News

Archive for 2020

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 12, Issue 3 (March 2020)

This month:

We hope the end of March finds you and yours well, healthy, and safe! In these tumultuous times, know that we are thinking of our whole Sirens community and holding you in our hearts.

We also hope we can bring some reading content to lift your spirits! At a time when the whole world is finding solace in fictional worlds, we’re proud to contribute to ongoing conversations about those worlds and their creators.

Guest of Honor Week: Joamette Gil

Last week, we celebrated Guest of Honor Joamette Gil with a series of posts! Joamette is a cartoonist and the head of P&M Press, an independent comics micro-press specializing in speculative fiction by creators of color, LGBTQIA creators, and creators at the intersections. We’re delighted to be welcoming her as the Guest of Honor for the 2020 Sirens Studio.

Don’t miss her Sirens interview, recommended reading list, and the roundup of her appearances elsewhere on the internet. Get to know Joamette’s work as an editor with Andrea Horbinski’s review of Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy, a collection of woodland-themed comics from non-binary creators.

Since Joamette is our Studio Guest of Honor, we also wanted to remind you that registration for Studio is still open! We’re more than half sold out, so if you want to guarantee your space, register now.

Look for more Guest of Honor weeks as the spring progresses!

 

Programming

Submissions are now open!

If your recent binge-reading, Zoom chats, and inner contemplations have you eager to share your thoughts, we encourage you to submit a programming proposal before the deadline of May 15. We’re looking for a wide variety of topics and perspectives exploring gender and fantasy literature—maybe even on this year’s theme of villains!

If you want to present but have questions, concerns, or hesitations, the Sirens team is here to help! For more information about the types of programming at Sirens, what our vetting board is looking for, and how to submit, see our annual programming series Check out the #SirensBrainstorm tag on Twitter to get those brain juices flowing, or join us for the next programming chat on Monday, May 4, 9–11 p.m. Eastern (6–8 p.m. Pacific).

 

Sirens Essays

Sirens Essay Series

Our essay series continued this month with contributions that examine issues of representation, power dynamics, and audience reception of narratives:

In A Wife Should Have No Secrets: Unthinking Privilege and Privacy in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”, Faye Bi explores the transformation of folklore into a nuanced narrative of “social horrors.”

Witch, Please: An Apologia for and Indictment of Mean-Girls Stories in Young Adult Fantasy Literature, by Amy Tenbrink, examines common tropes of female social dynamics and their relationship to heteropatriarchal power structures.

 

Books!

One thing bringing the whole world together right now, it seems, is the opportunity to make a real dent in our TBR piles—or to grow them ever larger as new books and graphic novels keep coming out! If you can’t decide what to read next or are looking for things to order from your local indie bookstore, the Sirens team has some ideas to help you choose:

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

We’re delighted to share a few staff picks from March’s new releases:

Breath of Gods

Erynn’s Pick: Breath of Gods, by Tina LeCount Myers

As it is the third volume, preceded by The Song of All and Dreams of the Dark Sky, my recommendation is the Legacy of the Heavens Series, which this book concludes. This slow-building epic fantasy, set in a premodern arctic world, is based on folktales from the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia and draws from the Sámi languages. The conflicts center around a few key characters on the edge of a world divided into the Olmmoš, or humans, and the fey-like Jápmemeahttun, immortals who possess a natural power to obscure themselves and experience gender in a unique way.

The prose is beautiful and clean with a steady, informative pace. There’s subtle magic, excellent world building, and stories of found family. But above all, I really wanted to find a book with the right blend of escape and inspiration to fit this somber month, and the subtext of consciousness and compassion in the face of crisis is what makes this series exactly that.

The City We Became

Faye’s Pick: The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin

As New York has become a new epicenter of COVID-19, it has made me realize just how amazing and devastating living here can be. These days, the high population density means that interaction with neighbors ranges from silent cohabitation to unspoken acts of kindness that can make the difference between life and death. Where small businesses and big dreams hang by a thread, just one rent check away from opportunity or ruin, and a place where daily acts of heroism meet anonymous beneficiaries.

A continuation of Jemisin’s award-winning short story, The City We Became is considered a love letter to New York City, where five souls—one from each borough—need to protect the city from an ancient evil. And it’s just what I need right now, an astute, even funny, reminder that my home holds a multitude of diversity, ambition, complexity, and poetry in this extraordinary time, plus a little side-eye “screw you” to H.P. Lovecraft.

A Pale Light in the Black

Cass’s Pick: A Pale Light in the Black, by K.B. Wagers
Disclaimer: K.B. Wagers is a member of the Sirens staff.

I recommended this book on Twitter as “absolutely both buck-wild and queer af,” and I stand by that description. A Pale Light in the Black follows a crew of the Near-Earth Orbital Guard, or the NeoG, who are basically space Coast Guard. They’re just doing their jobs and training for a sort of pan-armed-forces Olympics when a discovery on a derelict ship and the arrival of a new member of the team entangle them with a nefarious, deep-rooted scheme.

If you’ve read Wagers’s prior Indranan War and Farian War series, the NeoG is somewhat lighter fare. The overall tone made me think of a slightly rougher-around-the-edges Star Trek with some of the ethical concerns of Gattaca shading it. The adventure clips along at a good pace, and as always, Wagers shines in creating imperfect characters for a reader to cheer on and adore. The NeoG team is definitely one I look forward to spending more time within the future!

 


As a final note, if you need some real-time but socially-distanced interaction, join us April 1 at 8 p.m. on Twitter for #SirensChat. This month’s theme is something we all need right now: humor!

This newsletter is brought to you by:

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

 

Joamette’s Recommended Readings

Sirens Studio Guest of Honor Joamette Gil shares a list of fantasy and other works that she loves. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads, spanning graphic, short fiction, and novels. Take it away, Joamette!

 

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements
1. Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha
Knights-Errant
2. Knights-Errant by Jennifer Doyle
Spiritwalker Trilogy
3. Spiritwalker Triology (Cold Magic, Cold Fire, and Cold Steel) by Kate Elliott
Mooncakes
4. Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu
Brown Girl in the Ring
5. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Through the Woods
6. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
The Haunting of Hill House
7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
On a Sunbeam
8. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
So Pretty / So Very Rotten
9. So Pretty/Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture by Jane Mai and An Nguyen
The Temple of My Familiar
10. The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker
This One Summer
11. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Verse
12. Verse by Sam Beck

 

Joamette Gil is the head witch at P&M Press, an independent comics micro-press specializing in speculative fiction by creators of color, LGBTQIA creators, and creators at the intersections. Best known for her Prism Award-winning publication Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology, she also made the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award’s 2018 Honor List and received nods from the Ignatz Awards and Lambda Literary Awards over the course of P&M Press’s three-year existence. Her newest titles are Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy and Power & Magic: Immortal Souls. Another new title, Mañana: Latinx Comics from the 25th Century, is forthcoming in 2020. Joamette’s own comics work has been featured by IDW, Margins Publishing, EverydayFeminism.com, TheNib.com, Oni Press, Lion Forge, and Abrams ComicArts. She also contributed to the Eisner Award-winning Puerto Rico Strong anthology benefitting hurricane disaster relief on the island. When she’s not inhaling graphic novels, she’s off plotting silly play-by-post scenarios or watching horror movies with her friends and familiars in Portland, Oregon.

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

 

Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy edited by Joamette Gil

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 Joamette’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Andrea Horbinski on Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy, edited by Joamette Gil.


Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy

Into the woods
Without regret,
The choice is made,
The task is set.
Into the woods,
But not forget-
Ting why I’m on the journey.
Into the woods
to get my wish,
I don’t care how,
The time is now.

“Into the Woods,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Not being a noted fan of fairy tales, and not having participated in the Kickstarter for Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy, edited by Joamette Gil, it took me a rather embarrassingly long time to work out why the comics in this anthology by non-binary creators all centered on the woods. The woods have been a space of transformation and potential in stories for centuries, as the Sondheim lyrics that I couldn’t stop thinking of while reading this book indicate. This collection, which is delightful overall, extends that potential to the creators it includes and to the characters in its stories, many of whom are non-binary themselves.

“Sylvan fantasy” is a broad category, and the stories in Heartwood vary from contemporary settings, like the opening “The Biggest Dog You’ve Ever Seen” by Z. Akhmetova, to fully secondary world settings, like “New Leaves” by Emily Madly and Maria Li. Most treat the idea of the forest as literal, but in at least one comic, Rhiannon Rasmussen and Chan Chau’s “Dive,” the forest is either metaphorical or a forest of seaweed. (Partly because it played with the concept, that one was one of my favorites.) “Finding Alex,” by editor Joamette Gil and Corey Ranson, takes the brief for the collection very literally indeed—and the story, in which the main character asserts their non-binary identity through a strange encounter in the woods, works beautifully.

One of the standout entries in the collection, “Shuvah (Return)” by Ezra Rose and Jey Barnes, gives that same plot a very specifically Jewish twist, as the protagonist returns to the woods to find the same forest beings with whom they celebrated Sukkot as a young Orthodox child, and celebrates Tu B’Shevat with them as a non-binary adult.

Indeed, one of the strengths of this collection is its showcasing non-binary protagonists in a variety of ways—whether in stories revolving around their being non-binary, or stories in which they have adventures like any other fantasy protagonist.

Having both together elevates Heartwood out of the potential danger zone of being a gimmick to being a fun, relevant comics anthology with a lot of heart.

Heartwood is a beautiful book, particularly its gilt-edge pages and foil lettering on its gorgeous cover, but the black and white printing unfortunately does render some of the comics hard to distinguish at times—I suspect some if not most of the submissions were originally full color. Those comics like “Dive” which were clearly conceptualized for monochrome printing stand out for their crisp lines and clearly differentiated tones. In terms of art style, most of the comics in the collection are on the more conventional end of the gamut of comics art; the more schematic, “Hyperbole and a Half”-esque art of Polly Guo’s “Paloma” is probably the most different from the rest. But even though the anthology includes twenty-two stories, none of them feel rushed, and none of them are obviously less technically accomplished than any of the others. These creators know their stuff, and it shows.

All in all, Heartwood is a strong entry from Power & Magic Press, living up to its stated mission of showcasing the talents of non-binary comics creators and the press’s mission of providing a home for thoughtful genre content by queer creators and creators of color. If you haven’t had much experience with the current flowering of indie comics, Heartwood is a great place to start. I’ll definitely be looking forward to future anthologies from Gil and P&M Press.


Dr. Andrea Horbinski holds a PhD in modern Japanese history with a designated emphasis in new media from the University of California, Berkeley. Her book manuscript, “Manga’s Global Century,” is a history of Japanese comics from 1905–1989. She has discussed anime, manga, fandom, and Japanese history at conventions and conferences on five continents, and her articles have appeared in Transformative Works and Cultures, Internet Histories, Convergence, and Mechademia.

Further Reading: Joamette Gil

Have you already loved publisher and comics-creator Joamette Gil’s work with Power & Magic Press? The 2017 Prism-award winning, Ignatz-nominated Queer Witches Comics Anthology? Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy? Haven’t read those yet but interested in finding out more about Joamette and her work? As part of Joamette’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of her interviews and comics from around the web.

Joamette’s interviews:

  • Vision 2020: Joamette Gil (2020): “As an introverted, low-income immigrant kid, escapism was my thing, and my favorite way to escape was watching Sailor Moon. The way she made me feel convinced me that, when I grew up, I wanted to make others feel the same way using characters of my own.”

  • Indie Comics Spotlight: Joamette Gil Channels Power & Magic in Her Comics (2019): “So often, a “witch” was any woman embracing her authentic self, rejecting social obligations. I relate to that as a queer woman of color who always had to hear that there was “something wrong” with me, for no other reason than that I didn’t fit a certain “womanly” ideal.”

  • This Joamette Gil Interview Has Nothing To Do With Comics (2019): Joamette shares her recipe for arroz con pollo and also that “my favorite witch in all fiction is Kiki from the Ghibli film Kiki’s Delivery Service. She’s not particularly powerful or impressive, but she is inherently special. Her magical powers stand in for concepts like independence, self-confidence, and purposefulness.”

  • Smash Pages Q&A: Joamette Gil on ‘Heartwood’ and More (2018): “In a lot of ways, Heartwood was also about pushing P&M Press’ boundaries: how many people can we hire, how much can we pay them, how many invites vs open submissions, how many people can I edit at a time, how well will this fund? The hypotheses across the board were ‘more, bigger,’ and I was mercifully right, hah. I eventually want to publish books by individual creators, so in addition to shining more light on less represented voices, every anthology is a chance to grow into a publisher that can do a solo creator justice.”

  • Joamette Gil Summons ‘Power & Magic’ for Queer Witches Everywhere (2016): “My ‘thing’ has always been telling stories that resonate with people from marginalized communities, especially queer people of color who grew up (or currently live) in poverty, which is my own experience. Power & Magic exists because I don’t just want to resonate; I want to be materially supportive to others like me.”

Joamette’s comics:

Joamette Gil: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re pleased to bring you the first in our 2020 series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and research, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2020 theme of villains! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens Communication team member Faye Bi speaks with publisher and comics creator Joamette Gil, this year’s Sirens Studio Guest of Honor

 

FAYE BI: You introduce yourself on your website as a “queer Afro-Cuban cartoonist and publisher from the Miami diaspora.” To me, each descriptor feels intentional and integral to your identity as creator and business professional. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what inspired you to start making—and publishing—comics? In what ways do these descriptors affect, or not affect, your work?

Joamette Gil

JOAMETTE GIL: As a creator, I’m primarily socially motivated: I want to be seen, I want others to see themselves, and I want my work to benefit the world. I publicly list my politicized and cultural identities because I want to be found by anyone who might be looking for me (or looking for themselves in me).

These descriptors affect every part of my life from top to bottom, my work especially, in that they inform my experiences and values. Everything I write or publish must fulfill a desire born when I was twelve years old, watching Sailor Moon on stolen cable: “I want to spend my life making people feel the way this makes me feel.” What I felt then was wonder, passion, and catharsis.

I grew up in poverty in Miami, Florida, where being a member of the politically dominant Cuban majority there offers about as little benefit to Afro-Cubans (like my mother) as being American offers African-Americans. Social programs and ingenuity-born-of-necessity kept us as housed, clothed, fed, and healthy as they could. I excelled at school, taking on more and more advanced programs through adolescence, while playing surrogate mother to my siblings when caregiving with untreated mental illnesses became too much for my mother and stepfather. Anxiety, isolation, scarcity, constant problem-solving, avoidance of my own emotions: these are why I ultimately left for the opposite coast as soon as I was eighteen.

Through it all, to this day, cartoons were there to soothe me and help me dream. I love comics, in particular, as the most universal of the storytelling forms. It can be created, read, and shared across language barriers, even sans the ability to read or write words. I use the medium to express everything I did not formerly have the luxury nor space to express, and to empower others to have their own voices heard in an industry that struggles to compensate anyone well, let alone marginalized creators breaking barriers with their stories.

 

FAYE: You are a one-human operation at P&M Press, the publisher of Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology and Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy. You recently finished funding the Power & Magic: Immortal Souls (volume two) on Kickstarter. Was your plan always to start your publishing journey on their platform as opposed to traditional publishing, and what is it like working with their publishing team? What has been surprising about the process when it comes to the curation, production, and fulfillment? And can I please geek out about the beautiful foil and gilded edges on Heartwood?

JOAMETTE: Yes, Kickstarter was always the idea. (And please do—I’m still geeking out about Heartwood’s production values myself!) Even prior to 2016 (when P&M Press was born), comics were very much a DIY space in my mind. Some of my first interactions with comics were online, during the 2000s era of webcomics, when people were figuring out monetization of works without publishing deals. I was probably part of the first generation of creators who would see self-publishing as the dream, not an alternative or a consolation route or a daring experiment. By the time I was in college, C. Spike Trotman was planting the seeds for Iron Circus Comics, the first (and to my knowledge, still only) comics publisher with mainstream, international distribution that started on Kickstarter. By the time I found my way to publishing others, revolutions in what was possible in comics had been fought and won ahead of me, creating a clear, new path.

As far as surprises, every campaign presents a new one! These are the sorts of things you don’t read about if you Google “how to run a Kickstarter campaign,” such as how Kickstarter earnings impact your eligibility for social programs, the various life scenarios that could lead to a fluctuating creator line-up throughout production, and just how many packages are “too many” to take to a post office on a single day.

 

FAYE: In both “As the Roots Undo” (your story in Power & Magic) and “Finding Alex” (your story in Heartwood), the forest is a place of growth, self-discovery and transformation. What draws you to these fairytale motifs and inspires you to keep returning? I noticed you are based in Portland, Oregon, home of many beautiful forests—do you have any favorite sylvan spots?

JOAMETTE: I’m drawn to the forest as a setting for its intercultural significance as a liminal space. While a false dichotomy, we do tend to draw a line between the places where people live and conduct their business and the places that are meant to be visited, then swiftly exited, for fear of what we could lose if we stay there too long. Forests, the sea, outer space, the bush—these places force us out of our comfort zones. Whenever I’m in the woods, I feel that discomfort, that loss of footing, and it makes me starkly aware of my own body. My thoughts become sharper, my breath calmer. My early life was the opposite of rosy, so the prospect of a place between here and there, where anything is possible, where nothing is written, where “becoming” awaits, is my favorite idea to consider!

For sylvan spots, the witch’s burned-out castle in Forest Park is one of my favorites. It’s exactly what it sounds like.

 

FAYE: In your portfolio’s Lettering section, you share that lettering is only second to your love of storytelling: “The marriage between text, balloons, and illustrations can make, break, or even elevate a comics work.” I often feel that when lettering is good, it’s viewed as almost invisible and so obvious, like the reader can’t imagine this layout or placement any other way, allowing the work to shine for itself—though of course, it’s only because it’s good that it’s unnoticeable. Can you tell us more about your lettering and share some instances (of your own work or work you admire) where the lettering matches the art and text perfectly?

JOAMETTE: I would say good lettering is either seamless and invisible, or seamless and load-bearing. “Seamless” is the common quality, like you said about not being able to imagine the letters any other way. I would describe my lettering for Jamila Rowser and Sabii Borno’s Wobbledy 3000 as “invisible”: the balloons are colored in the same distinctive pastels as the artwork, and the typeface balances legibility with a swirly quality that echoes Borno’s line work. Meanwhile, I would describe the lettering in something like Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods collection as “load-bearing” because the letters fundamentally inform the story being told. It can’t stand without them, and it isn’t meant to. Her particular horror tone would shift dramatically if she’d chosen to render the text on the page in any other manner than the one she chose: handwriting that is subtly stilted and scratchy, like a journal scrawling, placed directly onto the artwork without caption boxes. The text size fluctuates based on the height of emotion called for in each moment, and the odd white dialog balloon is lopsided, frayed, or even melting.

 

FAYE: In a previous interview, you’ve discussed sourcing creators for both of your anthologies and building a network through social media, acquaintances, and databases like the Queer Cartoonists Database. Both collections have such a rich range of art styles and stories, ranging from heartwarming to devastating, philosophical to visceral, and beyond. Since many of these artists are underrepresented in mainstream comics in various ways, how has it been to work directly with so many of them? What is the next step for you in expanding this amazing community you’ve built?

JOAMETTE: In short, a dream! I want nothing more than to connect with people, and creativity is the way I do that best. It’s been my privilege to work with over 100 creators from all over the world, of every race and countless ethnicities, most of them queer women and non-binary people, since 2016. Their talents, skills, and passions continually humble me, and there’s a bittersweetness in witnessing firsthand just how much our marginalized communities have to offer (because so little of it is ever validated by mainstream access). To date, we’ve centered our books around queer women of color and non-binary people overall, and our forthcoming book centers Latinx creators of all genders and backgrounds. My hope is to continue expanding P&M Press until we can properly compensate solo creators for original graphic novels, creating space for more in-depth expressions by the people we publish.

 

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

JOAMETTE: That would have to be my best friend, who shall remain nameless for their own privacy, haha! My best friend is an AMAB non-binary trans fem who’s been in my life for over a decade. She was my primary support during my own coming out at as queer and as a non-binary woman. She’s someone who I’ve known long enough to see struggle, fail, grow, succeed, and come into her own—and vice versa. Our twenties would have been much harder without one another to call queer family.

 


Joamette Gil is the head witch at P&M Press, an independent comics micro-press specializing in speculative fiction by creators of color, LGBTQIA creators, and creators at the intersections. Best known for her Prism Award-winning publication Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology, she also made the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award’s 2018 Honor List and received nods from the Ignatz Awards and Lambda Literary Awards over the course of P&M Press’s three-year existence. Her newest titles are Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy and Power & Magic: Immortal Souls. Another new title, Mañana: Latinx Comics from the 25th Century, is forthcoming in 2020. Joamette’s own comics work has been featured by IDW, Margins Publishing, EverydayFeminism.com, TheNib.com, Oni Press, Lion Forge, and Abrams ComicArts. She also contributed to the Eisner Award-winning Puerto Rico Strong anthology benefitting hurricane disaster relief on the island. When she’s not inhaling graphic novels, she’s off plotting silly play-by-post scenarios or watching horror movies with her friends and familiars in Portland, Oregon.
For more information about Joamette, please visit her website or her Twitter.

Princesses, Tea Dragons, & Underwater Kingdoms: Community & Healing in Katie O’Neill’s Middle Grade Graphic Novels by Maria Dones

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women or nonbinary authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Maria Dones.

At my new job as a children’s library assistant, the children’s front desk is shaped like a ship. The front has a helm, and the kids who come in love to steer and bang on the wheel. Behind the desk, there’s a shelf filled with children’s graphic novels, our fastest-growing collection.

As someone who had read only a handful of manga and superhero comics, I was pretty unfamiliar with the graphic novel genre. When I was growing up in the early 2000s, there weren’t collections like these at the libraries around me, and the term “graphic novel” wasn’t as widely used as it is now. Still, I couldn’t resist looking at the different colors and shapes of the graphic novels shelved behind me, and soon I was getting recommendation after recommendation from my coworkers. I quickly fell in love with the art form.

It upsets me when I hear parents discourage their children from reading graphic novels because they don’t consider it “real reading.” Not only does discouraging children from pursuing their reading interests run the risk of children losing an interest in reading completely, visual rhetoric is a skill all in itself. And even without the factor of skill development, stories for the sake of fun and companionship are vastly underrated.

Katie O’Neill’s graphic novels are beautiful, magical, and nuanced. The characters in these stories discover their place in the world while navigating the communities they live in and forming life-changing friendships. And the characters themselves are diverse in skin color, ability, gender identity, sexuality, and size.

I wished I’d had these stories as a kid, but they still left their mark on me as an adult. These are stories that feel like watching your favorite Miyazaki film for the first time, like making a friend who really “gets you,” like drinking a warm cup of chamomile tea picked from the leaves growing around a tea dragon’s horns.

Princess Princess Ever After (2016)

Princess Princess Ever AfterPrincess Princess Ever After was the first graphic novel by Katie O’Neill that I picked up. My coworker recommended it to me, and I couldn’t resist a story about a princess rescuing a princess. This fairy tale more than delivered.

The titular princesses are both hiding from something. Princess Amira hides from her overbearing parents and royal responsibilities by rescuing princesses. Princess Sadie hides in her tower from a world who, according to her sister, will hate her for being a fat princess. When these two princesses embark on an adventure, each obstacle leads them closer to facing their insecurities and embracing what makes them unique—all as they fall in love with each other.

Part of why this romance is so swoonworthy is how different (but complementary) the princesses are. Amira is courageous, headstrong, and always ready for a battle. Sadie is kind, compassionate, and a great listener. Each challenge they face requires both of their strengths, and in seeing each other’s strengths, they learn how to love themselves and love one another.

The Tea Dragon Society (2017)

The Tea Dragon SocietyHow could I resist this gorgeous cover? But what’s inside is just as beautiful—a story about memory, healing through community, and looking towards the future.

Blacksmith apprentice Greta finds a lost tea dragon, a creature whose horns grow tea leaves that store memories. When she returns the tea dragon to the husbands who own the tea shop, they offer her the chance to learn the skill of tea dragon keeping. As Greta gets to know them and their ward—a girl with memory loss who has developed a bond with the chamomile dragon—Greta learns that friendship requires the same patience and compassion as tea dragon keeping.

This book—with all its whimsy, soft magic, and young characters discovering their place in the world—gave me the same warm fuzzy feelings watching Kiki’s Delivery Service does. All while giving me the same WHY-CAN’T-THESE-CREATURES-BE-REAL heartache as Pokemon (1997) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010).

Aquicorn Cove (2018)

Aquicorn CoveHow do you follow up tea dragons? With mysterious seahorse unicorns, of course!

To help her aunt after a hurricane, Lana visits the seaside town she used to live in before her mother died. There, Lana finds an injured baby aquicorn. As she helps the aquicorn and her hometown recover, Lana confronts her own grief and slowly learns about her aunt’s romance with the underwater sea queen who looks after the aquicorns as well as the dangers the aquicorns face because of overfishing.

Even though it’s a sweet story with a happy ending, this book made me cry more than any other Katie O’Neill book. Partly because of Lana’s resilience, partly because of the too-real coral reef metaphor.

In a world where being an environmentalist is increasingly difficult, Aquicorn Cove reminds the reader how to hope again.

The Tea Dragon Festival (2019)

The Tea Dragon FestivalThe Tea Dragon Festival is a companion to The Tea Dragon Society.

In a village where tea dragons are raised by the community, Rinn wakes Aedhan—the guardian dragon (not tea dragon) of Rinn’s alpine village. To his horror, Aedhan discovers he was enchanted to sleep for eighty years. Through Rinn and Aedhan’s friendship, they both explore their identities—Rinn in terms of their aspirations and gender fluidity and Aedan in terms of his clan and how he fits in within the village he accidentally neglected for decades.

Readers will also delight in seeing the tea shop owners from The Tea Dragon Society—including Rinn’s uncle—in their adventuring youth as bounty hunters.

I loved seeing a community sharing the care of the tea dragons, who the reader encounters in all their versatility. Tea dragons can be adorable, haughty, pompous, and grouchy—sometimes nuisances, sometimes beloved pets, and sometimes independent companions.

Bonus: Dewdrop (2020) April 7

DewdropKatie O’Neill’s first picture book Dewdrop will be released April 7, 2020. I’m kind of cheating here, because I’ve only read the preview on Amazon, but I’m already in love with this story of an axolotl who reminds her overachieving friends to practice self-care and enjoy every step of their progress as they prepare for a yearly sports fair. With nods to graphic novel layout design, adorable art, and Katie O’Neill’s characteristic themes of friendship and self-love, Dewdrop has all the makings of a heartwarming and memorable story.


Maria Dones

When Maria Dones isn’t writing stories about angry girls armed with magic, you can find her working as a children’s library assistant, rewatching Sailor Moon, or befriending other people’s pets. She recently graduated from the University of Kansas with an MFA in Fiction, and her young adult short fiction appears or will appear in Cicada, Gingerbread House, and Bourbon Penn.

2020 Programming: Workshops and Afternoon Classes

At Sirens, programming means the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of Sirens. In our 2020 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 concept 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. Previously, we took a deep dive into papers and lectures, panels, and roundtables. You can submit a proposal any time from March 16 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 forming an effective critique group, but we welcome presenters tackling 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. Topics may be as eclectic 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 please email 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, must be 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. If more than one person will be leading the class or workshop, each presenter must provide a biography, though no supplemental abstract is required for additional presenters. 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:

    Sunday, March 22, 2–4pm Eastern (11am–1pm Pacific)
    Monday, May 4, 9–11pm Eastern (6–8pm Pacific)

  • Free Topics: Throughout 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 workshops and afternoon classes from Sirens:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Tools and Techniques for the Reluctant Rewriter by B R Sanders: Masterpieces are rarely written perfectly the first time around. Revision, rewriting, and editing are key steps in the writing process, but they aren’t always fun, and they aren’t always easy to master. For many of us, learning to write first drafts is more straightforward and easier than picking up the skills necessary to polish those first drafts. In this workshop, we’ll explore a variety of techniques writers can use to structure their revision and rewriting process to get the most out of it. Writers at all stages of their career and of all levels of expertise are welcome.

  • Chainmail 101 and the Steampunk Maker Ethos by Fred Loucks-Schultz and Rebecca Loucks-Schultz: From Bilbo’s mithril shirt to Red Sonja’s infamous bikini, and from steampunk retro-futurism to post-apocalyptic Hollywood movies, chain mail has long been a staple of fantasy literature. Learn about the Maker side of Steampunk, the cross-cultural history of mail both as armor and decoration, the tools and techniques for making modern mail accessories, and then build your own key fob or bracelet in this hands-on workshop.

For more examples of past programming, visit our archive.

 

Amy Tenbrink: Witch, Please: An Apologia for and Indictment of Mean-Girls Stories in Young Adult Fantasy Literature

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

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

Today, we welcome an essay from Amy Tenbrink!

Witch, Please: An Apologia for and Indictment of Mean-Girls Stories in Young Adult Fantasy Literature
By Amy Tenbrink

The Wicked DeepThe Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw is premised on a legend—and because this is fantasy literature, the legend is true. In 1822, three white sisters—Marguerite, Aurora, and Hazel—moved to Sparrow, Oregon. The sisters were charming, witty, beautiful—and available. The men of Sparrow were entranced; their wives, less so. The three sisters were accused of witchcraft and drowned in the harbor—only to rise again, endlessly sexy, in order to drown three boys of Sparrow in that same harbor every year thereafter.


The mean-girl trope is so common that it hardly necessitates a description: A thin, beautiful, sexy, rich teenaged girl terrorizes her high school’s students through meanness, manipulation, and back-stabbing—and despite this, or perhaps because of it, everyone clamors for her attention and approval. As Roger Ebert said in his 2004 review of Sleepover, “I take it as a rule of nature that all American high schools are ruled by a pack of snobs, led by a supremely confident young woman who is blond, superficial, catty, and ripe for public humiliation. This character is followed by two friends who worship her and are a little bit shorter.”

Why are you so obsessed with me?

Once you begin deconstructing the mean-girls trope, however, you quickly realize that there’s a girl-power version: The entire trope—the entire casting of powerful girls as superficial, catty, and mean—is nothing more than a heteropatriarchal construct designed to villainize teenaged girls who have discovered how to seize power from within the system.

But continue with that deconstruction and you’ll find that a white women’s feminism version exists as well: A mean girl is ultimately a white teenaged girl who is willing to not only conform to the restrictions imposed by the white heteropatriarchy, but to weaponize her conformance against those girls who are deliberately excluded—black and brown girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, poor girls—in order to gain a limited amount of power from the white heteropatriarchy itself.

So let’s start at the very beginning: What is a mean girls story?

  • Aspiration: An ordinary teenaged girl aspires to be part of the popular clique of mean girls at her school. In fantasy literature, this clique is often the school’s coven.

  • Opportunity: For some relatively random reason, our ordinary girl has a chance to join the mean-girls clique—but only if she transforms herself. She becomes a dangerous, dragon-lipstick-wearing, miniskirt-sporting hot girl. In fantasy literature, if she is successful in her transformation, she’ll also acquire magic.

  • Achievement: Our ordinary girl becomes a popular girl: Everyone knows her name, everyone thinks she’s hot, and she might be nominated for prom queen. She might be a witch or otherwise monstrous. Except for her queen-bee mean girl, she’s invincible.

  • Villainization: Our ordinary girl becomes a mean girl. Spending time with mean girls both normalizes their behavior and demonstrates the power inherent in such behavior.

  • Girlfight: The queen bee stabs our ordinary girl in the back, generally over a boy.

  • Victory: Often, our ordinary girl rises to the top of the mean-girl food chain, dethroning—and replacing—the queen bee.

  • Loss: As part of this process, our ordinary girl loses all her old friends, but doesn’t really care because her new status feels like friendship.

  • Redemption: Someone upholding the heteropatriarchy inevitably intervenes and convinces our ordinary girl that she’s no longer “nice.” Our ordinary girl is devastated and, in her devastation, redeems herself. She gives up her dragon lipstick, her miniskirts, her magic, her power, and goes back to being an ordinary girl. In other words, she again subjects herself to the rules and structures of the heteropatriarchy.

Upon first glance, mean-girls stories seem immensely problematic: A nice, ordinary girl transforms herself into a skinnier, blonder, sexier beast in order to access the most exclusive club at school: the circle of hot, rich girls, with dangerous tongues and gorgeous boyfriends, who terrify everyone and stalk the school hallways while people scurry out of the way. Our heroine becomes powerful by becoming, definitionally, mean.

From the moment our heroine completes her transformation, we—the reader, the viewer, the consumer—inherently know that she’s no longer someone to root for.

We are the heteropatriarchy, judging our heroine for her failure to conform to heteropatriarchal standards: of niceness, of passiveness, of civility. To again like our heroine, we have to wait for her redemption—but that redemption invariably comes only after she’s given up her new look and her dangerous tongue, renounced her mean-girl friends, and again a nice-and-not-at-all-dangerous girl, subordinated herself the heteropatriarchy. The threat of powerful girls has been removed, balance is again restored to the heteropatriarchal universe, and we are again allowed to like our nice-girl heroine.


The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers

The best example of the mean-girls trope in fantasy literature is perhaps Lynn Weingarten’s The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers, where white heroine Lucy, just dumped by her boyfriend and crying in the school bathroom, receives the chance of a lifetime from white mean-girl witch, Olivia: break a boy’s heart in ten days and become a witch. Lucy does, accidentally and almost apologetically, and achieves her heart’s desire: magic coursing through her veins; a new, gorgeous look; formidable friends; and the power to do virtually anything she wants. All of this is true until the sequel, The Book of Love, when Lucy is sorry she ever lusted for power and gives it all up, wanting to be a “normal,” powerless girl once more.


Apologia

Despite the obvious problems with a trope centered around meanness, mean-girls stories are fundamentally about female power: what it takes to get it, what it takes to keep it, and just how unseemly it is to want it or wield it. These stories are simultaneously a massive interrogation of and a massive failure to interrogate feminine power structures.

In Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill Grace posit that every child wants three things out of life: connection, recognition, and power. Fundamentally, teenaged girls also want what everyone wants: connection, recognition, and power—and enough of each to feel both in control and less insecure. But teenaged girls run into an unfortunate intersection between their brains’ stage of development and relentless messaging from heteropatriarchal agents that what they are isn’t good enough. The quest for control and security is seemingly impossible.

So if you’re a teenaged girl, you’re at a time in your life when you’re emotional, but your brain hasn’t yet learned not to be reckless. You’re susceptible to other people’s opinions of you, especially your peers’. You have no control over huge aspects of your life. You want to have exciting experiences. You want drama, you want relationships, you want kissing and maybe sex. Your brain is primed for you to made bad decisions, in the direction of excitement and new things, based on peer pressure.

And then you add in the messaging of the heteropatriarchy.

Our heteropatriarchal society values good girls: Girls who are nice, passive, silent, and polite. Girls who defer and submit. The true purpose of a girl under the heteropatriarchy is, first, to be a breeder for the heteropatriarchal family unit, and second, to support her husband’s aspirations. This is, of course, antithetical to any dreams or aspirations or even thoughts that she might have—all of which are cast aside in response to the heteropatriarchy’s demands that she adopt marriage to a cisgender man and having children as her own dreams and aspirations. As political scientist Angie Maxwell has said, “Modern sexism describes feelings of resentment and distrust towards feminists and working women. Rather than believing that a woman cannot do a particular job, folks who express Modern sexism resent a woman for wanting to do that job.” To avoid upsetting that particular apple cart, teenaged girls must not want a goal, a job, or really anything that isn’t focused on a boy.

Rather than diving into the rabbit hole of the heteropatriarchy’s expectations of women, let’s focus on the degree to which teenaged girls have internalized this messaging. We teach them to live up to an impossible, exclusive physical standard. We teach them to diet, to lighten and straighten their hair, to whiten their teeth, to wear a face-full of make-up, to ruin their bodies with high heels, to enlarge their breasts. We teach them that expensive clothes are a must-have and if those clothes are revealing, so much the better. We teach them to smile, to be “happy,” to never rock the boat. We teach them to be dependent and helpless because boys don’t like girls who don’t need them. We teach them to be sexually available to boys, even when they aren’t feeling it or aren’t even interested in boys. We teach them to give in to sexting demands and sex demands and to not make a big deal about assault or stealthing or rape because to do so might ruin a boy’s life.

We teach girls to be everything that the cisgender men running our heteropatriarchal culture want in a woman.

Because of these endless strictures, teenaged girls—like so many women under the heteropatriarchy—are obsessed with conformance. Who has the right hair, the right make-up, the right clothes? Who is the thinnest, the prettiest, the sexiest? All with an eye toward attracting the right boys because the ultimate question—the ultimate status symbol—is: Who is dating the right boy—and here “right” is also defined according to heteropatriarchal standards, this time in terms of performative hypermasculinity.

Which becomes, very quickly, a question of competition. Girls have internalized American cultural messages of rugged individualism and meritocratic advancement just as much as their male peers, but we teach girls that these traits aren’t for them, that girls should be nurturing and kind, and that female competition is unseemly and unacceptable. We don’t want women competing for jobs, for venture capital, for elected positions because then they’d be competing with men. Girls are left with conflicting messaging: Be all that you can be—within the limiting confines of what the heteropatriarchy permits.

Which means that, after the heteropatriarchy has torn them apart and rebuilt them, the only competition left to girls is who can best succeed at playing heteropatriarchy. So girls compete within the confines of the heteropatriarchy—and when they win, when they succeed and are the thinnest, the blondest, the richest, when they’re banging the most masculine boy in school, there’s power in that success. Even if you’re playing a rigged game—and teenaged girls are—there’s power in winning the game.

But again, mean-girls stories are necessarily premised on the heteropatriarchy. Mean girls derive their power, directly and solely, from romantic and sexual exchanges with cisgender boys: dating boys, fucking boys, controlling boys’ attention, satisfying the male gaze, and denying other girls access to boys. While mean girls’ power might initially seem satiating—being a girl with magic and enough power to be immune from most consequences—that power is ultimately derived from men and ultimately requires pleasing men: Mean girls have power only because of the nature of the heteropatriarchy and only because men allow them limited power within those confines. If men were uninterested in sharing those romantic and sexual exchanges with mean girls, mean girls would have nothing.

Rather than attempting to find power in rejecting the heteropatriarchy, mean girls ultimately find power in embracing it.

While this power might look minimal to us, in high school, where so much of your life is in someone else’s control and when your brain feeds you daily doses of insecurity and desire for exciting experiences, this power is everything.

To achieve that success and that power, as part of that competition to see who can play heteropatriarchy best, teenaged girls not only build themselves up—for some value of “up”—they tear each other down. Which begs the next question of why girls, unlike boys, don’t simply fight like boys? Why don’t they just punch each other? Why the meanness, the manipulation, and the back-stabbing?

The inevitable answer is, of course, because those are the only tools society allows them—and frankly, girls weren’t allowed those tools at all. They just took them.

Odd Girl Out

As Rachel Simmons notes in Odd Girl Out, “Our culture refuses girls access to open conflict, and it forces their aggression into nonphysical, indirect, and covert forms.” Our society teaches girls that aggression and anger are for boys, not girls. We teach them to cry, not rage. And not only are girls prohibited from fighting, they are taught not to speak up or speak out—not only vis-à-vis boys, but vis-à-vis everyone. They are taught to be “nice” and “perfect,” which are too often synonyms for “silent” and “passive.”

But none of that makes the conflict disappear; it just makes girls find another path: Since they aren’t permitted to address the conflict head-on, they come at it sideways with back-stabbing, lying, whisper campaigns, icing, “jokes,” and slurs. As Anne Campbell has noted in Men, Women, and Aggression, men tend to use aggression to control their environment, while women believe aggression will ruin their relationships. Rather than ruin those relationships, girls simply use the relationships themselves as weapons.

But the mean-girl isn’t all manipulation and back-stabbing.

So often, women have to take their power where they can find it. While it’s easy to read a book about a girl who transforms herself into a witch by stealing the only power the heteropatriarchy allows her and to criticize her for doing so—perhaps because we fail to recognize the nature of her subversion, perhaps because her subversion makes us uncomfortable, or perhaps because we expect her to recognize and sacrifice her own support of the heteropatriarchy itself—it’s also hard to fault a girl for taking one of the few sources of power available to her. Our society allows girls so little power, finding endless fault in how they look, how they dress, how they speak, the things they like, and even their market power; why not applaud them for taking some in the form of lipstick, miniskirts, and magic?

Because the heteropatriarchy would have us position the mean girls in these stories—with all their power—as a villain, an adversary, or even a joke:

  • Villainy: We position her as a villain, nominally, because she’s mean. But that’s just a convenient excuse. In fact, we find her to be a villain because she defies stereotypes.

  • Adversary: We position her as an adversary of the protagonist. They can’t share a boyfriend. They can’t share the top of the food-chain. It’s one or the other, so to achieve her ultimate dream, our ordinary girl has to knock the mean girl down—which perpetuates that pervasive heteropatriarchal desire for girls to compete for boys’ attention, ceding ultimate power to boys and men.

  • Joke: Even worse, the mean girl is often the object of ridicule or scorn, either canonically or by consumers. We love Mean Girls. We love to mock Regina George. Karen can’t even spell the word “orange.” But these girls are everything we deride as a culture. They’re into clothes and makeup. They’re shallow and vapid. They’re boy-crazy. They upspeak and use vocal fry. They wear pink, yes, on Wednesdays. When we mock teenaged girls—and we do—we mock mean girls. But we don’t mock them for their meanness; we mock them for their femaleness.

If you interrogate this trope from a slightly different perspective, however, the mean girl is not villain, adversary, or joke, but the devil who offers an ordinary girl a deal.

She’ll give you what you crave—popularity, magic, power—but at what cost? Defiance of expectations. Is our ordinary girl willing to give up being nice, being obedient, being subordinate to the endless structures of the heteropatriarchy and claim her power?


Sawkill Girls

In Sawkill Girls by Claire LeGrand, two white sisters move to Sawkill Rock in the wake of their father’s death. The younger sister, a worrier, befriends Zoey, a black, asexual girl determined to discover what happened to her missing best friend. The elder sister, a soon-to-be victim, befriends blond, white Val, the rich girl with the hot boyfriend who lives in a mansion. As the book progresses, you realize that Val is the latest accomplice in her matriarchal line’s violent service to the male monster of the island—Val is, in fact, the heteropatriarchy’s appetite incarnate.


Indictment

When you examine comparative power, and girl-on-girl policing of that comparative power, mean-girl-ism goes from something almost empowering to something much uglier. In On Call: Political Essays, June Jordan says, “Patriarchy too often throws women crumbs in return for a limited form of power. Women who accept those crumbs are expected in return to uphold patriarchy, internalize its dictates, police other women and never forget that power bestowed is power that can be retracted.”

When researchers, among them Rachel Simmons (Odd Girl Out) and Rosalind Wiseman (Queen Bees and Wannabes), asked girls which characteristics were desirable in girls, the answers were predictable: pretty, thin, tall, big boobs, blond hair, blue eyes, trendy, expensive clothes, smiling, happy, fake, stupid, helpless, dependent, and sexually experienced, among others. Conversely, when asked which characteristics were undesirable, girls answered similarly predictably: ugly, athletic, fat, dark features, masculine, queer, disabilities, wrong clothes, poor, serious, brainy, opinionated, pushy, independent, egocentric, passionate, inexperienced, and promiscuous.

Teenaged girls have weaponized conformance.

When teenaged girls weaponize conformance, that is what it looks like: racist, sizeist, homophobic, ableist, classist. Hotness, popularity, and success—winning at playing heteropatriarchy, if you will—requires internalizing the rules of the heteropatriarchy and then policing those rules with respect to others. As with so many things, those rules are rigged so that many girls—black and brown girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, poor girls—cannot even play. While on the one hand, we might applaud the mean-girls trope for portraying girls seizing power from the heteropatriarchy itself, on the other hand, that seeming girl-power is nothing more than skinny, rich, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied girls weaponizing conformance to white heteropatriarchal standards in exchange for an iota of power, all in service to the perpetuation of the white heteropatriarchy itself.

As you might imagine, mean-girl-ism is a largely white middle-class construct—because the white middle class is where the confines of the heteropatriarchy are most rigid. Unsurprisingly, almost all books on mean girls are virtually silent on the construct of race or class, assuming rather that the white, middle class is an appropriate microcosm from which to extrapolate universal truths. But in Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons delves into this in some detail, noting, inter alia, that “For some girls, silence and indirection are neither attractive nor an option. They are instead signs of weakness. I found this to be true especially among the girls I met whose lives were marked by oppression. For them, assertiveness and anger were tools of spiritual strength.”

Simmons’s research shows that communities of color—and here, the research generally fails to differentiate between different races and ethnicities—raise their girls differently, as do lower-class families. They raise them to be authentic in a way that white, middle-class communities don’t. They raise them to recognize all of their feelings, not just those prized by the white heteropatriarchy. They raise them to stand up for themselves and even sometimes to physically fight.

This Will Be My Undoing

For a number of reasons—racism, classism, the fact that these girls are less susceptible to the messaging of the heteropatriarchy, the fact that these girls cannot even achieve the prized traits of the heteropatriarchy—these girls are also frequent targets of mean girls. Morgan Jerkins in This Will Be My Undoing tells a heart-rending story of being a black girl who just wanted to make the cheerleading squad. After practicing and practicing, perfecting her voice and nailing her jumps, she was devastated to learn that she didn’t make the squad—and to learn that she was never going to make the squad because she couldn’t achieve those white heteropatriarchal standards for women: thin, blond, hot, white.

To maintain their power in the heteropatriarchy, mean girls must police conformance. They must bully girls who cannot or will not conform. Without conformance, the building blocks of the heteropatriarchy start to crumble—and again, the immediate and direct source of these girls’ power is, in fact, the heteropatriarchy itself. Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields note in The Long Southern Strategy, “[Y]ou do need to protect men if you’re completely dependent on them financially and economically.” Maxwell and Shields said that in the context of dismantling the Southern Strategy, but it’s applicable here as well.

Moreover, the proximity and tokenism forms of power that are evident in hundreds of years of white-women’s history and power structures are evident here as well. By crafting conformance standards that black and brown girls cannot meet and then granting white girls power—through proximity to white men and the tokenism inherent in those standards—in exchange for ruthlessly policing those standards, the white heteropatriarchy perpetuates its own power, with only a minor, limiting sharing of that power with only white women.

Women, Race, and Class

This looks—unsurprisingly—similar to the history of white-women’s feminism in the United States. As Angela Davis explores in Women, Race, and Class, with the advent of industrialization, when the home was no longer the manufacturing hub of the community, when “woman” became closely aligned with “wife” and “mother,” when white women lost much of their power, economic and otherwise, to factory foremen (who then oppressed the white women’s working class), white women began to organize. But in many cases, that organization—sometimes negligently, but often intentionally—excluded women of color. From the First Wave’s compromises with white supremacists to the lynchings of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which were justified as protecting the white woman from the black man, to the Second Wave’s assertions that feminism must be about gender to the exclusion of other oppressions, white women’s movements in the United States have a long and awful history of specifically gaining power by oppressing others.

Mean girls—with their white skin, their blond hair, their blue eyes, with their willingness to uphold the white heteropatriarchy in exchange for the tiniest bit of power—are perpetuating a long history of white-women’s feminism in the United States.

So while you might assume that mean girls are awful because they are mean, the truth is that mean girls are awful because they are in the master’s house, using the master’s tools.

Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, like the NAWSA’s silence on lynchings despite the groundbreaking work of Ida B. Wells, like the women who listened to Teddy Roosevelt’s State of the Union in 1906 and heeded his warnings about race suicide, like the Southern white women who demanded that the Republication Party drop the ERA from its platform in the late 1970s, and like the white women today who continue to support and reinforce exclusionary beauty standards.

Like their white foremothers, mean girls cause cascading damage. Like their white foremothers, mean girls’ power is premised on both proximity and tokenism. Like their white foremothers, mean girls have ascended to a rather limited form of power by policing girls of color, working class girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, and others. Like their white foremothers, the longstanding exchanges between white-women’s feminism and the white heteropatriarchy are all too apparent in the transactions in which mean girls engage in order to establish their power.


The Lost Coast

In Amy Rose Capetta’s The Lost Coast, white, queer Danny arrives in Tempest, a tiny town in northern California among the towering redwoods. Danny almost immediately encounters the Grays: queer witches, outcasts at school who seem to think nothing of that status. The Grays need Danny. They summoned her to California to help find their missing friend, whose body is still going about its quotidian routine, but without any spark of the girl herself. This story of witchy, queer girls, who are perfectly comfortable being witchy, queer girls, who welcome another witchy, queer girl easily enough, is remarkable in what’s not there: any form of mean-girl-ism. Except for Black, bisexual Hawthorn, these girls have little interest in romantic or sexual exchanges with boys, and in its absence, they have little interest in competing for boys, conforming to heteropatriarchal standards, or even the heteropatriarchy itself.


In the end, if we want to dismantle teenaged girls’ meanness and the accompanying back-stabbing, lying, and manipulation, we need to dismantle so much more: the white heteropatriarchy. We need to remove the societal strictures that grant girls such limited forms of expression and power. We need to permit them hopes and dreams that don’t revolve around cisgender boys. We need to encourage them to compete in many arenas and to resolve their conflicts openly and honestly, without fear that their relationships are not perfect. We need to permit them full humanity.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans literary conferences and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

2020 Programming: Roundtable Discussions

At Sirens, programming means the dozens of hours of papers, lectures, panels, roundtable discussions, workshops, and afternoon classes that make up the heart of Sirens. In our 2020 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 concept 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. Previously, we’ve taken a deep dive into papers and lectures and panels; later this week, we’ll review workshops/afternoon classes later this week. You can submit a proposal any time from March 16 to May 15.

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 the merits of various social media platforms for reading groups, a dialogue about effectively retold fairy tales, or a conversation about ideal books for introducing new readers to the fantasy genre could all be excellent 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 and an easel will be available.

 

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:

    Sunday, March 22, 2–4 p.m. Eastern (11 a.m.–1 p.m. Pacific)
    Monday, May 4, 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 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.

  • Obligatory Horrors by Jen Michaels: 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.

  • Reinventing the Literary Canon—Why Don’t We Teach That? by Katie Passerotti: In high school English classes, students are required to read books considered classics within the literary canon. With few exceptions, these books are written by white, cis-het men. The adherence to this list is stifling today’s students. The world is changing and the current educational system no longer meets the needs of its students. This discussion will examine how the needs of students are evolving, what the purpose of English classes should be going forward, and ways to expand the curriculum to include more diverse books that better represent not only the student population, but the world students live in.

  • 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.

  • There’s No I in Hero: A Discussion of Communities as Agents of Change by Jennifer Shimada: One of the most pervasive American myths is the idea of “rugged individualism”–that individual heroes can save the world or push their society toward progress. However, real, lasting change never comes from a single hero fighting on their own, or even from a small band of heroes working together. Real progress and change comes from movements and communities, with many people working together and separately over a long period of time. In this roundtable, we’ll discuss the problems with depending on individual heroes to save the day, and the ways in which fantasy stories can center movements and communities instead./p>

For more examples of past programming, visit our archive.
 

Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

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

Kingdom of Souls

I used to think that, as people got older, they became more fearful.

When I was a small child, I feared nothing. Then I accidentally chopped a snake in half with a trowel. Then I feared snakes.

Then, during my first semester of college, the woman next door accidentally set her dorm room and mine on fire while we were both in them. Then I feared snakes and fire.

Then I got out of law school and discovered that the perfectionism demanded of women is not the golden ticket to wealth and success. Then I feared snakes, fire, and failure.

But I think, as humans, we tend to focus on what we fear, not things we no longer fear. Surely, there were a thousand things I feared as a child, as a teen, as a twentysomething: gross bugs, roller coasters, my parents’ divorce, public speaking, college, job searching, being fired, intruders, negotiating, whatever. But unlike snakes, fire, and failure, none of those fears have persisted. Every day, the vast unknown that gives rise to so many fears becomes just a little bit less. Every day, I rely just a little bit more on my own resourcefulness. Every day, I’m seemingly a little bit less likely to add a fourth fear to that unholy triumvirate.

So now I think that, as people get older, they become less fearful.

And correspondingly, I think that kids are afraid of damn near everything.

Which brings me to Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron. If you were to read the flap copy of this book, you would expect a rather formulaic hero’s journey of a young adult book, albeit with a spectacular fantasy Africa setting. The flap copy rather unimaginatively focuses on the fact that Arrah, daughter of powerful witchdoctors, somehow has no magic. But to save the children of the kingdom, she needs to acquire some magic, and soon. And to do that, she needs to do the unthinkable: trade some of her lifespan for spells.

This is all very boring. Again, except for that magnificent fantasy Africa setting, you have all read that book before. I would call it Harry Potter-esque, but we all know that this trope goes back much further than that. So let’s ignore that supremely unhelpful flap copy.

Kingdom of Souls is about fear.

The first act does, indeed, focus on Arrah’s lack of magic: her disappointment in not having it, but more importantly, her perceived failure and her resulting otherness. Her fear of being different, of being less, of not living up to expectations. Her fear of disappointing her powerful parents and tribal chief grandmother. Her fear of what her friend-maybe-boyfriend, son of the Vizier, will think. Like teens the world over, Arrah has found her people: the only other two people her age who should have magic and don’t. But also like teens the world over, being part of a group of three outcasts isn’t so much better than being a sole outcast. Even if you’re the daughter of the Ka-Priestess making eyes at the Vizier’s son.

What galvanizes Arrah is what galvanizes so many heroines: harm to someone else. Children of the kingdom are disappearing and Arrah is determined to save them. To do that, she finds a way to acquire magic by sacrificing some of her lifespan—and with that she stumbles into the proverbial hornet’s nest. Arrah’s mother has been stealing the children in order to raise a powerful demon, so that that demon can impregnate her and she can give birth to a half-demon baby, who will in turn have the power to raise the Demon King, who was imprisoned by the orishas generations ago.

Whew. Frankly, if I lived in Arrah’s world, I would have four fears: snakes, fire, failure, and half-demon baby sisters.

The second act of Kingdom of Souls explores Arrah’s paralysis in the face of her multiplying fears. Her mother has magically chained both Arrah and her father; her family has been exiled to a land of demon energy; and Efiyah, her baby sister, is about to destroy the world. It’s a lot.

In the third act, though, Arrah masters her fears. She doesn’t eradicate them: They stay with her, a constant companion, as her sister wreaks havoc. But Arrah knows what she must do, despite her fears, and she just gets on with doing it.

So if you’re into a book where the heroine is afraid of the approximately 8,000 things that she should absolutely be afraid of, and she acknowledges those fears and saves the world anyway, have I got a book for you.

Unfortunately, aside from that angle—and again, Barron’s superb fantasy Africa setting—this is the sort of heroine’s journey book you’ve read a thousand times before. An unassuming, magic-less girl, of whom no one expects great things, is tasked with saving the world. There are adventures, there are gods, there’s some kissing, and the world gets saved. At least sort of; there’s a setup for a sequel.

And in the end, the biggest issue I had with Kingdom of Souls wasn’t the rather formulaic reluctant heroine’s journey—even though the reluctant heroine is a particular frustration of mine—but that, while I think Barron wrote the right number of words, I think about half of them were the wrong words. Barron writes a lot of distractions, while giving the reader scant detail about what is actually happening, especially in magic sequences. For example, by the time a minor character in the first act was revealed to be an orisha in the third, I could not remember that character ever showing up in the first place. Barron’s writing should be perhaps not more focused, but certainly more pointed in showing what’s truly important among the thousands of fascinating details.


By day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans Sirens and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

RSS Feed

The news archive for Sirens is linked below as an RSS feed. If you need instructions or would like more information, please click here. If you have questions about our RSS feed, please email us at (web at sirensconference.org).

RSS Feed Button

 

Tags

annual programming series, attendee perspective, attendees, auction, book club, book list, book reviews, books, bookstore, boot camp, chat, community, compendium, deadlines, essay series, further reading, giveaway, guests, guests of honor, hotel, inclusivity, interview, meet-up, menus, narrate conferences, newsletter, perspective, professionals, programming, read along, recap, registration, review squad, schedule, schedules, scholarships, sirens, Sirens 2009, Sirens 2010, Sirens 2011, Sirens 2012, Sirens 2013, Sirens 2014, Sirens 2015, Sirens 2016, Sirens 2017, Sirens 2018, Sirens 2019, Sirens 2020, Sirens Shuttle, Sirens Studio, Sirens Supper, site visit, skamania, special edition, sponsorship, support, testimonials, themes, things we're excited about, travel, volunteering, website, where are they now

 

Archives

2020
March, February, January

2019
November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2018
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2017
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2016
December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March

2015
November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2014
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, March, February, January

2013
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2012
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2011
December, November, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2010
December, November, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2009
December, November, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January
Meet Our Guests of Honor
About the Conference
Attend
Sirens Twitter
Present Programming
Sirens Facebook

Connect with the Sirens community

Sign up for the Sirens newsletter

Subscribe to our mailing list