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Archive for June 2020

Sirens Newsletter – Volume 12, Issue 6 (June 2020)

This month:

June has been a lot, hasn’t it? We know our Sirens community is full of caring, conscientious people who want to make a difference, whether your activism happens on the streets, on the page, in the houses of legislature and justice, or in your own living room. Your voice and your heart are important, so we hope that you’re taking care of yourself, too!

Black Lives Matter

One of the goals of Sirens is to make space for, and then actively amplify, marginalized voices. Our society is premised on structures and systems that relentlessly amalgamate power in the hands of white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied men. We are committed to dismantling those structures and systems.

Always, but especially now as we decry yet more murders of Black people at the hands of police, we strongly recommend that you put speculative works by Black women, nonbinary, and trans folks at the top of your reading list—and this month we offered you 50 brilliant speculative works to get you started.

These 50 works are about Black people, Black communities, about Black people seeking the stars, accomplishing six impossible things before breakfast, and changing the world. They are about Black heartbreak, Black defiance, Black resoluteness, and Black hope. And we hope you’ll buy these—and other works—from bookstores owned by Black people.

 

Pride Month

It’s Pride Month! And we are celebrating with 150 queer speculative works by amazing women, nonbinary, and trans authors! The first 100 we’ve read and enthusiastically recommend; the last 50 we’re excited to add to our TBR lists. And so, so many of these works don’t just feature queer representation, but are unabashedly, wonderfully, gloriously queer af.

Some of these works speak of discovering yourself and all your magnificent facets. Some speak of finding your place in an unwelcoming world. Some are all swashbuckling pirates and furious dragons and defiant witches, who just happen to be gay or bi or demi or ace.

These 150 books are just a drop in the proverbial bucket of LGBTQIAP+ representation in speculative works. May one new TBR book lead you to another and then another. Keep reading, writing, and going. Happy Pride from all of us!

 

Registration and Programming

Our vetting board was hard at work this past month, selecting a slate of programming sure to dazzle, challenge, and delight! This year’s panels, papers, workshops, and roundtables will celebrate so much of what we love about fantasy fiction, gender dynamics, and this year’s theme of villains. We can’t wait to explore these topics with you in October and see what conversations the programming generates.

Remember that if you’ve been accepted for programming, you must be registered by July 10! And that’s super-convenient, because…

On July 11, the registration for Sirens 2020 will increase to $275! If you haven’t registered yet, this is an excellent time to do so. Your registration gets you access to all programming, all keynotes, and a special T-Shirt featuring the Sirens 2020 logo. Visit our website to register!

 

Faculty Interviews

This month, we began introducing the incredibly talented people who will be running workshops during Sirens Studio. Each interview will help you get to know your Studio faculty a bit better, as well as previewing the material they’ll present in their workshops.

Jae Young
Jae Young, a nonprofit lawyer who will be teaching the career development workshop “Working for Change: Can We Wear Capes in Real Life?”, answers questions about advocating for immigrants and victims of domestic violence, avoiding burnout, escaping into fantasy fiction, and finding hope in adversity.
Anna-Marie McLemore
Anna-Marie McLemore will be teaching “Finding Magic: Enchanting Characters and Their Worlds,” a writing workshop on magical realism. In their interview, they discuss writing re-imagined fairy tales, coming out as nonbinary, and living louder and braver in real life and on the page.
Casey Blair
Casey Blair, author and bookseller, talks about the books she loves to recommend, gives us some tea-pairings for her Tea Princess Chronicles, and previews her workshop which will help attendees “Yeet the Patriarchy.”

Don’t those workshops sound fantastic? There’s still time to register for Studio, but spaces are going fast, so nab yours now!

 

Sirens Essays

Summertime means another round of amazing Sirens essays! We are delighted to share these brilliant minds exploring the fantasy genre in all its fabulousness and foibles.

  • In “Have You Seen Her? Looking for Shuri on the Pages of Her Comics Series”, comedy and fiction writer Kaia Alderson examines the frequent absence of the title character in the Marvel trade paperback written by Reginald Hudlin and the 10-issue run of the standalone Shuri comic written by Nnedi Okorafor and Vita Ayala. “With a woman of African descent as the main writer penning the story, I expected a storyline that centered a heroine of African descent. Instead, it soon veered off into adventures where Shuri teamed up with other (mostly male) people and non-human lifeforms.”

  • Author Ausma Zehanat Khan offers a deep dive into in Pakistani Pashtun culture and its influence on her writing in “Feminism, Patriarchy and Faith in The Khorasan Archives”. “I decided that I would write a series that put women at the front and center of the Islamic tradition, a tradition they would then use to liberate themselves from oppression and to reclaim their personhood and dignity. In writing the series, I began with the minute and personal—my own background—then expanded to encompass the astonishing sweep of the Islamic civilization.”

 

Sirens Chats

Connection is so important in trying times, and we have loved seeing your faces through virtual means when we can’t be together in reality! Our next Sirens Zoom chat will be Friday, July 10 at 8 p.m. Join us to talk about what you’ve been reading, release some tension, and take some time away from the stresses of daily life to hang out with your amazing fellow Sirens. To receive emails about these online events so you always know when to click that camera on, send us a message at help at sirensconference.org, and we’ll add you to the list.

For a video-free option for interaction, you can join us on Twitter! Our June hashtag chat got rescheduled for Thursday, July 2 at 8 p.m. Follow the hashtag #SirensChat to participate in a discussion about fashion in SFF, mundane and magical, ridiculous and sublime.

 

Books & Breakfast

Many of you are familiar with our Books and Breakfast program, but in case you aren’t: Each year at Sirens, we select a number of brilliant, controversial, and just plain popular books relevant to the theme and then invite attendees to bring their breakfast and discuss them during Sirens. This is a tremendous way to showcase the breadth of each year’s theme—and a great excuse to gather to discuss great books.

Here are this year’s selections, on a theme of villains! And check out our mini-reviews of the first two, Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda and Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; we’ll review the rest later this summer.

  • A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
  • Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
  • Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
  • Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
  • Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
  • The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
  • Wilder Girls by Rory Power

 

Yet More Books!

June has been an amazing month for readers! Let us help you find your new favorite read!

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

And here are a few staff picks for this month:

Erynn’s Pick: Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster

Curse of the Night Witch

A mix of delightful and dark, this middle-grade quest book by debut author, Alex Aster, takes place in a world built from memories of the Latin American folktales she heard as child. The people of Emblem Island are born with their talents and destinies marked upon their skin. Not happy with his fate to follow in his Chieftess mother’s footsteps, twelve-year-old Tor Luna uses the New Year’s festival as an opportunity to make a forbidden wish – for a less mundane lot in life – only to wake up with an extremely short life line and the Night Witch’s mark.

Journeying across the island with two friends, he must conquer the trials from The Book of Cuentos, a collection of tales of strange enchantments of Emblem Island. Each tale is told separately between the main story chapters as a book-within-a-book that young readers can follow along and decipher clues to help Tor regain his old life and come to appreciate its value.

Cass’s Pick: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin

This book is just screamingly good. I like my fantasy politically complex and absolutely drenched in mythos, and A Song of Wraiths and Ruin delivers so magnificently that I found myself annoyed at all the things in my life that took my attention away from it. (Why hasn’t someone invented a way to read books in the shower yet?)

Inspired by West African folklore, this YA novel twines the stories of two determined people with mutually exclusive goals: Malik, who must kill the Crown Princess of Ziran in order to free his sister from an evil spirit and who enters the Solstasia competition for the chance to get close enough to do it–and Karina, the Crown Princess, who needs the heart of a king for a ritual to resurrect a murdered loved one and decides that offering her hand in marriage to the winner of the Solstasia competition is the quickest way to obtain one. But neither challenge is as simple as it seems, particularly when Malik and Karina start falling for each other. The tale that unfolds is exciting, original, and utterly magical.

 


And that wraps up June! Next month, we’ll be bringing you more faculty interviews, more Sirens essays, more Books & Breakfast previews, and more exciting news from the world of Sirens. Keep yourselves and your loved ones safe and well!

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).

 

Marie Brennan: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens registrar Erynn Moss speaks with Marie Brennan.

 

ERYNN MOSS: Can you believe it has been a decade since you were a guest of honor at Sirens? Our theme that year was faeries and you were in the midst of publishing your Onyx Court series, a centuries-long epic following the fae of London. But I recall you also led us in a workshop on writing fight scenes and your methods, like your writing, were so clear and enjoyable that it’s no surprise you’ve continued to dedicate time to teaching. Recently you held a similar workshop at Clarion West in Seattle and your New Worlds Patreon is essentially a world-building encyclopedia of knowledge gleaned from your folklore and anthropology background, which some of us love for the nerdy sake of human culture factoids. How are you balancing your time/efforts between teaching/essays and your own writing?

Marie Brennan

MARIE BRENNAN: This really has been the year of me diving back into teaching—not just the in-person workshop for Clarion West, but also a slew of online ones, plus I’ve taught for Cat Rambo’s Academy for Wayward Writers and the Kelly Yang Project, which works one-on-one with students in Hong Kong. The good news is, unlike when I taught in an academic context, I don’t have to do any grading!

To some extent I’m able to do both because they come out of different buckets in my brain. Writing nonfiction doesn’t make the same demands on me as fiction does—which isn’t the same thing as saying it doesn’t make any demands, but I’m able to shift gears and work on A when I’m tapped out on B. I’ll admit, though, that the Patreon is intermittently draining: it’s been running for over three years now, with an essay every single week, and I’m not anywhere near done yet. I’m still excited by the project as a whole, but I go through periods where I drag my feet on actually writing that week’s essay, because ugh didn’t I just do this last week?

In the long run, though, the New Worlds project has also been really good for my fiction. Brainstorming possible topics of discussion doubles as reminding me of cool things I could be doing with my worldbuilding—which has particularly fed into the Rook and Rose trilogy I’m writing with Alyc Helms. They’ve got the same academic background I do, and I’m only sort of joking when I call the trilogy “When Anthropologists Attack.” We’ve been having a blast thinking through all the different elements of the setting and how they could feed into our story. And hey, the other day I re-read my own Patreon essays on security systems as a refresher before Alyc and I worked out a plot problem—so they’re becoming a resource I can use, too!

 

ERYNN: A mythically rare and majestic beast, your dragon-naturalist heroine, Lady Trent, is—gasp!—an older female main character. Her story starts off in her youth but continues over a lengthy career of adventuring and all told from her post-retirement perspective. She frequently stops the flow of her story to inject humorous details and opinions from her mature viewpoint. As a reader, I felt like you were having a lot of fun with her. Can you tell us a bit about writing from this particular point of view? And to follow up, your latest book in that world, Turning Light into Darkness, is the story of Lady Trent’s granddaughter, Audrey Camherst, and written in an entirely different style. What was it like continuing in this world, but with such a different voice?

MARIE: I don’t think I’m the type of writer typically cited as having amazing character voices…but man, when they click, they click. It took all of a paragraph for Lady Trent’s voice to materialize when I first started poking at her story. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, the approach I took to the viewpoint was absolute gold for the story. It isn’t just first-person; it’s her consciously relating her life story to an audience presumed to exist in her own world. Which meant I could get away with absolutely everything, because in the end, it’s all characterization. I need to describe a jungle? You’re not just getting the jungle; you’re getting Isabella’s experiences and opinions of the jungle. I need to explain something about the setting? Drop in a line where she says, “You young people won’t realize this because things have changed so much, but here’s how it used to be.” I can play freely with foreshadowing and irony, because she has fun pulling her audience’s strings on purpose. I won’t say that suits every kind of novel, but for this series, it worked out perfectly.

As for Audrey, figuring out how to make her different was pretty much the first challenge I faced—especially since I decided to keep up the conceit where every story from that world exists in the world. Audrey’s novel is assembled out of many different kinds of documents, from diary entries to letters to newspaper articles to police reports…and yes, that did make for some interesting hurdles along the way, as I had to figure out how to get certain bits of information across. Audrey primarily shows up via her diary, which was a more immediate kind of first person than Isabella’s—told immediately after the fact, rather than decades later—but I also tried to modernize her tone, since she lives in a period that’s more like the 1920s than the late Victorian era. A lot of it also boiled down to thinking about the ways in which her situation is different from her grandmother’s: Her drive to prove herself comes less from facing sexism and more from feeling the burden of having famous relatives. She’s much more rash in some ways, and also much more careless of the consequences, because she trusts that her family will always be there to help her out.

 

ERYNN: You’ve got a reputation for very structured worlds and defined characters—and there was talk of color-coded reference charts on your coming collaborative trilogy. By contrast, one of your amazing short stories, “This Is How,” is so poignant and elegantly pared-down that it’s almost a poem. It’s essentially about transformation and makes me wonder how you, consciously or not, go about achieving that kind of squishy organic space for your characters when they might have the span of an epic series or less than 2,000 words.

MARIE: Now, let’s be clear: Those color-coded charts for Rook and Rose are very much an anomaly! On my own, I tend far more toward the “discovery writing” end of the spectrum, figuring out my plot as I go along. But when you’re working with someone else, and furthermore when you’re writing a two hundred thousand-word novel with complex intrigue and multiple viewpoint characters, you can’t just hold it all in your head as a vague cloud and hope the other writer can read your mind. Especially not when you find yourself describing your characters’ lives as “a layer cake of lies and deception”—that’s when you wind up having to chart who knows what, which persona of theirs knows it, who knows they know it, and when they learned it. There was a point along the way when Alyc and I realized our cleverness had looped clear around and stabbed us in the back; it took something like two hours of chewing on the problem before we found a way to un-break our plot.

A short story is not only a different beast, I think it might belong to a different taxonomical kingdom entirely. “This Is How” fell out of my head when I was getting ready for bed one night: I sat down and wrote the whole thing in a single go, and when I was done I wasn’t even sure what I had. Was it a story? Was it just a weird pile of words? It’s an intuitive creation, not one I consciously built. I’ve yet to have a novel happen that way, though I know for some writers it’s possible.

So I think part of the answer is that they’re different skill sets. I used to be abysmal at writing short stories, because I was a natural novelist first; it took me years before I even learned what a short story-sized idea looked like. But at this point I’ve published more than 60 short stories, so I’ve had lots of practice in how to do cool character stuff both in a few thousand words and in tens or hundreds of thousands.

Articulating how to do it, though…? Let’s just say there’s a reason I teach things like worldbuilding and fight scenes, not short story techniques. Just because I can do a thing doesn’t mean I can explain it.

 

ERYNN: As I mentioned, you are currently working with fellow anthropologist, Alyc Helms, under the joint pseudonym M.A. Carrick on a series called Rook and Rose, the first book of which (The Mask of Mirrors) is currently expected in January. The two of you met on an archaeological dig in Wales, which is a great backstory. You’ve mentioned how helpful travel and richness of experience has been to getting the factual historical details of your books correct. Since your Sirens Studio workshop will be “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions,” what sort of non-academic experiences have been helpful for you to accurately and sensitively represent cultural practices and beliefs?

MARIE: It’s a bit of a fuzzy boundary between academic and non-academic experiences, because a lot of it boils down to “I’ve read things.” For any kind of worldbuilding, I think one of the most valuable things you can do is read about actual cultures in the real world; don’t just draw all your ideas from novels and other forms of fiction. And while it’s fine to start with the simple, Wikipedia level of research—especially when the topic is one you aren’t very familiar with, and you need that kind of basic orientation—you can’t stop there. It takes an investment of time and energy, not just to understand X, but to understand the things around X that affect it and give it context. Especially since that can help you find the places where you have unexamined assumptions coloring how you process everything else.

But it helps not to rely entirely on books, either. That’s why travel is good, if it’s something you can afford, and anything else that helps get you out of your familiar zone. Sometimes I think the brain has a range of motion just like the body does, and building up mental flexibility means it’s that much easier to learn about New Thing #17.

 

ERYNN: Speaking of your Sirens Studio writing workshop, what can attendees expect from “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions”?

MARIE: It’s going to be a ground-up approach, focusing not on high-level theological concepts like “let’s design a pantheon” or “write a myth for how the world got created,” but on what it means to be a character in that world who follows that religion. When a faith is strongly felt, it tends to permeate people’s lives in a hundred different ways—and those ways are what’s going to show up the most frequently in a story.

 

ERYNN: 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?

MARIE: There’s no contest: Diana Wynne Jones.

Some of you reading this probably recognize her name, but for those who don’t: She was a British fantasy author, writing primarily for children and young adults (though the YA category didn’t really exist as we think of it now for most of her career). I credit her with turning me into a writer.

Like most kids, I made up stories. But when I was about nine or ten, I read her novel Fire and Hemlock—which, in addition to starting my fascination with the ballad “Tam Lin,” featured two characters who were writing a story together. It was the first time in my life I’d thought about that as a thing I could do, not just to entertain myself, but to entertain other people. I more or less decided on the spot that I wanted to be an author, and never let go of that decision.

(Though if you want to sample her work, I’m not sure I would recommend Fire and Hemlock as the place to start. It’s amazing, but its ending is also…really weird, and it was decades later that I found out part of the reason for its weirdness and half-comprehensibility was that I hadn’t read the T.S. Eliot poem woven into the logic and imagery of the climactic scene. Basically, I love that book even though I can’t entirely explain it.)

 


Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to Turning Darkness into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides.

For more information about Marie, visit her website or her Twitter.

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.

Lani Goto’s “Space Is the Place” Recommended Reading

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Lani Goto.

Space Is the Place

From a galaxy far, far away to the final frontier, space as a setting allows for just about anything to happen. Stories can range from hard sci-fi to basically fantasy, and cover any of the blurry areas in-between. But one commonality that space stories often share is the invitation to consider big questions about humanity.

These books—some of my favorite space stories I read last year—span the spectrum. Some are more philosophical, some are more action-y, but each one has a unique and thrilling take on what happens when people look to the stars.

 

Six Wakes

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

A crew of clones awakes onboard a generation ship to incomplete memories and the dead bodies of their previous selves. With the ship’s computer sabotaged, they are trapped together, uncertain of who was the murderer, but knowing it must be one of them.

The story moves from one character to another as they confront the current crisis and consider their lives before. Lafferty keeps the action at a brisk pace, continually ratcheting up the tension while the crew struggles to solve the mystery before it’s too late. Each clone has a complicated past, and their histories unfold and entangle in increasingly dire ways. There are few easy conclusions when it comes to the ethics of cloning and questions of identity, and they’ll have to decide what they can trust.

Ancestral Night

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Haimey Dz works on a space salvage tug with her small crew: pilot, shipmind AI, and two cats. When they take on a new job, they don’t expect much, but suddenly find themselves involved with a mysterious alien ship and a lot of very interested and very aggressive other parties. Haimey winds up facing various enemies and allies alone, and must consider her personal priorities and where she belongs.

One of the most disorienting and enjoyable aspects of this book is how casually Bear makes extraordinary things mundane; for the characters, things like body modifications for zero-G and neural interfaces are entirely normal. This matter-of-factness leads to a frank exploration of a society that spans planets and species, what that means for how personhood is understood, and how people choose to belong—or don’t.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare comes from a distant space station to the heart of the galactic Teixcalaanli empire, where she must uncover what happened to her predecessor and devise a way to save her people from encroaching annexation. She carries a hidden technology that could be the key to her station’s survival, but it also holds a tremendous challenge for her deepest self.

Martine delves into concepts of culture through incredible worldbuilding, creating a vast and intricate realm that feels vibrantly real. Mahit, a lifelong student of Teixcalaan society, pulls us into both the seductions and horrors of assimilation. It’s a piercing examination of colonization, and the way identity is endlessly created and recreated, despite—or sometimes even because of—our best efforts to preserve what we believe is true.

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather

A small group of nuns tend to their living ship as they journey into the distant reaches of space, ministering to far-flung colonies. But they all have different reasons for choosing this unusual life—and when the Church back on Earth sends a priest to check on them, the nuns must face their personal secrets and make some difficult choices.

This novella packs a lot into relatively few pages: the legacy of war, threats of deadly plague, forbidden romance, and of course the pregnancy of the giant space slug that is the ship. Yet for all the wild elements, Rather crafts a story with tenderness towards the complexities of faith and human connection, allowing for quiet joy and moments of the sublime.

Cosmoknights

Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer

Lesbian gladiators fight the patriarchy—literally!—In this neo-medieval space fantasy comic. Young mechanic Pan resents her backwater homeworld, and things get worse when her best friend Tara’s princess status takes her off-world to become a prize in an interstellar arena. Pan is lost…until she encounters two women who play to win a different kind of victory, and she sees a chance to rescue her BFF.

Templer’s colorful art and lively cast make for a vivid, action-packed adventure. As the story sweeps from glittering palaces to ominous back alleys, Pan eagerly jumps into the dangers of her new life, and begins to learn more about herself and the system she lives in. This high-energy, high-drama comic is like a good pop song that makes you want to grab your friends to dance and riot.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Four astronauts embark on a journey of exploration, observing and documenting unknown planets. As they travel further and further from home, encountering wonders and trials, contact with Earth begins to fray and their mission takes on a new kind of significance.

Chambers focuses on the relationships between the characters, each of them different but bound together in purpose and, remarkably, love. It’s an unusual direction for a subgenre that’s often based in the conflict arising from stuffing people in a tin can and flinging them into the dark. But this lens of genuine warmth and kindness makes the story hit harder as Chambers looks to space and asks what responsibility we have to science and to each other.


Lani Goto

Lani Goto grew up on a steady diet of fantasy books, but now it’s more like a mix of some fantasy, lots of sci-fi, and a bit of horror. In addition to reading, they enjoy cooking, hanging out with animals, and yelling at movies. They have a degree in art, and another in comics, though they currently work with engineering teams at the Wikimedia Foundation.

Books and Breakfast: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

This summer, we’ll be highlighting all eight of these titles, which we hope will allow you to make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens. Below are our list of selections and our first two summaries; we’ll have the other six in the months to come.

 
2020 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu, illus. by Sana Takeda

Monstress: Awakening

Do you like pretty things and want to cry? If you read fantasy for worldbuilding, there is so much to admire in Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, a lush, fantasy comics series currently on its 30th issue. The first volume of Monstress: Awakening collects the first six issues, and the world is an incredible combination of Art Deco architecture, steampunky science, magic inspired by Middle Eastern myths, and a matriarchal society—all set in an alternate-world Asia.

With its own creation myth, religion, and history, Monstress centers around the conflict between Arcanics—a mixed race resulting from humans and the immortal, animal-shaped Ancients—and the Cumaea, a “scientific” order of witches (humans) who consume and experiment on them to fuel their magic. The wars have been gruesome and violent, with their legacy carrying trauma and deep emotional scars in our protagonist, half-Arcanic and former child slave Maika Halfwolf. Maika, who can pass for human, has very big fish to fry—hell-bent on avenging her dead mother, she is the occasional host of a terrifying and supremely powerful monster, who emerges from the stump of her severed arm.

It’s hard to put into words just how breathtakingly epic Monstress is, how dark, and how beautiful. Though interspersed with moments of levity and wisdom from adorable cats, and rife with whimsical details (unicorn horses!), the themes here are heady: Liu drew on her Chinese grandparents’ experiences during World War II to show just how broken life is for the Arcanics. Like with Maika, sometimes the monster inside all of us just wants to burn it all down—and that destructive power is readily available to her. Takeda’s artwork deserves all the superlatives and can’t be understated, with fine detailed architecture and manga-style characters. Comes with major content warnings.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona

For tonally lighter fare, Noelle Stevenson’s web comic-turned-graphic novel Nimona will bring about giggles and snickers, as a teenage girl strongarms her way into being the sidekick to the “villainous” Lord Ballister Blackheart. Here be dragons! Knights who communicate via videocall! The properties of magic getting debated by goggle-wearing scientists! Ballister fits reluctantly into the role of villain ever since his arm got blown off by his archnemesis, the lushly locked Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin of the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. Who better to give him a push than orphaned, impulsive, sarcastic Nimona, a shapeshifter who can take the form of any living being of any size or strength?

Though the novel starts with quippy dialogue and witty punchlines as Ballister and Nimona form a rapport, there is a darker, more serious undertone amongst all the charm: Nimona is, well, an extremely efficient killer. Since Ballister is truly a cinnamon roll who eventually just wants to be loved, he’s at odds with himself when he realizes Nimona’s full and true power—and the chaos she brings. And since this fun blur between science and magic of a world doesn’t exclude patriarchy, teenaged girls must be controlled, right? They’re dangerous when they’re unpredictable.

Still, feel assured under Stevenson’s confident pen. Her artwork drives the heartfelt character design, and the amazing expressions on their faces are a joy—especially the eyebrows! And overall, Nimona is a tender, funny exploration of what makes a hero a hero and a villain a villain, with a sweet romance, enough silliness to give you a bellyache, and a moody girl to root for, even on her bad days. Because who doesn’t have those days?

Casey Blair: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens communication team member Faye Bi speaks with Casey Blair.

 

FAYE BI: If you had to describe your “reading profile” to a stranger (or to a bookseller, librarian, or other gatekeeper), what would you list as some of your favorite themes, subgenres, or tropes in fantasy literature? What makes a “Casey book”? (We know dragons and magical cats can’t be beat!)

Casey Blair

CASEY BLAIR: These days the story features grabbing me most are ambition, irreverence, and radical compassion. Often in combination: There’s nothing quite as satisfying to me as a woman who doesn’t hesitate to dare to give the finger to anyone who would keep her down, who lifts up others as she rises, who understands from the start that she’s valuable, and who is unabashedly competent—as well as inspiring—by virtue of existing without shame in the world we live in and taking up narrative space.

You can probably tell by how I frame that that what I personally look for in any books are excellent characters—not necessarily likable, but depicted in nuanced and interesting ways. I’ll forgive silly plot holes and unrealistic world-building if I care about the characters’ journeys. The specific tropes I respond to are necessarily informed by how they have worked or failed for me in media I’ve consumed historically, and over the years my fantasy tastes have broadly morphed from “whatever shounen anime and epic fantasy I can find” to “shadowy worlds and darkness are Cool” to “holy shit The Goblin Emperor.” They’re all part of me: A shounen-passion-style protagonist who triumphs in spite of all odds through sheer determination is always going to speak to me; I’m a sucker for dark lords and secret guilds of assassins; and a character who can bring people together toward difficult growth and actively reckons with oppressive legacies is inspiring.

Ultimately, a Casey book is fun to read, makes me think, and prominently features women characters owning their power. It’s hopeful without making light of real problems. If you have an action-packed story about a woman burning down the patriarchy with magic, I’m pretty much set.

You know what, I feel like you planned this, but now I have a book list for you: Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them. Those are Casey books. [Ed. note: Coming soon to the Sirens blog!]

 

FAYE: Speaking of dragons—because we know you love them—what are some of your favorite, semi-recent depictions of dragons in fantasy? How do they compare to the dragon books you read as a child?

CASEY: What a question. SO many semi-recent dragons, and I’m sure I’ll miss some anyway but here we go: the Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron, Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, The Forbidden Library series by Django Wexler, the Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, Given by Nandi Taylor, and the Chronicles of Elantra series by Michelle Sagara.

As for how they compare, in general the dragons of my childhood were less accessible than dragons often are now. Like, you weren’t going to be friends with Smaug and Shenron, and even dragons in Harry Potter were mostly separate from human concerns. You certainly weren’t going to presume some understanding of their internal emotional state! Whereas many semi-recent dragons are treated more like characters than physical embodiments of natural forces and magic. There’s certainly space for all kinds, but I do like this trend because it increases the dragons’ agency. And I typically find increased character agency makes stories more narratively satisfying.

Mind you, this isn’t to say all dragon books were like that in my childhood—like, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede existed, though I tragically didn’t know about Kazul until much later. But when we talk about trends, I think that’s the major difference.

 

FAYE: You are also the author of the online serial, the delightful Tea Princess Chronicles, which has baby dragons, a tea shop, a princess who finds a new purpose in life, and best of all, a community of awesome women. After nearly three years, what has surprised you most about this publishing journey? And please match a tea to each book in your trilogy—and tell us why.

CASEY: What’s surprised me most about this journey has been the reception, and that it has largely reflected the same earnestness as the story. Tea Princess Chronicles aims to be hopeful and validating by acknowledging bullshit is real and then doing something about it—and gradually empowering more and more people to work together to fix bigger and more entrenched injustices. A really broad spectrum of people have responded to that core. But someone once described this series to her husband as “fantasy for chicks,” and she would have been surprised to hear that the majority of the most vocal supporters of this story—that unabashedly focuses on things like female friendship and cozy domesticity—actually present masculine.

So many people over my life have told me that I couldn’t be a real shounen anime or action movie fan—that they’re too violent for a girl, especially one who presents as femme as I do; that they’re not romantic, aka for girls; and that I must be pretending. You know, classic fake geek girl nonsense. But I am here to tell you that the dudeliest of dudes will read romance and like it. We don’t have to force people into categories, actually! A lot of publishing wisdom advises authors to write for a specific reader, but I think this approach can actually do people a disservice: Targeting readers, and what people respond to in stories, is more complex than that. But it’s been truly lovely that people who needed this story found it, and I hope that will be true of everything I write.

As far as matching tea goes, another surprise has been how many people now assume I’m a tea expert! My friends, I know enough to fake what someone who actually knows about tea would look for, but I am writing MAGIC tea. (I am a tea enthusiast only: It’s not that I can’t appreciate the difference with a really special cup of tea, but I am also happy to drink tea that comes pre-bagged and is extremely over-steeped when I inevitably forget about it and have to reheat my cup. I will drink All The Tea. Except for chamomile, so please enjoy my share of that one.)

So the only possible answer here is for me to give you magic tea recommendations in line with the theme of each book. And each of these fantasy ingredients has a short story to go with it on the serial website. =)

For A Coup of Tea, it has to be the ever starbloom green tea blend. It’s a very smooth flavor but also a blooming tea that, once open, constantly changes form and makes every second worth attending to. This is the book where the heroine learns how to live in the world outside the royal court and discovers new possibilities in the smallest moments.

For Tea Set and Match, I’ll go with a red tea brewed with lellabean extract and honey, which has a full, robust flavor. This book is about fostering the connections between people, and this is a tea for feeling rooted but not tied, and what that combination of freedom and community support makes possible.

For Royal Tea Service, I’d go with a white tea with a drop of dreamreacher, light like floating but with a zing at the back. This is a tea for believing in your power to achieve whatever you can imagine without limit, and doing it.

 

FAYE: You love talking about books! In your time as an indie bookseller, which new-at-the-time or little-known book(s) did you make it your mission to hand-sell? What makes a book talk successful?

CASEY: Not including some of the dragon books above: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, Witchmark by C.L. Polk, An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee, Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik, and In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan. I know it’s a good book talk when I can literally sell it every single time I try. It’s always satisfying when I nail that from the get-go, but sometimes it takes me more tries to find the right angle to connect with people. Ultimately that’s what I’m trying to do: Connect a reader to a book they’ll love.

Book talking involves first understanding what a reader is actually looking for, which is often not what they say they are looking for. Pro tip: ask them what books/authors they’ve read and liked rather than what kind of book they want.

The second important part is being able to isolate what makes a book unique. It’s not enough to say it has great world-building—what kind of world-building? Does the book have magical action scenes that would translate epically to film, or numinous magical struggles focusing on interiority? Is this a light-hearted adventure or grimdark? Dry humor or silly humor? The same person can like multiple things, but if they don’t want to have to think about consequences, I’m not giving them The Goblin Emperor even though it’s a brilliant book that changed me. That’s not how targeting audience works. If you don’t pay attention to what someone actually wants or cares about, you’ll only get to give them a recommendation once.

Those two pieces, weirdly enough, seem to be what a lot of people miss. You have to understand the books, and you have to understand the reader’s interests. I can successfully recommend (by which I mean, people acquire them and later tell me they liked them) plenty of books I didn’t actually enjoy based on being able to isolate and match those features.

But the other piece is understanding at some level what people think they’re interested in. If you keep talking about a brilliant trope subversion to someone who doesn’t know they like that, you’re not going to get very far.

 

FAYE: A fellow Siren once described one of your Sirens papers as “incisive thoughts about intersectional feminism delivered with pointed and precise fury.” We can’t be more excited about your workshop intensive for readers titled “Yeet the Patriarchy: How Fantasy Stories Can Undermine Systemic Oppression” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

CASEY: Absolutely. I feel like I’ve been tiptoeing around facets of this topic with papers at Sirens for a while, so I’m excited to just dive in and be like, fuck it, we are looking at patriarchy as a whole, on a broader level, and how to actually deal with it in our fantasy stories.

I read so many books that are clearly trying to be feminist but only managing the level of “girls can wear pants too,” which, okay, baby steps matter, but also very obvious and not sufficient; it’s a shallow level of engagement that often misses how institutionalized oppression works entirely. It’s not enough for one girl to be so awesome she gets to wear pants, because patriarchy will always adapt to defend itself: That’s how we get exceptionalism and “you’re not like other girls,” which, spoilers, is also sexist!

But how can stories actually meaningfully and dramatically—as in, in a narratively satisfying way that can be depicted through prose—say anything about sexism as a whole? If we accept that sexism is systemic (uh, further spoilers: we will indeed be starting with that premise), how can a single character, or story, make a difference that acknowledges the layered ways the system works and addresses it in a way that isn’t reductive?

There’s not one simple answer—I mean, obviously; systems are entrenched and complicated. But we’re going to talk about the challenges of depicting communal action. We’re going to talk about not erasing traditionally feminine-coded modes of power, and not shoehorning only women into them. We’re going to talk about how we talk about stories, what gets termed “universal” or “fun” or “narratively satisfying” and why, and how that translates financially and intersectionally. We’re going to talk about how stories shape our understanding of what is, what is possible, and what is desired, and how in so doing they reinforce or undermine sexism. Stories train readers, and we can use that—we can also learn how to understand what a book is in fact doing, and we can learn to reach for and demand different kinds of stories.

Not dealing a single blow to patriarchy that it can watch for and defend against, but unraveling it with a thousand cuts from every direction.

 

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?

CASEY: Sirens was the first con I ever attended, back in 2009 when I was 20 years old. I arrived at the welcome banquet apparently way earlier than anyone else but the staff, so I dropped my stuff at a seat and desperately lingered over choosing desserts from the buffet so I wouldn’t be sitting alone at a table having obviously missed the memo on when Cool Folk Who Know How to Con show up. When I finally returned, other people had thankfully camped there, and in short order I was enthusiastically analyzing Saiyuki (the anime, not the epic) with a person whose nametag I eventually looked at and struggled not to do a double-take when it read Sherwood Smith—one of the guests of honor.

For Sherwood’s keynote, she eschewed the usual fantasy topics and instead burst out with an academic lecture on salon culture in 18th century France. It was amazing. At the ball when we were all dressed up, I asked to take a picture with her, and she asked, “Normal or funky chicken?” The only possible answer was, “Funky chicken, OBVIOUSLY,” so I have a fantastic picture doing the funky chicken in a ballgown with the first pro fantasy author I ever met.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Sherwood better since then, and she is the best model I could have wished for the kind of author I want to be. On the artistic side, she has written everything under the SFF sun without limiting herself and done it all excellently. (In fact, Banner of the Damned was the first book I read with an explicitly asexual protagonist and helped me start connecting dots for myself, before pushes like #WeNeedDiverseBooks started improving the landscape of inclusivity.)

On the professional side, she doesn’t hide how smart she is, she doesn’t act like she’s better than anyone else and is always happy to learn, and she goes out of her way to support writers, with no disdain toward anyone less experienced, or self-published, or any of the many ways people often find themselves unwelcome or looked down on in SFF publishing spaces. I am lucky to have met a woman so early in my publishing journey who demonstrates the space she makes in her worlds, and I hope I can do the same.

 


Casey Blair writes adventurous fantasy novels for all ages, including the novella Consider the Dust and her cozy fantasy serial Tea Princess Chronicles. After graduating from Vassar College, her own 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 can be found dancing spontaneously, exploring forests around the world, or trapped under a cat. For more information, visit her website or her Twitter.

Faye Bi works as a publicity director in New York City and spends the rest of her time cycling, reading, pondering her next meal, and leading the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea Is a Work for Our Time

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

Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea

Sometimes the right book finds you at the right time.

I purchased Sarah Pinsker’s Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea in April 2019. This will surprise none of you who are familiar with my particular reading predilections: Sooner or Later is a collection of speculative short stories, critically acclaimed, compared to the work of Kelly Link, repeatedly described as “weird.” If I were to read only three things the rest of my life they would be: fantasy/literary crossovers, young-adult high fantasy, and speculative short story collections described as “weird.”

However.

My to-be-read pile being what it is, and the Sirens bookstore stocking process being what it is, I put Sooner or Later on a shelf and there it sat for over a year. This is not an unusual occurrence, regardless that it is a sometimes regrettable occurrence.

I unearthed—not an egregious exaggeration—Sooner or Later in March 2020, as we were compiling Sirens’s ginormous list of spectacular speculative queer works. Pinsker is queer and Sooner or Later was, by reputation, full of queer representation. Surprising precisely no one, I claimed Sooner or Later as one of the spectacular speculative queer works that I’d read and recommend. (Surely you are not surprised that at Sirens we quite happily presume spectacularness in works by women and nonbinary authors?)

Let’s pause there.

I certainly do not need to tell you that, in the interim, a few cases of COVID-19 have ballooned into a worldwide pandemic or that yet another Black man murdered by the police has sparked worldwide protests. The world feels more dangerous, perhaps, than it did a few months ago, and more fragile. A world where you must choose between maintaining your quarantine and begging for justice. Like many of you, I am not immune from anxiety, despair, rage, or surprise sobbing. There is a certain isolation, a certain desolation, that comes with this dangerous, fragile new world.

And into this desolation comes Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea.

Pinsker’s masterwork—and it is a masterwork—thrives on desolation, nurtures it, consumes it.

She has, with great care, woven the inescapable misery of isolation into thread that binds both her craft and your reading experience. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper.

Sooner or Later opens with “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide.” A man has just lost an arm in a farming accident and, before he wakes, his parents authorize the hospital to attach a cutting-edge prosthetic: a metal claw of an appendage with a corresponding chip in the brain. The man wakes and soon discovers that his new arm believes itself to be 97 kilometers of road in eastern Colorado, a fiercely bleak stretch of the United States that looks at distant mountains. The man can see this stretch of highway through the wonder of his arm—and it intersects with his own feelings of love and loss. When his chip malfunctions and the hospital replaces it, his arm no longer yearns for eastern Colorado—and the man feels the surprising ache of that loss as well.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is Pinsker at her best: impossible worlds that nevertheless clearly and incisively reflect our own humanity. I have driven 97 kilometers of barren two-lane highway in eastern Colorado. It is a road that looks like a road trip: sky-high speeds, desert winds, a visible goal in the distant mountains. I, too, feel the ache of that man’s arm, even while my brain marvels at the craft necessary to build this desolation into a computer chip, a metal arm, a man comprised of parts.

Pinsker’s stories unwind from there: a post-apocalyptic survivalist waiting, waiting, waiting for her wife to find her; an elderly woman suddenly recalling the single moment that changed her husband from a dreamer to someone lost; a touring band in a vast Midwest where people fear congregating with strangers. Each captures incarnations of that same two-lane highway desolation: a wistfulness, a single-minded determination even in the face of disaster, a sudden wondering of what might have been. If only…

Pinsker’s collection isn’t easy, especially in a moment when we’re all feeling desolate, emotional, raw. You might want to save this for a sunnier day, a happier time, when your heart isn’t quite so breakable. But if you’re ready to, as I tell my niece we eventually must, feel your feelings, Pinsker’s collection is a work for our time.


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 Sirens and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

Sirens Essay: Feminism, Patriarchy and Faith in The Khorasan Archives

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.

Sirens also offers an online 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 Ausma Zehanat Khan! This essay is based on the keynote address that she presented at Sirens in 2019.

Feminism, Patriarchy and Faith in The Khorasan Archives

by Ausma Zehanat Khan

When I first conceived of writing the Khorasan Archives, my four-book fantasy series set along parts of the Silk Road, Central Asia, and the Middle East, I was consumed by a set of questions: What was the place of women within the Islamic tradition? Why did we appear so infrequently in the annals of Islamic history, why had our names and contributions been lost to time, and how did our erasure from our own history affect our current status in Muslim societies and communities?

I was particularly interested in the communities I came from as a woman of Pakistani Pashtuni background, an ethnic group most famously known for constituting the Taliban. Perhaps the Taliban’s most notorious act was to shoot a young schoolgirl by the name of Malala Yousafzai in the head for daring to attend school in defiance of their strictures. Though critically injured, Malala would go on to recover and become an outspoken advocate for girls’ education around the world, ultimately winning a Nobel Prize.

As a fellow Yousafzai (though my family spells it Yusufzai), I was horrified by what had happened to Malala specifically, but as a thinking and feeling human being, I was also outraged by the status of women and girls under Taliban law. So much of what was imposed upon all women, not just Pashtuns, living under Taliban law, was done in the name of a reading of Islam that invalidated the humanity of half the population. The Taliban had taken a religion practiced by a quarter of the world and turned it into a weapon aimed at the women of their communities. And not just the women, of course. The Taliban’s creed of nihilism had a drastic impact on the rights of minorities, political dissidents, and male members of Pashtun communities, as well as any who opposed their rule.

As a Pashtun Muslim woman, I saw these two forces of systematic erasure and oppression as being indelibly connected.

And I decided that I would write a series that put women at the front and center of the Islamic tradition, a tradition they would then use to liberate themselves from oppression and to reclaim their personhood and dignity. In writing the series, I began with the minute and personal—my own background—then expanded to encompass the astonishing sweep of the Islamic civilization. And while in the process of excavating my personal history, I turned a lens on a moment of crisis and decline in the broader Muslim world, focusing on the issue of faith being used as an instrument of oppression.

There were many challenges to taking this approach. As I considered both the personal and the global, I had to be careful not to give ammunition to xenophobes with a particular hatred of Islam and Muslims, along with a contempt for nuance. And I myself had to be wary of falling into the trap of depicting an extremist fringe as representing the center, while still speaking up on the issues that concerned me. The Khorasan Archives were shaped by these tensions and concerns.

The touchstones of my fantasy series were taken from Islamic history, but placed almost exclusively in the hands of women, as a speaking back to narratives, both classical and modern, that treat us as no more than a footnote.

The Bloodprint

So in The Bloodprint, the first book in the series, a dark power called the Talisman, born of ignorance and persecution, has risen in the world of Khorasan. Led by a man known only as the One-Eyed Preacher, it is a movement bent on world domination—a superstitious patriarchy that suppresses knowledge and is particularly concerned with destroying the written word. The Talisman’s other passion is the subjugation of women: Their creed is founded on the oppression and enslavement of women.

In the different parts of the world of Khorasan, resistance groups have formed to fight the Talisman’s tyranny. At their forefront are the Companions of Hira, a group of women mystics whose power derives from the Claim—the magic inherent in the words of a sacred scripture. (Without naming it as such in the series, this sacred scripture refers to the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.) Arian and Sinnia are two of the most powerful members of this group, one knowledgeable in the Claim, the other in weaponry and war, bound by an unshakable sisterhood. Together, they have stalked Talisman slave-chains and disrupted the Talisman’s power. Now they set out in pursuit of the Bloodprint, a dangerous text the Talisman has tried to erase from the world, because it is the key to Khorasan’s salvation.

The quest for the Bloodprint is a quest to deliver the world from tyranny and ignorance. It’s an inherently radical and revolutionary tale because the women in this story—the Companions of Hira, the Empress of the Cloud Door, the Khanum behind the Wall, the Queen of the Negus, the leaders of the Basmachi resistance, the Teerandaz archers of Ashfall—have each imagined a different future for themselves, a future where they topple the patriarchy and reinstate themselves as full and equal citizens.

I wrote The Bloodprint because I wanted to write about my own culture, Pashtun culture—its strengths, its beauties, its fascinating traditions, yet also, its shortcomings. I particularly wanted to write about Pashtun women because of the rise of the Taliban.

Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Because there has been no recent reliable census in the country, that number could be anywhere between roughly 40 and 60 percent of the population. Pashtuns also make up the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan, at around 15 percent of the population. The Taliban, or as they call themselves, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is a political organization and military movement composed mainly of Pashtuns. They rose to power in Afghanistan in 1994 and were prominently involved in the civil war. Many Afghans believed they would guarantee stability after decades of war. Their stance against corruption in an era of rampant corruption also made them popular. The Taliban movement recruited Pashtuns from southern and eastern Afghanistan who were mainly educated, if educated at all, in traditional Islamic schools called madrasas. Kandahar became their stronghold, and over the years, there have been different manifestations of the group, with a spillover effect and related entities operating within northern Pakistan.

As is well known now, Taliban rule was characterized by an extreme fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law that resulted in the systemic oppression of women and minorities. In the period ranging from 1996-2001, the Taliban conducted a scorched earth policy of destroying vast areas of farmland, murdering civilians, destroying tens of thousands of homes, and denying UN food aid to 160,000 thousand civilians in need. (This is why the Khorasan Archives has as its backdrop the issue of on an ongoing famine.) The Taliban also became known for the crime of widespread cultural destruction, such as the blowing up of the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province in 2001.

As time went on, and their power became consolidated, the Taliban’s version of Sharia law became increasingly restrictive. Among the things they banned were kite-flying, poetry, music, dancing, singing, radio, television, the theater, various forms of fiction and nonfiction, and the reporting of the free press. A strict dress code was enforced on men and women both—the length of a man’s beard, the completeness of a woman’s burqa and veil—but the most egregious of their abuses were against women. Restricting women’s right to work, women’s access to healthcare, and the education of women and girls, as well as engaging in violent attacks—including acid attacks—upon schoolgirls and teachers, and ultimately, the burning and closing of schools.ii

To the Taliban, women are a constant source of temptation and corruption and thus their freedom, including freedom of thought, needs to be controlled and constrained. The extent of the Taliban’s influence has fluctuated over the years, but is on the rise again in parts of the country.

The name Taliban derives from “talib,” which means “student,” and Taliban is the Pashto-language plural “students.” Students formed the backbone of the Taliban. This painful irony of students who possess very little knowledge and wish to prevent others, particularly women and girls, from acquiring any, is at the heart of the Khorasan Archives.

It’s beyond the scope of this essay to examine the impact of decades of war in Afghanistan or the role of foreign interventions. My primary focus in writing my series was to explore the status of women and girls under a law where freedom is curtailed in the name of two things: a fundamentalist interpretation of ideology and the code of Pashtun culture, known as Pashtunwali/Pakhtunwali, where tribal and clan honor is seen as paramount. So how have these two factors affected women and girls?

In 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report on the status of girls’ education in Afghanistan. Sixteen years after the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan ousted the Taliban, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. Insecurity, poverty, and displacement keep girls out of school, no matter the promises of international donors. Only 37 percent of adolescent girls are literate, as compared to 66 percent of adolescent boys.

Afghanistan’s government provides fewer schools for girls than boys at both the primary and secondary levels. In half the country’s provinces, fewer than 20 percent of teachers are female, a major barrier for the many girls whose families will not accept their being taught by a man, especially as they become adolescents. Separation and segregation of the sexes is an important part of Pashtun culture, particularly in tribal areas.

In contested areas of the country, girls seeking to attend school also face security threats. The conflict has been accompanied by lawlessness. Militias and criminal gangs have proliferated, and girls face threats including sexual harassment, kidnapping, and acid attacks. In this environment, education is increasingly affected, and girls are disproportionately harmed. But they are not the only ones harmed. Boys, of course, are indoctrinated in Taliban schools, taught only an extremist interpretation of Islam, with no access to alternate points of view, or richer and more diverse forms of education. They’re taught by teachers with a vested interest in promoting the Taliban worldview, and from a young age, boys live the Pashtun code of Pashtunwali, which has its dignity, beauty and strength, but which can also be oppressive to all genders. For decades, Pashtun boys have grown to manhood fighting the Taliban’s wars or living with the outcome of those wars in a deeply war-traumatized nation.

So in writing this series I not only wanted to explore what happens to women under a law like the Taliban’s, but also the impact on the boys and young men who have no other path forward than war—no other guarantors of security than a group like the Taliban.

As I mentioned in my introduction, in all my writing, I’m engaged in the most delicate balancing act. It’s vitally important to me not to contribute to the demonization of Muslim communities through my work. Yet I can’t be silent on the issue of human rights, women’s rights, or the erasure of women from participation in public or communal life and from most accounts of Islamic history. To counteract this, I highlight the contributions of women to the dizzying accomplishments of the Islamic civilization in the worldbuilding of the Khorasan Archives.

And to facilitate that delicate process of critical self-reflection without falling into the trap of feeding racist anti-Muslim discourse, I began with the story of a Pashtun woman like myself. My main character, Arian, is from the city of Candour, and she’s living through a historical moment where women are treated the same way by the Talisman—some thousand years into a future where the world has burned down—as they are currently treated by the Taliban. In Khorasan, women have lost access to their history, to knowledge, to education and to individual freedom. In The Bloodprint, I write about what it’s like to live in that society, almost entirely from the perspective of women.

The Black Khan
The Blue Eye

But in the second and third books in the series, The Black Khan and The Blue Eye, without taking anything away from the heroism of the women in my series, I bring into focus Arian and Sinnia’s confederates and allies. Men who oppose the Talisman’s rule of law and who help to bring down a patriarchy that oppresses all the people of Khorasan with its anti-humanism. I write about Arian’s ward, Wafa, a Hazara boy—when the Hazara are a persecuted group, as they are today in Afghanistan—who has ample and intimate knowledge of the Talisman’s cruelty. I also open up the story to include Arian’s beloved, Daniyar, the Silver Mage and Guardian of Candour, a member of the Shin War tribe, a tribe that has fallen to Talisman rule. Daniyar in many ways embodies the code of Pashtunwali, the Pashtun way of life, with its traditional qualities of nobility, honor, and strength in war.

Perhaps less well-known or regarded is the concept of “namus” or women’s honor, which refers to the modesty, respectability and protection of women. A Pashtun man’s honor rests upon his ability to uphold and protect the honor and dignity of the women of his family and clan. Traditionally, the concept of “namus” has been a way of controlling the behavior of women so that it doesn’t diminish the honor of men.

But “namus” could also be conceived of as according honor to a man who upholds and protects the rights of women, a part of Pashtun culture which too often is disregarded, though not by Daniyar.

The Khorasan Archives spends some time developing the character of Daniyar as a man who has resisted Talisman law from its inception, and who has sought to teach the orphan boys of Candour another way of seeing and being. This conception of honor is given more weight as the series progresses. In writing about it, I was trying to answer the question of what other ways of being are possible for the boys and young men of a war-traumatized nation steeped in patriarchal culture. It was important to me to include Daniyar because I wanted to imagine what equality and partnership might look like in a world where relationships between the sexes are premised on subjugation and oppression.

This examination of roots and origins was only part of my project. It may have been the spark that lit my interest in writing the Khorasan Archives, but I realized I wanted to explore more than my own roots, or at least the specificity of my own roots. Which takes me back to the question of Muslim identity, to the interconnectedness—for good or ill—of a global community.

In looking at the role of religion in society, it was evident that there are many similarities between the Taliban and other extremist groups—who of course, do not represent mainstream Muslim society, practice or ethics—but who have evolved patriarchal theologies to oppress women in Muslim-majority lands. A common factor within these theologies is the obsession with Muslim women’s dress: the need to comment on it, to legislate it, to either veil or unveil Muslim women forcibly, depending on the society or the era, and to intrude ever more deeply into Muslim women’s lives. Wherever an extremist interpretation of Islam flourishes—whether in the heartland of Arabia, or in rural communities in Nigeria, or in the cosmopolitan cities of Iran, or with fundamentalist revisionism in progressive societies like Malaysia and Turkey, extremist ideology is nearly always accompanied by two things: (1) the oppression of women to varying degrees along a spectrum, and (2) the violation of the human rights and human dignity of minorities.

I want to emphasize that this doesn’t apply to all Muslim societies, nor to all interpretations of Islamic theology and practice. I am pointing specifically to places and moments of crisis and decline. The Muslim world is vast, it can’t be painted with a single brush. It encompasses many different cultures, practices and histories. More, many instances of crisis and decline can be attributed less to Islamic theology and more to broken politics, particularly in the Middle East; to prevailing social, economic and political conditions in specific states, such as Iraq, Libya, or Syria.

Having said that, there is a thread of commonality between groups like ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, or elements of the Iranian theocracy, etc.: the fundamentally exploitative, exclusionary, anti-humanist, intolerant and patriarchal use to which religion is put in the service of tyrants or groups who seek exclusive power and control in deeply religious societies.

My personal history is rooted in societies like these.

As a Muslim woman who is part of the global community, or the ummah, my present and future are also connected to them all. It was on that basis that I wanted to interrogate the interplay between religion and society, and to challenge an anti-humanist, patriarchal, intolerant and exclusionary reading of religion that denies women equality and dignity, rendering them a lesser order of physical and spiritual beings.

But I wanted to be even more radical than that in terms of how I addressed these issues in my books. The Islamic tradition is a tradition I venerate. Its history isn’t merely academic to me—it’s deeply personal. I claim it for myself, just as many Muslim women claim it for themselves. We refuse to be excluded from it, to be ignored, or underwritten or forgotten. This is why I gave the magic in the series the name of the Claim. The Companions of Hira are claiming their tradition for themselves. The Claim is an oral magic that speaks to the power of the written word so I performed a bit of linguistic wordplay deriving “claim” from “kalimah/kalam,” which in Arabic means “speech” or “utterance” or “the word,” and in the case of “kalaam Allah”, “the sacred word.”

I was also fascinated by the story of the “munafiqeen”—the hypocrites. In the context of Islamic history, the “munafiqeen” were those who promised to stand with the Prophet Muhammad against his enemies, but went whichever way the prevailing wind blew, refusing to stand for any principle. And in the context of the Khorasan Archives, I thought about this a great deal. I considered the hypocrisy of preaching morality and piety to women, while practicing the rankest injustice. I thought of those Taliban warlords who took a faith premised on equality and justice, and turned it into an instrument of humiliation, subjugation and war.

Thus, the themes of the Khorasan Archives were born. The idea of a liberation theology came to life, and my Companions of Hira set off not to fight a war against men, but to reclaim their tradition for themselves, to have an equal say in interpreting it, reading it, living it, to be able to use it as a tool of justice, to use it to bring down the patriarchy and end a reign of injustice.

I began with the story of Pashtun women in Afghanistan, then swept through the history, terrain and mythology of the Islamic civilization—which despite our linguistic, ethnic, cultural or sectarian differences—is what the Muslim ummah holds in common.

The series doesn’t use the terms and names that I describe in this essay because I imagined a future where history was erased, and languages intermingled into a common tongue, though without any difficulty at all, you’ll deduce that the high tongue in this series is Arabic. The Arabic language touches all the histories and cultures of the Islamic civilization and has penetrated all its mother tongues. Whether they speak Arabic or not, most Muslim children from observant families learn to read classical Arabic at a very young age. To me, this is a thing of beauty—a thing that links us, a history I cherish.

In writing about the moment of crisis and decline embodied by groups like the Taliban or Boko Haram—and their culture of ugliness, I wanted to speak back to ugliness with beauty. The beauty of Arian and Sinnia’s quest. The beauty of the future they imagine, a future that builds on the dignity of their heritage, in place of the perversion of it brought into being by the Talisman/Taliban.

The Arabic language was central to the story because the Islamic civilization is a civilization of the book. A civilization of the word.

So I wrote about an illiterate people, a people without access to the written word, without access to the holy word, and in their commitment to ignorance, in their anti-intellectualism, in their rejection of innovation and of independent reasoning, in their refusal to embrace pluralism or diversity of opinion—they brought themselves to ruin.

Only the Companions of Hira can redeem them, the group of women mystics who are at the center of my story, led by Arian and Sinnia, two of the most gifted and determined Companions. And I chose the name “Companions of Hira” quite deliberately. In the context of Islamic history, Hira was a cave in Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad received divine revelation. The Companions were Companions of Muhammad, and through their accounts, we’ve come to learn about his life and teachings, as with the disciples of Jesus. But in most accounts of Islamic history, little attention is paid to women. They’ve been all but lost to history, or relegated to footnotes, even when they were powerful in their own right, as jurists, mystics or warriors. So with the Khorasan Archives, I was deeply motivated to speak back to this erasure. Thus, the Companions of Hira in my series—those who hold what is effectively religious authority—are all and only women.

A final point about my radical intentions: in this introspective series that is essentially a calling to account, the women of Khorasan do not require liberation by outside forces, nor do they need to be educated by those who deem themselves superior. There’s no civilizing mission here.

Arian and Sinnia are more than capable of liberating themselves—not with the aid of foreign intervention, not by being enlightened as to the backwardness of their ways, nor through any colonial constructs at all.

In Khorasan, for revolution to succeed, for a democratic and egalitarian transition to take root, the new form must be congruent with the old. The roots of reformation must lie within the people of Khorasan’s own tradition, if it is to be seen as authentic. If it is to have legitimacy.

The Bladebone

And what the heroines of my series would argue is that you derive from a tradition what you bring to it. If you bring an ethical perspective to it, an ethical reading will flourish in your hands.

So far from being used as an instrument of oppression, Arian and Sinnia find their dignity and freedom in the Claim. Because their reading of the Claim is the reading of all people of decency. It’s one that recognizes beauty. It honors human dignity, and it enshrines and protects fundamental human rights.

In writing this series, and excavating my personal history alongside my connection to the Islamic civilization, that was what I hoped to recognize and re-claim.


i Pashtuns are called Pashtun/Pakhtun in the Pashto/Pakhto language, and Pathans in the Urdu language. My family is Urdu-speaking, but I use the term Pashtun as it’s more broadly known.

ii “I Won’t Be A Doctor and One Day You’ll Be Sick”: Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan. (Human Rights Watch, October 2017). See also, Afghanistan: Girls Struggle for an Education


Ausma Sehanat Khan
Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She is a former adjunct law professor and was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women, and is the award-winning author of both the Khorasan Archives (The Bloodprint, The Black Khan, The Blue Eye, and The Bladebone, coming this fall), and the Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak series (beginning with The Unquiet Dead). Originally from Canada, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband. For more information about Ausma, please visit her website or her Twitter.

Anna-Marie McLemore: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens co-founder Hallie Tibbetts speaks with Anna-Marie McLemore.

 

HALLIE TIBBETTS: When we interviewed you in 2018, when you were a Guest of Honor at Sirens, you said of your then-newest release, Blanca & Roja is also a reimagining of Swan Lake, so in many ways it’s a story about the roles we get cast in—as women, as queer women, as women of color—and how we can write our own stories instead.” You’ve since come out as nonbinary and I imagine that this idea of writing our own stories is as important to you as ever. How do writers push back on expected roles and claim their own stories? Do you have recommendations—fiction, nonfiction, anything—that you think exemplifies people claiming their own stories?

Anna-Marie McLemore

ANNA-MARIE MCLEMORE: It’s strange and wonderful coming back to Sirens knowing so much more about myself than I did a couple of years ago. And it’s funny that you mention Blanca & Roja, because I think I was trying to tell myself something with that book. There’s a passage where Page, who uses alternating pronouns, is talking about gender identity, and says “what you are is more beautiful than what you once thought you had to be.” My writer heart was basically screaming at me to hear those words, but it took me months to get that. Sometimes our storyteller hearts just know things first.

Thinking about claiming our stories, two books that come to mind are Dark Triumph, by Sirens community star Robin LaFevers—Sybella is an unforgettable example of a character who accepts that trauma is part of her but decides it won’t determine her—and This Is My Brain in Love, the latest from I.W. Gregorio—this book just gets what it’s like to have your brain buzzing with anxiety, while showing the characters as the fully complex people they are.

 

HALLIE: You’ve described your newest work, Dark and Deepest Red, as “sort of the secret history of a fairy tale.” Fairy tales are important to you: you re-tell them, you write new ones, their themes are inherent in your work. What is it about fairy tales that makes them so important to you?

ANNA-MARIE: Fairy tales are not just universal—every tradition has them—they’re also a way to talk about things that sometimes go unaddressed. In my own writing, fairy tales—whether I’m creating my own or reimagining a classic—are a landscape where magic speaks when something goes unspoken. When the Moon Was Ours is a fairy tale about a boy who paints the moon and a girl who grows roses from her wrist; it’s also about transgender identity and recovering from trauma. Wild Beauty brings readers into a world of queer Latina girls and murderous gardens; it also brings them into a conversation about colonialism and worker exploitation. When I reimagined “Snow-White & Rose-Red” and Swan Lake in Blanca & Roja, I was writing about colorism, queerphobia, and ableism while writing about enchanted forests and vengeful swans.

 

HALLIE: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy literature?

ANNA-MARIE: I fell in love when I stepped into Narnia as a little kid, and I kind of never left. But my dyslexia meant that I had a complicated relationship with reading. I was slow to identify myself as a reader because I was slow at the actual act of reading. But there were books that drew me in, overcoming my self-consciousness about whether I was really “a reader.” Many of them were fantasy novels. Two that were huge for me were Grave Mercy, by the above-mentioned Robin LaFevers, and Ash by Malinda Lo.

 

HALLIE: Since you’re coming to teach a writing workshop at Sirens, let’s talk writing! You’ve now published five young adult novels. How have you evolved as a writer, and how has your process evolved with you?

ANNA-MARIE: With every book, I get a little braver, and louder, about who I am, the communities I come from, and the stories I want to tell. My most recent book, Dark and Deepest Red, reimagines “The Red Shoes” in the context of the 1518 dancing plague. To tell that story in a way that felt honest and true, I knew it had to be about two brown girls five centuries apart, and it had to be about the ways they take the worst things the world says about them and use them to fight back.

I’m rallying all those little scraps of bravery as I look toward my next book, The Mirror Season, going out into the world. It’s the book of my SA survivor heart. It’s a story about two survivors, a secret forest, an enchanted pastelería, and the ways we find magic within our broken hearts.

 

HALLIE: This fall—fingers crossed!—you’ll be teaching “Finding Magic: Enchanting Characters and Their Worlds,” a writing workshop on magical realism, as part of the Sirens Studio. What can attendees expect from this time with you?

ANNA-MARIE: “Finding Magic” will be part primer on magical realism, part workshop on interweaving the idea of magic and character. Magical realism is a point of view I often come from as a Latinx storyteller, and it’s going to be the starting point to get us talking about crafting unique and vibrant magic as an integral part of a story’s landscape, no matter what the particular magic in your story looks like.

 

HALLIE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. When we asked you this question a couple years ago, you talked about how your mom would be a brilliant and stylish queen or the most glamorous of witches. Would you like to shout-out someone else? Could you 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?

ANNA-MARIE: Oh wow, thank you for reminding me that I said that about my mom, because I don’t think I ever told her, and that’s going to make her day.

I dedicated Blanca & Roja to two women who changed my life in a way they probably didn’t even realize at the time. But I’ve been trying to get in touch with them ever since. I’m a little heartbroken today, because I just found out that one of them died recently. She and her wife were together for over six decades. Still working on getting in touch with her wife. I’m really hoping I get to tell her how the two of them changed everything for me. Wish me luck <3

 


Anna-Marie McLemore (they/them) is a queer, Latinx, non-binary author who grew up hearing la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Their books include The Weight of Feathers, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the 2016 James Tiptree Jr. Award; Wild Beauty, a Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist best book of 2017; Blanca & Roja, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; Dark and Deepest Red, a Winter 2020 Indie Next List title; and the forthcoming The Mirror Season.

For more information about Anna-Marie, please visit their website or Twitter.

Hallie Tibbetts has been involved with Narrate Conferences since its inception in 2006, serving variously as education officer, communications officer, and vice president, along with chairing a number of conferences (including many years of Sirens). She works in editorial at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on books for children age zero to eighteen, but doesn’t mind if grownups like those stories too.

New Fantasy Books: June 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of June 2020 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Jae Young Kim: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens editor Candice Lindstrom speaks with Jae Young Kim.

 

CANDICE LINDSTROM: You’ve spent your career as a non-profit attorney providing free services to survivors of domestic violence and immigrants looking to start a new life in the United States. Did you always know you wanted to work as an advocate for those who can’t defend themselves, or did something draw you to this specific area of the legal profession?

Jae Young Kim

JAE YOUNG KIM: I went to law school in part to appease my parents, because they believed, as Korean immigrants, that the way to succeed would be getting a professional degree. In some ways, I was a disappointment because I did not go to medical school, as that was the pinnacle of achievement in their minds! I always received pressure to take the socially acceptable path and strive for mainstream acceptance. But once I was in law school, I knew I wanted to work for the public interest at a non-profit. I had always had a strong moral sense of justice. I had understood racism and sexism permeated the United States, but I had not ever really thought about using my degree and my work to fight those structural oppressions. In law school, I was fortunate enough to become friends with organizers and folks committed to fighting for social justice and realized that this was an option. In my third year of law school, I was in a year-long clinic defending immigrants in the legal system. I felt like this was a perfect fit for my passion for justice and my critical thinking and advocacy skills. Also, when I was in law school, the world of immigrant legal advocacy was much smaller and I knew there was a need for smart, competent immigration attorneys. Immigration legal work was not being funded; it took me a while to find a job where I could provide immigration legal services, so I started my legal career representing survivors of domestic violence on family law matters.

 

CANDICE: What do you love about your work, and what is challenging about your work that might surprise those of us outside it?

JAE YOUNG: I love that my work immediately and materially improves the lives of my clients, as orders of protection (restraining orders in New York), custody orders, and immigration status can dramatically change their lives. One of the challenges I face in my work is balancing the tension between knowing what may be “best” from a legal perspective while acknowledging that clients are human and ultimately, they must make the decision about their lives that extend beyond a case. Making informed choices in the legal system is not easy and, at the end of the day, I have to take comfort that I have done everything I can for a client, but they must make the decision they can live with. Law is still a service industry, which lawyers forget a lot.

 

CANDICE: What keeps you strong and hopeful in the face of the adversity that your clients face?

JAE YOUNG: Knowing that lawyers are not the way we will achieve justice. I am answering these questions while the protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless Black people take place.

 

CANDICE: Did you have any assumptions about or expectations of your clients that changed after you had been in this field for some time? Do you tend to see a lot of similarities or overlap in the legal problems faced by the different groups you serve, or is every case dramatically different?

JAE YOUNG: I mentioned this in my earlier answer, but I learned very quickly that clients make the decisions that are best for themselves and that is not always the decision you counsel them to make.

I would say that racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heteropatriarchy and other points of oppression can really inform the legal issues my clients face. I have worked with people across race, gender, class, disability and sexuality, and those with privilege engage in legal systems usually more easily than those without.

 

CANDICE: Does a successful career in non-profit work take a different set of skills or values than regular for-profit office work? Is burnout more of an issue here than with traditional for-profit legal work, and how does one work around or overcome that?

JAE YOUNG: I don’t think there is that much of a difference between the skill set for non-profit services work and regular for-profit services work. Law is a field whose guiding principle is zealous advocacy and that is true whether you work at a corporate firm or a non-profit. Strong written and oral communication skills, relationship building, critical thinking skills, creativity, thinking on your feet, crisis management—these skills are essential across the board. The values may be different in that a for-profit legal office has to focus on making money, but I think the same is true of non-profit organizations. We are funded by local, state and federal government and foundations and have to provide deliverables and outcomes to justify our funding. The metrics are different, but no organization can function without money within capitalism.

Burnout is common in both non-profits and for-profits because zealous advocacy is the polar opposite of healthy boundaries and self-care. With non-profits, we have the added burden of vicarious trauma as most of our clients are marginalized people who have suffered often many forms of trauma throughout their lives. I always remind people to take care of themselves and be a bit selfish. If you quit, they will always find someone else to replace you. You have to sustain yourself and take care of yourself, no one else will. I learned this lesson after being very hard on myself in my twenties. Drinking water, eating regularly, taking breaks, moving more, vacations are all important to survive in this field!

 

CANDICE: What one thing would make the biggest difference in your work? Changes in governmental/law-enforcement policy? More donations? More lawyers choosing to advocate for the marginalized members of society? Something completely different?

JAE YOUNG: I do think social change has to happen outside of the courtroom. I think non-profit lawyers do important harm-reduction work, but the legal systems are created by those with power and protect those in power. Marginalized people having competent lawyers reduces the harm the systems cause but that doesn’t change the laws that work to maintain the same power structures. So I guess I am saying change the government!

 

CANDICE: Do you find that your work influences the stories you’re drawn to in fantasy? Do you need an escape, or stories where justice is served? If the latter, are there any books where you feel justice (through the courts or otherwise) was served in a satisfying way?

JAE YOUNG: I definitely use fantasy as an escape in that I don’t necessarily want to read stories about law or deep political intrigue. I also really love stories that focus on relationships between characters: friendship, romance, family, all of it. Sometimes I wonder if there could be books that really critique the legal systems and the injustices in fantasy versus a legal thriller.

 

CANDICE: This fall, you’re presenting a career development workshop intensive titled “Working for Change: Can We Wear Capes in Real Life?” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

JAE YOUNG: I hope to share my real-life experience as a non-profit attorney and provide insights into legal systems. I can share what it’s like working for social change as part of your job and the good and the challenging parts of my work. Also, as someone who has also worked as manager for several years, I can talk about my transition to becoming a manager and share my experiences working with interns and staff with different strengths and weaknesses.

 

CANDICE: 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?

JAE YOUNG: I would say Darshan, one of my best friends from law school, a South Asian queer woman. She has really been a mentor and the big sister I never had in many ways, sharing ways of navigating being a daughter of Asian immigrants and a woman of color in the non-profit world. She has also taught me so much about centering myself and my self-care and doing what is right for me.

 


Jae Young Kim has worked as a nonprofit attorney advocating for immigrants, people of color, survivors of domestic violence, and low-income people for fifteen years in New York City. Currently, she is Director of the Family and Immigration Unit at Bronx Legal Services. The Family and Immigration Unit (FIU) is an interdisciplinary team of attorneys, paralegals, and social workers that provides holistic services to meet the family law and immigration law needs of low-income residents in the Bronx. She received a JD from New York University School of Law and a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Law from Binghamton University. Jae Young is also a lifelong fan of fairy tales and speculative fiction. In her free time, she tries reading for the book clubs she cannot stop joining, looking for the next meal, and watching too much reality TV.

For more information about Jae Young, please visit her Twitter.

Candice Lindstrom is an assistant editor for a business magazine publisher covering women, LGBT, minority, and disabled-veteran enterprises. In a past life she edited young adult and adult fiction for a paranormal publisher. When not reading for work, she’s reading for pleasure in almost any genre, but speculative fiction is her first love.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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