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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.

Sirens Mission: Transgression

Sirens Conference Mission Transgression

Not being able to gather in person with the Sirens community in 2020 was heartrending. But it also gave us the gift of time: a chance, after more than a decade of work, to take a breath and consider what Sirens is today—and what we want it to be tomorrow.

Sirens is a conference that actively seeks to amplify voices that are pushing boundaries in speculative spaces—and specifically, are pushing those boundaries in the direction of a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world. Since we featured works on this year’s villainous theme last year, this year’s Sirens Reading Challenge instead showcases 50 works by female, nonbinary, and trans authors that envision that better world—and we’re exploring what that means to us in a series of six posts, using those works as reference points.

Our first post discussed reclamation, finding and sharing those stories that reclaim what it means for us to be from somewhere. Those stories that speak to where we are from, and in doing so, offer a wholly new path for our future. Today, we discuss transgression, in our stories and ourselves.

Transgression

We are who we are.

Some days, we’re indomitable: blazingly brilliant and incandescently angry and relentlessly defiant. Other days, we are quieter, shyer, more introverted, in need of a cozy chair, a cup of tea, and a cuddle. Yet other days, we are impossibly busy, challenging the world, perhaps, or so often just getting through the endless list of things to do so we can go to bed and try it all again the next day.

We are built of hopes and dreams and ambitions. But some days, we are uncertain. Some days, unforgiving. Some days, grumpy. Some days, we need a moment, just one moment, when people don’t demand something, anything of us. Some days, maybe most days, we are exhausted.

We identify as a marginalized gender—trans people, nonbinary people, cisgendered women—and often we are also Black, brown, queer, immigrant, disabled, neurodivergent, fat, with all of the struggles born of those intersections. We are marginalized, often across multiple axes, so we have to work harder and work faster and work smarter, even when it feels like we’re running in place. We are marginalized, often across multiple axes, so every day we decide how much—when, how, with whom—to challenge the system.

But through it all, no matter who we are on any given day, we refuse to be less: less opinionated, less brilliant, less bold, less independent, less ambitious. We refuse to dream less or want less or hope less. We steadfastly remain a library of cleverness, a fistful of fury, and a whole universe worth of hope.

We are who we are. And who we are is glorious.

But to be who we are, we must transgress.

We must cast aside, if only for a moment, what the world demands we be. Cast aside our silence, our passivity, and our politeness. Cast aside our white heteropatriarchy-approved careers and aspirations. Cast aside the expectations of unpaid, unthanked cooking, cleaning, stitching, childrearing. Cast aside closing our eyes or looking the other way or pretending we haven’t seen. Cast aside, if only for a moment, the fear, the violence, and the millennia of history that have kept us bound.

We must, often forcefully and relentlessly, reject the roles prescribed for us, the careers allotted us, the aspirations given us. We must reject the impossible beauty standards, the bias and bigotry, the tokenism, all tools of the white heteropatriarchy, all designed to undermine our transgression. We must claim our looks and our bodies and our pleasure. We must identify as we choose and love as we choose. We must be the full breadth of who we might be, or could be, or should be: big, bold, bright, brilliant. Radically kind. Full of hope. Always dreaming.

And we must do it each day. And the next. And the next. Each of those days a persistent transgression, an insistent march toward honesty and justice and humanity.

And so, 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. That tell stories of kind witches and ambitious princesses and adventurous shepherds, because those are our stories, stories of our kindnesses and our ambitions and our adventures. Those stories that reveal the full humanity of people of marginalized genders—our messy, fragile, relentless, transgressive humanity, full of love and rage and grief and hope. Those stories that show us the world as it could be—and should be—free of the white heteropatriarchal societal demands that expect so much and offer so little. Stories that are, themselves, transgressions and, in turn, inspire or validate or reward ours.

At this time, in this place, it is, for all people of marginalized genders, a radical act to be who we are. But nevertheless, no matter who society thinks we are supposed to be, we are—persistently, insistently, defiantly—who we are.

Transgression Works

In Dia Reeves’ Slice of Cherry, Kit and Fancy Cordelle, daughters of the infamous Bonesaw Killer, are broken: by their father’s crimes, their mother’s absence, their town’s ostracization, and seemingly everyone’s assumptions—but they boldly transgress, not by becoming good girls, but by becoming increasingly violent vigilantes. The beauty of Reeves’ spectacular work, however, is that the girls’ brokenness and vigilantism create neither victims, nor, despite the carnage, villains. Kit and Fancy take their power, claim their power, every time they cut an attempted rapist, every time they stab an intruder, every time they war against what people assume they must be.

In Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia crafts the precise, beating heart of modern women’s horror. Socialite Noemí plays at transgression, pleading with her father for permission to continue her education between rounds of parties and cocktails and boys—until she travels to remote High Point on a family errand. There she unearths a house of horrors: a relentless, increasingly flagrant march of sexual assault, eugenics, and presumed ownership, muddied by an eddying fog of not-quite-realness that causes Noemí to doubt her perceptions—and in order to save herself and others, she must learn to forcefully transgress. Moreno-Garcia’s masterwork lays terrifyingly bare the quotidian horrors of women of color, forced to endure a lifetime of male intrusions, violence, and colonization.

Maggie Hoskie, the Dinétah monster-hunting protagonist of Rebecca Roanhorse’s post-apocalyptic Trail of Lightning, is certain that she is, herself, a monster. After witnessing her grandmother’s brutal murder, Maggie’s clan powers awaken, and she’s mentored by divine monster-slayer Naayéé’ Neizghání—at least until she becomes too violent. Then she’s on her own, living bounty-to-bounty, until the world needs saving. Maggie’s transgression, ultimately and gloriously, is her heroism: She gazed long into the abyss and learned that, because of her monstrousness, she could save the world.

Maria Dahvana Headley deconstructs monstrousness as well, in The Mere Wife, her transformation of Beowulf. At Herot Hall, everything is a Stepford-pretty utopia, and Willa, married to Herot heir Roger, is no different—until her son, Dylan, meets Gren, who belongs to Dana, a soldier of war living in a cave outside the suburban perimeter. In this contemporary exploration of monstrousness and society, Dylan and Gren are the catalysts, but not the monsters. As Willa’s and Dana’s equally carefully constructed worlds collapse, their fears lead them to make sometimes desperate, sometimes illogical, always transgressive decisions—leading us in turn to ask what it means to be monstrous in the first place.

Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly’s explosively smart work of nonfiction, delves deep on anger, perhaps the most transgressive of women’s emotions, the one that is impossible to reconcile with white heteropatriarchal demands for silence, politeness, and passivity. Through science and anecdotes, Chemaly paints our unexpressed, unvalidated rage as self-destructive, both mentally and physically. But she also finds that women’s rage is a necessary and significant source of power, one that acts as a critical catalyst for women seeking personal, professional, and societal changes.

In The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi (translated by Cathy Hirano), a fantastic world of mythical beasts teeters on the brink of war—and whoever can harness those beasts into weapons of destruction will surely prevail. Elin, a caretaker of water serpents, is caught in the middle, pressed to stand aside as her serpents are taken for battle, while knowing that there must be a way to both avert a war and save the extraordinary beasts in her care. Themes of duty, honor, kindness, and grace thread through Uehashi’s foundationally transgressive work that firmly rejects war and destruction as inexorable.

Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir’s gothic puzzle-box of a book, is transgression incarnate. In some future year, somewhere in space, the First House, with opaque promises of power, invites the eight other beholden houses to each send a necromancer and a cavalier primary to an abandoned building full of deadly riddles. But Gideon, tricked into serving as the cavalier primary for Harrowhark, the Ninth House’s necromancer, would rather stab Harrow with her teensy-weensy cavalier sword than solve mysteries. While Shades of The Hunger Games abound, Gideon is a book born not of almost-accidental revolution, but of Muir’s utter determination to put rude, defiant, ambitious, queer women on a page—and her unrelenting authorial transgression is magnificent.

While calling Angela Slatter the heir apparent to Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue may seem a bold assertion, it’s appropriately so—but Slatter takes Carter’s and Donoghue’s reclamation of fairy tales even further by entirely eschewing any conversation with the heteropatriarchal foundations of fairy tales. She—like her heroines—is too busy to discuss, criticize, or even chastise those who would impose conformance. Too busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. And A Feast of Sorrows, one of her collections of short fiction, features twelve of her finest, darkest, most transgressive fairy tales.


This post is the second of a six-part series on Sirens’s mission. You can find the first post, on reclamation, here. We will update this post with links when all posts are published.

Book Friends: Joamette Gil

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 Joamette Gil, the head witch at P&M Press and the editor of the anthologies Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology, Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy and Power & Magic: Immortal Souls. If you enjoyed her work, we hope you check out these other comics and graphic novels centering BIPOC and queer voices; sylvan fantasies of getting lost in the woods; works upending tropes you thought you knew, broad definitions of heroism; spectacular artwork and amazing lettering; plenty of witchery; and settings of transformations and finding yourself.


New Fantasy Books: May 2021

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of May 2021 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Joamette’s Recommended Readings

Sirens Studio Guest of Honor Joamette Gil shares a list of fantasy and other works that she loves. If you enjoy her work, we encourage you to check out these other reads, spanning graphic, short fiction, and novels. Take it away, Joamette!

 

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha
1.
Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements
edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha
Knights-Errant Jennifer Doyle
2.
Knights-Errant
by Jennifer Doyle
Spiritwalker Trilogy Kate Elliott
3.
Spiritwalker Triology (Cold Magic, Cold Fire, and Cold Steel) by Kate Elliott
Mooncakes Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu
4.
Mooncakes
by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu
Brown Girl in the Ring Nalo Hopkinson
5.
Brown Girl in the Ring
by Nalo Hopkinson
Through the Woods Emily Carroll
6.
Through the Woods
by Emily Carroll
The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson
7.
The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson
On a Sunbeam Tillie Walden
8.
On a Sunbeam
by Tillie Walden
The Temple of My Familiar Alice Walker
10.
The Temple of My Familiar
by Alice Walker
This One Summer Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
11.
This One Summer
by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Verse Sam Beck
12.
Verse
by Sam Beck

 

Joamette Gil is the head witch at P&M Press, an independent comics micro-press specializing in speculative fiction by creators of color, LGBTQIA creators, and creators at the intersections. Best known for her Prism Award-winning publication Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology, she also made the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award’s 2018 Honor List and received nods from the Ignatz Awards and Lambda Literary Awards over the course of P&M Press’s three-year existence. Her newest titles are Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy and Power & Magic: Immortal Souls. Another new title, Mañana: Latinx Comics from the 25th Century, is forthcoming in 2020. Joamette’s own comics work has been featured by IDW, Margins Publishing, EverydayFeminism.com, TheNib.com, Oni Press, Lion Forge, and Abrams ComicArts. She also contributed to the Eisner Award-winning Puerto Rico Strong anthology benefitting hurricane disaster relief on the island. When she’s not inhaling graphic novels, she’s off plotting silly play-by-post scenarios or watching horror movies with her friends and familiars in Portland, Oregon.

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

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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