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Archive for August 2018

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 10, Issue 9 (August 2018)

In this issue:

 

GUEST OF HONOR: VIOLET KUPERSMITH

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

You won’t want to miss our illuminating interview with Violet Kupersmith about her family’s experiences and legacy, ghosts, folklore, the Vietnam War, and genre: “In so many ways, the Ghost is the perfect metaphor for the immigrant: both are liminal beings, hovering between worlds, and here, both are feared and other-ed. And I think that there’s something fitting about using a literary genre which is often unfairly dismissed as silly or lowbrow to tell stories about a marginalized people. Each is able to empower the other.”

Also, our feature on Violet includes Alyssa Collins’s review of Violet’s collection of short stories, The Frangipani Hotel, our Book Friends feature, in which we suggest books that would pair well with Violet’s work, and finally, a list of hauntings books selected by Violet herself.

 

MEET THE 2018 SIRENS PROFESSIONAL SCHOLARSHIP RECIPIENTS

Two educators, a librarian, and a bookseller chat jobs, books, and what they’re looking forward to at Sirens. Meet Traci-Anne Canada, Nia Davenport, Alexandra Pratt, and Sami Thomason, this year’s—and our first ever—professional scholarship recipients!

 

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE AND PROGRAMMING SUPPORT

The conference schedule for 2018 is live! But are you ready to make your decisions about what to attend? Click here to check it out.

If you see a presentation you particularly love or a presenter you want to support, there’s still time to sponsor our programming sessions; the cost is $35 per presentation. Thank you again for all your support!

 

TICKETS UPDATE

At this time, the Sirens Supper is sold out. Please check our Twitter for updates from attendees who may want to transfer their tickets.

The Sirens Studio currently has 5 spots remaining. Learn more about our pre-conference Sirens Studio here.

Sirens also offers a $115 round-trip shuttle from Denver International Airport to Beaver Creek, significantly cheaper than commercial shuttles which can cost upwards of $200. We encourage you to buy your ticket soon, even if you don’t have flights yet!

Purchase Tickets

 

HOTEL RESERVATIONS

We are quite close to filling our block at the Park Hyatt for the third time. If you have not yet made your hotel reservation, please do so as soon as possible. We have only a few rooms left on the main nights of Sirens, and on October 1, the hotel will release all remaining rooms. Any reservations made after that date will not receive the Sirens discount. For more instructions on how to make your reservation, please visit our Hotel page.

 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW: GUESTS OF HONOR

To celebrate our conference theme of reunion, we continue to reflect on past conferences and check in with our past Guests of Honor to see what they’ve been up to these days. In 2012, our theme was tales retold, and our Guests of Honor were Nalo Hopkinson and Malinda Lo. Read the full post.

2013 was our first reunion year, revisiting warriors, faeries, monsters, and tales retold; our Guests of Honor were Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ellen Kushner, and Robin LaFevers. (Robin is returning to Sirens this year!) Read the full post.

In 2014, our theme was hauntings, and our Guests of Honor were Kendare Blake, Rosemary Clement, and Andrea Hairston. (Rosemary is returning to Sirens this year!) Read the full post.

 

PERSONALIZED BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

Registered attendees, watch your inboxes for the August attendee news email! For the second time, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink, who has read over a thousand fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors, will be offering personalized book recommendations—but only to the first 50 people to sign up!

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

The Book of Joan

Check out Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink’s rumination on reader, writer, and Lidia Yuknavich’s The Book of Joan, which she found “largely experimental, vaguely feminist, with thinly explained worldbuilding, a non-traditional narrative structure, shifting points of view… and tenuous timelines.” Full review on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

This month, Faye read Mary Rickert’s The Memory Garden as she surges to finish the 2018 Sirens Reading Challenge! She enjoyed the book’s &ldquo’poetic language, plant symbolism, strong female relationships, rich descriptions of food, and subtle hints of magic,” but there is still more to unpack. Read her full review on the blog and on Goodreads.

 

SIRENS REVIEW SQUAD

Friend of Sirens Casey Blair wants to sing the praises of Somaiya Daud’s Mirage from the rooftops! “I love its rich setting, a fantasy Morocco-inspired culture in a world with intergalactic travel. I love how deeply that culture suffuses every part of the story: the prose woven through with poetry, the complicated female friendships and family relationships…” Read her full review here.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT …


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

 

Where Are They Now: 2014 Guests of Honor

This fall will mark our tenth year of Sirens. With our conference theme of reunion, it’s the perfect chance to reflect on past conferences and revisit some old friends. In this series, we check in with our past Guests of Honor to see what they’ve been up to these days. If you attended Sirens that year, please share with us your memories of 2014 in the comments or on social media, and take a stroll with us down memory lane!

In 2014, our theme was hauntings, and our Guests of Honor were Kendare Blake, Rosemary Clement, and Andrea Hairston.

Kendare Blake

Kendare BlakeTwo Dark Reigns

We’re so pleased to hear from Kendare that, “Since my time at Sirens, I have hung the gorgeous Sirens artist artwork of Anna Dressed in Blood in my living room and she has frightened many people.”

Kendare’s latest series, beginning with Three Dark Crowns, features “triplet queens with magical powers in a queendom where triplet queens are always born, and must always kill each other until only one remains.” It hit the New York Times bestseller list when it came out in 2016, and its sequel, One Dark Throne, debuted at #1 on the same list the following year! We feel bad for Kendare’s socks: “That news pretty much knocked my socks off and I have been searching for my socks ever since.” Having now expanded to four books and two novellas (The Young Queens and The Oracle Queen), the series’ next installment is Two Dark Reigns, publishing next Tuesday, September 4th.

Some exciting adaptation news: “Three Dark Crowns has been optioned for film by Fox Studios, with one of the producer/directors of Stranger Things to produce via his production company 21Laps. And bonus: so far, all the execs I’ve spoken with have been women, so that’s neat!”

Where She Is Now: Hard at work on the last of the Three Dark Crowns quartet, and proud protector of a new pet: “I got a new baby Sphynx cat, and he is a sweet, naked delight! My husband named him Armpit McGee, and that brings the cat total up to 2, even stevens with the dogs. Maybe it’s the fact that the cat is hairless, and therefore seems quite vulnerable, but I’ve never been as protective of anything in my life.”

 

Rosemary Clement

Rosemary ClementNo Good Deed

For those not already in the know, Rosemary also publishes under the name Kara Connolly! Her latest novel No Good Deed is a reimagining of Robin Hood and came out in July 2017: “a modern girl finds herself in the middle of a medieval mess with only her smart mouth and her Olympic-archer aim to get her home.”

Where She Is Now: “I am working VERY HARD on a project. YES, I have been working on it for a VERY LONG TIME… it’s the thing that’s been keeping me tied up like the guy in Misery, minus the broken leg.” We have faith in you, Rosemary!

Upcoming Appearances: FenCon on September 22–24, 2018 in Dallas, TX, and of course, we’re thrilled to welcome Rosemary back at Sirens this year, October 25–28, 2018!

 

Andrea Hairston

Andrea HairstonWill Do Magic for Small Change

Andrea’s 2016 novel, Will Do Magic for Small Change, tells the story of Cinnamon Jones, granddaughter of characters you may already know and love—Redwood and Wildfire! Weaving history, magic, myth and theatre, Will do Magic for Small Change was a James Tiptree Jr. Award Honor List pick, and was a finalist for both the 29th Annual Lambda Literary Award and the 2017 Mythopoeic Award.

Looking ahead to March 2019, Andrea’s short story “Dumb House” will appear in the anthology New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl.

Andrea recently appeared as a Guest of Honor at FOGcon 2018 back in March, and also appeared at Wiscon in May, with a presentation on Black Panther and “The Women of Wakanda.” Watch a video of that presentation here.

Where She Is Now: Andrea is the Louise Wolff Kahn Professor of Theatre and Professor of Africana Studies at Smith College, as well as artistic director of Chrysalis Theatre. She also recently finished revisions on a new novel, The Master of Poisons.

 

Read Along with Faye: The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

The Memory Garden

As in much capital-L Literary fiction, Mary Rickert’s The Memory Garden is light on plot but heavy on atmosphere. Let’s set the scene. In a nondescript (Midwestern?) town, people believe the old woman in the cottage with the wild garden may, or may not be, a witch. Nan’s garden is described absolutely beautifully: wild, a life of its own, full of thriving plants that shouldn’t really thrive, in orphaned shoes thrown by passers-by. Each chapter begins with a flower or herb, as well as their practical, magical or medicinal use.

Though well-past her childbearing years, Nan has a teenage daughter, Bay, who she chose to raise when Bay appeared on her doorstep in a shoebox as a baby. And as Nan turns 79 at the outset of The Memory Garden, she invites two very old friends, Ruthie and Mavis, for a visit. The reason is unclear… but it’s evident that all three are haunted by what happened to their girlhood friend, Eve, and they have not seen each other in a really, really long time.

And here, dear reader, is where I interject with, maybe I’m just too young to appreciate this book as it deserves. In my review of Her Body and Other Parties, I talk a little bit about landmark books: the books that influence and shape you because you found them at just the right time in your life. Maybe I’m too early with The Memory Garden, because while Bay is only fourteen or so, she was my lens into this story. She also has no idea why, after all these years, her mother has invited these old friends over. She knows her mother is acting oddly—grappling with guilt and memories—but she doesn’t really know what’s going on, except that Ruthie is really good at cooking and Mavis is really imposing and confident. She hears the line, “How do the girls with dreams as big as the world end up old women with regrets?” but doesn’t quite understand why it’s so heartbreaking… yet. Or when she deduces what actually did happen to Eve, only to have Nan tell her, “You young people know so much more about these things than we did.”

But The Memory Garden is told from Nan’s perspective, not Bay’s. And I did love having Nan’s point of view. She’s so incredibly guarded and complex as a character, and the number of secrets she keeps from the reader (besides what happened to Eve), like: Who is Mrs. Winters? Is Bay actually a witch? means that the novel is structured much like a mystery. And while I did find it somewhat difficult to connect with Nan, Ruthie, and Mavis, I still cheered for them, felt sad for them, and wanted them to forgive, grow, and heal. I wanted Mavis to get to go to Africa! I wanted Ruthie to open her restaurant and get revenge on her bastard husband! (She did.) I wanted Nan to make peace with her decisions—not all of them good ones—but knowing that they were in good faith. I definitely fist-pumped Mary Rickert’s author’s note where she sets out to reclaim the word “witch” as a positive one, as witches are maligned throughout history for being eccentric, old, outsider women with power.

While I very much enjoyed Rickert’s poetic language, plant symbolism, strong female relationships, rich descriptions of food, and subtle hints of magic, I can’t help but shake this feeling of determined neutrality. It was fine! It was good! It was… familiar, and not precisely in an exciting way. It was slow-going at first and somewhat confusing—with the multiple uses of present tense in various timelines—but once the mystery began to unravel I found myself racing until the end. It did not feel particularly intersectional. I hear that fans of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and Sarah Addison Allen will enjoy this, but having read little of either I can’t make an official recommendation. Maybe ask me in a few decades, and I might have a different answer.

Next month’s book: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Where Are They Now: 2013 Guests of Honor

This fall will mark our tenth year of Sirens. With our conference theme of reunion, it’s the perfect chance to reflect on past conferences and revisit some old friends. In this series, we check in with our past Guests of Honor to see what they’ve been up to these days. If you attended Sirens that year, please share with us your memories of 2013 in the comments or on social media, and take a stroll with us down memory lane!

In 2013, our theme was reunion, and we revisited our first four themes 2009–2012. Our Guests of Honor were Guadalupe Garcia McCall (tales retold), Alaya Dawn Johnson (monsters), Ellen Kushner (faeries), and Robin LaFevers (warriors).

Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Guadalupe Garcia McCallShame the Stars

Attendees may remember Guadalupe’s Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey with five sisters, Summer of the Mariposas, which was translated into Spanish earlier this May. Her most recent publication is Shame the Stars, a historical fiction novel set in 1900s Texas with a Shakespearean twist, in 2016—a follow-up, All the Stars Denied, is coming out this September.

Guadalupe is experimenting with a number of different literary forms, including a picture book on submission, her first short story “Rancho Nido” which came out in the Kickstarter project Kaiju Rising, Age of Monsters II back in May, and a creative non-fiction writing piece based on the Texas flood of 1954. She is also working on a YA novel she’s labeled her “Borderlands Kaiju Novel.”

Early in 2018, Guadalupe was inducted in the Texas Institute of Letters —you can read her interview on that honor here.

Where She Is Now: Guadalupe recently moved to Oregon to work as an Assistant Professor of English at George Fox University.

 

Alaya Dawn Johnson

Alaya Dawn JohnsonLove is the Drug

We were fortunate enough to get a wonderful update from Alaya herself—we’ll let her tell you what she’s been up to!

“As some Sirens attendees from 2013 might remember, I was planning to move to Mexico City about a month after the conference. Well, the 9-month stay I was planning turned into a complete life overhaul for me, and I’m still down here! I’m absolutely in love with Mexico City and Mexico in general—my interest in ancient Mexican history has expanded to the point that I’m now finishing a master’s degree from UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) in Mesoamerican Studies. My focus is on the semiotics of fermented food in ancient Nahua and Otomí religious festivals. I am seriously eating fermented tamales and atole (a drinkable corn gruel that’s an important part of the traditional diet here) for research. It’s pretty heavenly. All of this research will eventually get turned into a novel, but for now I’m enjoying (and screaming, and then enjoying again) the unique challenges of writing a research paper in my second language (for the record, I barely spoke Spanish before moving here).

Since my last novel, Love Is the Drug, came out in 2014 my writing profile has been a little low-key, but it’s been wonderful and necessary to recharge and dedicate myself to my craft (also, uh, it turns out getting a master’s in your second language can kind of eat your writing time). I’ve been active, but more via short stories. My highest-profile project has been the serialized novel Tremontaine, published by Serial Box. It’s an interactive multi-authored prequel to friend-of-Sirens Ellen Kushner’s groundbreaking Swordspoint novels, and I was genuinely honored to be able to help develop the principal characters and some of the new aspects of the worldbuilding we were bringing to the prequel. Specifically, the role of the Kinwiinik chocolate traders was heavily based on an idea of trade with Mesoamerican societies (specifically Mayan) without a European conquest. So, that was pretty awesome and I’m very proud of my work on the first season. The writers have taken it to incredible places since I left, too.

Oh, and my novelette “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” won a Nebula award and my novel Love Is the Drug won the Norton! In the same year! Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to attend the ceremony, and at the moment the announcement came in I was stuck in my room in an apartment that I was getting kicked out of the next day (due to the screw up of my roommates who ended up stealing my deposit). It was pouring outside. No one answered my calls. It was just one of these hilariously bittersweet moments in the writer’s life—the greatest professional achievement of my life and I find out on Twitter because that’s what gets through on my cell phone. I couldn’t even get online because the Internet had been cut off earlier that day. I got out of that situation and am in a great place now, but what a “best of times, worst of times” kind of night!

The most exciting news I have is, unfortunately, nothing I can be too specific about. But I have two, count-’em two, new novels coming out next year. That makes it five years since my last novel, so I’m incredibly excited to finally have some novel-length work out in the world. One is my first adult novel in *mumblety* years, and the second is a new YA novel. One is historical fantasy and the other is far-future, mind-trippy science fiction. I can’t wait to share these with the world, but for now I’m busy on revisions.

I had an amazing experience at Sirens in 2013 and hopefully I’ll be able to return someday. For now, greetings from sunny (no, rainy) (wait, sunny again) Mexico City!”

 

Ellen Kushner

Ellen KushnerTremontaine

Ellen’s latest project has been creating and spearheading the oft-mentioned Tremontaine serial novels, which further develop the mannerpunk world of Riverside she created in Swordspoint. Tremontaine will be in its fourth season starting September 2018, and includes two other Sirens Guest of Honor alumnae, Alaya Dawn Johnson and Malinda Lo.

Ellen has also recently contributed to some short fiction collections, having published “When I Was a Highwayman” in The Book of Swords (2017), “When Two Swordsmen Meet” to the Samuel R. Delany tribute collection Stories for Chip (2015), and “The City in Winter” in Sleeping Hedgehog (2015).

Where She Is Now: With an envious glance at Ellen’s Twitter and Facebook pages, you’ll discover that she is on an extended stay in Europe with her wife and occasional creative collaborator Delia Sherman, having visited several towns and cities in France, Scotland, England and more.

 

Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFeversCourting Darkness

Fans of Robin’s His Fair Assassin books, rejoice! Robin shares:

“So basically I have a new duology coming out that is set in the His Fair Assassin world, the first of which is Courting Darkness and publishes February 5, 2019. The second book will follow a year later.”

To accompany Robin’s books’ new looks, the original His Fair Assassin covers are also being updated with some bonus content—Grave Mercy will have a deleted scene and a new epilogue, Dark Triumph will also have a new epilogue, and Mortal Heart includes an exclusive new Q&A with Robin.

Robin also has contracted a middle grade novel currently titled Wild Daughter of Ares, set in the world of Ancient Greece and the Amazons.

Where She Is Now: Recovering from quite a year at home in southern California: “It’s been a crazy year. We had to evacuate five times in four months due to raging wildfires, then floods, followed by mudslides. That I got any writing done, let alone finished a book, feels somewhat miraculous! But I’ve definitely been playing catch up for the last six months.”

Upcoming Appearances: We’re thrilled to welcome Robin back to Sirens for this year’s conference, including the Sirens Studio!

 

Book List: Violet Kupersmith

For our 2018 theme of reunion, we chose Guests of Honor with work exemplifying the themes of the past four years: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Today, Guest of Honor Violet Kupersmith shares the book list she curated for the hauntings theme. If you enjoy her work, we hope you check out these other reads!

Let’s get haunted! Some of these books are positioned more squarely beneath the fantasy umbrella than others, but all of them are written in or about that space where our world and the spirit world meet, the crevice that the ghosts come crawling out of.

 

Hauntings
1. Hauntings by Vernon Lee
Classic shivers. The kind of lush and extravagant prose that you want to read by candlelight during a thunderstorm.
Freshwater
2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Brutal and too slippery and brilliant to categorize. A haunted house story where the house is your own mind.
The Ghost Bride
3. The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
I gobbled this up in a day. It’s the kind of historical fantasy that’s so richly imagined, when I finished it I immediately flipped back and reread the last chapter another two times in a row because I wasn’t ready to have to put it down and return to Pennsylvania.
Through the Woods
4. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
Hello, nightmares! The art in this graphic novel is stunning—it takes familiar ghosts and monsters constructed from timeless fairy-tale DNA and makes them new in terrifying ways.
The Goddess Chronicle
5. The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino
I love Kirino’s detective stories and I love her here, where she is working deep in Japanese mythology. Her female characters are always cunning, poisonous, subversive and wonderfully real.
She Weeps Each Time You're Born
6. She Weeps Each Time You’re Born by Quan Barry
A gorgeously written chronicle of Vietnam’s ghosts, past and present. It’s a book that you feel in your spine long after you’ve finished reading it. I don’t think I’ll ever get it out of me.
The Haunting of Hill House
7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
I have to end the list with a genre classic. I return to Hill House over and over. The book is compelling on every level, from its supernatural elements to its feminist themes and queer subtext, and more magnificently creepy than any film adaptation of the story could ever hope be. It is the genuine article.

 

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

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

 

Sirens Review Squad: The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

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

The Frangipani Hotel

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

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

 

“I’m after the big one.”

 

“Oh dear.”

 

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

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

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

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


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

 

Book Friends: Violet Kupersmith

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

Sirens Guest of Honor Interview: Violet Kupersmith

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

S15_author_interview_graphic

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 


 

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

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

 

Book Club: The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

The Book of Joan

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the exchange between reader and writer.

I think we’re taught that if, as a reader, we didn’t connect with a book, it’s the writer’s fault. The writing wasn’t good enough. The story wasn’t true enough. The writer failed. And we, as readers, get to go on our merry way to other books that, maybe, wouldn’t fail us.

And before all the writers start fist-pumping and the readers start thinking that I’ve spit in their tea, there’s a lot of truth in that. Some writing isn’t good enough. Some books aren’t true enough. And while I wouldn’t say that writers necessarily have failed us, sometimes books do.

But sometimes, readers fail, too.

A few years ago, when Sirens tackled “hauntings,” and I read an awful lot of books about ghosts, I ran across a quote from Edith Wharton, herself a great lover of—and writer of—the ghost story: that she was conscious of a “common medium” between author and reader, where the reader actually “meet[s] [the author] halfway among the primeval shadows …” And I, who had been reading all of these ghost stories in sterile hotel rooms with their sterile lighting—which, in no one’s estimation, had any primeval shadows—took a moment to realize that, if I wanted to be scared by ghost stories (I didn’t), then I really should change my reading location (I didn’t). A stormy lamp-lit night might be a better breeding ground for the imagination required to truly appreciate Shirley Jackson than the New York hotel room where I actually read The Haunting of Hill House.

Which is a somewhat ridiculous example because, as many Sirens well know, my interest in ghost stories approaches zero. But this is true in a number of other instances as well. If writing doesn’t engage the reader, maybe it’s not the quality of the writing, but a failure of the reader’s focus. If the book doesn’t seem true to the reader, maybe it’s not the quality of the book, but a failure of the reader to recognize someone else’s truth. Or, you know, maybe it’s just a bad book.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Which brings me to The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Let me start by saying, categorically, that this is not a bad book. It’s a good book. I just had a hard time deciding if it’s a great book.

As a reader, I bounce hard off most sci-fi. It’s not you, sci-fi, it’s me—except dude, it is so often you. Someone asked me recently if I liked The Stars Are Legion, and I made a face and said that, while I respect it greatly (I do) and I think it’s a great book (I do), I also found it very damp. (Not that fantasy can’t be very damp, too.) My best friend tells me that I read the wrong sci-fi; I tell her that the right sci-fi seems somewhat unicorn-ish, not to mix metaphors.

To add insult to injury, I read most of The Book of Joan on a plane (usually fine) seated next to a toddler who very much wanted to talk about his big red truck (somewhat less fine). He was quite well-behaved, given that he was being asked to sit quietly in a seat for four hours. But he was chatty. So, so chatty.

And finally, maybe it wasn’t the right year for me to tackle The Book of Joan, which is fundamentally about, not to put too fine a point on it, the end of the world as we know it, a bossy totalitarian dude, and a Joan of Arc character who is supposed to either end the world or save it (sometimes it’s hard to tell). Maybe this year I could use some more escapism in my escapism?

But, all that said, even taking into account the many, many ways in which I failed The Book of Joan, I think it’s an important book, a good book … but not a great book. Let’s discuss.

Several decades in the future, war has devastated the earth and remaining approximation of humanity—virtually genderless, colorless computer ports—lives in a space station named CIEL. Our first narrator, Christine, has just turned 49, which means she’s a mere twelve months away from being recycled, if you will. As she begins her last year of existence, she also begins what she thinks will be her last act of resistance: telling the story of Joan, literally burning the words onto her own body.

Joan, you see, was the leader, the figurehead, the most visible of the “eco-terrorists,” or alternately the revolutionaries, the losing side in the war. (To the victor go the spoils and also the definitions.) When Joan’s side lost, Jean de Men (seriously), the leader of the winning side, had her burned at the stake—a method suitably flashy and final. Joan’s story remains in the hearts of those who resent Jean’s rule, and Christine intends to take this to the extreme, echoes of Joan’s fiery demise burned into Christine’s post-apocalyptic flesh.

SPOILER

But Joan didn’t die at the stake. Her friend and most constant companion, Leone, saved her, only for the two of them to wander the ravaged planet, alternately avoiding and fighting the other few thousand remaining people. As Joan’s story converges with Christine’s, an uprising, a second apocalypse, a re-birth, if you will, happens—and much is made about how the earth has survived much, though humanity as we know it has not. END SPOILER

The Book of Joan is largely experimental, vaguely feminist, with thinly explained worldbuilding, a non-traditional narrative structure, shifting points of view (made all the more confounding by the fact that both Joan and Christine use “she”), and tenuous timelines. So much of it is, more than anything, resistance-as-performance art, in a Russian nesting doll sort of way, as the climax of the book literally hinges on Christine’s performance art.

And for once—and I may never say this again—I wanted more book with more explanation. I didn’t need more plot, but I did find myself wanting more understanding, more details. How did we turn into neutered, hairless, space-dwelling creatures only a few decades in the future? How did our technology evolve so quickly? How did Leone save Joan from the stake? In many ways, this reads less like sci-fi and more like a religious text that demands that we accept things on faith—which may well be the point.

Which is the (very) long way of saying that, in the end, The Book of Joan worked for me (sometimes) as commentary, as an interrogation of faith and humanity and truth, but rarely worked for me as a story. The sole exception to that, incidentally, was Joan’s relationship with Leone, which gutted me several times, for many of the same reasons that Maddy and Queenie’s relationship in Code Name Verity gutted me. The denouement of The Book of Joan feels right and good and heartbreakingly terrible.


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Where Are They Now: 2012 Guests of Honor

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

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

Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo HopkinsonFalling in Love with Hominids

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

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

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

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

 

Malinda Lo

Malinda LoA Line in the Dark

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

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

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

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

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

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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