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Diana Pho: 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 communications team member Faye Bi interviews Diana Pho, a speculative fiction editor, playwright, and scholar!

 

FAYE BI: Diana! People know you as a highly acclaimed speculative fiction editor, formerly of Tor, now at Serial Box. As the handler and curator of several award-winning novels (including some of our favorites here at Sirens), what do you most enjoy about editing?

Diana Pho

DIANA PHO: Hi Faye! Thanks for bringing me in to chat on the Sirens blog. 😊

I’m a reader who enjoys thinking about and picking apart story-worlds. I love to do a deep dive into how a fictional society is structured, why a magic system works that way, what happens when a certain tech changes a person’s life, etc. My favorite moments in editing is hitting that “ah-ha!”—whether it’s by myself or when talking to an author—about how to address an aspect of the manuscript that isn’t quite working. Writers and artists often talk about “being in the flow”: when they get a burst of sudden inspiration or they become so swept up in the immersive work that hours pass by in a flash.

The same thing happens to me when doing a developmental edit. Once I get my mind wrapped around a story, I get so involved in the building blocks of the narrative—re-tooling a line edit, constructing an editorial letter, or sorting out a reverse outline—that it is its own creative high. I don’t think writers know how much editing is an artform in itself. A “good editing day” for me is a combination of deep thought, strong soundboarding between myself and the text (and the author!), and having sudden epiphanies about characterization. I just love being in that headspace.

 

FAYE: What’s more exciting—the acquisitions or the development? What are some things you always look for in a manuscript or project?

DIANA: As much as I touted my love of developmental, I think acquisitions has a different type of excitement. I read manuscripts first as a reader. Is it interesting? It is telling me something worthwhile about the world, the human condition? Am I entertained? Did I have a strong emotional reaction worth having from the text? So for acquisitions, I read with anticipation: I want to be surprised, to be entertained, to feel invested in these characters, to be introduced to new worlds or ideas that stay with me after the last page. And if I’m satisfied after the cold read, then I think as an editor: how can I make this manuscript even better?

Any project that can answer those questions for me is a project worth working on. Once I’m pondering how to improve the manuscript, then on some level I’m already sold on the book.

For a more “Hey, these are the SFFH genres I’m looking to acquire” answer, my Manuscript Wishlist Profile is where I keep those updates.

 

FAYE: And what is one thing you’ve always wanted to tell your marketing colleagues?

DIANA: I tell everyone this, not just marketing: My job as an editor is to make sure that my authors’ stories can be the ones people need to hear, right now, for whatever reason. We build our communities out of the stories we tell about ourselves. No story is “too small” or “too niche” to be without a reader who needs it—and to have that story impact their life.

 

FAYE: What people might not know about you is that you have a master’s degree in performance studies and that you are also a playwright. What inspired you to pursue this field of study, and how does it augment your role as an editor and fan?

DIANA: Surprise, surprise, I’m a theater geek as well as a book nerd! I have a background in theater stemming from my first plays written and acted in high school. In undergrad, I was part of an Asian-American performance troupe and won several department awards for my plays. Through my twenties, I acted as part of a troupe of steampunk performers, under the persona of Ay-leen the Peacemaker—and my play about her character and time travel was published in the Journal for Neo-Victorian Studies a few years ago.

Theater, performance, and fandom go hand-in-hand. You have cosplay, convention personas, LARPing, filking, and so many other types of performance in SFF spaces. In fact, it was my curiosity about steampunk performance by people of color which subverts the ideas of imperialism and colonialism that started me on the journey to get my master’s in performance studies. Theater and playwriting techniques also inform how I edit, and I talk a little about that in this guest post for Grammar Girl.

 

FAYE: Please also tell us a little bit about Mimicry, and if we’ll get a table read soon! And finally—what are you working on these days?

DIANA: Mimicry is a short play about Asian-American identity as a fluid construct that outsiders like to place their assumptions upon. It’s also about how the Asian-American community undergoes a sort of “imposter syndrome” in the battle to recognize one’s own ethnic authenticity.

I’m not currently working on my own creative projects right now—as you can tell, editing takes a lot of creative juices to do effectively. But I know that “Zoom theater” has become a thing these days so who knows what that might inspire!

 

FAYE: One of your passion projects is the steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, which you started in 2009 after a series of discussions in the SFF community on non-Eurocentric representation within the genre. It seems that the conversations you were hosting 10+ years ago are more relevant than ever, as we continue to interrogate historically white spaces in every aspect of a book’s life cycle: writing, publishing, bookselling, gatekeeping, and so on. In what ways has the conversation around inclusion advanced? These days, are you more frustrated or hopeful? And how important is language and vocabulary necessary in having these critical conversations?

DIANA: It’s notable that you pointed out that it’s been a decade since I first started talking publicly about representation and inclusion in publishing, and now in 2020, we are still having this conversation. I think about the dialogue around diversity as cyclical: Marginalized people speak out, some significant changes are made, backlash happens concerning those changes, and whatever progress that has been made takes two steps back. But there is always that one step forward, and every time this conversation happens, the bar is raised in social consciousness. I don’t have to repeatedly explain how colorblind racism is a thing, for example, or that white (and straight and cis and able-bodied and male) privilege exists, and how privilege shouldn’t be a guilt point, but acts as an entry-point for collaborators to help the oppressed.

But having this convo repeatedly is a point of burnout for many advocates, including myself. I’m hopeful, however, that people are getting the point faster and in light of recent protests, able to act more immediately with direct and material actions, not just lip-service.

At this point in time, I think it is even more important to pay attention to language: how it can be used to clarify or manipulate. How racism and fascism work together often to change the language goalposts so oppression “doesn’t sound evil.” At worst, people squabble over semantics over how “both sides are just as bad” over actually seeing what others are doing to promote and instigate harm.

I also think about Spivak’s idea of “Can the subaltern speak?”: about whether a disenfranchised and oppressed person who has no political voice can ever find agency to do so, lest others speak for them. Her whole essay is great, though dense. What always struck me as the essay’s most memorable moment is the tragic real-life story she includes in the final section. A servant girl is asked to commit a political assassination but refuses to do so; she kills herself while menstruating, specifically to show on her body that she was not doing so because of illicit pregnancy (or out of sati), but because she cannot commit this assassination. Her action, in that instant, was the only way she could speak. After her death, however, people still assumed she died because of a love affair gone wrong.

That story reminds me how actions speak louder than words, and when they are made by the disenfranchised, it is because there is no other way they can speak out. These are the days for actions, even if they risk being misinterpreted.

 

FAYE: You’ve been attending and speaking at conventions since 2011, in your various roles as editor, scholar, and fan. What do you love about cons? Can you share with us a few of your favorite con moments?

DIANA: In better times, I really hope to have in-person conventions again! When conventions are run well (which includes an enforced anti-harassment policy and safer spaces for marginalized groups to connect), I think of them as welcome places for new imaginations to collide, ideas to form from serendipity, and gathering nests of social energy.

I proposed to my wife at a convention, at the tail-end of a steampunk fashion show we were both modeling at. Nothing can top that memory, I suppose!

 

FAYE: Why did you first decide to come to Sirens?

DIANA: I first heard about Sirens from my old colleagues at Tor as being a welcoming femme-positive space that combined the best qualities of a fan convention with the intellectual rigor of an academic conference. They kept raving about how great the programming was, and how intimate and welcoming the conference was toward new people. I love attending new conferences and signed up right then.

 

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?

DIANA: I don’t think I would be the SFF reader and editor I am today if it wasn’t for K. A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, to be honest. Reading that series introduced me to the concept of fandom life, especially online fandom life, as well as being about a diverse group of kids fighting a secret alien invasion. That series tackled a lot of topics you didn’t expect in a middle-grade series and didn’t talk down to its readership either. I read a lot of SFF books as a kid but it was those books that made me start writing fan fiction, join forums, make internet friends that I’m still friends with, and showed me how genre stories can speak to greater sociopolitical matters in our world. So I will always appreciate K. A. Applegate for creating those books.

 


Diana Pho is a queer Vietnamese-American independent scholar, playwright, and Hugo Award-nominated fiction editor. She has over a decade of experience in traditional, Big Five publishing, including Tor Books, Tor.com Publishing, and the Science Fiction Book Club. Diana currently works as story producer at Serial Box developing unique and cutting-edge science fiction and fantasy stories. Additionally, she has a double bachelor’s degree in English and Russian literature from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s in performance studies from New York University. Diana’s academic work includes critical analysis of the role of race in fashion, performance, and the media, in addition to pieces focusing on fan studies and fan communities.

For several years, she has traveled the country as a professional convention speaker about the intersection of social justice and fandom. In the steampunk community, she is best-known for running Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning, US-based blog on multicultural steampunk. She has been interviewed for many media outlets about fandom, including CBS’s Inside Edition, MSN.com, BBC America, the Travel Channel, HGTV, and the Science Channel. You can follow her on Twitter @writersyndrome and learn more about her work at dianampho.com.

Photo credit: Gerry O’Brien

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 working on 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.

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