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Gillian Chisom: As an adult, I’ve wrestled so much with what it means to be the girl who doesn’t go back to Narnia

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our 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 our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!

 

AMY TENBRINK: You are a PhD candidate researching gender and embodiment in the early Quaker movement. What appealed to you about chasing a doctorate degree? And about your particular research topic?

GILLIAN CHISOM: I’ve actually left academia recently, for a host of complicated reasons, but I was interested in pursuing historical research because I wanted to understand the lives of people in the past, and especially people who haven’t been included in many traditional historical narratives. Even though I’ve moved on from that part of my life, I still think that it’s tremendously important work, and I’m still passionate about telling stories that haven’t been told, or have been told in a way that excludes certain perspectives.

 

AMY: Two years ago, you presented “Cold as a Witch’s Tit”: Gender and Magic in Early Modern Witch Trials at Sirens. Tell us something we probably don’t know about witches—but really ought to!

GILLIAN: Based on the way early modern European witch trials often appear in pop culture, people tend to assume that witch trials were about men persecuting women who were rebellious or subversive in some way, but that isn’t entirely accurate. Women were accusing other women of witchcraft more often than not, which isn’t to say that witch trials weren’t reinforcing patriarchy, but it shows that women are often complicit in policing other women within patriarchal structures. Also, the women who ended up accused of witchcraft weren’t necessarily rebellious or subversive—they were usually just ordinary women who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or who got caught up in some kind of local conflict that escalated beyond their control.

I think that part of the reason historians have struggled to come up with a singular explanation for the early modern witch hunts is that there isn’t one explanation—witch trials were usually rooted in very local circumstances, in the kind of village conflict that you have to understand in all of its particularity. There were larger forces at play, of course, but to understand a given witch trial you have to untangle the local before you can get to the big picture. Which is to say, I think that witch trials are significant because they give us a window into the kind of day-to-day problems and anxieties that early modern people were dealing with—it’s not an accident, for instance, that many witchcraft accusations arose in the context of pregnancy and childbirth, which were very vulnerable states for early modern women.

 

AMY: When did you fall in love with fantasy literature? What do you love about it? What about it do you find problematic?

GILLIAN: The Chronicles of Narnia were my formative fantasy series, so much so that I joke sometimes that C.S. Lewis programmed my brain. I think that the thing I fell in love with about those books was the sense of possibility—that there could be a door to a magical world anywhere. Of course, Narnia also illustrates some of the most problematic aspects of a lot of classic fantasy literature—sexism, racism, Christianity-as-default, and monarchy-as-default, just to name a few things! On a personal level, I have incredibly complicated feelings about those books now, even though I can’t escape the way they shaped me as a reader and a writer. I used to identify very strongly with Lucy as a child, and now I identify with Susan, fall from grace and all. As an adult, I’ve wrestled so much with what it means to be the girl who doesn’t go back to Narnia, who rejects the fantasy world but is also rejected by it, found wanting in some way. But there’s possibility, too, in that wrestling. I think that there’s so much to celebrate in the way that current fantasy authors are taking some of those problematic tropes and preserving the sense of possibility and deconstructing the rest, though of course we still have a lot of work to do.

 

AMY: You don’t write just epic scholarly tomes, you also write fantastical fiction—and you’re committed to centering queer voices in your stories. Recently, Sarah Gailey has written on what, to them, makes a story queer. What, to you, makes a story queer?

GILLIAN: I agree with Gailey both on the importance of casual queer representation and that representation alone isn’t the only thing that makes a story queer. I definitely resonate with what they said about wrestling with identity as a queer theme. In many ways that kind of wrestling has been at the core of my own experience since coming out; I’ve had to devote much of my time and mental and emotional energy to figuring out how to live with a version of myself that’s radically different than who I thought I was before. That type of struggle usually shows up in my stories in one way or another, though not always in ways that are obviously about sexuality. Found families also appear in almost all of my stories, and to me that’s also a queer theme—of course, queer people aren’t the only people who participate in found families, but in my experience there’s a lot of overlap there. Found family and community have also shaped my own experience as a queer person far more than romantic relationships, so that’s something that my work reflects. Queerness, in my experience, can carry with it the same breathless sense of possibility that fantasy literature itself does—the possibility of living and loving in unexpected and subversive ways.

 

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

GILLIAN: A friend invited me, and it just happened that the first year I came was also the year that I was really starting to struggle in grad school, partly because it was such a male-dominated environment. It was such a relief to experience this amazing feminist community where I could be my authentic, nerdy self. Sirens became my refuge from the stress and frustrations of academia, a space where I could revisit the creative, passionate parts of myself that I felt like I had to suppress in my professional life. Over the years I’ve gone through some major life transitions, and it feels like the Sirens community has been there with me every step of the way, reminding me that I can be the heroine of my own story.

 

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?

The Hero and the Crown

GILLIAN: There are a lot of possible answers to this, but the first one that comes to mind is Aerin from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. McKinley’s work was another formative influence in my development as a fantasy reader—hers were the first fantasy books I read with female protagonists, and I’m grateful that they were available to me even though there are definitely some things I would criticize them for now. Aerin in particular stands out, though, not just because she was my first McKinley heroine, but because she had two romantic partners in the course of the book and she didn’t have to choose between them. I was probably about twelve at the time that I read it, and I’d deeply internalized the idea that there was only one true romantic partner for everyone, so the fact that this heroine I admired was allowed to love two different people felt new and radical. Also, McKinley connects Aerin’s ability to love two people with her ability to hold in tension different aspects of her identity without having to choose, and that was also a message that I really needed to hear at that time in my life.

 


Gillian Chisom is a recovering academic and writer. A lifelong fantasy reader, over the last several years she has wrestled with the genre’s flaws and possibilities and become committed to writing fantastical stories which center queer voices. She was a Lambda Literary Fellow in Young Adult and Genre Fiction in 2013, and her work has appeared in The Toast, Global Comment, and Specs Journal. In her spare time, she likes to make her own clothes.

 

Ren Iwamoto: I’m growing out of the habit of uncritical love

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our 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 our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!

 

AMY TENBRINK: I want to ask you everything, but that feels like such an imposition! Let’s start here: Your bio includes the following sentence: “Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search for the thesis topic that combines all of the above.” Tell me, how does one channel all that amazingness into a graduate degree? What is the focus of your work?

REN IWAMOTO: I’m sure my supervisor would also like the answer to that question, but to give it the old college try: Channeling ideas for me is mostly just spewing bullshit until someone says something like, “Wow, I never thought of that before!” Then I bullshit some more and suddenly I have a thesis. Right now I’m really focusing on twentieth century East Asian literature — specifically during and post-WWII — with the intent of investigating the effects of Japanese colonialism. I was raised and educated in Canada, so bringing attention to this part of history, which has dodged a deserved spot in Western mass consciousness, fully into postcolonial discourse is important to me.

 

AMY: Last year at Sirens, you presented, with Marcella Haddad, a lecture titled “Death in a Dress: Is the ‘Girl Assassin’ Really a Strong Female Character?” This year, you’re presenting again, this time “Fight, Loli, Fight!: Lolita Fashion, Cute Culture, and Heroic Girlhood in Contemporary Media.” How do you craft your topics and what do you hope audiences take away from your presentations?

REN: I’m growing out of the habit of uncritical love. I love many things — girl assassins and anime, for example — and for a long time I thought that because those things were worthy of being loved I didn’t need to find the flaws in them. Or perhaps more accurately: I worried that if I found the flaws in something, I couldn’t love it anymore. But that’s a lazy way to consume media, and lacking in nuance. Investigating the parts of media I didn’t want to think about before is the origin of both my papers. As with all my academic work, my only goal is to have my audience go, “huh,” and nod thoughtfully.

“Death in a Dress” was very pattern-oriented. I think stories featuring girl assassins, or girl warriors, or whatever, are often sold under the pretense of being subversive. “My heroine is strong and she doesn’t take any shit and also she’s sexy, but in a relatable way,” they seem to say. But all of them seem to say that. They all feature violence, subjugation, sex. Reading the novels, I thought that men could derive pleasure from seeing these female characters have violence inflicted upon them, and in turn perpetrate violence. So there’s really nothing subversive about them at all. That’s where the idea for the paper came from. Marcella generated a lot of questions about craft related to this idea, which I would never have even considered, so she added an invaluable dimension to the presentation.

“Fight, Loli, Fight” is actually pretty reactionary. There’s still a lot of media that equates the strong female character as either completely derisive of femininity, or otherwise she’s a femme fatale. To have a girl as hero — and I mean a girl, not a (young) woman — is many times more subversive. There is a nebulous distinction between young woman and girl that is essential here, and I hope to expand upon it in the full paper, but briefly: A girl can be feminine without being sexualized, have romance without sex, and yet their internal and external lives are still rich, nuanced, entertaining for viewers. That’s both refreshing, I think, and important. In any case, I picked on this thread because it happened to coincide with this year’s theme. So, essentially I started working on it on a whim and got in over my head, as usual.

 

AMY: What do you love about reading speculative fiction? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

REN: I think speculative fiction is all about boundaries: what’s acceptable, real, possible. All the givens of our world become mutable in spec fic, and that’s very special to me as both a reader and writer. The room for play is infinite, and the stories where I can see that sentiment reflected are my favourite.

 

AMY: And you’re a poet! You’ve described writing poetry as “Mostly, I just unleash a demon I have trapped in a rosewood box, and it does the work for me.” What about poetry as a medium appeals to you? Is it the demon?

Editor’s Note: We’ve included a selection of Ren’s poems at the end of the post. Please click on the titles to read their full text: Fruit Scissors; Obento; All-Saints Day.

REN: It’s the demon. The demon has special powers and makes me think that every day I’m alive fucking sucks, and tries to keep me in bed all day without eating or sleeping or anything, but that really doesn’t work for me. So we have a deal in which I’ll write poems as if every day I’m alive fucking sucks, but in reality I will live as happily, determinedly, uncompromisingly as I can.

As a medium—I’m very lazy, and a scrooge, when it comes to both writing and reading. To me, good poems are distillations, and say the most in the fewest words possible.

 

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

REN: I was at a writers’ retreat run by Natalie Parker three or four years ago. Justina Ireland was there and said something to the effect of, “Sirens is the only conference I give a fuck about.” Last year I was finally able to scrape some funds together to attend, and now Sirens is the only conference I give a fuck about. It’s kind of like when you go to a party where you don’t know anyone, and you’re like, Ah, shit, but then you see someone wearing, like, a pin from a show you like. The relief you feel as you go to strike up a conversation! Sirens was like that except everyone was wearing a pin from a show I like.

 

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?

REN: [Content warning: suicide mention]

Not to sound like a total Leo, but I change my own life. I tried to die twice! And yet I’m still here helping my friends out, writing poems, getting money, educating myself, and transmogrifying into something unspeakable beneath the light of the full moon! Isn’t it radical, equally destructive and constructive, for me, someone with one foot in Woman and one foot in Other, to keep living? This isn’t to say I didn’t have help — my parents, my therapist, my friends — but I’m the one who put in the work. It was me. It continues to be me.

 


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 for the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications.

 


FRUIT SCISSORS
[Bywords Magazine, bywords.ca, August 2018]

i trace a line
of blood up
my thigh touch
pulpy red
meat a grapefruit
between
my lips

my legs cut
across streets
swiftly scissoring
towards a women’s
clinic my pants
are black they
show no
stains

like rotten
plums my body
invites parasites
i pinch their
tender pink heads
their undeveloped

heads and
pull them out
in a burst of blood

my legs cut
across streets
swiftly scissoring
away from a women’s
clinic my pants
are black they
show no
stains

 


OBENTO
[In/Words Magazine & Press, Issue 17.1, February 2018]

When Mama and Papa go to work
my obaa-chan makes me lunch. Rice,
pickled plum and radish, hardboiled eggs
marinated in shoyu and mirin.
Cucumbers cut into stars.

Some hakujin says, “Why are your eggs
black? Looks gross.”
I say, “Eat shit, Sarah. You have a
cheese sandwich every day. Look at this:
my grandma cuts my cucumbers into stars.
Shut up and drink your Five Alive.”

Detention (again).

At home: tuna sashimi,
red as an open wound.
Cold buckwheat noodles.

When Mama and Papa go to work,
my obaa-chan makes me lunch. White
bread. Juice box. Sarah keeps her mouth
shut; who’s eating shit
now?

 


ALL-SAINTS DAY
[above/ground press, GUEST Issue 1, November 2018]

my bones do not belong to me
alone like all saints
I donate this still-breathing
corpse to the faithful
may my blood be crystallized
tempered into glass
there you see my image
rendered in red casting
cursed light upon the praying
upon the back of the pastor’s neck
upon all the other holy things

the catacombs of my body
are for god alone to excavate
exhume my ugliest
pieces and gild them for display
under blessings and
the public eye
under the hands of popes
and preachers perhaps I
will become lovely

my ghost too
is a victim of love
chained down by devotion
caught in a jam jar
call me down like lightning
to pass through the veil
and inhabit your rivals
I will walk their bodies
into graves
into your arms
into a chapel done up in gold
and blood-colours
only the most loyal
servants haunt
their masters like I do

after death
humans are like empires
they collapse inwards
and disintegrate
I have seen the face of god
and it looks like your face
if you had seen a hundred-thousand
disappointing years

 

Joy Kim: The hardest thing I’ve had to do as a librarian is try to unlearn my own natural perfectionism

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our 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 our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!

 

AMY TENBRINK: Why did you decide to become a librarian? What do you love about it? What about it do you find challenging?

JOY KIM: When I was growing up, I never imagined that one day I’d be a librarian. It just wasn’t a career that anyone ever suggested to me as a possibility. After I graduated from college, I worked for several years in nonprofit book publishing, mostly in the Boston area. I enjoyed working with smart, progressive, bookish people, but eventually I began to ask myself what my next step should be. I knew that I wanted a job that would allow me to have a more direct impact on people and communities. Around the same time, I was also rediscovering the joy of having a library card, and a close friend of mine was wrapping up his own graduate degree in information science. Eventually I put two and two together—and here I am.

I love books, and I love reading, but at the end of the day, libraries are about people. When the daily grind gets me down, I try to focus on how my work makes a difference in people’s lives—both individually and for the community as whole. Sometimes it’s still the moments of connecting a patron with a book or resource or experience. More often these days it’s working with my team, figuring out what support or resources they need to do their very best work, and then making that happen for them.

There’s so much unmet need in our communities, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much work there is to do. Sometimes this shows itself as compassion fatigue, sometimes as good old burnout. The hardest thing I’ve had to do as a librarian is try to unlearn my own natural perfectionism and to remember that sometimes we have to settle for getting started or just moving the needle. That’s not a satisfying answer to the world’s problems, but often it’s the only and most honest one that I can give.

 

AMY: Two years ago, you presented a workshop intensive as part of the Sirens Studio titled Knowing Your Next Step: Navigating Career Pathways and the Leadership Pipeline. Would you share with us a lesson that you’ve learned in your career that you found to be especially valuable?

JOY: At every stage of my library career, I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing mentors and brilliant peers. One thing I’ve learned from them is the power of invitation and belief—of someone telling you, “I think you’d be great at this” or “I hope you put your name in for that opportunity” or just “Let’s work on this cool thing together.” You might be surprised to learn that I had no interest in management when I first became a librarian. When early mentors told me that I would be a great manager, that really opened my eyes to some new possibilities, and I think that’s led me to where I am now in my career. That’s something that I intentionally try to pay forward now that I’m in a formal leadership position. Most days, I’m not that interested in impressing people with my position—that’s not why I do this work. But when I can use the fancy title for good, I’m all in.

 

AMY: You’ve reviewed for Kirkus and you’ve chaired the William C. Morris Award Committee for the American Library Association. Do you find that there’s a difference between your professional reading and your personal reading? Do you approach books differently when you’re reading to review or for an award than when you read for pleasure?

JOY: Professional reading and personal reading are very different experiences for me. When I’m reading for a committee or reading for a review, there’s a part of my attention that’s never fully immersed in the story. Sometimes I’m literally pausing to take notes and to flag key passages with post-its. Sometimes it’s just the way that I notice how a plot is being structured or a character’s being developed. When I read for myself, I give myself permission to fall fully into the narrative. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, I let myself enjoy it. And if I’m curious about the mechanics of the author’s craft, I can always revisit that on a reread.

 

AMY: What do you look for in your personal reading? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

JOY: Nancy Pearl likes to talk about the four doorways to story—story, character, setting, and language. I used to think that I primarily read for character, but the older I get, the more I realize how much I read for a sense of place. It’s probably the reason that I’ve always liked fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction. I don’t need a map or a lengthy glossary of invented terms, but I do need a sense that the characters are living in a place that’s real to them.

When it comes to characters, the one thing that I can never resist is competence. Which is probably why I end up falling in love with so many supporting characters, since stories would end a lot more quickly if all protagonists were devastatingly competent at what they do!

 

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

JOY: I first heard about Sirens from fandom friends who had attended the earliest conferences in Vail. When those friends shared that Sirens was moving to Stevenson, Washington, it was the perfect opportunity to give it a try, since it was now within driving distance. I had attended larger, well-established cons in the past, but I had never felt comfortable at them. I was always conscious of being young, and female, and a person of color. Even when I knew other people who were attending, I felt like an outsider when so few people looked like me. My friends told me Sirens would feel different, and they were right. Even though I only knew a small number of attendees at first, I felt like I was continually being invited in at Sirens, and that made all the difference.

 

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?

JOY: It takes a village to raise a reader, but if I have to recognize one person, I would credit my late mother for my love of stories. I grew up surrounded by her collection of books, and I didn’t realize for the longest time that other people’s houses weren’t like that. It’s even more impressive when you consider that my mother was reading all those books in her second language. My mother wasn’t a fantasy reader. Her tastes ran more toward mysteries, spy thrillers, Victorian novels, Dostoevsky, and weighty biographies. But she never told me what I shouldn’t read, and aside from that one time she tried to sell me on Tess of the d’Urbervilles, she didn’t try to tell me what I should read. She let me find my own way. So I checked out what I wanted from school libraries, and bought what I wanted with babysitting money from the local bookstore. I took that freedom for granted as a child; now I realize that it was something pretty special.

 


Joy Kim works as a public librarian in Massachusetts. She is a past chair of YALSA’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award and Great Graphic Novels for Teens committees and a lifelong reader of speculative fiction. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, running, and watching Korean reality shows.

 

Katie Passerotti: I want all the stories about girls doing fantastical things and who have zero fucks about adhering to societal norms

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our 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 our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!

 

AMY TENBRINK: You teach English at a high school in Pennsylvania. How do you use fantasy books in your curricula? What kind of books do your students get the most excited about?

Katie Passerotti

KATIE PASSEROTTI: Sadly, there is little room for fantasy books within the constraints of my school’s Common Core curriculum. But I bring discussion of fantasy books into the classroom whenever possible because they do contain so many of the elements that we’re required to teach and the majority of students have made closer connections with those texts than they do with the required reading material and in teaching, I try to keep that as my focus—the personal connections and how they interact with the text—in order to help develop empathy and encourage active learning. The books that my students were most excited about this past year were the two YA books I added to my curriculum, Ruta Sepetys’s Salt to the Sea and Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down. My students found the characters so relatable and were able to recognize themselves in different moments in these stories. They resulted in excellent conversations. This year I am adding Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X and I’m excited to see how my students react.

 

AMY: This fall, you’ll be leading a roundtable at Sirens where attendees can discuss re-examining the literary canon that educators use in their classrooms. What was the genesis of your idea and what do you hope to cover in the discussion?

KATIE: The idea for this discussion came from realizing that we teach adult books to teenagers and while there are absolutely some excellent themes and ideas to be discussed from those stories, they are rarely relatable to the students. Especially when we read stories based in a world that is vastly different on a technological and economic scale. I find that I spend more time teaching the history of a novel and the social background of the novel instead of focusing on the connections students can make to the text. I struggle to find books that are of high interest to students, have accessible language and can be deemed “school appropriate.” I also feel that the purpose of Language Arts classes have changed and that, as teachers, we need to adjust to fully meet the needs of our students. We need books that are inclusive, diverse and help students to develop empathy and critical thinking skills. I’m looking forward to talking to and brainstorming ideas with fellow attendees on what books to include and how to navigate the sometimes tricky process of getting books into the curriculum without incurring the wrath of parents and the community.

 

AMY: What do you look for in your personal reading? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

KATIE: I want all the stories about girls doing fantastical things and who have zero fucks about adhering to societal norms. I have always loved fantasy. I want to escape into magical worlds filled with magic and mayhem and mythical creatures. I tend to stick to YA as I like the pacier writing style. I want witty dialogue and slow burn romance and stories that have amazing plot twists with bonus points if the characters keep causing their own problems. And I love villains and anti-heroes. I want moral greyness and bad choices and the line between what’s right and wrong to be blurred. I love stories that make you question who’s really the bad guy.

 

AMY: We have so many equestrians at Sirens, including farriers and jousters. Would you share a bit about your love of horses, your horse Bastian, and your accomplishments as a para-equestrian?

KATIE: I have always loved horses and I’ve been riding since I was twelve. My first degree is even horse related—a B.S. in Equine Management. After I was involved in a severe riding accident resulting in a spinal cord injury and partial paralysis of my left leg, I became involved with the Para-Equestrian problem in order to continue competing in dressage. My horse at the time, Bastian, was fantastic and together we managed to successfully compete for several years. I have always enjoyed riding and find every aspect of horse ownership to be rewarding. It’s an interesting team sport as the rider develops a harmonious relationship with their horse—all built on layers of trust and respect. While Bastian and I were ultimately unable to continue pursuing a place on the USA Paralympic and WEG Teams, we did place second at our of CPED*** event after having to completely rewrite my freestyle from scratch the day before. When I went in the ring to ride my test, I had never had the opportunity to practice it beforehand. Overall, I was thrilled to be able to continue to ride and compete despite my injury and disability.

 

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

KATIE: I saw people tweeting about this amazing conference called Sirens and when I looked it up, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. So, I started putting money away and signed up. 2018 was my first year and while I was nervous because I didn’t know anyone other than one of my writing buddies who had signed up to go with me, I was also very excited. It was an entire conference devoted to not only fantasy, but WOMEN IN FANTASY. YES PLEASE. Upon arriving everyone was so welcoming and kind and as I listened to the opening remarks, I realized that I was, for the first time in my life, in the perfect place. I was surrounding by amazing people who loved literature and fantasy and recognize the strength in women and non-binary people. I remember crying, because I had never felt so at home anywhere in my life. And pretty much the rest of the weekend was like that. I came home feeling sad that I had to return to a reality that was not as accepting, but also refreshed from having spent a weekend with some of the most amazing and kind people I have ever met. I am so excited for this year!

 

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?

KATIE: There are so many! And although each individual has made a small change, they have all added up to help me better understand who I am and helped me to exist in a world that constantly tries to take away my self-worth. One of the people who has had a huge influence on my life is my friend, Ally. She is positively amazing, and I rely on her strength and amazingness on a daily basis. She has been there for me whenever I’ve need her—whether it was to celebrate, vent, or just cry. Our friendship has been the first time in my life where I have felt 100% comfortable being me and I don’t feel as though I needed to try and fit into what’s expected of me. She is brilliant and kind and resilient, and I am honored to call her my friend.

 


Katie Passerotti lives in the hills of Pennsylvania where she works as a high school English teacher. She loves sharing her passion for reading and for language with her students and helping them to find their voices. When she’s not teaching, Katie can be found reading or writing about messy girls completing fantastic quests, at the barn riding her horse, or eating cookies and geeking out with her friends.

 

Susie O’Brien: What I love most about speculative fiction is the new worlds that it opens up for me

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our 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 our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!

Accompanying our interview is a selection of book covers Susie O’Brien references in her interview below: Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mishell Baker’s Borderline, Artemis Grey’s Catskin, Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time, and Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

 

AMY TENBRINK: Every year, for several years running, you have been the first person to finish the Sirens Reading Challenge! In fact, I know you would have been done with the 2019 challenge in probably 2018 if one of the required works had come out before April of 2019. About how many books do you read a year? About how many of those are speculative fiction? Do you finish them all?

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter

SUSIE O’BRIEN: Reading is my passion. It always has been. My mom says I taught myself to read when I was about four years old. I’ve been reading for 58 years. I read an average of two books per week when I’m reading fiction. It takes me longer to read nonfiction. I wouldn’t have finished the 2019 challenge in 2018, though. It would have taken me until the end of January 2019.

I would say, right now, that about 80 percent of what I read is speculative fiction. I immerse myself in the world of whatever book I’m reading. I consume books…about 100 of them per year. I usually finish every book that I start, even if I hate it.

 

AMY: So…how? How do you read all of those books? Are you the world’s fastest reader? Are you listening to audiobooks while you do everything else in your life? How are you getting all this amazing reading done?

Borderline

SUSIE: I’m definitely not the world’s fastest reader. And, even though I LOVE many of the books I read, if you ask me the name of the main character six months after I read the book, I probably won’t be able to tell you. But, I don’t have a regular job. (I do the bookkeeping for my husband Mike’s consulting business, but that only takes a few hours per month.) Also, with my health issues now, I am forced to spend more time sitting still, so I read. I’m a night owl, and Mike is a morning person, so I read with a book light for a couple of hours most evenings, plus about an hour or so during the day. I DO listen to audiobooks, but usually only when I’m on the treadmill, and then it’s often stuff like the Harry Potter books or The Lord of the Rings.

 

AMY: What do you love about reading speculative fiction? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

SUSIE: What I love most about speculative fiction is the new worlds that it opens up for me. I immerse myself fully in that world while I’m reading that book. I don’t think I can tell you what kinds of stories interest me most, but I can tell you some of my favorites from the past couple of years of Sirens challenges:

  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: I loved the humor of this one, and I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes stories, so….
  • Borderline: I LOVE the intersection of elves and humans in this series.
  • Catskin: Artemis Grey’s book is wonderful.
  • Aru Shah and the End of Time: I loved the characters in this one.
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: What a wonderful lesson!

And then Dread Nation, Witchmark, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, and anything by Victoria Schwab, Anna-Marie McLemore, N.K. Jemisin, Ursula Le Guin, K.B. Wagers, or Nnedi Okorafor. The Prince and the Dressmaker, The Mortification of Fovea Munson (SO funny!), Ms. Marvel, and Lumberjanes are also favorites.

 

AMY: You are one of the most spectacular seamstresses I’ve ever known, and every year, you and your daughter Jo donate a custom creation–a coat, a costume, a haute couture gown–to the Sirens auction. How did you learn to sew and what about it do you love?

Catskin

SUSIE: When I was 12, I learned to use my mom’s sewing machine…just straight stitching. When I was 16, I made a cloth doll and clothes for a two-year-old that I was babysitting. When I was 18, Mom taught me to sew clothes. I started creating simple costumes in college, and then when Jo was very little, I started sewing for her. As her tastes have grown, I have developed my sewing abilities to keep up with her. My dad’s oldest sister was a professional seamstress, and she taught the basics to my mom, and then my mom taught me. I love sewing for a number of reasons…it’s a very practical skill; it allows me to be creative; and the finished product makes people happy. When I was diagnosed with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, it was the thought of finishing Rosamund Hodge’s coat [purchased as part of the Sirens auction] that kept me fighting to live, and it gave me a purpose.

 

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

Aru Shah and the End of Time

SUSIE: I started to come to Sirens after making the coat for Yoon Ha Lee [purchased as part of the Sirens auction]. I wanted to see what the conference was all about, for one thing. And I was looking for a group of people who were like-minded about books. When Jo first started going, I thought it was mostly for writers, but now I know it’s also for readers—not to mention teachers, librarians, and more. And I have felt like I belong ever since I started going. I hope to be able to attend Sirens for the rest of my life. I love how accepting everyone is there. I find the discussions and talks to be very interesting, but mostly I just love being there where I feel I belong.

 

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?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

SUSIE: My daughter Jo has changed my life. She is a wonderful person, and I can ask her anything. When I have needed to understand about the meaning of the terms that are being used to describe people, it’s Jo that I ask. I grew up in a time when “queer” was a slur, and as they have added more letters to LGBT (now they have added QIA+), I have asked Jo to explain them to me. I must say, the entire experience at Sirens has changed my life, too…it’s wonderful! Thank you!

 


Susie O’Brien was born the youngest of four kids in 1956 in Jackson, Michigan. Her sister Barbara was the oldest of the kids, and she was the first baby-sitter Susie ever knew. Her dad moved their family to Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1962. He had been working for the IRS as a tax collector, but he passed the exam they gave him, and he was given a job in the first US government computer center. Growing up in a smallish town in WV was interesting. 

Susie went to college in Virginia to become a teacher and then moved to New Orleans to find better teaching opportunities. But the pay was so wretched that she found a better-paying job with an oil company. That’s where she met Mike, her husband of 33 years. Susie’s daughter Jo was born in New Orleans, but they moved to Houston soon after her birth. They left Houston after only four years and moved to Tulsa. When Mike was laid off in 1999 and started consulting with big oil, the family could live anywhere as long as there was an airport and a good home office. They chose Evergreen, Colorado, where they’ve been for 17 years now.

 

Julia Ember: For me, queer love stories are what come naturally

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our 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 our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!

 

AMY TENBRINK: When did you fall in love with fantasy literature? And what do you love about it now?

Julia Ember

JULIA EMBER: I can’t remember a time before I was in love with fantasy! My mom read to me a lot when I was a kid, and we would record audio tapes (another era!) of the books we read together. I loved fantasy and fairy tales even then.

Now, I love that fantasy can be simultaneously escapist and a scathing political commentary. I love stories about secondary worlds, mythical creatures and monsters with conflicts that echo our own reality.

 

AMY: How did you decide to be an author? And in particular, how did you decide to be an author of the loveliest, most incandescent queer love stories about mermaids and unicorns and everything glittery and wonderful?

JULIA: Becoming an author was never really a conscious decision I made! I was a voracious reader as a child and teen and wrote fiction through college. I always dreamed of having something published, but in those years it wasn’t something I was actively working toward. Then, I went to graduate school and with all the reading and writing I had to do for the degree, fiction sort of fell by the wayside.

In 2014, I made the decision to leave academia as it was doing a number on my mental health. While trying to figure out what else I could possibly do, I interned for a literary agent. I started reading fiction again and remembered how much I had loved it. I got a full-time job working for a book distributor, immersed myself in the book world and started writing again.

For me, queer love stories are what come naturally. I am a queer woman myself and find writing f/f stories much easier than m/f. I wrote Unicorn Tracks, my first novella, after a traumatizing breakup when I wanted to write a sweet love story to make myself feel better. The Seafarer’s Kiss duology allowed me to explore my feelings about the line between being true to yourself as an individual and being with another person. I think that my upcoming book, Ruinsong, is probably the most romantic of my stories, written at a time when I am about to marry the love of my life.

In terms of the glitter—I’ve always loved mermaids and unicorns! Ruinsong is in many ways a love letter to the power of musical theater, so it is pretty glittery too!

 

AMY: Would you please tell us a bit about your publishing journey? You have four books out now, and I know your path to publication hasn’t always been traditional.

JULIA: I stared my publishing journey with small presses, before signing with an agent and embarking on a more traditional path. My first works were novellas, which many major publishers don’t consider to be a commercial length. Additionally, when I first started querying in 2014, f/f books weren’t considered sellable commodities either. I stopped actively querying agents pretty early because so much of the feedback was about changing the girls into friends, or how there was no market. It was really discouraging!

Small presses are often willing to take more risks on books that are less commercial or genre—many of them were pushing the envelope with totally queer ensemble casts long before major publishers were willing to even read them. Interlude Press definitely did take a risk with The Seafarer’s Kiss as it blends Norse mythology with The Little Mermaid and dystopia. The duology is technically New Adult (the protagonists are 19), which also isn’t something a lot of major publishers work with.

In 2017, I decided to start looking for an agent again as my works were getting longer, firmly into novel territory rather than novella, and the commercial market was developing for queer stories. By then, traditional publishers had become more open to LGBTQ+ stories, both because they were realizing that they could sell and because a younger, more openly queer generation of editors were putting their stamp on the industry. I was lucky enough to find an agent who was hungry for queer stories and open to my gender-bending ways! Ruinsong will be published by Macmillan (FSG) in Fall 2020.

The Seafarer's Kiss duology

 

AMY: What advice would you give to authors writing stories—about queer heroes, say, or with protagonists that are not white or skinny or neurotypical—that aren’t common in publishing today? What do you tell that awful voice in your head that says, “No one will publish this. No one will buy this. No one will read this?”

JULIA: I think 2019 is a great year to be writing these stories. Only a few years ago, when I first started querying, I got rejections that said “f/f doesn’t sell.” The last few years (and several high-profile bestsellers!) have proven that this is not the case, and publishers and agents are starting to wake up to the potential of queer stories. Books like The Priory of the Orange Tree, Wilder Girls and Girls of Paper and Fire have done so much in terms of proving to industry professionals that books about queer women can sell given an actual marketing push.

There is definitely still work to be done in the industry. I write YA, and YA imprints and editors seem to be a little ahead of where adult publishing is right now in terms of representation.

 

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

JULIA: I first came to Sirens in 2015, prior to my first publication. I had never been to a conference of any kind before, and when I read about it online, a relatively small conference full of women and nonbinary people seemed a lot less intimidating than places like BookCon or Worldcon.

I came back because I had such a great time and met so many wonderful people! Some of the bigger conventions absolutely sap my energy. I’m an introvert and the rapid fire of new people, huge booths, panels and convention spaces can leave me feeling empty for days. Sirens is the opposite. The communal meals, the more relaxed pace of panels, spaces where everyone can write together, the views of the mountains…I found it very restorative. Both times I’ve attended, I’ve gone home ready to work again.

I’ve also gotten to meet some of my literary idols in a very relaxed setting. When I came in 2015, I got to meet Sherwood Smith, whose books I read when I was a teen! It was one of my favorite meetings because she was so down to earth and lovely.

 

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?

JULIA: My mom already got a whole book dedicated to her, as did my soon-to-be wife, so I’m sure they’ll forgive me for mentioning someone else! While I was in college, I took some creative writing classes with Professor Jennifer Boylan. She was really dedicated to her students, and I still remember her letting me tackle a senior creative project to write a historical novel even though she thought it over the top! At the time, I didn’t really understand a lot of her best advice. She was very big on writing what you know and writing from the deepest places of yourself. At the time, I misconstrued that advice to mean writing autobiographical. Much later, I came to understand that she meant exploring your beliefs, truths and fears. Once I figured out how to do that, it made me a better writer and it’s advice I still think about.

 


Julia Ember currently lives in Seattle with her wife and their city menagerie of pets with literary names. She has worked as an educator, bookseller and wedding cake decorator. She is the author of The Seafarer’s Kiss duology, which was heavily influenced by Julia’s postgraduate work in Medieval Literature at the University of St Andrews. The Seafarer’s Kiss was a finalist in the Speculative Fiction category of the Bisexual Book Awards and was named a “Best Queer Book of 2017” by Book Riot. Her upcoming novel, Ruinsong, will be published by Macmillan Kids (FSG) in Fall 2020. Julia also writes scripts for games and is the author of several published novellas and short stories.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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