News

Archive for July 2020

Casey Blair’s “Women Who Dream Big Dreams” 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 Casey Blair.


Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them


Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

This is about a girl who has no reason to believe anything is possible but does anyway, and she sets off on a quest to find the answer to happiness. As one does.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

An untried but brilliant poet-diplomat thrust into the heart of a galactic empire, with Byzantine politics written by an academic Byzantinist? Yes, you can take my money.

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

This heroine is going to be the very best martial arts skater (yeah, you read that right) like no one ever was. Oh wait, she already is.

The Spirit Thief

The Legend of Eli Monpress series by Rachel Aaron

Pretty much every female character in these books, be she a sorceress, a scientist, a goddess-general or the demonically possessed, is completely uncontainable. Also no one has time for romance.

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

No spoilers on this book’s heroines, but, uh, if you haven’t read this book yet I don’t know what to tell you other than you really, really should. It’s as stunning of an achievement as everyone says.

Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

This is a heroine who just flatly does not understand giving up—and certainly not when there are magic libraries involved.

An Unkindness of Magicians

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

Unraveling institutional oppression with epic tournament battles. That’s it, that’s the pitch.

The Beast Player

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi

No one is going to stop this quiet heroine from completely changing how the world understands magical creatures.

Unnatural Magic

Unnatural Magic by C.M. Waggoner

Pro tip: Don’t try to keep a genius magic scholar heroine down.

The Candle and the Flame

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

In a city that’s a dazzling blend of cultural experiences, this story has so many amazing women across walks of life—princess or businesswoman or unstoppable djinn.

Dragonsbane

Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

This heroine is devoted to her magic work first and foremost—even if she’s not good enough, even if no one else cares, she doesn’t sacrifice what matters to her for family or love or anything. Her children and husband (that’s right, a heroine older than the age of 30! sorcery!) cope.

Spin the Dawn

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Gonna be a seamstress and make clothes out of literal magic, nbd.

The Summer Prince

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

In a futuristic post-apocalyptic Brazil, this heroine weaponizes the power and clarity of art for resistance, rebellion, and change.

The Merciful Crown

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

This is a heroine with a chip on her shoulder a mile wide who does not know the meaning of letting anything go and will call out and hold absolutely everyone accountable—herself most of all.

The Shadows Between Us

The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

This heroine is just straight-up an unabashed villainess, and it is SO MUCH FUN.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Being a young dragon when everyone is stronger is hard. Instead, consider getting transformed into an even weaker human and determining to learn all the secrets of chocolate. That will definitely go well.

Empire of Sand

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Outcast from everywhere and everyone, this is a heroine who makes her own place and changes the world to do it.

And that’s what I want to read more of.


Casey Blair

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.

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 12, Issue 7 (July 2020)

This month:

Wasn’t cabin fever supposed to be a winter malady? With pandemic protections and unpleasant weather combining forces to keep people from venturing outdoors, we know many in our Sirens community may be weary of pinging against familiar walls. We hope that we can give your mind a respite and a bit of escape through this month’s interviews, essays, and book recommendations!

2020 Postponement

We hope you’ve seen our email or website announcement about the postponement of Sirens to October 2021. While we will miss the Sirens community so very much, given the continued presence of COVID-19, we prioritized the health and well-being of our attendees, presenters, guests, staff, and everyone whom their lives touch.

If you had already registered for Sirens and/or been accepted for programming, please check your email for information about how to proceed.

We hope that everyone will stay safe and well, wear your masks, and be ready to reconvene next year!

 

Sirens Chats

Fortunately, modern technology does afford us ways to keep in touch, even when we can’t congregate in Denver as planned. Our next Sirens Zoom chat will be on Tuesday, August 4, 8 p.m. EDT. We’d love to see your face! These chats have been a wonderful way to keep in touch, take a few minutes to relax, and discuss what we’re loving in fantasy fiction right now. If you haven’t joined us before and you’d like to, please email help at sirensconference.org, and we’ll add you to the list to receive reminders and the Zoom link.

We also have a text-only chat option! On Thursday, August 6, 9 p.m. EDT, we’ll have August’s Twitter chat on the topic of weather and climate in speculative fiction. Simply follow #SirensChat and answer questions with the hashtag to join in!

 

Sirens Essays

We released three more genius essays interrogating some weighty issues this month. The summer round of Sirens Essays will wrap up in August, so be on the lookout for the final installment.

  • Bestselling author V. S. Holmes unpacks the harmful implications that attend the assignation of disability and disfigurement to villainous characters in “Moral Disability: How Villainy Looks When You’re the Monster”. Holmes asks readers and creators alike to consider the message sent when a character becomes evil because of illness or injury and the further implications of redemption arcs and magical or technological “cures” for their conditions.

  • In “A Room of Her Own: The Post-Modern Haunted Houses of Nova Ren Suma,” editor and freelance writer Meg Belviso explores “the haunted house as a transitional space” in modern speculative fiction. She focuses on Nova Ren Suma’s YA novels The Walls Around Us and A Room Away from the Wolves, which center the two-pronged liminality of teenaged heroines experiencing hauntings while living in temporary housing.

  • S. M. Mack, scholar and author of short fiction, examines the necessity of sitting with painful realities in “On Bearing Witness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, connecting a book that re-centers the Iliad on Briseis, enslaved and abused by Achilles and Agamemnon, to present-day injustices and crises.

Interviews

In July, we continued featuring the amazing people who will be running workshops during Sirens Studio. We’re delighted that they’ll all be joining us in 2021! We hope these interviews will serve as good introductions and help you look forward to meeting them in safer times.

  • Author, former anthropologist and folklorist, and former Sirens Guest of Honor Marie Brennan discusses crafting character voices, fuzzy boundaries between academic and non-academic writing, and her Sirens workshop, “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions.”
  • In her interview, Ren Iwamoto, a scholar focusing on twentieth-century East Asian literature, Japanese colonialism, and post-colonial discourse, expresses her view that “speculative fiction should destabilize” and prepares us for her Studio workshop, “Seasoned with Soy Sauce: Asianization in Western Speculative Media and What It Means to Be ‘Asian-Inspired’.”

This month, we also began featuring members of our Sirens community! In the coming months, you’ll hear from a variety of attendees representing the wide spectrum of professions and backgrounds which makes Sirens so vibrant.

  • Nicole Brinkley, manager of Oblong Books & Music, tells us what she loves about hand-selling books, how she fits a book to a reader, and her hopes for the future of speculative fiction.
  • Teacher Traci-Anne Canada tells us about building a classroom library and helping students find books they enjoy and that will speak to them.
  • Voracious reader Danielle Cicchetti shares the books she’s been loving recently, her secrets to finishing 150+ books a year, and how Sirens has contributed to her reading habit.

 

 

Books

Whether you’re reading in the bright sunshine or huddling beneath the sweet shelter of the air conditioner, we hope we can introduce you to your new best book friend! This month’s book recommendations feature a dazzling array of new releases and old favorites, guaranteed to invite you into other worlds and to prompt you to think critically about the one we live in.

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • Faye Bi recommends Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water as a crucial component of a reader’s journey to anti-racism. “[Morrow] seamlessly and ambitiously unpacks intersectionality, racism, sexism, police brutality, protesting, affirmative action, gentrification, education, beauty standards, and more.”
  • Casey Blair provides a list of books featuring “Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them”.
  • Chelsea Cleveland reviews The Power by Naomi Alderman: “While this isn’t the first title I’ve come across where supernatural abilities were attributed to one gender, I have never seen it done with such gut-punching impact or specificity.”
  • Whether high summer has you yearning for the adventure of a road trip, the solitude of camping in the woods, or the sweet scent of the ocean breeze, Amanda Hudson’s Summer Nights rec list has something sure to delight.
  • If those recommendations aren’t enough to get you through the dog days of summer, be sure to look at our compilation of July 2020 new releases!

And here are a few staff picks for this month:

Erynn’s Pick: Wonderland by Zoje Stage

Wonderland

At the age of 41, Orla Bennet is reluctantly retiring from the dance stages of New York City and relocating with her family to a farmhouse in the Adirondack mountains. Quiet and privacy are the charms of their new expansive home with the closest neighbor a mile away. The space is intended to afford her partner, Shaw, inspiration for his new-found calling as an artist, their anxious preteen daughter her own bedroom, and their exuberant son freedom for his curiosity.

But, of course, strange things start to happen once they settle in. An enigmatic presence calls to the family through the trees and earth, seeping into their minds, and securing their isolation. Part suspense, part horror, Stage’s story is one of maternal strength told with exquisite prose.

Cass’s Pick: Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun

If “genderflipped Alexander the Great in space” doesn’t grab you, then perhaps “genetically engineered human-aliens, cutthroat galaxy-spanning politics, queernorm worldbuilding, and imaginative future tech” will. Unconquerable Sun is an ambitious and exciting opening to a new series, inspired by but not directly imitative of its historical sources. There are plenty of Easter eggs for the classical studies geeks, but nothing in the book relies on that knowledge. Elliott builds a whole new galaxy with deep roots and evocative details.

Sun is an astonishing hero: charismatic, decisive, brilliant, sharp. The cast that surrounds her is equally grand, from the wily Persephone to the handsome Alika and all the rest of Sun’s Companions. The writing is as bold as Sun herself. Elliott has taken some risks in the way she handles the various point-of-view characters, changing person and tense in a way that helps the reader feel, deeply, the soul-deep shifts between each character, rather than merely placing the camera behind another person’s head. It pays off: the book is an enthralling adventure from start to finish.

 


Keep cool, keep safe, and keep reading!

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).

 

Books and Breakfast: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife

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!

For our 2021 conference, 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.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted our graphic selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona. Today, we’re showcasing our three adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Next month, we’ll finish up with our young adult selections. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens next year.

 
2021 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

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

A Feast of Sorrows

While calling Angela Slatter the heir apparent to Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue may seem a bold assertion, it’s appropriately so. Carter and Donoghue twisted fairy tales, reclaimed them, told violently feminist or joyously queer versions of them. But despite their obvious feminism, Carter’s and Donoghue’s tales often remain in conversation with their more traditional, more heteropatriarchal versions. Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” reclaims Bluebeard, conjuring a mother as savior rather than the violent, patriarchal heroism of the original. Donoghue’s Cinderella in “The Tale of the Shoe” still seeks her coupled-up happily ever after, but with the fairy godmother rather than the prince. Both of their work is an undeniable fuck-you to the heteropatriarchy, but their defiance must remain conversant with that same heteropatriarchy.

By contrast, Slatter—like her heroines—often eschews that conversation entirely. She has little interest in correcting, instructing, or even raging at the heteropatriarchy. She has little interest in explaining to the heteropatriarchy why Bluebeard cannot kill this wife or why Cinderella would obviously be so much happier with her godmother. She—like her heroines—is busy. Busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. Being relentlessly awesome. Being, quite often, villainous.

A Feast of Sorrows, one of World Fantasy Award- and British Fantasy Award-winning Slatter’s collections of short fiction, features twelve of her finest, darkest fairy tales. Her women and girls take paths less travelled, offer and accept poisoned apples, and embrace all sorts of transformation. You won’t find just princesses and ghosts and killers here, but a full gamut of artisans as well: bakers, quilters, crafters, spinners, and coffin-makers. Never have the feminine arts been so magical or so deadly. This collection is one to be savored one story, one revelation, and one smart, determined, independent woman at a time.


Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

Queen of the Conquered

On the island of Hans Lollik, in a fantasy Caribbean, Sigourney has risen from the ashes. Her family was murdered by colonizers years earlier for daring to ascend from slavery to nobility—but Sigourney survived and, through sheer determination and gutsy smarts, has again achieved the rank of nobility. And in this work of impressive intrigue, Sigourney’s identity is secret, her magic dangerous, and her heart focused on revenge. The childless king has declared that he will select his successor from among the nobility and ambitious, vengeful Sigourney wants that title, is willing to kill for that title, in order to help her people. But someone is murdering nobles, the king isn’t quite what he seems, and Sigourney is a ready suspect. Not only is her years-long plan on the line, her life might be as well.

Queen of the Conquered is smart. Really smart. Callender simultaneously constructs both a complicated murder mystery and a searing indictment of slavery and colonialism. Their cast of characters is complex, full of individual and treacherous magics, all certainly capable of planning and executing a series of murders. But the more impressive, important achievement is weaving this mystery into a fully realized world of colonization, slavery, and potential change. Callender’s bedrock is power disparities and they use those skillfully as a foundation for their complex world of choices and compulsion, dominance and pain, compromises and uprisings. Only rarely—in the work of N.K. Jemisin, perhaps, or Justina Ireland—have you read a fantasy work like this.

And yet, with all of that, Callender’s tour de force is Sigourney Rose, born into the nobility despite her dark skin, improbable survivor of the massacre of her family, an impossibly complex, ambitious woman playing an impossibly long game. Sigourney is a victim, but also—perhaps—a villain. Her status grants her slave ownership—slaves she could free, but does not. She punishes her slaves, and has sex with some, knowing that they cannot refuse her. She seeks power purportedly for the good of her people, but while she lives in luxury, her people continue to suffer, often at her hand. She’s playing the long game, where great risk could bring great reward, but what about the sacrifices she demands of her powerless people in the meantime? Victimhood and villainy, it seems, are not mutually exclusive.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife

Herot Hall, the suburban setting of Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf retelling, is a Stepford-pretty utopia: Everything is picket fences and carefully arranged flowers, big houses and perfect families. And for Willa, married to Herot heir Roger, life is perfect, her carefully curated self raising her carefully curated son, Dylan, in her carefully curated house. Her schedule is a beautiful round of dinner parties and playdates, glamorous clothes and perfect meals. But Willa lives on the edge of Herot Hall, where all this careful curation is guarded from the outside by walls and surveillance cameras. These defenses make Willa feel safe, but they aren’t enough to keep out Gren.

Gren belongs to Dana, a soldier who didn’t want Gren and doesn’t really understand how she gave birth to Gren, but when she returned from war, she had Gren. Now they struggle to survive in a cave outside the reaches of Herot Hall. The lasting effects of war seem like an impossible mountain to climb in returning to society, so Dana remains—with her son—on the periphery, each day a new challenge in their solitary existence. But Gren is growing, and exploring, and doesn’t always share his mother’s damage—or her fear.

In this contemporary exploration of monstrousness and society, Dylan and Gren are the catalysts, but not the monsters. Both Willa and Dana live in careful worlds, where, like anyone, their pasts, their fears, and their hopes underlie their expectations and their choices. Both Willa and Dana try, with little success, to impress the importance of these careful worlds onto their sons. As Gren grows, his curiosity drives him into Herot Hall and he secretly befriends Dylan. With that series of encounters, both Willa’s and Dana’s carefully constructed worlds collapse: Their fears lead them to make sometimes desperate, sometimes illogical, sometimes monstrous decisions—and ultimately The Mere Wife asks readers: How monstrous are you?

Sirens Essay: On Bearing Witness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls

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 S.M. Mack!

On Bearing Witness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls
by S.M. Mack

Content warning: references to and discussion of rape in general terms, mention of dissociation

I don’t like reading rape scenes. They are almost always gratuitous, and almost always unnecessary to the plot. (“Almost always” here means 99.98 percent of the time.) Explicit rape scenes, no matter how well intended the author might be, are voyeuristic. Give everyone—the character and the reader both—a break, will you? We don’t need to see it happen. If an assault is unavoidable within the confines of a story, it’s the aftermath of the assault that is important for a character’s arc—how they respond to it and how it shapes their decisions going forward. Also, the aftermath is traumatic enough for both the character that has been assaulted and for the reader.

The Silence of the Girls

By the time I was mature enough to realize I could curate my reading preferences, that I could set boundaries and decline to read stories with rape or other exploitative events and themes, I was in my mid-twenties. It was such a relief to quit consuming these stories, to teach myself that rape scenes were misused in the vast majority of the fiction they appeared in, and to seek out stories with better avenues for narrative tension and character growth. In the years since then, I’ve tripped over exactly two books that fall under the begrudging “I’ll allow it” category: The Devourers by Indra Das and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. (In both novels, it should be noted, the persons being raped are ciswomen and the rapists are cismen.) In The Devourers, the explicit rape is, thankfully, only a one-time event. However, I’m going to focus (in very general, non-explicit terms) on the abuse suffered by the narrator and the women around her in The Silence of the Girls. The rapes themselves were not explicit, but we stay with our narrator throughout the scenes. We’re shown the before (“He didn’t speak—perhaps he thought I wouldn’t be able to understand him—just jerked his thumb at the other room.” [page 23]) and the after (“What can I say? He wasn’t cruel.” [page 24]), and that is more than enough to tell the story.

At this point, I’d like to reiterate my earlier statements: It is a chilly day in hell that rape scenes are necessary.

But what happens when an author builds a world in which rape is a daily event for their characters? When the narrator is kept as a slave to warm her owner’s bed? What if the cast of a novel becomes the spoils of war?

We could, collectively or individually, refuse to tell or read those stories. I wouldn’t judge anyone if they took that course—no one should traumatize or re-traumatize themselves if they can avoid doing so. But in The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker gives voice to a woman who has been silently borne along within the confines of Homer’s The Iliad for literally thousands of years.

The novel’s premise was enough to get me to pick it up, but the promise the book makes—that we will hear the words of a silent woman given a voice—became a burden and a responsibility I couldn’t put down.

The novel follows Briseis, a Trojan noblewoman given to Achilles after he sacked her town. It opens as she and the rest of the women from her town hide in the citadel as the Greeks overrun their home, then the citadel itself. Briseis watches as Achilles kills her three brothers and husband, then as the rest of the Greeks kill all of the male children hiding with their mothers and sisters in the citadel. Achilles picks Briseis out of a lineup as his prize for killing sixty men that day:

“‘Cheers, lads,’ he said. ‘She’ll do.’
“And everyone, every single man in that vast arena, laughed.” (page 19)

Clearly, The Silence of the Girls is heavy on multiple fronts, but Briseis is the primary narrator. Hers is the only first-person point of view, and The Silence of the Girls is her story. Looking away, despite the assaults that were clearly on the horizon from the first page, felt like an unworthy and overly privileged decision.

The Iliad’s inciting incident centers around two Greek men squabbling over two captive Trojan women. Agamemnon, who was in charge of all the Greek forces, was forced to return his “bed-girl” to her father, so he took Achilles’ own prize woman, Briseis, as his own. Achilles then threw a hissy fit and refused to fight anymore.

Neither Briseis nor Agamemnon’s bed-girl, however, speaks in The Iliad. They are objects, not characters.

The girl freed from Agamemnon was named Chryseis, which means only “daughter of Chryses.” But in The Silence of the Girls, Chryseis is more than just the daughter of a priest. She is fifteen, with a “formidable reserve,” and she nearly shatters under the weight of her hope that Agamemnon will send her home to her father. (page 42) Chryseis is a person, as is every other woman she and Briseis spend their days with. And it is worth noting that, while the majority of Briseis’ narration is exposition, the few times that dialogue runs the length of a page or beyond are when the women gather and speak. It’s ordinary conversation—what the men are like in bed, how to make their new lives bearable, who serves which meals—but it’s theirs.

Outside of speaking to the women around her, Briseis speaks almost exclusively to the reader. She exchanges only a handful of sentences with Achilles over the entire course of the novel, but constantly argues with herself:

Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?
“Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.” (page 82-83)

This is how she survives the nightly rapes, by disassociating herself from her personhood. She’s not explicit in her descriptions, but we frequently return to the narrative immediately afterward. The only time that we return specifically to Achilles’ or Agamemnon’s bedrooms (Agamemnon’s because Achilles did indeed let Agamemnon take her) is when something changes. For example, Briseis walks into the ocean one evening, then is summoned before she has time to clean the salt from her skin, and she and we are both treated to an uncomfortable display of passion by Achilles. That is the beginning of her and our shared understanding of his many, many mommy issues. (His mother is a sea goddess.)

Briseis is more interested in the rest of the world around her than in the men who own her. Even when Agamemnon takes her in anger, all she tells us is, “So what did he do that was so terrible? Nothing much, I suppose, nothing I hadn’t been expecting.” She watches those men—not like a hawk, but like a mouse in fear of its life—but she doesn’t speak to them. She speaks to us.

It felt like the height of cruelty to put down The Silence of the Girls even for an afternoon’s rest because I, as the reader, controlled when and how loudly she spoke more than Achilles ever could.

It seems like such a small thing in the middle of the real world’s myriad crises, to bend my own proscription on books with rape in them. But I can’t go to the racial justice protests. I can’t help the individual people who are suffering and dying from the coronavirus pandemic, and I can’t do anything more than stay home and wear a mask when I absolutely must go out. And I can’t save Briseis from Achilles, or Chryseis from Agamemnon, or Hecamede from Nestor, or Ritsa from Machaon, or Andromache from Pyrrhus.

But I can watch and not look away.


S.M. MackS.M. Mack is a 2012 Clarion graduate with an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her short story, “The Carrying Beam,” was the 2017 first place winner of the Katherine Patterson Prize for Young Adult Writing and was published in the VCFA’s Journal for the Arts, Hunger Mountain. Other stories have been published in Fireside Fiction and Vine Leaves Literary Journal’s “Best of 2015” anthology, among others. For more information visit her website or her Twitter.

Traci-Anne Canada: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re getting to know some members of the Sirens community! In this attendee interview series, we talk to scholars, creators, professionals, readers, and more: about their love of fantasy literature, their current work and passions, why they chose to attend Sirens, and what keeps them coming back. We think you’ll find that the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens Editor and Conference Administrator Candice Lindstrom interviews Traci-Anne Canada, a reader, teacher, and writer!

 

CANDICE LINDSTROM: You’re a teacher of both English and journalism. As you’re teaching, especially when real-world events are challenging or downright awful, what is your approach in selecting the books you ask your students to read? Do you look for different elements in the books that you select for your students than you might in a book you would read for yourself?

Traci-Anne Canada

TRACI-ANNE CANADA: I actually didn’t get to teach journalism. *sad face* I am in one of those counties that tells teachers for the most part what they are going to teach, but we are also very strongly encouraged to have classroom libraries. Between me personally buying books (I weep at how much I spend on my kids lol) and the donations I have gotten from my Amazon Wishlist and my connections in publishing, I have managed to get a sizable library. I spend the semester doing one-on-one book dates with students, pairing them with books based on movies or shows they enjoy, trying to get them to see that books can be just as fun. And since I predominately teach Black and Brown students, I try to show they can be heroes and heroines too.

My biggest way to help share books with students is our end-of-the-semester project, where they get to choose whatever book they want to do a multi-tiered project. That is one of the few times in their educational career where they get to choose what they will read. We will do a whole thing where they get to explore books and look at what could interest them. I believe it fosters an enjoyment of reading, which the forcing of reading certain books does not create.

As for looking at elements in the books, I try to figure out what the student likes and pair them with a book. It is less about what I would read myself, though many of the books on my shelves are ones I read.

 

CANDICE: Do you use fantasy and science fiction literature in your classroom? If so, how do your students respond to that—and do they respond differently than they might to the more traditional course curriculum?

TRACI-ANNE: Unfortunately, because we do not get to choose our own books to teach, I do not teach much science fiction or fantasy. We occasionally get to explore folktales, which can have fantasy elements. Some students do choose SFF books for their final project. I would love to be able to teach SFF and am currently plotting ways to slide it into my curriculum more. 😉

 

CANDICE: As a reader, a teacher, and a writer, what do you wish for the future of fantasy and science fiction literature?

TRACI-ANNE: I would love to see more inclusivity. Not just with race and LGBTQ+ characters, but different faiths and people who are differently abled. Since I write kidlit, I mostly want kids from all walks of life to be able to see themselves. Looking at the 2019 Cooperative Children’s Book Center stats, there are more books with cars/animals/inanimate objects as main characters than there are of all people of color combined. That is a problem and I think it should be a priority that we get more representation. While the CCBC is only about general kidlit, I believe that we would see even worse stats in SFF and the adult realm.

 

CANDICE: As a storyteller—and English teacher—do you think the way the world tells stories has changed? Has the audience changed? Perhaps neither or both?

TRACI-ANNE: I believe that the perception of the way the world tells stories has changed. With more cultures getting to tell their own stories, they are able to bring their storytelling styles to a wider audience. There is also the resurgence of oral storytelling that podcasts bring, and the short form of serials making a comeback and lending a hand in changing the way people tell stories. I don’t know if the audience has changed much. For years Black women have been the highest reading demographic and I just hope that publishing realizes this eventually.

 

CANDICE: Why did you first decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens?

TRACI-ANNE: I first decided to come to Sirens because my friend told me about a conference that focused on women and nonbinary people in SFF and I am a woman that reads and writes SFF so I was like, I’m in! I keep coming back because the community is so close and supportive and I love the vibe. It is a place I feel free to be me.

 

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?

TRACI-ANNE: I always say that the reason I became a teacher is because of my AP Literature teacher, Dr. Rhone. She inspired such a love for books in me and gave me the confidence I needed to dive into books. I’m not sure I would be writing or teaching literature without her.

 


Traci-Anne Canada is a high school literature teacher that moonlights as an MG and YA writer. She has been a part of the literary community for several years, particularly in the kidlit, romance, and Black literature sectors. She also runs a YouTube channel about books and writing. She lives in Atlanta, but can be found online on Twitter at @TraciAnneCan.

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.

Summer Nights with Amanda Hudson

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! Today, we welcome a book list from Amanda Hudson on summer vibes and escapist reading.

Now that it’s summer, I’m longing for vacation and daydreaming about setting off on an adventure with friends. Given the state of the world, I can’t exactly turn on my out-of-office response, pack my bags, and leave town on a spectacular summer trip. What I can do is pour myself a cup of tea, snuggle down in my PJs, and crack open one of the dozen books sitting on my bookshelf.

If you, like me, are craving that summer vibe and an escape from the here and now, then I’ve got a book list for you. Not everyone is looking for the same summer experience, so pick the mood you’re craving below.

A Walk Through the Woods

Silver in the Woods

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

This queer Green Man myth retelling is beautifully written and is perfect if you’re looking to walk into the woods, risking unknown dangers for the beauty you find there. And if you fall head-over-heels in love, have no fear, the sequel Drowned Country is due out in August. At just over 100 pages, this novella is the perfect afternoon escape, although I’ll warn you that you might find yourself lingering in the world for days after you finish.

Road Trip!

The Summer of Mariposas

Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

This is a book about the bond of sisters. I don’t have sisters, so what drew me to this book was the promise of an Odysseus-like journey from Texas to Mexico with five sisters seeking to return the body of a dead man. I feel the need to admit that I was born and raised in central Texas, and so this book is on my list not only because it’s an epic road trip that makes me miss those too-hot Texas summers and the mischief of my past, but also because it takes place across lands I know well.

Wayward Son

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

Yes, this is a sequel to Carry On. If you liked Harry Potter, or even if you didn’t, but you like the sound of a chosen-one wizard who is bad at being the chosen one, and a snarky vampire roommate who wants to kill him, then jump on this series! That being said, if you wish you could get in your car and go on a classic American road trip, then Wayward Son is for you. Simon, Baz, and Penny are back and trouble keeps finding them as they speed across the American West with the top down (poor Baz) on their convertible.

Carefree Summer Nights

Night of Cake & Puppets

Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor

This novella is part of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone series but you don’t have to have read the series to be able to read this book. Here is where I admit that I have not read Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Sorry Amy. [Ed. note: Sirens co-chair Amy is also sorry!] I bought this book partly on recommendation of Sirens staff, and partly because the cover and book itself is delightfully bright pink and blue with artwork I loved. Then last fall I was having a rough day and I just wanted to pretend for a little while that I was completely carefree. This novella is the stand-alone story of a magically sweet first date. The book transported me to this feeling that anything was possible, and that taking a tiny risk would have a big reward. It made my heart swell with the potential of requited love. It made me smile into the palm of my hand and made my cheeks hurt with the sweetness of two kind of weird kids finding each other.

Taking to the High Seas

Seafire

Seafire by Natalie C. Parker

Caledonia is captain of an all-female pirate ship and she’s on a revenge mission. This book has friendship, romance, and tons of action. It’s a fast read that left me wanting to round up my best, most awesome friends, and captain a boat out into the open sea.

Dark Shores

Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen

Dark Shores introduces a new world with meddling gods and magic that blend so beautifully into the mysteries of the oceans. Teriana is blackmailed by rather Romanesque soldiers into helping them cross the “Endless Seas” so that they can conquer the East. In addition to the new world and magic system Jensen creates here, I have this book on the list because it made me feel like I was out on the open water with Teriana, and made me long to be back aboard a boat.

Traveling to Other Worlds

Furthermore

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

So far most of these books have been young adult or adult, but I’m including this middle grade book on the list because I read it back in 2017 and I still find myself thinking about its vibrant worlds years later. This is a book about a girl who has no color in a world where color is a currency and essentially magic. She goes on a quest with a boy who is not yet her friend to find her father who has disappeared. This book is about finding your value and it’s also about friendship. It’s a journey, and at its core, it reminds me of childhood summers spent with my friends, learning something about them and myself.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

January Scaller is a young girl left in the care of a rich white man while her father travels the world finding oddities to bring back to his boss. January finds a book that tells stories of magical doors to other worlds, and the tale of two people from different worlds who meet and fall in love. This portal fantasy took me all over the map. I thought I had it figured out at one point, and then it kept going. If you’re looking to go on a journey of emotions and wishing for a book that keeps you turning the page well after you should be asleep, dig right in to The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

Venturing to New Worlds

For some, nowhere on this planet is far enough away for the kind of voyage they’re looking for this summer. If that’s you, then let’s go to new worlds.

Dawn

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

A friend of mine recommended this to me at a time when I didn’t think I liked science fiction. By the time I’d finished this book, I realized I was oh so wrong about the genre. The first in a trilogy, Dawn takes you far in the future to a spaceship with an alien race that at first seems completely foreign and new. I put this book on this list because Dawn stretched my imagination in ways that were not always comfortable, but I look back on it in the same way I look back on the part of vacation that at the time was ‘super intense’ but later is one of the best stories you can share. I find myself randomly thinking of this book sometimes just like I’ll randomly think of that time my car broke down on a tiny hardly-ever-used backroad in Costa Rica. Both make me smile. And both were summer adventures I won’t ever forget.

Binti

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ll be honest, I’m recommending the whole trilogy really. They’re novellas, so you might as well get them all. Binti is the first of her people to be offered a spot at the best university in the galaxy. Going away to this university is a big deal for so many reasons, and Binti struggles to hold on to her customs and stay connected with her family while tackling higher education. At its heart, this is a classic story of venturing away from home for the first time and finding out who you are in the process. The trilogy is on this list because it’s a rich tapestry of African culture blended with science fiction that takes the reader on a trip that feels familiar but new.


 

Amanda Hudson

Amanda Hudson drinks far too much black tea and is frequently caught carrying at least one book in her purse. In past lives, she practiced law in Texas and was a lore master for a video game developer in Sweden. When not reading or writing fantasy, Amanda is usually lifting weights, practicing yoga, or trying to con her friends into playing just one more board game with her.

Sirens 2020 Postponed to 2021

Sirens 2020 Postponed to 2021

Like you, we have spent the last few months anxious and stressed as we try again and again to determine the impact of COVID-19 on our families and our communities. As we navigate our fifth month of isolation, the picture of the months ahead has, unfortunately, become clear: We simply cannot hold Sirens safely in 2020. For the health and wellbeing of the Sirens community—guests and faculty, presenters, hotel staff, planning team, and all attendees—we are postponing our 2020 Sirens to October 21-24, 2021.

This is a postponement, not a cancellation. While we will convene a year later than intended, we will still gather at the Hilton Inverness Hotel just outside Denver, Colorado. The theme will still be villains, and we will still host guests of honor Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks, Rin Chupeco, Sarah Gailey, and Fonda Lee. The Sirens Studio will be held October 19-20, 2021, with guest of honor Joamette Gil and faculty Casey Blair, Rin Chupeco, Ren Iwamoto, Fonda Lee, Marie Brennan, Anna-Marie McLemore, Kinitra D. Brooks, and Jae Young Kim.

If you have registered for Sirens in 2020, made hotel registrations, or have had a programming proposal accepted, please check your email for more information on how to proceed. Our website has been updated with the 2021 dates, and all are still welcome to register at the current rate.

2020 Activities

As you know, Sirens is carefully designed to foster community through an in-person conference, retreat, and experience. While some events have shifted to an online platform for 2020, recreating Sirens virtually is, of course, not as simple as setting up a few Zoom calls. Rather than ask our volunteer planning team, our guests and faculty, and our presenters to climb that particular mountain in a short time, we’ve elected not to offer Sirens online.

We are, however, planning online community gatherings, essays, interviews, book features, and more in 2020—including a number of offerings for the weekend that Sirens was to occur this October. We know that everyone is disappointed about not having Sirens this fall and about not having that weekend of rejuvenation with the Sirens community. Stay tuned for what we will be doing from a safe distance!

Our Thanks

Thank you for understanding about our postponement of Sirens. It’s clear to us that, in a year where every aspect of life is affected by COVID-19, the need for community and connection is as important as ever, as is a thoughtfully curated space to host challenging conversations. And it’s ironic that in a year when we expected to be discussing villains and villainy in a broad sense, a very tiny, invisible villain has disrupted our plans in ways we never dreamed would happen—and we’ve imagined our way through many disaster scenarios over the years!

We will miss you terribly this year. But we are hopeful that by the next, we’ll be in a better, safer place, and that we will be able to provide the conference you expect from us. In the meantime, we’ll be working with our team, our guests and faculty, our presenters, the hotel, and all of you, toward 2021. We very much hope to see you then.

Finally, here’s a special video message from the 2021 guests of honor, faculty, and Sirens staff with our well-wishes:

 

Danielle Cicchetti: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re getting to know some members of the Sirens community! In this attendee interview series, we talk to scholars, creators, professionals, readers, and more: about their love of fantasy literature, their current work and passions, why they chose to attend Sirens, and what keeps them coming back. We think you’ll find that the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens co-chair Manda Lewis interviews Danielle Cicchetti—who, we have to say, reads way more books than you do!

 

MANDA LEWIS: When did you fall in love with fantasy literature? What do you love about it?

DANIELLE CICCHETTI: I fell in love with fantasy as a teenager—my dad gave me a fantasy novel by Eddings when I was fourteen and I felt like I had found a gateway to another world. Looking back, it also introduced me to the concept of a found family which is still one of my favorite tropes today. I love the places fantasy can take you, the people you can meet along the way, and how much it shows you that love is a strong force that comes in many forms. It is also how I found my new family as an adult—my book clubs, my travel companions, my fellow adventurers in life. Fantasy literature helped me find the words to express who I am as well as find the people who understand those words.

 

MANDA: What do you look for in your reading? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you? Has that changed over the course of your life?

DANIELLE: I can never say it enough: I love a good found family. I was always a bit “weird” growing up and while I wasn’t necessarily ashamed of it, I did feel like an outsider. Stories where that weirdo found other weirdos that appreciated them will forever have a place in my heart (and on my shelf!). Becky Chambers, Sarah Gailey, and Möira Fowley-Doyle are some favorites for a good found family. For worldbuilding, I don’t care about the kind of world I am taken to because a good writer can make even the world I see around me feel completely different. Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia was just as transporting for me as A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney or The Deep by Rivers Solomon.

My taste has definitely changed over the years and a lot of it has to do with exposure. I love my father for introducing me to fantasy literature, but I wish he had known about Tamora Pierce as well as Eddings or Tolkien. These days, I look for books by women, nonbinary people, and BIPOC, not only because I tend to like the stories better, but also because I want to do what I can to make sure they continue to be published and are given more opportunities to do so.

 

MANDA: How many books do you read a year? Do you finish them all? If you don’t—gasp—what are the factors in whether you decide to finish a book or not?

DANIELLE: I read between 150 and 170 books a year. I would say I finish 99% of those. The ones I do not finish are those that have some element of a story that makes me angry or I get so bored that I dread having to pick up the book again. For book-club books (I am in three), I tend to listen to the audio version on a high speed while doing something else.

One example is a case where a book-club selection abused, maligned, and generally mistreated women as well as having the murder of a young child. This is a book club with content warnings required and this book’s warning had only “violence.” I finished the book simply so I could later list all the content warnings that should have been there.

 

MANDA: You’re a long-time attendee of Sirens. How has this conference or this community changed your reading—or even your approach to reading?

DANIELLE: I have found some of my favorite authors because of Sirens, both from the reading lists and the attendees. I then seek out books that those people have read and enjoyed. I also share the books I love, and people from those three book clubs quite often go and read them. I have become so conscious of how the books and media we discuss can affect the books and media that others consume, so I try to share the good works I consume as much as possible.

I had also mostly converted to primarily buying ebooks before my first Sirens. I now have so many full shelves…but I also do my best to pass along extra copies (it happens) and those I do not love to those who will love them.

 

MANDA: Speaking of Sirens, why did you first decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens?

DANIELLE: I first found out about Sirens from a Book Riot article about different yearly reading challenges. Then I saw the guest list, and decided “Why not?” I originally planned the trip on my own, as I enjoy taking solo vacations from time to time. When I saw the programming list, I was even more excited. It was the first event I went to where it was hard to choose between overlapping programming. It was a year that Sirens doubled in size, but I never felt like an outsider. It was the first time that I was told I was valuable as a reader.

I came back because it was great. And I brought friends my second year! They heard how I talked about the experience, and they wanted to feel some of that magic. And oh goodness, did they. The following year, our group grew again. We all speak of the wonderful experience that is Sirens and look for others to share it with that we know will appreciate it as we do.

 

MANDA: 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?

DANIELLE: One character from my formative years that has very much stuck with me is Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5. She was the only woman on a command staff, grew up in a non-Christian tradition, had a dangerous secret….but she refused to ever be a victim or seen as weak. Sometimes her fear of perceived weakness worked to her detriment, but she was a strong woman who showed me early in life that building your career and making your own family can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience. She is not the person I wanted to be growing up, but ending up a lot like her is not something I regret at all.

 


Danielle Cicchetti is an avid reader and lifelong geek. She works a desk job with numbers by day, and uses the free time that gives her to travel, read the never-ending pile of amazing books on her many lists, and encourage friends to join her on her latest adventure. She is a Southern California native but still runs in fear from the sun.

Manda Lewis served as an engineer in the Air Force for seven years. She currently works for a children’s museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, hosting after-hours special events. She is also the caretaker of two small bundles of chaos. Manda has always made it a habit to draw, color, and doodle on just about everything within reach and loves themes far more than anyone really should. She has been a volunteer for Narrate Conferences since 2007.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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 review from Chelsea Cleveland on The Power by Naomi Alderman.

The Power

There is a certain type of book that I call a “chicken noodle soup” book. It’s a delicious escape; a beautiful little world that you want to return to when you catch a cold or a wave of homesickness. From a quick glance at the book flap, you might think Naomi Alderman’s The Power is that sort of title. It is not. But—in an entirely different way—it’s just as nourishing of a read.

Alderman’s latest comes out of the gate with a premise fit for any YA blockbuster. Something strange is happening, not just here, but around the globe. At first, it just seems like a rumor. A mad internet fad. Videos edited with special effects. But it isn’t long before the truth becomes impossible to ignore. More and more young women are developing a remarkable new power: an ability to generate electrical charges. And they’re not just creating electricity. They’re learning to use it.

We see the resulting shifts in the social and political landscape primarily through the eyes of four characters: Roxy, the illegitimate child of a UK crime boss and one of the first few to experience the power; Margot, a midwestern mayor and the mother of a teenage daughter with a secret; Tunde, a Nigerian college student who documents the growing turmoil from behind the lens of a camera; and Allie, a young woman who receives guidance from a voice in her head.

While the plot centers around these four individuals, the real story—and truly the most fascinating part of the book—is the author’s exploration of power and gender.

With the simple twist of giving women the ability to create electricity with their hands, Alderman overturns a key differentiator between men and women: physical power. And this one change affects everything.

I don’t want to say too much more about what happens. It’s best if you discover it yourself. I will say that while this isn’t the first title I’ve come across where supernatural abilities were attributed to one gender, I have never seen it done with such gut-punching impact or specificity. It’s a specificity that actually makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

There’s no denying Atwood’s influence on The Power. Even if you didn’t know Atwood and Alderman had been paired though a mentorship program, the literary giant’s book blurb—a cheeky “Electrifying!”—is prominently displayed on the novel’s cover. I was particularly reminded of The Handmaid’s Tale in a couple of ways: the intimacy of the book’s setting (a breath away from present day) and the manner in which the most shocking fictional events were clearly and purposefully inspired by things that have really happened. It’s something Atwood has talked about as a guiding principle and as a reader, you can feel how the truth in these details gives a speculative work a terrifying sense of realism.

The Power is not a title that I would recommend anyone turn to for comfort. On the contrary, it’s at once foreign and yet unsettlingly all-too familiar. Instead of finding myself reading straight through until sunrise as I often do, this was a book that I frequently closed, put aside, and contemplated. It’s a book with ideas that inspire discussions and debates outside the context of the characters and events. It’s intriguing and conceptually satiating. Rather than chicken noodle soup, I’d call it something else. Maybe quinoa or kale. It’s a nutrient-rich brain food that sticks with you and keeps you thinking things over long after the last pages have been turned.


Chelsea Cleveland is a Seattle-based marketer and copywriter. She has particular experience in the fields of books, design, travel, and technology. Her other passions include standing on tall things, feeding animals (human and otherwise), collecting art supplies, and discussing movies. She writes short stories, largely because it’s very difficult to finish long ones.

Sirens Essay: A Room of Her Own: The Post-Modern Haunted Houses of Nova Ren Suma

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 Meg Belviso!

A Room of Her Own: The Post-Modern Haunted Houses of Nova Ren Suma
by Meg Belviso

There’s something enduring about a haunted house. For centuries, it’s called up images like the Gothic family manse crumbling from the inside, passed from one heir to the next, or the duplex on the corner where families come and go a little too fast. The whole idea of a house suggests a place to put down roots, settle down, grow up, over and over through many generations. For centuries—from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Ann Radcliffe to Emily Brontë to Barbara Michaels—when we talked about a haunted house, we meant a place where remnants of the building’s past affected the people of its present, threatening or influencing their future.

So goes the traditional haunted house story.

Modern horror, however, has begun to focus more on the haunted house as a transitional space. That is, a dwelling without a fixed position in time. A decaying building, for instance, that no longer functions in its original capacity, but has not yet become a ruin with a fixed place in the historical or mythical past. A Roman Colosseum that has lost its meaning as a working arena, but not yet found its meaning as evidence of an ancient empire.

Sometimes the modern ghost story emphasizes this idea further by giving the space other “in-between” qualities as well. The mansion in Alejandro Fernando Amenábar Cantos’ 2001 film The Others takes place on the Isle of Jersey, a self-governing possession of the British crown off the coast of France, in 1945, a time between WWII and what we’ve come to recognize as the post-war period. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables has a firm historical and legal history. By contrast, Amenábar has intentionally set his story in a place that does not belong to WWII, the post-war period, Great Britain, or France, but lives in a transitional space at the center of all of them.

In The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema, Jessica Balanzategui links this shift to twenty-first century anxiety about an increasingly uncertain future and a feeling that the foundations of society that had once seemed solid are now vulnerable. Today’s young—and even not that young—adults, for instance, are often accused of immaturity when they fail to hit landmarks by which life was measured in the past. One of the most obvious examples of this is home ownership.

These accusations of personal irresponsibility often flat-out deny the financial instability faced by so many young adults who, unable to follow the path their grandparents did, threaten critics by not only choosing to forge their own path, but questioning the value of paths in general.

The children at the center of postmodern stories are often young people who “will never fulfill futurity’s promise of becoming an adult…but instead linger at a point of continual transition to a corpse, dust, a ghost, a memory.” The settings of modern haunted house movies reflect this “unsettlingly liminal space of transition between states, with no triumphant end state.” Not becoming adults, but simply becoming.

Adolescence, that period of life between childhood and adulthood that’s center to YA lit and its intended audience, is also a transitional space. Today’s YA audience has grown up in the twenty-first century. Most YA heroes, like fictional heroes in general, exist firmly within fixed, linear time. They are no longer the children they were and not yet the adults they will be. Even in the bleakest circumstances, they move towards the future, figuring out what kind of people they are going to be, what values they will live by, how they will change the world. Sometimes they’re motivated by the fear of growing into the wrong kind of adult—of selling out, giving up on their dreams, perpetuating the unjust system they live in now. But even then, and even if they develop into what we would call a villain, they will be part of the future. They’re making choices, developing, moving forward.

In her two post-modern haunted house books, The Walls Around Us and A Room Away from the Wolves, author Nova Ren Suma connects these two transitional spaces, the haunted house and the adolescent. In doing so, she creates a new—one might even say revolutionary—bildungsroman for the twenty-first century.

Suma’s haunted spaces are not traditional homes, but temporary housing populated not by families but inmates and tenants. Specifically, young women between childhood and adulthood. They are places to reflect on the past and prepare for the future before aging out and moving on, rejoining the normal progression of life.

The Walls Around Us

In The Walls Around Us, Amber Smith and Orianna Speerling are sentenced to do time at the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center. When she reaches eighteen, a prisoner is sent either to a jail for adults to finish her sentence or released. Either way, according to Amber, she ceases to exist in the world of Aurora Hills, not just physically, but in the memories of the other inmates. “We’d recite [a former inmate’s] stories until the names and specific characteristics faded away…until it was somegirl, which may as well have been any of us.” When Amber glimpses a spectral girl in the prison who doesn’t belong, she’s not the ghost of a girl who once served time in the prison, but a vision of a girl who has not yet arrived. The inmates regret the past and acknowledge no future. There is only now.

A Room Away From the Wolves

Bina Tremper, the heroine of A Room Away From the Wolves, also checks into a temporary place. In this case, an old-fashioned boarding house that doesn’t seem to belong in modern Manhattan. At first Bina worries that she won’t be able to pay for more than one month at Catherine House, but she soon realizes that she’s no more able to leave it than the inmates of Aurora Hills can walk out of their prison. The staircase walls are lined with decades of annual photographs of former Catherine House residents, but the young adult lodgers themselves don’t seem firmly attached to any single time period at all. Bina herself carries bruises that still look fresh weeks later, as if no time has passed. Although her mother left New York decades earlier, Bina finds her belongings in her room. The house, too, seems to exist in a state of suspended decay, shabby and threadbare, but still habitable for now.

Where many YA stories take place in environments that explicitly measure physical development and count the passage of days, months and years, such as schools or camps divided by age, Aurora Hills and Catherine House have both, in their own ways, extracted themselves from the normal progress of time.

Suma’s girls are physically trapped by their surroundings, yes, but they also fear leaving them.

Both Amber and Bina begin their narratives watching another girl attempt a desperate and potentially deadly escape. They watch and choose not to follow. Amber admits, “No matter how I may have pictured myself leaving this place—face-first or feet-first—truth is, I can’t leave it. I would never. That’s my real secret.”

When told she’s being released from the prison, Amber’s attitude is similarly reluctant: “[The guard] was walking me down the corridor, confused maybe as to why I wasn’t leaping around for joy….We passed the window…and the blue sky flashed, and I turned my face away.” No matter how much she hates the prison, the outside world has betrayed Amber too much for her to want to return to it. She no longer trusts that she can restart the process that was cut short when she was convicted.

To emphasize this point, Suma creates a villain who moves in only one direction, forward, like a shark. Vee can’t wait to leave behind her hometown, her boyfriend, even her best friend, to reach the future she’s planned for herself since she was eight. Her best friend Ori, by contrast, voluntarily postpones her own pointe training to wait for Vee to catch up and is said, by Amber, to live in fear of “the halfway mark of anything.” That hesitation costs Ori dearly when Vee’s plans are threatened.

Wolves’ heroine, Bina Tremper, has her own reasons to fear the future. She’s been raised on her mother’s stories of the summer she spent in New York. The summer she paid for a room of her own, went on auditions, collected postcards, was cast in a short film. The summer that came to an end when she returned to her abusive boyfriend and got pregnant with Bina. Over and over, it seems to Bina, her mother plans an escape, only to wind up once again in a life that isn’t her own. Over and over she entices Bina with optimistic plans, only to betray them.

That one summer in New York becomes, to Bina, the only time her mother really had a life at all. When her mother kicks Bina out of their house for a month, she understandably decides to run there herself.

Bina’s initial escape masquerades as forward movement—she vows to succeed at the New York life that her mother gave up by returning to her boyfriend, to live the future her mother didn’t. But once she’s in Catherine House, her life does not move forward at all. Where the traditional bildungsroman would focus on Bina making friends, finding romance and getting her first job, Suma’s story barely touches on these things. The people in Bina’s new world are too hazy and mercurial to be actual friends. Her search for a job consists of walking the entire length of Manhattan for days without result and without seeing or doing anything worth noting. Her actual experiences are more focused on trying to understand her present than to build any future. “Some girls wanted to leave Catherine House,” Bina says, “and I couldn’t fathom why…it felt like nothing bad could happen within these walls, beneath this roof, to me.”

Following in her mother’s footsteps and completing the journey her mother started was an excuse for running to Catherine House. But her mother’s dreams were never Bina’s. She didn’t want to be an actress. She was never really running toward an imagined future. She just wasn’t wanted enough in her present. When her relationship with her bullying stepsisters got too bad, her mother chose to send Bina away to keep the peace. Amber’s mother, likewise, doesn’t write or visit while Amber is locked up and won’t receive her phone calls. Amber knows without a doubt that her mother loved her husband—Amber’s abusive stepfather—more than her. Bina wonders if her own inconvenient birth was what ruined her mother’s life.

Neither Amber nor Bina is interested in fighting for a place in the world they left behind.

They’ve internalized the things they’ve been implicitly told about themselves: That Amber is guilty. That Bina interferes with the life her mother wants. Neither girl is freed from these notions in death. Rather, she accepts them. She embraces her life outside society and once she’s done so, she finds power and space she couldn’t see before. It’s not paradise, but it’s no worse than the life she left. At the very least, it’s not a world she’s allowed into only if she meets the demands of others, or accepts being loved less than anyone else. In these new worlds there are no guards, punishments or rules at Aurora Hills, no curfew or contracts at Catherine House. Like the founder of Catherine House herself, Amber and Bina jump off a roof to escape a trap and fly.

Amber and Bina aren’t figuring out who they are going to be or preparing to take their place in society. They are coming to understand what they are now, learning to navigate the spaces they have both chosen and had chosen for them, spaces outside linear progress and the world that failed to protect them. Not growing up, but becoming. They are not traditional ghosts, tied to a specific historical moment or event, but post-modern spirits that have opted out of the historical narrative entirely. They are a past that can’t be changed and a future that will no longer be.

But they are still here.


Meg BelvisoMeg Belviso holds a BA in English from Smith College and an MFA from Columbia University. During the week, she chronicles angel encounters as Staff Editor of the bi-monthly magazine Angels on Earth and she loves a good haunted house story. As a freelancer, she has written for many different properties, including several biographies in Penguin’s “Who Was…?” series.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

RSS Feed

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

RSS Feed Button

 

Tags

annual programming series, attendee perspective, attendees, auction, bookclub, book club, book list, book reviews, books, bookstore, boot camp, chat, community, compendium, deadlines, essay series, further reading, giveaway, guests, guests of honor, hotel, inclusivity, interview, meet-up, Meet the Staff, menus, narrate conferences, newsletter, newsletters, perspective, professionals, programming, read along, recap, registration, review squad, schedule, schedules, scholarships, sirens, Sirens 2009, Sirens 2010, Sirens 2011, Sirens 2012, Sirens 2013, Sirens 2014, Sirens 2015, Sirens 2016, Sirens 2017, Sirens 2018, Sirens 2019, Sirens 2020, Sirens 2021, Sirens At Home, Sirens Shuttle, Sirens Studio, Sirens Supper, site visit, skamania, special edition, sponsorship, support, testimonials, themes, things we're excited about, travel, volunteering, website, where are they now

 

Archives

2020
October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connect with the Sirens community

Sign up for the Sirens newsletter

Subscribe to our mailing list