News

We Asked Sirens

Sirens, at its very heart, is about community. As we gear up for our in-person conference this October after two years physically apart, we thought we’d ask our community a series of questions about their impressions, memories, and favorite conference programs.

Our attendees are comprised of incredible readers, scholars, librarians, educators, publishing professionals, authors, and fans—but they also identify as veterans, graphic designers, lawyers, immigrants, cat-lovers, superheroines, and even the occasional Aquarius. We hope to count you among us!

attending sirens conference

Awesome Middle-Grade Reads

speculative middle grade recommendations

These books are from my middle school reading collection. This year has shown our school to be more diverse in identity than administration expected. It’s been my pleasure, along with our school librarian, to help students find books where they can find themselves in the story.

  • Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

    What if angels looked like monsters, but the real monsters were people? Jam, a Black trans girl, has to answer that question when the adults in her life refuse to believe reality.

  • Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

    Felix Love, a trans boy, wants to be in love and to be loved in return. Through the novel, he learns he’s worthy of love, top scars and all.

  • Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

    Colbert shows marginalizations overlap – Suzette is black, Jewish and bisexual, Emil is biracial (Korean/African-American) and hard of hearing due to Ménière’s disease, Lionel is Jewish and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Rafaela is Latina and pansexual. Family keeps secrets, but should they?

  • George by Alex Gino

    More of an elementary book, this tells the story of Melissa, who wants to play Charlotte in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web. However, since no one knows she’s a girl, she’s not even allowed to try out, but that doesn’t stop her.

  • Flamer by Mike Curato

    This graphic novel explores what it’s like to be a middle school boy that feels strongly about life and not having a place in it. The story takes place at summer camp, where he crushes on another boy and decides that he won’t let others’ opinions stop him from living his best life.

  • On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

    A love story told through two timelines and across deep space in a graphic novel. Mia falls for Grace way back in boarding school and finds her again as an adult.


 
Rook Riley

Former combat vet Rook Riley is a writer, game enthusiast, and all-around linguistic badass trained in Krav Maga and spoon warfare. They split their time between the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the family farm where the bulk of their writing is done. They are a member of the Dallas Defensive Shooters Club and the PTA. Hobbies include binge-watching Netflix and collecting tattoos.

A Siren’s Voyage, Part 1: Answering the Call

Sirens conference

After a very unusual year, in which we transformed Sirens into an online gathering, we are again planning for an in-person event this fall. We are readying the programming schedule, collecting newly released books, searching for amazing auction items, and discussing how we can make Sirens—after a year away—feel as warm and welcoming as ever. We confess: This all feels a bit strange.

And we suspect that coming—or coming back—to Sirens might feel a bit strange to you, too. So we thought we’d offer a series of posts about what Sirens is (or isn’t), some travel tips and tricks, and how you might choose to engage with the conference and community. If you’re considering attending, we very much hope you do. And if you’re returning, we can’t wait to see you again.

Sirens: The Conference

If you’re considering attending Sirens, but you aren’t sure, let us ask you some questions: Do you love books? Like, really love books? Speculative books about made-up worlds or a more magical version of our own? Books with dragons or revolutions or living spaceships?

We do, too! That’s why we created a space to talk about those books and what those books, those aspirational books in their aspirational worlds, have to say about gender. And even more, to discuss what you—readers, scholars, educators, librarians, publishing professionals, and authors—have to say about speculative literature and gender. Because after centuries of being silenced, we all have a lot to say!

Sirens is a conference dedicated to examining gender and speculative spaces—and works by women, nonbinary, and trans people in those spaces. We are committed to the fundamental premise that every voice at our conference—veteran or newbie, seasoned or learning, reader or author or scholar—has something valid, valuable, and vital to say. We are committed to including people with diverse perspectives, experiences, and identities in our conference and our community.

After all, we all love speculative literature. It speaks to all of us.

So if you love books—books with queer dragons or feminist revolutions or living spaceships headed for the stars—we do, too. We hope you’ll join us at Sirens this October. Our guests of honor will be Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks, Rin Chupeco, Sarah Gailey, and Fonda Lee. You can see the programming that will be presented here. And you can register here.

Sirens: The Studio

While Sirens is fabulous, it can be hectic: so many people to see, so many conversations to have, not nearly enough time to grab a seat by the fire and just read. The Sirens Studio, however, gives you both that book-loving, gender-discussing Sirens experience and that down time that we all need: small-group workshop intensives led by exceptional faculty in the morning; flexible time to read, write, or relax in the afternoon; and on Tuesday night, both a reception with our Studio faculty and a guest of honor keynote address available only to Studio attendees.

It’s Sirens, but smaller, more intimate, maybe a little less intimidating. And it happens before Sirens, so you might find that it’s a good introduction, an easier way to dip your toe in the water.

This year, our Sirens Studio Guest of Honor is Joamette Gil, who will present the event’s keynote address. Our 2021 faculty include: for reading workshops, Casey Blair, Rin Chupeco, Ren Iwamoto, and Fonda Lee; for writing workshops, Marie Brennan and Anna-Marie McLemore; and for career development workshops, Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks and Jae Young Kim. And you can see their workshop topics here.

If this sounds like your thing, and we hope it does, you can add a ticket to your Sirens registration here.

Sirens Mission: Hope

Sirens conference speculative fiction book recommendations

Not being able to gather in person with the Sirens community in 2020 was heartrending. But it also gave us the gift of time: a chance, after more than a decade of work, to take a breath and consider what Sirens is today—and what we want it to be tomorrow.

Sirens is a conference that actively seeks to amplify voices that are pushing boundaries in speculative spaces—and specifically, are pushing those boundaries in the direction of a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world. Since we featured works on this year’s villainous theme last year, this year’s Sirens Reading Challenge instead showcases 50 works by female, nonbinary, and trans authors that envision that better world—and we’re exploring what that means to us in a series of six posts, using those works as reference points.

Our first three posts discussed finding and sharing those speculative and nonfiction works that, respectively, reclaim what it means for us to be from somewhere, transgress boundaries, expectations, and limitations for all people of marginalized genders, and revolutionize our world through collective action. Today, we discuss the essential nature of hope in navigating our lives and our world.

Hope

Our dreams are limitless.

As we navigate our quotidian lives, full of inequities and injustice, never-ending labors and seeming impossibilities, we continue to dream our limitless dreams. Despite that we must actively reclaim what it means for us to be from somewhere. Despite that, to be who we are, we must transgress. Despite that we wake up every day and go to war. Despite our oppression, our fury, our sorrow, and our exhaustion, we continue to dream our limitless dreams.

We dream of new friendships and new loves and new babies. We dream of new opportunities and new pleasures and new joys. We dream of comfort and health and safety, of hugs and softness and a warm place to rest our heads, protected from storms and danger. Of living wages, meaningful careers, and winning lottery tickets. Of small things, like wildflowers in spring or an hour of blessed silence, and big things, like reproductive justice and carceral system reform, and cosmic things, like world peace and finding life somewhere else in the galaxy.

Our dreams are limitless. They must be. We need them to be.

We need hope.

Our dreams are hope made manifest. Our most secret, most vulnerable heart laid bare. Our wishes for a better life, a fairer world, a wonder-filled universe. Those desires, those optimisms, those yearnings that—even if they never come to be—shape our day-to-day world into something worthy of awe.

Even on our worst days, hope shines resolutely on: a north star, a firework, a beacon reminding us not of what is, but what could be. The inexorable notion that the world offers something better, something brighter, something more brilliant than before—and that we have an active hand in shaping it. In fact, hope demands our individual and collective effort. It fills our brains with endorphins and reduces our cortisol levels, protecting our bodies as much as our minds and our hearts. It equips us with resilience, shields us from despair, and empowers us with the motivation to heal, grow, and of course, dream those limitless dreams.

And so, in the speculative space that is Sirens, our fourth mission statement is hope: to find and share those stories that recognize the necessity of hope and its resolute presence in our lives.

That center worlds made possible only through such hope, and characters that determinedly cling to hope, and in doing so, show us, radically, what hope makes possible. Even more, stories that validate our own most personal hopes, our dreams, our desires—and remind us that our revolutionary focus on hope is not a waste of time, but an essential focus of our lives and well-being. If we must battle for ourselves every day, and we must, we must also remember to hope.Hope—both quotidian and cosmic—is essential.

Hope Works

Anjali Sachdeva’s collection of short stories, All the Names They Used for God, is delicate, balancing at that tenuous point where faith and fantasy intersect, where our need to believe in something larger than ourselves grasps at slippery threads, and hope very much becomes a thing with wings. These works are full of wonder and awe, sometimes inherently present, sometimes created by their characters’ essential need to believe in something glorious. A man meets a mermaid; two girls practice something like witchcraft; a woman explores a subterranean cave. In these liminal, sometimes dream-filled spaces, Sachdeva’s craft is beautiful, ineffable, luminous.

In Amy Rose Capetta’s The Lost Coast, Danny arrives in Tempest, a tiny town in northern California among the towering redwoods, as if she’s been mysteriously summoned. There, Danny almost immediately encounters the Grays—queer witches, outcasts at school who seem to think nothing of that status—in that eldritch space among the trees. The Grays need Danny: They had, in fact, called her to Tempest to find their missing friend, whose body seems to be going about its daily life, but whose soul is decidedly elsewhere. But Danny needs the Grays, too, in this shimmering work about accepting yourself as you are and supporting your friends as they are—both endeavors based inexorably upon no small amount of vulnerability and hope. Capetta’s quietly joyful, gorgeously crafted work will mend the cracks in your heart.

The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith is built on hope: hope that you can claim your identity and that those you love will continue to love you as you are. After a political coup, twins Hawke and Grayson take on new identities—Hanna and Grayce—and hide from their enemies in the Communion of Blue, an order of magical women who spin the threads of reality. This middle-grade graphic novel is full of stories that unravel and are weaved anew, as the twins discover much about the Communion and their own larger place in the world, but the most compelling is how Grayce discovers her identity as a trans girl and embraces it, even as she fears it may separate her from her brother. Smith has woven a magical, hope-filled tale of being true to yourself and forging your own path.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, Sarah Pinsker’s masterwork collection of short stories, thrives on desolation, nurtures it, consumes it. She has, with great care, fashioned the inescapable misery of isolation into strands that bind both her craft and your reading experience. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper. But underpinning all of her works is an undeniable hope, the unshakeable knowledge that the desolation will pass and we will find our human connections once more. The faraway stars in this work shine faintly, but resolutely, as is so often true in all our lives.

The Bloodprint, the first in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Khorasan Archives series, shows us, with great assurance, a world built on the bedrock hope of its people, even in the face of oppression and despair. In this fantasy Middle East and South Asia, Khan spins her tale as an adventure, but her themes are momentous: knowledge lost to time and apathy, people destroyed by increasingly authoritarian rule, revolution led by unlikely allies steadfast in their willingness to fight for justice. Khan’s work is truly epic, skillfully ranging from timely, global themes to the tiniest nuances and the most carefully laid allusions to seemingly lost legends. In this work that is so much about hope and the good it can bestow on those who believe in it, Khan’s meticulous and determined reclamation of Islam for marginalized people forges its own irrefutable hope as well.

In Blanca & Roja, Anna-Marie McLemore, whose peerlessly lyrical craft is a wonder all its own, reimagines a familiar fairy tale, taking Swan Lake’s enchanted tale of love, transformation, sacrifice, and hope, and bringing it into the modern day. Sisters Blanca and Roja are victims of a familial curse: one of them is meant to become a swan, though neither knows which of them will be the “good” one and which will be spirited away. They try, increasingly desperately, to break from the roles given them, all while grappling colorism, ableism, transphobia, and so many other reminders that the world doesn’t always provide a happy ending. Through this, McLemore laces a persistent, unyielding theme of hope—hope that the world will become a better place, hope that happiness will abound, hope that happy endings exist for everyone.

So many nonfiction works offer facts and figures, inconsolable in their cold truths, about the rage and despair of those of marginalized identities trying to successfully traverse our white, heteronormative, patriarchal world. But in The Likeability Trap, journalist Alicia Menendez jettisons the rage and despair in favor of something that offers far more hope: Instead of trying to balance likeability and power, which scads of research has shown are inversely proportional for women, Menendez argues that women should stop worrying about the likeability trap altogether. Menendez’s thoughtful, often funny work provides facts and figures, too, but also practical solutions, sympathetic reassurance, and a stubborn hope that this thorny path is navigable without losing ourselves.

Nnedi Okorafor’s seminal work, Lagoon, is incontrovertibly brilliant—and so much of what makes it such a thoughtful, unexpected story is the brazen hope that Okorafor writes onto the page. A spaceship lands outside Lagos, and the city’s 17 million residents, not to mention the rest of the world, panic. Some consider war, some predict the end days, some simply flee—and a biologist, a rogue soldier, and a famous rapper are left trying to handle Earth’s first alien encounter. Okorafor’s work, full of cosmic miracles against a backdrop of human chaos, inexorably asks if we would approach such a marvel with great terror or with great hope.


This post is the fourth of a six-part series on Sirens’s mission. You can find the first three posts hers: reclamation, transgression, and revolution. We will update it with links when all posts are published.

Save the Date! July 25 is our next Sirens community day

Whether you’re energized by early sunrises, late sunsets, or lounging by the water with a good book, we hope you join us for our next Sirens community day on Sunday, July 25! Community days are opportunities for our Sirens community—as well as anyone interested in gender and fantasy literature—to gather virtually. All are welcome, though if you’d also like to connect and get to know a few more familiar faces before our in-person conference currently scheduled for October 21-24, 2021, we’d salute you for planning ahead!

Like our previous Sirens community day back in April, our July community day will comprise of four virtual events on Zoom, and will be free to everyone, whether you’ve attended Sirens before or not. We ask that everyone interested in participating in our community day register below. We will provide Zoom links to our online gatherings to only those who have registered.

Registration

You must be at least 18 years old to register and you will be required to acknowledge the Sirens Terms of Service, Anti-Harassment Policy, and Accessibility Policy as part of your registration.

Schedule

Sirens Community Day

Sunday, July 25, 2021

11:00 a.m. Mountain (1:00 p.m. Eastern)

BIPOC Meet-Up

As a continuation of our efforts to support and uplift diverse voices at Sirens, we are devoting the first hour of our community day for our Sirens members who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, person of color) to connect and converse. This casual meet-up will be moderated by a Sirens staff member—share your recent fantasy read or whatever’s on your mind! Please note that these spaces are reserved for BIPOC; others are not invited to these spaces.

12:00 p.m. Mountain (2:00 p.m. Eastern)

An Unkindness of Ghosts Rivers Solomon

The
Sirens Book Club
meets monthly to discuss and debate a book off our
2021 Reading Challenge
, which includes 50 works by women, trans, and nonbinary authors that imagine a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world.

This month, we’re reading Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts, a seminal dystopia set in space that is at the top of our list when we think of speculative-fiction-as-transposition, illuminating in far starker realities what cannot be gleaned from history books or pedagogy. Black, queer, autistic Aster lives on a starship organized like an antebellum plantation with Black and brown folks working backbreaking labor and brutally policed on the lower decks, while the white, wealthy upper deckers twist theocracy to cruel ends and live in blameless comfort. Solomon tells a story of structural racism and collective trauma with such thorough worldbuilding and such visceral pain you won’t look at science fiction the same way again.

1:00 p.m. Mountain (3:00 p.m. Eastern)

Dr. Alyssa Collins: Rooted Futures: Planting in Black Science Fiction

Dr. Alyssa Collins, assistant professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina and the inaugural Octavia E. Butler fellow at the Huntington Library for the 2021-2022 academic year, will give our community day lecture on her work on Afrofuturism, Black feminism, and technology.

Alyssa Collins

Alyssa Collins is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina. Her work explores the intersections of race, science, and technology as depicted in 20th century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. When she’s not working, she writes about race, superheroes, television, and embodiment around the internet. You can follow her on Twitter @LyssaDee.

2:00 p.m. Mountain (4:00 p.m. Eastern)

Roundtable: Rooted Futures

Following Alyssa’s presentation, we’ll split into small groups for a true Sirens programming mainstay—the roundtable. With a Sirens staff moderator and the help of Zoom breakout rooms, we’ll offer everyone an opportunity to discuss, share, and explore the themes of rooted futures in speculative fiction.

11 Masterwork Collections of Speculative Short Fiction

Read With Amy

I’ve always been a reader—and until I went to law school, it didn’t matter how busy I was, I read anything, everything, voraciously, ravenously. I read on the school bus; I read between songs during the musicals I accompanied; I read during class; I read on planes, and in trains, and in the backseats of so many automobiles that my mother was certain when I started driving that I wouldn’t know how to get anywhere. I read constantly.

And then I attended law school. Law school, as it turns out, is a full-brain endeavor. One where you read and read and read some more, but case law, so much case law, and so many statutes and so many regulations. And to be successful, you need to stuff all those cases and all those statutes and all those regulations into your tiny brain and hope they don’t leak out your ears before your final—because in law school, that final is 100% of your grade and your grades determine who will even interview you in the first place, let alone hire you.

You might expect that I stopped reading in law school, but that’s not quite true. Even law school couldn’t dampen my reading entirely. But I needed something easier, something fluffier, not something less thoughtful, perhaps, but less challenging, something that required enough less of my brain that it didn’t interfere with all those cases and statutes and regulations.

So in law school, I read children’s literature and romance. And not really that much of either. But when I had time, it was children’s literature and romance.

And then after three years of cases and statutes and regulations, three years of children’s literature and romance, as I started in private practice, which didn’t really offer any additional time for reading, but at least no longer required that I reserve my brain entirely for memorization, I had to find my way back to reading more demanding works. I had to retrain my brain. To again start using it to think about things besides the law.

I did that through short fiction. My love of short fiction is premised on the challenge of building a world, a history, a people in such few pages. I love space in fiction, where my brain can work and think and construct. But foundationally, my love of short fiction is because it brought me back to reading after a time in my life when I mostly couldn’t. It was my way home.

And now, as we finally emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, during which my brain was, for the second time in my life, categorically otherwise occupied, and I again need to find my way back to reading with any sort of focus or skill, I find myself again turning to short fiction.

So this month I want to offer you 11 masterwork collections of speculative works that I have loved. Maybe you will love them, too.

 

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva
1. All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

Sachdeva’s collection is delicate, balancing at that tenuous point where faith and fantasy overlap, where our need to believe in something larger than ourselves grasps at slippery threads, underscored by the inexplainable. These stories are full of wonder and awe: a man meets a mermaid, two girls practice something like witchcraft, a woman explores a subterranean cave. Sachdeva’s craft is beautiful, ineffable, inexorable.

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
2. Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

In Conservation of Shadows, Lee uses his mastery of the short-story form to insistently reclaim the muddy awfulness of war from thousands of years of a shimmering veneer of grandeur. Lee’s protagonists are clever and determined, but so very fallible, propelled by duty and sacrifice, sometimes drowning in horror. Whether with spaceships or dragons, with far-flung science fiction or ancient myths, Lee always finds a way to reclaim our humanity from not only the awful specter of war, but our insistence on draping it in glory.

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
3. A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

Slatter eschews the notion of reclaiming fairy tales, and with it, any conversation with the heteropatriarchal foundation of fairy tales. Instead, she—like her heroines—is too busy to discuss, criticize, or even chastise those who would impose conformance. Too busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. And A Feast of Sorrows, one of her collections of short fiction, features twelve of her finest, darkest, most transgressive fairy tales.

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith
4. The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Kupersmith tackles history in her stunning collection, history fraught with war and displacement, so much fear and a stubborn determination to reclaim a culture from the aftermath of American aggression. Kupersmith’s work is born of her mother’s fleeing Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, her grandmother’s folkloric tales, and her own time in a Vietnam still rising after a millennium of occupation. The result is The Frangipani Hotel, a collection of sometimes terrifying, sometimes welcoming, always all-too-human ghost stories about a people emerging from the shadow of war.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
5. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Machado’s breathtaking, shattering work of fuck-you feminist stories opens with a virtuoso retelling of the Velvet Ribbon fairy tale as a fabulist, modern tale of privacy and the inevitability of male intrusions and never lets up from there. Machado incisively lays bare the constant oppressions and all-too-familiar compromises of women’s shared experiences, very aware that revolution can come only after fully realizing the rapacious horror of our quotidian lives.

And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks
6. And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks

Sparks’ collection is a clarion call cloaked in the glory of a battle cry: unapologetically feminist tales about ourselves—finding ourselves, prioritizing ourselves, caring for ourselves—somehow disguised as mere transgression and reclamation, wrapped in fairy tales and fables. As you spend time with Sparks’ firework of a collection, you realize that these stories may be called “revenges”—and they are—but they are also much, much more: a light in the dark, a reconnection with yourself, a beacon calling you home.

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel Lavery)
7. The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel Lavery)

Lavery uses familiar tales—fairy tales, folklore, children’s classics—to unearth unavoidable truths. Here is someone who understands the original, cautionary nature of our stories and how stories travel societies unchanged, not to mention the everyday horrors of societal expectations, biased systems, and expected gender performance. Lavery deftly, dazzlingly detonates all that in The Merry Spinster: Here, people are people, and happiness is happiness, and societal expectations can be damned.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
8. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Ogawa is a national treasure in Japan but, despite a number of translations, tragically underread in the United States. Revenge is her weird, weird, breathtakingly weird collection of short stories and a terrific introduction to her larger body of work. As you traverse Ogawa’s eldritch landscape, you’ll stay up late wondering if these works are fantasy at all—or if they’re something far stranger, an examination of the quotidian macabre.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker
9. Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

Pinsker’s masterwork—and it is a masterwork—thrives on isolation, nurtures it, consumes it. She has, with great care, woven the inescapable misery of isolation into thread that binds both her craft and your reading experience, a thin line where that isolation becomes desolation, where people cling fervently to hope, and when a single moment of human connection could have changed a life. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper.

Two Moons by Krystal A. Smith
10. Two Moons by Krystal A. Smith

Smith has crafted an utterly joyful, utterly delightful collection full of Black mysticism, queerness, and happy endings. In the opening, gorgeous work, a woman falls in love with the moon. Later, a woman births a goddess—and receives a surprising reward. In a surprise turn, a woman has a heart-to-heart…with her heart. Each work is a further pleasure, a further enchantment, a further chance to find a little bit of bliss. You’ll never want Smith’s collection to end.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
11. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Magnificent, highly perceptive stories, set in Africa or the United States, featuring Black characters and communities. Arimah skillfully deconstructs our need to be connected—sometimes to other people, sometimes to a community, sometimes to an idea of place or home or culture—and sets that against our all-too-real, all-too-destructive world. The first story alone is a gasp-aloud work: shocking, profound, heartbreaking.

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


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.

Ren Iwamoto: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Last year, Sirens content coordinator Cass Morris spoke with Ren Iwamoto and today we’re thrilled to be republishing this interview.

 

CASS MORRIS: Your graduate studies are focused on twentieth-century East Asian literature, Japanese colonialism, and post-colonial discourse. What drew you to that cross-section of topics? What impact do you think greater awareness of them can have on fantasy fiction?

Ren Iwamoto

REN IWAMOTO: It’s a topic I actually shied away from at first; I think I saw a post on Twitter about the erection of a statue commemorating the Korean comfort women who were abused during the Japanese occupation. I didn’t want to acknowledge it. Growing up in the diaspora, there is a certain degree of nostalgia for “the homeland.” But I’m also Canadian. I demand Canada be held accountable for concentration camps, residential schools, its well-buried history of slavery, the continued forced sterilization of indigenous women—why should I excuse Japan? Especially when even now, many people deny that such events as the Nanking Massacre even occurred. I deliberately fought my impulse to brush past the initial discomfort and instead sought out content that educated me.

Politics and history always have impacted the literary landscape, so as an academic my next step was to source material in my field. This was actually the most difficult part. My Japanese is too poor to read untranslated texts, so I, despite my best efforts, turned to manga (this isn’t a knock against manga, but unfortunately it’s a little difficult to get academic clout as an undergraduate studying comics). This turned out to be fortuitous, because Japan’s manga industry turns a multi-million dollar profit every year and is rife with magic, high strangeness, and future imaginings. As such, my interest in topics like nationalism, war, and industrialization found a fantastically large puddle to splash around in. The aim of my research is to unearth patterns in how the Japanese cultural context informs these themes.

To speak broadly of impact, any and all knowledge of real-world events alters how we interpret science fiction and fantasy. On a more personal level, seeing fantasy elements “inspired” by East Asia (but that actually just fetishize East Asia), or people who watch anime and think that means they understand what it means to be Japanese, I kind of want to smash someone over the head with a chair WWE-style. So I think awareness of the academic discourse—even on a relatively shallow level—helps generate a more complete knowledge and hopefully operates as a gateway for further investigation. There’s no ultimate goal for this sort of endeavor, but I do think compassionate, intellectually robust fiction helps compassionate, intellectually robust people bloom in the world. So.

 

CASS: You’re also an intern at P.S. Literary Agency. Tell us a little about the agency and the work you do there.

REN: I was, from May to November 2019. It was a wonderful experience. I worked for Eric Smith and Kurestin Armada, both of whom represent SFF for teens and adults, amongst other things. My primary duty there was reading slush and writing reader’s reports, which essentially document what works, what doesn’t, and whether I felt the piece was worth the agent’s time to look at. I loved reading the slush. There’s something deeply personal, and yet anonymous about it. I was consistently impressed by the quality of submissions.

I’m hoping to leverage the experience I earned at P.S. Literary to pursue a more long-term career in fiction publishing, but for now I’m content to apply what I learned there to my freelance practice.

 

CASS: Speculative fiction has the wonderful potential to hold mirrors up to the past, present, and future. What are some topics you hope to see speculative fiction explore? What’s on your wish list?

REN: I’ve almost certainly said this before, but speculative fiction should destabilize. Topic is almost irrelevant to me so long as the story turns some stone over; then something meaningful was accomplished. Magic, futurism, historical reimaginings, whatever it is that straddles the line between science and magic—these all have the potential to interrogate heterocentrism, patriarchy, gender, race, and so on. Even concepts like time and space open themselves up to deconstruction. That’s very exciting to me as both a pleasure reader and an academic, so whether the story is about war or star-crossed lovers or two kids riding their bikes around the neighborhood becomes secondary.

 

CASS: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy literature?

REN: In the interest of honesty, I have to say H*rry P*tter. They were the first books I read for my own pleasure, not for school or because my parents had picked them out for me. But given current circumstances, I’ve had to re-evaluate exactly what I liked about them. The conclusion I came to is that they taught me to love magic. I was and am deeply interested in the idea of there being another layer to reality, a secret layer, which only a few could access. It appealed to my fantasy of being a Special Person who could see and do Special Things. Fortunately, there is an abundance of precisely that kind of content created by people I’m not morally obligated to throw hands at on sight.

On a less commercial level, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first “fantasy” writer I engaged with on an academic level. So lush and ripe with sentiment! I’m still in love. To me, magical realism and its cousin genres do the same thing as the portal fantasies I loved growing up—they reveal something secret. If you know, you know. You know?

 

CASS: At this year’s Studio, you’ll be teaching “Seasoned with Soy Sauce: Asianization in Western Speculative Media and What It Means to Be ‘Asian-Inspired.’ ” What do you hope attendees will take away from your session?

REN: In my experience, everyone at Sirens has come already having done much of the groundwork regarding cultural appropriation. So my goal isn’t to teach that, nor is it to discourage people who aren’t East Asian from creating content which draws upon East Asian inspirations. Rather, I’m interested in conveying how the fascination with “the Orient,” which has featured so heavily in Western colonial history, has translated into modern storytelling practices. The aesthetic of East Asia is very sexy to a Western audience. Westerners love the image of Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Bangkok, and so on. It appeals to their idea of the Far East as either a hyper-sophisticated, hyper-urban paradise, or otherwise an overpopulated mega-slum riddled with opium dens and wet markets. Because this depiction is fundamentally shallow, and most often created by white people for white people, it’s impossible for its audience to fully appreciate the nuance of the East Asian experience (I, as a Japanese person, am only slightly more equipped). This is a rambling way of saying I hope the audience learns a little bit of colonial history in East Asia and world-building.

 

CASS: 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?

REN: This is a cop-out, but I’ve become keenly aware of how every social movement which has benefited me as a queer person of color has been championed initially by Black women. Some of the most innovative and inspiring intellectuals in my field are Black women. And, because this is Sirens, some of the most exciting literature I’ve read this past year, both within and beyond the confines of SFF, has been written by Black women. So: Black women.

 


Ren Iwamoto is a Japanese-Canadian grad student from the tenth dimension. Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search of the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications. For more information about Ren, please visit her Twitter.

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia. Her debut series, The Aven Cycle, is Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books. She is also one-third of the team behind the Hugo Award Finalist podcast Worldbuilding for Masochists. She holds a Master of Letters from Mary Baldwin University and a BA in English and History from the College of William and Mary. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Find her online at cassmorriswrites.com or on Twitter and Instagram @cassrmorris.

Books and Breakfast: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife

As we look to welcome new and returning attendees to our postponed conference this October, we’d like to reintroduce our Books and Breakfast selections, now revived for 2021! Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through Books and Breakfast, where we select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme. On the Friday and Saturday mornings of Sirens, 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 this year’s conference, we’ll still be examining gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes. We’ve chosen eight works that broaden that examination, 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.

Last month, we highlighted our graphic novel selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona. Today, we’re showcasing our three adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Next month, we’ll finish up with our young adult selections. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens—in case you didn’t get to them last 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

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

A Feast of Sorrows Angela Slatter

While calling Angela Slatter the heir apparent to Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue may seem a bold assertion, it’s appropriately so. Carter and Donoghue twisted fairy tales, reclaimed them, told violently feminist or joyously queer versions of them. But despite their obvious feminism, Carter’s and Donoghue’s tales often remain in conversation with their more traditional, more heteropatriarchal versions. Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” reclaims Bluebeard, conjuring a mother as savior rather than the violent, patriarchal heroism of the original. Donoghue’s Cinderella in “The Tale of the Shoe” still seeks her coupled-up happily ever after, but with the fairy godmother rather than the prince. Both of their work is an undeniable fuck-you to the heteropatriarchy, but their defiance must remain conversant with that same heteropatriarchy.

By contrast, Slatter—like her heroines—often eschews that conversation entirely. She has little interest in correcting, instructing, or even raging at the heteropatriarchy. She has little interest in explaining to the heteropatriarchy why Bluebeard cannot kill this wife or why Cinderella would obviously be so much happier with her godmother. She—like her heroines—is busy. Busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. Being relentlessly awesome. Being, quite often, villainous.

A Feast of Sorrows, one of World Fantasy Award- and British Fantasy Award-winning Slatter’s collections of short fiction, features twelve of her finest, darkest fairy tales. Her women and girls take paths less travelled, offer and accept poisoned apples, and embrace all sorts of transformation. You won’t find just princesses and ghosts and killers here, but a full gamut of artisans as well: bakers, quilters, crafters, spinners, and coffin-makers. Never have the feminine arts been so magical or so deadly. This collection is one to be savored one story, one revelation, and one smart, determined, independent woman at a time.



Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

Queen of the Conquered Kacen Callender

On the island of Hans Lollik, in a fantasy Caribbean, Sigourney has risen from the ashes. Her family was murdered by colonizers years earlier for daring to ascend from slavery to nobility—but Sigourney survived and, through sheer determination and gutsy smarts, has again achieved the rank of nobility. And in this work of impressive intrigue, Sigourney’s identity is secret, her magic dangerous, and her heart focused on revenge. The childless king has declared that he will select his successor from among the nobility and ambitious, vengeful Sigourney wants that title, is willing to kill for that title, in order to help her people. But someone is murdering nobles, the king isn’t quite what he seems, and Sigourney is a ready suspect. Not only is her years-long plan on the line, her life might be as well.

Queen of the Conquered is smart. Really smart. Callender simultaneously constructs both a complicated murder mystery and a searing indictment of slavery and colonialism. Their cast of characters is complex, full of individual and treacherous magics, all certainly capable of planning and executing a series of murders. But the more impressive, important achievement is weaving this mystery into a fully realized world of colonization, slavery, and potential change. Callender’s bedrock is power disparities and they use those skillfully as a foundation for their complex world of choices and compulsion, dominance and pain, compromises and uprisings. Only rarely—in the work of N.K. Jemisin, perhaps, or Justina Ireland—have you read a fantasy work like this.

And yet, with all of that, Callender’s tour de force is Sigourney Rose, born into the nobility despite her dark skin, improbable survivor of the massacre of her family, an impossibly complex, ambitious woman playing an impossibly long game. Sigourney is a victim, but also—perhaps—a villain. Her status grants her slave ownership—slaves she could free, but does not. She punishes her slaves, and has sex with some, knowing that they cannot refuse her. She seeks power purportedly for the good of her people, but while she lives in luxury, her people continue to suffer, often at her hand. She’s playing the long game, where great risk could bring great reward, but what about the sacrifices she demands of her powerless people in the meantime? Victimhood and villainy, it seems, are not mutually exclusive.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley

Herot Hall, the suburban setting of Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf retelling, is a Stepford-pretty utopia: Everything is picket fences and carefully arranged flowers, big houses and perfect families. And for Willa, married to Herot heir Roger, life is perfect, her carefully curated self raising her carefully curated son, Dylan, in her carefully curated house. Her schedule is a beautiful round of dinner parties and playdates, glamorous clothes and perfect meals. But Willa lives on the edge of Herot Hall, where all this careful curation is guarded from the outside by walls and surveillance cameras. These defenses make Willa feel safe, but they aren’t enough to keep out Gren.

Gren belongs to Dana, a soldier who didn’t want Gren and doesn’t really understand how she gave birth to Gren, but when she returned from war, she had Gren. Now they struggle to survive in a cave outside the reaches of Herot Hall. The lasting effects of war seem like an impossible mountain to climb in returning to society, so Dana remains—with her son—on the periphery, each day a new challenge in their solitary existence. But Gren is growing, and exploring, and doesn’t always share his mother’s damage—or her fear.

In this contemporary exploration of monstrousness and society, Dylan and Gren are the catalysts, but not the monsters. Both Willa and Dana live in careful worlds, where, like anyone, their pasts, their fears, and their hopes underlie their expectations and their choices. Both Willa and Dana try, with little success, to impress the importance of these careful worlds onto their sons. As Gren grows, his curiosity drives him into Herot Hall and he secretly befriends Dylan. With that series of encounters, both Willa’s and Dana’s carefully constructed worlds collapse: Their fears lead them to make sometimes desperate, sometimes illogical, sometimes monstrous decisions—and ultimately The Mere Wife asks readers: How monstrous are you?

New Fantasy Books: July 2021

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of July 2021 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 13, Issue 4: June 2021

This month:

Ah, June! The days stretched long, the flowers bloomed, and the book gods delivered unto us a veritable flood of new releases. Whether you’re the type to spend hours basking in the sun or you’re curled up in the comfort of shade and cool air, we hope you’ve got some good summer reads to keep you company—and if you’ve hit a reading slump, we’ve got some suggestions to help get you out of it!

Registration

If you haven’t yet registered to join us in October, now is a perfect time! We’re making all our plans, the hotel is open for reservations, and airlines have some amazing sales. So register now to take one thing off your to-do list.

Faculty Interviews

In June, we began introducing you to your Sirens Studio Faculty Members.

  • Jae Young Kim

    Jae Young Kim, who has worked as a nonprofit attorney advocating for immigrants, people of color, and survivors of domestic violence, will be presenting a career-oriented workshop: “Working for Change: Can We Wear Capes in Real Life?” during Sirens Studio. “I hope to share my real-life experience as a nonprofit attorney and provide insights into legal systems. I can share what it’s like working for social change as part of your job and the good and the challenging parts of my work.” Read about her work as an attorney, her thoughts on social change in and out of the courtroom, and her favorite types of fantasy stories in her interview.

  • Anna-Marie McLemore

    Anna-Marie McLemore, author of Blanca & Roja, Dark and Deepest Red, and the forthcoming The Mirror Season, among other works, discusses returning to Sirens as Studio faculty after having been a guest of honor in 2018: “It’s strange and wonderful coming back to Sirens knowing so much more about myself than I did a couple of years ago.” Their workshop, “Finding Magic: Enchanting Characters and Their Worlds,” will help Studio attendees think about magical realism and the interweaving of magic and character. Read their full interview for more of Anna-Marie’s insights on fairy tales, gender identity, and claiming our own stories.

  • Marie Brennan

    Author Marie Brennan, known for the Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, among other works, is another former guest of honor returning as faculty—she first joined us in 2010! Her Studio workshop, “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions,” will draw from her extensive academic and non-academic work. “For any kind of worldbuilding, I think one of the most valuable things you can do is read about actual cultures in the real world; don’t just draw all your ideas from novels and other forms of fiction.” Read Marie’s full interview for more on developing character voices, color-coded reference charts, and the difference between teaching and doing.

Books

Remember being a kid and having your list of assigned summer reading? Isn’t the freedom of being able to choose your summer reads for yourself wonderful? To develop your own list, unbound by anyone else’s expectations, and secure in the knowledge that there will not be a quiz in September? And yet… at the same time… sometimes, it’s nice to have that guidance! Not to mention knowing that someone else has had the same reading experience, so that you’ve got someone to share your thoughts with, gush with, or vent to about what your brain has just consumed. As always, Sirens is here to help guide your bookish exploration!

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • Happy #SirensPride! To celebrate Pride Month, we’ve compiled a list of 30 Queer AF books for your enjoyment. Of course, we celebrate Pride and the works of LGBTQIAP+ authors all year long, so consider these titles but a sampler of the amazing speculative fiction produced by the queer community. We hope you’ll explore further, find more fabulous queer reads, and tell us all about them!
  • A new series on the blog reintroduces our Books and Breakfast selections for 2021, where we showcase a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme. This month, we’re spotlighting the graphic novels on the list: Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, and Nimona by Noelle Stevenson.
  • The third installment in this year’s Reading Challenge feature series centers books with the theme of Revolution: the act which transforms personal action and private battles into organized action and real societal change. These are the books “that make us see things about our world more clearly—and show us how change might be possible.” Visit the post to learn more about the Reading Challenge selections that we feel best embody this theme.
  • Isabel Schechter shares an “It’s on my list” list, for all those of us who really keep meaning to get around to everything on our high-stacked TBRs.
  • If you’re in need of hopeful, joyful reads to help get you through tough times, let Lily Weitzman help with a list of her favorite daring, optimistic, community-oriented pandemic reads.
  • June’s Read with Amy feature shares Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink’s thoughts on S. L. Huang’s Burning Roses, a fairy tale remix with a Latina Red Riding Hood and a Chinese trans woman as the Archer. “As they travel, we learn their respective mistakes, their pain, their trauma, and their hopelessness—why each continues to throw herself in front of monsters, desperation disguised as heroism. And why heroics, in the end, are the path to neither redemption nor happiness.”
  • July’s Book Club selection is Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel. If you’d like to join the Zoom conversation on Sunday, July 25, please email us (help at sirensconference.org) to be added to our list!
  • Still need more? Here’s our June Roundup of new fantasy releases!

Good luck to you in your summer adventures!

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

 

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