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Exclusive Sirens Interview: Isabel Schechter

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

Today, Sirens communications team member Faye Bi interviews Isabel Schechter, a longtime member and builder of speculative communities!

 

FAYE BI: You have been part of science fiction and fantasy fandoms for over twenty years. What are some of the ways that fandom has evolved for you, both online and in person? What do you hope for the future of SFF spaces and fandoms?

Isabel Schechter

ISABEL SCHECHTER: The internet has done a lot to shape the evolution of fandom, but part of the draw of fandom is that no matter the technology, it’s about the ability to make connections. Before LiveJournal, Dreamwidth, Facebook, and Twitter, if I wanted to communicate with fans that weren’t local to me, I had to wait a year for a convention to reconnect with other fans. Today, I can connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

This year, because of the COVID pandemic, most conventions were cancelled or held virtually—something that would not have been feasible twenty years ago. Although it wasn’t the same as being with people in person, it did provide at least some way to connect with friends and loved ones. Hopefully some conventions will make program recordings available to all attendees—no more need to be in two panels at once! Some conventions (Sirens included) have started hosting Zoom events for convention attendees to connect with each other outside of conventions during the pandemic, and I would love to see that kind of connection continue once the pandemic is over.

I would also love to see fandom become more diverse and inclusive. WorldCon (the World Science Fiction Convention) and related fannish conventions have been working on this, albeit sometimes only because social media activism in fandom has forced them to learn from their mistakes. There is still work that needs to be done to get programming to be more reflective of and inclusive of all parts of the community. There also has to be a greater push to get WorldCon convention runners and convention site selection voters to be more open to having the convention take place in locations outside of North America.

 

FAYE: You are a member of a number of SFF communities and have attended so many SFF cons—and you’ve even written about how to create a welcoming community. Besides the POC dinner you mentioned, what are some other moments of connection that stand out? And what are some of your favorite con memories?

ISABEL: Fandom has not always been as welcoming as it is today, and it still has a long way to go in this area. RaceFail in 2009 laid bare the ugliness of racism in science fiction fandom and the science fiction industry. It was such a horrendous experience that my chest still gets tight when I think about it. That experience was the antithesis of welcoming. What came out of it, however, was a realization in White fandom that POC did exist in fandom and we needed to be treated as valued members of the community. Codes of Conduct were created and have been improved upon yearly, Con or Bust was created, and POC dinners and meetups are now regular events at some conventions.

I have been able to make connections at every convention I’ve attended. I remember being on a panel about found family and I started bawling and soon so was everyone else in the room. I’ve gotten cramps from laughing so hard at the Not Another F*cking Race Panel (a WisCon institution). I’ve been quite undignified at several WorldCons by jumping out of my seat and yelling in a most unladylike manner at the Hugo Awards ceremony because a friend just won a Hugo. I’ve also gone into a Spanish-language reading at a WorldCon thinking I hated poetry and walked out thinking I simply had to read every single poem written by one of the authors participating. I have danced at too many convention dances to count.

One of my most empowering experiences in fandom was at the 2018 WorldCon in San Jose, California. That was the year that John Picacio started the Mexicanx Initiative. There were more than fifty Mexicanx fans and creators at the convention because of the Initiative, and although I am not Mexicanx, I am a Latina, and it was affirming to be surrounded by people who spoke my language (literally), who ate the same food, and who danced to the same music. There were also so many POC (not just Mexicanx) attending the convention that we had to split up into multiple groups for the POC dinner.

 

FAYE: Along with Michi Trota, you are the editor of The WisCon Chronicles Volume 12: Boundaries and Bridges, recently available from Aqueduct Press! How did you get involved in this project? What did you love about it? Can you tell us anything about your next creative project?

ISABEL: I attended my first WisCon twenty years ago. At the time, I had no real fannish friends or connection to SFF fandom, but now WisCon has become an annual family reunion of many of the most important people in my life. I have had several essays in previous volumes of The WisCon Chronicles, and I was honored when Aqueduct Press invited me to edit this year’s volume. I have benefited from being a part of the WisCon community and I wanted others to share their experiences and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

It was important to me that the collection of essays represent the experiences of a variety of attendees, and invited Michi to share my vision to help bring to light diverse WisCon experiences. The collection includes essays from new and longtime fans and con-goers, writers at all stages of their careers, privileged and marginalized people, and even two pieces in Spanish. The part I am most proud of is knowing that I provided a space for those voices to be heard. It is my hope that they will continue to be heard.

For my next project, I would like to write about women’s friendships. Until I found WisCon, I had very few female friendships and a lot of internalized misogyny to deal with. I’m grateful to the wonderful women in fandom I’ve become friends with who have helped me grow in this area, and want to explore this aspect of women’s lives.

 

FAYE: What people might not know about you is that you are also a graduate of divinity school! What role does faith play in your SFF reading and community?

ISABEL: First, I have to say that while I believe in God, and that works for me, I don’t expect anyone else to believe the same thing. I don’t believe that my belief is the only right one, nor is my religion the only right one. And I absolutely don’t believe that atheists are incapable of being good or moral people just because they don’t believe in a higher power. Religion can be a wonderful thing that inspires people to act justly and righteously, and it can also contribute to pogroms, crusades, and inquisitions. The wonderful part is what I choose to practice.

I once heard someone at a convention say something about the role of how/why/what if in the relationship between science, science fiction, and religion that really struck me. What I took from that has helped inform my reading of SFF.

I have never believed that science and religion are mutually exclusive, and am perfectly comfortable believing that God created, well, Creation, and simultaneously knowing that evolution is real and provable. If we really are created in the image and likeness of God, then doesn’t it make sense that we should strive to learn about everything in Creation, and even do our own part in creating so as to live up to that image and likeness? Religion explains why we were created, and science explains how Creation works. And then there’s science fiction, which asks “what if?” What if we could use science to create a new world by terraforming? It would take longer than seven days, but even so. What if we could use science to go beyond reproductive technologies like IVF and create living androids? It would be more complex than using ribs, and we would have to be careful not to treat living beings as mere things to serve our needs. What if we could create a society where peace and equality were fully realized? And not just in idyllic gardens. What if?

 

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

ISABEL: I was intrigued by a hundred-person convention focused specifically on women in fantasy. I regularly attend conventions with a thousand attendees, and WorldCons with several thousand attendees, so a hundred people on such a focused subject was well outside the norm for me.

I asked a friend about her experience with Sirens, and based on her feedback, I decided to attend. Sirens’s programming is thoughtful, and I’ve learned a lot. One of my favorite program items is the one where folks from the conference committee recommend books, and I am ever so grateful that Sirens arranges shipping so I don’t have to figure out how I’m going to fit all my purchases in my luggage!

Sirens’s programming was the initial draw, but the other attendees are really why I keep coming back. I’ve met smart, nice, funny, and welcoming people at Sirens. I know that they are committed to making Sirens a place where people can come together and discuss women and fantasy literature in a thoughtful, engaged way, and they are genuinely interested in keeping the community going outside the conference.

 

FAYE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

ISABEL: It’s simply not possible to name only one person. Although there are certain women who have played an immeasurable part in my life, I didn’t get to be who I am because of any one person or interaction. There is no one turning point—each has built on the one before.

There was my seventh and eighth grade teacher who told me I could do and be more than the narrow role my culture has assigned me. There was the friend in high school who lived her life without apologizing for having sex on her terms. There was my Jewish mentor who set an example of a Jew By Choice that was every bit as “real” as someone who had been born Jewish. And all the women in fandom that welcomed me into the community and treated me as a human being worthy to be valued.

Each of these women has been the person I needed them to be at that particular point in my life, and all those points together have shaped me into the person I am today. As I continue to find more of these kinds of women, I will grow and change, refine and expand my understand of my identity and my role in the world.

 


Questioning and rebelling against authority was frowned upon for girls in Isabel Schechter’s family. Anyone who knows Isabel is not shocked that she was considered an ill-behaved girl. Although other parents punished their children’s inappropriate behavior by revoking their television privileges or not allowing them to go out with friends, Isabel’s mother tried to be more strategic and instead revoked Isabel’s library privileges. Sadly for Isabel’s mother, this did not result in good behavior and instead led Isabel to check out the maximum number of library books allowed at one time (twenty-one!) and then stash them around the house for when the need arose. It arose quite often.

Isabel’s childhood love of books led her to discover the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, a popular gateway drug to science fiction and fantasy. Even though she was an avid reader, Isabel did not encounter organized science fiction fandom until adulthood. In the twenty-five years since then, she has been attending fannish conventions, including twenty years attending WisCon (the foremost feminist science fiction convention), and is a frequent panelist at conventions. Isabel has also volunteered as staff for a variety of conventions, including WisCon, WorldCon, and the successful bid to bring the 2017 North American Science Fiction (NASFiC) to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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

Faye Bi works as a publicity director in New York City and spends the rest of her time cycling, reading, pondering her next meal, and working on the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas.

Diana Pho: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

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

 

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

Diana Pho

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

FAYE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

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

 


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

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

Photo credit: Gerry O’Brien

Faye Bi works as a publicity director in New York City and spends the rest of her time cycling, reading, pondering her next meal, and working on the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas.

Rine Karr: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

Today, Sirens co-chair Manda Lewis interviews Rine Karr, a reader, writer, copy editor, and tea-lover who first attended Sirens just last year!

 

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

Rine Karr

RINE KARR: Oh my gosh, I don’t really know exactly when I fell in love with fantasy literature. I was lucky to be raised by bookworms. My parents met playing D&D, which says a lot about how imaginative my family can be. As a child, I remember poring over my mum’s unicorn coffee table books, reading lots of fairy tales, Greek and Roman myths, and fantasy books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I also watched a lot of fantasy films like The Princess Bride, Willow, and The Last Unicorn. I somehow missed out on the Song of the Lioness series, but I read other fantasy books like A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Prydain, The Worlds of Chrestomanci, Redwall, lots of Point Fantasy books, as well as my parents’ Science Fiction Book Club books. I was close to the target age for Harry Potter when it came out, so I read those, of course (although I don’t really want to acknowledge J. K. Rowling right now). I was also obsessed with the His Dark Materials trilogy. Strangely, I didn’t read any Tolkien until after the Lord of the Rings movies were released, although, at the time, I think I got into those mostly because of Legolas!

Regarding what I love about fantasy literature, I could probably write an entire thesis on this topic. I think that back when I was a kid, although now too, I loved fantasy stories because they were a means of escape. There are times—like now—when life can be very difficult. Fantasy stories can transport us away from our problems, even if for only a little while. Fantasy stories are exciting. They often portray better worlds. But even if they don’t portray better worlds, fantasy stories show us how to be better in the face of injustices and truly frightening things. There have been many times when I’ve found solace and strength in the actions of a character in a fantasy story. Ella in Ella Enchanted, for instance, was an important heroine for me when I was a child.

 

MANDA: Close your eyes and imagine: You are in your ideal reading space, the aroma of your favorite beverage is wafting toward you, and you are holding a favorite book. Where are you? What elements are important to creating this space for you? And how much does creating this space affect your reading experience?

RINE: If I were to close my eyes and imagine the perfect reading space, it would be a private library with a big comfy chair to read in and a forest or a lake or the ocean outside the window. There would be tea—and lots of it—and probably a thick fantasy book in my lap. Unfortunately, I don’t really have a space like that right now. I live in a city in a one-bedroom apartment that is a bit of a mess currently because of the pandemic and having to find space for both myself and my partner to work from home. Most of the time, I read on the couch or in bed before bedtime. Reading is not really a ritual practice for me—it’s just something I always do! I read during quiet moments at work. I read on my lunch hour. I read while my food is cooking. I read whenever I can. Before the pandemic, I read a lot on my commute, both e-books and audiobooks on my phone. I think that I’ve learned how to make both space and time for reading, and that I hardly think about the atmosphere within which I read anymore out of necessity. Still, I’d love to have a devoted reading space in my home someday.

 

MANDA: I’m curious if your background in anthropology affects how you approach reading. Do you enjoy stories where there is a strong depth to the societies and the history of the world? Is it irksome when it’s not believable—and what makes it not believable for you?

RINE: My background in anthropology probably does affect how I approach reading, although it has been a long time since I’ve studied anthropology. It was one of my majors in undergrad, the other being religious studies. Also, my anthropology coursework focused more on archaeology, especially the science of it—lots of digging in the ground, learning how to use plumb bobs and such. So, when I see stories about archaeologists, I do often find it irksome when they’re portrayed like Indiana Jones, even though I do like Indy. I can be pretty critical of stories portraying archaeologists having wild adventures and basically stealing from other cultures. Archaeologists in the past did sometimes do these things, but good archaeologists now don’t.

But anyway, I think that I do enjoy stories that have a strong depth to the societies and the history of the world. I’ve always been imaginative and can suspend my disbelief, but I do find myself lauding books that have strong worldbuilding. When the world in a story is believable, when it feels more concrete, it makes it easier for me to fall into that story. Of course, believability is a difficult quality to describe because it can be subjective and different for everyone. But for me, I think it’s a sense of logic. I think that’s why, as an adult, I don’t really enjoy fairy tales or fairy-tale retellings as much as I did as a child. I want concrete answers about why something is happening in a story, and fairy tales don’t often explain why something is happening.

For example, I know a lot of people loved This Is How You Lose the Time War, but I struggled with it. I know the purpose of this story is the love story and the beautiful prose—which is thoughtfully written—but I couldn’t help but wonder about the future, the war, and the mechanics of time travel as I read this story. I wanted to know all of the things, which is why perhaps a book like Ancillary Justice is more my style. There’s a lot in Ancillary Justice that Ann Leckie doesn’t tell us—after all I don’t want all the answers—but there is so much about Radch culture—the tea, the deities, the gloves, Radch views on purity and impurity, their views regarding gender, the list goes on and on—that she does give. I really do enjoy that kind of worldbuilding!

 

MANDA: You recently created a wonderful dragon-themed reading list for Sirens. Have you come across a depiction of a dragon that you would befriend and wish to have in your daily life? If so, who and from what book? If not, what dragon qualities make you glad they are on the page and not in your living room?

RINE: I’m going to cheat a little with this question because one of my favorite dragons comes from a film and not a book, but…I can’t help it! I think my favorite dragon is Haku from Spirited Away. His love for Chihiro makes my heart melt. Also, I’ve always liked how Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki weaved Japanese Shinto and Buddhist folklore into the worldbuilding for Spirited Away, especially Haku’s true identity, which I won’t reveal here to avoid spoilers, but which is reminiscent of my own feelings regarding nature and how humans, no matter what we do, will always be part of the natural world.

 

MANDA: Why did you first decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens the next year?

RINE: If I recall correctly, I first heard about Sirens from V. E. Schwab’s Twitter. I think it was 2017, the year Schwab attended as a guest. At the time, I was still just getting into science fiction and fantasy writing, although I was of course reading voraciously as I always have. So, I wasn’t sure if Sirens was for me. I was definitely intrigued by the con, especially because of how Sirens focuses on women and nonbinary people in SFF. I’d thought about attending a local SFF writing convention before, but I’d decided against it because I didn’t feel comfortable going alone into what felt like a highly male-centered space. In the end, when Sirens moved down from the mountains and into Denver, I knew I wanted to attend because that made it much easier and more affordable for me to get there. I decided to return because although I only dipped my toe in last year, I had a wonderful time. I’d like to continue meeting more fellow SFF lovers, and I’d like to contribute more to the Sirens community in the future. I really want to support Sirens’s mission.

 

MANDA: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

RINE: This is such a difficult question because there have been so many wonderful women who have changed my life—my mum, my sister, my grandmothers, my maternal great-aunt, my mother-in-law, one of my partner’s aunts, a boss I had in the past, and a few Dharma friends that I have. All of these people, and more, have for one reason or another shaped who I am today. The ways in which they’ve changed my life are largely personal, but I think each of them has taught me in their own way how to find and kindle my inner strength, and many of them have taught me how to move with confidence in a world that so often pressures women and nonbinary people to conform to certain social conventions, many conventions of which I’ve learned to no longer accept. Basically, many of these people have taught me how to keep up the good fight against the patriarchy!

If I were to pick a fantasy author specifically who has changed my life recently, I think I’d pick someone I mentioned earlier: V. E. Schwab. When I was beginning to get back into reading fantasy again after a long break from it (grad school can unfortunately do this to people) and I was starting to work on writing my own fantasy stories too, a friend—one who has also changed my life—introduced me to the Shades of Magic series, and from that time on, I’ve primarily read fantasy stories written by women and nonbinary authors. I had finally realized with Schwab’s series that these are the types of stories that I wanted and needed—stories by and about women and nonbinary protagonists who are allowed to be who they are no matter what. Stories that remind me of the stories I read as a child. Stories like those of Gail Carson Levine, Diane Duane, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, and K. A. Applegate, but ones written by my own generation of women and nonbinary writers.

 


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.

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

Adriana De Persia Colón: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

Today, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink interviews Adriana De Persia Colón, an accomplished scholar who just earned her master’s degree in English Education!

 

AMY TENBRINK: You just completed your master’s degree in English Education at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, with a focus on studying the connections between books and society. Would you please tell us a bit about your scholarship and why you find that studying these connections is so crucial?

Adriana De Persia Colón

ADRIANA DE PERSIA COLÓN: My thesis scholarship mostly focused on twentieth-century Caribbean reimaginings of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the anti-colonial tradition of resisting the rule and influence of Western empires. Books—stories—play a role in shaping our consciousness, the way we see ourselves and those around us. Puerto Rico is a nation under US rule, previously under Spanish empire rule, so I was interested in exploring the ways stories colonize us or help us break free and continue to give us agency, collectively and/or individually.

 

AMY: Next up for you is heading to the University of Cambridge in the fall to pursue your Ph.D. in Education at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature! How do you plan to focus your work while you’re there?

ADRIANA: Whether I am physically present there or at home in Puerto Rico is a big question due to COVID-19. My original proposal was about reimagining villainy in Latinx YA fantasy as a framework that empowers marginalized characters and BIPOC. While working with villains is still in my plans, my focus shifted to Boricua YA stories specifically and Puerto Rico’s relationship to the world. Exploring the ways characters navigate ethnoracial identities, belonging, and agency are some areas that interest me.

 

AMY: What makes fantasy—and perhaps science fiction—literature special to you? What does this genre provide that you find that others don’t?

ADRIANA: I love that SFF is often intersecting with various genres because it’s so malleable. I also love that SFF can tackle complex issues such as imperialism and colonialism, for example, while having action-packed plots and adventures.

 

AMY: What do you hope for the future of fantasy literature—and the future of scholarship related to fantasy literature?

ADRIANA: I want more Boricua high fantasy and fantasy set in Puerto Rico by BIPOC Boricuas! Puerto Rico, like the rest of the world, is complex, with tons going on all the time, and I’d love to see all those narratives in all the languages that are spoken on the archipelago. As for the scholarship, that we continue to center and credit BIPOC voices as well.

 

AMY: Why did you decide to come to Sirens?

ADRIANA: An author’s tweet got me interested in Sirens a few years back. There are a few reasons why I decided to attend this year: the theme of villains, getting to hear from some powerhouses in fantasy, connecting with the community, and Sirens’s emphasis on making sure all voices are heard.

 

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?

ADRIANA: My mom. Wouldn’t be where I am without her.

 


Adriana De Persia Colón is a 2019-2020 Highlights Foundation Fellow. She has an MA from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. She starts her PhD at the University of Cambridge in the fall of 2020.

Traci-Anne Canada: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

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

 

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

Traci-Anne Canada

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

CANDICE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

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

 


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

Candice Lindstrom is an assistant editor for a business magazine publisher covering women, LGBT, minority, and disabled-veteran enterprises. In a past life she edited young adult and adult fiction for a paranormal publisher. When not reading for work, she’s reading for pleasure in almost any genre, but speculative fiction is her first love.

Danielle Cicchetti: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

MANDA: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

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

 


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

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

Nicole Brinkley: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

Today, Sirens research coordinator and master of books Kallyn Hunter interviews bookseller and all-around book genius Nicole Brinkley.

 

KALLYN HUNTER: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy—or perhaps science fiction—literature? What does this genre mean to you?

NICOLE BRINKLEY:The real world is difficult enough, especially right now, and especially as somebody with an anxiety disorder. Fantasy allows escapism: both to take a break from the world I often find so overwhelming and to process the issues within this world in a way that doesn’t immediately stress.

It’s what I’ve loved since I was little. Whenever we visited our local mall as a child, I would hightail it to our Waldenbooks and curl up in a corner, working my way through the entire Secrets of Droon series. I combed through the stacks of our three local libraries, hunting for something to satiate my need for the magical. One of my most vivid memories is finding Through Wolf’s Eyes by Jane Lindskold in the deep recesses of the adult section and falling in love with it.

Fantasy is where my heart lies. It’s everything I love about our world and everything I want this world to be. It challenges me to be better and to make the world around me better . . . while keeping me sane at the same time.

 

KALLYN: In an essay you wrote for Tor.com last fall, you spoke so passionately about the evolution of the science fiction and fantasy shelves in bookstores—and about how readers are changing the industry, from what gets published to what is available in bookstores. As a bookseller—and as, let’s not forget, a reader—what do you hope for the future of the business of SFF books?

NICOLE: It’s weird to think that I want SFF to become more “mainstream,” considering how popular sci-fi and fantasy media is. Marvel films and shows like Game of Thrones are some of the biggest moneymakers in the world. Yet, within the bookselling community, SFF books are often relegated to the sidelines. The success of books within those communities are exceptions, not rules—and often, those successes are considered literary books with a dash of magic, not real fantasy. (That’s why you see Erin Morgenstern so often shelved in general fiction and not relegated to the SFF sections of bookstores.)

Within the world of bookselling, I want to see more people reading SFF. Not just books like Morgenstern’s, where booksellers can pretend they’re not reading SFF, but books deep within the genre: Leckie and Jemisin and Carriger and Okorafor and McGuire. I want to see them upheld and hand-sold and brought to bookselling conferences.

Within the world of publishing, I want to see SFF pushed more at bookselling conferences—but I also want to see more inclusive, joyous books published. Right now, books by and about people of color, and books by and about queer folks, and especially books where those identities intersect—they’re often relegated into a more torturous sort of story. L.L. McKinney talked about this quite elegantly on Tor.com. I don’t just want books about queer folks that are parallels for homophobia in our own world, and I don’t just want books about people of color where they’re still struggling against magical racism or other issues. I want books that are genuinely joyous, more in the vein of the Wayward Children series or The House in the Cerulean Sea or Binti: where genuine joy is taken in your identity, where it’s not a negative to be explored, where it affects the story without being an obstacle to overcome.

Bring me joyous fantastical stories, and make them mainstream.

 

KALLYN: You are an amazing hand-seller of books: all sorts of books to all sorts of people. What’s your approach? How do you match a reader with the right book?

NICOLE: I did a deep dive into the art of hand-selling over on my Patreon! Having a wide knowledge of books obviously helps, but the most important thing is to talk to the person looking for the book. You want to find books that match what a specific reader is in the mood for—and in order to do that, you need to ask questions. What books have you read recently and liked? What are you in the mood for? Do you prefer something realistic or something more fantasy? Serious or funny? How old are you? What other things do you like that aren’t books?

As a bookseller, it’s not about taking a specific book and selling it to anybody. The whole art of hand-selling resides in matching a reader to the book they want, the book that is appropriate for them, not just what you read most recently. (And yes: that does mean simultaneously hand-selling directly to children who will be reading the book and the parents with the wallet trying to guide their reading. High charisma rolls are necessary in the RPG game of bookselling, baby!)

And here’s a secret for authors: It’s totally okay to say, “Oh, I don’t think my book is what you’re in the mood for. It’s about X. But you’ll love Y!” It shows that you’re listening to the reader and that you understand the kinds of books they do like—which makes them more likely to pick up your books in the future when they do want to read them, rather than trying to weasel your way in when it’s not quite the right fit. Hand-selling can be a long game, too.

 

KALLYN: You were one of the founders of the (now-discontinued) YA Interrobang, which focused on news, features, and analysis of all things YA books. Why do you find that work like this is important? Why is creating and facilitating these conversations something that you poured so much of yourself into for so long?

NICOLE: When we love something, it’s not enough to accept it. We should want to make it better. We should want to challenge it as much as we want to embrace it. It’s why I’m so hard on the bookselling community nowadays, and it’s why I spent so long on YA Interrobang informing people about YA, talking about the gaps in the market, and uplifting authors and other voices trying to fill those gaps.

I haven’t stopped having those discussions: I’ve simply switched the way in which I have them. While I still actively discuss literature in public on Instagram or through articles on other websites, I also do a lot of work within my own communities: researching, discussing, doing back-channel pushes and trying to make change in more subtle and more nuanced ways. (As we all know, social media and short blog posts are not always the best place for nuance!) I’m also still actively trying to learn more and do better, which means being quieter and listening and reading books like The Dark Fantastic.

We can all do better, and be more inclusive, and we all still have more to learn.

 

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

NICOLE: I eyed Sirens for a long time and didn’t have the funds to go—and then the incredible Katherine Locke sponsored a spot for me, paying for my entire trip when they realized they were no longer able to attend.

I absolutely fell in love.

In college, I joined our college chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance: Dumbledore’s Army of New Paltz. It was a group full of thoughtful queer people who used their love of SFF to try and make the world a better place, and they’re some of my best friends to this day.

(Hey, J.K. Rowling, if you’re reading this: trans women are women! Women aren’t the only people who have periods and get pregnant! You’re [redacted].)

Attending Sirens is the closest vibe I’ve ever come to that group. It’s a thoughtful, inclusive space that focuses on fantasy and fandom while pushing to make those spaces better. I immediately felt comfortable . . . and the journal full of notes I took from my time there challenged my brain in exactly the right way.

 

KALLYN: 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?

NICOLE: I’ve met so many incredible people over the past few years, especially current and former booksellers: Rebecca Kim Wells, and Stephanie Heinz, and Stephanie Appell, and Read Davison, and Clarissa Hadge.

But if I’m going to tout one person who has changed my life especially within the realm of SFF, it’s gotta be Abby Rauscher. Abby is the kidlit buyer at Books are Magic in NYC, but more importantly, they’ve become one of my best friends over the past few years. They’re brilliant and smart, and their taste in SFF is superb—but they’re also wildly supportive. They’re always there on my worst days and pushing me to be better.

And they spent New Year’s Eve helping me move into my new apartment. I mean, come on. You can’t ask for a better friend than that.

I’m so excited to see what they do in the future, and I’d love to get them to Sirens at some point. I think they’d have an absolute blast.

 


Nicole Brinkley has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. She is the manager of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, NY.

Kallyn Hunter is a researcher, writer, and knight from northern Colorado. When she isn’t in front of a computer, she can be found traveling the wilds of her state with her adventure-Pomeranian or smashing the patriarchy with her theatrical jousting troupe, the Knights of the Tempest. She has been a member of the Sirens community since 2011 and has an endless to-read pile because of it.

Marie Brennan: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens registrar Erynn Moss speaks with Marie Brennan.

 

ERYNN MOSS: Can you believe it has been a decade since you were a guest of honor at Sirens? Our theme that year was faeries and you were in the midst of publishing your Onyx Court series, a centuries-long epic following the fae of London. But I recall you also led us in a workshop on writing fight scenes and your methods, like your writing, were so clear and enjoyable that it’s no surprise you’ve continued to dedicate time to teaching. Recently you held a similar workshop at Clarion West in Seattle and your New Worlds Patreon is essentially a world-building encyclopedia of knowledge gleaned from your folklore and anthropology background, which some of us love for the nerdy sake of human culture factoids. How are you balancing your time/efforts between teaching/essays and your own writing?

Marie Brennan

MARIE BRENNAN: This really has been the year of me diving back into teaching—not just the in-person workshop for Clarion West, but also a slew of online ones, plus I’ve taught for Cat Rambo’s Academy for Wayward Writers and the Kelly Yang Project, which works one-on-one with students in Hong Kong. The good news is, unlike when I taught in an academic context, I don’t have to do any grading!

To some extent I’m able to do both because they come out of different buckets in my brain. Writing nonfiction doesn’t make the same demands on me as fiction does—which isn’t the same thing as saying it doesn’t make any demands, but I’m able to shift gears and work on A when I’m tapped out on B. I’ll admit, though, that the Patreon is intermittently draining: it’s been running for over three years now, with an essay every single week, and I’m not anywhere near done yet. I’m still excited by the project as a whole, but I go through periods where I drag my feet on actually writing that week’s essay, because ugh didn’t I just do this last week?

In the long run, though, the New Worlds project has also been really good for my fiction. Brainstorming possible topics of discussion doubles as reminding me of cool things I could be doing with my worldbuilding—which has particularly fed into the Rook and Rose trilogy I’m writing with Alyc Helms. They’ve got the same academic background I do, and I’m only sort of joking when I call the trilogy “When Anthropologists Attack.” We’ve been having a blast thinking through all the different elements of the setting and how they could feed into our story. And hey, the other day I re-read my own Patreon essays on security systems as a refresher before Alyc and I worked out a plot problem—so they’re becoming a resource I can use, too!

 

ERYNN: A mythically rare and majestic beast, your dragon-naturalist heroine, Lady Trent, is—gasp!—an older female main character. Her story starts off in her youth but continues over a lengthy career of adventuring and all told from her post-retirement perspective. She frequently stops the flow of her story to inject humorous details and opinions from her mature viewpoint. As a reader, I felt like you were having a lot of fun with her. Can you tell us a bit about writing from this particular point of view? And to follow up, your latest book in that world, Turning Light into Darkness, is the story of Lady Trent’s granddaughter, Audrey Camherst, and written in an entirely different style. What was it like continuing in this world, but with such a different voice?

MARIE: I don’t think I’m the type of writer typically cited as having amazing character voices…but man, when they click, they click. It took all of a paragraph for Lady Trent’s voice to materialize when I first started poking at her story. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, the approach I took to the viewpoint was absolute gold for the story. It isn’t just first-person; it’s her consciously relating her life story to an audience presumed to exist in her own world. Which meant I could get away with absolutely everything, because in the end, it’s all characterization. I need to describe a jungle? You’re not just getting the jungle; you’re getting Isabella’s experiences and opinions of the jungle. I need to explain something about the setting? Drop in a line where she says, “You young people won’t realize this because things have changed so much, but here’s how it used to be.” I can play freely with foreshadowing and irony, because she has fun pulling her audience’s strings on purpose. I won’t say that suits every kind of novel, but for this series, it worked out perfectly.

As for Audrey, figuring out how to make her different was pretty much the first challenge I faced—especially since I decided to keep up the conceit where every story from that world exists in the world. Audrey’s novel is assembled out of many different kinds of documents, from diary entries to letters to newspaper articles to police reports…and yes, that did make for some interesting hurdles along the way, as I had to figure out how to get certain bits of information across. Audrey primarily shows up via her diary, which was a more immediate kind of first person than Isabella’s—told immediately after the fact, rather than decades later—but I also tried to modernize her tone, since she lives in a period that’s more like the 1920s than the late Victorian era. A lot of it also boiled down to thinking about the ways in which her situation is different from her grandmother’s: Her drive to prove herself comes less from facing sexism and more from feeling the burden of having famous relatives. She’s much more rash in some ways, and also much more careless of the consequences, because she trusts that her family will always be there to help her out.

 

ERYNN: You’ve got a reputation for very structured worlds and defined characters—and there was talk of color-coded reference charts on your coming collaborative trilogy. By contrast, one of your amazing short stories, “This Is How,” is so poignant and elegantly pared-down that it’s almost a poem. It’s essentially about transformation and makes me wonder how you, consciously or not, go about achieving that kind of squishy organic space for your characters when they might have the span of an epic series or less than 2,000 words.

MARIE: Now, let’s be clear: Those color-coded charts for Rook and Rose are very much an anomaly! On my own, I tend far more toward the “discovery writing” end of the spectrum, figuring out my plot as I go along. But when you’re working with someone else, and furthermore when you’re writing a two hundred thousand-word novel with complex intrigue and multiple viewpoint characters, you can’t just hold it all in your head as a vague cloud and hope the other writer can read your mind. Especially not when you find yourself describing your characters’ lives as “a layer cake of lies and deception”—that’s when you wind up having to chart who knows what, which persona of theirs knows it, who knows they know it, and when they learned it. There was a point along the way when Alyc and I realized our cleverness had looped clear around and stabbed us in the back; it took something like two hours of chewing on the problem before we found a way to un-break our plot.

A short story is not only a different beast, I think it might belong to a different taxonomical kingdom entirely. “This Is How” fell out of my head when I was getting ready for bed one night: I sat down and wrote the whole thing in a single go, and when I was done I wasn’t even sure what I had. Was it a story? Was it just a weird pile of words? It’s an intuitive creation, not one I consciously built. I’ve yet to have a novel happen that way, though I know for some writers it’s possible.

So I think part of the answer is that they’re different skill sets. I used to be abysmal at writing short stories, because I was a natural novelist first; it took me years before I even learned what a short story-sized idea looked like. But at this point I’ve published more than 60 short stories, so I’ve had lots of practice in how to do cool character stuff both in a few thousand words and in tens or hundreds of thousands.

Articulating how to do it, though…? Let’s just say there’s a reason I teach things like worldbuilding and fight scenes, not short story techniques. Just because I can do a thing doesn’t mean I can explain it.

 

ERYNN: As I mentioned, you are currently working with fellow anthropologist, Alyc Helms, under the joint pseudonym M.A. Carrick on a series called Rook and Rose, the first book of which (The Mask of Mirrors) is currently expected in January. The two of you met on an archaeological dig in Wales, which is a great backstory. You’ve mentioned how helpful travel and richness of experience has been to getting the factual historical details of your books correct. Since your Sirens Studio workshop will be “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions,” what sort of non-academic experiences have been helpful for you to accurately and sensitively represent cultural practices and beliefs?

MARIE: It’s a bit of a fuzzy boundary between academic and non-academic experiences, because a lot of it boils down to “I’ve read things.” For any kind of worldbuilding, I think one of the most valuable things you can do is read about actual cultures in the real world; don’t just draw all your ideas from novels and other forms of fiction. And while it’s fine to start with the simple, Wikipedia level of research—especially when the topic is one you aren’t very familiar with, and you need that kind of basic orientation—you can’t stop there. It takes an investment of time and energy, not just to understand X, but to understand the things around X that affect it and give it context. Especially since that can help you find the places where you have unexamined assumptions coloring how you process everything else.

But it helps not to rely entirely on books, either. That’s why travel is good, if it’s something you can afford, and anything else that helps get you out of your familiar zone. Sometimes I think the brain has a range of motion just like the body does, and building up mental flexibility means it’s that much easier to learn about New Thing #17.

 

ERYNN: Speaking of your Sirens Studio writing workshop, what can attendees expect from “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions”?

MARIE: It’s going to be a ground-up approach, focusing not on high-level theological concepts like “let’s design a pantheon” or “write a myth for how the world got created,” but on what it means to be a character in that world who follows that religion. When a faith is strongly felt, it tends to permeate people’s lives in a hundred different ways—and those ways are what’s going to show up the most frequently in a story.

 

ERYNN: 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?

MARIE: There’s no contest: Diana Wynne Jones.

Some of you reading this probably recognize her name, but for those who don’t: She was a British fantasy author, writing primarily for children and young adults (though the YA category didn’t really exist as we think of it now for most of her career). I credit her with turning me into a writer.

Like most kids, I made up stories. But when I was about nine or ten, I read her novel Fire and Hemlock—which, in addition to starting my fascination with the ballad “Tam Lin,” featured two characters who were writing a story together. It was the first time in my life I’d thought about that as a thing I could do, not just to entertain myself, but to entertain other people. I more or less decided on the spot that I wanted to be an author, and never let go of that decision.

(Though if you want to sample her work, I’m not sure I would recommend Fire and Hemlock as the place to start. It’s amazing, but its ending is also…really weird, and it was decades later that I found out part of the reason for its weirdness and half-comprehensibility was that I hadn’t read the T.S. Eliot poem woven into the logic and imagery of the climactic scene. Basically, I love that book even though I can’t entirely explain it.)

 


Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to Turning Darkness into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides.

For more information about Marie, visit her website or her Twitter.

Erynn Moss is an enthusiastic reader who likes refreshing her soul by spending time with the brilliant people she finds at Sirens. She’s into comics, sewing, knitting, costumes, and camping. She currently lives in Louisville with her bff spouse and their toddler trainee-Siren.

Casey Blair: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens communication team member Faye Bi speaks with Casey Blair.

 

FAYE BI: If you had to describe your “reading profile” to a stranger (or to a bookseller, librarian, or other gatekeeper), what would you list as some of your favorite themes, subgenres, or tropes in fantasy literature? What makes a “Casey book”? (We know dragons and magical cats can’t be beat!)

Casey Blair

CASEY BLAIR: These days the story features grabbing me most are ambition, irreverence, and radical compassion. Often in combination: There’s nothing quite as satisfying to me as a woman who doesn’t hesitate to dare to give the finger to anyone who would keep her down, who lifts up others as she rises, who understands from the start that she’s valuable, and who is unabashedly competent—as well as inspiring—by virtue of existing without shame in the world we live in and taking up narrative space.

You can probably tell by how I frame that that what I personally look for in any books are excellent characters—not necessarily likable, but depicted in nuanced and interesting ways. I’ll forgive silly plot holes and unrealistic world-building if I care about the characters’ journeys. The specific tropes I respond to are necessarily informed by how they have worked or failed for me in media I’ve consumed historically, and over the years my fantasy tastes have broadly morphed from “whatever shounen anime and epic fantasy I can find” to “shadowy worlds and darkness are Cool” to “holy shit The Goblin Emperor.” They’re all part of me: A shounen-passion-style protagonist who triumphs in spite of all odds through sheer determination is always going to speak to me; I’m a sucker for dark lords and secret guilds of assassins; and a character who can bring people together toward difficult growth and actively reckons with oppressive legacies is inspiring.

Ultimately, a Casey book is fun to read, makes me think, and prominently features women characters owning their power. It’s hopeful without making light of real problems. If you have an action-packed story about a woman burning down the patriarchy with magic, I’m pretty much set.

You know what, I feel like you planned this, but now I have a book list for you: Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them. Those are Casey books. [Ed. note: Coming soon to the Sirens blog!]

 

FAYE: Speaking of dragons—because we know you love them—what are some of your favorite, semi-recent depictions of dragons in fantasy? How do they compare to the dragon books you read as a child?

CASEY: What a question. SO many semi-recent dragons, and I’m sure I’ll miss some anyway but here we go: the Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron, Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, The Forbidden Library series by Django Wexler, the Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, Given by Nandi Taylor, and the Chronicles of Elantra series by Michelle Sagara.

As for how they compare, in general the dragons of my childhood were less accessible than dragons often are now. Like, you weren’t going to be friends with Smaug and Shenron, and even dragons in Harry Potter were mostly separate from human concerns. You certainly weren’t going to presume some understanding of their internal emotional state! Whereas many semi-recent dragons are treated more like characters than physical embodiments of natural forces and magic. There’s certainly space for all kinds, but I do like this trend because it increases the dragons’ agency. And I typically find increased character agency makes stories more narratively satisfying.

Mind you, this isn’t to say all dragon books were like that in my childhood—like, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede existed, though I tragically didn’t know about Kazul until much later. But when we talk about trends, I think that’s the major difference.

 

FAYE: You are also the author of the online serial, the delightful Tea Princess Chronicles, which has baby dragons, a tea shop, a princess who finds a new purpose in life, and best of all, a community of awesome women. After nearly three years, what has surprised you most about this publishing journey? And please match a tea to each book in your trilogy—and tell us why.

CASEY: What’s surprised me most about this journey has been the reception, and that it has largely reflected the same earnestness as the story. Tea Princess Chronicles aims to be hopeful and validating by acknowledging bullshit is real and then doing something about it—and gradually empowering more and more people to work together to fix bigger and more entrenched injustices. A really broad spectrum of people have responded to that core. But someone once described this series to her husband as “fantasy for chicks,” and she would have been surprised to hear that the majority of the most vocal supporters of this story—that unabashedly focuses on things like female friendship and cozy domesticity—actually present masculine.

So many people over my life have told me that I couldn’t be a real shounen anime or action movie fan—that they’re too violent for a girl, especially one who presents as femme as I do; that they’re not romantic, aka for girls; and that I must be pretending. You know, classic fake geek girl nonsense. But I am here to tell you that the dudeliest of dudes will read romance and like it. We don’t have to force people into categories, actually! A lot of publishing wisdom advises authors to write for a specific reader, but I think this approach can actually do people a disservice: Targeting readers, and what people respond to in stories, is more complex than that. But it’s been truly lovely that people who needed this story found it, and I hope that will be true of everything I write.

As far as matching tea goes, another surprise has been how many people now assume I’m a tea expert! My friends, I know enough to fake what someone who actually knows about tea would look for, but I am writing MAGIC tea. (I am a tea enthusiast only: It’s not that I can’t appreciate the difference with a really special cup of tea, but I am also happy to drink tea that comes pre-bagged and is extremely over-steeped when I inevitably forget about it and have to reheat my cup. I will drink All The Tea. Except for chamomile, so please enjoy my share of that one.)

So the only possible answer here is for me to give you magic tea recommendations in line with the theme of each book. And each of these fantasy ingredients has a short story to go with it on the serial website. =)

For A Coup of Tea, it has to be the ever starbloom green tea blend. It’s a very smooth flavor but also a blooming tea that, once open, constantly changes form and makes every second worth attending to. This is the book where the heroine learns how to live in the world outside the royal court and discovers new possibilities in the smallest moments.

For Tea Set and Match, I’ll go with a red tea brewed with lellabean extract and honey, which has a full, robust flavor. This book is about fostering the connections between people, and this is a tea for feeling rooted but not tied, and what that combination of freedom and community support makes possible.

For Royal Tea Service, I’d go with a white tea with a drop of dreamreacher, light like floating but with a zing at the back. This is a tea for believing in your power to achieve whatever you can imagine without limit, and doing it.

 

FAYE: You love talking about books! In your time as an indie bookseller, which new-at-the-time or little-known book(s) did you make it your mission to hand-sell? What makes a book talk successful?

CASEY: Not including some of the dragon books above: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, Witchmark by C.L. Polk, An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee, Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik, and In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan. I know it’s a good book talk when I can literally sell it every single time I try. It’s always satisfying when I nail that from the get-go, but sometimes it takes me more tries to find the right angle to connect with people. Ultimately that’s what I’m trying to do: Connect a reader to a book they’ll love.

Book talking involves first understanding what a reader is actually looking for, which is often not what they say they are looking for. Pro tip: ask them what books/authors they’ve read and liked rather than what kind of book they want.

The second important part is being able to isolate what makes a book unique. It’s not enough to say it has great world-building—what kind of world-building? Does the book have magical action scenes that would translate epically to film, or numinous magical struggles focusing on interiority? Is this a light-hearted adventure or grimdark? Dry humor or silly humor? The same person can like multiple things, but if they don’t want to have to think about consequences, I’m not giving them The Goblin Emperor even though it’s a brilliant book that changed me. That’s not how targeting audience works. If you don’t pay attention to what someone actually wants or cares about, you’ll only get to give them a recommendation once.

Those two pieces, weirdly enough, seem to be what a lot of people miss. You have to understand the books, and you have to understand the reader’s interests. I can successfully recommend (by which I mean, people acquire them and later tell me they liked them) plenty of books I didn’t actually enjoy based on being able to isolate and match those features.

But the other piece is understanding at some level what people think they’re interested in. If you keep talking about a brilliant trope subversion to someone who doesn’t know they like that, you’re not going to get very far.

 

FAYE: A fellow Siren once described one of your Sirens papers as “incisive thoughts about intersectional feminism delivered with pointed and precise fury.” We can’t be more excited about your workshop intensive for readers titled “Yeet the Patriarchy: How Fantasy Stories Can Undermine Systemic Oppression” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

CASEY: Absolutely. I feel like I’ve been tiptoeing around facets of this topic with papers at Sirens for a while, so I’m excited to just dive in and be like, fuck it, we are looking at patriarchy as a whole, on a broader level, and how to actually deal with it in our fantasy stories.

I read so many books that are clearly trying to be feminist but only managing the level of “girls can wear pants too,” which, okay, baby steps matter, but also very obvious and not sufficient; it’s a shallow level of engagement that often misses how institutionalized oppression works entirely. It’s not enough for one girl to be so awesome she gets to wear pants, because patriarchy will always adapt to defend itself: That’s how we get exceptionalism and “you’re not like other girls,” which, spoilers, is also sexist!

But how can stories actually meaningfully and dramatically—as in, in a narratively satisfying way that can be depicted through prose—say anything about sexism as a whole? If we accept that sexism is systemic (uh, further spoilers: we will indeed be starting with that premise), how can a single character, or story, make a difference that acknowledges the layered ways the system works and addresses it in a way that isn’t reductive?

There’s not one simple answer—I mean, obviously; systems are entrenched and complicated. But we’re going to talk about the challenges of depicting communal action. We’re going to talk about not erasing traditionally feminine-coded modes of power, and not shoehorning only women into them. We’re going to talk about how we talk about stories, what gets termed “universal” or “fun” or “narratively satisfying” and why, and how that translates financially and intersectionally. We’re going to talk about how stories shape our understanding of what is, what is possible, and what is desired, and how in so doing they reinforce or undermine sexism. Stories train readers, and we can use that—we can also learn how to understand what a book is in fact doing, and we can learn to reach for and demand different kinds of stories.

Not dealing a single blow to patriarchy that it can watch for and defend against, but unraveling it with a thousand cuts from every direction.

 

FAYE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

CASEY: Sirens was the first con I ever attended, back in 2009 when I was 20 years old. I arrived at the welcome banquet apparently way earlier than anyone else but the staff, so I dropped my stuff at a seat and desperately lingered over choosing desserts from the buffet so I wouldn’t be sitting alone at a table having obviously missed the memo on when Cool Folk Who Know How to Con show up. When I finally returned, other people had thankfully camped there, and in short order I was enthusiastically analyzing Saiyuki (the anime, not the epic) with a person whose nametag I eventually looked at and struggled not to do a double-take when it read Sherwood Smith—one of the guests of honor.

For Sherwood’s keynote, she eschewed the usual fantasy topics and instead burst out with an academic lecture on salon culture in 18th century France. It was amazing. At the ball when we were all dressed up, I asked to take a picture with her, and she asked, “Normal or funky chicken?” The only possible answer was, “Funky chicken, OBVIOUSLY,” so I have a fantastic picture doing the funky chicken in a ballgown with the first pro fantasy author I ever met.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Sherwood better since then, and she is the best model I could have wished for the kind of author I want to be. On the artistic side, she has written everything under the SFF sun without limiting herself and done it all excellently. (In fact, Banner of the Damned was the first book I read with an explicitly asexual protagonist and helped me start connecting dots for myself, before pushes like #WeNeedDiverseBooks started improving the landscape of inclusivity.)

On the professional side, she doesn’t hide how smart she is, she doesn’t act like she’s better than anyone else and is always happy to learn, and she goes out of her way to support writers, with no disdain toward anyone less experienced, or self-published, or any of the many ways people often find themselves unwelcome or looked down on in SFF publishing spaces. I am lucky to have met a woman so early in my publishing journey who demonstrates the space she makes in her worlds, and I hope I can do the same.

 


Casey Blair writes adventurous fantasy novels for all ages, including the novella Consider the Dust and her cozy fantasy serial Tea Princess Chronicles. After graduating from Vassar College, her own adventures have included teaching English in rural Japan, attending the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and working as an indie bookseller. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be found dancing spontaneously, exploring forests around the world, or trapped under a cat. For more information, visit her website or her Twitter.

Faye Bi works as a publicity director in New York City and spends the rest of her time cycling, reading, pondering her next meal, and leading the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas.

Jae Young Kim: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens editor Candice Lindstrom speaks with Jae Young Kim.

 

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

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.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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