates.

 

FAYE: And what is one thing you’ve always wanted to tell your marketing colleagues?

DIANA: I tell everyone this, not just marketing: My job as an editor is to make sure that my authors’ stories can be the ones people need to hear, right now, for whatever reason. We build our communities out of the stories we tell about ourselves. No story is “too small” or “too niche” to be without a reader who needs it—and to have that story impact their life.

 

FAYE: What people might not know about you is that you have a master’s degree in performance studies and that you are also a playwright. What inspired you to pursue this field of study, and how does it augment your role as an editor and fan?

DIANA: Surprise, surprise, I’m a theater geek as well as a book nerd! I have a background in theater stemming from my first plays written and acted in high school. In undergrad, I was part of an Asian-American performance troupe and won several department awards for my plays. Through my twenties, I acted as part of a troupe of steampunk performers, under the persona of Ay-leen the Peacemaker—and my play about her character and time travel was published in the Journal for Neo-Victorian Studies a few years ago.

Theater, performance, and fandom go hand-in-hand. You have cosplay, convention personas, LARPing, filking, and so many other types of performance in SFF spaces. In fact, it was my curiosity about steampunk performance by people of color which subverts the ideas of imperialism and colonialism that started me on the journey to get my master’s in performance studies. Theater and playwriting techniques also inform how I edit, and I talk a little about that in this guest post for Grammar Girl.

 

FAYE: Please also tell us a little bit about Mimicry, and if we’ll get a table read soon! And finally—what are you working on these days?

DIANA: Mimicry is a short play about Asian-American identity as a fluid construct that outsiders like to place their assumptions upon. It’s also about how the Asian-American community undergoes a sort of “imposter syndrome” in the battle to recognize one’s own ethnic authenticity.

I’m not currently working on my own creative projects right now—as you can tell, editing takes a lot of creative juices to do effectively. But I know that “Zoom theater” has become a thing these days so who knows what that might inspire!

 

FAYE: One of your passion projects is the steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, which you started in 2009 after a series of discussions in the SFF community on non-Eurocentric representation within the genre. It seems that the conversations you were hosting 10+ years ago are more relevant than ever, as we continue to interrogate historically white spaces in every aspect of a book’s life cycle: writing, publishing, bookselling, gatekeeping, and so on. In what ways has the conversation around inclusion advanced? These days, are you more frustrated or hopeful? And how important is language and vocabulary necessary in having these critical conversations?

DIANA: It’s notable that you pointed out that it’s been a decade since I first started talking publicly about representation and inclusion in publishing, and now in 2020, we are still having this conversation. I think about the dialogue around diversity as cyclical: Marginalized people speak out, some significant changes are made, backlash happens concerning those changes, and whatever progress that has been made takes two steps back. But there is always that one step forward, and every time this conversation happens, the bar is raised in social consciousness. I don’t have to repeatedly explain how colorblind racism is a thing, for example, or that white (and straight and cis and able-bodied and male) privilege exists, and how privilege shouldn’t be a guilt point, but acts as an entry-point for collaborators to help the oppressed.

But having this convo repeatedly is a point of burnout for many advocates, including myself. I’m hopeful, however, that people are getting the point faster and in light of recent protests, able to act more immediately with direct and material actions, not just lip-service.

At this point in time, I think it is even more important to pay attention to language: how it can be used to clarify or manipulate. How racism and fascism work together often to change the language goalposts so oppression “doesn’t sound evil.” At worst, people squabble over semantics over how “both sides are just as bad” over actually seeing what others are doing to promote and instigate harm.

I also think about Spivak’s idea of “Can the subaltern speak?”: about whether a disenfranchised and oppressed person who has no political voice can ever find agency to do so, lest others speak for them. Her whole essay is great, though dense. What always struck me as the essay’s most memorable moment is the tragic real-life story she includes in the final section. A servant girl is asked to commit a political assassination but refuses to do so; she kills herself while menstruating, specifically to show on her body that she was not doing so because of illicit pregnancy (or out of sati), but because she cannot commit this assassination. Her action, in that instant, was the only way she could speak. After her death, however, people still assumed she died because of a love affair gone wrong.

That story reminds me how actions speak louder than words, and when they are made by the disenfranchised, it is because there is no other way they can speak out. These are the days for actions, even if they risk being misinterpreted.

 

FAYE: You’ve been attending and speaking at conventions since 2011, in your various roles as editor, scholar, and fan. What do you love about cons? Can you share with us a few of your favorite con moments?

DIANA: In better times, I really hope to have in-person conventions again! When conventions are run well (which includes an enforced anti-harassment policy and safer spaces for marginalized groups to connect), I think of them as welcome places for new imaginations to collide, ideas to form from serendipity, and gathering nests of social energy.

I proposed to my wife at a convention, at the tail-end of a steampunk fashion show we were both modeling at. Nothing can top that memory, I suppose!

 

FAYE: Why did you first decide to come to Sirens?

DIANA: I first heard about Sirens from my old colleagues at Tor as being a welcoming femme-positive space that combined the best qualities of a fan convention with the intellectual rigor of an academic conference. They kept raving about how great the programming was, and how intimate and welcoming the conference was toward new people. I love attending new conferences and signed up right then.

 

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?

DIANA: I don’t think I would be the SFF reader and editor I am today if it wasn’t for K. A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, to be honest. Reading that series introduced me to the concept of fandom life, especially online fandom life, as well as being about a diverse group of kids fighting a secret alien invasion. That series tackled a lot of topics you didn’t expect in a middle-grade series and didn’t talk down to its readership either. I read a lot of SFF books as a kid but it was those books that made me start writing fan fiction, join forums, make internet friends that I’m still friends with, and showed me how genre stories can speak to greater sociopolitical matters in our world. So I will always appreciate K. A. Applegate for creating those books.

 


Diana Pho is a queer Vietnamese-American independent scholar, playwright, and Hugo Award-nominated fiction editor. She has over a decade of experience in traditional, Big Five publishing, including Tor Books, Tor.com Publishing, and the Science Fiction Book Club. Diana currently works as story producer at Serial Box developing unique and cutting-edge science fiction and fantasy stories. Additionally, she has a double bachelor’s degree in English and Russian literature from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s in performance studies from New York University. Diana’s academic work includes critical analysis of the role of race in fashion, performance, and the media, in addition to pieces focusing on fan studies and fan communities.

For several years, she has traveled the country as a professional convention speaker about the intersection of social justice and fandom. In the steampunk community, she is best-known for running Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning, US-based blog on multicultural steampunk. She has been interviewed for many media outlets about fandom, including CBS’s Inside Edition, MSN.com, BBC America, the Travel Channel, HGTV, and the Science Channel. You can follow her on Twitter @writersyndrome and learn more about her work at dianampho.com.

Photo credit: Gerry O’Brien

Faye Bi works as a publicity director in New York City and spends the rest of her time cycling, reading, pondering her next meal, and working on the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas.

A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and Dissonant Chords

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Hallie Tibbetts reviews Suzanne Collins’s A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes!

In 2008, at a book fair, I got an advance copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and then stayed up all night in what I remember as the dirtiest hotel room in all of Los Angeles reading it. Once, twice, maybe three times a year I run across a book that completely transports me and, when I’m finished, leaves me with the disorientation of falling out of the story’s world and back into my own. The Hunger Games was one of those reads. I’ll spare you the details of the room, but recall for you how it felt to be completely immersed in the story of a girl whose simple desire to save her sister became an uneasy attempt to save her world. Of a girl who wanted no part of heroism, but chose a path of survival, rebellion, and protection of others over and over.

When a prequel for the series was announced, it was rumored that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would be Mags’s story. I was on board for finding out how Katniss’s octogenarian ally in the 75th Hunger Games achieved victory in the 11th, and then went on to be a mentor who volunteered in the place of others. But it was not to be: Songbirds and Snakes is instead set during the 10th Hunger Games, and about Coriolanus Snow, the president and main villain of the original trilogy.

I lost interest completely.

As it happens, though, I was given a copy of Songbirds and Snakes this summer. I work in publishing, and am always buried under my to-read pile; it’s sometimes enough to know the gist of a juggernaut for comparison titles and cocktail parties, so I still didn’t plan to read this book. Curiosity eventually won out. Consternation kept me reading.

Coriolanus Snow, Coryo to his closest friends, equivalent to a high school senior, lives with his cousin and grandmother in a once-glamorous penthouse apartment. His parents—a general and a woman described as vapid—are dead. His cousin picks up a little tailoring and fashion design work; his grandmother has embraced the Capitol’s propaganda. Soon, an increase in taxes will force them out of their home, which is a great embarrassment to Coriolanus. He struggles, at times, with memories of the war. The cannibalism. The bombings. The way his family fell from being wealthy to just hanging on (a fact that he hides through indelible charm, but he won’t be able to keep up the charade for much longer).

From the beginning, there are hints of Coriolanus’s affluenza, and of his seeming inability to truly see any other human as his equal. At first, his detachment can be excused by his care for his remaining family and the psychological consequences of the atrocities he witnessed. Still, early on, he describes his cousin as the sort of girl who “invites abuse.” For a moment, I was breathless, seeing that so blatantly stated. Why would an author whose work I respect allow this character to promulgate something so untrue? It takes a while for Coriolanus’s character to become clear, and for it to become clear that Collins intended this callousness as a defining trait. Coriolanus believes his cousin “invites abuse” because he understands abuse. Other people are not individuals. Their lives are not precious. Here is a boy who would never, ever volunteer as tribute.

This is where my readerly consternation comes in.

We already know that Coriolanus is a villain; we have the rest of the story, and we know there is no possibility of redemption. I question, very much, whether we need more stories of how young white men become villains. You can try to say that we have to unravel the reasons, that we have to understand the downward spiral so we can prevent it. You can say that there are infinite tales in this trope alone. But I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them all.

And yet, I found myself wishing to see Coriolanus at an earlier point in his story because I wanted to see what makes him choose, of all possible paths, the ones that lead him to his eventual end. Maybe I wanted to feel how his love for his family prompts his decisions—but then again, I don’t want any more stories of women dying to give a man purpose, or even portrayed as incapable of playing some part in their own rescue. Collins avoids this to an extent; cousin Tigris is hustling to start her career, and it’s hard to fault the grandmother for clinging to the post-war regime for her survival when a broken elevator means she can hardly leave her crumbling building. It’s a long way, though, from scrambling for a leg up to becoming the leader of a country that sacrifices children for entertainment—the circus for Panem—and then I think: I don’t need any more stories that show a villain’s fraudulently reasoned choice to be evil. I can turn on the news and be inundated with that right now. But we’re not meant to have a reader-character connection, at least not at the beginning. Where The Hunger Games uses a compelling first-person narrative, The Ballad of Snakes and Songbirds follows Coriolanus in a surprisingly cold third. Collins keeps readers at a stiff arm’s length, and—perhaps too kindly—gives us insight into his mindset, but doesn’t let us get too close.

Something Suzanne Collins does very well is incorporate the dark side of media into her stories while asking readers to critique their own engagement as consumers. (I speak about the books, and not about such things as movie tie-in makeup product campaigns where one can purchase a palette of Capitol-inspired eye shadow without ever considering the absurdity of the optics.) During the 10th Hunger Games recounted in Songbirds and Snakes, the games have been flagging. Coriolanus and his graduating classmates are selected to act as the first ever mentors, and the one who mentors the winner will receive a full ride to university, something Coriolanus desperately wants to leverage for salary and security as well as to cover up his family’s depleted finances. The mentors get a taste of fame when they’re interviewed to break up the coverage of the less-technological (almost analog) competition of the time. The longer a tribute stays in the games, the longer a mentor stays on TV. Even a bad death is good publicity when you understand the power of the screen.

The students are also tasked with coming up with ways to add excitement to the games. Some of the excitement invents itself: Rebels bomb the arena, creating hiding spots that allow the tributes to survive longer than the previous bare-bones venue allowed. But the government solicits the younger generation for new audience engagement schemes; their ideas spin the games toward the future high-tech nightmare. Coriolanus offhandedly suggests betting on the tributes, and this becomes a new initiative that brings in money for the government while ensuring the odds won’t be in any tribute’s favor.

The tributes, too, must work the public’s magnanimity. Lucy Gray, the underdog tribute from District 12 who Coriolanus suspects is assigned to him so that he will lose the games, is a singer, an entertainer—a master storyteller—who is so charismatic, one wonders why Coriolanus of the future doesn’t immediately suspect Katniss Everdeen of manipulation. Of course, for Coriolanus, no one else could be as clever as he. He cannot see that he is a teenager, lacking a mentor, raised in a world with little compassion, blithely throwing out ideas for the games with no regard for humanity. There are no adults in his life who ask him to analyze the results of his ideas for inherent harm, only those who encourage stripping others of their autonomy.

All of Coriolanus’s machinations would be stifling to read about if not for a secondary character that I more than once wished were the protagonist instead. Sejanus Plinth moved to the Capitol from District 2 as a child after his father became wealthy. Though Coriolanus sees the Plinths as hopelessly backward and sneers at their new money, he secretly wants their comfort for himself. Sejanus is, in Coriolanus’s mind, naïve to care about class differences and rebellions when fitting in is the path to safety and power. I’d also have enjoyed the story of a small group that included Sejanus and Coriolanus working through the difference between what they’ve been told to believe in the Capitol and the truth of their world, because realization and awakenings are central to young adult literature and also themes that follow people throughout their lives. Because, again, as we all know, Coriolanus is choosing villainy, and Sejanus is choosing something else.

And, again, it’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t read about villainy, or tragedy—and it is a tragedy when any one of us refuses responsibility to care for others—but why this?

I’m a fast reader, but it took me two months to read all of Songbirds and Snakes; I stalled out just past the halfway point in frustration (and, admittedly, due to life events, social media overload, too much bad TV, work deadlines, a surfeit of email, overdue personal projects, and other distractions). In the meantime, I zipped through a copy of Goldilocks by Laura Lam, which engages with some of the questions I’d been turning over in my mind while trying to figure out the why of this prequel, and that prompted me to finish my read and review project. Surely, there had to be more to Songbirds and Snakes.

I picked the book back up as the 10th games come to a close and Lucy Gray is named victor. Coriolanus should be fine—he’s passed himself off as a clever and kind soul. His education will be paid for. The girl he grew to love over the course of the games (oh, you expected that, didn’t you?) lives. Then, a moment when he gamed the games comes to haunt him. Not all is lost, as he becomes a Peacekeeper to avoid punishment, and asks to be assigned to District 12. It’s not the life he wanted, but perhaps he can make something of it with his love nearby. The reality of life in the districts and the monotony of the military seems at times a soporific routine and at others brings the despair of a bleak, dull, and impoverished future—and then Sejanus reappears. Sejanus, instead of being a model for Coriolanus, is an unwitting catalyst for Coriolanus’s beliefs. Coriolanus doubles down: “The Hunger Games are a reminder of what monsters we are and how we need the Capitol to keep us from chaos.” (343)

As Peacekeeper duties begin, and Coriolanus witnesses his first death at the hanging tree of song in The Hunger Games, he wonders how the rebellion, distant then and underpowered now, survived on anger instead of might. He knows that there used to be a District 13 and it is gone, so he believes that rebellions can be truly stamped out if there is a big enough show of power. The toxicity in him grows. He patrols, gun in hand. In District 12, poverty is everywhere, and he finds it reasonable to blame the poor for their plight. He sees why the Capitol should send money for property over people. It’s Sejanus who questions the Peacekeepers, and as before, Sejanus’s compassion perversely causes Coriolanus to dig in his heels, deny his own misgivings, and further embrace authoritarianism.

In spare hours, Coriolanus spends time with Lucy Gray’s (found) family, the Coveys, a tight-knit group of performers that get by, in their way, with strength and grace. Their story incorporates both old and invented Appalachian music, a real hidden gem for series readers, as we find out how some of Katniss’s songs came to be. Music nerds might know that Appalachian music has many influences, and that late nineteenth and early twentieth century historians avidly traced back snippets of song to sources overseas. Even when the memory of origins was lost, the rhythms and melodies and lyrics remained. In Songbirds and Snakes, the inclusion of songs nods to the other books in the series, set in the future, while reminding us how easily the past is wiped away.

History lost—and suppressed—is doomed to be repeated, and it’s bittersweet to see the cycle of loss and erasure in this plotline.

But back to the Coveys. Even surrounded by a working collaborative effort, Coriolanus can’t comprehend how humans might be kind to one another without force; he thinks that only authority can prevent a descent into disorder. Perhaps that’s the tragedy—the distrust, the lack of empathy, the anger at losing control over others. Perhaps you know a tragedy yourself.

I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that Coriolanus takes brave actions for himself that also betray the people he claims to care about. I sometimes say that the challenge of being a human is pretending you aren’t an animal. It’s Lucy Gray who sums up for me how one can fail this choice: “You know when you’ve stepped across the line into evil, and it’s your life’s challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line.” (493) The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is Suzanne Collins’s exploration of what happens when one doesn’t care about the right side of the line, especially when good is in danger of being usurped by evil.

It’s in the last pages that I finally find the gut punch, leaving me dazed. Coriolanus is smart. Arrogant. He believes himself exceptional. As a child, I was all of these things; you can draw some weird conclusions from praise and success stories. While I didn’t grow up to be the tyrannical leader of a country that sacrifices children, there is a frightened part of me that recognizes the desire to be in control, to be perfect, to save myself first. I didn’t grow up to be an abjectly horrible person, so what nudged me, over the years, to be more open minded, to be kinder, to lick my wounds and learn from mistakes and try to do better next time?

I don’t have to look far to see people operating with an open lack of empathy and every bad trait I could have exemplified. Every terrible, miserable, alternate-reality version of me.

If someone had known how to tap into my deepest, unspoken fears and offered me everything I wanted, would I have taken their hand?

There it is. Suzanne’s Collins knack for drawing us into the actions of others, and reminding us that the filter of entertainment is no excuse. We must constantly, consistently ask if we are complicit. And we must keep choosing to be on the right side of the line.

G – Bb – A – D.


Hallie Tibbetts works in children’s publishing, editing books for all ages. She has a love of adventure, travel, interesting food, and dinosaurs (preferably all at once). She is one of the founders of Narrate Conferences, the presenting organization behind Sirens, and has served in various roles, including conference chair and programming coordinator. On occasion, she tweets: @hallietibbetts

Sirens Essay: Women of Feral Souls

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

Sirens also offers an online essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Artemis Grey!

Women of Feral Souls
by Artemis Grey

There’s something a little different about the feral ones, and it always comes out eventually. Our strangeness might be worn like armor, an overt dare to all around us, or it might be sheltered deep within, a coveted sanctum, only truly understood by those who hold it. Some of us embrace the variance from our first understanding of it, while others war against it, ferociously struggle to destroy it, despite its perdurability. But however it exists, there’s something a little different about the feral ones, and it always comes out eventually.

We circle things metaphorically and sometimes physically. Ideas, causes, theories, relationships. Even things we love with absolute adoration from the moment we’re first exposed to them. Often, we circle those things even more warily than the things we inherently dislike, because it’s not easy to be trapped by something you don’t care about, not the way it is to be captured and bound by something you love. When you give of yourself in such ways, you also give away a margin of power over yourself. For most people, this is an unconscious act, the bindings associated with it unnoticeable and negligible. But for the feral souls, each and every thread of attachment is a brand across our awareness, some of them wonderful and amazing, others damaging and prohibitive. The delineation between those two extremes are what we endeavor to gauge when we assess the world around us.

When I was asked if I would be interested in writing an essay for Sirens, I leapt at the chance. And then proceeded to begin circling the task, unsure of what to do next. An essay is a very different creature than a novel, a short story, or even an article. It requires the writer to document their own impressions, opinions, experiences, to convey their own ideas and emotional responses to the subject addressed. Many seem to find essays liberating, a way of making their inner voices heard in an outward fashion. It’s an opportunity for them to expound upon something they’ve experienced and to convey that experience outside of themselves.

But I have no inner voice, no inner dialogue, no spoken words inside my mind at all. I inhabit a rich, endless, and ever-changing world of images and diegeses. However, all of it exists in utter silence. I do not hear music, or spoken words, I possess no internal dialogue of my thoughts. Viable plans play out in my mind’s eye, moving scenes I’m able to observe from any angle, and follow through to either fruition or ruin, scenarios that I can alter and replay, or rebuild entirely. But I don’t discuss options with myself, I don’t internally talk through possibilities, and even when I read something written, I do not hear those words inside my head. It’s as if, between the moment of visual perception by my eyes, and the reception of recognition by my brain, the written text dissolves into imagery and emotion. I feel words, I witness them, but I don’t hear how they sound or flow.

These peculiarities make considering what to write an essay about, how to discuss it, and the actual writing of it, rather difficult. I’d been thrilled to be offered the chance to write an essay for Sirens, but successfully creating one that did justice to the conference and the community— the people who created it, and have long upheld it, championed it, and attended it—was, and remains, something I’m not sure I could manage, or indeed have managed.

Living deeply in oneself, as I and many other feral souls do, gives you nearly impenetrable armor, but that armor creates an island: atolls of emotional vacancy crowned with wary cliffs interrupted only by deeply embedded linns wrought of warning and disinclination, against which churn and froth the waters of humanity.

We remain connected to everything, yet apart from it, and to engage with the world beyond ourselves is to descend that allegorical, yet not entirely figurative, terrain so that we might slip into the waves and currents from which we’ve been so long secluded. Just as one can be pummeled, and injured, or even killed by the unforgiving swells of the ocean—sometimes against the very rocks and reefs they’ve only just left the safety of—so too might the introverted and feral suffer for their efforts in venturing into humanity. Thus we remain circumspect when it comes to attempting such journeys and the wilder of us might never entirely descend from our protected skerries to mingle with the human seas around them.

I had never ventured more than halfway down the slopes of my own wild isle before I chose to cliff dive into the ocean current of the Sirens conference. So forbidding and treacherously steep are the borders of my solitude and introversion that there were no paths, even narrow ones, that I could climb down. There was only the impulse to swim, and the determination to reach that tantalizing current of others who felt safe, somehow. I submerged into Sirens not knowing what would happen, but the outcome was both unexpected and wondrous. I surfaced again surrounded by entities who were like me, and yet completely different from me, who embraced me, yet never tried to restrain me, never tried to follow me when, overwhelmed by their presence, I swam back to the safety of my isle.

Again, and again, I left the shelter of stony coves to swim in this current of souls belonging to writers and readers, artists and introverts, then retreated to consider them from afar, unsure, even as I felt drawn to rejoin them. They gently held whatever pieces of me I awkwardly and hesitantly offered to them, but they never clutched them, never snatched at them, and never clung to them when I stole them away again as my feral wildness drove me back to a safer distance from which I could watch in solitude.

As literal ocean currents do, the swirling eddies of Sirens soon shifted away from my metaphorical island, splintering into multiple tendrils of current, each a person with their own primary course, weaving through the rest of the human oceans. Its departure left me exhausted, my tolerance for sharing myself with others entirely spent, and I withdrew into myself satiated and inspired, and wilder than ever, even more powerful in my feral aspects. I had never been lonely, and I still was not, but I was empowered by engaging with like energies and spirits on a physical plane in a way I had only rarely experienced with humans before.

Solitude and isolation are constructs, not realities.

The energies of our souls and minds are connected to the energies of all other natural entities everywhere, every time and on every plane. We are never alone, and never truly disconnected, despite that some—increasingly more, it seems in these times—suffer from a keen and devastating loneliness, and subsequently in many cases, depression and melancholy born of those senses. Through no fault of their own, these souls are not able to perceive the connections their own energy shares with all the other energies. That they cannot feel this bond is an inexplicable unfairness, and the emotional turmoil it causes them is as real and tangible as the connection they’ve been precluded from experiencing.

Then there are those devoid of any perception of kinship in the innate bonds they share with all the natural things around them. Rather than embracing the world around them as an extension of themselves, they seek only to profit from it. They sense nothing beyond their own needs, their own wants, and their own energy. For them, all the energies of existence flow around their own, and serve only to feed and buoy theirs. With a wanton disregard, they draw in the energies of those around them like a black hole devouring light, turning it to their own ends, exploiting it, and leaving behind the offal of other lives, from the smallest, unnoticed lifeforms, to human brethren. All abuses can be, in their own minds, justified by their needs and wants.

Such entities are consumed by meeting the expectations and predesigned aspirations of avarice-driven socioeconomic structures; they are garroted by the associated perimeters of that socioeconomic plane, their beings restricted until any residual empathy they might have felt for the energies beyond their own has been destroyed. This unbearable constraint is what the feral ones rail against, what we scorn, even as we often repeatedly try to breach it in our hope to free those trapped within. We prowl the precipice of this domestication, simultaneously loathing any connection to it, while using the same to maintain our own freedoms, and help others escape, temporarily or permanently, through our existence and our creations, be that writing, or artwork, or songs, or other skill.

The feral ones will never successfully be rendered docile, never be tidily packed away into pleasantly spaced boxes of preformed notions. Even those of us who successfully lock away their divergency behind a permanent aspect of mediocre platitude in daily existence will always carry the buried seed of wildness. They need only to give it room and it will flourish once more. And for many, the facade of uniformity with societal expectation isn’t a denial of their wilder nature, but merely a segregation of their facets, a way of simplifying themselves so as to more easily interact with average society. Like donning business attire, they’re able to slip into a domestic mindset and presentation, and embrace that part of themselves, then toss it off in favor of their feral selves once the workday is done. For others of us, there is little or no truly domestic segment to utilize, and we struggle to adopt one long enough to engage with the mainstream for any reason, work or otherwise.

Yet all of the feral ones share this innate feature, and even when we interact with the larger, obliviously conventional majority, we remain agrestal. And our souls reach out to each other, sometimes without our minds immediately understanding why, ever searching for like kind despite that we perversely enjoy our solitude. As lightning unerringly seeks opposing charges, so too, are we drawn to one another. Our wildness might manifest itself in a hundred thousand different ways, in forms that do not induce relationship, love, or even friendship, yet still it recognizes its own. We still understand we are alike, in that primeval way, and thus more kin than not. We all possess our own islands, as it were, our own preserves, where we are safe at least in some ways, from the bombardment of mainstream society with its rigid, invariable angles and lines.

And when women of feral souls come together, we create our own currents wending through the ocean of domesticated humanity.

We might be forced to submerge, on occasion, but beneath the blandly docile waves, we grow only stronger, a riptide gathering its own as it goes; a danger to those unlike us, and a respite for those who are. This fearsome wildness has seen us hunted, persecuted, and even massacred throughout history, in attempts to domesticate the very oceans of humanity the world over, yet we flourish again and again. Our tides and currents might be interrupted, but they can never end entirely. Members may only leave their isles for a short time, but their joining with others provides strength that continues on, long after they’ve retreated again— and that strength and protection, in turn, offers a buoyancy and shelter to the younger of our ilk as they explore our currents for, perhaps, the first time. The residuals of our own souls might well be the incentive that calls them to leap from their own metaphorical cliffs of solitude, to mingle and learn, and find a home and hope beyond their own spaces.

Such is the nature of what I found when I dove into the currents of the Sirens conference when it first passed my indrawn bastion so many years ago. And so will I always merrily fling myself into the rushing flow of my feral-souled Siren Sisters, whenever they pass me by in their endless trek though the oceans of life. And when they move ever onward, again beyond my realm, a part of me will go with them, never lost, never separated, regardless of time and space, until we’re rejoined once more.


Artemis Grey

Artemis Grey was raised on fairy tales and the folklore of Appalachia, taught from an early age to embrace the unknown, and unexplained, rather than fearing it. She never stopped hopping into faerie rings and exploring possible portals to other places, and can often be found roaming the woods and wild. With a passion for capturing that elusive moment when it’s possible to choose between leaving the wonderment of childhood behind and carrying it with you throughout life, Artemis primarily writes books for young adults, with occasional jaunts into the more esoteric. Her debut YA, Catskin was published in 2016, and she is currently working on Pohickery Girl, which is set in the West Virginia mounts of her beloved Appalachias. She seeks to make her readers look at the world they’ve always seen, and see the world they’ve always envisioned.

Artemis’s author photo was taken by the late Sabrina Chin, co-chair of Sirens, 2013-2019, whom Artemis loved very much. Although unconventional in format, it remains Artemis’s favorite photo of herself, as it captures her in an utterly natural state, in one of her favorite places (by a warm stone hearth) and surrounded by her Sirens Sisters. In honor of Sabrina, Artemis uses this photo as her author photo whenever possible.

Rine Karr: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re getting to know some members of the Sirens community! In this attendee interview series, we talk to scholars, creators, professionals, readers, and more: about their love of fantasy literature, their current work and passions, why they chose to attend Sirens, and what keeps them coming back. We think you’ll find that the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens co-chair Manda Lewis interviews Rine Karr, a reader, writer, copy editor, and tea-lover who first attended Sirens just last year!

 

MANDA LEWIS: When did you fall in love with fantasy literature? What do you love about it?

Rine Karr

RINE KARR: Oh my gosh, I don’t really know exactly when I fell in love with fantasy literature. I was lucky to be raised by bookworms. My parents met playing D&D, which says a lot about how imaginative my family can be. As a child, I remember poring over my mum’s unicorn coffee table books, reading lots of fairy tales, Greek and Roman myths, and fantasy books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I also watched a lot of fantasy films like The Princess Bride, Willow, and The Last Unicorn. I somehow missed out on the Song of the Lioness series, but I read other fantasy books like A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Prydain, The Worlds of Chrestomanci, Redwall, lots of Point Fantasy books, as well as my parents’ Science Fiction Book Club books. I was close to the target age for Harry Potter when it came out, so I read those, of course (although I don’t really want to acknowledge J. K. Rowling right now). I was also obsessed with the His Dark Materials trilogy. Strangely, I didn’t read any Tolkien until after the Lord of the Rings movies were released, although, at the time, I think I got into those mostly because of Legolas!

Regarding what I love about fantasy literature, I could probably write an entire thesis on this topic. I think that back when I was a kid, although now too, I loved fantasy stories because they were a means of escape. There are times—like now—when life can be very difficult. Fantasy stories can transport us away from our problems, even if for only a little while. Fantasy stories are exciting. They often portray better worlds. But even if they don’t portray better worlds, fantasy stories show us how to be better in the face of injustices and truly frightening things. There have been many times when I’ve found solace and strength in the actions of a character in a fantasy story. Ella in Ella Enchanted, for instance, was an important heroine for me when I was a child.

 

MANDA: Close your eyes and imagine: You are in your ideal reading space, the aroma of your favorite beverage is wafting toward you, and you are holding a favorite book. Where are you? What elements are important to creating this space for you? And how much does creating this space affect your reading experience?

RINE: If I were to close my eyes and imagine the perfect reading space, it would be a private library with a big comfy chair to read in and a forest or a lake or the ocean outside the window. There would be tea—and lots of it—and probably a thick fantasy book in my lap. Unfortunately, I don’t really have a space like that right now. I live in a city in a one-bedroom apartment that is a bit of a mess currently because of the pandemic and having to find space for both myself and my partner to work from home. Most of the time, I read on the couch or in bed before bedtime. Reading is not really a ritual practice for me—it’s just something I always do! I read during quiet moments at work. I read on my lunch hour. I read while my food is cooking. I read whenever I can. Before the pandemic, I read a lot on my commute, both e-books and audiobooks on my phone. I think that I’ve learned how to make both space and time for reading, and that I hardly think about the atmosphere within which I read anymore out of necessity. Still, I’d love to have a devoted reading space in my home someday.

 

MANDA: I’m curious if your background in anthropology affects how you approach reading. Do you enjoy stories where there is a strong depth to the societies and the history of the world? Is it irksome when it’s not believable—and what makes it not believable for you?

RINE: My background in anthropology probably does affect how I approach reading, although it has been a long time since I’ve studied anthropology. It was one of my majors in undergrad, the other being religious studies. Also, my anthropology coursework focused more on archaeology, especially the science of it—lots of digging in the ground, learning how to use plumb bobs and such. So, when I see stories about archaeologists, I do often find it irksome when they’re portrayed like Indiana Jones, even though I do like Indy. I can be pretty critical of stories portraying archaeologists having wild adventures and basically stealing from other cultures. Archaeologists in the past did sometimes do these things, but good archaeologists now don’t.

But anyway, I think that I do enjoy stories that have a strong depth to the societies and the history of the world. I’ve always been imaginative and can suspend my disbelief, but I do find myself lauding books that have strong worldbuilding. When the world in a story is believable, when it feels more concrete, it makes it easier for me to fall into that story. Of course, believability is a difficult quality to describe because it can be subjective and different for everyone. But for me, I think it’s a sense of logic. I think that’s why, as an adult, I don’t really enjoy fairy tales or fairy-tale retellings as much as I did as a child. I want concrete answers about why something is happening in a story, and fairy tales don’t often explain why something is happening.

For example, I know a lot of people loved This Is How You Lose the Time War, but I struggled with it. I know the purpose of this story is the love story and the beautiful prose—which is thoughtfully written—but I couldn’t help but wonder about the future, the war, and the mechanics of time travel as I read this story. I wanted to know all of the things, which is why perhaps a book like Ancillary Justice is more my style. There’s a lot in Ancillary Justice that Ann Leckie doesn’t tell us—after all I don’t want all the answers—but there is so much about Radch culture—the tea, the deities, the gloves, Radch views on purity and impurity, their views regarding gender, the list goes on and on—that she does give. I really do enjoy that kind of worldbuilding!

 

MANDA: You recently created a wonderful dragon-themed reading list for Sirens. Have you come across a depiction of a dragon that you would befriend and wish to have in your daily life? If so, who and from what book? If not, what dragon qualities make you glad they are on the page and not in your living room?

RINE: I’m going to cheat a little with this question because one of my favorite dragons comes from a film and not a book, but…I can’t help it! I think my favorite dragon is Haku from Spirited Away. His love for Chihiro makes my heart melt. Also, I’ve always liked how Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki weaved Japanese Shinto and Buddhist folklore into the worldbuilding for Spirited Away, especially Haku’s true identity, which I won’t reveal here to avoid spoilers, but which is reminiscent of my own feelings regarding nature and how humans, no matter what we do, will always be part of the natural world.

 

MANDA: Why did you first decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens the next year?

RINE: If I recall correctly, I first heard about Sirens from V. E. Schwab’s Twitter. I think it was 2017, the year Schwab attended as a guest. At the time, I was still just getting into science fiction and fantasy writing, although I was of course reading voraciously as I always have. So, I wasn’t sure if Sirens was for me. I was definitely intrigued by the con, especially because of how Sirens focuses on women and nonbinary people in SFF. I’d thought about attending a local SFF writing convention before, but I’d decided against it because I didn’t feel comfortable going alone into what felt like a highly male-centered space. In the end, when Sirens moved down from the mountains and into Denver, I knew I wanted to attend because that made it much easier and more affordable for me to get there. I decided to return because although I only dipped my toe in last year, I had a wonderful time. I’d like to continue meeting more fellow SFF lovers, and I’d like to contribute more to the Sirens community in the future. I really want to support Sirens’s mission.

 

MANDA: 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?

RINE: This is such a difficult question because there have been so many wonderful women who have changed my life—my mum, my sister, my grandmothers, my maternal great-aunt, my mother-in-law, one of my partner’s aunts, a boss I had in the past, and a few Dharma friends that I have. All of these people, and more, have for one reason or another shaped who I am today. The ways in which they’ve changed my life are largely personal, but I think each of them has taught me in their own way how to find and kindle my inner strength, and many of them have taught me how to move with confidence in a world that so often pressures women and nonbinary people to conform to certain social conventions, many conventions of which I’ve learned to no longer accept. Basically, many of these people have taught me how to keep up the good fight against the patriarchy!

If I were to pick a fantasy author specifically who has changed my life recently, I think I’d pick someone I mentioned earlier: V. E. Schwab. When I was beginning to get back into reading fantasy again after a long break from it (grad school can unfortunately do this to people) and I was starting to work on writing my own fantasy stories too, a friend—one who has also changed my life—introduced me to the Shades of Magic series, and from that time on, I’ve primarily read fantasy stories written by women and nonbinary authors. I had finally realized with Schwab’s series that these are the types of stories that I wanted and needed—stories by and about women and nonbinary protagonists who are allowed to be who they are no matter what. Stories that remind me of the stories I read as a child. Stories like those of Gail Carson Levine, Diane Duane, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, and K. A. Applegate, but ones written by my own generation of women and nonbinary writers.

 


Rine Karr is a writer and aspiring novelist by moonlight and a copy editor by daylight, with a background in anthropology/archaeology, international human rights, and Buddhist studies/art history. When Rine is not writing or otherwise working, she can be most often found reading books and drinking tea. She also loves to travel, and her heart is located somewhere between Hong Kong and London, although Rine currently lives in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains with her partner. She’s also currently—and almost always—in the midst of writing a novel.

Manda Lewis served as an engineer in the Air Force for seven years. She currently works for a children’s museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, hosting after-hours special events. She is also the caretaker of two small bundles of chaos. Manda has always made it a habit to draw, color, and doodle on just about everything within reach and loves themes far more than anyone really should. She has been a volunteer for Narrate Conferences since 2007.

New Fantasy Books: August 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of August 2020 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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