News

Archive for attendees

Ren Iwamoto: 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. Last year, Sirens content coordinator Cass Morris spoke with Ren Iwamoto and today we’re thrilled to be republishing this interview.

 

CASS MORRIS: Your graduate studies are focused on twentieth-century East Asian literature, Japanese colonialism, and post-colonial discourse. What drew you to that cross-section of topics? What impact do you think greater awareness of them can have on fantasy fiction?

Ren Iwamoto

REN IWAMOTO: It’s a topic I actually shied away from at first; I think I saw a post on Twitter about the erection of a statue commemorating the Korean comfort women who were abused during the Japanese occupation. I didn’t want to acknowledge it. Growing up in the diaspora, there is a certain degree of nostalgia for “the homeland.” But I’m also Canadian. I demand Canada be held accountable for concentration camps, residential schools, its well-buried history of slavery, the continued forced sterilization of indigenous women—why should I excuse Japan? Especially when even now, many people deny that such events as the Nanking Massacre even occurred. I deliberately fought my impulse to brush past the initial discomfort and instead sought out content that educated me.

Politics and history always have impacted the literary landscape, so as an academic my next step was to source material in my field. This was actually the most difficult part. My Japanese is too poor to read untranslated texts, so I, despite my best efforts, turned to manga (this isn’t a knock against manga, but unfortunately it’s a little difficult to get academic clout as an undergraduate studying comics). This turned out to be fortuitous, because Japan’s manga industry turns a multi-million dollar profit every year and is rife with magic, high strangeness, and future imaginings. As such, my interest in topics like nationalism, war, and industrialization found a fantastically large puddle to splash around in. The aim of my research is to unearth patterns in how the Japanese cultural context informs these themes.

To speak broadly of impact, any and all knowledge of real-world events alters how we interpret science fiction and fantasy. On a more personal level, seeing fantasy elements “inspired” by East Asia (but that actually just fetishize East Asia), or people who watch anime and think that means they understand what it means to be Japanese, I kind of want to smash someone over the head with a chair WWE-style. So I think awareness of the academic discourse—even on a relatively shallow level—helps generate a more complete knowledge and hopefully operates as a gateway for further investigation. There’s no ultimate goal for this sort of endeavor, but I do think compassionate, intellectually robust fiction helps compassionate, intellectually robust people bloom in the world. So.

 

CASS: You’re also an intern at P.S. Literary Agency. Tell us a little about the agency and the work you do there.

REN: I was, from May to November 2019. It was a wonderful experience. I worked for Eric Smith and Kurestin Armada, both of whom represent SFF for teens and adults, amongst other things. My primary duty there was reading slush and writing reader’s reports, which essentially document what works, what doesn’t, and whether I felt the piece was worth the agent’s time to look at. I loved reading the slush. There’s something deeply personal, and yet anonymous about it. I was consistently impressed by the quality of submissions.

I’m hoping to leverage the experience I earned at P.S. Literary to pursue a more long-term career in fiction publishing, but for now I’m content to apply what I learned there to my freelance practice.

 

CASS: Speculative fiction has the wonderful potential to hold mirrors up to the past, present, and future. What are some topics you hope to see speculative fiction explore? What’s on your wish list?

REN: I’ve almost certainly said this before, but speculative fiction should destabilize. Topic is almost irrelevant to me so long as the story turns some stone over; then something meaningful was accomplished. Magic, futurism, historical reimaginings, whatever it is that straddles the line between science and magic—these all have the potential to interrogate heterocentrism, patriarchy, gender, race, and so on. Even concepts like time and space open themselves up to deconstruction. That’s very exciting to me as both a pleasure reader and an academic, so whether the story is about war or star-crossed lovers or two kids riding their bikes around the neighborhood becomes secondary.

 

CASS: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy literature?

REN: In the interest of honesty, I have to say H*rry P*tter. They were the first books I read for my own pleasure, not for school or because my parents had picked them out for me. But given current circumstances, I’ve had to re-evaluate exactly what I liked about them. The conclusion I came to is that they taught me to love magic. I was and am deeply interested in the idea of there being another layer to reality, a secret layer, which only a few could access. It appealed to my fantasy of being a Special Person who could see and do Special Things. Fortunately, there is an abundance of precisely that kind of content created by people I’m not morally obligated to throw hands at on sight.

On a less commercial level, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first “fantasy” writer I engaged with on an academic level. So lush and ripe with sentiment! I’m still in love. To me, magical realism and its cousin genres do the same thing as the portal fantasies I loved growing up—they reveal something secret. If you know, you know. You know?

 

CASS: At this year’s Studio, you’ll be teaching “Seasoned with Soy Sauce: Asianization in Western Speculative Media and What It Means to Be ‘Asian-Inspired.’ ” What do you hope attendees will take away from your session?

REN: In my experience, everyone at Sirens has come already having done much of the groundwork regarding cultural appropriation. So my goal isn’t to teach that, nor is it to discourage people who aren’t East Asian from creating content which draws upon East Asian inspirations. Rather, I’m interested in conveying how the fascination with “the Orient,” which has featured so heavily in Western colonial history, has translated into modern storytelling practices. The aesthetic of East Asia is very sexy to a Western audience. Westerners love the image of Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Bangkok, and so on. It appeals to their idea of the Far East as either a hyper-sophisticated, hyper-urban paradise, or otherwise an overpopulated mega-slum riddled with opium dens and wet markets. Because this depiction is fundamentally shallow, and most often created by white people for white people, it’s impossible for its audience to fully appreciate the nuance of the East Asian experience (I, as a Japanese person, am only slightly more equipped). This is a rambling way of saying I hope the audience learns a little bit of colonial history in East Asia and world-building.

 

CASS: 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?

REN: This is a cop-out, but I’ve become keenly aware of how every social movement which has benefited me as a queer person of color has been championed initially by Black women. Some of the most innovative and inspiring intellectuals in my field are Black women. And, because this is Sirens, some of the most exciting literature I’ve read this past year, both within and beyond the confines of SFF, has been written by Black women. So: Black women.

 


Ren Iwamoto is a Japanese-Canadian grad student from the tenth dimension. Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search of the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications. For more information about Ren, please visit her Twitter.

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia. Her debut series, The Aven Cycle, is Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books. She is also one-third of the team behind the Hugo Award Finalist podcast Worldbuilding for Masochists. She holds a Master of Letters from Mary Baldwin University and a BA in English and History from the College of William and Mary. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Find her online at cassmorriswrites.com or on Twitter and Instagram @cassrmorris.

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.

Anna-Marie McLemore: 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 co-founder Hallie Tibbetts speaks with Anna-Marie McLemore.

 

HALLIE TIBBETTS: When we interviewed you in 2018, when you were a Guest of Honor at Sirens, you said of your then-newest release, Blanca & Roja is also a reimagining of Swan Lake, so in many ways it’s a story about the roles we get cast in—as women, as queer women, as women of color—and how we can write our own stories instead.” You’ve since come out as nonbinary and I imagine that this idea of writing our own stories is as important to you as ever. How do writers push back on expected roles and claim their own stories? Do you have recommendations—fiction, nonfiction, anything—that you think exemplifies people claiming their own stories?

Anna-Marie McLemore interview

ANNA-MARIE MCLEMORE: It’s strange and wonderful coming back to Sirens knowing so much more about myself than I did a couple of years ago. And it’s funny that you mention Blanca & Roja, because I think I was trying to tell myself something with that book. There’s a passage where Page, who uses alternating pronouns, is talking about gender identity, and says “what you are is more beautiful than what you once thought you had to be.” My writer heart was basically screaming at me to hear those words, but it took me months to get that. Sometimes our storyteller hearts just know things first.

Thinking about claiming our stories, two books that come to mind are Dark Triumph, by Sirens community star Robin LaFevers—Sybella is an unforgettable example of a character who accepts that trauma is part of her but decides it won’t determine her—and This Is My Brain in Love, the latest from I.W. Gregorio—this book just gets what it’s like to have your brain buzzing with anxiety, while showing the characters as the fully complex people they are.

 

HALLIE: You’ve described your newest work, Dark and Deepest Red, as “sort of the secret history of a fairy tale.” Fairy tales are important to you: you re-tell them, you write new ones, their themes are inherent in your work. What is it about fairy tales that makes them so important to you?

ANNA-MARIE: Fairy tales are not just universal—every tradition has them—they’re also a way to talk about things that sometimes go unaddressed. In my own writing, fairy tales—whether I’m creating my own or reimagining a classic—are a landscape where magic speaks when something goes unspoken. When the Moon Was Ours is a fairy tale about a boy who paints the moon and a girl who grows roses from her wrist; it’s also about transgender identity and recovering from trauma. Wild Beauty brings readers into a world of queer Latina girls and murderous gardens; it also brings them into a conversation about colonialism and worker exploitation. When I reimagined “Snow-White & Rose-Red” and Swan Lake in Blanca & Roja, I was writing about colorism, queerphobia, and ableism while writing about enchanted forests and vengeful swans.

 

HALLIE: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy literature?

ANNA-MARIE: I fell in love when I stepped into Narnia as a little kid, and I kind of never left. But my dyslexia meant that I had a complicated relationship with reading. I was slow to identify myself as a reader because I was slow at the actual act of reading. But there were books that drew me in, overcoming my self-consciousness about whether I was really “a reader.” Many of them were fantasy novels. Two that were huge for me were Grave Mercy, by the above-mentioned Robin LaFevers, and Ash by Malinda Lo.

 

HALLIE: Since you’re coming to teach a writing workshop at Sirens, let’s talk writing! You’ve now published five young adult novels. How have you evolved as a writer, and how has your process evolved with you?

ANNA-MARIE: With every book, I get a little braver, and louder, about who I am, the communities I come from, and the stories I want to tell. My most recent book, Dark and Deepest Red, reimagines “The Red Shoes” in the context of the 1518 dancing plague. To tell that story in a way that felt honest and true, I knew it had to be about two brown girls five centuries apart, and it had to be about the ways they take the worst things the world says about them and use them to fight back.

I’m rallying all those little scraps of bravery as I look toward my next book, The Mirror Season, going out into the world. It’s the book of my SA survivor heart. It’s a story about two survivors, a secret forest, an enchanted pastelería, and the ways we find magic within our broken hearts.

 

HALLIE: This fall—fingers crossed!—you’ll be teaching “Finding Magic: Enchanting Characters and Their Worlds,” a writing workshop on magical realism, as part of the Sirens Studio. What can attendees expect from this time with you?

ANNA-MARIE: “Finding Magic” will be part primer on magical realism, part workshop on interweaving the idea of magic and character. Magical realism is a point of view I often come from as a Latinx storyteller, and it’s going to be the starting point to get us talking about crafting unique and vibrant magic as an integral part of a story’s landscape, no matter what the particular magic in your story looks like.

 

HALLIE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. When we asked you this question a couple years ago, you talked about how your mom would be a brilliant and stylish queen or the most glamorous of witches. Would you like to shout-out someone else? Could you 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?

ANNA-MARIE: Oh wow, thank you for reminding me that I said that about my mom, because I don’t think I ever told her, and that’s going to make her day.

I dedicated Blanca & Roja to two women who changed my life in a way they probably didn’t even realize at the time. But I’ve been trying to get in touch with them ever since. I’m a little heartbroken today, because I just found out that one of them died recently. She and her wife were together for over six decades. Still working on getting in touch with her wife. I’m really hoping I get to tell her how the two of them changed everything for me. Wish me luck <3

 


Anna-Marie McLemore (they/them) is a queer, Latinx, non-binary author who grew up hearing la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Their books include The Weight of Feathers, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the 2016 James Tiptree Jr. Award; Wild Beauty, a Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist best book of 2017; Blanca & Roja, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; Dark and Deepest Red, a Winter 2020 Indie Next List title; and the forthcoming The Mirror Season.

For more information about Anna-Marie, please visit their website or Twitter.

Hallie Tibbetts has been involved with Narrate Conferences since its inception in 2006, serving variously as education officer, communications officer, and vice president, along with chairing a number of conferences (including many years of Sirens). She works in editorial at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on books for children age zero to eighteen, but doesn’t mind if grownups like those stories too.

Kinitra Brooks: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

 

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

Kinitra Brooks Interview

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 


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

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

Joamette Gil: Exclusive Interview

We’re pleased to bring you the first in our 2021 series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and research, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2021 theme of villains! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens Communication team member Faye Bi speaks with publisher and comics creator Joamette Gil, this year’s Sirens Studio Guest of Honor

 

FAYE BI: You introduce yourself on your website as a “queer Afro-Cuban cartoonist and publisher from the Miami diaspora.” To me, each descriptor feels intentional and integral to your identity as creator and business professional. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what inspired you to start making—and publishing—comics? In what ways do these descriptors affect, or not affect, your work?

Joamette Gil Interview

JOAMETTE GIL: As a creator, I’m primarily socially motivated: I want to be seen, I want others to see themselves, and I want my work to benefit the world. I publicly list my politicized and cultural identities because I want to be found by anyone who might be looking for me (or looking for themselves in me).

These descriptors affect every part of my life from top to bottom, my work especially, in that they inform my experiences and values. Everything I write or publish must fulfill a desire born when I was twelve years old, watching Sailor Moon on stolen cable: “I want to spend my life making people feel the way this makes me feel.” What I felt then was wonder, passion, and catharsis.

I grew up in poverty in Miami, Florida, where being a member of the politically dominant Cuban majority there offers about as little benefit to Afro-Cubans (like my mother) as being American offers African-Americans. Social programs and ingenuity-born-of-necessity kept us as housed, clothed, fed, and healthy as they could. I excelled at school, taking on more and more advanced programs through adolescence, while playing surrogate mother to my siblings when caregiving with untreated mental illnesses became too much for my mother and stepfather. Anxiety, isolation, scarcity, constant problem-solving, avoidance of my own emotions: these are why I ultimately left for the opposite coast as soon as I was eighteen.

Through it all, to this day, cartoons were there to soothe me and help me dream. I love comics, in particular, as the most universal of the storytelling forms. It can be created, read, and shared across language barriers, even sans the ability to read or write words. I use the medium to express everything I did not formerly have the luxury nor space to express, and to empower others to have their own voices heard in an industry that struggles to compensate anyone well, let alone marginalized creators breaking barriers with their stories.

 

FAYE: You are a one-human operation at P&M Press, the publisher of Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology and Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy. You recently finished funding the Power & Magic: Immortal Souls (volume two) on Kickstarter. Was your plan always to start your publishing journey on their platform as opposed to traditional publishing, and what is it like working with their publishing team? What has been surprising about the process when it comes to the curation, production, and fulfillment? And can I please geek out about the beautiful foil and gilded edges on Heartwood?

JOAMETTE: Yes, Kickstarter was always the idea. (And please do—I’m still geeking out about Heartwood’s production values myself!) Even prior to 2016 (when P&M Press was born), comics were very much a DIY space in my mind. Some of my first interactions with comics were online, during the 2000s era of webcomics, when people were figuring out monetization of works without publishing deals. I was probably part of the first generation of creators who would see self-publishing as the dream, not an alternative or a consolation route or a daring experiment. By the time I was in college, C. Spike Trotman was planting the seeds for Iron Circus Comics, the first (and to my knowledge, still only) comics publisher with mainstream, international distribution that started on Kickstarter. By the time I found my way to publishing others, revolutions in what was possible in comics had been fought and won ahead of me, creating a clear, new path.

As far as surprises, every campaign presents a new one! These are the sorts of things you don’t read about if you Google “how to run a Kickstarter campaign,” such as how Kickstarter earnings impact your eligibility for social programs, the various life scenarios that could lead to a fluctuating creator line-up throughout production, and just how many packages are “too many” to take to a post office on a single day.

 

FAYE: In both “As the Roots Undo” (your story in Power & Magic) and “Finding Alex” (your story in Heartwood), the forest is a place of growth, self-discovery and transformation. What draws you to these fairytale motifs and inspires you to keep returning? I noticed you are based in Portland, Oregon, home of many beautiful forests—do you have any favorite sylvan spots?

JOAMETTE: I’m drawn to the forest as a setting for its intercultural significance as a liminal space. While a false dichotomy, we do tend to draw a line between the places where people live and conduct their business and the places that are meant to be visited, then swiftly exited, for fear of what we could lose if we stay there too long. Forests, the sea, outer space, the bush—these places force us out of our comfort zones. Whenever I’m in the woods, I feel that discomfort, that loss of footing, and it makes me starkly aware of my own body. My thoughts become sharper, my breath calmer. My early life was the opposite of rosy, so the prospect of a place between here and there, where anything is possible, where nothing is written, where “becoming” awaits, is my favorite idea to consider!

For sylvan spots, the witch’s burned-out castle in Forest Park is one of my favorites. It’s exactly what it sounds like.

 

FAYE: In your portfolio’s Lettering section, you share that lettering is only second to your love of storytelling: “The marriage between text, balloons, and illustrations can make, break, or even elevate a comics work.” I often feel that when lettering is good, it’s viewed as almost invisible and so obvious, like the reader can’t imagine this layout or placement any other way, allowing the work to shine for itself—though of course, it’s only because it’s good that it’s unnoticeable. Can you tell us more about your lettering and share some instances (of your own work or work you admire) where the lettering matches the art and text perfectly?

JOAMETTE: I would say good lettering is either seamless and invisible, or seamless and load-bearing. “Seamless” is the common quality, like you said about not being able to imagine the letters any other way. I would describe my lettering for Jamila Rowser and Sabii Borno’s Wobbledy 3000 as “invisible”: the balloons are colored in the same distinctive pastels as the artwork, and the typeface balances legibility with a swirly quality that echoes Borno’s line work. Meanwhile, I would describe the lettering in something like Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods collection as “load-bearing” because the letters fundamentally inform the story being told. It can’t stand without them, and it isn’t meant to. Her particular horror tone would shift dramatically if she’d chosen to render the text on the page in any other manner than the one she chose: handwriting that is subtly stilted and scratchy, like a journal scrawling, placed directly onto the artwork without caption boxes. The text size fluctuates based on the height of emotion called for in each moment, and the odd white dialog balloon is lopsided, frayed, or even melting.

 

FAYE: In a previous interview, you’ve discussed sourcing creators for both of your anthologies and building a network through social media, acquaintances, and databases like the Queer Cartoonists Database. Both collections have such a rich range of art styles and stories, ranging from heartwarming to devastating, philosophical to visceral, and beyond. Since many of these artists are underrepresented in mainstream comics in various ways, how has it been to work directly with so many of them? What is the next step for you in expanding this amazing community you’ve built?

JOAMETTE: In short, a dream! I want nothing more than to connect with people, and creativity is the way I do that best. It’s been my privilege to work with over 100 creators from all over the world, of every race and countless ethnicities, most of them queer women and non-binary people, since 2016. Their talents, skills, and passions continually humble me, and there’s a bittersweetness in witnessing firsthand just how much our marginalized communities have to offer (because so little of it is ever validated by mainstream access). To date, we’ve centered our books around queer women of color and non-binary people overall, and our forthcoming book centers Latinx creators of all genders and backgrounds. My hope is to continue expanding P&M Press until we can properly compensate solo creators for original graphic novels, creating space for more in-depth expressions by the people we publish.

 

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?

JOAMETTE: That would have to be my best friend, who shall remain nameless for their own privacy, haha! My best friend is an AMAB non-binary trans fem who’s been in my life for over a decade. She was my primary support during my own coming out at as queer and as a non-binary woman. She’s someone who I’ve known long enough to see struggle, fail, grow, succeed, and come into her own—and vice versa. Our twenties would have been much harder without one another to call queer family.

 


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

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

Fonda Lee: Exclusive Interview

We’re pleased to bring you the second in our series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and research, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2020 theme of villains! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink speaks with author Fonda Lee.

 

AMY TENBRINK: Let’s talk gender and villainy, especially in speculative fiction. What does it mean to you for a woman or nonbinary person to be a villain? What does it mean for you for Ayt Madashi, the Pillar of the Mountain in your Green Bone Saga, to be a villain? To you, her creator, what is her villainy? And was she always a woman—did gender come into play as you developed her character?

Fonda Lee

FONDA LEE: For me, the concept of the fictional villain is simply this: someone whose goals and actions are in direct opposition to those of the protagonist. Throughout history, it’s typically men who are held up as heroes, both in real life and in fiction, while women are presented in supporting roles or as villains. Yes, there are many notable female heroes, and far more now than there used to be, but I suspect that if you look across the history of literature and storytelling, they’re outnumbered by the famous villainesses who stand in the way of the man—just think of every wicked witch or seductress ever written. When there’s a woman or nonbinary person opposing a man, I’m frankly inclined to think they probably have their own very understandable reasons for their villainy.

Moral ambiguity is something that you’ll find in almost all of my work. I’ve often said that I don’t really write heroes and villains because I could just as easily and sympathetically have written the story from the perspective of the antagonist. Ayt Madashi is a good example of this. She’s a villain in the story because she’s such a strategic and tenacious rival to the protagonist Kaul family, but when you consider her rationale, it makes an awful lot of sense. I envisioned Ayt Mada as a woman right from the start. Her toughness, ruthlessness, and need to be publicly flawless are all a result of her climbing to power in a highly male-dominated culture. She murdered her way into power—but how many men have done the same? What choice did she have, when she was clearly the most capable and qualified leader, and was passed up because she was a woman? She has a plan that she truly believes is the best way forward for the country—one that involves her being the one in charge. Like many powerful authoritarian leaders, she can be a hero to some and a villain to others.

 

AMY: While we’re on the topic of your epic, dangerous Green Bone Saga, I’d love to know your view on the feminism of the world you’ve built. Your wuxia fantasy is full of hypermasculinity and violence, some of which is permitted women, but there’s an underlying thread that women must transgress to achieve Pillar-level leadership, which is perhaps why my heart skips every time Kaul Shae and Ayt Mada interact—and I gasped aloud at that moment in Jade War (you know which one, but no spoilers here). What do you hope your work says about feminism and the roles of women in society?

FONDA: My goal is to write speculative fiction with as much verisimilitude as possible. I’m not trying to shape the world to my liking or to something in particular, but to hold up a mirror to our own world. I want the places, the people, and the societies I write to feel entirely real to the reader, and that extends to the roles of women. To me, that means presenting a range of women and the roles they take on in a hypermasculine culture—everything from the willfully ignorant and passive mob wife (Shae’s mother, Kaul Wan Ria), to the supportive partner and soft power behind the throne (Wen), to the exceptional strongwoman who succeeds by outcompeting the men (Ayt Mada).

Verisimilitude to me also means not leaning into the hypersexualized fantasy stereotypes of female villains. There’s a scene in Jade City when Anden meets Ayt Mada for the first time and thinks to himself that she looks like an ordinary woman in comfortable pants reading reports in her office. (Because that’s exactly what a female CEO or stateswoman or Green Bone clan leader would do!)

Another thing that I wanted to do was write a fantasy story that was not static in terms of cultural development. The Green Bone Saga takes place in the modern era, and there are forces of globalization and modernization as well as technological and societal change at play. And those forces very much affect the clans, and the evolving role of women as it plays out over the trilogy.

 

AMY: In Jade City and Jade War, Kekon is incredibly violent and your fight scenes are spectacular—which isn’t surprising given your black belts in both karate and kung fu. Further, the fighting in your world is deliberately designed to be close, hand-to-hand rather than with guns, which are of limited use due to Green Bone magic. And this style of fighting is tangled up with the Green Bone honor code, which includes phrases like “I offer you a clean blade” to invoke a duel, and the idea that some deaths are clean and others are not—but also includes aisho, a prohibition on a Green Bone attacking someone who doesn’t wear magical jade. Talk to me about your view of violence and honor codes.

FONDA: I’m fascinated by honor cultures, and I researched everything from the samurai code of bushido to the history of the code duello commonly adhered to in Europe and the southern U.S. Then I set about creating a fictional honor culture with strictures specifically designed for my fantasy world with magic martial arts powers. I love to write stories with explosive, gripping scenes of action and violence—but I’m also a stickler for immersive and believable worldbuilding. No society can survive constant arbitrary violence and out-of-control vendettas—there have to be rules that clearly stipulate when and how grievances are settled by violence. The idea, for example, that soldiers would not target women and children has been commonplace for most of military history; magically enhanced super warriors would have a similar prohibition against targeting those without jade. Duels are meant to contain feuds and prevent them from spiraling into further violence—hence the idea of a “clean blade” that would prohibit retaliation. In short, I’m satisfying both my desire for sociologically sound worldbuilding and kickass fight scenes!

 

AMY: Duty is a recurring theme in your work. In fact, you spoke to Lightspeed Magazine about something similar in 2018, the idea that your characters believe they have a choice, but ultimately, they do not. Shae’s journey, in particular, highlights this theme for me: She removed her jade and went to Espenia, only to return home in a time of crisis, resume wearing her jade, and assume a top-tier leadership position in her clan. Why is the idea of duty—or perhaps family—so important to your work?

FONDA: Throughout the Green Bone Saga, family is both a source of great strength and great personal conflict. The main characters go through a lot—but they do it together. So many fantasy stories in Western canon are based on the “hero’s journey”—the singular hero gradually leaving behind all that is important to him in order to triumph alone. It’s a very individualist mentality. I’m inspired by both Western and Eastern storytelling traditions and very much wanted to write a different kind of epic fantasy. I believe that my sensibilities of what’s important to me to portray in fiction are influenced by the fact that I’m a second generation Asian American; my parents were immigrants who struggled in a new country in order to give their children a better future, and they stayed together for years longer than they should have out of a sense of family duty and sacrifice.

This experience is far from culturally exclusive; family and duty are so important and entwined in so many people’s lives, and that constant tension between love and frustration, personal desire and obligation to others, independence and belonging are themes that make for deeply compelling and relatable human drama in any story, even one about magical gangsters.

Fonda Lee Quote
 

AMY: You’ve wanted to be a writer since you were a kid—but your first career was as a corporate strategist before you came back to writing. You’ve written young adult (Cross Fire, Zeroboxer) and adult (the Green Bone Saga) works, and now you’re moving into comics, of which you’ve said, “In short, comics is a far more rapid, free-flowing, collaborative creative environment. That presents challenges as well as fantastic opportunities. There’s a sense of “we’re all making this up together as we go along” energy that is both mildly terrifying as well as very energizing and freeing, and it’s a nice counterpoint to the way I work on novels.” How do you approach risk, as a former corporate strategist, as a writer, and as a person?

FONDA: I tend to be an all-or-nothing sort of personality. When I decided to make a career switch into writing, I went for it almost obsessively and never looked back. At the same time, I’m a very pragmatic person, and I’m always planning ahead, always mulling possibilities and contingency plans. So I would say that I’m definitely a risk taker, but the sort of risk taker armed with a spreadsheet! I’m easily bored and always want to push myself and take on new challenges, but every step has to make sense to me, I have to feel like I’ve done my research. Sometimes, things don’t work out, or they don’t happen the way I planned, but that’s life, and you move on. When it comes to writing, I take the long view. This career is a risk, every project is a risk, but at the end of it all, I want to have a large body of quality work that I’m proud to look at on my shelf.

 

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?

FONDA: My high school English teacher, Ms. Carson, was one of the first real fans of my writing. She told me that I had a true gift for words, and she encouraged me to nurture my skills and to continue writing. And I sorely disappointed her! I’ll never forget the look on her face when she found out that I was going to study finance in college. “Finance?!” I could tell she believed that wasn’t my true calling, that I should follow my passion and talent. She was right, of course. I lost touch with Ms. Carson, but many years later, when I began writing seriously for publication, I would often think of her voice in my head and her supportive notes in the margins of my early work and take comfort knowing there was one person, at least, who’d believed I had what it took to be a writer.

 


Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for adults and teens. She is the author of the Green Bone Saga, beginning with Jade City (Orbit), which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, was nominated for the Nebula Award and the Locus Award, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Syfy Wire, and others. The second book in the Green Bone Saga, Jade War, released in 2019 to multiple starred reviews. Fonda’s young adult science fiction novels, Zeroboxer (Flux), Exo, and Cross Fire (Scholastic), have garnered accolades including being named Junior Library Guild Selection, Andre Norton Award finalist, Oregon Book Award finalist, Oregon Spirit Book Award winner, and YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. In 2018, Fonda gained the distinction of winning the Aurora Award, Canada’s national science fiction and fantasy award, twice in the same year for Best Novel and Best Young Adult Novel. She co-writes the ongoing Sword Master & Shang-Chi comic book for Marvel. Fonda is a former corporate strategist who has worked for or advised a number of Fortune 500 companies. She holds black belts in karate and kung fu, loves action movies, and is an eggs Benedict enthusiast. Born and raised in Canada, she currently resides in Portland, Oregon.

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

Rin Chupeco: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re pleased to bring you the third in our series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and research, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2020 theme of villains! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink speaks with author Rin Chupeco.

 

AMY TENBRINK: In your Bone Witch series, you spend 1,500 pages brilliantly deconstructing how society creates a villain of a powerful woman. I would say more, but you already did in Wicked As You Wish, when one of your characters says, “To be a hero, you need a bad guy. And when there are no bad guys available, you wind up forcing that role on something or someone people already irrationally fear. If you need a villain, sometimes all you need is a good long look in the mirror…” Most fantasy literature has villains, much of fantasy literature has female villains, but yours are, frankly, special. What do you hope that your work says about gender and villainy?

Rin Chupeco Author

RIN CHUPECO: Thank you! When it’s a woman or a nonbinary person who are the villains in my stories, I try my best to give them reasons to be villains—reasons that people understand and sympathize with, even if they might disagree with how they accomplish their objectives. I’m not interested in female or enby lackeys who are simply following orders; I love to present my villains as people who make their decision to defy society not because someone has convinced them to follow some ‘evil’ agenda, but because they themselves had been wronged and are trying to regain their own agency, even if it’s through more despicable means than most would want. It’s easy to write character caricatures. It’s damn hard to humanize villains. It’s easy to disapprove of some of their actions that you might find repulsive. It’s hard to admit that you might do the exact same thing in their place, given the same desperation. That admission from the reader is my goal.

The next step is breaking down why they become villains in the first place. What aspect of society failed them? With Okiku in The Girl from the Well, it was a system that favored men and considered women property. For Tea in The Bone Witch—and I very deliberately wrote Kion as a matriarchal society, to show that just having a kingdom run by women isn’t enough, if it’s also being managed poorly—the series was my version of Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” where society flourishes but only if one child be kept in perpetual suffering. In my series, it’s Tea who’s that child, except she’s mutinying because she is officially done with everyone else’s crap.

With The Never Tilting World, the villains are actually Odessa’s and Haidee’s mothers who, despite all the foolish decisions they make, do so out of genuine love for their daughters and fear for their safety. The Snow Queen in Wicked as You Wish probably has the most selfish of reasons to be a villain—loneliness—but I also think it’s one that people can relate to the most.

 

AMY: You’ve joked that The Girl from the Well, your first published book, is autobiographical. Surely that’s not just because Japanese office workers used to mistake you for Sadako Yamamura. (“When the [elevator] door would open…you should hear them, ang tataas ng mga boses nila when they scream.”). What about this book, of all your work, feels autobiographical to you?

RIN: The Japanese businessmen weren’t the only ones to mistake me for a ghost; they were just the loudest about it! I’ve been teased about looking like a revenant all my life; they called me Lydia Deetz (from Beetlejuice) in high school, and I have decidedly startled more than a few people at night.

And I think most authors are partial to the first book they’ve ever published. It was, for me. I’m a Chinese-Filipino living in the Philippines, and had very little knowledge back then of how the US publishing industry works. It was an intimidating process, being told you’re at a disadvantage in this business right from the start. There was always that worry at the back of my head that if my debut book didn’t sell as many copies as was needed everyone would consider me a failure and turn down any other future projects I might have. I thought it was my first and possibly final chance.

So I wound up putting a huge chunk of myself into Okiku, and also into Tark. Tark, I think, is a lot like me in real life, and channels a lot of my own fears and hopes. But Okiku was where I put all my rage, and hers felt more potent in those pages, with more far-reaching results, than my anger could ever have in my own life. So it was cathartic. And I look at their relationship as my own struggle with constantly trying to find the balance between her anger and his optimism. My other books are also about angry women screaming defiantly into the void, but there is something I find especially freeing about Okiku’s fury in particular.

 

AMY: So much of your work is built around creating extraordinary trust among your characters: Okiku and Tark (The Girl from the Well), Tea and Fox (The Bone Witch), Tea and Kalen (The Bone Witch), Arjun and Haidee (The Never Tilting World), Tala and the Bandersnatchers (Wicked As You Wish). Conversely, some of the most heartrending moments in your work are born of a lack of trust: Lan and Odessa (The Never Tilting World), Tala and Kay (Wicked As You Wish). Your plots—and in many cases, saving the world—turn on your characters’ ability to, or failure to, trust. What about trust, and trustworthiness, is important to you?

RIN: It’s important for me to show that even the best ones don’t always get it right, and the ups and downs of those relationships is what makes them all the more compelling. The Chosen One in my books are almost always Chosen Ones—I like the idea of a collective of people who can bolster each other’s strengths and counter their flaws. I think it’s a bigger payoff for readers to see characters going through all the different stages in their relationship, to show how they become better for each other. Kalen and Tea’s relationship in The Bone Witch usually gets the most compliments for that, but to understand how they got there I knew that space had to be given to show their initial distrust, including the mistakes they’d committed that made things worse. I think there’s more emotional investment, seeing how they overcome those obstacles and make it the basis for forgiveness and trust. Especially since we know how it feels to trust someone, or break their trust in turn, or have your own broken.

 

AMY: Reading Wicked As You Wish, I could have sworn it was a reaction to the world’s, and especially America’s, politics today—but no, you’ve said that Tala is the first main character you ever wrote, it just took Wicked As You Wish seven years to get its own book deal. Though all your books have spectacular representation of both people of color and queer characters, and frequently non-Western fantasy world settings, all of which are regrettably politicized in far too many ways, Wicked As You Wish is, in many ways because of its modern-day American setting, flagrantly political. White characters refer to half-Filipina Tala as “Mexican”; the jocks attack Alex after finding a picture of him with another boy. ICE features prominently in the first act. Much is made of power and control, including by corporations who patent and manufacture spelltech for consumers. Everything in this book is timely, especially for one that you started the better part of a decade ago. How does it feel to have this book out in the world now?

RIN: Quite frankly, even without taking into account that I had to deal with some resistance over making my protagonist a Filipina instead of a white person, I never actually thought that this book would see the light of day. There’s a lot of criticism there about America as a system, and if there’s a lot of things I’ve learned since then, it’s that a very vocal subset of people in the US would rather throw themselves off a cliff than admit that their democracy has flaws. And that they would resent the fact that I, who am not even a US citizen, should ever be in a position to criticize.

I think few people realize it’s just as much about Filipino politics as it is American, though. There’s a lot of anger in the Philippines still about foreign governments meddling in Filipino affairs, and it explains in part the Philippines’ stagnation after being under different colonizers, which also inspired Avalon’s own stagnation at the start of the book. A lot of the casual racism I wrote was something I’ve gone through myself, both in the Philippines and outside of it. My darker-skinned in-laws have been called Mexicans. I remember people initially avoiding me in college in Manila because they assumed I was Korean and couldn’t speak English. The first time I’d set foot in Las Vegas, a casino staff member very loudly told his fellow worker to “keep the chink away from the machines if they can’t show ID,” assuming I wouldn’t understand them, either. And I remembered thinking, well, I suppose people aren’t so different after all, regardless of where they live. And in my life I’ve also gone from being comfortably off to poor to middle class, so the anti-capitalist stance I’ve taken on is also based on my own experiences.

Immigration has also been a problem in the Philippines since the ’90s, so I thought to emphasize that in the book. We were very much aware of what ICE agents do, long before they hit prominence back in 2016. We’ve got a lot of flaws as a nation, and most Filipinos rather resignedly know this, but the one thing we’ve always taken pride in was that we would never turn away refugees, given our history of having been refugees ourselves. We took in Jewish people during World War II, the Chinese chased out because of the Cultural Revolution (like my grandfather), Vietnamese fleeing the US-Vietnam War, and now Muslim people like the Rohingyas. I think Americans who read the book would see a lot of relevant US issues there, but Filipinos would also associate them as Filipino problems. More proof that we’re not that different after all!

 

AMY: You’ve mentioned that you don’t want to be a hero, that you’ve never imagined yourself as The Chosen One. What about that role doesn’t work for you?

RIN: I write my villains the way I do because I can very easily imagine myself in their shoes. People I’m close to often joke that I’m a lot like Gregory House from House or Alan Shore from Boston Legal. But if I’m to be honest with myself I’d say I would be Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter’s lovechild. I’m a chaotic good-to-neutral paladin, and I don’t care if that gives me penalties. Give me a superpower and I will absolutely be paying back my enemies a billionfold and adding the lamentations of their women into a Spotify playlist. I would get so many jerks in trouble. If someone gave me the ability to punch people through a computer screen I would take out at least a third of Twitter. Many will applaud, because of course I will only be going after the absolute wombats, but sooner or later someone important’s gonna question whether or not I’m wielding far too much power for one enby to handle, and before you can even blink they’ve passed the Superhero Registration Act so now I gotta go fight all the militaries.

Don’t put me in charge of anything. I know my own weaknesses. Let me be a lazybutt.

 

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?

RIN: Embarrassingly enough, I had a huge crush on Arwen from Lord of the Rings just because I thought Liv Tyler was hot, and it was the first time teenage me started questioning their sexuality. I’m not even a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings books, but the internet was just a gleam in Al Gore’s eye back then, and I wasn’t sure if there were any series beyond the big titles like it. (It wasn’t until the early 2000s when that other fantasy books aside from LOTR became more prominent in bookstores here.) Ironically enough, it was the movies that made me start thinking about how powerful (and hot) Arwen was, using waterfalls to wash away the nazgûl (which is also a hot move)—and so why was she (being powerful, but also hot) not a part of the Fellowship? And the more I did the research, the more annoyed I got. She doesn’t even have a sword in the books? Her scenes at Helm’s Deep where she fights with the guys were cut from the movie? You’ll give some sentient slow-moving trees a chance at glory, but not the hot elf woman?

And then it snowballed from there. Why does Eowyn feel more like a clever plot twist than actually being portrayed as being worthy as a woman to kill the Witch-king of Angmar? Galadriel could kick everyone’s ass and proved she could resist the temptation of the One Ring, but she’s not on the team and Boromir is?? “Because she’s too powerful” feels less like a concrete explanation and more like an author who was just really committed to making the Fellowship a sausagefest. And that’s when I actually started deliberately searching for fantasy titles that didn’t leave that bitter, unrequited taste in my mouth, and found Tamora Pierce for the first time, which then opened portals into other worlds created by Robin Hobb and Margaret Weiss and Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones.

So in a very weird, roundabout way, I stumbled into the fantasy genre because I was spiteful about what Arwen could have been in the books and in the movies. And because I was also hot for her. Fate moves in mysterious ways.

 


Rin Chupeco wrote obscure manuals for complicated computer programs, talked people out of their money at event shows, and did many other terrible things. They now write about ghosts and fantastic worlds but are still sometimes mistaken for a revenant. They are the author of The Girl from the Well and its sequel, The Suffering; The Bone Witch trilogy; The Never Tilting World duology; and the A Hundred Names for Magic series, starting with the first book, Wicked As You Wish. They were born and raised in the Philippines and, or so the legend goes, still haunt that place to this very day.

For more information about Rin, please visit their website or their Twitter.

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.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

RSS Feed

The news archive for Sirens is linked below as an RSS feed. If you need instructions or would like more information, please click here. If you have questions about our RSS feed, please email us at (web at sirensconference.org).

RSS Feed Button

 

Tags

a siren's voyage, attendees, book club, book friends, book lists, book reviews, books, books and breakfast, bookstore, community, community day, compendium, essays, faculty, features, further reading, guests of honor, interviews, meet-ups, new releases, newsletters, on-site, programming, read with amy, scholarships, Sirens At Home, Sirens Studio, staff, support, testimonials, themes, volunteering, we asked sirens, where are they now

 

Archives

2021
July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2020
October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2019
November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2018
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2017
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2016
December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March

2015
November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2014
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, March, February, January

2013
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2012
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2011
December, November, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2010
December, November, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2009
December, November, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January
Meet Our Guests of Honor
About the Conference
Attend
Sirens Twitter
Present Programming
Sirens Facebook

Connect with the Sirens community

Sign up for the Sirens newsletter

Subscribe to our mailing list