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Archive for May 2021

Is it on your TBR list? Isabel recommends 7 books she loves

We all have a To-Be-Read list. A list that gets longer and longer as new recommendations get added. Those new recommendations tend to rise to the top of the list and push older ones to the bottom. The works here have probably all been on your TBR list at some time, and you may even have read some of them. For those ones you haven’t yet read, here is your chance to go back and explore the stories and ideas that form the foundation of some of the newest things on your TBR list.

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

This novel challenges your assumptions about gender and physical bodies as necessary to identity. As you get to know the characters, you will be surprised at the misconceptions and biases you hold that affect how you see the characters and their world.

Dawn

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

This book asks what is essential to be considered fully human after an alien race seeks to restore the planet and rebuild the human race by interbreeding with them after the last war brings an apocalypse. At what point do you go from accepting help to make reasonable adaptations to survive, and when do those adaptations make you complicit in your own destruction?

Elysium

Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett

An intriguing and mesmerizing series of vignettes about two people whose gender and relationship changes and gets more complex as you learn who they are. You may want to re-read it immediately upon finishing it to experience it more deeply.

Her Body and Other Parties

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

The stories in this collection show the complexity of women’s relationships to their bodies and how those bodies are treated by others. From the ordinary to not so ordinary, the loving to abusive, light to dark, these stories speak to the mundane and the horrific. I recommend you read only one in a sitting to allow the full impact of each to sink in.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin’s first novel about an unwanted barbarian relation who gets caught in a twisted power struggle with powerful cousins who seek to control the gods questions the boundaries between mortals and gods and redefines the fantasy genre.

Lady Astronaut of Mars

Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

You’ve probably heard about the Lady Astronaut series of books, now read an early novelette about an older lady astronaut that has to choose between staying on Earth with her dying husband or take what could be her last chance to go back into space. For anyone who has ever had to make a choice between a loved one or a career, between caring for someone else or for yourself, this story will break you.

The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Like all well-intentioned missions, this team of scientists and Jesuit priests destroy that which they sought to save. Each of the characters in this narrative has a fully developed story, but it is the struggle with faith of the priest at the center of the story that will have even the most religious reader question just how much can we be expected to suffer and still survive. If I were exiled to a desert island and could only take three books with me, this would be one of them. This is the most painful book I’ve ever read. I recommend it to everyone.


 
Isabel Schechter

Isabel Schechter has attended and run fannish conventions for more than 20 years and is a frequent panelist at conventions. Isabel’s essays on race and representation in SF/F have been published in Invisible 2: Essays on Race and Representation in SF/F, Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and several volumes of the WisCon Chronicles; and she is coeditor of The WisCon Chronicles Volume 12: Boundaries and Bridges. She is Puerto-Rican, feminist, child-free, Jewish, vegetarian, and a Midwesterner living in Southern California, and embraces the opportunity to represent the fact that no one of those identities excludes any of the others.

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 13, Issue 3: May 2021

This month:

Spring feels especially wonderful this year, doesn’t it, as the weather warms, the flowers bloom, and vaccine numbers are looking up? While we’re still finding the world challenging in far too many ways, we’re also finding that, in a number of little joys and delights, we’re suddenly optimistic. So with that optimism, let us help you find the stories that will make sense of the mayhem or transport you out of it.

Conference Registrations

If you’re looking forward to joining us in October, now is a great time to confirm your plans! The current registration rate is $275, and includes all of our programming and keynote addresses, four meals and receptions, and a conference bag and t-shirts. Sirens Studio tickets are still available as well, if you’d like to join us a couple days early for our smaller sessions with exemplary faculty. Register now to lock in your attendance.

Guest of Honor Weeks

In May, we featured two more of 2021’s Guests of Honor! These brilliant minds have done incredible work in the field of speculative fiction, and we are so excited to welcome them to Sirens in October.

Dr. Kinitra Brooks Author Searching for Sycorax Dr. Kintra Brooks Sycorax's Daughters Dr. Kinitra Brooks

Dr. Kinitra Brooksis a lauded scholar of popular culture, specializing in Black feminist theory and genre fiction. In her Sirens Interview, Kinitra discusses her work, with a particular eye to the erasure of genre boundaries and the fluidity of expression in Black women’s writing. Her Further Reading features media analysis on works like Lovecraft Country and Black is King, interviews about topics including folklore and syncretic practices, and much more! The Sirens Review squad celebrates Searching for Sycorax, Kinitra’s literary monograph presenting black women characters as both stereotypical fodder and literary backbone of the horror genre, and Sycorax’s Daughters: A Revolution in Horror, a collection of poems and stories which Kinitra edited, showcasing the extraordinary variety of the horror genre as written by Black women. Kinitra also supplied us with a recommended reading list of novels, short fiction, and nonfiction, and we have a list of Book Friends to complement her work.

Joamette Author Heartwood Joamette Author Power & Magic Joamette Author Power & Magic Immortal Souls Joamette Author

Joamette Gil is our Studio Guest of Honor. As the head witch at P&M Press, an independent comics micro-press specializing in speculative fiction by creators of color and LGBTQIA creators, Joamette has a wonderful perspective on both the creative and business aspects of speculative comics to offer our Studio attendees. You can read about her love for comics and her experiences Kickstarting collections in her Sirens Interview. The Sirens Review squad takes you inside Power & Magic and Heartwood: Non-Binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy, both of which Joamette edited. Joamette also offered us some recommended reads, including graphic novels, short stories, and novels, and we’ve put together a collection of what we think are great read-alikes for the comics she’s edited. You can also see some of Joamette’s own comics, along with other interviews, in her Further Reading.

Books

Do you switch out your winter to-read list for a summer to-read list at the same time you change out your wardrobe? However you arrange your shelves, nightstand stacks, or ebook files, here are some suggestions for starting the summer right with fabulous works of speculative fiction from marginalized authors:

Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • The second installment of this year’s Reading Challenge feature series centers on the theme of Transgression: “In the speculative space that is Sirens, our second mission statement is transgression: to find and share those stories, our stories, that transgress boundaries, expectations, and limitations for all people of marginalized genders.” Visit the post for a look inside the works from this year’s Reading Challenge that most thoroughly explore rule-breakers, barrier-busters, and paradigm-shifters.
  • In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’ve compiled a list of fifty great speculative works by female, trans, and nonbinary AAPI authors. These books range from graphic novels to YA to adult, from hilarious romps to sweeping epics to lush romance.
  • Sirens Chair Amy Tenbrink spends her days reading, reading, and reading some more, and this month she tried to review a book, and ending up down a rabbit hole. In “On Politeness and Monstrousness,” Amy tells us why she eagerly gobbles up books about teenage monster-hunters and is invariably disappointed by them. “No demographic needs to claim their monstrousness more than teenaged girls.”
  • As the school year wraps up and we look forward to summer reading, writer and high school teacher Katie Passerotti offers up a list of highly teachable fantasy books. “If we expect students to become lifelong readers, it’s vital they be given choice and be provided with opportunities to read broadly and outside of the very cis, very white, very male literary canon.”
  • Wonderful new fantasy books by women and non-binary authors joined the world in May! Be sure to peruse our Round-Up to find your next great read.
  • Our June Book Club selection is The Seven Necessary Sins for Women & Girls by Mona Eltahawy. If you’d like to join the Zoom conversation on June 27th, please email us (help at sirensconference.org) to be added to our list!

Happy reading!

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

 

50 Shining, Speculative Works by AAPI Authors

In May, the United States celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month—though at Sirens, we know that one month is not enough to ponder the people, histories, and cultures of such a vast region. To identify as Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) is to choose solidarity. How else can one compress hundreds of ethnic groups, languages, immigrant generations, income disparities, and consequences of American imperialism into one acronym?

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not a monolith. We fully commit to uplifting Indigenous, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, South Asian, and Southeast Asian voices—aware that “Asian” is not synonymous with East Asian—as well as transracial adoptees, Black Asians, and multiracial Asians. And these past few months, from attacks on Asian elders to the horrific shootings in Atlanta, the devastation of COVID-19 in India to the violent apartheid in Palestine, the Asian community has been in pain. We must Stop AAPI Hate. But we must also cling to our joy—and to each other.

If you’ve already read your Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, your Yōko Ogawa, and your Eugie Foster—and we hope you have!—allow us to suggest 50 shining works of speculative fiction by AAPI women, nonbinary, and trans authors. Tales that feature majestic tigers, mischievous tricksters, or vengeful ghosts—as well as overbearing aunties, brilliant generals, and fierce matriarchs. Stories that interrogate and smash stereotypes, or incorporate mythology and folklore from the author’s origin or acquired cultures. 50 incredible novels, short stories, and poetry collections that span epic fantasy, fairytale retellings, fabulist memoir, portal adventure, sci-fi thrillers, and contemporary with a magical twist. Most of these works feature characters living in the diaspora, some are translated into English—and believe us when we say this list is far from comprehensive; in compiling, we realized we could have included 50 more.

If you’d like to buy these books (and we hope you do!), you can find a list of Asian- and Pacific Islander-owned bookstores, courtesy of We Need Diverse Books. You can also support AAPI voices at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and the Asian Author Alliance.

In solidarity and rest,

Faye Bi
Communications Director

1. The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith
The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith Violet Kupersmith
Ghost stories, yes, but also retold Vietnamese folktales, an indictment of the Vietnam War, an exquisite exploration of loss. Kupersmith’s settings are palpable, her characters human, her work unforgettable.

2. Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco
Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco Rin Chupeco
Many clever fairytale retellings wrapped up into one all-too-real contemporary tale of magic, adventure, a lost kingdom, a dick firebird, ICE agents with magic, and a group of warrior-teens you will love every bit as much as Bardugo’s Dregs.

3. We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry Quan Barry
In 1989 Massachusetts, a truly terrible girls’ field hockey team makes a deal with the devil—and starts winning. Barry’s clever, hilarious romp tackles necessary themes of transgression, stereotypes, power, and claiming yourself.

4.The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan
The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan
An epic tome of adventure and revolution. More importantly, a timely and carefully crafted depiction of the unrelenting importance of knowledge and justice in a world of lost legends and increasingly authoritarian rule.

5.A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat Christina Soontornvat
This luminous retelling of Les Misérables for young readers makes tangible the light and the dark, and highlights the themes of morality, oppression, and justice—all in a Thai-inspired fantasy world with a Light Market to dazzle all the senses.

6.Great Goddesses by Nikita Gill
Great Goddesses by Nikita Gill Nikita Gill
Want some gorgeous words to spear your soul? This prose-and-poetry collection meditates on sexuality, relationships, flexible conceptions of womanhood, creation, destruction, self-mythologizing, and the power of writing our own stories.

7.Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee Yoon Ha Lee
Lee’s Hexarchate galaxy of calendrical warfare is the backdrop for his virtuoso story of crashhawk Kel Cheris, not great at following directions, and her brain’s occupation by long-dead Shuos Jedao, exceptionally brilliant and utterly homicidal.

8.Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda
Monstress Marjorie Liu Sana Takeda
A feast for the eyes, this fantasy comic set in fantasy Asia has six volumes, epic worldbuilding, and Middle Eastern myths—and did we mention the huge, supremely powerful monster growing out of the stump of our heroine’s arm?

9.The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig Heidi Heilig
Nix’s dad can navigate to any map, any time, anywhere—and he wants to change history. Obsessive love, a small heist, a motley crew, time-travel paradoxes—and Heilig’s marvelous prose is so transportive that it’s like you’re RIGHT THERE.

10.The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang
The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang Neon Yang
In an Asian-inspired society where the default gender is nonbinary—children choose a gender when ready—the bond of twin children of a ruthless dictator is put to the test against an inventive backdrop of magic, religion, and politics.

11.Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee
Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee C. B. Lee
Jess, daughter of heroes, has no superpowers of her own and just wants an internship. And she finds one—working for a supervillain. Lee expertly crafts an uproarious story that nonetheless has something important to say about growing up.

12The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard Aliette de Bodard
In the aftermath of a Great War fought by fallen angels, Paris is a chessboard for Great Houses deploying resources in a game of power. Come for the history; stay for the incisive criticism of colonialism.

13.Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo Nghi Vo
This lovingly crafted tale is a delight that ends all too soon (but don’t worry, the sequel is already out). It centers female and queer voices as it explores the nature and consequences of power in a fantasy empire.

14.Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi
Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi Roshani Chokshi
Books about female friendship are too few and oh-so-far between, but Chokshi’s magnificent middle-grade adventure, featuring lonely Aru and anxious Mini as reincarnated Pandava brothers, will make your heart sing.

15.Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh
Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh Vandana Singh
Singh, a theoretical particle physicist, crafts stories full of wonder and very human wondering: Is time truly linear? Can you make a case for an Anti-Occam’s Razor Theory? Can one person change the course of the universe?

16.Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho Zen Cho
You know Cho for her portrayals of vengeful ghosts, mysterious gods, and meddlesome family members—in her latest, Jess’s Ah Ma is all three, and Black Water Sister all about the ties that bind: to family, duty, and destiny.

17.We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal
We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal Hafsah Faizal
Both Zafira and Nasir seek a magical object capable of great magic—but Nasir seeks to kill Zafira as well. Except, you know, there’s more kissing than killing, more adventure than anything, and a cliffhanger ending, so you’ll need the next one.

18.Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw
Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw Cassandra Khaw
Rupert Wong has been very bad indeed, and now must serve as a cannibal chef. But that’s only the beginning: brazen impertinence, absurdist bureaucracy, seemingly endless blood. You’ve never read anything like this!

19.Displacement by Kiku Hughes
Displacement by Kiku Hughes Kiku Hughes
Hughes’s autobiographical timeslip graphic novel beautifully threads the needle between the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII and today’s social justice movements—and calls us to open the books of our own family histories.

20.Jade City by Fonda Lee
Jade City by Fonda Lee Fonda Lee
In a fantasy Asia, where magic is channeled through jade and the future is uncertain, three siblings fight to keep their clan’s power. If you miss powerful women in the first half, just wait for the meeting between Shae and Mada in the second.

21.The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso K.S. Villoso
If you love heroines who don’t give a crap if they’re likeable, you’ll like Queen Talyien. This fresh new adventure reads like classic epic fantasy, with a shrewd narrator who’s as funny as she is ferocious.

22.Machinehood by S.B. Divya
Machinehood by S.B. Divya S.B. Divya
In this thinky sci-fi thriller set in 2095, humanity is dependent on pills to keep them competitive with a gig economy dominated by AIs. Cut your teeth on sentience, labor rights, and what late-late capitalism could do to society.

23.When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller Tae Keller
Lily and her mom and sister move in with her sick grandmother, when a tiger appears—just like the ones in halmoni’s stories—to strike a bargain. An intergenerational tale about grief, family, and growing up, as well as the stories we tell ourselves.

24.Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake Kendare Blake
Triplet girls—one a poisoner, one a naturalist, one an elementalist—are destined to fight to the death in their sixteenth year. Winner takes the crown. Wait for it, because those girls are going to find their ambition.

25.The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
War orphan Rin has shamanic powers that may help her save her people, but the god who favors her may demand her humanity in recompense. Enthralling and brutal, this epic spares the reader nothing.

26.The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi
The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi Karuna Riazi
A mysterious board game sucks Farah and her friends into a strange world—where they must solve puzzles, conquer challenges, and rescue Farah’s brother. For adventurous readers—or anyone disappointed that their board games aren’t quite so mysterious.

27.Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin
Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin Marilyn Chin
Very short stories about Moonie and Mei Ling, Chinese-American girls who deliver Americanized Chinese food, but want to grow up to be something more. Equally hilarious and profound, with a cleaver-wielding terror of a grandmother.

28.All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva
All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva Anjali Sachdeva
Where faith and fantasy overlap is often wonder: people awestruck by the ineffable. Here, a man meets a mermaid, two girls practice something like witchcraft, a woman explores a subterranean cave, and more.

29.Supermutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki
Supermutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki Jillian Tamaki
This juxtaposition of everyday teen issues with a high school for mutants and witches is chock-full of sly humor, surprising twists, and unexpected delights—not to mention inimitable illustrations and visual style.

30.Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar
Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar Shveta Thakrar
Sheetal misses her mom, a star who returned to the heavens years ago. But as Sheetal’s birthday approaches, she finds herself in those same heavens, navigating the sparkling, glass-edged world of Thakrar’s glorious imagination.

31.Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly
Lalani and the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly Erin Entrada Kelly
A brave girl from an island village surrounded by dangerous waters must venture out and save her world. Kelly sensitively handles themes like bullying and belonging, wrapped gorgeously in this ode to Filipino myths and legends.

32.The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad
The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad Nafiza Azad
A sumptuously wrought story of humanity and empathy, feminism and romance, defiance and courage. You’ll love the Silk Road setting, the complicated growth of the female characters, and the kissing.

33.Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed Premee Mohamed
Nick’s best friend Johnny is a genius—but when she invents a clean reactor, she awakens primal Ancient Ones set to destroy humanity. As Nick and Johnny try to save the world, Beneath the Rising reaches for the stars and asks really big questions.

34.This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone Amal El-Mohtar Max Gladstone
Spy versus spy, enemies to lovers, and nature vs. technology…and how they come together in a story about forging a connection beyond the boundaries of time. Wordplay fans, this one’s for you!

35.When Fox Is a Thousand by Larissa Lai
When Fox Is a Thousand by Larissa Lai Larissa Lai
Lai weaves three voices in her reconstruction of the myth of the Fox: the thousand-year-old fox itself, Taoist poet Yu Hsuan-Chi, and modern-day Artemis. This is a fairytale, a legend, and a parable, all entwined with Lai’s lyricism.

36.Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng Jeannette Ng
In Ng’s filigreed Gothic novel, Victorian missionaries travel to the mysterious heart of Arcadia, testing their faith as they seek to bring Christianity to a foreign people. But things in Arcadia are not always as they seem…

37.Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn Sarah Kuhn
Superheroines in San Francisco! The Devil Wears Prada meets the X-Men as Evie Tanaka balances working for her famous friend, raising her sister, a budding romance, a demonic invasion, and her own superpowers.

38.Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin Grace Lin
Minli, seeking to change her family’s fortune, goes on an extraordinary journey through the legends of Chinese folklore—and befriends a dragon. Buy the hardcover version for the magnificent illustrations!

39.Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang K-Ming Chang
Chang’s wildly inventive, fabulist debut opens with a girl who grows a tiger tail and proceeds to gorgeously decant a multi-generational story about immigration and belonging, roots and hauntings, queer stories, and all sorts of transformations.

40.The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh Renée Ahdieh
Shahrzad comes to the king so that she can kill him in revenge for her best friend’s murder, but she finds a bigger conspiracy to unravel. Pretty prose and satisfying fight scenes mark this One Thousand and One Nights retelling.

41.Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells
Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells Rebecca Kim Wells
When a corrupt emperor’s agents kidnap Maren’s girlfriend, the obvious response is to steal a dragon, right? Dragon lovers, this one’s for you! And read on for a lost prince, a strange underground beast, and a prophecy that could upend an empire.

42.Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani https://www.sirensconference.org/news/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Chanani.jpg
A gorgeous graphic novel about Priyanka’s desire to know more about India and her family there—and her mother’s refusal to tell her. But then Pri finds a magic pashmina that seemingly transports her to India. Or does it?

43.The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi
The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi Nahoko Uehashi
A young, unassuming girl trains to be a doctor to fearsome beasts in a world where mastery of said beasts is levered for political advantage. Epic worldbuilding rife with complex questions of morality, ritual, and resistance.

44.Ash by Malinda Lo
Ash by Malinda Lo Malinda Lo
A groundbreaking retelling of Cinderella. In the wake of her father’s death, drowning in grief, Ash dreams of fairies—and then meets one who can give her everything she wants. But then she also meets the King’s huntress and love blooms—and Ash must choose.

45.Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra
Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra Rati Mehrotra
Need we say more than “female assassins with magical knives”? Perhaps not, but as Mehrotra’s work opens, the order is rent by death and politics, and Kyra goes on the run—to find not only succor, but a chance to seek justice—or vengeance.

46.Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker, illustrated by Wendy Xu
Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker, illustrated by Wendy Xu Suzanne Walker Wendy Xu
Queer, adorable, and magical are words to describe this graphic novel featuring a hard-of-hearing witch and a nonbinary werewolf. Read to enjoy unconventional families, bookshops, cute towns, and banter to rival the Gilmore Girls!

47.The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo Yangsze Choo
In this historical fantasy set in 1930s colonial Malaysia, an apprentice dressmaker moonlighting as a dancehall girl crosses paths with a houseboy on a mission. How could we not love a juxtaposition of creepy severed fingers against a lush, dreamy atmosphere.

48.Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri Tasha Suri
In this Mughal India-inspired fantasy, Mehr’s status as the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an oppressed race of magicians draws all the wrong attention–and she’ll need all her cleverness and resilience to save her world.

49.The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart Andrea Stewart
Transgression and revolution are the heart of Stewart’s epic fantasy, as Lin, daughter of a failing emperor, must fight to reclaim her magic and her throne. Intricate, eerie, and propulsive, you won’t be able to put this down.

50.Burning Roses by S.L. Huang
Burning Roses by S.L. Huang S.L. Huang
In this fairytale remix, Huang gifts readers with two middle-aged lesbian heroes, called to service once more, but reckoning with their own monstrousness and the opportunity for forgiveness. A blazing, fierce, thought-provoking deconstruction.

Book Friends: Kinitra Brooks

As part of our 2021 Guest of Honor weeks, the Sirens team recommends books that would be friends with a guest of honor's books. Below is a curated list of titles that we feel complement the works of Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks, scholar and editor of works such as Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, Sycorax’s Daughters, and The Lemonade Reader. If you enjoyed her work, we hope you check out these works that contemplate the quotidian horrors of Black and brown women; intersections of oppression; zombies, haints, and things that go bump in the night; women’s fabulist powers; deconstructing power narratives; witchery; and more creatures to feed your nightmares.


Kinitra Brooks’ Recommended Reading

Sirens Guest of Honor Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks shares a recommended reading list of novels, short fiction, and nonfiction. If you enjoy her work, or you want to learn more about what writers, especially black women writers, are doing in the speculative space, this list is a spectacular place to start. Take it away, Kintra!

 

Conjure Women: A Novel Afia Atakora

Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

This book is next on my “To Be Read” list. I’m so excited because it focuses on everything my current research project is centered on: Black Southern women and the spiritual/medicinal practices highlighted in the practice of conjure. I can’t wait!

Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South Regina N. Bradley

Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South by Regina N. Bradley

Bradley clearly talks to the ancestors. It is evident in her ability to raise the dead and conjure the spirits of the Black South in her short story collection.

Speculative Sankofarration: Haunting Black Women in Contemporary Horror Fiction Kinitra Brooks, Stephanie Schoellman & Alexis McGee

“Speculative Sankofarration: Haunting Black Women in Contemporary Horror Fiction” by Kinitra Brooks, Stephanie Schoellman & Alexis McGee

I know it can be a bit gauche to recommend your own work, but this is a short scholarly article I wrote with my graduate students that further teases out my approaches to black women’s horror writing since the publication of Searching for Sycorax. It’s heavy on the theory and disciplinary language, but I did want to offer it as an option for readers.

Let's Play White Chesya Burke

Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke

A great collection of short horror stories. Burke takes an interesting turn on the classic zombie story in “CUE: Change” making it hella black in its examination of what constitutes humanity. Burke also revises the evil child trope with the character Shiv in “I Make People Do Bad Things,” which takes place in 1920s Harlem.

LaShaun Rousselle Mystery Series Lynn Emery

LaShaun Rousselle Mystery Series by Lynn Emery

A quirky little series about a small-town outcast that returns to rural Louisiana to continue the conjure tradition of her ancestors while solving paranormal mysteries and battling the monsters that cause them. A great representation of contemporary Southern rural life and black women’s long history in these places.

The Crown of Shards Series Jennifer Estep

The Crown of Shards Series by Jennifer Estep

I just discovered this series as I am an avid fan of Estep’s Elemental Assassins series. But Crown of Shards is just different enough as it is placed in an alternate medieval monarchical society. If the magical assassins and gladiator fighting doesn’t manage to kill Evie Blair—palace politics just might do the job

Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Margarite Fernandez Olmos

Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Margarite Fernandez Olmos

So many times I discuss the influence of traditional African religious practices in horror. This book begins to clear up a lot of the misinformation that continues to exist about these practices, some which are actual religions while others are often supplemental practices to black folks’ Christianity. Each chapter focuses on a different religious practice and the knowledge begins to take away the fear of these Africanized practices that is historically steeped anti-black ignorance.

Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System Katrina Hazzard-Donald

Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald

A nonfiction book that begins to discuss the concept of conjure/hoodoo and the West and Central African practices that influenced them.

Skin Folk Nalo Hopkinson

Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson

A great short story collection that examines the magical and the peculiar that populates Caribbean folklore. My personal favorites are “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” in which a couple strengthens their relationship when they must battle their animated sex suit and “Greedy Choke Puppy” in which a young graduate student discovers the magical history of the women in her family.

Tell My Horse Zora Neale Hurston

Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston

A collection of Southern oral culture gathered and transcribed by Hurston as an ethnographer in the first third of the 20th century. These stories show that black folks have long enjoyed horror stories and the characters that define them.

Dread Nation Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Black girl protagonist in a zombie uprising initiated by The Civil War? Yes, please. I’m currently reading the sequel, Deathless Divide.

How Long ‘til Black Future Month? N.K. Jemisin

How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin

The short story “Red Dirt Witch” is worth the purchase of this entire collection. I enjoy others, such as “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” and “The City Born Great” but “Red Dirt Witch” is as close to perfect as one can get in a short story. This is Jemisin firing on all cylinders while also giving us a preview into the importance of black mother/daughter relationships she explores so thoroughly in The Broken Earth series.

Jade City Fonda Lee

Jade City by Fonda Lee

I’ve almost finished this book on Audible. It’s a gangster family drama set in an alternate history steeped in multiple Asian traditions. There is a unique complexity as her world-building is organic while her fight scenes are described like you are right there in the mix—you can smell the blood and feel the jade.

Talking to the Dead LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant

Talking to the Dead by LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant

This nonfiction ethnographic project interviews multiple women of the Gullah community and examines the traditions that define them. Manigault-Bryant examines the phenomenon I discussed in my interview, the concept of “tending to the dead,” that shows our folkloric practice of how the living dead manifest in black life.

A Blade So Black L.L. McKinney

A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

A fun retelling of Alice in Wonderland with great world-building and a complex protagonist who has to save the world and remember to take the beef out of the freezer for dinner.

Mama Day Gloria Naylor

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

The first of the two novels I consider the perfect example of black women’s horror writing tradition. Mama Day is a conjure woman who is at least 80 years old and rules the island of Willow Springs with her medicinal knowledge, ancestral ties, and her knack for baking perfect coconut cakes. Just don’t piss her off….

Stigmata Phyllis Alesia Perry

Stigmata by Phyllis Alesia Perry

This novel is the second of the two books I consider black woman horror writing perfection. It has everything, possession, ancestral traditions, black mother/daughter bonds, time travel…I discover new things every time I read it. Simply amazing.

White Trash Zombie Series Diana Rowland

White Trash Zombie Series by Diana Rowland

These books are simply fun. A great little romp inside of an interesting mythology. Protagonist Angel Crawford is a delight who knows who she is and works the hell out of her lane.

The Santeria Habitat Series Kenya Wright

The Santeria Habitat Series by Kenya Wright

A fun series that has were-leopards, fairies, demons…and a Prime—a sexy fantastical creature based in an alternate history Miami. Miami is now a caged city divided into different regions named after major orisha. The protagonist is a half demon solving paranormal mysteries and choosing between two sexy shifter men. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment that will feature were-dragons.

Honorable Mentions:

The Black God's Drums P. Djèlí Clark

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

The Ballad of Black Tom Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Salsa Nocturna: A Bone Street Rumba Collection Daniel José Older

Salsa Nocturna: A Bone Street Rumba Collection by Daniel José Older


 

Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks

Kinitra D. Brooks is the Audrey and John Leslie Endowed Chair in Literary Studies in the Department of English at Michigan State University. She specializes in the study of black women, genre fiction, and popular culture. Her current research focuses on portrayals of the Conjure Woman in popular culture. Dr. Brooks has three books in print: Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, a critical treatment of black women in science fiction, fantasy, and horror; Sycorax’s Daughters, an edited volume of short horror fiction written by black women; and The Lemonade Reader, a collection of essays on Beyoncé’s 2016 audiovisual project, Lemonade. She is also the co-editor of the New Suns book series at Ohio State University Press. Dr. Brooks spent the 2018–2019 academic year as the Advancing Equity Through Research Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

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

Writing Fluidly: Black Women and Horror in Searching for Sycorax

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Kinitra’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Alyssa Collins on Searching for Sycorax by Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks.


Searching for Sycorax

Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror is a literary monograph by Dr. Kinitra Brooks. In it, Brooks presents black women characters as both stereotypical fodder and literary backbone of the horror genre. Making an argument both about what horror is and what it can do, Brooks excavates intersections of black women’s representation in the genre and presents new ways of reading and understanding black women’s role in horror writ large.

Picking up the book, I was very curious about the title, especially the invocation of Sycorax in a work about horror and haunting. Haunting in relation to blackness and fiction is not necessarily a novel concept. There are many black ghosts that haunt the canon of American literature and African American literature (reference chattel slavery and years of racial terror and violence). So I really wanted to know: why call on Sycorax? For Brooks, calling on Sycorax is about interrogating the influence, absence, and power of black women in horror. Invoking Sycorax is about looking to the obscured, erased, and othered women who both influence and haunt while being maligned. Searching for Sycorax, then, is a quest to highlight how black women are represented in contemporary horror and to reveal how black women authors are actively changing it. Each of the five chapters presents an argument that progresses from excavating characters like Michonne from The Walking Dead and outlining connections between horror as a genre to conversations and literary canons of black feminism; to looking at the ways black women authors write through an intersectional framework and detailing what a black women’s horror aesthetic might look like.

This is fully an academic monograph so be prepared for a lot of close readings, canon generation, and a nimble use of a varied theoretical toolbox that includes black feminist theory, genre theory, and contemporary literary theory. I’m not a huge horror buff, but I found Brooks’ arguments about horror both inviting and innovative. Brooks is able to both critique the genre, revealing a good deal about the failures in representing black women by the horror genre, and argue for the efficacy of having black women authors use horror elements in their work.

For me, Brook’s most important intervention is not her practice of unveiling mischaracterized black women in the genre, or her interest in revitalizing the horror genre, but her articulation of what she calls “fluid fiction.”

Fluid fiction is “a racially gendered framework that revises genre fiction in that it purposefully obfuscates the boundaries of science fiction/fantasy/horror writing just as black women confound the boundaries of race, gender, and class.” (p.71) Brooks argues that just as black women are the founders and proponents for intersectional approaches to politics, they also undermine genre distinctions because telling stories that engage black women honestly necessitates such mixing. As a scholar of black speculative fiction, I really enjoyed Brooks’ framework because there is often an incredible amount of handwringing when it comes to black authors and how their work “fits” into canons or genres. I’ve seen many arguments about fluidity or intersection but few that ground dismantling narratives of genre fixity with intersectional analysis so clearly. The possibilities of reading (and re-reading) texts by black women using Brooks’ framework are powerful and endless.

While reading an academic book is definitely different from perusing a novel, if you are a fan of contemporary horror, a student of contemporary literature, or simply have a bit of time on your hands, you might give this book a try.


Alyssa Collins is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina. Her work explores the intersections of race and technology as depicted in 20th century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. When she’s not working, she writes about race, superheroes, television, and embodiment around the internet.

Further Reading: Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks

Have you already loved the work of Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks? Searching for Sycorax? The Lemonade Reader and Sycorax’s Daughters collection? Are you looking for more? Let us help you! As part of Kinitra’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of her interviews and work from around the web.

Kinitra’s Articles, Essays, and Lectures:

Kinitra’s Interviews and Profiles:

  • Cultureshift: Beyonce, Folklore And the Power of Pop Culture (2020): “She says she talks to her students about how traditional and African-derived spiritual practices are seen with fear, not because they’re occult practices, but because of anti-Blackness.”
  • Examining the power of pop culture to shape perception, issues and trends (2020): “I don’t think we can underestimate the power of pop culture. Think of HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ and how those first scenes were of the Tulsa Massacre. Almost immediately, you had people Googling it, talking about it in social media and questioning why they hadn’t learned about it before.”
  • The Conjure Is Political (2020): “I think ‘conjure’ is associated with a lot of women’s knowledge, and particularly Black women’s knowledge practices that are often easily dismissed, that a lot of times are hidden.”

  • The Lemonade Reader: Black Feminists Read Beyoncé (2019): “I believe the most important takeaway is that you have to do the internal work to grow into your happiness. And it takes work, especially in a world that actively hates Black women and girls. And that Southern Black women have long been onto something in articulating and laying the pathway for their Black girl descendants to make such a journey of self-healing and self-discovery. Beyoncé has simply excelled at coalescing all of these insights into a 55-minute avant-garde film/visual album.”

  • The Public Medievalist Podcast, Episode 1 (and transcript) (2019): “I’m a literary scholar. It’s not necessarily what I wanted it to be, it’s are you being true to the story. I think a lot of people were like, oh you’re mad that they made Daenerys the Mad Queen, you know, they have been foreshadowing this… Yes, you know, those of us who are fans of the show, those of us who have done some of the reading and everything else, we realize that that has been foreshadowed for a long time. But … you shit the bed in the execution.”

  • OutKasted Conversations: Kinitra Brooks (2019): “And I am obsessed with how black folks define their monsters while being considered monstrous and all those things that flow in between.”

  • An Interview with Dr. Kinitra Brooks, Who Teaches a Class on Beyoncé (2016): “I am most interested in how black women take folklore and syncretic religious practices (so spiritual practices that mix West African religion with Christianity) in their creative fiction and use it as a place of power and subversion against the horror genre and classic readings of black women’s literature.”

  • Interview with Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks, Horror Scholar (2016): “I believe horror offers many of the black women horror creators I study a sense of agency to push back against the horrific. Authors such as Chesya Burke, Kiini Ibura Salaam, and director/activist Bree Newsome use horror to examine the simultaneity of oppressions (race, gender, sexuality, and class) and offer interesting avenues for their black women protagonists to gain control and fight back against these interlocking systems of oppression.”

  • When Theory Meets the Incredible: Changing Perceptions of Black Women in Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy: “Brooks came to theorize that white women were capable of rescuing themselves while maintaining their femininity, blurring gender lines by assuming forceful attitudes and still remaining sympathetic figures. Black women who took on similar roles, on the other hand, were portrayed as unnaturally strong, losing their femininity and the sympathy of the audience in the process.”

 

Sycorax’s Daughters: A Revolution in Horror by Nivair H. Gabriel

Sycorax’s Daughters Kinitra Brooks

The poems and stories in Sycorax’s Daughters showcase the extraordinary variety of the horror genre as written by Black women. In these devastating explorations of fear and inhumanity, there are intriguing tastes of science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and even erotica. Walidah Imarisha’s inspiring foreword describes this anthology as “a visionary space where Black women explore horror on their own terms,” “a beautiful tapestry … challenging how one of the mainstays of our society is the cautionary tale of the monstrously feminine and the ways women with agency become the most evil.” Featuring monsters, women with agency, and everyone in between, these works create an array of frightful possibilities with particular resonance for Black women.

Poetry, scattered throughout, scaffolds the tales. Sometimes narrative, sometimes simply emotive, each poem calls up powerful questions. Carole McDonnell’s “Terror and the Dark” engages with the fears well-meaning adults plant in children, asking, “Do Jamaican parents still delight in terrorizing their children?” “Polydactyly” by Tanesha Nicole Tyler comments on disability and Blackness in dovetailing anecdotes that show society as the cruelty of a knife chopping off an extra toe. Amber Doe’s prose poem “last of the red hot lovers” asks a haunting question: “What would I have looked like if he had never touched me against my will?” Life can inflict so many flavors of trauma, and these poems offer a sampling of the rebirth that follows.

Vampires are an obvious fixation for horror lovers, and Daughters offers several fresh takes on this familiar trope. A former enslaved woman turned vampire uses her supernatural powers for justice in “Born Again” by RaShell R. Smith-Spears, a gory, righteous ode to Black sisterhood. A succubus named Cassandra derives sexual pleasure from destroying her victims in “Cheaters” by Tish Jackson. In Vocab’s “Thirsty for Love,” someone turned by Dracula laments the monotony of their condition. These vampires are never just after blood; they’re seeking liberation.

Daughters features mermaids, too. In Cherene Sherrard’s “Scales,” one mermaid sister struggles to live in the human world while the other sister hardly wants to try. The collection opens with “Tree of the Forest Seven Bells Turns the World Round Midnight” by Sheree Renée Thomas, in which a woman leads a man through wetlands to be devoured by the river and the trees she calls Mama. Dana McKnight’s “Taking the Good” presents an alluring monster who is perhaps half-vampire, half-mermaid, and all tentacles. Water is a space of the unknown, and tantalizingly so for those who aren’t granted safety on land.

Werewolves and similar transformative figures also make an appearance. In Crystal Connor’s “The Monster,” experienced Army officer Maleka ends up trapped in a cabin with white supremacists inside and supernatural beasts outside. A selkie-like figure rides the subways of New York City looking for skins to steal in “Summer Skin” by Zin E. Rocklyn. K. Ceres Wright’s “Of Sound Mind and Body” follows shapeshifter Dara Martin as she performs one last top-secret assignment for Homeland Intelligence. In these stories, changing shape can provide freedom, but only temporarily.

Sometimes demons are just demons. A frat brother turned financier manipulates to steal lives and get ahead in “Taste the Taint: A Cursed Story” by Kai Leakes. “Kim” by Nicole D. Sconiers presents a monstrous white girl who steals the souls of Black girls: “The more I resented the white girl, the more she blossomed,” muses the besieged protagonist. “Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective II” by Valjeanne Jeffers introduces Mona and her colleague Curtis, whose fascination with the paranormal mirrors many a reader’s feeling about horror—“a wanting, a needing to know more; and at the same time a desire to shut [their] eyes and ears to things [they] couldn’t explain or control.” The demonic is a twisted mirror of the real world, but it’s still a respite compared to the tortures that reality can conjure up.

Reality bends, terrifyingly so, in the more science fictional tales. “Perfect Connection” by Deana Zhollis draws a society where every person has a spirit partner—and every person is in danger of being Split from them by fundamentalist organizations. In Tenea D. Johnson’s “Foundling,” Petal rescues people from disasters using her mastery of teleportation tech, but discovers a dark side to her work that nearly dooms her. “The Malady of Need,” by 2016 Sirens Guest of Honor Kiini Ibura Salaam, describes the mesmerizing daydreams of someone shackled in a shuttle, with little freedom outside of their own mind. Even in the future, in worlds with fantastic technology, the hauntings of human cruelty remain.

In mundane daily life, Black women face the terrors of intersectional oppression, too often magnified by the racism and sexism in mainstream horror narratives—they lead a revolution when they clap back. As Kinitra D. Brooks puts it in her introduction, “There is radical potential in shifting the center of horror.” That potential shines in dozens of different ways in the multifaceted abundance of Sycorax’s Daughters. Unfortunately, the copyediting and formatting is often rough, which at times makes the text difficult to understand, but the subversive brilliance shines through all the same. From bloody victory to ghostly defeat, the literary daughters of Sycorax illuminate the revolutionary potential of exploring our fears.


Nivair H. Gabriel is a writer, editor, and aerospace engineer. Her stories appear in two Sirens benefit anthologies; she has also edited several critically acclaimed picture books. She reviews children’s and teen fiction for Kirkus Reviews and has presented work on intersectional feminism and indigenous futurist thought at several conferences, including Sirens. She received her MA/MFA in children’s literature and writing for children from Simmons College, and her BS in aerospace engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kinitra Brooks: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re pleased to bring you the fourth in our series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and research, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2021 theme of villains! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink speaks with Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks.

 

AMY TENBRINK: Let’s start big: You’re a black woman horror scholar and your work to date centers around the idea that black women genre writers transgress: They purposefully blur the lines between fantasy, science fiction, and horror in order to create a work that recognizes and respects their blackness, their woman-ness, and often their queerness. What about your work excites you? What challenges you? Where do you hope this field goes over the coming years?

Kinitra Brooks Interview

KINITRA BROOKS: I love showing the breadth and depth of what black women writers can do. Sycorax started when someone told me, “Black women don’t do horror.” Their statement was so ignorant, and they said it with such self-assurance, that I knew it wasn’t worth it to argue with them in the moment. But it did clue me in to the unfortunate reality that folks somehow thought black women were bereft in an area I knew they were not. I became a horror fan because of the weekends I spent watching awesome 70s/80s horror, cyberpunk, and fantasy films with my Aunt Linda and Aunt Errolyn.

So my book wasn’t so much about that one ignorant person but about the presence of my Aunts. It was giving voice, insight, and space to the women in my family and other black women like them: Hardcore fans of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films. These women not only introduced me to genre, they are responsible for my love of it.

I hope the field expands the definitions of what is considered horror because it acknowledges and appreciates how black women don’t simply break the rules, they create their own.

And no one proves this more than Zora Neale Hurston. There are new levels of her genius revealed every decade we study her work. I consider her one of the first horror writers because she transcribed the Devil and Haint tales of Southern Black oral culture.

My work excites me because not only am I discovering new texts and contexts for black woman genius—I’m also blessed with the opportunity to geek out at the same time. My work is hitting its stride during a virtual renaissance of black woman speculative writing.

 

AMY: In Searching for Sycorax, you quote Nnedi Okorafor, whose work you’ve reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books, as saying that “there is a method, purpose, and realness to my madness. It is not fantasy for fantasy’s sake.” What do you find is the method, purpose, and realness to the use of what you term “fluid fiction,” works spanning a number of speculative genres, by black woman authors? What does the speculative space provide them?

KINITRA: Black feminist theory centers itself on the lived realities of black women that are often constrained by the simultaneity of their oppressions—race, gender, class, and sexuality—and that they are all interlocking but also shifting in form and effect. But just as these simultaneous oppressions attempt to constrain, they certainly don’t govern the lives of black women because of our ingenuity. One of the examples of this genius is fluid fiction. Black women creators are constantly oscillating, changing shape and form as they erase and willfully ignore the boundaries of genre—be it science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance or even family drama.

This fluidity is incredibly intentional and reflects black women’s refusal to be defined and imprisoned by the differing identities they possess—be it their gender, their race, their sexuality, or even their class status.

 

AMY: In Searching for Sycorax, you also explore the construct of folkloric horror, a subgenre of speculative work employed by black women to fuse and explore natal African religions, such as Vodou and Santería; the concept of spiritual possession as a valid ontology; the spiritual bildungsroman; and the realization and celebration of the black spiritual woman (e.g., the Mambo, the Santera, the Obeah woman). There’s a lot here—people should go read your book!—but perhaps you could share why these particular elements lead to folkloric horror as opposed to simply folklore.

KINITRA: This goes back to my insistence that black folks have been creators and fans of horror for a long time. That so often our horror lies in our folklore—the oral tales Zora Neale Hurston transcribed almost a century ago. We have long reveled in the macabre.

So there is something about the horror of black reality vis-à-vis slavery and other systems of oppression through the diasporic experience that has forced us into simultaneity of being both the victimized and the monstrous in unique ways. In many ways, not facing that history as a non-black person is also willful, full of erasure and a lack of accountability. For black women in particular to want to dig deep into that horror and to bring it forth in imaginative ways that push the bounds and depths of what is considered horrific—remains incredibly powerful.

But I also wanted to highlight the subversion and the pushback. Folks didn’t think we worked in horror because they are unable to read black women and the many cultures we create and participate in. We are illegible to those who traffic in hegemonic ideals.

The illegibility becomes clear when examining the problematic nature of the historical constructions of black women—and black folks as a whole in horror. Again, we make our own rules.

So the horror of the Vodou zombie—which was actually a medical coma folks were placed in so their bodies could heal—as the living dead is a complete misreading of our folklore. We do, in fact, have the living dead in our culture. But they are our ancestors, those who have transitioned to the ancestral plane yet live with us in our homes and actively participate in our daily lives. Do you see the illegibility? Do you see how it’s willful?

Folks fail to make the effort to truly know the complexities of black women because they mistakenly believe we are so knowable.

 

AMY: The 2021 Sirens theme is “villains,” and I imagine a black woman horror scholar has something to say about that. What does “villain” mean to you—especially in the field of consumption and criticism of speculative works—and how is that entangled with gender, race, and sexuality?

KINITRA: Great question. I simply don’t believe that villainy can or should be embodied by one person. Villainy lies in the power of oppressive symbols, the long histories of evil-doing that grows exponentially and infects everything. Villainy is whiteness. Villainy is patriarchy. Villainy is the purposely constructed existence of poverty. Villainy is homophobia. True villainy is represented in those things we can’t easily kill. It takes generations of knowledge to battle generations of evil-doing. This ain’t a fair fight, so why are we trying to fight fairly?

 

AMY: In Searching for Sycorax, you confess that for all your love of horror, your favorite subgenre is the zombie apocalypse. What is it about zombies that’s so compelling?

KINITRA: I love that zombie horror is totally not about the zombies. They are an initial threat but it’s about human nature and the psychological terrors waged by and inflicted upon the surviving humans by the other surviving humans. It’s about the generations of evildoers continuing to wage a campaign of evil.

This is why The Walking Dead pisses me off and Rick Grimes is the worst person ever. Like, clearly straight cis white dudes have royally f*cked up if we have zombies walking around eating folks. So you gonna survive and center the power structure around…straight cis white dudes? GTFOHWTB. No way.

Also, if we are talking about the television version—Carol would have solved everyone’s problems in an hour. She saved the entire team in one episode and went back to her business. Why isn’t Carol in charge, again? Michonne doesn’t like humanity enough, plus, Kirkman’s construction of her was screwed at her character’s inception. I wrote a whole article about her problematic construction in a scholarly article titled “The Importance of Neglected Intersections: Race and Gender in Contemporary Zombie Texts and Theories.” It’s also discussed in Searching for Sycorax.

Oh, and on the behalf of black women, f*ck Robert Kirkman for what he did to Michonne. Forever and always.

 

AMY: 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?

KINITRA: I would say the matriarchs of my family have changed my life. I get all of my book ideas from them. Those who have transitioned to ancestor often visit me in dreams and tell me what my next book is going to be about. My mother, Wanda, is the current reigning matriarch of the family; and my sister, Cincia, is the next in line. These women keep me going, keep me sane, and keep me from going full Dark Willow—I would not be in front of you if they hadn’t been there and didn’t continue to be there for me. My family is my rock.

 


Kinitra D. Brooks is the Audrey and John Leslie Endowed Chair in Literary Studies in the Department of English at Michigan State University. She specializes in the study of black women, genre fiction, and popular culture. Her current research focuses on portrayals of the Conjure Woman in popular culture. Dr. Brooks has three books in print: Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, a critical treatment of black women in science fiction, fantasy, and horror; Sycorax’s Daughters, an edited volume of short horror fiction written by black women; and The Lemonade Reader, a collection of essays on Beyoncé’s 2016 audiovisual project, Lemonade. She is also the co-editor of the New Suns book series at Ohio State University Press. Dr. Brooks spent the 2018–2019 academic year as the Advancing Equity Through Research Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

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

Amy’s Book Club: On Politeness and Monstrousness

Read With Amy

I am a sucker for fantasy books about teenaged girls as monster hunters. I buy them all. I read them all.

I dislike them all.

I dislike every, single, last one of them.

Don’t, I beg you, hold it against the books. Monstrousness—and especially the monstrous feminine—is a topic very near and very dear to my heart. Societies around the world have for millennia been all too happy to strip women of their power—any power—by recasting it as monstrous. It doesn’t matter if their power is born of transgression against prohibitive societal expectations or, conversely, conforming all too well. Power born of speaking up and speaking out or power born of being too compliantly pretty or too enthusiastically sexy are villainized equally. And heavens if myths, legends, and speculative stories from around the globe don’t have a ready monster for every transgressive female trait. If the furies are monsters, then women’s anger is monstrous. If the harionago are monsters, then every cute girl with amazing hair is monstrous. If the succubi are monsters, then women’s rapacious pleasure must be monstrous, too.

The problem with all these books about teenaged girls as monster hunters, of course—which we are not holding against them—is that they’re a bit too invested in that Nietzsche quote. You know the one: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Easy enough, I suppose, for Nietzsche to engage in a bit of performative hand-wringing about the potential for monster-hunters to become monsters themselves. Easy enough, I suppose, when popular opinion is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, only those with vaginas are categorically monstrous.

And easy enough, I suppose, for authors to consider that quote and come down on the side of writing books where girls who fight monsters carefully choose not to become monsters themselves.

But what I want are stories about the women who fight monsters, and yes, become monsters themselves. Because what society deems monstrous in a woman is, by definition, damned near everything brave or bold or brilliant. If we fight back against the monsters that prey on us, we are deemed, by definition, monsters ourselves. We are the furies, the harionago, the succubi, the sirens. We are the witches, the banshees, the vampires, the kumiho. We are the yōkai, the crones, the she-wolves, la llorona.

We are monsters. We should never choose otherwise.

Despite my very firm convictions on this topic (as evidenced by my desire to graffiti “suck it” on the Nietzsche family crypt), not everyone agrees with me. So I keep reading these books. These books about teenaged girls as monster hunters that, for all their monsters and violence and gore, are very polite books with respect to the topic of monstrousness. And while we are not holding that against the books, perhaps you can imagine why I find these books so dissatisfying.

And perhaps you can imagine why I find these books so especially dissatisfying as they consider the monstrousness, or lack thereof, of teenaged girls. We are very quick, societally, to judge teenaged girls: how they talk, how they dress, what they like, how they spend their money, how they date, how they have sex, how they do this and that and every other damned thing in their lives. How much we must fear them, to judge them like we do.

No demographic needs to claim their monstrousness more than teenaged girls.

And instead, what authors of young-adult fantasy works continue to feed them is a steady diet of Nietzschean prescription: carefully constructed stories where they are prey, always prey, but never monsters, and in fact must take great care to never become monsters. These are instructional manuals about killing only the most overt of monsters, the ones who would rip your throat out, but never those that would deny your full humanity. These are instructional manuals about using only the tools that society has approved for you, never all the tools at your disposal. These are instructional manuals about #NotAllMen. But never, not once are these instructional manuals about how to become fearsome and powerful and self-determining and fucking monstrous.

There is, of course, a book—or a hundred books—underlying this review. But since we are not holding all these very polite narratives against the books themselves, it hardly seems fair to pick on the one that I happen to have read most recently or the one that makes me the most furious or the one that I remember the best. If you want that sort of story, that sort of polite service to an avoidance of monstrousness, those books are horrifyingly easy to find.

But if you want something with more teeth, more fang and claw, less politeness and more power, then I’ll let you know when I find it.

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


By day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and handles strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president of a major media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape, plans literary conferences, bakes increasingly complicated pastries, and reads 150 books a year. She is a co-founder and current co-chair of Sirens, an annual conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, flagrant ambition, and a well-planned revolution.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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