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Archive for March 2019

What does heroism mean to you?

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 3: March 2019 (Programming Edition)

This month:

 

What does heroism mean to you? We asked each of our 2019 Guests of Honor this question as part of our annual interview series.

Mishell Baker

“A hero is someone who is told, ‘You can’t, it’s hopeless, better people than you have failed, turn back now,’ and who decides they’re going to ignore all that and do what’s right anyway. Not because they’re confident they can succeed, but because they simply can’t live with themselves if they don’t at least try.” – Mishell Baker

Kicking off our guest spotlight series, Mishell Baker spoke with us earlier this month on why her heroes have given up on giving up. Borderline is the first book in her The Arcadia Project series, which features indomitable Millie saving us all from otherworldly powers. Check out our review squad’s in-depth look here and Mishell’s list of books with lonely, neurodivergent heroes. We’ve also rounded up more works and interviews by Mishell that you can read here.

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan

“The people I find heroic are often the most marginalized or vulnerable in their societies, with the organs of the state working to harm them further, and they still have the courage to stand up for themselves and others, despite the severe price that will be paid.” – Ausma Zehanat Khan

Just this week, we interviewed Ausma Zehanat Khan, award-winning author of the Khorasan Archives and the Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak mysteries. You can also find some more of Ausma’s work on the web here, read a review of The Bloodprint from one of our Sirens Review Squad members, and check out Ausma’s list of immersive, mythical fantasy books.

 

Dive into Programming Possibilities

It’s March and the quest for brilliant Sirens programming is in full swing! All of Sirens’s programming—the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes presented at Sirens each year—is crafted, proposed, and pre-sented by Sirens attendees. And that means you!

Join the ongoing Twitter discussion to get ideas, hone your thoughts, and find collaborators. Looking for ideas? Check out #SirensBrainstorm. Already have some insight on what you’d like to propose but could use a map to light the way? Have no fear, our annual programming series is here! Every-thing you could want to know about presenting at Sirens is included in this six-part series, links below.

Programming submissions are officially open April 4 to May 15. In addition, we’ll be hosting two programming chats on our Chat page, which will be live at the scheduled times:

  • Saturday, April 13, 1–3 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m.–noon Pacific)
  • Monday, May 13, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

 

What Else is Happening

  • Last call for Financial Hardship and Professional Scholarship applications—they are due March 31st! For all the details, visit our Scholarships page.

  • Take a look at people’s picks for favorite grumpy heroines or duos in fantasy in the #SirensIcebreaker.

  • Amy read Fen, the “feral” short story collection by Daisy Johnson, for her book club this month. “Fen is for when you’re ashamed, when you’re furious, when you’re desperate to regain just a piece of yourself from the daily exhaustion of being a woman in a world founded on men’s demands.” Read her full review on the blog or Goodreads.

 

Need more books for your TBR shelf?

Obviously, we are Sirens, so click here for an excellent collage of new titles for March.

Erynn’s Pick:

Courting Darkness

The reviews for Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift give me happy chills. We are promised humane wit and colorful storytelling while following a grand tale of three Zambian families over the course of a century, from their start at a once-colonial settlement near Victoria Falls called The Old Drift. Check out the author’s description here.

 

Faye’s Pick:

The Bird King

G. Willow Wilson’s name on the cover of a book always piques my interest. The Bird King, Wilson’s first novel since 2012’s Alif the Unseen, is set in 1491 in the reign of the last sultanate on the Iberian Peninsula. Epic adventure, magical maps, an ode to the power of stories, and Wilson’s gorgeous writing and weaving of faith, history, and fantasy—what else could a reader ask for?

 

This newsletter was put together 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).

 

Ausma’s Fantastic Worlds

For our 2019 theme of heroes, Guest of Honor Ausma Zehanat Khan shares the book list she curated for the heroes theme. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads. Take it away, Ausma!

 

The Throne of the Crescent Moon
1. The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Clever, inventive, and thoroughly original, this trailblazing Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy resonates with Ahmed’s characteristic wit. An anti-hero to remember.

The City of Brass
2. The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

A gorgeously detailed world infused with the author’s passion for Islamic history, and for 18th century Cairo. A vibrant love triangle unlike any other brings this story to life.

The Poppy War
3. The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

An unforgettable and epic evocation of 20th century China, war as you’ve never seen it, rich in mythology and heart-wrenching to the end.

The Night Circus
4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus is a place of beguiling enchantments and mysteries, with prose that demands you linger until you’ve deciphered the many layers of its beauty.

Station Eleven
5. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A group of traveling actors find love, hope and humanity in art as they traverse the pitfalls of the end of civilization. Reading this book is like falling into a dream.

Empire of Sand
6. Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

An opulent fantasy inspired by the Mughal empire, with fascinating insights into the devotional and magical powers of dance. An intimate story of longing and belonging.

The Bird King
7. The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

A fable of Andalusia deeply imbued with nostalgia, with notes of both darkness and light, told in the stunning prose of a master storyteller.


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

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

 

Oppression and empowerment in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Bloodprint

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 Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Alyssa Collins on Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Bloodprint.

The Bloodprint

Lately, I’ve been thinking about heroism. Given the general nature of literature since, well, forever, and the sheer amount of superhero movies on rotation, it’s generally unsurprising to be confronted with the concept. Still, I remain suspicious of heroes because of who they tend to be: white, male, Western, and overrepresented. Additionally, heroism is often bolstered by ideas of noble conquest, war, imperialism, nationalism, and other “-isms” I don’t enjoy. After years of reading and writing and teaching literature, this formula never fails to be grating, nay exasperating, even when I become fond of said male hero. Recently, however I was saved from this struggle when I picked up Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Bloodprint.

The Bloodprint is a hero’s journey. The novel follows Arian, a Companion of Hira, who is on a quest to find a sacred and magical relic known as the Bloodprint. The Bloodprint is a part of the Claim, a fragmented, magical text whose interpretation or misinterpretation fuels both the violent misogynistic empire of the Talisman and the magic of the Companions. Along her journey she faces peril and possible romance, and must unravel the motivations of the First Companion and the politics of Hira.

By novel’s end, The Bloodprint ended up not being quite my cup of tea. The in medias res beginning is confusing, with worldbuilding details abruptly revealed instead of organically, and with an omniscient narrator disguised as third-person limited, mostly through Arian’s eyes. Stylistically, dark eyes flash, glances are thrown about the room, and plot twists and character reveals aren’t surprising for a seasoned fantasy reader. Still Arian, to her credit, is as principled as the most storied of holy men, answering to a higher cause and mission (called an Audacy) instead of her own worldly pleasures.

Yet, there are several things I really appreciate about Khan’s novel. For instance, The Bloodprint’s explicit politics and representation of oppression. The Bloodprint opens as Arian and her awesome archer-accomplice Sinnia liberate a group of enslaved women and dispose of their male slavers. Within a short action scene, the various geographies of the world are established, those of travel and movement and of society and oppressions. The misogynistic empire of the Talisman expands across an area based on what we know as Central Asia, and women under this regime are limited in movement, dress, and way of life. Khan makes the violent realities of this world explicit and Arian a noble hero fighting against them. I was excited to see a topography that I don’t often encounter, in addition to a hero who is a brave, smart woman explicitly fighting for her people against the misogyny and hate of terrible imperial power.

Also, the magic! Magic in The Bloodprint is encoded and empowered by language. Thus, interpretation is an incredibly powerful tool. As a reader, and professor of English, this resonated with me on several levels. First, the problem of misinterpretation of a religious text is one that afflicts the cultural, social, and political realities of the contemporary Middle East and Central and South Asia. Additionally, problems of interpretation and truth are concepts that readers in the early 21st century are becoming increasingly familiar with. How we read, understand, and use written language has never been more important. The Bloodprint is able to imagine through both a specific historical place and moment and expand outward in a recognizable way.

This kind of conceptual framing is where Khan really uses the tropes and traditions of high fantasy—imagining Christian narratives in new times and places—for new purposes. Readers who are familiar with the high fantasy of the 1980s and 1990s, especially fans of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, will find comfort, yet be challenged by recast players and places in order to experience a different imagined story of the Middle East and Central and South Asia: her provoking allegory as opposed to contemporary Western narratives that are often based in dismissal, Islamophobia, and imperialism. At the end of the day, Arian is a woman fighting for, not against, her people, and to succeed is to free them all.

Despite my own stylistic qualms (and the sudden cliffhanger of an ending!), The Bloodprint is an important book that continues to speak to the concept of heroism—who can be a hero, and who they should fight for—and asks readers to consider (or reconsider) their historical and cultural blind spots.


Alyssa Collins is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina. Her work explores the intersections of race and technology as depict-ed in 20th century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. When she’s not working, she writes about race, superheroes, television, and embodiment around the internet.

 

Further Reading: Ausma Zehanat Khan

Besides the Khorasan Archives, did you know that Ausma Zehanat Khan has a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law, and also writes crime novels? As part of Ausma’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of her interviews, articles, and guest posts, found around the web.

In Ausma’s Own Words:

  • Writing about Human Rights and Civil Rights” (2015), a guest post for Southern Writer’s Author’s Blog: “I’ve always been deeply interested in human rights and civil rights issues, so with every book I write, I’m looking to tell a story that focuses on one or several of these issues.”

  • A guest post for Dear Reader (2015): “I’ve been an untrained, unqualified singer since I was five years old and insisted to my mother that I should have won first prize at a competition instead of coming in second for mispronouncing the words, ‘Winter Ade.’”

  • If the Devils of Our Imagination Are Let Loose in Politics, What Can Literature Do?” (2017), an article written for The Globe and Mail: “[The novel] must insist on complexity and nuance, it should reflect a plurality of voices, no matter how challenging the task.”

  • Fighting Injustice with Fiction: The Activism of Ausma Zehanat Khan, On and Off the Page” (2018), a post for CrimeReads: “[When] we connect with each other’s humanity, person to person, story to story, we’re able to forge a bond of empathy, which may in turn lead to action.”

  • Month of Joy: My Father” (2019), a post for The Skiffy and Fanty Show: “[My father] helped me with these projects, teaching me to grapple with all sides of an issue, but he made sure I understood that the well-being of the patient should be central. This is just one of many reasons why he was an amazing father, and just one example of how deeply he shaped my character and worldview.”

  • Grief and Understanding” (2019), an article originally found in The Globe and Mail, published in the wake of the New Zealand shooting: “My work as a writer is to describe that weight: to make it tangible and real, so that the wall of separation between those who experience the impact of hate and those who are immune to it erodes.”

Ausma in Conversation:

  • Interview for Megan Write Now (2017): “What I find inspiring is when people try to do the right thing even when the odds are stacked against them. It’s not that you succeed at bringing down Goliath, it’s that you try because you know you deserve better.”

  • Interview for The Qwillery (2017): “Much of the fantasy I read is about the struggle between good and evil and the desire of good people to reclaim their worlds from darkness. I find that necessary and relevant today.”

  • On Feminism, Islam and Civil Liberties in an Era of Fear: Ausma Zehanat Khan in Conversation with Monia Mazigh” (2017), an article for The Literary Review of Canada: “I’m a Muslim woman of South Asian background, born in England, essentially Canadian, but I’m also starting to feel like an American, and I just as frequently refer to myself as Pakistani, or some hybrid identity that encompasses all of these. I negotiate these identities differently depending on the cultural context I’m in.”

  • I’m Novelist Ausma Zehanat Khan, and This Is How I Work” (2018), an interview for LifeHacker: “With my Khattak/Getty crime series, I’m looking outward at intersections and points of conflict between different communities. With The Bloodprint and The Black Khan, I’m looking inward at the communities I come from, and attempting to be reflective and self-critical.”

  • Writing Novels with a Purpose: Muslim Woman of the Week: Ausma Zehanat Khan” (2019), an interview with MissMuslim: “Everything I’ve written, my years with Muslim Girl Magazine, the life I’ve lived, the women and communities I know, and the depth of sisterhood I’ve benefited from throughout my life—it all speaks back to this. It rejects a lack of agency as the prism through which to view Muslim women.”

 

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

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

S15_author_interview_graphic

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

Ausma Zehanat Khan

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Bloodprint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Unquiet Dead

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

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

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

 

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

The Black Khan

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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


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

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

 

2019 Programming: Workshops and Afternoon Classes

Sirens programming is the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of Sirens. For our 2019 programming series, we’re doing a deeper dive on each presentation format; this information will both help potential presenters select the proper format for their approach to their topic and provide details on proposal requirements. We also suggest that potential presenters read how Sirens programming works and our tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions. Earlier this week, we reviewed papers/lectures, panels, and roundtable discussions. You can submit a proposal any time from April 4 to May 15.

Workshops are an opportunity to teach practical skills, often through hands-on instruction. Workshops sometimes feature writing topics, such as building magical worlds or how to form an effective critique group, but we welcome when presenters tackle different topics for different audiences: how to plan a book club, where to find resources for library collection development, or how to create a feminist course curriculum based on fantasy reading.

Afternoon classes are also an opportunity to teach skills through hands-on instruction, though these skills tend to be of interest to fantasy readers—but may not be connected directly to literature or other media. Think topics as diverse as battle weaponry, self-defense, historical dress or dance, and costume construction.

Audience size for both workshops and afternoon classes will be 25–40 people, depending on available room size.

The boundary between a workshop and an afternoon class can be thin, so feel free to write us at (programming at sirensconference.org) for guidance.

Co-taught workshops or afternoon classes are welcome. Collaborators who have similar or complementary expertise may wish to present together, either to maximize the opportunity for hands-on instruction or to present different skills related to the topic (such as clothing construction and embroidery).

Materials, if needed, are provided by the presenters. If your workshop or afternoon class is accepted, you are welcome to request a small donation from audience members to defray costs. Please write to (programming at sirensconference.org) for assistance in framing the wording for your summary.

Workshops are always 50 minutes long. If you have a topic that’s shorter than 50 minutes, you might consider finding a collaborator to present on some other element of the topic. Presenters should strongly consider hands-on elements and time for audience questions.

Afternoon classes can range from 50 to 90 minutes. Often these topics require additional time for instruction or practice (or, to provide one past example, taking turns stabbing a bale of hay with battle weaponry). We also often schedule afternoon classes in larger spaces, particularly if they’re demonstration-based or require room to move (such as martial arts or dancing).

Proposal requirements include a presenter biography (50–100 words), a presentation summary (50–100 words), and a detailed abstract (300–500 words). We will publish the biography and the summary on our website and in our program book to help attendees navigate our programming and decide which presentations they’d like to attend. Each presenter must provide a biography, though no supplemental abstract is required. The abstract is for the vetting board. It should explain your topic and approach and be far more in depth than your summary. Presenters of workshops and afternoon classes may present a traditional abstract or, if they prefer, a detailed lesson plan.

Room set-up will depend heavily on the content and design of your presentation, as well as the available room. Set-up often includes tables and chairs with space for audience members to write or craft, though, if your topic is physical, we will help clear the room so you have space to work. Projection equipment and a small dry erase board or easel may be available as well (though we will ask you to specify how you will use projection equipment so that we can prioritize it for presentations that particularly need it, and make sure to clear it away if it might be damaged). If the room size warrants, we will provide a microphone (and if we do, we require that you use it, as it makes your presentation more accessible to the audience).

 

Looking for help or inspiration?

  • Join us for a programming chat! Anyone interested in submitting a proposal can stop by to brainstorm, find collaborators, and get one-on-one advice from our programming staff. They don’t make the selection decisions, but they’re full of thoughts that might be helpful! Chat will be held here at the following times:

    Saturday, April 13, 1–3 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m.–noon Pacific)
    Monday, May 13, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

  • Free Topics: All through April, we’ll be tweeting programming topics that are free for you to take, develop, and use in your programming proposal. You might take them as is, you might use them as inspiration, or you might find that they get your brain moving! Follow us on Twitter @sirens_con or check out #SirensBrainstorm.

  • More Questions: Email us! You can contact our programming team at (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Examples of summaries of past workshops and afternoon classes from Sirens:

  • Ballads and Marching Songs by Ellen Kushner and Ysabeau Wilce: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!” said Duke Ellington. As authors, we are very aware of how sound and rhythm inform good writing, and so we heartily agree! We also draw on music, particularly traditional music of the fireside and the parade ground, to inspire and support our work. And so: Ellen will sing some of the traditional ballads that inspired her novel Thomas the Rhymer, and Ysabeau will counter with some of the military ditties that form the backdrop to the campfires, parade grounds, and blind tigers of her Califa series. We’ll then turn around and show participants how to create a fresh ballad or marching song that fits the needs of an original fantasy novel.

  • Let’s Talk About Sex: Worldbuilding Through Lovers by B R Sanders: What counts as sex? What counts as love? Who is allowed to do what to whom and why? What happens when rules are broken? When you are worldbuilding, these questions can become murky and complicated very quickly. In this workshop, we will explore how using themes of romance, sex, love, queerness, and marriage can deeply inform worldbuilding in speculative fiction.

  • No Key, No Problem by Erynn Moss: When fighting the establishment, it helps to have a few picks up your sleeves. Or in your hair, under your collar, clipped to your belt … you get the idea. Come join us in some subversive fun! Tumblers, bumpers, Bogota picks, and shims. Work your way free from cuffs, and hone your hands with the tips and tools of professionals.

  • Siren with a Sword: Fencing 101 by Manda Lewis and Marie Brennan: Have you always wanted to join your favorite character on the training grounds where she first picks up a blade? Have you wished yourself in her place as she readies for the attack? This class will provide you the opportunity to do just that! Join us as we explore the history, terminology, and rules of the sport of fencing. Then you’ll take up a foil and practice what you’ve learned with your fellow attendees. You will see that fencing is not simply about overpowering your opponent, it’s about planning and strategy. We recommend wearing comfortable or athletic clothing.

2019 Programming: Roundtable Discussions

Sirens programming is the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of Sirens. For our 2019 programming series, we’re doing a deeper dive on each presentation format; this information will both help potential presenters select the proper format for their approach to their topic and provide details on proposal requirements. We also suggest that potential presenters read how Sirens programming works and our tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions. Earlier this week, we reviewed papers/lectures and panels; we’ll review workshops/afternoon classes later this week. You can submit a proposal any time from April 4 to May 15.

At Sirens, roundtable discussions are moderator-led conversations with a participating audience of roughly 25 people. These presentations approximate college discussion sections, and because of this format, are best suited to topics where everyone in the audience is likely to have something to contribute. A discussion of reading practices, a debate over effectively retold fairy tales, or a conversation on sex in young-adult fantasy literature could all be great roundtable topics.

Roundtable moderators lead the discussions through a series of questions and are responsible both for facilitating the conversation and keeping the audience on track. Moderators who wish to tackle an esoteric topic or convey their research, analysis, or viewpoint should strongly consider presenting a paper or lecture where their knowledge can shine, instead of a roundtable discussion—here, it’s essential that the audience not need an introduction to the topic.

Roundtable discussions may have only one presenter. Since the moderator is the facilitator in a roundtable discussion, we limit this presentation format to only one presenter.

Roundtables are always 50 minutes long. Presenters should plan enough questions to fill the entire time. As audience participation is the heart of this presentation format, presenters need not save time specifically for audience questions. Usually, ten solid questions and follow-ups will be more than enough for a 50-minute discussion.

Proposal requirements include a presenter biography (50–100 words), a presentation summary (50–100 words), and a detailed abstract (300–500 words). We will publish the biography and the summary on our website and in our program book to help attendees navigate our programming and decide which presentations they’d like to attend. The abstract is for the vetting board. It should explain your topic and approach to the vetting board and be far more in depth than your summary. Roundtable abstracts may be in the form of a series of at least ten questions (with appropriate follow-up questions), rather than a more traditional paragraph format, if the presenter prefers.

Room set-up includes tables and chairs arranged in a square or U-shape. As the rooms hosting roundtables are small, no audio-visual equipment will be provided. However, a small white board or an easel will be available. (In the past, we have tested the use of a microphone and amplifier with some roundtables; if a microphone is provided, we will require that you use it for the assistance of the audience.)

 

Looking for help or inspiration?

  • Join us for a programming chat! Anyone interested in submitting a proposal can stop by to brainstorm, find collaborators, and get one-on-one advice from our programming staff. They don’t make the selection decisions, but they’re full of thoughts that might be helpful! Chat will be held here at the following times:

    Saturday, April 13, 1–3 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m.–noon Pacific)
    Monday, May 13, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

  • Free Topics: All through April, we’ll be tweeting programming topics that are free for you to take, develop, and use in your programming proposal. You might take them as is, you might use them as inspiration, or you might find that they get your brain moving! Follow us on Twitter @sirens_con or check out #SirensBrainstorm.

  • More Questions: Email us! You can contact our programming team at (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Examples of summaries of past roundtable discussions from Sirens:

  • Can You Go Home Again?: Fantasy, Re-Reading, Childhood Favorites, and Nostalgia by Faye Bi: This roundtable will explore the transformative joy of re-reading an old favorite, as well as the flip side of discovering that a beloved book is no longer a favorite. With influence from Jo Walton’s and Laura Miller’s ideas on re-reading, we’ll delve into the books read long ago and see how time, successive reads, and reading companions change our relationships with them.

  • Female Game-Changers by Sherwood Smith: Let’s talk about heroines as catalysts in revolutions. Not all heroines are battle commanders, though we can take time to appreciate the ones who are. Many begin with little besides their wits and skills. Some have special gifts, some do not. Some are born to rank, others are outsiders in various ways. In this roundtable discussion, we will talk about the different ways heroines in genre literature bring about change.

  • Queer-Coding and Queer-Baiting by Kate Larking: Queer-coding, when a character is given traits commonly associated with queer people but not explicitly stated as queer, has been present in fiction media for some time. A more recent narrative evolution is queer-baiting, where implied sexual tension or character dynamics are constantly and frequently thwarted, leaving a promise of queer representation that isn’t, ultimately, fulfilled by the canon. Join in on a discussion of queer representation in media, subtext and canon, and the impacts on both fiction tropes and queer identities.

  • The Socioeconomics of Magic: Correlations Between Class Structure and Use of Magic in Fantasy Narratives by Emma Whitney: In the struggle for power that constitutes the plot of many fantasy novels, magic is often the primary tool. This use of magic generally confers a particular social status to the user. Frequently, especially in classic “epic” fantasy, this is an elevated status, but that is not always the case. In this roundtable we will discuss how magic is used to reinforce or break down social structure, and what this might say about how we view class distinctions.

  • Obligatory Horrors by Emma Whitney: Daughter, sister, girlfriend, mother, wife, companion, princess—murderer. Fairy tale stories have always had a dark side, but in a number of new story collections, such as Angela Slatter’s A Feast of Sorrows: Stories and Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster, a repeated commonality between protagonists in roles traditionally held by women in fairy tales is how choices and circumstances lead them to murder. In this roundtable discussion, we will examine how societal expectations and obligations are the true horrors in many of these stories and how the authors enable us to root for those who might have been portrayed as villains in traditional fairy tales.

 

2019 Programming: Panels

Sirens programming is the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of Sirens. For our 2019 programming series, we’re doing a deeper dive on each presentation format; this information will both help potential presenters select the proper format for their approach to their topic and provide details on proposal requirements. We also suggest that potential presenters read how Sirens programming works and our tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions. Earlier this week, we reviewed papers/lectures; we’ll review roundtable discussions and workshops/afternoon classes later this week. You can submit a proposal any time from April 4 to May 15.

At Sirens, panels are a group of 3–5 presenters discussing and debating a given topic. Unlike papers or lectures, where the primary purpose is to convey information, panels are all about robust dialogue among panelists. Panels are led by a moderator, who will guide the discussion and may ask questions of the panelists (and panelists may, depending on preference, give a brief position statement to start the panel).

The strength of a panel depends on two things: the skill of the moderator and the inclusion of different perspectives on the panel.

  • Skill of the moderator: The moderator is generally responsible for eliciting thoughtful discussion among panelists, which means preparing questions in advance, ensuring that all panelists have a chance to speak, and keeping the conversation flowing. Moderators may also participate in the discussion if they wish, and may take questions from the audience as well, though the bulk of the time should be reserved for panelist discussion. For Sirens, the moderator must submit the primary panel proposal on behalf of the group.

  • Different perspectives: Because panels are designed for discussion and debate, a panel’s success generally depends on the inclusion of panelists with a variety of perspectives and opinions on the given topic. If your panelists all agree, or have similar perspectives, you’ll be conveying information rather than engaging in robust dialogue—and we strongly encourage you to consider a co-presented a co-presented paper or lecture instead.

Panels are always 50 minutes long. While your panel may feature brief opening position statements by the panelists, you should use most of your time for your panel’s discussion and debate, perhaps with some time for audience questions at the end.

Panels should have three to five total panelists, including the moderator. Panels must have only one moderator. If your panel has only two panelists, you might consider co-presenting another type of presentation, since you’ll likely be spending more time conveying information than debating your topic. You only have 50 minutes for your panel, so we cap panels at five people so everyone gets to participate in a meaningful way. Typically, larger panels come back to us with the feedback that the panelists didn’t have enough time to contribute individually, and typically, the audience feedback is that larger panels end up lacking the depth everyone hopes for.

Proposal requirements include presenter biographies (50–100 words), a presentation summary (50–100 words), a primary abstract (300–500 words), and supplemental abstracts (300–500 words). We will publish the biographies and the summary on our website and in our program book to help attendees navigate our programming and decide which presentations they’d like to attend.

The moderator must submit the initial proposal, and should provide their biography, the panel’s summary, and the primary abstract. Each additional panelist will provide their own biography and supplemental abstract.

The abstracts are for the vetting board. The primary abstract should explain your topic and approach and be far more in depth than your summary. If the moderator prefers, the primary abstract may be a summary paragraph and a series of at least ten questions (with appropriate follow-up questions) rather than a more traditional abstract. To provide the vetting board with insight as to the direction that the panel will take, each panelist must provide a supplemental abstract demonstrating the thoughtfulness and experience that they will bring to the panel, perhaps by answering a question or two from the question list. The vetting board will consider all abstracts (including any missing abstracts) in making its programming selections.

Moderators are responsible for ensuring that their panelists’ confirmations and supplemental abstracts are submitted by May 15. This means that moderators should make sure that all panelists know what is required of them in advance!

Room set-up includes several microphones, a podium and table, projection equipment, and a small dry erase board or easel. We can accommodate a variety of presentation styles, and we ask that, as part of your proposal, you specify how you will use projection equipment so that we can prioritize it for presentations that particularly need it. Presenters are welcome to stand or sit, though we do require that you use the microphone, as it makes your presentation more accessible to the audience.

 

Looking for help or inspiration?

  • Join us for a programming chat! Anyone interested in submitting a proposal can stop by to brainstorm, find collaborators, and get one-on-one advice from our programming staff. They don’t make the selection decisions, but they’re full of thoughts that might be helpful! Chat will be held here at the following times:

    Saturday, April 13, 1–3 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m.–noon Pacific)
    Monday, May 13, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

  • Free Topics: All through April, we’ll be tweeting programming topics that are free for you to take, develop, and use in your programming proposal. You might take them as is, you might use them as inspiration, or you might find that they get your brain moving! Follow us on Twitter @sirens_con or check out #SirensBrainstorm.

  • More Questions: Email us! You can contact our programming team at (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Examples of summaries of past panels from Sirens:

  • Conversations with Octavia Butler by K. Tempest Bradford, N. K. Jemisin, and Kiini Ibura Salaam: Octavia Butler’s novels have taken millions of readers on a fantastic journey—but what about the woman herself? This panel will give participants a glimpse into Octavia Butler, the individual. Through audio clips, we’ll hear from the woman who has brought the world fantastic vision, as Sirens guest of honor, novelist N.K. Jemisin, and two speculative fiction writers, Kiini Ibura Salaam and K. Tempest Bradford, engage in conversation with Butler’s ideas, visions, and brilliance.

  • Fans and Fandom as (Re)Tellers of Tales by Marie Brennan, Rachel Manija Brown, Andrea Horbinski, and Hallie Tibbetts: It’s a common jump from loving a book, a story, a TV show, or a movie, to wanting to play around with its elements oneself. Fandom offers many girls and women a space in which to do just that. This panel looks at fandom and fans as retellers of tales, asking questions such as: what kinds of stories do fans choose to retell? What are some of the most common, or most interesting, kinds of fannish retellings? What is the line between “fannish” and “professional” retellings of stories such as fairy tales? What makes fandom (and retelling) original and creative?

  • The Great Big Interfaith Dialogue by Gillian Chisom, Kate Elliott, s.e. smith, Shveta Thakrar, and Amy Tenbrink: What happens when an atheist, a Jew, a Hindu, and a Christian walk into a panel? Find out in this discussion of faith, collaboration, humanity, and the role of faith in real life as well as fictional faith, cataclysmic social change, and more. Panelists will discuss the role of faith in both new and beloved fantasy texts in addition to exploring the incorporation of religion in worldbuilding.

  • The Magic of Beauty: Beauty as Narrative Device and Social Construction by Faye Bi, Dhonielle J. Clayton, Zoraida Córdova, Kate Elliott, and Kiini Ibura Salaam: In what sense has beauty been treated as a special magic gift that some girls and women possess? How has it functioned as a narrative device that gives its holders a form of power other girls and women don’t receive? This then obliges us to confront and discuss social constructions of beauty. Who is allowed to be beautiful in narratives and on what terms? For whom is beauty a limiting characteristic? For whom is it an empowering one?

  • Are You Experienced: The Gendered Sex Gap in YA Fantasy by Kate Elliott, Mette Ivie Harrison, Robin LaFevers, Anna-Marie McLemore, and Rebecca Kim Wells: There has been a long tradition of heroines in young adult literature having minimal sexual experience. Unlike in male-centered stories, these heroines’ early sexual experiences are not celebrated as heroic accomplishments or rites of passage in a bildungsroman. What are the cultural, societal, and historical roots of this experience gap? Why is sexual inexperience still such an important component of a likeable heroine? Do heroines in fantasy have more latitude in closing that experience gap? This panel will discuss how issues of sexual experience play out in works of fantasy and how the genre reinforces or subverts them.

 

2019 Programming: Papers and Lectures

Sirens programming is the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of Sirens. For our 2019 programming series, we’re doing a deeper dive on each presentation format; this information will both help potential presenters select the proper format for their approach to their topic and provide details on proposal requirements. We also suggest that potential presenters read how Sirens programming works and our tips, tricks, and frequently asked questions. Later this week, we’ll review panels, roundtable discussions, and workshops/afternoon classes. You can submit a proposal any time from April 4 to May 15.

Papers and lectures are our umbrella terms for a presentation format in which one or more presenters convey research, analysis, or other information. Maybe you’re a reader who wants to examine the use of technology in fantasy literature, or an educator who wants to analyze course curricula that include fantasy works, or two agents who want to deconstruct frequently seen feedback on fantasy submissions. These approaches to these topics would make terrific papers or lectures.

The difference between a paper and a lecture, at least to Sirens, is quite small. For Sirens, you’re welcome to read a paper, present with PowerPoint slides, or simply speak from your notes. Please note that you need not provide your paper or slides as part of the submissions process, though you may want to have us publish them in our compendium after Sirens.

Papers and lectures are researched in advance—though “research” can mean a number of things. As this format is great for sharing information, papers and lectures often require some amount of research. Scholarly papers, certainly, are heavily researched (usually for academic work that is relevant to Sirens), but even a reader’s textual analysis, a course curricula presentation, or an overview of legal provisions involves gathering information for presentation. You may do more or less research depending on your topic and your existing knowledge.

Papers and lectures may be 25 or 50 minutes long. Shorter slots generally work out to reading about 6–10 pages of a paper. Some presenters may prefer the longer period, especially if they want to dedicate time for audience questions; these presenters will need closer to 10–15 double-spaced pages to read or the equivalent in speaking notes.

You can collaborate on papers and lectures. Often, individuals with complementary expertise or shared opinions on a topic will co-present a paper or lecture. This can work in two ways: (1) the presenters co-present the topic itself in a way that works for them (perhaps presenting jointly or splitting a topic into sub-parts), or (2) the presenters propose pre-empaneled papers. If you and your co-presenters generally tend to agree on a topic, though, we strongly encourage you to consider proposing a paper or lecture, as opposed to a panel (which is a format best suited for discussion and debate among panelists with different perspectives).

Pre-empaneled papers—a series of two or more papers or lectures on a similar topic or theme—are one option for multiple presenters. Pre-empaneled papers are proposed as a unit, but presented individually in sequence. Each presenter will have 25 minutes to present their individual paper. If presenters prefer, a moderator may organize the group and keep everything on time, perhaps leading the audience question period (or even asking questions of the presenters), and that moderator may also read a paper if they choose.

Proposal requirements include a presenter biography (50–100 words), a presentation summary (50–100 words), and a detailed abstract (300–500 words). We will publish the biography and the summary on our website and in our program book to help attendees navigate our programming and decide which presentations they’d like to attend. The abstract is for the vetting board: It should explain your topic and approach, be far more in depth than your summary, and demonstrate your research, analysis, and conclusion.

In co-presented papers and lectures (including pre-empaneled papers), each presenter must provide a biography. In pre-empaneled papers, each presenter must also provide an abstract for their individual paper or lecture.

Room set-up includes a microphone, a podium and table, projection equipment, and a small dry erase board or easel. We can accommodate a variety of presentation styles, and we ask that, as part of your proposal, you specify how you will use projection equipment so that we can prioritize it for presentations that particularly need it. Presenters are welcome to stand or sit, though we do require that you use the microphone, as it makes your presentation more accessible to the audience.

 

Looking for help or inspiration?

  • Join us for a programming chat! Anyone interested in submitting a proposal can stop by to brainstorm, find collaborators, and get one-on-one advice from our programming staff. They don’t make the selection decisions, but they’re full of thoughts that might be helpful! Chat will be held here at the following times:

    Saturday, April 13, 1–3 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m.–noon Pacific)
    Monday, May 13, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific)

  • Free Topics: All through March and April, we’ll be tweeting programming topics that are free for you to take, develop, and use in your programming proposal. You might take them as is, you might use them as inspiration, or you might find that they get your brain moving! Follow us on Twitter @sirens_con or check out #SirensBrainstorm.

  • More Questions: Email us! You can contact our programming team at (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Examples of summaries of past papers and lectures from Sirens:

  • “All the Queen’s Women”: Female Political Leadership in Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles by Joy Kim: The women of Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles are queens and pawns, survivors and victims, exiles and prisoners, young and old. This paper will explore how the author complicates traditional narratives of male heroism by offering alternative narratives of female political leadership through the stories of Isaboe, Quintana, and Phaedra. It will compare and contrast their leadership styles and journeys, and consider how their leadership and power is influenced by their age, sexuality, and romantic relationships.

  • Reclaiming Ruin: Hybridity, Toxicity, and Feminine Agency in Ruin and Rising by Leanna O’Brien: The magic of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, built under the guiding principal that like calls to like, is deeply entangled with questions of kind and category. However, Genya’s power to shape both organic and inorganic matter places her in a liminal space between two orders of magic, granting her the ability to exploit the porous membranes of her own body and of the distinctions between corporeal and mineral, life and non-life. Her hybridity opens a revolutionary potential for an alliance between feminine agencies and toxic environments, a breakdown of the categorical boundaries, and a reclamation of ruin.

  • IIntersecting Magics: Examining Assemblages of Magic and Technology in Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti by Alyssa Collins: This paper examines the intersections of magic and technology in the novellas of Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor’s Binti series prompts us to think about the particular ways in which the black fantastic and black technological practices align to create moments of history-making and memorialization, especially in the community-building moments after persecution or state violence. This paper examines not only the operations of such magic and technology in the text, but also gestures to the affordances of such magical and technological thinking in what can be seen as analogous memorializing and community-building moments in black contemporary culture.

  • Sorceresses Transgress: Examining Treatment of Female Magic Users by Casey Blair: Fantasy literature is rife with incredible sorceresses, witches, and other female magic users. Magic can be an avenue for female characters to play an integral role in an otherwise patriarchal narrative, but does that approach give women power, or is it another kind of trap? This paper will discuss the ways magic is used to empower and constrain female characters, from the evolution of tropes casting feminine magic as “good” or “evil” to the limitations and opportunities for female magic users in their worlds—and what that says about ours

And the two separate summaries from a set of pre-empaneled papers:

  • Reading Bodies by Bethany Powell and Charis M. Ellison:

    • The Page Is No Mirror: The Limited Bodies of Literature
      A woman checking out her sexiness in a way so rooted in male gaze as to be ridiculous makes the rounds of Lit-Twitter, and it is easy to laugh. The more troubling undercurrent takes more time to deal with–our bodies are often not on the page in a way we see them. Often, too, we are presented with false dichotomies: thin or fat? Strong or weak? Nerdy or athletic? Our bodies can be as complex in identity as our minds. This essay explores how we read outside ourselves and how disembodying that process can be.

    • Where Are the Fat Girls? The Absence of Plus-Size Characters in Fantasy Literature
      In popular culture, fat bodies are discussed most frequently in terms of negative space: pounds lost, dress sizes dropped, the empty half of a pair of giant trousers. This void extends deeply into the worlds of fantasy literature, art, and film. Despite the boundless opportunities presented by the genre for women to explore new worlds, identities, and power, fat women continue to be a notable absence. This presentation is both personal essay about the experience of being a fat woman, and an exploration of fat representation in fantasy, including discussion of existing fat characters and misconceptions about fat bodies.

 

Book Club: Fen by Daisy Johnson

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

Fen

Some days, I aspire to a more feral version of myself. To respond with fang and claw to admonishments to be more civilized—to calm down, stand down, take it down a notch. To be nothing more or less than my prodigious unfettered aggression.

Which is to say that, at a visceral, atomic level, I get Fen. I know this work in my bones and my fangs and my claws. I know this work in my violence and my solitude. This work and I met, bloodied and snarling, under a sliver moon in the wild.

This work and I know each other.

Maybe this work and you know each other, too.

Fen, by Daisy Johnson, is a collection of twelve short stories, each more feral and fantastic than the last. These stories come with titles like “Blood Rites,” and “A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle,” and “How to Fuck a Man you Don’t Know.” The titles are reflective of the work: a warning, a red flag of blood and bruises and fucking. You may not be ready for what you find here.

All of these stories revolve around the fen, an unnamed portion of Great Britain that is purportedly still wild, still free, still full of strange things that don’t go bump in the night so much as crawl into your bed, shaped like a fox or a cat or a girl, and worm their way into your bones. You may never be the same after what you find here.

But what Fen is really about, beyond its wildness and strangeness, is what men take from women. The quotidian existence of attention paid, and assurance granted, and bruises formed, and sex reluctantly given. The collection’s determined, insistent feral-ness is a furious reaction to all the desperate time and energy women spend trying to manage men’s demands: our smiles, our acquiescence, our sex, our blood. Attention must be paid, Willie Loman, but in Fen, it might come with fang and claw.

In “Starver,” a girl, trying to achieve impossible beauty standards, starves herself—perhaps accidentally, but perhaps not—until she turns into an eel. Is she happier as an eel, slim, sleek, and glossy? You tell me, and further, if so, tell me why. Did she finally get the form she wanted? Or did she finally escape the constraints of societal expectations?

In “Blood Rites,” three beasts, jittery from living on raw meat, consume men, gore and all. But they find themselves with those same men’s vile words in their mouths, demanding their attention, even after death. You would think death would be enough to finally get men and their words to leave you alone.

In “A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle,” which can—and perhaps should—be read in juxtaposition with Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching, a jealous house consumes Salma’s lesbian lover. While the house isn’t explicitly gendered, come on, that house is a dude.

In “Language,” a mother can’t live without her newly dead son, so she brings him back. But after death, every word he utters bruises his wife. The wife loves him—of course she loves him—but every single thing he says harms her. He doesn’t mean to—of course he doesn’t mean to—but that doesn’t change the hurt. Even one bruise is too many.

In “A Heavy Devotion,” a son’s growth robs his mother of her memories, both emotional and practical. She becomes a shell of herself, unable to recall even her name. Finding that his mother has nothing more to give, her son leaves—and pieces of her world slowly return.

In “The Lighthouse Keeper,” a woman wants to be left alone with a fish and even that’s too damned much to ask.

Fen is for when you’re ashamed, when you’re furious, when you’re desperate to regain just a piece of yourself from the daily exhaustion of being a woman in a world founded on men’s demands. Fen is for when you’re told you’re too loud, too shrill, too bossy, too big, too much. Fen is for the days of blood and bruising and fucking, when you need to remember that you’re dangerous, too. Fen is for your fangs and your claws.


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 nine 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.

 

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