News

Sabrina

By Amy Tenbrink

Sabrina Chin
Sabrina Chin, January 17, 1981 – October 25, 2019

Grief is a slippery emotion, full of overwhelming despair and false hope and occasional, fleeting comfort. It is finding, a hundred times an hour, another devastating low, as I remember one more thing that she and I will never do again. It is thinking that she’s still there, just out of reach, if only I can listen hard enough or look quickly enough. It is knowing how happy she was, as we opened our eleventh year of Sirens, just before she passed quietly in her sleep, surrounded by the community built of her warmth and care.

Sabrina Chin—or often Sabs, if you knew her well—was many, many things to me: A fifteen-year friend. A never-forgotten birthday wish. Shared pizza and sushi and dumplings. Sopping-wet, mildew-smelling Splash Mountain rides. A tentative hike down the too-steep Wall Street trail at Bryce Canyon National Park. A Thanksgiving dinner companion. Space-heater hugs. The best of Hufflepuffs to balance my ambition-first Slytherin. A never-wavering Winnie-the-Pooh to my frenetic Piglet. A rare joy.

And while she was all of that and more to me, I also want to remember her for everyone who basked in her Sirens work every year. Because Sabs has always been the primary caretaker of this community that means so much to all of us.

Sirens is a conference that prides itself on warmth and welcome, whether you’re a ten-year veteran or a nervous first-time attendee—and at Sirens, that warmth and welcome was Sabs. She was a text after you registered, telling you how glad she was that you were able to make it that year. The reassuring reply behind the customer service email address. An understanding exception when you missed a deadline, but wanted to make sure there was space for you at the conference. The first hug as you got off the bus. A smile at the information desk. A flurry of details that almost magically materialized into never forgetting anything about anyone. The person always making sure that everyone was included and everyone was comfortable and everyone had everything they needed to be happy.

Impossibly, even her death was an act of caretaking: By passing at Sirens, she gave us all the gift of being together so we could mourn as a community. The meals she ordered for the staff kept appearing, even as days passed—and even though the cartons with her name on them always brought on a new flood of tears. Her spreadsheets kept Sirens on track when we needed to make on-the-fly changes. Even the murder mystery clues were already out, saving us one more worry. Without her thoughtfulness and organization—her caretaking—I don’t know how Sirens would have persevered this year. Certainly, without them, we wouldn’t have had the space necessary to mourn our friend. The idea that her care made mourning her passing somehow kinder and gentler is so very, very Sabs.

Everyone in the Sirens community will miss her. Some of you were her friends, for a decade or more. Some of you never spoke to her, but felt her presence in every caring thing that the Sirens community does. If you’ve ever felt welcomed at Sirens—and I very much hope that you have—that welcome was Sabs. If you ever felt included or comforted or seen at Sirens, that was Sabs. Her hard work, her organization, her details, her care, her love, so much of it behind the scenes, but all of it so readily apparent in the Sirens community.

As we move forward without her—such an impossible thing—I hope that we all remember how caring she was. I hope that her legacy is that we all find a way to be a bit more like her. More birthday texts. More shared pizza and sushi and dumplings. More patience and grace and forgiveness. Since she’s left a Sabs-sized hole in each of our hearts, we’re going to need all the warmth, love, and care that we can muster to patch them all back together.

Sabs, you were the best of all of us. We have every reason to know how much you loved us. I hope you knew how very much we love you.

Art by Manda Lewis

Get Ready for Sirens

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 10: October 2019

This month:

 

Get Ready for Sirens

Sirens is coming up furiously fast, and if you’re attending the Studio, you’re possibly already en route! To ensure the best Sirens ever, have a look at these housekeeping items before you head off to Denver!

 

Instruction Emails

This past week, we sent out detailed instruction emails for the Sirens Shuttle, the Sirens Studio, the Sirens Supper, and registration check-in. Presenters should have also received an email with information and tips. If you emailed us about dietary concerns and haven’t received a response, and for any other missing emails, please contact us at (help at sirensconference.org).

 

Contacting Us During Sirens

Many staff members have already arrived in Colorado and are in the thick of Sirens preparations. While we’re unpacking materials and setting up for the conference, we won’t be able to monitor our emails as closely as we normally would. If you have an urgent question prior to arriving on-site, please email (help at sirensconference.org) and we’ll get back to you as quickly as possible.

Once the conference starts, the easiest way to reach us is in person! If you have any questions or simply want to chat, our information desk in Alpine 1 will be open starting at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 24.

 

Twitter

We will be tweeting with all our might at our @sirens_con handle as Sirens gets underway! We’ll be sharing programming schedule reminders, snippets from each session, and other goings-on at the conference. If you prefer not to receive these notifications, you can mute us and check back on Monday, October 28.

 

In Case You Missed It…

In case you missed it, we’ve rounded up some important highlights from our posts this year:

Guest of Honor Interviews:

Studio Faculty Interviews:

Books and Breakfast Spotlights:

Community Interviews:

Sirens Essay Series

Essay Series:

Also in the news:

 

Rake Up Some Fall Reading

To whet your appetite right before the Sirens Bookstore opens, take a look at these new October releases by women and nonbinary authors!

Erynn’s Pick:

The Library of the Unwritten

Somewhere in the lesser known levels of Hell is a library full of all the books that never made it to completion. Keeping them organized, mended, and shelved is more than a simple job for the Head Librarian, Claire, as such stories are not keen to sit still for long. Claire must go chasing after an AWOL Hero, with the help of a former muse and a demon courier. Penned by Sirens attendee, A.J. Hackwith, The Library of the Unwritten is the first installment in a series of deliciously fun stories featuring librarians at the forefront of a Heaven and Hell power struggle.

 

Faye’s Pick:

Mooncakes

Though narrowly missing Mid-Autumn Festival this year, I couldn’t be more excited by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu’s queer, adorable, and magical graphic novel Mooncakes. It features two Chinese Americans: Nova, a witch and hard-of-hearing, and Tam, a nonbinary werewolf—because intersectionalism! Listen, this is a celebration of unconventional families, bookshops, cute towns, banter the Gilmore Girls would be proud of, and baking! Do I need to say more?

 

This newsletter is brought to you by:

Erynn Moss + Faye Bi


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

 

Everything you need to know to survive Denver’s high-plains desert climate

For those of you who’ve attended previous Sirens in Vail and Beaver Creek, this year’s conference in Denver may be a respite. After all, we’ll be 3000 feet lower in elevation!

At 5,280 feet above sea level, Denver’s altitude is exactly one mile high—but Denver is not actually in the mountains. Even though Denver’s elevation does not give rise to altitude sickness or other health concerns associated with mountain towns (most airplane cabins are pressurized between 5,000–8,000 feet as a safe and healthy range for most people), we beseech you to not be complacent—as much of Colorado is actually a high-plains desert. What does this mean?

Here’s our hard-won advice:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Drink water early and often—you can even drink a sports drink, with electrolytes, for an extra boost. Even better, start increasing your water intake a few days before traveling to Sirens to help your body adjust more easily. Remember: it’s easier to prevent dehydration in the first place than to recover from its effects! And we’ve got you covered: we’ll have Sirens water bottles for sale in our community room, with some of our fabulous artwork.

  • Balm it up. Because of the lack of moisture in the air, you might need to apply extra lip balm, nasal spray, eye drops, and lotion to keep yourself comfortable.

  • Eat a snack. May your bellies be full. Even at Denver’s altitude, you might have a bigger appetite than you would normally—your body is working extra hard to compensate for less oxygen and lower temperatures.

  • Be aware of the sun. Here, the air is thinner, making you more susceptible to sunburn—so make sure that you cover up and apply sunscreen if you’re going for a walk or lounging outside. Bring your sunglasses, too! Believe us, your eyes can burn.

  • Take it easy. Did we mention the air is thinner? That means there is less oxygen going to your brain—so you’ll breathe faster to compensate, at least while you adjust. If you notice that you’re fatigued more quickly while exercising or climbing stairs, give yourself a little extra time to adjust to your environment.

  • You might need more sleep than usual. You might be really tired from the plane ride in, or the opposite and suffering from jetlag. It’s often the case that your sleep patterns change when you travel, but it never hurts to take a nap when you’re a mile up!

  • Alcohol will have a greater effect on you, so imbibe judiciously. One drink at sea level equals at least two in Denver. Please consider moderating your drinking—and drink plenty of water during and afterwards. If not, your headache the next morning probably isn’t altitude sickness; it’s a hangover. (And if you complain, we will be tempted to give you the side-eye…)

  • If you feel a headache coming in, up your fluid intake and try taking ordinary painkillers. Chances are, you’ll feel much better with some rest, too.

For more information, you can check out our page on Denver. Any other questions, please contact us at (help at sirensconference.org). We’re looking forward to seeing you all next week, and we want your experience at Sirens to be amazing!

Previous versions of this post ran in October 2017 and October 2018.

 

The 11 tips and tricks every first-time Sirens attendee should know

In a week, our Sirens Studio attendees will begin descending on Denver for our 11th annual Sirens, with the rest of you soon to follow! And while there might be familiar faces to greet, there are many of you for whom this will be your first Sirens! So read on for some tips, tricks, and general things to know before you start your journey to Colorado:

  1. Follow us on Twitter at @sirens_con and the event hashtag #Sirens19 (if you haven’t already!). We’ll be tweeting our full programming schedule, last-minute changes, quotes from presenters and guests, pictures of things like auction items, and more!

  2. Visit us at the Information Desk. Located in room Alpine 1, also home to our community room, Sirens staff members will be available to chat, answer questions, and help you with almost anything you need. This is also where you will pick up your conference badge and registration bag!

  3. Find a Sirens Ambassador. We’ve appointed 15 seasoned attendees as Sirens ambassadors, specifically so our new attendees will be able to find a friendly face in the crowd. Our ambassadors will be wearing a special button when they’re available for conversations. Feel free to pepper them with your questions or find them when you’re feeling adrift or out of place—they’re here to help!

  4. Start a conversation. Everyone at Sirens is a reader. Whether you’re waiting for the shuttle, lounging in the hotel lobby, or eating at a table, it’s easy to use book talk to break the ice.

  5. Attend programming. Sirens’s programming is presented by our attendees, for our attendees—and as everyone’s voice at Sirens is vital to our community, our presenters include readers, librarians, and educators, as well as the scholars, authors, and professionals that you might be expecting. Check out our full schedule and our summaries of programming, geek out over what’s being offered, and plan out your day. Conversations are highly encouraged in between sessions, and sometimes even during sessions, like in the case of roundtables or Q&As.

  6. Seating is open. Feel free to sit anywhere while at programming, Books and Breakfast, Bedtime Stories, the community room, or at meals—but please leave the seating closest to doors and aisles open for attendees who might need a closer seat or some extra room to maneuver.

  7. Looking for a group for dinner? Check the program book. We’ll have a list of meet-up times and locations, as well as a list of dining recommendations.

  8. We have a bookstore, specially stocked with over a thousand fantasy titles by women and nonbinary authors. If you want recommendations, we’re holding Books with Sirens at 2:00 p.m. on Friday and 5:00 p.m. on Saturday in the community room, when Amy will try to sell you books upon books. A word of warning: we’re pretty good at it—some people save their book money all year for our bookstore and some bring a second suitcase to take their treasures home! Shipping is also available for a fee (media mail, in the United States only).

  9. We have an auction, of amazing items, some hand-crafted, some one-of-a-kind, some that you simply won’t want to leave behind. The proceeds are crucial to covering a large portion of Sirens’s expenses and keeping our prices down. Your registration bag will include information about the auction and a list of offered items. We hope you’ll bid early and often!

  10. Check out our accessibility policy. Sirens is committed to making the conference accessible for a variety of individuals, but we need your help to do so. Please take a look at our accessibility policy (and also printed in your program book), and then consider how you might help make Sirens accessible for others.

  11. Bring a bathing suit! And your running shoes! There is an indoor pool and hot tub right next to the spa, as well as a nearby jogging trail. Speaking of the spa, please mention Sirens and receive a 10% discount off all services and retail products!

Any more questions? Please do come find us at the Information Desk starting:

Thursday, October 24 at 3:00 p.m.
Alpine 1 (lobby level)
Hilton Inverness

We can’t wait to meet you at Sirens!

Previous versions of this post ran in October 2017 and October 2018.

 

Six Contemporary Twists on Non-Western Myths

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women or nonbinary authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we’re introduced to six contemporary twists on non-western myths by writer and indie bookseller Casey Blair.

I love when the fantastic intrudes on our everyday world, the idea that magic can be waiting around any corner. There have been countless contemporary fantasies featuring fae over the years, and I’m beyond delighted that twists on non-western myths are growing in the market! These are some of my recent favorites.

 

Aru Shah and the End of Time
1. Aru Shah and the End of Time (Pandava #1) by Roshani Chokshi

Hilarity and adventure combine with the tragically relatable realities of middle school in this action-packed story of friendship and sisterhood. Roshani Chokshi brings Vedic mythology and tales from the Mahabharata to glorious life.

Akata Witch
2. Akata Witch (Book #1) by Nnedi Okorafor

A black albino girl who is an incredible athlete but struggles outside moves from the US to Nigeria, where she discovers she has unique magical powers and joins a secret group of fellow teens also learning their way around this brilliant world of Nigerian folklore.

Wicked Fox
3. Wicked Fox (Gumiho #1) by Kat Cho

Set in modern Seoul, this book smashes YA and Kdrama tropes together magnificently. Fox spirits, ghosts, romance, misunderstandings, family drama, poignant friendships, and complicated definitions of heroism and villainy abound.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
4. The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

I am a sucker for Journey to the West adaptations. On top of being a fantastic take on Chinese mythology, this book features a heroine who not only gets to punch absolutely everyone who deserves it, she’s a champion at setting boundaries and holding people accountable. And she navigates it all while figuring out how her friendships are changing and applying for college.

Love Sugar Magic
5. Love Sugar Magic Book 1: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

The power of family, baking, and Mexican magic and how they all overlap come alive in this delightful story of a girl who is desperately sure she is ready to be treated as an adult and then has to deal with the consequences accordingly.

Trail of Lightning
6. Trail of Lightning (Sixth World #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

This urban fantasy adventure is not only brimming with Navajo folklore, it’s also one of the best takes on the monstrous feminine I’ve ever read. Rebecca Roanhorse delivers both awesome action and moments that stab the reader straight in the heart.


Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

New Fantasy Books: October 2019

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of October 2019 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!
 

We are in need of some volunteer heroes!

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 9: September 2019

This month:

 

We are in need of some volunteer heroes!

Sirens runs on volunteer magic—and we need a bit more at the conference itself than we do the rest of the year. The best part is that you can help out while attending the Sirens programming you were planning on anyway, since our biggest need is for room monitors—the designated adult for the room. Typical duties involve helping presenters keep on time, closing the doors if the room gets full, and getting help for more involved troubleshooting. Shifts happen in the morning or afternoon, for a couple hours at a time.

For more details, please visit our volunteer page. If you’re a returning volunteer, you don’t need to fill out the form—just follow the directions in the email sent through the Google Group to claim a shift or two.

 

Instructions Emails

Keep a sharp eye on your inbox! In the next few weeks, we’ll be sending important instructions to attendees on how to meet the Sirens Shuttle, check in for the Sirens Studio and Sirens itself, and find the Sirens Supper! Presenters will also receive communications from the programming team.

If you’re riding the Sirens Shuttle and you have not yet provided us with your flight information, please write to (help at sirensconference.org) as soon as possible. We’ll track your progress toward Sirens and make sure that you haven’t run into any delays along the way.

 

Get to know your community: Joy Kim, Ren Iwamoto, and Gillian Chisom

This month we spoke to three more returning attendees to find out more about them!

 

What we read this month

From our volunteer led review squad, Lily Weitzman read and sings her praises of the epistolary novella, This is How You Lose the Time War co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

Why does Ana Simo’s Heartland make Amy think of Raging Bull Pete? Read her review in this edition of Book Club to get that perspective and why Heartland seems to be more about head space on the blog and Goodreads.

Tere Mahoney raves about Mona Awad’s Bunny, a sharp-eyed critique of the world of academia and MFAs that you won’t want to miss.

 

Fall in Love with these New Autumn Books!

Once again, our team has done the legwork to give you more of what you crave. Click here to see all the beautiful new releases in fantasy by women and nonbinary authors.

Erynn’s Pick:

The Mythic Dream

Editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe who previously collaborated on two other amazing anthologies, The Starlit Wood, and Robots vs Fairies, have put together a collection from 18 star-studded authors of reimagined mythology. The Mythic Dream takes ancient tales from around the world and respins them to the present and future. Contributors include Amal El-Mohtar, Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, Naomi Novik, Alyssa Wong, and, among others, Sirens 2019 Guest of Honor, Rebecca Roanhorse!

 

Faye’s Pick:

Pet

From Akwaeke Emezi, the author that brought us Freshwater, comes much-lauded YA debut Pet. Set in a religious, so-called utopian world, a transgender girl named Jam inadvertently animates her mother’s painting… and out of it comes otherworldly Pet, a grotesque creature trained to hunt human monsters—monsters who should have been eradicated—like the one plaguing Jam’s best friend’s otherwise happy home. Emezi conceptualizes social ills like violence and drug abuse into actual monsters and the reviews promise that it lives up to the hype!

 

This newsletter is brought to you by:

Erynn Moss + Faye Bi


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

 

Mona Awad’s Bunny is the side-eyed critique of academia we desperately need

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Tere Mahoney on Mona Awad’s Bunny.

Bunny

Many modern novels attempt to explore identity1 in ways that are heavy-handed and moralistic. While I don’t take issue with these themes, I have often been disappointed with the execution of them in novels. However with Mona Awad’s new book Bunny, I found an author whose literary chops and subtle hand allowed me to enter into the gestalt of women’s relationships with each other, and discover how imagination can play a role in finding one’s agency in a world that capitalizes on Otherness, through isolating us from each other. It is the best novel I’ve read all year.

At first I couldn’t understand how the protagonist—a poor graduate student named Samantha Heather Mackay (nod to the 1988 musical Heathers)—could fall for the shallow enticement of belonging to the mean-girl clique in her creative writing program at a fictional Ivy League university. I persevered because of the gorgeous descriptive language and biting wit, and the fact that I began to suspect that the phantasmagorical Alice-in-Wonderland-like weird and disturbing events playing out weren’t real, but actually metaphorical—imagination run amok, as it were. No spoilers, but I will say that Awad presents us with characters who will stop at nothing to gain entrance to—or maintain—their membership in the upper echelons of writerly elitism. Everybody gets blood on their hands.

The treatment of Awad’s twee female foursome (all having named themselves a homogeneous Bunny) are given little individual character development or depth. They are instead the “blob of peach-colored flesh wearing a pastel rainbow dress.” This group of antagonists (perhaps significantly a group of white women) is a symbol of a well-established competitive femininity that moves in packs and takes no prisoners. As Awad develops them throughout the novel we discover why and how this kind of femininity is systemically sustained in our society, making us our own worst enemies sometimes. Says Samantha,

I look up at the blob. It laughs softly with all its mouths.
“Bunny, this isn’t high school.”
“This isn’t even undergrad, Bunny.”
“Or an eighties movie.”
“Or even a nineties movie.”
“We’re all educated adults here.”
“…That’s the beauty of being friends with us, Bunny.”
“There don’t have to be words sometimes.”
“You could text us a whale tomorrow afternoon and we’d be like, We know. We’d know exactly what it is you were feeling.”
The blob nods its four heads vigorously. Then it rises from its many thrones.

Awad reveals for us the quagmire of academic creative writing programs that require students to “dig deep” and “process” and open themselves up to “wounds” that “bleed” in order to do the “work,” but how teachers in such programs do nothing to support students in the vulnerabilities they inevitably uncover in these reaches. Perhaps worse, academia is oblivious to the Othering dynamics it creates through coercing students to critique each other’s work and “kill your darlings” (advice to writers by William Faulkner to avoid the overuse of favoured elements).

But what if your “darlings” are actually pieces of your identity? This is where Awad shines. She shows us what it means to belong to “tribes” without sacrificing the very elements that make us us. Throughout the novel Awad gives many witty, subtle references to privilege, exceptionalism and whiteness, bringing humour and depth to her character’s choices. For example, if one replaces the word “cohort” with “tribe” in the following passage where Fosco, a self-important instructor, attempts to constrain Samantha’s identity, one gains a visceral understanding of ingroup/outgroup dynamics (otherwise known as bullying):

“I always say your cohort is your life-support system while you’re here….You need them as much as you need solitude. Too much solitude, Samantha, can just lead to the worst kind of paranoia and navel- gazing….Learning from each other, growing with each other, on the other hand”…

But I can’t even answer her for the laughter bubbling out of my own throat. Laughter is a rabbit hole and I’m falling, falling like Alice. There is no way up or out. The only way is down, down, down. The only way out is to keep falling. Succumb.

With Bunny, Awad has written a Gothic horror novel in the style of Mary Shelley, and it is rich and delectable in its descriptive use of language and setting. Like Shelley, the author uses allegory to explore how the power invested in established institutions eats the most marginalized in its midst alive. To provide a concrete example of how the novel plays with the literary versus the literal, Awad notes early on that creative writing programs discourage dependence on “the time-space continuum aka plot.” So Awad gives us the rare novel that is not completely plot driven, instead focusing on characters (or a group of characters!) and on seeing how the system itself reinforces the intersectional outsider’s wasteland that binds us. One that is infused with loneliness. But one which we can free ourselves from, when we use our imagination.

In the end Awad gets the last laugh, because she takes every last crumb of creative writing instruction and packaged literary device, and through great storytelling recycles them all to create a novel that exposes the academy’s (the system’s) shallow underbelly. In this way she doesn’t just use Samantha to take down the blob with her indisputably superior imagination, she fashions a literary jujitsu of the power structures among the intelligentsia and its “soft-serve” foundations by producing this well-received and important book. This is what ultimately makes Bunny such a tremendous and satisfying read: success is the ultimate revenge.

1identity: who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others; what the reputation, characteristics, etc. of a person or organization is that makes them viewed by the public in a particular way; usually referred to in terms of race, gender, class and/or sexual orientation.


Tere Mahoney is a communitarian and a former policy analyst living in Vancouver, Canada, having worked in both grassroots and policy development capacities with marginalized social groups. She now coaches, facilitates, and mediates, currently working as a conflict resolution specialist—because conflict often gets in the way of diverse and collaborative possibilities in communities. Tere also happens to have an undergraduate degree in English Literature, and is a long-time reader and lover of fiction.

 

Gillian Chisom: As an adult, I’ve wrestled so much with what it means to be the girl who doesn’t go back to Narnia

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our 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 our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!

 

AMY TENBRINK: You are a PhD candidate researching gender and embodiment in the early Quaker movement. What appealed to you about chasing a doctorate degree? And about your particular research topic?

GILLIAN CHISOM: I’ve actually left academia recently, for a host of complicated reasons, but I was interested in pursuing historical research because I wanted to understand the lives of people in the past, and especially people who haven’t been included in many traditional historical narratives. Even though I’ve moved on from that part of my life, I still think that it’s tremendously important work, and I’m still passionate about telling stories that haven’t been told, or have been told in a way that excludes certain perspectives.

 

AMY: Two years ago, you presented “Cold as a Witch’s Tit”: Gender and Magic in Early Modern Witch Trials at Sirens. Tell us something we probably don’t know about witches—but really ought to!

GILLIAN: Based on the way early modern European witch trials often appear in pop culture, people tend to assume that witch trials were about men persecuting women who were rebellious or subversive in some way, but that isn’t entirely accurate. Women were accusing other women of witchcraft more often than not, which isn’t to say that witch trials weren’t reinforcing patriarchy, but it shows that women are often complicit in policing other women within patriarchal structures. Also, the women who ended up accused of witchcraft weren’t necessarily rebellious or subversive—they were usually just ordinary women who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or who got caught up in some kind of local conflict that escalated beyond their control.

I think that part of the reason historians have struggled to come up with a singular explanation for the early modern witch hunts is that there isn’t one explanation—witch trials were usually rooted in very local circumstances, in the kind of village conflict that you have to understand in all of its particularity. There were larger forces at play, of course, but to understand a given witch trial you have to untangle the local before you can get to the big picture. Which is to say, I think that witch trials are significant because they give us a window into the kind of day-to-day problems and anxieties that early modern people were dealing with—it’s not an accident, for instance, that many witchcraft accusations arose in the context of pregnancy and childbirth, which were very vulnerable states for early modern women.

 

AMY: When did you fall in love with fantasy literature? What do you love about it? What about it do you find problematic?

GILLIAN: The Chronicles of Narnia were my formative fantasy series, so much so that I joke sometimes that C.S. Lewis programmed my brain. I think that the thing I fell in love with about those books was the sense of possibility—that there could be a door to a magical world anywhere. Of course, Narnia also illustrates some of the most problematic aspects of a lot of classic fantasy literature—sexism, racism, Christianity-as-default, and monarchy-as-default, just to name a few things! On a personal level, I have incredibly complicated feelings about those books now, even though I can’t escape the way they shaped me as a reader and a writer. I used to identify very strongly with Lucy as a child, and now I identify with Susan, fall from grace and all. As an adult, I’ve wrestled so much with what it means to be the girl who doesn’t go back to Narnia, who rejects the fantasy world but is also rejected by it, found wanting in some way. But there’s possibility, too, in that wrestling. I think that there’s so much to celebrate in the way that current fantasy authors are taking some of those problematic tropes and preserving the sense of possibility and deconstructing the rest, though of course we still have a lot of work to do.

 

AMY: You don’t write just epic scholarly tomes, you also write fantastical fiction—and you’re committed to centering queer voices in your stories. Recently, Sarah Gailey has written on what, to them, makes a story queer. What, to you, makes a story queer?

GILLIAN: I agree with Gailey both on the importance of casual queer representation and that representation alone isn’t the only thing that makes a story queer. I definitely resonate with what they said about wrestling with identity as a queer theme. In many ways that kind of wrestling has been at the core of my own experience since coming out; I’ve had to devote much of my time and mental and emotional energy to figuring out how to live with a version of myself that’s radically different than who I thought I was before. That type of struggle usually shows up in my stories in one way or another, though not always in ways that are obviously about sexuality. Found families also appear in almost all of my stories, and to me that’s also a queer theme—of course, queer people aren’t the only people who participate in found families, but in my experience there’s a lot of overlap there. Found family and community have also shaped my own experience as a queer person far more than romantic relationships, so that’s something that my work reflects. Queerness, in my experience, can carry with it the same breathless sense of possibility that fantasy literature itself does—the possibility of living and loving in unexpected and subversive ways.

 

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

GILLIAN: A friend invited me, and it just happened that the first year I came was also the year that I was really starting to struggle in grad school, partly because it was such a male-dominated environment. It was such a relief to experience this amazing feminist community where I could be my authentic, nerdy self. Sirens became my refuge from the stress and frustrations of academia, a space where I could revisit the creative, passionate parts of myself that I felt like I had to suppress in my professional life. Over the years I’ve gone through some major life transitions, and it feels like the Sirens community has been there with me every step of the way, reminding me that I can be the heroine of my own story.

 

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

The Hero and the Crown

GILLIAN: There are a lot of possible answers to this, but the first one that comes to mind is Aerin from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. McKinley’s work was another formative influence in my development as a fantasy reader—hers were the first fantasy books I read with female protagonists, and I’m grateful that they were available to me even though there are definitely some things I would criticize them for now. Aerin in particular stands out, though, not just because she was my first McKinley heroine, but because she had two romantic partners in the course of the book and she didn’t have to choose between them. I was probably about twelve at the time that I read it, and I’d deeply internalized the idea that there was only one true romantic partner for everyone, so the fact that this heroine I admired was allowed to love two different people felt new and radical. Also, McKinley connects Aerin’s ability to love two people with her ability to hold in tension different aspects of her identity without having to choose, and that was also a message that I really needed to hear at that time in my life.

 


Gillian Chisom is a recovering academic and writer. A lifelong fantasy reader, over the last several years she has wrestled with the genre’s flaws and possibilities and become committed to writing fantastical stories which center queer voices. She was a Lambda Literary Fellow in Young Adult and Genre Fiction in 2013, and her work has appeared in The Toast, Global Comment, and Specs Journal. In her spare time, she likes to make her own clothes.

 

Ren Iwamoto: I’m growing out of the habit of uncritical love

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our 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 our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!

 

AMY TENBRINK: I want to ask you everything, but that feels like such an imposition! Let’s start here: Your bio includes the following sentence: “Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search for the thesis topic that combines all of the above.” Tell me, how does one channel all that amazingness into a graduate degree? What is the focus of your work?

REN IWAMOTO: I’m sure my supervisor would also like the answer to that question, but to give it the old college try: Channeling ideas for me is mostly just spewing bullshit until someone says something like, “Wow, I never thought of that before!” Then I bullshit some more and suddenly I have a thesis. Right now I’m really focusing on twentieth century East Asian literature — specifically during and post-WWII — with the intent of investigating the effects of Japanese colonialism. I was raised and educated in Canada, so bringing attention to this part of history, which has dodged a deserved spot in Western mass consciousness, fully into postcolonial discourse is important to me.

 

AMY: Last year at Sirens, you presented, with Marcella Haddad, a lecture titled “Death in a Dress: Is the ‘Girl Assassin’ Really a Strong Female Character?” This year, you’re presenting again, this time “Fight, Loli, Fight!: Lolita Fashion, Cute Culture, and Heroic Girlhood in Contemporary Media.” How do you craft your topics and what do you hope audiences take away from your presentations?

REN: I’m growing out of the habit of uncritical love. I love many things — girl assassins and anime, for example — and for a long time I thought that because those things were worthy of being loved I didn’t need to find the flaws in them. Or perhaps more accurately: I worried that if I found the flaws in something, I couldn’t love it anymore. But that’s a lazy way to consume media, and lacking in nuance. Investigating the parts of media I didn’t want to think about before is the origin of both my papers. As with all my academic work, my only goal is to have my audience go, “huh,” and nod thoughtfully.

“Death in a Dress” was very pattern-oriented. I think stories featuring girl assassins, or girl warriors, or whatever, are often sold under the pretense of being subversive. “My heroine is strong and she doesn’t take any shit and also she’s sexy, but in a relatable way,” they seem to say. But all of them seem to say that. They all feature violence, subjugation, sex. Reading the novels, I thought that men could derive pleasure from seeing these female characters have violence inflicted upon them, and in turn perpetrate violence. So there’s really nothing subversive about them at all. That’s where the idea for the paper came from. Marcella generated a lot of questions about craft related to this idea, which I would never have even considered, so she added an invaluable dimension to the presentation.

“Fight, Loli, Fight” is actually pretty reactionary. There’s still a lot of media that equates the strong female character as either completely derisive of femininity, or otherwise she’s a femme fatale. To have a girl as hero — and I mean a girl, not a (young) woman — is many times more subversive. There is a nebulous distinction between young woman and girl that is essential here, and I hope to expand upon it in the full paper, but briefly: A girl can be feminine without being sexualized, have romance without sex, and yet their internal and external lives are still rich, nuanced, entertaining for viewers. That’s both refreshing, I think, and important. In any case, I picked on this thread because it happened to coincide with this year’s theme. So, essentially I started working on it on a whim and got in over my head, as usual.

 

AMY: What do you love about reading speculative fiction? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

REN: I think speculative fiction is all about boundaries: what’s acceptable, real, possible. All the givens of our world become mutable in spec fic, and that’s very special to me as both a reader and writer. The room for play is infinite, and the stories where I can see that sentiment reflected are my favourite.

 

AMY: And you’re a poet! You’ve described writing poetry as “Mostly, I just unleash a demon I have trapped in a rosewood box, and it does the work for me.” What about poetry as a medium appeals to you? Is it the demon?

Editor’s Note: We’ve included a selection of Ren’s poems at the end of the post. Please click on the titles to read their full text: Fruit Scissors; Obento; All-Saints Day.

REN: It’s the demon. The demon has special powers and makes me think that every day I’m alive fucking sucks, and tries to keep me in bed all day without eating or sleeping or anything, but that really doesn’t work for me. So we have a deal in which I’ll write poems as if every day I’m alive fucking sucks, but in reality I will live as happily, determinedly, uncompromisingly as I can.

As a medium—I’m very lazy, and a scrooge, when it comes to both writing and reading. To me, good poems are distillations, and say the most in the fewest words possible.

 

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

REN: I was at a writers’ retreat run by Natalie Parker three or four years ago. Justina Ireland was there and said something to the effect of, “Sirens is the only conference I give a fuck about.” Last year I was finally able to scrape some funds together to attend, and now Sirens is the only conference I give a fuck about. It’s kind of like when you go to a party where you don’t know anyone, and you’re like, Ah, shit, but then you see someone wearing, like, a pin from a show you like. The relief you feel as you go to strike up a conversation! Sirens was like that except everyone was wearing a pin from a show I like.

 

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

REN: [Content warning: suicide mention]

Not to sound like a total Leo, but I change my own life. I tried to die twice! And yet I’m still here helping my friends out, writing poems, getting money, educating myself, and transmogrifying into something unspeakable beneath the light of the full moon! Isn’t it radical, equally destructive and constructive, for me, someone with one foot in Woman and one foot in Other, to keep living? This isn’t to say I didn’t have help — my parents, my therapist, my friends — but I’m the one who put in the work. It was me. It continues to be me.

 


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 for the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications.

 


FRUIT SCISSORS
[Bywords Magazine, bywords.ca, August 2018]

i trace a line
of blood up
my thigh touch
pulpy red
meat a grapefruit
between
my lips

my legs cut
across streets
swiftly scissoring
towards a women’s
clinic my pants
are black they
show no
stains

like rotten
plums my body
invites parasites
i pinch their
tender pink heads
their undeveloped

heads and
pull them out
in a burst of blood

my legs cut
across streets
swiftly scissoring
away from a women’s
clinic my pants
are black they
show no
stains

 


OBENTO
[In/Words Magazine & Press, Issue 17.1, February 2018]

When Mama and Papa go to work
my obaa-chan makes me lunch. Rice,
pickled plum and radish, hardboiled eggs
marinated in shoyu and mirin.
Cucumbers cut into stars.

Some hakujin says, “Why are your eggs
black? Looks gross.”
I say, “Eat shit, Sarah. You have a
cheese sandwich every day. Look at this:
my grandma cuts my cucumbers into stars.
Shut up and drink your Five Alive.”

Detention (again).

At home: tuna sashimi,
red as an open wound.
Cold buckwheat noodles.

When Mama and Papa go to work,
my obaa-chan makes me lunch. White
bread. Juice box. Sarah keeps her mouth
shut; who’s eating shit
now?

 


ALL-SAINTS DAY
[above/ground press, GUEST Issue 1, November 2018]

my bones do not belong to me
alone like all saints
I donate this still-breathing
corpse to the faithful
may my blood be crystallized
tempered into glass
there you see my image
rendered in red casting
cursed light upon the praying
upon the back of the pastor’s neck
upon all the other holy things

the catacombs of my body
are for god alone to excavate
exhume my ugliest
pieces and gild them for display
under blessings and
the public eye
under the hands of popes
and preachers perhaps I
will become lovely

my ghost too
is a victim of love
chained down by devotion
caught in a jam jar
call me down like lightning
to pass through the veil
and inhabit your rivals
I will walk their bodies
into graves
into your arms
into a chapel done up in gold
and blood-colours
only the most loyal
servants haunt
their masters like I do

after death
humans are like empires
they collapse inwards
and disintegrate
I have seen the face of god
and it looks like your face
if you had seen a hundred-thousand
disappointing years

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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