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Archive for January 2020

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 12, Issue 1 (January 2020)

This month:

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2020! With January comes a new year of Sirens—and we’re already busy, busy, busy! If you’re just now surfacing from post-holiday mania (and look, if the decorations are still up, we’re not judging), we hope this newsletter will help get you back into the swing of thinking about Sirens.

 

Scholarship Fundraising

January 31—today—is the last day to donate to our fundraising campaign for 2020 Sirens scholarships! Whether you can kick in a $5 boost or fund a full scholarship of $325, we hope you’ll get out those proverbial checkbooks. (It’s not too soon to call checkbooks proverbial, right?) Our scholarships help people of color, those submitting exemplary programming proposals, those with financial hardships, and educators, librarians, and publishing professionals not only attend Sirens, but share their work and their thoughts. This in turn helps Sirens remain a place for the vibrant conversations and warm community that attendees so cherish!

If you’d like to donate, please check out our scholarships page. We’ll announce next week how many scholarships we have available for 2020—and start taking applications as well!

 

Sirens Studio Workshops

Are you coming to the Studio this year? Are you thinking about coming to the Studio this year? Can we help you turn thoughts into action? Because in 2020 we have eight brilliant faculty members lined up to lead eight fantastic workshops—and this month, we shared what those workshops will be.

Whether you want to yeet the patriarchy or dissect Asianization, talk superheroes or villains, write about magical realism or religion, or pick up something valuable for your career-planning, we’ve got it. And you know you want in on this, so what are you waiting for? Check out this year’s Studio topics and buy that ticket today!

 

Sirens Essays

Sirens Essay Series

We had so much fun with—and learned so much from—our first Sirens essay series last summer that we invited six more people to discuss, analyze, dissect, and deconstruct something about fantasy literature. And we published our next two essays this month! So if you missed them, check this out:

In Lost Girls and Open Doors: Susan Pevensie and the Complex Legacy of the Portal Fantasy, Gillian Chisom explores what we always knew—that C.S. Lewis’s dismissive “nylons and lipstick and invitations” is only the beginning of the complications of Susan—and then dives deep into grief, faith, and portal fantasy.

If you’re into monstrousness—and you are all into monstrousness—Ren Iwamoto’s A Mirror Distorted: A Brief Meditation on When Real-Life Events Inspire Speculative Fiction is your jam. Ren tackles monsters born of real-life inspiration—and how they morph when viewed through different lenses.

 

So Many Books

Let’s start 2020 right! We have book recommendations, book reviews, and a look at some staff picks for January’s new releases.

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

And due to our late 2019 hiatus, our January round-up of new releases by women and nonbinary authors covered three whole months! Here, some of our staff share their picks:

Woven in Moonlight

Erynn’s Pick: Woven in Moonlight, by Isabel Ibañez
For a generation, her people have been decimated and displaced from their lush country of jungles and mountains. Those that remain lay their grief and fury at Ximena’s feet, looking to her to lead them to restoration. But they don’t understand. Ximena is not the real Condesa – she’s a decoy set to protect the last true Illustrian royal. When the usurper, Atoc, demands the Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s the revenge opportunity Ximena has been waiting for.

This debut novel is set in a world inspired by the author’s Bolivian heritage and uses rich descriptions food and fabric to fill the reader’s cultural apperception. What draws me to the story is the promise of power not just in obvious might and magics but, as the title suggests, textile arts! As Ximenia discovers the truths of her world are vastly more complex than she was raised to understand, this domestic craft magic has the subtly required to take on nuanced dilemmas.

The Iron Will of Genie Lo

Faye’s Pick: The Iron Will of Genie Lo, by F. C. Yee
If you spoke to me last year, you know I loved F.C. Yee’s The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, a modern-day interpretation of the Chinese novel Journey to the West set in California, in which a girl gets reincarnated as the Monkey King’s… battle stick… and is super cranky about it. In this second and final book, Genie is now officially a Heaven-appointed guardian—so she no longer slays demons but also has to care for them, and they’re multiplying. I hear there’s also a quest for the crown and a venture in-between worlds, but what I’m most excited about Genie coming into her powers—and coming into her own as a leader—just in time for graduation.

Come Tumbling Down

Cass’s Pick: Come Tumbling Down, by Seanan McGuire
I ran through the audio versions of all of McGuire’s Wayward Children series in rapid succession last year, so I’m excited to get my hands (or ears) on the next installment. Her multiverse is a fascinating exploration of what happens to kids when Narnia or Neverland spits them back out for some transgression or other. Eleanor West, once lost and found herself, rescues these teenagers from reality, giving them a safe space either to re-adjust to life here on our earth–or to find a way back to the world of their preference. Through her protagonists (many of whom are queer and/or neuroatypical), McGuire has taken all the tangled problems of puberty, coming-of-age, and self-determination and spun them into poignant tales of the search for belonging. Come Tumbling Down looks like it’ll be revisiting one of the horror-themed worlds from a previous book (think of a playground for Doctor Frankenstein and Dracula, set on moody moors), and it may give some insight into Eleanor, the woman who set up the sanctuary-school for all those Wayward Children in the first place.

 


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).

 

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

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 review from Erynn Moss on Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

The Walls Around Us

The details were hazy but I remembered this book as one of the best I had read back in 2015. For that reason, and because it falls within the villain theme, I chose to reread it for review. As a suspenseful story, I was worried a second reading wouldn’t hold up, but it cut me deeper this time and I think I can pinpoint why.

Trying to describe this book without overdoing it is hard for me. I used to recommend it by stealing from a blurb I read somewhere calling it “Black Swan meets Orange Is the New Black.” Not entirely the gist, but it does paint a good starting picture.

The story is told from the split points of view of Violet and Amber. Violet, an eighteen-year-old rising star ballerina about to enter Juilliard, recounts long elapsed memories of herself and her best friend, Orianna or Ori for short. Violet dances all around the details of their relationship, and the horrific event three years prior that obsesses her, before she comes to the point.

Amber is a resident of Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center, convicted of a violent crime at thirteen, who starts her story with a strange day when the locks came open. Amber has been at Aurora Hills longer than any of the other girls and the years have eroded her. Her point of view is mostly passive, translating into words what is happening on the stage within the prison. Her situational awareness is shaky to the point of being difficult to follow in the beginning, but her perception of others, especially her fellow inmates, is sharp. Through Violet and Amber, Orianna’s full story is revealed.

I liked Suma’s writing style in general. There are nuances and allusions. The narrators’ voices each ring authentic and give away more than the characters intend. The supernatural elements seep in at a slow drip. A dramatic story emerges between the ballerinas that takes most of the reader’s focus. But while Violet and Ori are dancing out their white swan and black swan routine, Amber, whose life is remarkably gray, sneaks in and, in my opinion, upstages them.

She often speaks in first person plural. She wants you to look at all the inmates as a collection, a family, and Amber herself as an unimportant but very included member. She internalizes the neglect and hatred from everyone on the outside world who saw in her thirteen-year-old self a problem so big it had to be boxed up and forgotten. Every once in a while, though, Amber lets slip little heartbreaking pieces of joy and self-esteem that reveal the person she could have been. She also lets slip her anger.

Going back to the Orange Is the New Black comparison. It is a prison story, with people desperately attempting to cope with the rules of their new society on the inside. There’s plenty of racial and economic privilege at play. But the people in the story are children, and it is that unfortunately realistic element that hits me harder the second time around.

The Walls Around Us would be an intriguing story even if the characters were adults. Yet when so much fiction out there revolves around seventeen-year-old protagonists who save the world despite being surrounded by horrible adults, it is painful and necessary to hear stories about kids who are failed by adults and instead of ending up champions, end up broken.

 


Erynn Moss

Erynn Moss is an enthusiastic reader who likes refreshing her soul by spending time with the brilliant people she finds at Sirens. She’s into comics, sewing, knitting, costumes, and camping. She currently lives in Louisville with her BFF spouse and their toddler trainee-Siren.

 

Sirens Scholarship Fundraising: Davenport

As we raise funds for our annual scholarships, Sirens is featuring posts by past scholarship winners. We hope that these posts will help potential donors see the impact of these scholarships and how they work to make Sirens’s conversations and community more vibrant, more diverse, and more inclusive. This week, our guest post is by Nia Davenport, a past recipient of a Sirens scholarship for a librarian, educator, or publishing professional. In previous weeks, Jennifer Shimada shared her thoughts about receiving a Sirens scholarship for a person of color, s.e. smith shared their thoughts about receiving a Sirens scholarship for an exemplary programming proposal, and Jordan Ramirez Puckett shared her thoughts about receiving a financial hardship scholarship. These perspectives were first published in 2018.

I’ve been in love with speculative stories of all kinds, including horror, fantasy, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance, since literally forever. As a kid, I devoured all the Goosebumps books and Are You Afraid of the Dark? was my favorite show. As a teen, I read all the Fear Street books, as well as Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, in one year because I needed more speculative stories in my life. And while I devoured all the books I could get my hands on and adored them, I was always left with a not quite fulfilled feeling. Yes, there was a wealth of fantasy and horror and urban fantasy of all types out there. No, there didn’t seem to be those types of stories available featuring me or somebody who claimed the same identities I did.

In college, a friend gifted me a copy of Minion by the brilliant L.A Banks. My mind was blown. It was the first time ever that I’d held a book written by a Black woman that featured a Black woman as the protagonist that was about vampires! Seriously, I cried that day. I devoured the book then ordered every other book in the series and spent the summer devouring those too. Not only did Damali Richards, the heroine in Banks’s Vampire Huntress Legend books, look like me. She had family and friends that resembled my family and friends. She had beliefs and traditions and likes and hobbies that resembled mine. She had a lover that resembled my boyfriends. Reading Banks’s Minion was like a rebirth for me. It completely changed the way I thought about stories and who could be the heroines and heroes in those stories.

As both a science fiction-fantasy writer and a high school teacher, I still carry that earth-shattering revelation with me. It affects the types of stories I choose to write about. It’s the reason that all of my stories will now and forever more feature a brown girl as the hero. And perhaps most importantly, it is the reason that when I select texts to read in class or to recommend to students, they are always texts that offer diverse representation where my students can see themselves positively reflected as the hero of a story. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, and Warcross by Marie Lu are among the titles I’ve used as whole-class novel reads in my classroom.

There is something immensely powerful about seeing teens and young adults light up when they see a book reflects an identity they bear in some way. When they are seeing this for the first time, their whole view of the world, how the world sees them, and what they can be in the world often shifts.

I was able to attend Sirens in 2018 for a second year in a row due to an educator’s scholarship. Sirens is more than a con. It is a meeting of the minds between a beautiful and humbling melding of readers, writers, librarians, educators, publishing professionals, and scholars. I learn so much each year I attend Sirens. Everything I learn about how stories are told, the impact that stories have on readers and society, and how stories can tear down oppressive norms or reinforce them, I take back to my classroom and my students.

We read short and novel-length science fantasy and fiction texts and then we dissect them. We look at the themes explored and the identities portrayed, and we discuss what deep, sometimes ugly truths, the stories are relaying about the world we live in and the way humans interact with one another. And let me tell you, one of the most rewarding feelings in the world is having a classroom full of young men slam misogynistic behavior in a text without me first pointing it out! The panels, keynotes, and lectures I attend at Sirens help provide me with a vocabulary and critical lens to discuss such heavy and necessary topics with my students.


Nia Davenport has always harbored a love of both science and crafting stories. After college, Nia studied and worked in the public health sector before discovering a passion for teaching. As an English and Biology teacher, Nia strives to make a difference in the lives of young people, minimize disparities in education for youths of color, and help students realize their dreams and unlimited potential. As a Black writer, her goals are much the same. Nia is also a freelance reviewer for Booklist.

 

Ren Iwamoto: A Mirror, Distorted: A Brief Meditation on When Real-Life Events Inspire Speculative Fiction

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 Ren Iwamoto!

A Mirror, Distorted: A Brief Meditation on When Real-Life Events Inspire Speculative Fiction
By Ren Iwamoto

In 2012, the movie Chernobyl Diaries hit theatres. Its most distinctive feature is that, objectively, it’s terrible. Its director, Bradley Parker, had never directed a feature film before. It’s ninety minutes of mutant threats just out of sight (presumably because the movie was produced on a budget of only US$1 million), and a drab, emotionless script. Jesse McCartney is in it, but did not sing “Beautiful Soul” even once.

Chernobyl DiariesWhat can be said about Chernobyl Diaries is its awareness of Chernobyl in the western mass consciousness. Chernobyl hangs like a cloud of “what if” in North America: What if our own nuclear projects go terribly wrong, too? What would the fallout look like? What creatures would it create? Nuclear radiation is a deep source of both anxiety and narrative imagination in North America.

When Americans are exposed to radiation, they become heroes. When foreign bodies – the Russians, the Japanese – are exposed to radiation, they become monsters; true “foreign bodies.”

Bradley capitalizes on this unconscious assumption, and the uncertainty of what these un-American monsters might be or do, and does so well enough to generate a sharp disparity between critics’ and regular consumers’ reviews of the film, which were notably more favourable.

Voices From ChernobylFifteen years before Chernobyl Diaries, in 1997, the first edition of Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster was published in Russian. Alexievich was a journalist living in Minsk under the Soviet Regime in Belarus at the time of the accident, and her efforts in recording the aftermath of Chernobyl, amongst other wonderful writings, including her first monograph, The Unwomanly Face of War (1985), earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015.

The Unwomanly Face of WarThe Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which lay just outside the town of Pripyat, Ukraine. Alexievich, in the opening pages of her novel, shares a transcript of a monologue given by the wife of one of the first responders at the plant:

He [my husband] started to change. Every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks—at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers—as white film…the colour of his face…his body…blue…red…grey-brown. And it’s all so very mine! It’s impossible to describe! It’s impossible to write down! And even to get over. The only thing that saved me was it happened so fast; there wasn’t any time to think, there wasn’t any time to cry. (Alexievich, 1997, 11-12)

We can clearly see here the transformative aspect which is so prevalent in nuclear fiction—the literal, grotesque shedding of the old self.

But the body is not a cocoon meant to be shed to give way to heroism, to something stronger and more complete. A body is a body; we belong in it and to it, and when it is stripped away, we die.

This story, which is only twenty pages long, moved me to tears three times. I put the book away for a while. But I could not stop thinking about it, and with my thinking, I recalled Bradley Parker’s Chernobyl Diaries. It seemed unbelievably ugly to me, that an American film maker could use Chernobyl as a springboard for a horror movie, and have not even the decency to make it a good horror movie. The young husband in the passage above died an ugly death – an objectively ugly, bodily death – and when he died remained nonetheless human. To seize upon the remainder, which is not the corpse, but the story of his life, and twist it into a B-list horror is a quiet and long-reaching appropriation difficult to see unless one thinks to look for it.

It would be extremely disingenuous, however, to say that all horror, sci-fi and fantasy “inspired” by real-life events are poorly done or made to capitalize on cultural trauma. R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War (2018) engages directly with the horrors of the Sino-Japanese conflict during the twentieth century, particularly the infamous Nanking Massacre. The Poppy WarIn the Western mass consciousness, Japan has been rendered impotent. Its military, under the post-WWII constitution, can only exist for defensive purposes. Its global exports include franchises like Sanrio (the parent company of the ultra-cute Hello Kitty), anime, video games, and instant noodles. Stereotypes of meek, submissive women and quailing men run amok. But Japan committed some of the worst war crimes ever prosecuted, many of which are continually disputed by Japanese nationalists, who simultaneously wish to erase Imperial Japan’s atrocities and reinstate Japanese supremacy.

As a diasporic Japanese person, this knowledge was not readily available to me. Japan’s role on the global stage included: Pearl Harbour, the atomic bombings, and the North American concentration camps. I knew nothing about Nanking until I was in post-secondary, and took an introductory history class on the World Wars. Even then, Nanking was only mentioned in passing. The Poppy War has intrinsic value purely for bringing attention to the Nanking Massacre, which has dodged a deserved place next to the Holocaust in the western mass consciousness. (Why Chernobyl, widely accepted as a genuine accident, supersedes Nanking as an atrocity in the minds of many is an entire paper unto itself.)

That said, Kuang is herself a Chinese person. The Rape of NankingThe novel’s mere dedication – “This is for Iris,” referring to the late Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, the first monograph published in English that truly exposed the details of the Nanking Massacre to a broader Western audience – implies a closeness to the subject matter, a personal entanglement I can confidently guess Bradley Parker lacked with the Chernobyl incident. It may be argued it is her prerogative to internalize, reshape, and share a version of the Nanking massacre and the less obvious, but nevertheless present and important broader strokes of the Sino-Japanese conflict, including human experimentation and forced prostitution. My love for this book stems, I think, from this: the villains from the Federation of Mugen are human beings. They are not Parker’s mutants, rendered physically monstrous and mindlessly malignant.

In being “inspired” by atrocity, Kuang has maintained the most crucial aspect of the Nanking Massacre, which is that it was perpetrated by humans. It was humans who slaughtered and raped and stole and then tried to pretend it never happened, and it would be a disservice to reality to absolve human beings of that.

Anyway.

There is an unending supply of fiction “inspired” by real events, but speculative fiction in the posttraumatic context holds a particular place in this category, made famous by such literary giants as Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. The fantastic has long been a way writers can access atrocity without necessarily reliving it: Ghosts allow the dead to speak, allow forgotten and repressed memories to come to the surface. Beasts and monsters make convenient stand-ins for real-life oppressors, internal disorders of human empathy rendered bodily: fanged, clawed, winged and horned. A secondary-world brimming with magic obfuscates how closely faceless militaries mimic their real-life counterparts. South and Central America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and even the former Soviet Union have all produced novels engaging with the unreal as analogue to oppression, and in doing so legitimize speculative fiction as a genre capable of contending with and representing the real, and do so even more effectively than a genre like historical fiction. Historical fiction is, after all, a mirror, distorted, or perhaps a superimposition. In order to be “good,” the narrative must hold tightly to “the facts,” diverging only slightly, quietly and plausibly.

To be “inspired” by real-life events in speculative fiction is often to be in dialogue with conflicts both lesser and greater, and all the various manners in which humans are deficient in empathy and sagacity. That’s okay, I think. But some events feel like they belong to some people more than others – Chernobyl, Nanking, the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade, residential schools, and on and on.

But is it fair to ask the colonized, oppressed, traumatized to rehash the details of their suffering over and over, just so western academics like me can be pleased with how knowledgeable and introspective we are? So we can look down on people who don’t know, because they were never taught, and say, “How can you believe colonialism is over? Racism is over?” Even in the speculative context, to recreate a trauma for consumption is a deeply unpleasant and deeply vulnerable position. I can only imagine myself in, for example, Kuang’s place: carefully demarcating the violence and dehumanization endured by the Chinese people and re-contextualizing it in a fantastic setting, a simultaneous reliving and distancing not everyone can or wishes to do themselves.

To tell a story is to be responsible for its effect, regardless of whether or not said effect was as intended. To tell a speculative story is the same, but with an added layer of nuance afforded by the fantastic.

When your trespassing American tourists are hunted by Russian mutants, whose real-life counterparts were good people who lived and died as human beings, what are you saying? When your villains mirror quite exactly the villains you know to exist in reality, despite the magic of the world around them, what are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?


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

 

Sirens Scholarship Fundraising: Professionals

Sirens has a mission: to provide a welcoming space for our attendees to discuss the remarkable, diverse women of fantasy literature. Each year, Sirens raises funds to provide scholarships to help a number of people attend Sirens and add their voices to those conversations. Our scholarship fundraising will continue through January, but this week, we want to highlight the importance of our scholarships for librarians, educators, and publishing professionals. In past weeks, we discussed
our scholarships for people of color,
those submitting exemplary programming proposals, and
those with financial hardships.

Sirens invites everyone with an interest in the remarkable, diverse women and nonbinary people of fantasy literature to attend our conference and participate in our conversations. Our attendees run the gamut of vocations—readers, scholars, librarians, educators, publishing professionals, authors, and more—and each of their voices is critical to the Sirens community.

The beauty of Sirens, in fact, is in the many different perspectives, experiences, and identities that our attendees represent in our conversations and community. Each year at Sirens, you’ll see readers present alongside librarians, booksellers collaborate with educators, and authors learn from scholars.

Over the past decade, however, we have discovered that it’s significantly easier for some people to attend Sirens than others. In particular, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals, who so often provide exceptional services to book-loving communities are, especially at the beginning of their careers or when working with underserved populations, often poorly paid for their efforts.

These librarians, educators, and publishing professionals who are creating the books we love and putting them in the hands of book-loving people everywhere have perspectives and experiences that make the Sirens conversations and community more vibrant and more brilliant.

We are again asking the Sirens community to raise funds to help some of these professionals attend Sirens. Assuming that we reach our fundraising goals, we will provide a Sirens registration and round-trip shuttle ticket to one librarian, one educator, and one publishing professional (which may be anyone from an editor to an agent to a publicist to a cover designer to a bookseller). As part of the application process, we will ask for a resume and a statement of interest.

If you can—whether that’s $5 or a full scholarship of $325—we hope that you’ll help us provide these scholarships!


 

Casey’s Fantasy Romance List

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

Are you interested in books combining fantasy settings with prominent romance arcs? Then have I got a list for you!

Wherever your preferences fall on the spectrum of fantasy romance to romantic fantasy, these are some of my recent favorites that bring brilliantly imaginative worlds and breathtaking romance together.

 

Empire of Sand
1. Empire of the Sand (The Books of Ambha #1) by Tasha Suri

In a setting inspired by Mughal India, this book excels at actually everything, whether it’s dancing magic or navigating different cultural heritages. There are no easy choices in this book, and Tasha Suri does absolutely stunning work with consent under oppression.

Radiance
2. Radiance (Wraith Kings #1) by Grace Draven

Grace Draven is my go-to for fantasy romance. She’s particularly good with the nuances of cultural exchange in this book, and whether it’s in the midst of battles or feasts or private jokes, the protagonists take pains to be respectful and gentle with each other despite their obvious external differences.

Witchmark
3. Witchmark (The Kingston Cycle #1) by C.L. Polk

This is an m/m gaslamp fantasy murder mystery between a mage doctor in hiding and the most gorgeous fae he’s ever seen. Their romance is the sweetest, but they find time to also fundamentally challenge the entire oppressive system their world operates under, as one does.

Troubled Waters
4. Troubled Waters (Elemental Blessings #1) by Sharon Shinn

This book starts out slow and immersive and just builds and builds. The entire series is brimming with political intrigue, and I adore this heroine who will literally move oceans to save people, heedless of propriety. As a bonus, this series is perfect for readers looking for romance without explicit sex on the page!

Polaris Rising
5. Polaris Rising (Consortium Rebellion #1) by Jessie Mihalik

This is the rogue space princess adventure romance we all need in our lives. The heroine is incredibly self-aware and competent, she does not compromise for alpha male bullshit, and it’s the best.


Casey Blair writes fantasy novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. After graduating from Vassar College, her adventures have included teaching English in rural Japan, attending the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and working as an indie bookseller. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest and is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring forests around the world, and spoiling cats terribly.

 

Sirens Scholarship Fundraising: Ramirez-Puckett

As we raise funds for our annual scholarships, Sirens is featuring posts by past scholarship winners. We hope that these posts will help potential donors see the impact of these scholarships and how they work to make Sirens’s conversations and community more vibrant, more diverse, and more inclusive. This week, our guest post is by Jordan Ramirez Puckett, a past recipient of a financial hardship Sirens scholarship. In previous weeks, Jennifer Shimada shared her thoughts about receiving a Sirens scholarship for a person of color and s.e. smith shared their thoughts about receiving a Sirens scholarship for an exemplary programming proposal. Next week, we’ll feature one more post by a past scholarship recipient. These perspectives were first published in 2018.

I am currently pursuing my MFA in Playwriting at Ohio University. There is​ a lot to love about
my graduate program. I have a strong and supportive cohort. I am guided by two playwriting professors who are genuinely invested in my career and artistic success. But the program here is not perfect. My professors are men, established in their careers, with blind spots when it comes to evaluating the writing of a female twenty-something playwright. And when I started to write my most recent play, To Saints and Stars, I realized that there was another blind spot as well. This play is about two lifelong friends, Zoe and Sofia. Zoe is pregnant with her first child and
Sofia is preparing to go on the first manned mission to Mars. I soon learned that the subject of science fiction was viewed with some derision amongst the professors I spoke to. I had to look
outside of my program to find a home where I could learn about writing fantasy and science fiction. And I had to look even harder if I wanted to be in a room led by women.

As you might have already guessed, I found that artistic space at Sirens in 2018. Being a graduate student, I do not have the disposable income to whisk me off to the conference of my dreams. And try as I might to get funding through my university (and believe me, I did try), I was unsuccessful on that end as well.

I knew that the only chance I would have to join the Sirens community would be to be awarded a scholarship. And to my unexpected delight, one evening in May, I received an e-mail that offered me the chance to join the conference for its tenth year.

I soon checked out as many books on the Sirens reading list as I could from the library to prepare myself for the conference. I have always been interested in fantasy and science fiction literature, but it had been some months since I picked up a book that wasn’t a published play. I was glad that I read twenty books before arriving in Colorado, because I was introduced to some truly amazing authors and books that will stick with me. However, despite my reading and planning out my ideal conference schedule, I realized once I got to the conference hotel, nothing could prepare me for this experience.

I knew a couple of attendees from home, but most of the people I met were complete strangers who invited me to lunch when they saw me lost and wandering around town. Once the programming started, I went to ten presentations / panels / workshops / discussions in two days. I couldn’t get enough. The panel “Navigating the White Gaze” forced me to examine my own work. Even though I am a Xicana writer who writes almost exclusively Latina protagonists, I was forced to question whether I was subconsciously writing for a white audience. Since my play deals with the intersection between science and religion, I knew that I had to attend the “Godpunk” panel. As a person of faith, I worry about entering spaces where religion can be an easy punching bag for all that is wrong with the world. But I can’t quite describe the experience of seeing writers and readers deal with spirituality and religion in their work with such honesty and care. The panelists managed to challenge and inspire me. I was forced to rethink my own work. Was I falling into tropes? Creating a world in which the ignorant chose faith, while the enlightened chose science? I went to so many more incredible presentations that opened my eyes to how I write and read, I couldn’t possibly describe them all here. I hope that you will trust me when I say that the programming at Sirens this year left an indelible mark on my work.

My last morning at Sirens, I watched with amusement as people tried to outbid one another on fun and fantastical auction items. I also felt a tinge of sadness that I couldn’t participate in the bidding. Not simply because I wanted a fabulous new coat, or a bag of curated books, although I did want all those things, but because I knew that the auction supports much of Sirens’s operational costs. In that moment I realized just how much this weekend had meant to me. I wanted to give all the money I had to support an organization who had first supported me.

My last morning at Sirens, I watched with amusement as people tried to outbid one another on fun and fantastical auction items. I also felt a tinge of sadness that I couldn’t participate in the bidding. Not simply because I wanted a fabulous new coat, or a bag of curated books, although I did want all those things, but because I knew that the auction supports much of Sirens’s operational costs. In that moment I realized just how much this weekend had meant to me. I wanted to give all the money I had to support an organization who had first supported me.


Jordan Ramirez Puckett‘s plays include Pajarita, Restore, Inevitable, The American Traitor, The Fourth Year, Aphrodite’s Lounge, and Blank Maps. Jordan’s work has been produced and/or developed by Abingdon Theatre Company, San Francisco Playhouse, 2Cents Theatre Group, Goodman Theatre, PlayGround, Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, and Northwestern University. She is a BALTAN Core Member and a member of the LA Female Playwrights Initiative. Jordan is the associate artistic director at San Francisco Playhouse and earned a bachelor’s degree in Theatre and Psychology from Northwestern University.


 

Sirens Scholarship Fundraising: Financial Hardships

Sirens has a mission: to provide a welcoming space for our attendees to discuss the remarkable, diverse women of fantasy literature. Each year, Sirens raises funds to provide scholarships to help a number of people attend Sirens and add their voices to those conversations. Our scholarship fundraising will continue through January, but this week, we want to highlight the importance of our scholarships for those with financial hardships. In past weeks, we discussed our scholarships for people of color and those submitting exemplary programming proposals; next week, we will address our hope that we’ll be able to provide scholarships for librarians, educators, and publishing professionals.

Attending Sirens requires money.

Everyone knows this. Whether or not you’ve attended Sirens, at some point you’ve probably saved your pennies to go somewhere.

And Sirens knows this.

We want Sirens to be available to as many people as possible—and a critical part of that is making the Sirens registration price as low as possible. So each year, we price the Sirens registrations below the cost of providing the food, program book, and other benefits that come with those registrations. And each year, to cover the difference, we ask for additional support from those who can afford to do more.

This budget structure works for us only because the Sirens community is magnificent. Each year, amazing individuals offer additional support—whether that’s an extra $5 or $500 or a handcrafted auction item—to help Sirens continue to suppress its registration prices so that more people can afford to attend.

But those donations also do something more. Because sometimes, a lower registration price isn’t enough.

Most of us have been there. Most of us have yearned for an opportunity that we wanted, and maybe we needed, but that we couldn’t afford to take. Most of us, at some point in time or another, have depended on the kindness of strangers.

So each year, the Sirens community raises funds to provide Sirens registrations and round-trip shuttle tickets to those with financial hardships. Assuming that we reach our fundraising goals, we will provide three of these scholarships in 2020. Everyone is welcome to apply; we ask only that you state that you have a financial hardship. We will select recipients randomly from among the applicants.

If you can—whether that’s $5 or a full scholarship of $325—we hope that you’ll help us provide these scholarships!

Donations for the scholarship program will be accepted through January 31, 2020.


 

Sirens Scholarship Fundraising: s.e. smith

As we raise funds for our annual scholarships, Sirens is featuring posts by past scholarship winners. We hope that these posts will help potential donors see the impact of these scholarships and how they work to make Sirens’s conversations and community more vibrant, more diverse, and more inclusive. This week, our guest post is by s.e. smith, a past recipient of a Sirens scholarship for an exemplary programming proposal. Last week, Jennifer Shimada shared her thoughts about receiving a Sirens scholarship for a person of color. Later this month, we’ll feature posts by other past recipients. These perspectives were first published in
2017.

Proposing programming for Sirens is always a delight and a challenge.

It’s delightful because this is a convention where attendees are ready for—and expect—programming that transcends the ordinary. Sirens attendees aren’t looking for 101-level content and generic material that they could encounter anywhere, rewarmed versions of prior work, or presenters who talk down to them. They’re looking for innovative, thoughtful programming that is also provocative and demanding. Sirens is a conference that allows and encourages presenters to explore their limits.

That means thinking deeply about what we want to communicate when we propose programming, and assembling presenters who will do the topic justice, and perhaps bring a few surprises as well. For someone who relishes opportunities to dig more deeply and present people with fresh angles on even the most tired of subjects, this is very much my jam, both at the dais or in the audience. Whether I’m watching guests of honor in conversation with each other or attending a workshop, I know that I do so in a space that is created by attendees for each other, and that makes it a rich, intimate environment for exploring complex and sometimes fraught topics.

It’s a challenge for these reasons as well, of course, especially with such a slate of fantastic programming each year. The sight of people agonizing over program books as they compare notes with friends is ubiquitous at Sirens; I’ve walked past many a cluster of people complaining that there’s “too much” and it’s simply impossible to choose between two or three equally fascinating things happening at the same time—and I have done my fair share of complaining about this situation myself.

Being honored with a scholarship for submitting an exemplary programming proposal was, under these circumstances, a particularly meaningful recognition. Developing programming proposals that entice attendees is difficult enough; creating programming that speaks to the spirit of Sirens and stands out to both the programming vetting board and the scholarship board is no mean feat.

Being recognized with a scholarship feels like an expression of belonging and value to the Sirens community.

When I received the news that my panel proposal had been accepted for a scholarship, it came coincidentally at a fairly terrible personal time. On top of a series of expensive and dreadful things happening to me in quick succession, I was having a lot of self-doubt and internal questions about the future of my career and the kinds of contributions I could make to communities like Sirens. That email happened to land in my inbox on a particularly unpleasant day, and it was incredibly affirming. That’s a feeling everyone should have on a regular basis; receiving a scholarship wasn’t just about the money, but about the recognition.

But it is, bluntly, also about the money. Conferences, and Sirens is no exception, can be costly to attend, and an unfortunate result of this is that their attendance can be limited to those most able to afford it, which means missing out on many lovely people and tremendously valuable perspectives. It means missing out on professional development and building community with like-minded people: the people I see becoming fast friends in the buffet line, being thoughtful and accommodating to make sure others are included, asking meaningful questions at panels and paper presentations, and roping newbies into groups going to dinner or headed for the hot tub. My people.

The efforts to make Sirens inclusive and affordable are only possible through the generosity of donors and the volunteers who put in thousands of hours of work each year to make this conference happen. I’m honored to have received a programming scholarship, but I’m also honored to be a donor, to continue paying that feeling forward to others. The Sirens community comes from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and donating isn’t always possible for everyone, nor should anyone feel awkward or bad for not being able to make a donation. I believe, though, that the contributions of those of us who are able to do so are a powerful way to uplift Sirens—and make it, distinctively, a community, the only conference I make a priority to attend every year, the conference that has me refreshing the programming page on a regular basis for the year’s announcements, the conference I am always harping on friends to attend, not simply a few days I spend in a hotel every year. That Sirens feeling, from opening plenary to closing auction, is one I long to bottle up and distill against those dark nights of the soul.


s.e. smith is a Northern California–based writer and journalist who has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Rolling Stone, Vice, Teen Vogue, Rewire, Esquire, The Guardian, Pacific Standard, and many other fine publications, in addition to several anthologies, including The Feminist Utopia Project and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy. smith’s work focuses on an intersectional social justice-based approach to exploring social issues, with a particular interest not just in diversity and representation, but in those acting as creators, editors, and gatekeepers of media and pop culture.


 

Gillian Chisom: Lost Girls and Open Doors: On Susan Pevensie and the Complex Legacy of the Portal Fantasy

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 Gillian Chisom!

Lost Girls and Open Doors:
On Susan Pevensie and the Complex Legacy of the Portal Fantasy

By Gillian Chisom

“Each of us has a private Austen,” Karen Joy Fowler wrote in her novel The Jane Austen Book Club. Fowler’s evocative opening line captures something of the complicated afterlife of an author whose books have become many things to many people: the idea of a private Austen suggests not only the ways in which any author’s stories can become a repository for the hopes and fears of a particular reader, but also the speculation about the woman herself that Austen’s own somewhat enigmatic personal life inspires in Fowler’s characters. “Private,” a word with deep roots in traditional ideas about femininity, evokes the related concept of (feminine) secrets: those that Austen herself kept, those that her characters keep or fail to, those that her modern readers keep from themselves and each other. At the same time, the private Austens that Fowler’s book club members cherish become sources both of individual strength and of connection with the group: while none of the characters in The Jane Austen Book Club read exactly the same Austen, they are still able to bring their private versions into the space that they share, with transformative results.

For those of us who grew up reading fantasy literature, especially those of us who grew up reading fantasy literature as girls, I would propose my own version: each of us has a private Susan Pevensie.

While by no means universal, the experience of reading C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia as a child or young adult and feeling distressed or even betrayed by Susan’s fate is one that many of us share. In The Last Battle, we are told that Susan has stopped believing in Narnia, dismissing it as a game she played with her siblings as children, and has shifted her interest to “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” While this brief explanation for Susan’s estrangement from Narnia allows for many possible interpretations, it seems clear enough that Susan falls from grace because she embraces the “wrong” version of adult femininity, though Lewis leaves us with few ideas of what the right version would look like. Given Lewis’s explicitly Christian worldview, one obvious interpretation is that Susan has lost her faith sometime between the end of Prince Caspian and the beginning of The Last Battle: in Narnia, in Aslan, perhaps even in her own memories. As a Christian child and young adult, that was certainly my own interpretation, though I found it difficult to believe that Susan actually forgot about Narnia: it made more sense to me that she simply convinced herself that it hadn’t been real as a means of self-protection. After all, not only had she and her siblings had to return to the real world after growing to adulthood in Narnia, but at the end of their second visit Aslan had told her that she would not be able to return, ever. It made sense to me that her grief might manifest in denial as an attempt to cope with the painful reality of losing an entire world, an entire life, that she and her siblings had claimed for themselves, even though I still believed that her response was misguided.

Other readers of Narnia have offered their own interpretations of Susan’s turn to “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Most famously, J.K. Rowling commented on Susan’s fate in an interview from 2005: “She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a problem with that.” Rowling’s comment implies that Lewis’s problem was an inability to see sex and religious devotion as anything other than contradictory, which seems plausible enough. The “nylons and lipstick” line certainly implies sex or at least sexuality, which in Lewis’s world are indistinguishable from adult femininity itself. Indeed, Lewis’s depictions of female characters, taken as a whole, imply that he could only understand adult women as either highly sexualized (and therefore frivolous at best and evil at worst), or sexless and therefore safe; in other words, the virgin/ whore dichotomy is alive and well in Narnia.

However, Susan’s characterization elsewhere in the series implies that she was in danger of losing faith even before she discovered lipstick.

In Prince Caspian, Susan spends much of the book refusing to believe that Lucy has seen Aslan, and has to be reprimanded by the Lion-god himself for “listening to fears.” The 2008 film interprets Susan’s attitude as caution borne of the fear of being yanked back to England again, an interpretation that adds some of the emotional realism that the book lacks. In The Horse and His Boy, which takes place during the adult Pevensies’ reign in Narnia, another character describes Susan as “more like an ordinary grown-up lady” in contrast to Lucy, who goes to war with her brothers while Susan stays home. In Prince Caspian, likewise, we learn that Susan excels at archery but is too gentle to fully enjoy competition.

Susan’s characterization up until The Last Battle suggests that the version of her who grew up in Narnia embraced a more traditional, and therefore acceptable, version of femininity. However, Lewis’s descriptions of the adult Susan also imply that even this purer version of female adulthood is virtuous only up to a point. Susan’s distaste for battle, in particular, contrasts unfavorably with “the Valiant” Lucy’s willingness to go to war for Narnia (even though Lucy’s gender relegates her to a role on the sidelines, healing the wounded); after all, no one wants to be “an ordinary grown-up lady.” Perhaps recognizing this, the 2008 film reinterpreted Susan as a warrior queen, a depiction that in one sense gave her more power, but in another simply reinforced Lewis’s negative attitude towards the idea of a woman choosing not to participate in war.

Susan’s ambivalence towards Narnia upon the Pevensies’ return in Prince Caspian also highlights a larger problem with traditional portal fantasy as a genre: its inability to grapple with the trauma that would likely result to the child protagonists of these stories from the experience of moving between worlds. However, a new generation of fantasy novelists has taken up these problems in their own versions of the portal fantasy, which come to the trope with an awareness of its inherent problems.

Laura Weymouth’s The Light Between Worlds responds directly to Lewis’s work, telling the story of two sisters, Evelyn and Philippa, who travelled from London to a magical land called The Woodlands as children during the Blitz and spent several years there. Evelyn, the younger sister, has sunk into an increasingly deep depression since their return; the book explores in painful detail how the loss of a magical world might affect the mental health of a child who had come to feel at home there. At the beginning of the book, the sisters have had a falling out, and Philippa is in college in the U.S., attempting to build a separate life for herself. When Evelyn disappears, Philippa returns to England to look for her, a task that forces her to reckon with their shared past.

Philippa eventually discovers that Evelyn has indeed found a door back to the Woodlands; in one sense, the story has a happy ending, as Evelyn is able to return to the world where she feels she belongs. However, Evelyn’s return comes at the price of permanent separation from her sister and the rest of their family. While Philippa accepts this separation as the only way forward for both of them, she also recognizes the loss: “My sister stands before me now, rooted in the soil of another world, and she’s always been more than I thought. She’s always been Evelyn of the Woodlands, whose heart called its way home. But I am plain Philippa Hapwell, and my heart belongs to no particular country. It belongs instead to all the people I’ve loved. A good part of it lies here and if I leave it behind, I will never be whole again. I’d be even less, though, if I stayed. More of me rests in the world to which I was born, and it’s time for me, too, to find my way home.” (P. 349)

Weymouth’s book explores the emotional and mental cost of having lived in two worlds, both for the sister who leaves for the magical land and for the sister who stays. The Light Between Worlds makes explicit what was only ever implicit in The Chronicles of Narnia: that choosing one world over another will always come with loss, and that that loss is even more painful when one does not have a choice. Weymouth’s counterpart to Aslan, a stag named Cervus, tells the Hapwell siblings that he will not call them back to the Woodlands, but at the end of the novel reveals that Evelyn has always had the choice to return if she chose, while Evelyn herself confesses that she only waited so long in the hope that she could adjust to being back for her family’s sake (p. 347).

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan tells the Pevensie siblings that “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a queen or king,” but the promise seems hollow when all of the Pevensies are eventually barred from returning; one can understand why Susan might have wanted to forget Narnia.

Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands also interrogates the portal fantasy, through the story of a thirteen-year-old named Elliot who’s recruited by a school on the other side of a wall in rural England that separates our world from the magical Borderlands. Brennan and Elliot are both self-aware about the tropes they’re interrogating, with poignant and often hilarious results. Elliot, for instance, is an avowed pacifist who works hard to propose diplomatic solutions to conflicts with various magical creatures, often meeting resistance from the militaristic Borderlands leaders. Brennan’s implied critique of the centrality of war to much of traditional fantasy literature, especially war fought by protagonists who are often children or teens, is incisive and refreshing. In Other Lands also grapples with the theme of choosing one world over the other, and the attendant loss: throughout the book, Elliot wrestles with the decision of whether to return to the Borderlands for good. When he does decide to go back for the last time, he confronts his neglectful father: “Do you know something else? If you’d loved me, I would have stayed,” said Elliot. “If you loved me, I would never have gone.” (P. 340)

Elliot’s confrontation with his father lays bare what traditional portal fantasies like Lewis’s often only hint at: that children would not need to go to magical worlds unless they were missing something in their own. Elliot’s choice to return to the Borderlands does not come without pain, but his only other option is stay in a place where he is unloved and unwanted. The portal world, while often becoming a source of loss in itself, can also function as compensation for children who have already experienced loss in their own world. While masquerading as simple escapism, portal fantasies have always at their core been stories about lost or neglected children looking for a way home. Weymouth and Brennan both highlight this theme by writing protagonists who are older and more self-aware then those of traditional portal fantasies, who understand the weight of their choices and the unfairness of having to make them in the first place.

In the end, Susan Pevensie does not only lose Narnia: in the final chapter of The Last Battle, we discover that the three other Pevensie siblings and their parents have all died in a train crash, and are now in the better, truer version of Narnia, Aslan’s country. What remains unspoken but implied at the end of the book is that Susan remains alive somewhere in the mundane world, alone, as a direct consequence of her choice not to accompany her siblings on their final mission.

My Susan Pevensie is a girl who lost her faith in Aslan but gained faith in herself, faith that allowed her to choose her own survival despite the loss that accompanied that choice.

As I have faced my own painful choices, most poignantly the choice to let go of my Christian identity in pursuit of healing and wholeness, Susan’s story has felt like the perfect metaphor for my own losses. As a child and young adult, I blamed Susan for her loss of faith; now, I blame C.S. Lewis for his failure to imagine a world where she never had to choose.

If the bittersweet heart of the portal fantasy is the loss that comes with choosing between worlds, then I find myself wondering: is it possible for us to imagine a world where our protagonists do not have to choose? In one sense, growing up inevitably involves making choices that come with loss; however, the choices that characters like Susan Pevensie must make in traditional portal fantasies often feel contrived, the product of a rigged system in which an all-powerful authority makes the rules. While books like The Light Between Worlds and In Other Lands acknowledge the pain and trauma of those losses, they still begin from the premise that it cannot be possible to live in both worlds. What would it look like, to tell a story where a girl like Susan Pevensie could move between worlds without sacrificing her full selfhood? What would it mean for us to imagine a version of the portal fantasy where the protagonists are able to find their way home and also remain whole? As portal fantasy continues to evolve, I hope that the next generation of writers will continue to find transformative answers to these questions.

 


Gillian Chisom

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

 

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