We’re excited to bring you a roundup of June 2020 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
CANDICE LINDSTROM: You’ve spent your career as a non-profit attorney providing free services to survivors of domestic violence and immigrants looking to start a new life in the United States. Did you always know you wanted to work as an advocate for those who can’t defend themselves, or did something draw you to this specific area of the legal profession?
JAE YOUNG KIM: I went to law school in part to appease my parents, because they believed, as Korean immigrants, that the way to succeed would be getting a professional degree. In some ways, I was a disappointment because I did not go to medical school, as that was the pinnacle of achievement in their minds! I always received pressure to take the socially acceptable path and strive for mainstream acceptance. But once I was in law school, I knew I wanted to work for the public interest at a non-profit. I had always had a strong moral sense of justice. I had understood racism and sexism permeated the United States, but I had not ever really thought about using my degree and my work to fight those structural oppressions. In law school, I was fortunate enough to become friends with organizers and folks committed to fighting for social justice and realized that this was an option. In my third year of law school, I was in a year-long clinic defending immigrants in the legal system. I felt like this was a perfect fit for my passion for justice and my critical thinking and advocacy skills. Also, when I was in law school, the world of immigrant legal advocacy was much smaller and I knew there was a need for smart, competent immigration attorneys. Immigration legal work was not being funded; it took me a while to find a job where I could provide immigration legal services, so I started my legal career representing survivors of domestic violence on family law matters.
CANDICE: What do you love about your work, and what is challenging about your work that might surprise those of us outside it?
JAE YOUNG: I love that my work immediately and materially improves the lives of my clients, as orders of protection (restraining orders in New York), custody orders, and immigration status can dramatically change their lives. One of the challenges I face in my work is balancing the tension between knowing what may be “best” from a legal perspective while acknowledging that clients are human and ultimately, they must make the decision about their lives that extend beyond a case. Making informed choices in the legal system is not easy and, at the end of the day, I have to take comfort that I have done everything I can for a client, but they must make the decision they can live with. Law is still a service industry, which lawyers forget a lot.
CANDICE: What keeps you strong and hopeful in the face of the adversity that your clients face?
JAE YOUNG: Knowing that lawyers are not the way we will achieve justice. I am answering these questions while the protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless Black people take place.
CANDICE: Did you have any assumptions about or expectations of your clients that changed after you had been in this field for some time? Do you tend to see a lot of similarities or overlap in the legal problems faced by the different groups you serve, or is every case dramatically different?
JAE YOUNG: I mentioned this in my earlier answer, but I learned very quickly that clients make the decisions that are best for themselves and that is not always the decision you counsel them to make.
I would say that racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heteropatriarchy and other points of oppression can really inform the legal issues my clients face. I have worked with people across race, gender, class, disability and sexuality, and those with privilege engage in legal systems usually more easily than those without.
CANDICE: Does a successful career in non-profit work take a different set of skills or values than regular for-profit office work? Is burnout more of an issue here than with traditional for-profit legal work, and how does one work around or overcome that?
JAE YOUNG: I don’t think there is that much of a difference between the skill set for non-profit services work and regular for-profit services work. Law is a field whose guiding principle is zealous advocacy and that is true whether you work at a corporate firm or a non-profit. Strong written and oral communication skills, relationship building, critical thinking skills, creativity, thinking on your feet, crisis management—these skills are essential across the board. The values may be different in that a for-profit legal office has to focus on making money, but I think the same is true of non-profit organizations. We are funded by local, state and federal government and foundations and have to provide deliverables and outcomes to justify our funding. The metrics are different, but no organization can function without money within capitalism.
Burnout is common in both non-profits and for-profits because zealous advocacy is the polar opposite of healthy boundaries and self-care. With non-profits, we have the added burden of vicarious trauma as most of our clients are marginalized people who have suffered often many forms of trauma throughout their lives. I always remind people to take care of themselves and be a bit selfish. If you quit, they will always find someone else to replace you. You have to sustain yourself and take care of yourself, no one else will. I learned this lesson after being very hard on myself in my twenties. Drinking water, eating regularly, taking breaks, moving more, vacations are all important to survive in this field!
CANDICE: What one thing would make the biggest difference in your work? Changes in governmental/law-enforcement policy? More donations? More lawyers choosing to advocate for the marginalized members of society? Something completely different?
JAE YOUNG: I do think social change has to happen outside of the courtroom. I think non-profit lawyers do important harm-reduction work, but the legal systems are created by those with power and protect those in power. Marginalized people having competent lawyers reduces the harm the systems cause but that doesn’t change the laws that work to maintain the same power structures. So I guess I am saying change the government!
CANDICE: Do you find that your work influences the stories you’re drawn to in fantasy? Do you need an escape, or stories where justice is served? If the latter, are there any books where you feel justice (through the courts or otherwise) was served in a satisfying way?
JAE YOUNG: I definitely use fantasy as an escape in that I don’t necessarily want to read stories about law or deep political intrigue. I also really love stories that focus on relationships between characters: friendship, romance, family, all of it. Sometimes I wonder if there could be books that really critique the legal systems and the injustices in fantasy versus a legal thriller.
CANDICE: This fall, you’re presenting a career development workshop intensive titled “Working for Change: Can We Wear Capes in Real Life?” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?
JAE YOUNG: I hope to share my real-life experience as a non-profit attorney and provide insights into legal systems. I can share what it’s like working for social change as part of your job and the good and the challenging parts of my work. Also, as someone who has also worked as manager for several years, I can talk about my transition to becoming a manager and share my experiences working with interns and staff with different strengths and weaknesses.
CANDICE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?
JAE YOUNG: I would say Darshan, one of my best friends from law school, a South Asian queer woman. She has really been a mentor and the big sister I never had in many ways, sharing ways of navigating being a daughter of Asian immigrants and a woman of color in the non-profit world. She has also taught me so much about centering myself and my self-care and doing what is right for me.
Jae Young Kim has worked as a nonprofit attorney advocating for immigrants, people of color, survivors of domestic violence, and low-income people for fifteen years in New York City. Currently, she is Director of the Family and Immigration Unit at Bronx Legal Services. The Family and Immigration Unit (FIU) is an interdisciplinary team of attorneys, paralegals, and social workers that provides holistic services to meet the family law and immigration law needs of low-income residents in the Bronx. She received a JD from New York University School of Law and a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Law from Binghamton University. Jae Young is also a lifelong fan of fairy tales and speculative fiction. In her free time, she tries reading for the book clubs she cannot stop joining, looking for the next meal, and watching too much reality TV.
For more information about Jae Young, please visit her Twitter.
Candice Lindstrom is an assistant editor for a business magazine publisher covering women, LGBT, minority, and disabled-veteran enterprises. In a past life she edited young adult and adult fiction for a paranormal publisher. When not reading for work, she’s reading for pleasure in almost any genre, but speculative fiction is her first love.
Black lives matter.
One might hope that speculative spaces—limited by only our imaginations—would be the vanguard of inclusion, representation, and recognizing the full humanity of marginalized people. But in practice, speculative spaces, like so many others, ignore or even silence marginalized voices with devastating regularity. We’ve all read pseudo-European fantasies with all-white casts, hand-waved away with the flagrantly false assertion that people of color did not live in medieval Europe. We’ve all read science fiction worlds with wildly imaginative tech, only to discover that, for all that inventiveness, their creators couldn’t imagine a future with people of color. We’ve all read accounts about the overwhelming obstacles placed in front of people of color who wish to become authors, illustrators, scholars, and publishing professionals, nonsensically explained as simply hiring “a known quantity,” “the best fit,” or “the most qualified.”
One of the goals of Sirens is to make space for, and then actively amplify, marginalized voices. Our society is premised on structures and systems that relentlessly amalgamate power in the hands of white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied men. We are committed to dismantling those structures and systems.
Today, as we are heartbroken, defiant, resolute, and hopeful, we strongly recommend that you put speculative works by Black women, nonbinary, and trans folks at the top of your reading list—and we offer you 50 brilliant speculative works to get you started. Surely you’ve already read L.A. Banks, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor, so our list includes another 50 authors and scholars, all Black, all brilliant, all blazingly bright.
These 50 works are about Black people, Black communities, about Black people seeking the stars, accomplishing six impossible things before breakfast, and changing the world. They are about Black heartbreak, Black defiance, Black resoluteness, and Black hope.
Read their words. Live in their worlds. Celebrate their power. Pass these messages on. And be sure to buy these—and other works—from Black-owned bookstores.
Black lives matter.
1. Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston
This epic love story between a Black woman and a Seminole-Irish man at the turn of the last century is a journey of self and growth, an indictment of the legacy of American slavery, a well-researched history, a tragedy, a redemption. Hairston once shared that this book haunted her until she wrote it.
2. Bodyminds Reimagined by Dr. Sami Schalk
Dr. Schalk brilliantly explores the intersection of Black feminist theory with disability studies and speculative fiction—by expertly placing the bodymind in the landscape of speculative works by Black women.
3. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Ireland has crafted a searing deconstruction of race and America, set post-Civil War, where the dead rise as zombies. Jane, trained in combat with other Black and brown girls, is the sort of subversive, dangerous heroine who gets shit done. You will love her.
4. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Ada, born “with one foot on the other side,” has a head full of gods. As she gets older, especially after she comes to the United States for college, those gods become increasingly assertive—until Ada herself is lost. A blazing work, with exquisite prose.
5. The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis
Five girls, sold into slavery as children, escape after one of them accidentally kills a man. Seeking an improbable legend, the girls need each other to survive. Full of Wild West ideas of freedom and revenge, but with Black girls, queer girls, angry girls, and more.
6. Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due
A collection of masterful horror stories, but as you might expect, the horror isn’t born of werewolves and ghosts and monsters, but of ourselves, our society, our lack of humanity, our own monstrousness. The first story, both heart-rending and terrifying, will knock you flat.
7. Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown
A strong, autobiographical debut where Echo Brown, a teenage girl from the East Side, finds portals to new worlds when she begins attending a rich school on the West Side. Through magical realism, Brown explores poverty, sexual violence, racism, and codeswitching—and the emotional toll they take.
8. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Ward claims the American road trip as foundation for a distinctively American story: one of race, love, and loss in the post-Katrina South, one of families rent by incarceration, one of the hauntings of American slavery. Sing, Unburied, Sing won Ward her second National Book Award and it’s damn close to perfect.
9. Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
In this Caribbean-inspired fantasy murder mystery, Sigourney is the surviving daughter of a noble lineage and has the power to control minds—and has vengeance on her mind. A cutting exploration of colonialism, slavery, trauma, and power structures, with more than a hefty serving of political intrigue.
10. Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson
Twin sisters, born of a god and a mortal, conjoined until just after birth. In the separation one lost part of her leg, the other her mojo. Godly plots ensue. At its heart, this delightfully weird book is all about all-too-familiar family dynamics.
11. Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
It’s Maddy’s turn to spend the summer with her grandmother in the bayou—but that bayou holds more magic than Maddy could ever have dreamed. A transcendent novel with compelling themes of Blackness, wonder and conservation.
12. Daughters of Nri by Reni K. Amayo
Set an ancient, fantasy Igbo kingdom, Daughter of Nri envisions a world without colonialism or slavery, where Amayo’s culture and triumphs are centered and celebrated. Two goddesses grow up believing they are human girls and take down the man responsible for the lost gods.
13. Ancient, Ancient by Kiini Ibura Salaam
If you want vibrant, sensual, gut-punching, and wildly imaginative speculative stories centered on Black identity, gender, love, body, and becoming—you can do no better than Salaam’s collection here. Take your time with these—they’re stories to ponder and savor.
14. Searching for Sycorax by Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks
An effortless close examination of the works of Black women in horror and how those works—so often ignored by other branches of scholarly inquiry—are both reshaping the genre and decentralizing its whiteness and maleness.
15. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
A bravura revolution of a book inspired by Black Lives Matter. Children of Blood and Bone is both a harrowing allegory for institutional racism and a deftly crafted rebel story set in fantasy West Africa featuring a princess with a sword and a sorceress who refuses to quit.
16. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
A blazing book full of power deconstructions, desperate magics, and a hostile planet. You may as well buy the two sequels now because you’ll be needing them—and should we mention that all three books in the trilogy won the Best Novel Hugo in a back-to-back-to-back threepeat?
17. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Once a decade, a near-future matriarchal society in South America kills a boy in sacrifice. But this summer, in this burning, explosive book, June—full of passion, art, and revolution—wants to change Palmeres Tres.
18. M.F.K. by Nilah Magruder
Reclusive Abbie just wants to scatter her mother’s ashes over the mountain, but in a world filled with sandstorms, wild beasts, sleeping gods, and mysterious magic, nothing’s that simple. Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender will adore the desert world and heartfelt characters in this start of a graphic novel series.
19. Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett
Interrelated stories show us breathtaking, earth-shaking love in many forms. Even as the characters, gender and sexual identities, settings, and relationships change, the powerful threads of love and loss remain true through Brissett’s profoundly original work—with a head-scratching twist that will blow you away.
20. American Street by Ibi Zoboi
When her mother is detained by immigration, Fabiola continues to Detroit to stay with her raucous cousins. Zoboi’s magical work melds sometimes rough Detroit with Haitian Vodou and Fabiola’s perceptions of America to create something wholly new.
21. Slay by Brittney Morris
A fantasy-adjacent YA, Slay is a smart musing on safe spaces through the lens of Kiera, one of the few Black kids at her school—who is also the creator of SLAY, a Black-only WoW-style game. A thoughtful book about privilege, safety, and belonging.
22. Two Moons by Krystal A. Smith
An utterly joyful, delightful work full of Black mysticism and queerness: A woman falls in love with the moon. A woman births a goddess—and receives a surprising reward. A woman has a heart-to-heart…with her heart. You’ll never want this to end.
23. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith
In this near-future dystopia, the Gulf Coast has been ravaged by one hurricane too many and the region has been quarantined to reduce spread of a deadly disease. Orleans might feel a bit close right now, but the rich and thoughtful worldbuilding impresses, and Fen and Daniel must work together to do what they have to—to survive.
24. Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie
Both wry and tragic, Okojie’s lyrical work alternates between present-day London, 1950s London, and 18th century Benin and centers around Joy, a photographer coping with the death of her mother. The interweaving of narratives speaks volumes on legacy and generational trauma. Lit nerds take note, this is a feast for lovers of form.
25. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
A YA fantasy starring a Black princess and a refugee boy in the first of a duology inspired by West African folklore. If you’re a fan of athletic competitions in fantasy, get it! Plus a very slow burn enemies-to-lovers romance…and stabbing.
26. The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
A thoughtful criticism of the lack of diversity in speculative works as a fundamental lack of imagination. Focusing on four Black characters, Thomas incisively deconstructs how they’re treated both on the page and by consumers.
27. Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology edited by Joamette Gil
15 original comics by a variety of creators, collected and edited by Afro-Cuban Joamette Gil, all on a theme of queer witches of color. This collection is all about finding and claiming your power—and finding and claiming yourself.
28. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
In a fantasy Sudan, Onyesonwu is born a daughter of weaponized rape. As she finds her path and ends the genocide of her people, unapologetically angry and immensely powerful Onyesonwu is the sort of heroine we all need.
29. Mother of the Sea by Zetta Elliott
Elliott weaves Yoruba folklore seamlessly into the brutality of the Middle Passage in this riveting tale of horror, grief, and ultimately salvation.
30. The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
A protagonist who is Black, a lesbian, and a vampire, in a book that is unrepentantly feminist and features powerful themes of found family. If you need a book about finding your place in an unwelcoming world, The Gilda Stories is that book.
31. The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
Clayton tackles the pretty-girl competition trope, first by crafting a revolution led by gorgeous girls, but more subversively, deconstructing our racist stereotypes of beauty. A must-read for anyone rejecting beauty myths.
32. The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
A tour de force that begins in 1904, along the banks of the Zambezi River—and ends generations later, after years of wrongs, losses, and retributions among three families. The fairytale backdrop is simply spectacular, Serpell’s analysis of colonialism in Africa even more so.
33. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Highly perceptive, impossibly original stories that feature Black characters and deconstruct our need to be connected: sometimes to other people, sometimes to a community, sometimes to an idea of place or home or culture. The violence of the first story is shocking, profound, heartbreaking.
34. Everfair by Nisi Shawl
A spectacular alternate history, in which Shawl explores what might have been—in a steampunk Africa—if the Africans had developed technology before the colonizers. Tremendously complex, full of real insight, both human and political.
35. Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope
As war looms, soldiers looking for shelter—and with erstwhile spy Jack in tow—commandeer biracial outcast Jasminda’s home. Jasminda and Jack help each other escape, and while romance blooms, they save millions of people.
36. The Deep by Rivers Solomon
Descendants of the unborn babies thrown overboard during the Middle Passage still live in the Atlantic—but when Yetu rises to the surface, she discovers the world her people lost long ago. A powerful work about ancestral pain—and the possibility for joy.
37. The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow
Now that the aliens have invaded and all art is illegal, Ellie’s hoarding a secret library…except it’s found by a young Ilori commander. Though M0Rr1S was engineered to be devoid of emotion, he finds himself inexplicably drawn to human music, and their paths collide on road trip that might save humankind.
38. The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden
An African-set tale of revolution, in which a very evil demi-god lady is defeated by a cross-dressing politician, a boy and his friend-maybe-boyfriend, a pop star and her dealer, an army of sentient droids, and a seriously powerful small girl.
39. Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron
Arrah is born into a family of witchdoctors but without (evident) powers of her own. When the Demon king stirs with a hunger for human souls, it’s up to Arrah to save the world. This West African-set fantasy features a dauntless girl and complex, powerful family dynamics.
40. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
A Jules Verne-ish adventure, told through the eyes of Wash, a slave in Barbados, an assistant to the plantation master’s brother in his scholarly pursuits. But also a story of a white man and a slave boy, and a nuanced look at Caribbean slavery.
41. Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
Set in Reeves’s YA Portero universe, two Black sisters—daughters of the famed Bonesaw Killer—begin carving people up, leaving a trail of vigilante justice. Reeves’s work claims violence for Black women in this searing work of feminist revenge.
42. Lakewood by Megan Giddings
Lakewood is a scientific research facility with the promise of wonders: medication to cure dementia and depression, eyedrops to make brown eyes blue. When a Black millennial has to pay back her family’s debts, being a test subject there sounds like a…solution? This chilling novel explores medical experimentation on Black bodies and the moral dilemmas the poor face in order to survive.
43. A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney
McKinney’s take on Alice in Wonderland is set in Atlanta and a fantastical Wonderland full of monsters. This Alice must grapple not just with teenage hormones and romance, but also fear of police brutality and family obligations—all while she kicks major ass taking down Nightmares.
44. The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
The Haitain folktale “The Magic Orange Tree” is just a jumping off point for The Jumbies, the beginning of Baptiste’s middle-grade adventure series. Immerse yourself in Baptiste’s fantastical world inspired by Caribbean myths, and cheer for the gutsy, island-saving Corinne!
45. Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
When Paama finally leaves her awful husband, she attracts the attention of the djombi, who give her the Chaos Stick—but one of the djombi think the stick should be his. Utterly hilarious and utterly familiar to women the world over.
46. The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi’s impressive bibliography is full of gems, so we’ve listed her debut here, where she explores doppelgangers, split selves, and the theme of literary doubles in biracial Jessamy. She writes ambivalence and cultural displacement set against a backdrop of childhood, and her work here is equal parts surreal and devastating.
47. A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
Black mermaids in alternate Portland! In Morrow’s YA urban fantasy, Black girl sirens are maligned and considered dangerous, so they hide their identities and abilities in order to survive. Beautiful use of mythos to examine racial identity, sexism, and the myriad ways Black women are othered and oppressed—and you’ll love the sisterhood.
48. Conjure Women by Afia Atakora
Weaving narratives across two generations, Atakora’s debut is a masterpiece of historical fiction set before and after the Civil War. Miss May Belle and her daughter Rue are conjure women, folk healers who keep their community’s secrets while navigating a unconventional path to freedom.
49. A Phoenix Must First Burn edited by Patrice Caldwell
16 bright, shining tales of Black girl magic by renowned Black women and genderqueer writers, compiled by author and former children’s book editor Patrice Caldwell. Stories range from retold folktales to futuristic societies, centering Black girls as rebels, scientists, vampires, and more.
50. Remembrance by Rita Woods
An epic historical fantasy spanning two centuries and four points of view, Remembrance tells the impressive, head-spinning story of Black women creating safe haven and community—from 1700s Haiti to antebellum New Orleans to present day.
At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.
Sirens also offers an online essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.
Today, we welcome an essay from Kaia Alderson!
Have You Seen Her? Looking for Shuri on the Pages of Her Comics Series
by Kaia Alderson
When the Shuri comics run was announced, I was so excited to have a chance to see more of the spunky teenager portrayed in the Black Panther film. I ran to the comic bookstore on the day issue #1 was released hoping to see a story that focused on her—an intelligent, spunky young woman who was Black. (Shuri is African. I’m using the more generic term “Black” here since I am examining visual representation in texts where character geographic origins aren’t always clear.) I understood that comic book Shuri was not necessarily the same character as the one portrayed on screen. But what mattered to me was that there was a new space for action-packed stories that centered a woman of African descent.
Shuri #1 set the scene for a lot of promise to come—a young woman working through the insecurities that come with stepping into a leadership role filled with external expectations, The Elephant Trunk, and a mysterious online admirer. But that promise fell short as the series went on. With a woman of African descent as the main writer penning the story, I expected a storyline that centered a heroine of African descent. Instead, it soon veered off into adventures where Shuri teamed up with other (mostly male) people and non-human lifeforms. It appeared that the title character was barely in her own story at times.
How did a #RepresentationMatters dream scenario go so sideways?
I decided to prove my suspicions by taking a more scientific approach. Time and access did not allow me to examine every text in which comic book Shuri has made an appearance, so I chose to focus on the Reginald Hudlin-penned trade paperback titled Shuri, written as a part of his Black Panther run, and the 10-issue run of the standalone Shuri comic written by Nnedi Okorafor and Vita Ayala. I kept it simple with a comparison of visual representation by counting the number of panels in which Black women, Black men, aliens/non-humans, Shuri herself, and other Marvel characters were depicted in the Shuri series. I also went back and counted the panels in the Reginald Hudlin-penned trade paperback Black Panther: Shuri – The Deadliest of the Species to see if there were any differences when the writer was a Black man. Ironically, however, it was the inclusion of nonbinary Afro-Latinx comics writer Vita Ayala (Shuri issues #6 and #7) who demonstrated how effective #RepresentationMatters can be in superhero(ine) comics, yet in an unexpected way.
My assumption prior to compiling my data was that there would be more “screen-time” on the Black female experience within the Okorafor/Ayala standalone Shuri run than within the Hudlin storyline. (And that the “gaze” would be more affirming and women-centric.) That assumption proved to be true in the case of the Shuri character. Shuri appeared in 58% of Okorafor’s panels and 44% of Ayala’s panels, while she appeared in only 29% of Hudlin’s panels. However, while Shuri was technically in more than 58% of Okorafor’s panels, she did not appear as herself visually in 38 panels (5.4% of Okorafor’s panels) because she was inhabiting the non-human Groot’s body. (I thought that this was an interesting choice for Okorafor to make given the criticism the movie The Princess and The Frog received because Disney’s first Black animated princess spent the majority of her screen time depicted, not as an African-American woman, but as a frog.) Regardless of that choice, Shuri was still more likely to appear in a story carrying her name when it is written by a person who identifies as a Black woman. But even then, she shows up in a little over half of the panels in the Black female-penned story arc.
It took me a while to digest the fact that Shuri only appears in 58% of the Okorafor-penned panels. (Actually, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that.) How depressing. Even when a Black woman crafts a Big 2 superhero comics story about a Black woman, that title character only showed up in 58% of the story. What the hell? I know I have yet to examine Eve Ewing’s Ironheart series this way—but I’m almost scared to do so after compiling these statistics for Shuri.
Thankfully, the next set of numbers I compiled were more promising. I looked at how often Black women in general (when not identified as Afro-Latinx) were depicted. I found that Black women were more likely to appear in a panel when the writer identified as Black (non-Latinx): 77% of Okorafor’s panels, 44% of Ayala’s panels, and 66% of Hudlin’s panels. In fact, the only Black (non-Latinx) woman in Ayala’s panels was Shuri. They did have one woman who identified as Afro-Latinx. But even so, she still only appeared in 5% of Ayala’s panels. In this particular sample, it is safe to say that the writer’s ethnic and gender identifications matter when to comes to who we see, and how often, in a comics story.
What really hit home for me in terms of #OwnVoices and #RepresentationMatters was my findings within the issues that were written by Vita Ayala (Shuri #6 and #7).
They were the only writer in my study who had Black women (who were not identified as Latinx) written into less than half of their panels. The only Black (non-Latinx) woman to appear in their panels was, in fact, Shuri. However, Afro-Latinx men appeared in 68% of their panels. Miles Morales shows up in 29% of the story. This is a win for the push to depict more diverse stories within Big 2 superhero comics. But it is frustrating for those who came to the Shuri comic hoping to see more of the equally underrepresented Black female experience on its pages.
It must also be noted that, while I didn’t record how often other groups were depicted, Ayala’s issues contained the most diverse representations visually out of the three writers. This makes sense given that their story took place in Jersey City, New Jersey (USA), while Okorafor’s and Hudlin’s stories primarily took place upon the African continent.
My examination here was not intended to be an exhaustive, definitive study. The point was more to start answering the question of whether it really matters who creates these stories. In taking a closer look at the visual text, my goal was to determine whether or not the visual representation of Big 2 comics characters with marginalized identities changes when put in the hands of #OwnVoices writers and artists via a micro survey of the Shuri comics run. Clearly in the case of the comic books’ Shuri character, how the person writing her story identifies socially influences how often she even appears in her story. But even when she is in the hands of a Black woman, much less in her own series, she still needs a chance to dominate the storylines marketed under her name. The fact that she only visually appears (as herself) in 55% of the panels in the entire standalone Shuri series may have contributed to why that run resulted in low sales.
As a Black female reader, it is frustrating to see that Shuri’s visual representation is so low in this 10-issue series that is supposed to be about her. Shuri is a not a traditional Big 2 superhero(ine). A comics series marketed under her name is going to attract a non-traditional audience, mainly Black women. It does a disservice to this character, and the audience she attracts, if Shuri is not depicted on an overwhelming majority of the pages in her stories. However, it is encouraging that the likelihood of seeing Shuri and other Black women on the page significantly increases when the story is written by a Black person, even more so when that person is a Black woman. Similarly, the visual representation of the Afro-Latinx experience appears to increase when the story is in the hands of an Afro-Latinx writer regardless of who the title character of the comic is. These findings, in themselves, are progress. I look forward to seeing more of it.
Kaia Alderson is a comedy and fiction writer based out of coastal Georgia. Her recent publications include romantic comedy novella Calling Her Bluff and comics shorts stories in Ladies’ Night anthology volumes 4 and 5. She has performed with Atlanta-based 2 Girls 3 Eyes improv group and is an alumna of Spelman College. Kaia has studied writing with the Hurston/Wright Foundation, The Second City, and Voices of Our Nation (VONA) workshop. When she isn’t living her best life on Twitter, Kaia spends her evenings worshipping all things Nora Ephron.
The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Rine Karr.
If I had to choose one mythological creature to read about solely until the end of my days, I would choose dragons. Magnificent dragons—they appear in the folklore of many of the world’s cultures, both as fire-breathing monsters and revered serpentine beasts. I think that’s why dragons are so fascinating to so many people. Where did the idea of the dragon first come from? And why did it appear in the first place? Dragons have stirred the imagination of countless generations, and if you’re like me and you want to read more stories about them, here’s a list of some of my favorite dragon novels and novellas.
An oldie but goodie, Dragon’s Milk may be the first book I ever read that contained dragons and was written by a woman. The main character, Kaeldra—who I’d like to dub the Mother of Dragons long before this title and its respective Queen even existed—must find a dragon mother and bring back some of the dragon’s milk in order to save her sister, Lyf. But when the dragon mother is killed, Kaeldra suddenly finds herself acting as the adopted mother to three wee draclings.
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles are some of my sister’s favorite books, not mine; however, I decided to include this book on this list because it is truly iconic. Princess Cimorene may be a bit of a “not like other girls” trope, but her headstrong nature, tomboyishness, and the fact that she’s not a princess who needs saving makes her story an excellent choice for young girls (and boys and everyone really), particularly if said girls like fairy tales, and, of course, a talking dragon named Kazul.
No list of books about dragons is complete without including the Earthsea Cycle. Some might’ve cited the series’ namesake—A Wizard of Earthsea—on this list, but it’s not my favorite of the six. Tehanu, which shifts the focus of the story of Earthsea from that of its self-styled heroic male wizards to its just as powerful but often overlooked magical women, is my favorite of the cycle. Tenar stole my heart when she was a naive little girl in The Tombs of Atuan. In Tehanu, however, Tenar is a confident adult woman who readers can’t help but respect and adore.
In Seraphina’s world, dragons transform into humans in order to keep the peace between the two species. Unfortunately, the kingdom of Goredd is far from idyllic, and the two sides in this tale don’t get along. Seraphina can walk this divide for reasons I can’t reveal, and she must do so in order to solve a murder alongside the shrewd Prince Lucian Kigg, a character who reminded me of Char from Ella Enchanted.
This is a story of a girl not allowed to tell stories. This is a story of a girl who broke the rules. This is a story of a girl learning to be true to herself. The story of Asha—dragon slayer and Iskari—mirrors the author’s own story. Of how when Ciccarelli grew up, she was led to believe that storytelling was no longer an activity for adults. Until she realized that this was simply not true and wrote The Last Namsara, a book that I love with all my heart.
Beauty and the Beast meets—at least in my mind—Spirited Away. That’s how I would describe this novella. Which is a gem! With an all-Vietnamese cast of characters, a sapphic relationship, a magical palace, a post-apocalyptic and post-colonial setting, and a dragon (of course), there’s a lot to unearth in this shorter tale. There’s even a library that I pictured à la Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast, but it’s even better in this book, although I won’t reveal why here.
As the longest book on this list at a hefty 827 pages, I beg you: do not let the size of The Priory intimidate you. If you like high fantasy in the same vein as A Game of Thrones, but you’re looking for something more feminist, more LGBTQ+, and more diverse, then you’ll love The Priory. Written from four points of view and set in a sort of East–West dichotomy world, The Priory tells the story of Ead, Tané, Loth, and Niclays, and how each of these characters and the people around them respond to an ancient enemy threatening to destroy them all. Oh, and there are dragon riders!
Maren’s girlfriend, Kaia, is abducted by the Aurati. Maren loves Kaia, so to save her, Maren decides to leave her home, steal one of the emperor’s prized dragons, and storm the impenetrable Aurati stronghold. Enough said! I’m sold! This is a fun read for anyone looking for stories with dragons and bisexual representation.
Rine Karr is a writer and aspiring novelist by moonlight and a copy editor by daylight, with a background in anthropology/archaeology, international human rights, and Buddhist studies/art history. When Rine is not writing or otherwise working, she can be most often found reading books and drinking tea. She also loves to travel, and her heart is located somewhere between Hong Kong and London, although Rine currently lives in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains with her partner. She’s also currently—and almost always—in the midst of writing a novel.
Sirens Guest of Honor Sarah Gailey shares a recommended reading list, with four descriptors for each. If you enjoy Sarah’s work, or you want a recommended reading list of exceptional works, this list is for you. Take it away, Sarah!
To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers
by Han Kang
by Helen Phillips
Sisters of the Vast Black
by Lina Rather
The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang
An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon
The Only Harmless Great Thing
by Brooke Bolander
Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.
Before I read River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, I believed I knew the following facts about hippos:
There is a hippo named Fiona, who lives in a zoo somewhere, that people like a lot.
Hippos eat a lot and poop a lot. In fact, they are champion poopers and thus need quite a bit of personal space.
Hippos can’t jump.
Hippos can kill people if you bother them. If you are farming reeds and pomegranates for the pharaoh, they might kill you even if you don’t bother them, because they’re upset that you’re not sharing or something. (I learned this from a video game.)
There is a game called Hungry Hungry Hippos. Perhaps you have played it.
Pretending you are playing Hungry Hungry Hippos is one way to complete a chore commonly known as “vacuuming.”
The idea for River of Teeth comes from a little-known but verifiable fact: At one time, the United States needed meat and considered hippo ranching in Louisiana. Yes, raising those dangerous, enormous beasts to grace our plates. Imagine it: a hippopotamus porterhouse with all the sides. Some of the largest beef porterhouses are 40 ounces, or 1.134 kilograms for the metric folks. Now, all things won’t be equal, but if an average steer weighs about 750 pounds (340 kg), and an average male hippo weighs about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg), your server would be bringing you a porterhouse coming in just under 11 pounds, or about 5 kilograms. So of course this incredible excess might have seemed like an excellent enterprise to carnivorous folk.
In the end, the hippo did not enter the pantheon of sounds we make during a rousing performance of “Old MacDonald.”
But River of Teeth imagines they did—and that some hippos escaped their fate to infest part of the lower Mississippi, and went feral between the boundary of an upstream dam and a downstream gate. Our story begins when a group of hoppers—think cowhand, perhaps a term for anyone who can ride a domesticated hippo—is tasked by leader Winslow Houndstooth, who’s been contracted by the federal government, to get the feral hippos past the confining gate and out into the Gulf.
And this (very diverse) group of hoppers is wild. They’ve got skills ranging from thievery to explosives to murder. There is absolutely no question about the grayness of these morally gray characters, and nearly all whom they meet, as they lie, cheat, con, and otherwise go about the business of a feral hippo drive. (There will be violence, and it will be explicit.) It’s refreshing to encounter intriguing characters who are more intense and complicated than lovable rogues with hearts of gold, but who act in ways consistent and logical.
Another delightful aspect of River of Teeth is its specific way of incorporating history. There’s a sense of the stretch pre- and post-Civil War when this could have happened, and enough details for the reader to fill in the worldbuilding without overexplaining in this novella. Of course there would be steamboats hosting gamblers in hippo-infested waters; of course your local watering hole would need an actual watering hole for hippo storage instead of a hitching post.
Finally, this fast-paced read stands alone, but leads into a related novella and short stories—and no spoilers, but if you’re the sort of reader who, like me, ever enjoyed letting Godzilla loose in SimCity and is entertained by the speculative destruction in movies like Volcano (1997) or San Andreas (2015), there is satisfying chaos in store.
Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo gathers all of their stories (two novellas and two short stories) about an alternate version of the American West where hippo ranches line rivers and feral hippos roam the Mississippi River.
These stories are quirky, violent capers with a dangerous cast of characters—and that is just talking about the hippos!
The stories are based around the real proposition made in 1910 to import hippopotamuses from Africa to the Gulf Coast of the United States and raise them as a source of meat. While in reality, the scheme never came to fruition, Gailey moved the beginnings of the scheme back to 1857 and set their stories in the late 1800s. In this alternate history, the United States government dammed up a section of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to create more land for hippo ranching. Eventually, this section of the river, known as the “Harriet,” transformed itself from orderly hippo ranches to dangerous real estate filled with feral hippos and unsavory people.
It is in this world that Gailey’s work takes place. The first novella, River of Teeth, introduces Winslow Remington Houndstooth (with hippo Ruby). He is a former hippo rancher-turned-thief, who has accepted a commission from the United States government to rid the Harriet of the feral hippos. He gathers together demolitions expert Hero Shackleby (with hippo Abigail), con artist Regina “Archie” Archambault (with hippo Rosa), and mercenary Adelia Reyes (with hippos Zahra and Stasia). On the surface, this seems like an odd combination of people to gather to rid an area of feral hippos. However, ridding the Harriet of feral hippos is not Houndstooth’s only objective; rather, he plans to use the commission to strike a blow at corrupt businessman Travers. Travers runs a series of riverboats and he rules those with absolute authority: If you are caught cheating, you will be immediately thrown to the feral hippos in the river. We also find out that Travers had Houndstooth’s hippo ranch burned down, leaving him with nothing but debt and one baby hippo.
River of Teeth is a fast-paced, fun, and gory heist story with a twist of revenge.
There is a fair amount of violence and not just from encounters with feral hippos. Houndstooth and company are all willing to do whatever they have to do to protect themselves. It is fascinating to see their relationships grow through the story. While Hero, Archie, and Adelia originally agree to join Houndstooth’s crew for mostly monetary reasons, their focus changes throughout the story and that change is one of the most satisfying aspects of Gailey’s work. The ending of River of Teeth wraps up enough to feel finished, but also leaves the door open for the next installment.
Taste of Marrow, the second novella of the collection, deals with the aftermath of the events in River of Teeth and has a much more somber feel. The group has been separated. Adelia and Hero are dealing with the aftermath of Hero’s injuries, the birth of Adelia’s daughter, and the bounty on Adelia’s head. Houndstooth is desperately trying to find Hero, while Archie is trying to keep Houndstooth alive and preferably clear-headed. This story shows a different view of the characters. While they were focused on money and revenge in the first story, now they are focused on reuniting with each other and eliminating the obstacles that prevent that reunion. It’s a messy, difficult journey that shows the challenges they face to continue to grow into a family. It’s hard for a bunch of people who are borderline criminals to have a relaxing retirement, but the ending does hint that this might be possible.
The two short stories included in American Hippo are much more light-hearted than either River of Teeth or Taste of Marrow, and expand on two incidents that are mentioned in the novellas. In “Worth Her Weight in Gold,” Houndstooth’s baby hippo has grown up into his mount Ruby. She is an ornery, vain hippo who would just as soon chomp on you as look at you, but she loves Houndstooth and he loves her. However, when he is on a job, Houndstooth isn’t always as careful about Ruby’s tooth care as he should be. It is a quick read, but it shows just how much Houndstooth loves Ruby and exactly what he will give up for her health and happiness. It also gives us a close-up view of Ruby’s personality, which is a delightful mix of charm and chomping.
“Nine and a Half” tells the story of a job that Houndstooth and Archie pull together when they meet U.S. Marshal Gran Carter. It also answers the ongoing question of how many times Archie has saved Houndstooth—or does it? This story ends with an excellent escape scene, which is a fun glimpse into the more ridiculous side of Archie and Houndstooth.
American Hippo offers an alternate historical world with fast-paced action and complex characters. The hippos are an excellent addition to the story, showing a variety of personalities from calm and placid to high-strung and energetic. They provide a way for their owners to show their humanity because the people are a fascinating mix of characters, none of whom could be classified as actually “good” people. However, they are charismatic and complicated, loving to friends and devoted to their hippos, and they will cheerfully steal the ring from your finger if it will help them. I love the fact that it is based in a real proposition and plays with a might have been. I love the variety of personalities and motivations, but mostly, I love the fact that the hippos get a story where they can be as sweet and brutal as they are in real life.
When she is not wrangling students (and co-workers) for a music non-profit, Karen Bailey can often be found working on completing the Sirens Reading Challenge. She also keeps busy with quilting, crocheting, and paper-crafts.
Hallie Tibbetts works in children’s publishing, editing books for all ages. She has a love of adventure, travel, interesting food, and dinosaurs (preferably all at once). She is one of the founders of Narrate Conferences, the presenting organization behind Sirens, and has served in various roles, including conference chair and programming coordinator.
Have you already loved Sarah Gailey’s work? American Hippo? The Fisher of Bones? Magic for Liars and Upright Women Wanted and When We Were Magic? Are you looking for more? Have we got a treat for you! As part of Sarah’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of their short fiction, essays, interviews, and other work from around the web.
Sarah’s Short Fiction:
Drones to Ploughshares (2020): “No one ever had to know that he noticed things he didn’t log.”
Away with the Wolves (2019): “I can’t feel anything, really. That’s how it always is when I wake up. I can’t feel anything, because I have not yet tried to move. When I do try to move, there will be pain. There’s no telling where it will be—my hips, my shoulders, my spine, my thighs, my hands. Some days it lives in the muscles between my ribs, making every breath feel like an argument.”
The Thing That Hides in Your Home (2019): “Knowing where it is won’t protect you from it, but that won’t stop you from reading, because some part of you believes that knowing is the same thing as safety.”
Reynard Is Coming (2019): “Reynard used to be just like you. He thought he was clever. He thought he was above the rules. He thought he didn’t have to watch his back when he was stretching his legs and straddling the centuries.”
An Augmented Reality (2018): “Denise was already late, even before her augmented-reality glasses decided to perform another endless system update.”
From the Void (2018): “The way I miss Esther is a slow-spreading bruise.”
Bread and Milk and Salt (2018): “The first time I met the boy, I was a duck.”
The Catch (2018): “They didn’t usually come right up to vessels, not without being lured in by chum over the course of an afternoon, but there she was. Lean, chap-lipped, hungry eyed. Her hair was black — no, blacker than that — and it fanned out in the water as she smiled up at him.”
STET (2018): “Anna, I’m concerned about subjectivity intruding into some of the analysis in this section of the text. I think the body text is fine, but I have concerns about the references. Are you alright?”
There Are No Hands in the River (2018): “All that I wanted: to escape the ghost-rattling chains shackled to the thing at the center of me.”
All the Stars Above the Sea (2018): “All the stars are closer now than they have ever been. If you were still beside me you’d reach up on tiptoes, fingers spread to touch the brightest one.”
An Introduction to Pain (2018): “How badly are you hurting? Please identify your pain by weight and measure it from end to end, please rank the force and flavor of this guest that’s wedged itself into your life.”
Anne and the Stairs (2018): “Anne told Edgar that she was barren on the day that the stairs appeared.”
As Simple as Vanishing (2018): “When Maurice decided that he wanted to vanish that first time, all he had to do was try.”
What Grew (2018): “Before I knew I was pregnant I would stand before the mirror and wonder why I was different why I was growing what was wrong with my too-small skin.”
Worth Her Weight in Gold (2018): “Winslow Remington Houndstooth had a problem. The problem was Ruby.”
The Legend of Tania and Lula (2018): Lula’s gold tooth glinted in the light of the dying sun as she stared into the barrel of Tania’s Pulsar-1500. Sand swirled in eddies around her dust-clouded boots. Her eyes watered, but she didn’t blink. The sweat that had beaded across her forehead during the hike back to the ship evaporated in the rising wind as she came to understand her situation. She would die at Tania’s hand.”
Go Home, Go Home, Go Home (2018): “Earth’s gravity pulled at Anton’s bones like an insult.”
Our Collection (2018): “She died in a sea of wind-swept fury, her arms spread wide to catch the waves, she died with her cheek to the wind.”
The Nightmare Stays the Same (2018): “In the nightmare, Bess is having a fistfight. In the nightmare, she is winning.”
Anonymous Croupier (2018): “It was a hot night. One of those nights that would feel like mid-afternoon anywhere other than Vegas, you know?”
Single Parent (2017): “The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.”
A Lady’s Maid (2017): “Isaac hadn’t taken the news of the engagement well. Nadia reflected on this as she pressed her cheek against the cool wall of her washtub. She was strong, and Isaac Cornette was a small man, but wrestling his dead weight into the tub hadn’t been easy.”
The Art of Asterculture (2017): “Star-wine is very difficult to make. It’s a complex and sometimes dangerous process. But one must have a hobby, and this is mine.”
Rescue (2016): “When they went to the dog park, Malachai had to wear sweatpants to blend in with the humans that congregated there. Going to the dog park required him to use very un-demonic magic: a careful layering of glamours to make him look like a small, balding human male, rather than the top-tier demon that he was.”
Homesick (2016): “I close my eyes, but it doesn’t really help, because it’s more the feeling than the seeing that’s the problem. I feel Moira’s dry lips scratch closed around my finger; I feel her split tongue wrap around my knuckle and slide up and down my fingernail. Then, a blessed numbness creeps up my hand, all the way to the wrist, and I don’t have to feel anything she’s doing anymore.”
Haunted (2016): “When he came inside, he kept his shoes on. That was my first clue. She took her shoes off, and looked around like she was standing in a cathedral. He rapped his knuckles hard on a wall, and I flinched.”
Stars (2016): “Maria can feel his voice, the vibration of it, but she cannot hear him over the ringing in her own ears. The ringing is loud, and she isn’t going to try to hear over it because she knows it would be impossible, like trying to see over the top of the horizon.”
Bargain (2016): “Malachai worked exclusively with those humans who had found themselves at the limit of how much power they could possess. They called him to bend the rules of time and space around their whims, so that they might be even more feared and loved by the other mortals.”
Look (2015): “Caroline raised her head a few inches to see the thing the doctor held up—a loud, purple thing, covered in white smears of vernix. She let her head drop. Her vision blurred with fatigue. The past thirty-seven hours had been pain and blood and screaming and working and waiting and then pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing. She knew the moment should be beautiful, but all she could think was ‘finished.’”
Sarah’s Articles and Essays:
Aging, Which Is Linear (2020): “I’ve decided, with this birthday, to let some things go.”
What Makes a Story Queer? (2019): “Magic for Liars is a book that is immensely concerned with identity, and whether or not identity is immutable.”
Magical Accessories, Definitively Ranked (2019): “A staff is a great magical accessory… for your great-grandfather to wield. A staff tells everyone who looks at you that you’re a very powerful wizard who doesn’t know how to use email and will never be on time. It’s the rotary phone of spellcasting.”
The Enduring Legacy of Bunnicula, a 40-Year-Old In-Joke That’s Still Hilarious (2019): “James and Deborah Howe were two struggling actors in their late twenties, married and underemployed, and they thought the idea of a vampire rabbit was funny.”
Imposter/Abuser: Power Dynamics in Publishing (2019): “We tell ourselves that we’re not important for a lot of reasons, many of which boil down to self-protection.”
Leave the Hookhand Murderer Alone (2019): “This story punishes the would-be-killer by taking away the device that functions as his prosthetic hand. This is a punishment that’s repeated often in media across genres: a disabled villain is separated from his adaptive device, and the audience is asked to view it as justice.”
Whiskey, Trauma, and The Doctor (2019): “[U]ntil recently, whiskey has tasted to me like burning death.”
Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed My Life (2018): “I thought I was writing in-genre. Fantasy stories have magic. Science fiction stories have rules that I don’t always understand because I somehow got through high school without taking a physics class. Queer stories have death.”
Iconic Outwear of Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature, Ranked (2018): “When I was in grade school I would have given my right arm for a way to get through my day without anyone seeing me. But does this cloak really deserve to beat out all other forms of fantasy outerwear? I say no.”
Fear No Evil: On Sorting Hats and Forest Gods (2018): “The hat does not require your input. The hat knows.”
The White Mountains (2018): “Occam’s razor: if you’re walking among gods and something is strange, think magic, not physics.”
Gods and Beggars (2018): “Simply put, a God disguised as a beggar isn’t testing the individual–they are testing the world that has created that individual. They are testing the health of the community.”
Fear of the Female Voice (2017): “For millennia, Western society has insisted that female voices—just that, our voices—are a threat. We’re afraid of wolves, and we’re afraid of bears, and we’re afraid of women.”
Harry Potter: A Beginner’s Guide to Evaluating Authority (2017): “Harry Potter is not a resistance manual. Harry Potter is a guidebook.”
The Hubris of Icarus: Women Who Fly into the Sun (2017): “There are two kinds of hubris. There are two kinds of hope. And the sky is so wide. If she could only fly.”
A Woman, Explaining Things (2017): “If they had the opportunity—if this new woman arrived at their front door with an extended hand, inviting them to come into the blue box with her and see a universe full of new and frightening things—I wonder what these furious people would do.”
River Song in Hades (2017): “She loves the adventure. She loves the journey. Like Persephone, she knows that winter and death are coming for her, but she rushes at them headlong, because she knows that the path she’ll travel to get there is one to be savored.”
Why Millennials Yearn for Magical School (2017): “We were told that a better world was waiting for us. We were told that a letter was on the way. We’ll just have to write the letter ourselves.”
On Feasting (2017): “You are a character in a fantasy novel. Congratulations: you have been invited to a feast.”
Finding Facts: American Identity Is Based on Alternate History (2017): “It’s the story told in my American History textbook, and it’s one of the most comprehensive works of fiction I’ve ever read.”
The Ecology of Alt-History, Or: The Hippos, the Hippos, the Hippos Are on Fire (2017): “The water hyacinth was a problem, and the meat shortage was a problem, and for a time—for a brief, glorious time—America saw a solution. We were going to fight an invasive species with the power of our big, important brains. We were going to get ourselves some hippos.”
Storytelling Through Costume: The Woman in White (2017): “In a blood-soaked world where survival is dependent upon grit and determination, the woman in white is spotless. She is radiant. She is pure.”
Storytelling Through Costume: The Badass Black Tank Top Walks the Line (2017): “She can wield a flamethrower the size of a Prius while biting out the word “fuck” and lighting a cigar, her boot firmly planted on the jugular of the man she just finished beating up for calling her a girl.”
Storytelling Through Costume: The Allure of the Red Dress (2017): “But the red dress isn’t just a costume; it’s an archetype. When we see the red dress, we already have an idea of what we can expect from the woman inside of it. She’s not bad; she’s just drawn that way.”
Mentally Ill Women Belong in Your Stories, Too (2016): “[R]egardless of the treatment mentally-ill women receive at the hands of literary authors, we are seen. We exist, and we participate in the world, and we hurt and heal and struggle and live. But we are not invited into space. We are not invited to attend on the Faerie Queen. We don’t attend Hogwarts or fly TIE fighters.”
Why We Write About Witches (2016): “When we write witches, we are writing about our expectations of women, and what we hope—and fear—they would do if they had access to power.”
Do Better: Sexual Violence in SFF (2016): “I want to be furious that SFF writers seem to have an easier time imagining faster-than-light travel than they do imagining a world in which sexual assault isn’t a constant threat.”
In Defense of Villainesses (2016): “We love her and we hate her in equal measure. We feel that way because she revels in being all the things that we are told we aren’t allowed to be.”
Dissociation Is Scary. Dissociation Is Safety. (2016): “And when I’m in the little dark room of memory, surrounded by words that remind me who can hurt whom, the only thing to do is to grope around in the blackness, trying to find a doorknob.”
The Harry Potter Series Is Actually One Long Story About PTSD: “When you read Harry Potter through the lens of trauma psychology, what you start to realize is that these books explore the aftermath of trauma in a surprisingly deep and compelling way.”
Q&A: Sarah Gailey, Author of When We Were Magic (2020): “I’m proud to have written something that, as I was writing it, reminded me that things can be good even when they’re messy and hard.”
Talks at Google (2019): On bringing fantasy and noir together in Magic for Liars, “I was really able to answer them with each other. They fit together like puzzle pieces.”
Spotlight On: Sarah Gailey (2019): “Some characters grow best in haunted houses, and others grow best in spaceships, and still others will only be able to put down roots in the house next door to mine.”
Interview with an Author: Sarah Gailey (2019): “I would definitely be into theoretical magic. It’s dangerous and ambitious and will kill you if you do it wrong, which is totally my jam. Also, it’s hard to explain at cocktail parties, which seems to be a central theme in all of my interests.”
An Exclusive Interview with Sarah Gailey (2019): “Everything I write has a queer perspective, even if the characters aren’t engaged in a storyline that interacts directly with queer sexuality or relationships. Themes of isolation, self-examination, identity, and found family are common in my work.”
Author Interview: Sarah Gailey (2017): “Fortunately, like any good writer, I happen to have a close relationship with an explosives expert.”
Sarah Gailey Talks Heists, Hope, Feral Hippos, and Defiantly Joyful Characters (2017): “River of Teeth imagines that Broussard’s dream came true, and that hippos came to America…and immediately did what hippos do—which is to say, whatever the hell they want because you try telling a hippo it has to stay behind a fence.”
Sarah Gailey on Sexual Violence in SFF (2017): “Everybody’s argument is, ‘Oh, we need to reflect real life.’ But really when you look at genre fiction, that’s not what we’re about. We’re not writing in order to reflect real life; we’re writing to paint new worlds and new social norms.”
Hugo Award Winner Sarah Gailey on Self-Care, Self-Imposed Deadlines, and Where Ideas Come From: “If I can get outside with a good book and some fresh fruit and maybe a glass of wine, I’m the happiest I can be.”
AMY TENBRINK: The home page of your website says, big and bold and just after your name, “Writer. Reader. Enthusiast.” I first encountered your work with your novella, River of Teeth, which I adore for the unrelentingly fuck-you subversion among all the gleefully ahistorical hippos, but almost immediately thereafter, I ran across your essays, which I adore for their unflinching and hilarious insight. Would you tell us about these three parts of you—writer, reader, and enthusiast—and why you think each deserves a place of proclamation on the home page of your website?
SARAH GAILEY: I think that those three words summarize pretty much all of what I do and who I am! I read compulsively, because stories are the fuel my brain feeds on. They’e nourishing and I’m lucky enough to be reading during a golden era of storytelling. Reading isn’t just a thing I do; being a reader is a part of my identity.
I write for a living, which is an enormous blessing. I am so fortunate to be able to support myself by doing the thing I love most. Of course, that means that I write way too much—when you do what you love, you never stop working a day in your life. I’m still learning how to set boundaries for myself, to take time away from work and nurture myself in ways that have nothing to do with being an author.
Which is why it’s crucial that I’m also an enthusiast. I love to be excited by the world around me, to learn new things, and share the thrill of discovery with others. I find cynicism and incuriosity to be a form of cowardice — people let themselves be governed by a fear of looking foolish, or a fear of having to apologize for things they believed in the past, or a fear of the pain that comes with growth. I’m not interested in letting that kind of fear shape my life, so instead I run fast as I can in the opposite direction, with great enthusiasm.
AMY: In Upright Women Wanted, you use the phrase “gallows courage,” a phrase that’s not out of place in a work that opens with a hanging. But Upright Women Wanted is dedicated “[t]o everyone who thought they’d never live this long,” which is a reference to your 2018 essay “Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed My Life” about your claiming queerness as part of your identity and how, for a number of reasons relating to your queerness, you didn’t think you’d live this long. You’ve also said that your short story, “Bread and Milk and Salt”, about cycles of abuse, is your most personal short story. I think your work—your honesty, your rawness, your admitted errors and apologies and desire to grow—takes gallows courage. Would you share some of your thoughts about putting so much of your heart on a page?
SARAH: For a big part of my life, the circumstances I was in required me to keep too many secrets. That secrecy is a hallmark of abusive environments and relationships. You internalize this idea that it’s wrong to tell anyone what’s happening inside your home, what’s happening to your body, what’s happening inside your heart. Saying “I’m hurting” or “I’m scared” or “I’m sad” feels dangerous and forbidden.
When I started trying to build a life for myself that didn’t include space for abusive dynamics, one of the things I found to be most healing was transparency. I learned how to invite people into my space, physically and emotionally, in ways that are safe for everyone involved. It was really scary, and I did a terrible job for a while—it’s a very steep learning curve that I’m still climbing—but at this point, secrecy isn’t a part of who I am or who I want to be.
I draw a very firm distinction between “secrecy” and “privacy,” which is crucial when you write about yourself and your life in the ways I do. There are a lot of things about me that I don’t share with the world. But the things I do share, I share because I think there can be healing in that sharing, for me and for readers. This last birthday, I finally stopped being private about my age; I publicly discussed the dynamics that made me hide it for so long, because I know that there are readers of mine who have struggled with the same issues. If I can safely reveal parts of myself and, in so doing, help a reader to feel more seen and more safe in the world, then I think my work can have real meaning.
AMY: In 2019, after Magic for Liars, your noir magical boarding school novel, was released, you wrote an essay, “What Makes a Story Queer?,” in which you say, “Were I to end Magic for Liars on an optimistic note, I would allow Ivy’s story to continue mirroring mine: Ivy Gamble would find a community of people who were, in fact, just like her…. Through the love and support of that community, Ivy would come to understand herself. She would develop a sense of security. She would develop a sense of self. She would develop a sense of pride.” In When We Were Magic, your new young-adult novel, you give Alexis, struggling with her identity and her friends and her failures and fears and hopes, just that optimistic ending. In many ways, when I read the three works you’ve published in the last year—Magic for Liars to Upright Women Wanted to When We Were Magic—I can follow a single thread from struggle to defiance to joy. Would you please talk about what you hope readers take away from your books?
SARAH: That’s an incredibly astute observation! I put a lot of myself onto the page, intentionally and unintentionally, and I love that the journey I’ve taken in my own life — from struggle to defiance to joy — is visible on the page.
In every book I write, I want readers to take away something different. In Magic for Liars, I wanted readers to take away an understanding of how everyone is involved in their own story and their own struggle, and those narratives aren’t always visible to the people who are living inside of them. Ivy Gamble is lying to herself, and she’s lying to herself about why she’s doing it, and she’s lying to the reader about how honest she’s capable of being. She’s not doing that on purpose, to be sneaky or malicious—she’s doing the best she can, and she’s still failing, because sometimes that’s what we do.
In Upright Women Wanted, I wanted readers to take away the idea that tragedy isn’t inevitable, and it doesn’t have to be the end of a story. For so many people, especially queer people, hardship feels defining, and tragedy feels final. But Esther’s story begins with tragedy, and from there, she finds triumph and joy alongside her grief. I wanted readers to feel in their bones that they can have both.
When We Were Magic is the story of what life can be when you lean into that joy. It’s a story of supportive community, emotionally healthy and loving friendships, good boundaries and tenderness even in the midst of conflict and trauma. I wrote it for the teen I once was, who needed to hear that it’s okay to let your friends love you even when you’re a mess, and that’s the message I hope readers—especially young readers—take away from those pages.
AMY: In your work, both fiction and nonfiction, you dive deep on gender issues, particularly those affecting people who aren’t cisgender men. As a few examples, you did a boatload of research into abortion and abortion ethics in order to write Magic for Liars; your short story “STET” delves deeply into a mother’s grief and the societal silencing thereof; your nonfiction is rife with intersectional feminist issues, such as “Fear of the Female Voice” and “A Woman, Explaining Things.” How do you do your research? What do you read? Who do you talk to?
SARAH: I’m so fortunate to be part of a community with a ton of brilliant people in it! Often, when I need help learning about an issue—like, for instance, abortion and abortion ethics—I start with general reference material from reputable sources. I check out Wikipedia and look at the citations on articles, and there’s often great information available from trustworthy organizations like Planned Parenthood. Once I feel like I have a good grasp on baseline information, I reach out to closed sections of my community, like private slack channels or broad group chats. That’s how I add color and texture to the reference material. I get most of my information from one-on-one conversations. I find that the best way to learn is to talk to people who are passionate about their area of expertise, both because then you get the really good, reliable intel, and because there are nuances to information that reference material can rarely supply.
AMY: In 2020, the Sirens theme is villains, so let’s talk about gender, sexuality, and villainy. Society, of course, frequently demands that we cast women and queer folk as villains, often simply for defying the limitations imposed by the heteropatriarchy. And often, given that your characters, across genders and sexualities, walk a fine line between antihero and villain—from the River of Teeth gang to Alexis’s killing a boy in When We Were Magic—I imagine you have something to say on this particular topic. Talk to me about villains!
SARAH: I have always loved villains. I don’t think this is rare—villains are often the more complicated characters in children’s media, the characters whose motivations feel grounded in emotions that children can relate to. Heroes in children’s media often exhibit more grown-up behavior than villains do—they don’t tend to throw tantrums or get petty and pouty—and so they can feel a little out-of-reach. Villains are also visually fascinating in a way heroes often aren’t (picture Jafar vs. Aladdin in Disney’s Aladdin—only one of them has facial features you can grab onto). And of course, as a tiny queer baby, I saw the queer-coding in those villains and identified with it in ways I didn’t really understand.
As an adult, I find villains fascinating for a different reason. I think the best villains, the most fascinating ones, are the ones who are truly trying to Do Right. Few people act in ways that they believe to be evil or selfish, but doing bad things is a part of the human condition that we’ve never been able to escape. In my writing, I want to explore the things we do to hurt each other, and why they feel so necessary and inescapable.
The one exception to this is in Upright Women Wanted, where the villain is a fascist police-state. I think we’ve had more than enough media that aims to humanize those particular types of villains, and so in writing that book, I let them be a little more one-dimensional than I usually would. The villain in Upright Women Wanted is a villain because he wants to hurt you and the people you love, and sometimes, that’s enough.
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?
SARAH: My friend Elisabeth. I met her during the year I lived in Portland, and our friendship has been completely transformational for me. Elisabeth has taught me how to take up space, how to expect support and love from my friends, and how to demand that my emotions be acknowledged and attended to. For so much of my life, I accepted the idea that my feelings had to be reasonable, logical, and explainable in order to deserve care. I will never forget the day that Elisabeth told me “it’s okay to be emotional sometimes—it’s an expression of what you’re feeling, and the people who love you should make space for that.” All of my relationships have flourished so much with that perspective. I started asking for space for my own feelings—and refusing to have my feelings shut down by men saying “you’re just being dramatic” or “you need to calm down.” The result has been that my friends, family, and loved ones have started asking for space for their needs and feelings, and we all have so many more opportunities to see, acknowledge, and care for each other. It’s been stunning, and I owe it all to Elisabeth.
Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.