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I Really Do Believe in Magic

2020 so often feels so isolating, so directionless, full of dangers and impossibilities. When we have an infrequent spare moment, we all seek the most fragile of things: hope, justice, compassion—and sometimes to remember why we love the things we love.

In advance of Sirens at Home, as we contemplate gathering safely online rather than in person with the warmth of the Sirens community, we invited members of that community to write about what speculative fiction means to them. We think you’ll find their essays reassuring, a common touchstone that we all need when we’re adrift, and perhaps a welcome remembrance of something you love.

Today, we present an essay by Shveta Thakrar.

As a fantasy author, I get to say things like I believe in magic, and people smile and think it’s part of my carefully cultivated enchanted persona. But the thing is, I really do believe in magic. Just as much as I believe in the power of story to shape our world and what we hold to be true about it.

To me, speculative fiction—fantasy in particular—is a kind of spell. It’s a way to reimagine the world and even the universe we live in, to correct for the injustices all around us and encourage us to do the same in our own reality. When people speak of escapism, they’re usually deriding it, but I think we all deserve a vacation of the imagination and spirit. What’s wrong with having fun for once, especially when times are dark and life as a whole feels like a never-ending slog?

In fact, let me quote Neil Gaiman here: “Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.”

The way I see it, yes, one of my responsibilities as a storyteller is to entertain. That without a doubt—I write the fun adventures about people like me I didn’t have growing up, and I always will. But I also write to suggest alternative ways of thinking and acting beyond those we have accepted as inevitable—as that’s just the way it is. It’s my job to offer readers enough inspiration that they might open their own imaginations and consider new possibilities both for themselves and for the bigger problems we face as a global society. Kind of like how in Star Daughter, Sheetal and her stellar family inspire the humans they interact with. I want readers to understand how powerful they really can be.

You have to know that your voice matters before you can think to use it to make a difference. Fiction can teach that, especially speculative fiction that steps outside the ordinary. I know having had a book like Star Daughter when I was growing up in a tiny Midwestern town would have made a huge difference in my life as a teen. It wouldn’t have rescued me from that terrible situation, and it couldn’t have spared me the pain I went through, but it would absolutely have offered me hope that there was more waiting for me once I got out. And knowing that would have been precious beyond measure.

Fantasy sparked my imagination and helped me begin to question the world and the things we take for granted. It guided me to dream and demand more, to grow my wings and soar above those who couldn’t truly see me. It insisted I never settle, and I didn’t, not even when others told me I was being foolish to think anyone would care what I had to say. I dreamed, and I worked hard, and eventually my dreams came true. That right there is magic, and that is why I’ll keep writing and reading fantasy, now and always.


Shveta Thakrar

Shveta Thakrar is a part-time nagini and full-time believer in magic. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies including Enchanted Living, Uncanny Magazine, A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, and Toil & Trouble. Her debut young adult fantasy novel, Star Daughter, is out now from HarperTeen. When not spinning stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames, Shveta crafts, devours books, daydreams, travels, bakes, and occasionally even plays her harp. You can follow her @ShvetaThakrar on Twitter and learn more about her work on her website.

I Would Take You There, if I Could

2020 so often feels so isolating, so directionless, full of dangers and impossibilities. When we have an infrequent spare moment, we all seek the most fragile of things: hope, justice, compassion—and sometimes to remember why we love the things we love.

In advance of Sirens at Home, as we contemplate gathering safely online rather than in person with the warmth of the Sirens community, we invited members of that community to write about what speculative fiction means to them. We think you’ll find their essays reassuring, a common touchstone that we all need when we’re adrift, and perhaps a welcome remembrance of something you love.

Today, we present an essay by Edith Hope Bishop.

At the edge of a gray city, on a narrow rocky beach, a giant driftwood log rests peacefully on the shore. Someone, for unknown reasons, has carefully hollowed it out with fire. The result is a smooth and blackened portal, large enough for an adult to crawl through, if she’s willing to ruin her clothes.

The log has been there, sitting on this beach, for many months now. Sometimes the tides shift it slightly so that the great O of its core encircles the water, or the distant mountains, or the buildings and trees nearby. Sometimes the sea drapes it gently in emerald and ruby kelp. Barnacles and crabs and insects all snuggle in its outer grooves and ridges. If you sit at one end and listen, the sounds of children playing and seabirds laughing and the splash of waves all pass through and around the portal. It sits, waiting, in sun and moonlight and torrential rain, and slowly, ever so slowly, the edges of the portal diminish as the elements take what they will.

Someday, a group of young people, full of passion and laughter and in search of firewood, will probably douse it in fuel and burn what’s left. Don’t worry, this won’t be a sad occasion, but a joyous one. The demise of this curious thing will be an evening of revelry and play, as wild as any feast of the fae, or some ancient ritual of the deepest magick.

Part of the portal’s power, you see, is that it’s temporary. It’s a liminal, momentary place where it feels you might fall out of your life forever, if you dare. You may have experienced something like this before: the edge of a storm, where the dark clouds meet the blue sky and the electricity in the air is full of secrets and unspoken love and the longings of the dead. Or deep October, when the oak drops her leaves to the sodden ground, and the veil between worlds thins, and there are whisperings in the mist and cold hands to hold in the dark. Or a clear night in the mountains when the stars pulse and call and beg you to remember who you really are. These are hollow places. There’s room for every breath and possibility. But you must go now, or you’ll miss it.

We can’t always be there, in that sparkling awareness. We have work to do and mouths to feed and dishes to wash. We have problems to solve and sorrows to carry. We are, after all, mere mortals. But we can, when we need to, return to the magic places, if we’re lucky enough to know their stories.

Fairy tales, folklore, fables and all great stories enable us to conjure such places, experiences, and feelings, even if they were long ago and far away. Even if they never were at all or haven’t been yet. Language can lovingly give us what our daily, busy, hassled lives sometimes forget: Wonder. The space inside our hearts where our truest selves reside. The betwixt and between.

Stories function the same as the driftwood portal, or the October night. They do more than open a mere doorway to another world; they embody the spaces and experiences that expand our very beings and open us to the mystery and energy of existence.

What’s more, the special ability of stories is that they last. Not forever maybe, but they stay long enough to rest patiently on our shelves until we can visit them again. Then, miraculously, with the same urgency and danger of a forbidden kiss, or the storm’s edge, they call us down to the moment we’re in. They prick our fingers, and ruin our clothes, and lift the veil to everything we are or could be. Stories take us to the electric edge of what we know. And then they stay with us. Somehow, brilliantly, they stay.

I would take you there, if I could. To this driftwood portal on the little beach, with the grey city nearby and the mountains asleep on the horizon. We’d sit close and wait until a storm crept up to contend with the blue sky. Then we’d laugh, and place bets on who might win and why, and carve our names in the sand and make a ring around us of wish stones. And then, just as we started to get cold, or heard our mothers calling, or felt we’d be missed from home, we’d abandon everything we ever knew, and crawl through to a new story of our very own.


Edith Hope Bishop

Edith Hope Bishop grew up in South Florida, is 1/4 Puerto Rican, holds degrees from Harvard and Columbia, and taught for several years in a public high school. She’s an active member of the Pacific NW Writers Association (PNWA), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. She was a finalist in the PNWA Literary Contest in 2013 and 2016, was nominated for a 2016 Rhysling Award (for poetry), and has been previously published in Mythic Delirium Magazine, Lucia Journal, Yellow Chair Review, and four benefit anthologies for Sirens Conference. She writes sad bastard songs for jilted mermaids as Foulweather Bluff, though she spends the majority of her time on adult and middle grade speculative fiction. She can usually be found near a body of salt water. You can follow her @ehbishop on Twitter and learn more about her work on her website.

You Have a Dragon to Impress

2020 so often feels so isolating, so directionless, full of dangers and impossibilities. When we have an infrequent spare moment, we all seek the most fragile of things: hope, justice, compassion—and sometimes to remember why we love the things we love.

In advance of Sirens at Home, as we contemplate gathering safely online rather than in person with the warmth of the Sirens community, we invited members of that community to write about what speculative fiction means to them. We think you’ll find their essays reassuring, a common touchstone that we all need when we’re adrift, and perhaps a welcome remembrance of something you love.

Today, we present an essay by Chelsea Cleveland.

Science fiction and fantasy books have always been one of my favorite escapes. It started with Redwall, Harry Potter, and Ender’s Game, and only grew from there. People sometimes say that word—escape—like it’s a bad thing. Escapism. An illusion. A guilty pleasure. Something to be relegated to a box hidden on top of the fridge or the soft glow of a television screen after the rest of the household has gone to bed. I disagree.

SFF is not the kind of thing you should have to stash away, but something to be discussed and recommended. It’s fiction at its most fiction-iest. It takes the rules, crosses out all the even-numbered lines, and writes new ones in the gaps. It’s an escape—but the kind of escape that also means a getaway. A trip to a tropical island that you come back from happy, tanned and refreshed. A chapter is a mini vacation that can fit within a lunch break or bus ride. For far less than the cost of a plane ticket, authors have taken me to other countries, other times, and other solar systems.

And even if it is the running away kind of escape sometimes, I think that’s perfectly healthy. There are moments when we all need a break from the everyday. A ninety-minute wait in a busy doctor’s office was never better spent than in the company of friends like Tamora Pierce and Neil Gaiman. Sometimes your brain needs a rest from worrying about that big project, the magical sink that never empties of dishes or your ex’s ambiguous texts. You may still have to share the neighborhood Trader Joe’s with Steven-who-can’t-commit, but you’ll never unexpectedly bump into him on the planet Pern. And to be honest, even if you did, you wouldn’t care; you have a dragon to impress. SFF not only takes you away from your everyday surroundings, but also your everyday headspace.

When you travel to a new planet or kingdom in a book, the most disconcerting things often aren’t double moons and wizardry. The things that keep you thinking are the less visible shifts. A new planet means a new orbit and rotation. An invented history can lead to a different form of government. The presence of magic may produce a different balance of power. What if a day lasted sixty hours? What if our leadership was determined by a computer program? What if only one gender had magic? What would that change about daily life? What if normal meant something entirely different than what we’re used to? SFF has a particular ability to challenge the status quo. Its authors have continually pushed against my assumptions, expanded my empathy, and made me wonder if there might be a better—or at least different—way of doing things. SFF is a thrilling, if sometimes frightening, leap away from what we know.

While I generally read more on the F (fantasy) side of SFF, I’ll admit to a particular soft spot for near-future science fiction. Near-future SF has an urgency to it that I find extremely compelling. Titles from this niche are often written like an intimate question. The kind you only ask a close friend, a really good date, or a stranger at a party when you’re two drinks in. What if things keep going the way they’re going? Is this the future we want? What would you do if the world suddenly changed? What is your zombie apocalypse survival plan? Whether I agree with the way the writer proposes things might go or not, the time spent considering their questions always feels worthwhile.

By pushing beyond the limits of what is, science fiction and fantasy books expand minds and challenge assumptions even as they entertain. For me SFF is an escape. But not the wasteful kind. The vital kind. The kind that should be a part of any up-to-code apartment building or personal library.


Chelsea Cleveland is a Seattle-based marketer and copywriter. She has particular experience in the fields of books, design, travel, and technology. Her other passions include standing on tall things, feeding animals (human and otherwise), collecting art supplies, and discussing movies. She writes short stories, largely because it’s very difficult to finish long ones.

Sirens Essay: Women of Feral Souls

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

Sirens also offers an online essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Artemis Grey!

Women of Feral Souls
by Artemis Grey

There’s something a little different about the feral ones, and it always comes out eventually. Our strangeness might be worn like armor, an overt dare to all around us, or it might be sheltered deep within, a coveted sanctum, only truly understood by those who hold it. Some of us embrace the variance from our first understanding of it, while others war against it, ferociously struggle to destroy it, despite its perdurability. But however it exists, there’s something a little different about the feral ones, and it always comes out eventually.

We circle things metaphorically and sometimes physically. Ideas, causes, theories, relationships. Even things we love with absolute adoration from the moment we’re first exposed to them. Often, we circle those things even more warily than the things we inherently dislike, because it’s not easy to be trapped by something you don’t care about, not the way it is to be captured and bound by something you love. When you give of yourself in such ways, you also give away a margin of power over yourself. For most people, this is an unconscious act, the bindings associated with it unnoticeable and negligible. But for the feral souls, each and every thread of attachment is a brand across our awareness, some of them wonderful and amazing, others damaging and prohibitive. The delineation between those two extremes are what we endeavor to gauge when we assess the world around us.

When I was asked if I would be interested in writing an essay for Sirens, I leapt at the chance. And then proceeded to begin circling the task, unsure of what to do next. An essay is a very different creature than a novel, a short story, or even an article. It requires the writer to document their own impressions, opinions, experiences, to convey their own ideas and emotional responses to the subject addressed. Many seem to find essays liberating, a way of making their inner voices heard in an outward fashion. It’s an opportunity for them to expound upon something they’ve experienced and to convey that experience outside of themselves.

But I have no inner voice, no inner dialogue, no spoken words inside my mind at all. I inhabit a rich, endless, and ever-changing world of images and diegeses. However, all of it exists in utter silence. I do not hear music, or spoken words, I possess no internal dialogue of my thoughts. Viable plans play out in my mind’s eye, moving scenes I’m able to observe from any angle, and follow through to either fruition or ruin, scenarios that I can alter and replay, or rebuild entirely. But I don’t discuss options with myself, I don’t internally talk through possibilities, and even when I read something written, I do not hear those words inside my head. It’s as if, between the moment of visual perception by my eyes, and the reception of recognition by my brain, the written text dissolves into imagery and emotion. I feel words, I witness them, but I don’t hear how they sound or flow.

These peculiarities make considering what to write an essay about, how to discuss it, and the actual writing of it, rather difficult. I’d been thrilled to be offered the chance to write an essay for Sirens, but successfully creating one that did justice to the conference and the community— the people who created it, and have long upheld it, championed it, and attended it—was, and remains, something I’m not sure I could manage, or indeed have managed.

Living deeply in oneself, as I and many other feral souls do, gives you nearly impenetrable armor, but that armor creates an island: atolls of emotional vacancy crowned with wary cliffs interrupted only by deeply embedded linns wrought of warning and disinclination, against which churn and froth the waters of humanity.

We remain connected to everything, yet apart from it, and to engage with the world beyond ourselves is to descend that allegorical, yet not entirely figurative, terrain so that we might slip into the waves and currents from which we’ve been so long secluded. Just as one can be pummeled, and injured, or even killed by the unforgiving swells of the ocean—sometimes against the very rocks and reefs they’ve only just left the safety of—so too might the introverted and feral suffer for their efforts in venturing into humanity. Thus we remain circumspect when it comes to attempting such journeys and the wilder of us might never entirely descend from our protected skerries to mingle with the human seas around them.

I had never ventured more than halfway down the slopes of my own wild isle before I chose to cliff dive into the ocean current of the Sirens conference. So forbidding and treacherously steep are the borders of my solitude and introversion that there were no paths, even narrow ones, that I could climb down. There was only the impulse to swim, and the determination to reach that tantalizing current of others who felt safe, somehow. I submerged into Sirens not knowing what would happen, but the outcome was both unexpected and wondrous. I surfaced again surrounded by entities who were like me, and yet completely different from me, who embraced me, yet never tried to restrain me, never tried to follow me when, overwhelmed by their presence, I swam back to the safety of my isle.

Again, and again, I left the shelter of stony coves to swim in this current of souls belonging to writers and readers, artists and introverts, then retreated to consider them from afar, unsure, even as I felt drawn to rejoin them. They gently held whatever pieces of me I awkwardly and hesitantly offered to them, but they never clutched them, never snatched at them, and never clung to them when I stole them away again as my feral wildness drove me back to a safer distance from which I could watch in solitude.

As literal ocean currents do, the swirling eddies of Sirens soon shifted away from my metaphorical island, splintering into multiple tendrils of current, each a person with their own primary course, weaving through the rest of the human oceans. Its departure left me exhausted, my tolerance for sharing myself with others entirely spent, and I withdrew into myself satiated and inspired, and wilder than ever, even more powerful in my feral aspects. I had never been lonely, and I still was not, but I was empowered by engaging with like energies and spirits on a physical plane in a way I had only rarely experienced with humans before.

Solitude and isolation are constructs, not realities.

The energies of our souls and minds are connected to the energies of all other natural entities everywhere, every time and on every plane. We are never alone, and never truly disconnected, despite that some—increasingly more, it seems in these times—suffer from a keen and devastating loneliness, and subsequently in many cases, depression and melancholy born of those senses. Through no fault of their own, these souls are not able to perceive the connections their own energy shares with all the other energies. That they cannot feel this bond is an inexplicable unfairness, and the emotional turmoil it causes them is as real and tangible as the connection they’ve been precluded from experiencing.

Then there are those devoid of any perception of kinship in the innate bonds they share with all the natural things around them. Rather than embracing the world around them as an extension of themselves, they seek only to profit from it. They sense nothing beyond their own needs, their own wants, and their own energy. For them, all the energies of existence flow around their own, and serve only to feed and buoy theirs. With a wanton disregard, they draw in the energies of those around them like a black hole devouring light, turning it to their own ends, exploiting it, and leaving behind the offal of other lives, from the smallest, unnoticed lifeforms, to human brethren. All abuses can be, in their own minds, justified by their needs and wants.

Such entities are consumed by meeting the expectations and predesigned aspirations of avarice-driven socioeconomic structures; they are garroted by the associated perimeters of that socioeconomic plane, their beings restricted until any residual empathy they might have felt for the energies beyond their own has been destroyed. This unbearable constraint is what the feral ones rail against, what we scorn, even as we often repeatedly try to breach it in our hope to free those trapped within. We prowl the precipice of this domestication, simultaneously loathing any connection to it, while using the same to maintain our own freedoms, and help others escape, temporarily or permanently, through our existence and our creations, be that writing, or artwork, or songs, or other skill.

The feral ones will never successfully be rendered docile, never be tidily packed away into pleasantly spaced boxes of preformed notions. Even those of us who successfully lock away their divergency behind a permanent aspect of mediocre platitude in daily existence will always carry the buried seed of wildness. They need only to give it room and it will flourish once more. And for many, the facade of uniformity with societal expectation isn’t a denial of their wilder nature, but merely a segregation of their facets, a way of simplifying themselves so as to more easily interact with average society. Like donning business attire, they’re able to slip into a domestic mindset and presentation, and embrace that part of themselves, then toss it off in favor of their feral selves once the workday is done. For others of us, there is little or no truly domestic segment to utilize, and we struggle to adopt one long enough to engage with the mainstream for any reason, work or otherwise.

Yet all of the feral ones share this innate feature, and even when we interact with the larger, obliviously conventional majority, we remain agrestal. And our souls reach out to each other, sometimes without our minds immediately understanding why, ever searching for like kind despite that we perversely enjoy our solitude. As lightning unerringly seeks opposing charges, so too, are we drawn to one another. Our wildness might manifest itself in a hundred thousand different ways, in forms that do not induce relationship, love, or even friendship, yet still it recognizes its own. We still understand we are alike, in that primeval way, and thus more kin than not. We all possess our own islands, as it were, our own preserves, where we are safe at least in some ways, from the bombardment of mainstream society with its rigid, invariable angles and lines.

And when women of feral souls come together, we create our own currents wending through the ocean of domesticated humanity.

We might be forced to submerge, on occasion, but beneath the blandly docile waves, we grow only stronger, a riptide gathering its own as it goes; a danger to those unlike us, and a respite for those who are. This fearsome wildness has seen us hunted, persecuted, and even massacred throughout history, in attempts to domesticate the very oceans of humanity the world over, yet we flourish again and again. Our tides and currents might be interrupted, but they can never end entirely. Members may only leave their isles for a short time, but their joining with others provides strength that continues on, long after they’ve retreated again— and that strength and protection, in turn, offers a buoyancy and shelter to the younger of our ilk as they explore our currents for, perhaps, the first time. The residuals of our own souls might well be the incentive that calls them to leap from their own metaphorical cliffs of solitude, to mingle and learn, and find a home and hope beyond their own spaces.

Such is the nature of what I found when I dove into the currents of the Sirens conference when it first passed my indrawn bastion so many years ago. And so will I always merrily fling myself into the rushing flow of my feral-souled Siren Sisters, whenever they pass me by in their endless trek though the oceans of life. And when they move ever onward, again beyond my realm, a part of me will go with them, never lost, never separated, regardless of time and space, until we’re rejoined once more.


Artemis Grey

Artemis Grey was raised on fairy tales and the folklore of Appalachia, taught from an early age to embrace the unknown, and unexplained, rather than fearing it. She never stopped hopping into faerie rings and exploring possible portals to other places, and can often be found roaming the woods and wild. With a passion for capturing that elusive moment when it’s possible to choose between leaving the wonderment of childhood behind and carrying it with you throughout life, Artemis primarily writes books for young adults, with occasional jaunts into the more esoteric. Her debut YA, Catskin was published in 2016, and she is currently working on Pohickery Girl, which is set in the West Virginia mounts of her beloved Appalachias. She seeks to make her readers look at the world they’ve always seen, and see the world they’ve always envisioned.

Artemis’s author photo was taken by the late Sabrina Chin, co-chair of Sirens, 2013-2019, whom Artemis loved very much. Although unconventional in format, it remains Artemis’s favorite photo of herself, as it captures her in an utterly natural state, in one of her favorite places (by a warm stone hearth) and surrounded by her Sirens Sisters. In honor of Sabrina, Artemis uses this photo as her author photo whenever possible.

Sirens Essay: On Bearing Witness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

Sirens also offers an online essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from S.M. Mack!

On Bearing Witness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls
by S.M. Mack

Content warning: references to and discussion of rape in general terms, mention of dissociation

I don’t like reading rape scenes. They are almost always gratuitous, and almost always unnecessary to the plot. (“Almost always” here means 99.98 percent of the time.) Explicit rape scenes, no matter how well intended the author might be, are voyeuristic. Give everyone—the character and the reader both—a break, will you? We don’t need to see it happen. If an assault is unavoidable within the confines of a story, it’s the aftermath of the assault that is important for a character’s arc—how they respond to it and how it shapes their decisions going forward. Also, the aftermath is traumatic enough for both the character that has been assaulted and for the reader.

The Silence of the Girls

By the time I was mature enough to realize I could curate my reading preferences, that I could set boundaries and decline to read stories with rape or other exploitative events and themes, I was in my mid-twenties. It was such a relief to quit consuming these stories, to teach myself that rape scenes were misused in the vast majority of the fiction they appeared in, and to seek out stories with better avenues for narrative tension and character growth. In the years since then, I’ve tripped over exactly two books that fall under the begrudging “I’ll allow it” category: The Devourers by Indra Das and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. (In both novels, it should be noted, the persons being raped are ciswomen and the rapists are cismen.) In The Devourers, the explicit rape is, thankfully, only a one-time event. However, I’m going to focus (in very general, non-explicit terms) on the abuse suffered by the narrator and the women around her in The Silence of the Girls. The rapes themselves were not explicit, but we stay with our narrator throughout the scenes. We’re shown the before (“He didn’t speak—perhaps he thought I wouldn’t be able to understand him—just jerked his thumb at the other room.” [page 23]) and the after (“What can I say? He wasn’t cruel.” [page 24]), and that is more than enough to tell the story.

At this point, I’d like to reiterate my earlier statements: It is a chilly day in hell that rape scenes are necessary.

But what happens when an author builds a world in which rape is a daily event for their characters? When the narrator is kept as a slave to warm her owner’s bed? What if the cast of a novel becomes the spoils of war?

We could, collectively or individually, refuse to tell or read those stories. I wouldn’t judge anyone if they took that course—no one should traumatize or re-traumatize themselves if they can avoid doing so. But in The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker gives voice to a woman who has been silently borne along within the confines of Homer’s The Iliad for literally thousands of years.

The novel’s premise was enough to get me to pick it up, but the promise the book makes—that we will hear the words of a silent woman given a voice—became a burden and a responsibility I couldn’t put down.

The novel follows Briseis, a Trojan noblewoman given to Achilles after he sacked her town. It opens as she and the rest of the women from her town hide in the citadel as the Greeks overrun their home, then the citadel itself. Briseis watches as Achilles kills her three brothers and husband, then as the rest of the Greeks kill all of the male children hiding with their mothers and sisters in the citadel. Achilles picks Briseis out of a lineup as his prize for killing sixty men that day:

“‘Cheers, lads,’ he said. ‘She’ll do.’
“And everyone, every single man in that vast arena, laughed.” (page 19)

Clearly, The Silence of the Girls is heavy on multiple fronts, but Briseis is the primary narrator. Hers is the only first-person point of view, and The Silence of the Girls is her story. Looking away, despite the assaults that were clearly on the horizon from the first page, felt like an unworthy and overly privileged decision.

The Iliad’s inciting incident centers around two Greek men squabbling over two captive Trojan women. Agamemnon, who was in charge of all the Greek forces, was forced to return his “bed-girl” to her father, so he took Achilles’ own prize woman, Briseis, as his own. Achilles then threw a hissy fit and refused to fight anymore.

Neither Briseis nor Agamemnon’s bed-girl, however, speaks in The Iliad. They are objects, not characters.

The girl freed from Agamemnon was named Chryseis, which means only “daughter of Chryses.” But in The Silence of the Girls, Chryseis is more than just the daughter of a priest. She is fifteen, with a “formidable reserve,” and she nearly shatters under the weight of her hope that Agamemnon will send her home to her father. (page 42) Chryseis is a person, as is every other woman she and Briseis spend their days with. And it is worth noting that, while the majority of Briseis’ narration is exposition, the few times that dialogue runs the length of a page or beyond are when the women gather and speak. It’s ordinary conversation—what the men are like in bed, how to make their new lives bearable, who serves which meals—but it’s theirs.

Outside of speaking to the women around her, Briseis speaks almost exclusively to the reader. She exchanges only a handful of sentences with Achilles over the entire course of the novel, but constantly argues with herself:

Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?
“Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.” (page 82-83)

This is how she survives the nightly rapes, by disassociating herself from her personhood. She’s not explicit in her descriptions, but we frequently return to the narrative immediately afterward. The only time that we return specifically to Achilles’ or Agamemnon’s bedrooms (Agamemnon’s because Achilles did indeed let Agamemnon take her) is when something changes. For example, Briseis walks into the ocean one evening, then is summoned before she has time to clean the salt from her skin, and she and we are both treated to an uncomfortable display of passion by Achilles. That is the beginning of her and our shared understanding of his many, many mommy issues. (His mother is a sea goddess.)

Briseis is more interested in the rest of the world around her than in the men who own her. Even when Agamemnon takes her in anger, all she tells us is, “So what did he do that was so terrible? Nothing much, I suppose, nothing I hadn’t been expecting.” She watches those men—not like a hawk, but like a mouse in fear of its life—but she doesn’t speak to them. She speaks to us.

It felt like the height of cruelty to put down The Silence of the Girls even for an afternoon’s rest because I, as the reader, controlled when and how loudly she spoke more than Achilles ever could.

It seems like such a small thing in the middle of the real world’s myriad crises, to bend my own proscription on books with rape in them. But I can’t go to the racial justice protests. I can’t help the individual people who are suffering and dying from the coronavirus pandemic, and I can’t do anything more than stay home and wear a mask when I absolutely must go out. And I can’t save Briseis from Achilles, or Chryseis from Agamemnon, or Hecamede from Nestor, or Ritsa from Machaon, or Andromache from Pyrrhus.

But I can watch and not look away.


S.M. MackS.M. Mack is a 2012 Clarion graduate with an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her short story, “The Carrying Beam,” was the 2017 first place winner of the Katherine Patterson Prize for Young Adult Writing and was published in the VCFA’s Journal for the Arts, Hunger Mountain. Other stories have been published in Fireside Fiction and Vine Leaves Literary Journal’s “Best of 2015” anthology, among others. For more information visit her website or her Twitter.

Sirens Essay: A Room of Her Own: The Post-Modern Haunted Houses of Nova Ren Suma

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

Sirens also offers an online essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Meg Belviso!

A Room of Her Own: The Post-Modern Haunted Houses of Nova Ren Suma
by Meg Belviso

There’s something enduring about a haunted house. For centuries, it’s called up images like the Gothic family manse crumbling from the inside, passed from one heir to the next, or the duplex on the corner where families come and go a little too fast. The whole idea of a house suggests a place to put down roots, settle down, grow up, over and over through many generations. For centuries—from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Ann Radcliffe to Emily Brontë to Barbara Michaels—when we talked about a haunted house, we meant a place where remnants of the building’s past affected the people of its present, threatening or influencing their future.

So goes the traditional haunted house story.

Modern horror, however, has begun to focus more on the haunted house as a transitional space. That is, a dwelling without a fixed position in time. A decaying building, for instance, that no longer functions in its original capacity, but has not yet become a ruin with a fixed place in the historical or mythical past. A Roman Colosseum that has lost its meaning as a working arena, but not yet found its meaning as evidence of an ancient empire.

Sometimes the modern ghost story emphasizes this idea further by giving the space other “in-between” qualities as well. The mansion in Alejandro Fernando Amenábar Cantos’ 2001 film The Others takes place on the Isle of Jersey, a self-governing possession of the British crown off the coast of France, in 1945, a time between WWII and what we’ve come to recognize as the post-war period. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables has a firm historical and legal history. By contrast, Amenábar has intentionally set his story in a place that does not belong to WWII, the post-war period, Great Britain, or France, but lives in a transitional space at the center of all of them.

In The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema, Jessica Balanzategui links this shift to twenty-first century anxiety about an increasingly uncertain future and a feeling that the foundations of society that had once seemed solid are now vulnerable. Today’s young—and even not that young—adults, for instance, are often accused of immaturity when they fail to hit landmarks by which life was measured in the past. One of the most obvious examples of this is home ownership.

These accusations of personal irresponsibility often flat-out deny the financial instability faced by so many young adults who, unable to follow the path their grandparents did, threaten critics by not only choosing to forge their own path, but questioning the value of paths in general.

The children at the center of postmodern stories are often young people who “will never fulfill futurity’s promise of becoming an adult…but instead linger at a point of continual transition to a corpse, dust, a ghost, a memory.” The settings of modern haunted house movies reflect this “unsettlingly liminal space of transition between states, with no triumphant end state.” Not becoming adults, but simply becoming.

Adolescence, that period of life between childhood and adulthood that’s center to YA lit and its intended audience, is also a transitional space. Today’s YA audience has grown up in the twenty-first century. Most YA heroes, like fictional heroes in general, exist firmly within fixed, linear time. They are no longer the children they were and not yet the adults they will be. Even in the bleakest circumstances, they move towards the future, figuring out what kind of people they are going to be, what values they will live by, how they will change the world. Sometimes they’re motivated by the fear of growing into the wrong kind of adult—of selling out, giving up on their dreams, perpetuating the unjust system they live in now. But even then, and even if they develop into what we would call a villain, they will be part of the future. They’re making choices, developing, moving forward.

In her two post-modern haunted house books, The Walls Around Us and A Room Away from the Wolves, author Nova Ren Suma connects these two transitional spaces, the haunted house and the adolescent. In doing so, she creates a new—one might even say revolutionary—bildungsroman for the twenty-first century.

Suma’s haunted spaces are not traditional homes, but temporary housing populated not by families but inmates and tenants. Specifically, young women between childhood and adulthood. They are places to reflect on the past and prepare for the future before aging out and moving on, rejoining the normal progression of life.

The Walls Around Us

In The Walls Around Us, Amber Smith and Orianna Speerling are sentenced to do time at the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center. When she reaches eighteen, a prisoner is sent either to a jail for adults to finish her sentence or released. Either way, according to Amber, she ceases to exist in the world of Aurora Hills, not just physically, but in the memories of the other inmates. “We’d recite [a former inmate’s] stories until the names and specific characteristics faded away…until it was somegirl, which may as well have been any of us.” When Amber glimpses a spectral girl in the prison who doesn’t belong, she’s not the ghost of a girl who once served time in the prison, but a vision of a girl who has not yet arrived. The inmates regret the past and acknowledge no future. There is only now.

A Room Away From the Wolves

Bina Tremper, the heroine of A Room Away From the Wolves, also checks into a temporary place. In this case, an old-fashioned boarding house that doesn’t seem to belong in modern Manhattan. At first Bina worries that she won’t be able to pay for more than one month at Catherine House, but she soon realizes that she’s no more able to leave it than the inmates of Aurora Hills can walk out of their prison. The staircase walls are lined with decades of annual photographs of former Catherine House residents, but the young adult lodgers themselves don’t seem firmly attached to any single time period at all. Bina herself carries bruises that still look fresh weeks later, as if no time has passed. Although her mother left New York decades earlier, Bina finds her belongings in her room. The house, too, seems to exist in a state of suspended decay, shabby and threadbare, but still habitable for now.

Where many YA stories take place in environments that explicitly measure physical development and count the passage of days, months and years, such as schools or camps divided by age, Aurora Hills and Catherine House have both, in their own ways, extracted themselves from the normal progress of time.

Suma’s girls are physically trapped by their surroundings, yes, but they also fear leaving them.

Both Amber and Bina begin their narratives watching another girl attempt a desperate and potentially deadly escape. They watch and choose not to follow. Amber admits, “No matter how I may have pictured myself leaving this place—face-first or feet-first—truth is, I can’t leave it. I would never. That’s my real secret.”

When told she’s being released from the prison, Amber’s attitude is similarly reluctant: “[The guard] was walking me down the corridor, confused maybe as to why I wasn’t leaping around for joy….We passed the window…and the blue sky flashed, and I turned my face away.” No matter how much she hates the prison, the outside world has betrayed Amber too much for her to want to return to it. She no longer trusts that she can restart the process that was cut short when she was convicted.

To emphasize this point, Suma creates a villain who moves in only one direction, forward, like a shark. Vee can’t wait to leave behind her hometown, her boyfriend, even her best friend, to reach the future she’s planned for herself since she was eight. Her best friend Ori, by contrast, voluntarily postpones her own pointe training to wait for Vee to catch up and is said, by Amber, to live in fear of “the halfway mark of anything.” That hesitation costs Ori dearly when Vee’s plans are threatened.

Wolves’ heroine, Bina Tremper, has her own reasons to fear the future. She’s been raised on her mother’s stories of the summer she spent in New York. The summer she paid for a room of her own, went on auditions, collected postcards, was cast in a short film. The summer that came to an end when she returned to her abusive boyfriend and got pregnant with Bina. Over and over, it seems to Bina, her mother plans an escape, only to wind up once again in a life that isn’t her own. Over and over she entices Bina with optimistic plans, only to betray them.

That one summer in New York becomes, to Bina, the only time her mother really had a life at all. When her mother kicks Bina out of their house for a month, she understandably decides to run there herself.

Bina’s initial escape masquerades as forward movement—she vows to succeed at the New York life that her mother gave up by returning to her boyfriend, to live the future her mother didn’t. But once she’s in Catherine House, her life does not move forward at all. Where the traditional bildungsroman would focus on Bina making friends, finding romance and getting her first job, Suma’s story barely touches on these things. The people in Bina’s new world are too hazy and mercurial to be actual friends. Her search for a job consists of walking the entire length of Manhattan for days without result and without seeing or doing anything worth noting. Her actual experiences are more focused on trying to understand her present than to build any future. “Some girls wanted to leave Catherine House,” Bina says, “and I couldn’t fathom why…it felt like nothing bad could happen within these walls, beneath this roof, to me.”

Following in her mother’s footsteps and completing the journey her mother started was an excuse for running to Catherine House. But her mother’s dreams were never Bina’s. She didn’t want to be an actress. She was never really running toward an imagined future. She just wasn’t wanted enough in her present. When her relationship with her bullying stepsisters got too bad, her mother chose to send Bina away to keep the peace. Amber’s mother, likewise, doesn’t write or visit while Amber is locked up and won’t receive her phone calls. Amber knows without a doubt that her mother loved her husband—Amber’s abusive stepfather—more than her. Bina wonders if her own inconvenient birth was what ruined her mother’s life.

Neither Amber nor Bina is interested in fighting for a place in the world they left behind.

They’ve internalized the things they’ve been implicitly told about themselves: That Amber is guilty. That Bina interferes with the life her mother wants. Neither girl is freed from these notions in death. Rather, she accepts them. She embraces her life outside society and once she’s done so, she finds power and space she couldn’t see before. It’s not paradise, but it’s no worse than the life she left. At the very least, it’s not a world she’s allowed into only if she meets the demands of others, or accepts being loved less than anyone else. In these new worlds there are no guards, punishments or rules at Aurora Hills, no curfew or contracts at Catherine House. Like the founder of Catherine House herself, Amber and Bina jump off a roof to escape a trap and fly.

Amber and Bina aren’t figuring out who they are going to be or preparing to take their place in society. They are coming to understand what they are now, learning to navigate the spaces they have both chosen and had chosen for them, spaces outside linear progress and the world that failed to protect them. Not growing up, but becoming. They are not traditional ghosts, tied to a specific historical moment or event, but post-modern spirits that have opted out of the historical narrative entirely. They are a past that can’t be changed and a future that will no longer be.

But they are still here.


Meg BelvisoMeg Belviso holds a BA in English from Smith College and an MFA from Columbia University. During the week, she chronicles angel encounters as Staff Editor of the bi-monthly magazine Angels on Earth and she loves a good haunted house story. As a freelancer, she has written for many different properties, including several biographies in Penguin’s “Who Was…?” series.

Sirens Essay: Moral Disability: How Villainy Looks When You’re the Monster

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

Sirens also offers an online essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from V. S. Holmes!

Moral Disability: How Villainy Looks When You’re the Monster
by V. S. Holmes

Our depiction of disfigurement and disability in villains—those in speculative works, particularly—taints our perception of disabled people in our own world with a dangerous morality. All of us know the ache of being unable to find yourself in a book and the annoyance when a character is just the lovechild of stereotypes and bigotry. So much of Sirens focuses on the importance and beauty in seeing ourselves—our strengths, our flaws, our lives—in speculative fiction. But when I search for a character like me, I find Captain Hook’s missing hand. I find Viren’s magical staff. I find villains.

Dr. Isabel Maru

We know the disabled villain trope well, from obvious monsters to the more human. Even works built on a platform of progressive ideals frequently fall short with ableism: Dr. Isabel Maru’s scars in the 2017 Wonder Woman film broke my heart (as did Steve Trevor’s cheap quip that Diana was blind). Sometimes it’s an offhand way to telegraph “This one’s the bad guy!” But when the character’s disability or disfigurement is part of their backstory, we often learn that their evil stems from the isolation and abuse they received because of their disability. Regardless of our fascination with darkness, if we look beyond the scarred, limping package of most classic villains, we see honest and understandable emotions.

Excluded, angry, desperate, misunderstood: We all have felt these at some juncture, and they are emotions disabled people carry with us every day. Frankly, they’re justified. So why are creators—including speculative creators—intent on making the disfigured and disabled evil?

Disability is feared because it is one of the few marginalizations that’s “catching.” As much as we want to believe we’re invincible, we aren’t. I’m often asked what happened to me when I use my cane or if I have a heart monitor strapped to me. Accidents happen. Genetics happen. I agree—finding out my body was unable to do what it used to was scary. Returning to the example of the Wonder Woman canon: Maru’s inception as a character was based on her terror that she might figuratively lose face, a fear turned literal in her modern film debut.

No one wants something traumatic and life-altering to happen to themselves or their families, even in a world as advanced as ours can be—have you seen the bionics from Hero Arm? Instead, we retreat to the rigid idea that people deserve what happens to them. Car accident leave you paralyzed? Maybe you shouldn’t have reached down to change the playlist. Connective tissue breaking down? Maybe you should have been better about taking those vitamins.

If the characters who limp, whose faces are scarred from birth or accident deserved it, then in turn, if you become disabled, you are also Bad.

The underbelly of these thoughts births horrific legislation and murder under the label of mercy. Husbands murder wives with dementia; parents murder children with development disabilities. These tragedies are termed “acts of love” when really it’s just fear and annoyance at a perceived burden.

The pervasive fear of illness and disfigurement in our world is seen so much more now as illness arrives on our doorsteps. Many think that, just by doing the right thing, they’ll be spared. As long as I follow the rules, I’ll be OK. As long as everyone likes me, I’ll be fine. As long as I do my yoga and take my vitamins and wear my mask, I won’t fall ill because, after all, I’m Good. Right? RIGHT?

It doesn’t work that way.

When we encounter disabled antagonists who have a redemption arc, the resolution is a magical cure—rewarded for being Good or Brave or Selfless and Doing the Thing. Suddenly they’re no longer blind, or their limb is restored, or the anxiety stops its incessant yammering. By this logic, disabled people must be Bad, because surely if we were Good, we would be cured by now.

Zuko

A good subversion of this was Katarra offering to heal Zuko’s burn scar in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The action is a classic symbol of his redemption, that he is accepted and loved by his new community, so now he can be Whole. However, the healing is interrupted and Zuko lives the rest of his life scarred—the rest of his fulfilling, long, and happy life, may I add.

This morality in our world is often mirrored in SFF worlds to show how terrible the world is, to show how tragic the history of war and magic and creatures has been. Where we do see disability addressed it is often on wealthy core planets that offer access to incredible therapies and technology or magic that all but erases our disability as nothing more than a fun worldbuilding quirk. Like in our own world, these treatments are gatekept by wealth. Additionally, we see this in heroes whose disability is the price for power, making it clear that no matter the world, being disabled is a negative.

Writing with this framework—which, like any privilege, isn’t easy to see and hard to disassemble—makes it tempting to cure the suffering and sickness in our speculative works.

In magical kingdoms and high-tech space stations, it’s easy to cleanse our world of hardship. Of scars. Of sickness.

I don’t want to be Clorox-wiped from the countertop or relegated to the corners as humans love to do with monsters. Disability cannot be erased. Many fall back on the reasoning that writing diverse characters isn’t realistic, but at Sirens we know that “reality” is based on a misunderstood, sanitized, and white-washed account of history—besides, what about the dragons? The realism argument does not hold up with disability, either. Gene therapy doesn’t prevent physical accidents. Nanobots and magical cures can’t stop evolution from testing countless new mutations—life will find a way, right? And honestly, not all disabled or disfigured people want a cure. In our world, seeking cures is often rooted less in our comfort than in freeing abled people of the “effort” of accommodating us.

Disability arcs grow complicated when we turn back to the villain’s past. There is no denying that enduring terrible things changes the way we view our world and the other people in it. Disability complicates our relationships with our bodies, our minds, and our entire sense of self. I’m in pain most days. It makes me short-tempered at the best of times. So, should I smile and make a go at world domination? I have my bad days like anyone else, but fascism seems a bit far.

Luckily for all of us readers and writers, cures are unnecessary with magical and advanced accessibility: A character doesn’t need to be able to walk without pain, because their hover chair can go anywhere on and off the electro-mag grid. Accessibility adds an incredible layer of worldbuilding from which to draw inspiration—both for worlds we can visit in our imaginations and those we can build from our own.

Plus, if you’re looking for a “wow” factor, changing a society’s perception is a way bigger miracle than just changing one person’s pesky meat-suit!

At its core, fantasy is about imagination, about pushing the boundaries of society and humanity on page and on screen. When building these worlds, it is easier to look backward at where we’ve been—and not just for our obstacles, but for our ideals. In small ways, we’re dismantling this framework: In 2018, the British Film Institute announced that they were banning disfigured villains to “remove the stigma,” though I’ve seen little mention of it since. If nothing else perhaps we’ll avoid a few poorly written origin stories that no one asked for, right?

I’d much rather imagine an accessible world where we can attend our places of worship, fan conventions, and job interviews. One where we don’t endure the embarrassment of being carried upstairs when there’s no lift. A world where someone will meet our eyes and we know they are looking at us, not the scar on our face, or the unique proportions of our body.

Casting a morality judgment on who becomes disabled or disfigured inherently changes the way disabled people navigate our world, often at the highest cost. Whether we are creatives or readers or activists, the worlds we imagine shape our perception of our own, and its people. Let’s envision a world not where people like me don’t exist, but where it’s easier for us to.


V.S. HolmesV. S. Holmes is an international bestselling author. They created the Reforged series and the Nel Bently Books. Smoke and Rain, the first book in their fantasy quartet, won New Apple Literary’s Excellence in Independent Publishing Award in 2015. In addition, they have published short fiction in several anthologies. When not writing, they work as a contract archaeologist throughout the northeastern U.S. They live in a Tiny House with their spouse, a fellow archaeologist, their not-so-tiny dog, and own too many books for such a small abode. As a disabled and queer human, they work as an advocate and educator for representation in SFF worlds. For more information about V, please visit their website or their Twitter.

Sirens Essay: Feminism, Patriarchy and Faith in The Khorasan Archives

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

Sirens also offers an online essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Ausma Zehanat Khan! This essay is based on the keynote address that she presented at Sirens in 2019.

Feminism, Patriarchy and Faith in The Khorasan Archives

by Ausma Zehanat Khan

When I first conceived of writing the Khorasan Archives, my four-book fantasy series set along parts of the Silk Road, Central Asia, and the Middle East, I was consumed by a set of questions: What was the place of women within the Islamic tradition? Why did we appear so infrequently in the annals of Islamic history, why had our names and contributions been lost to time, and how did our erasure from our own history affect our current status in Muslim societies and communities?

I was particularly interested in the communities I came from as a woman of Pakistani Pashtuni background, an ethnic group most famously known for constituting the Taliban. Perhaps the Taliban’s most notorious act was to shoot a young schoolgirl by the name of Malala Yousafzai in the head for daring to attend school in defiance of their strictures. Though critically injured, Malala would go on to recover and become an outspoken advocate for girls’ education around the world, ultimately winning a Nobel Prize.

As a fellow Yousafzai (though my family spells it Yusufzai), I was horrified by what had happened to Malala specifically, but as a thinking and feeling human being, I was also outraged by the status of women and girls under Taliban law. So much of what was imposed upon all women, not just Pashtuns, living under Taliban law, was done in the name of a reading of Islam that invalidated the humanity of half the population. The Taliban had taken a religion practiced by a quarter of the world and turned it into a weapon aimed at the women of their communities. And not just the women, of course. The Taliban’s creed of nihilism had a drastic impact on the rights of minorities, political dissidents, and male members of Pashtun communities, as well as any who opposed their rule.

As a Pashtun Muslim woman, I saw these two forces of systematic erasure and oppression as being indelibly connected.

And I decided that I would write a series that put women at the front and center of the Islamic tradition, a tradition they would then use to liberate themselves from oppression and to reclaim their personhood and dignity. In writing the series, I began with the minute and personal—my own background—then expanded to encompass the astonishing sweep of the Islamic civilization. And while in the process of excavating my personal history, I turned a lens on a moment of crisis and decline in the broader Muslim world, focusing on the issue of faith being used as an instrument of oppression.

There were many challenges to taking this approach. As I considered both the personal and the global, I had to be careful not to give ammunition to xenophobes with a particular hatred of Islam and Muslims, along with a contempt for nuance. And I myself had to be wary of falling into the trap of depicting an extremist fringe as representing the center, while still speaking up on the issues that concerned me. The Khorasan Archives were shaped by these tensions and concerns.

The touchstones of my fantasy series were taken from Islamic history, but placed almost exclusively in the hands of women, as a speaking back to narratives, both classical and modern, that treat us as no more than a footnote.

The Bloodprint

So in The Bloodprint, the first book in the series, a dark power called the Talisman, born of ignorance and persecution, has risen in the world of Khorasan. Led by a man known only as the One-Eyed Preacher, it is a movement bent on world domination—a superstitious patriarchy that suppresses knowledge and is particularly concerned with destroying the written word. The Talisman’s other passion is the subjugation of women: Their creed is founded on the oppression and enslavement of women.

In the different parts of the world of Khorasan, resistance groups have formed to fight the Talisman’s tyranny. At their forefront are the Companions of Hira, a group of women mystics whose power derives from the Claim—the magic inherent in the words of a sacred scripture. (Without naming it as such in the series, this sacred scripture refers to the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.) Arian and Sinnia are two of the most powerful members of this group, one knowledgeable in the Claim, the other in weaponry and war, bound by an unshakable sisterhood. Together, they have stalked Talisman slave-chains and disrupted the Talisman’s power. Now they set out in pursuit of the Bloodprint, a dangerous text the Talisman has tried to erase from the world, because it is the key to Khorasan’s salvation.

The quest for the Bloodprint is a quest to deliver the world from tyranny and ignorance. It’s an inherently radical and revolutionary tale because the women in this story—the Companions of Hira, the Empress of the Cloud Door, the Khanum behind the Wall, the Queen of the Negus, the leaders of the Basmachi resistance, the Teerandaz archers of Ashfall—have each imagined a different future for themselves, a future where they topple the patriarchy and reinstate themselves as full and equal citizens.

I wrote The Bloodprint because I wanted to write about my own culture, Pashtun culture—its strengths, its beauties, its fascinating traditions, yet also, its shortcomings. I particularly wanted to write about Pashtun women because of the rise of the Taliban.

Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Because there has been no recent reliable census in the country, that number could be anywhere between roughly 40 and 60 percent of the population. Pashtuns also make up the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan, at around 15 percent of the population. The Taliban, or as they call themselves, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is a political organization and military movement composed mainly of Pashtuns. They rose to power in Afghanistan in 1994 and were prominently involved in the civil war. Many Afghans believed they would guarantee stability after decades of war. Their stance against corruption in an era of rampant corruption also made them popular. The Taliban movement recruited Pashtuns from southern and eastern Afghanistan who were mainly educated, if educated at all, in traditional Islamic schools called madrasas. Kandahar became their stronghold, and over the years, there have been different manifestations of the group, with a spillover effect and related entities operating within northern Pakistan.

As is well known now, Taliban rule was characterized by an extreme fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law that resulted in the systemic oppression of women and minorities. In the period ranging from 1996-2001, the Taliban conducted a scorched earth policy of destroying vast areas of farmland, murdering civilians, destroying tens of thousands of homes, and denying UN food aid to 160,000 thousand civilians in need. (This is why the Khorasan Archives has as its backdrop the issue of on an ongoing famine.) The Taliban also became known for the crime of widespread cultural destruction, such as the blowing up of the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province in 2001.

As time went on, and their power became consolidated, the Taliban’s version of Sharia law became increasingly restrictive. Among the things they banned were kite-flying, poetry, music, dancing, singing, radio, television, the theater, various forms of fiction and nonfiction, and the reporting of the free press. A strict dress code was enforced on men and women both—the length of a man’s beard, the completeness of a woman’s burqa and veil—but the most egregious of their abuses were against women. Restricting women’s right to work, women’s access to healthcare, and the education of women and girls, as well as engaging in violent attacks—including acid attacks—upon schoolgirls and teachers, and ultimately, the burning and closing of schools.ii

To the Taliban, women are a constant source of temptation and corruption and thus their freedom, including freedom of thought, needs to be controlled and constrained. The extent of the Taliban’s influence has fluctuated over the years, but is on the rise again in parts of the country.

The name Taliban derives from “talib,” which means “student,” and Taliban is the Pashto-language plural “students.” Students formed the backbone of the Taliban. This painful irony of students who possess very little knowledge and wish to prevent others, particularly women and girls, from acquiring any, is at the heart of the Khorasan Archives.

It’s beyond the scope of this essay to examine the impact of decades of war in Afghanistan or the role of foreign interventions. My primary focus in writing my series was to explore the status of women and girls under a law where freedom is curtailed in the name of two things: a fundamentalist interpretation of ideology and the code of Pashtun culture, known as Pashtunwali/Pakhtunwali, where tribal and clan honor is seen as paramount. So how have these two factors affected women and girls?

In 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report on the status of girls’ education in Afghanistan. Sixteen years after the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan ousted the Taliban, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. Insecurity, poverty, and displacement keep girls out of school, no matter the promises of international donors. Only 37 percent of adolescent girls are literate, as compared to 66 percent of adolescent boys.

Afghanistan’s government provides fewer schools for girls than boys at both the primary and secondary levels. In half the country’s provinces, fewer than 20 percent of teachers are female, a major barrier for the many girls whose families will not accept their being taught by a man, especially as they become adolescents. Separation and segregation of the sexes is an important part of Pashtun culture, particularly in tribal areas.

In contested areas of the country, girls seeking to attend school also face security threats. The conflict has been accompanied by lawlessness. Militias and criminal gangs have proliferated, and girls face threats including sexual harassment, kidnapping, and acid attacks. In this environment, education is increasingly affected, and girls are disproportionately harmed. But they are not the only ones harmed. Boys, of course, are indoctrinated in Taliban schools, taught only an extremist interpretation of Islam, with no access to alternate points of view, or richer and more diverse forms of education. They’re taught by teachers with a vested interest in promoting the Taliban worldview, and from a young age, boys live the Pashtun code of Pashtunwali, which has its dignity, beauty and strength, but which can also be oppressive to all genders. For decades, Pashtun boys have grown to manhood fighting the Taliban’s wars or living with the outcome of those wars in a deeply war-traumatized nation.

So in writing this series I not only wanted to explore what happens to women under a law like the Taliban’s, but also the impact on the boys and young men who have no other path forward than war—no other guarantors of security than a group like the Taliban.

As I mentioned in my introduction, in all my writing, I’m engaged in the most delicate balancing act. It’s vitally important to me not to contribute to the demonization of Muslim communities through my work. Yet I can’t be silent on the issue of human rights, women’s rights, or the erasure of women from participation in public or communal life and from most accounts of Islamic history. To counteract this, I highlight the contributions of women to the dizzying accomplishments of the Islamic civilization in the worldbuilding of the Khorasan Archives.

And to facilitate that delicate process of critical self-reflection without falling into the trap of feeding racist anti-Muslim discourse, I began with the story of a Pashtun woman like myself. My main character, Arian, is from the city of Candour, and she’s living through a historical moment where women are treated the same way by the Talisman—some thousand years into a future where the world has burned down—as they are currently treated by the Taliban. In Khorasan, women have lost access to their history, to knowledge, to education and to individual freedom. In The Bloodprint, I write about what it’s like to live in that society, almost entirely from the perspective of women.

The Black Khan
The Blue Eye

But in the second and third books in the series, The Black Khan and The Blue Eye, without taking anything away from the heroism of the women in my series, I bring into focus Arian and Sinnia’s confederates and allies. Men who oppose the Talisman’s rule of law and who help to bring down a patriarchy that oppresses all the people of Khorasan with its anti-humanism. I write about Arian’s ward, Wafa, a Hazara boy—when the Hazara are a persecuted group, as they are today in Afghanistan—who has ample and intimate knowledge of the Talisman’s cruelty. I also open up the story to include Arian’s beloved, Daniyar, the Silver Mage and Guardian of Candour, a member of the Shin War tribe, a tribe that has fallen to Talisman rule. Daniyar in many ways embodies the code of Pashtunwali, the Pashtun way of life, with its traditional qualities of nobility, honor, and strength in war.

Perhaps less well-known or regarded is the concept of “namus” or women’s honor, which refers to the modesty, respectability and protection of women. A Pashtun man’s honor rests upon his ability to uphold and protect the honor and dignity of the women of his family and clan. Traditionally, the concept of “namus” has been a way of controlling the behavior of women so that it doesn’t diminish the honor of men.

But “namus” could also be conceived of as according honor to a man who upholds and protects the rights of women, a part of Pashtun culture which too often is disregarded, though not by Daniyar.

The Khorasan Archives spends some time developing the character of Daniyar as a man who has resisted Talisman law from its inception, and who has sought to teach the orphan boys of Candour another way of seeing and being. This conception of honor is given more weight as the series progresses. In writing about it, I was trying to answer the question of what other ways of being are possible for the boys and young men of a war-traumatized nation steeped in patriarchal culture. It was important to me to include Daniyar because I wanted to imagine what equality and partnership might look like in a world where relationships between the sexes are premised on subjugation and oppression.

This examination of roots and origins was only part of my project. It may have been the spark that lit my interest in writing the Khorasan Archives, but I realized I wanted to explore more than my own roots, or at least the specificity of my own roots. Which takes me back to the question of Muslim identity, to the interconnectedness—for good or ill—of a global community.

In looking at the role of religion in society, it was evident that there are many similarities between the Taliban and other extremist groups—who of course, do not represent mainstream Muslim society, practice or ethics—but who have evolved patriarchal theologies to oppress women in Muslim-majority lands. A common factor within these theologies is the obsession with Muslim women’s dress: the need to comment on it, to legislate it, to either veil or unveil Muslim women forcibly, depending on the society or the era, and to intrude ever more deeply into Muslim women’s lives. Wherever an extremist interpretation of Islam flourishes—whether in the heartland of Arabia, or in rural communities in Nigeria, or in the cosmopolitan cities of Iran, or with fundamentalist revisionism in progressive societies like Malaysia and Turkey, extremist ideology is nearly always accompanied by two things: (1) the oppression of women to varying degrees along a spectrum, and (2) the violation of the human rights and human dignity of minorities.

I want to emphasize that this doesn’t apply to all Muslim societies, nor to all interpretations of Islamic theology and practice. I am pointing specifically to places and moments of crisis and decline. The Muslim world is vast, it can’t be painted with a single brush. It encompasses many different cultures, practices and histories. More, many instances of crisis and decline can be attributed less to Islamic theology and more to broken politics, particularly in the Middle East; to prevailing social, economic and political conditions in specific states, such as Iraq, Libya, or Syria.

Having said that, there is a thread of commonality between groups like ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, or elements of the Iranian theocracy, etc.: the fundamentally exploitative, exclusionary, anti-humanist, intolerant and patriarchal use to which religion is put in the service of tyrants or groups who seek exclusive power and control in deeply religious societies.

My personal history is rooted in societies like these.

As a Muslim woman who is part of the global community, or the ummah, my present and future are also connected to them all. It was on that basis that I wanted to interrogate the interplay between religion and society, and to challenge an anti-humanist, patriarchal, intolerant and exclusionary reading of religion that denies women equality and dignity, rendering them a lesser order of physical and spiritual beings.

But I wanted to be even more radical than that in terms of how I addressed these issues in my books. The Islamic tradition is a tradition I venerate. Its history isn’t merely academic to me—it’s deeply personal. I claim it for myself, just as many Muslim women claim it for themselves. We refuse to be excluded from it, to be ignored, or underwritten or forgotten. This is why I gave the magic in the series the name of the Claim. The Companions of Hira are claiming their tradition for themselves. The Claim is an oral magic that speaks to the power of the written word so I performed a bit of linguistic wordplay deriving “claim” from “kalimah/kalam,” which in Arabic means “speech” or “utterance” or “the word,” and in the case of “kalaam Allah”, “the sacred word.”

I was also fascinated by the story of the “munafiqeen”—the hypocrites. In the context of Islamic history, the “munafiqeen” were those who promised to stand with the Prophet Muhammad against his enemies, but went whichever way the prevailing wind blew, refusing to stand for any principle. And in the context of the Khorasan Archives, I thought about this a great deal. I considered the hypocrisy of preaching morality and piety to women, while practicing the rankest injustice. I thought of those Taliban warlords who took a faith premised on equality and justice, and turned it into an instrument of humiliation, subjugation and war.

Thus, the themes of the Khorasan Archives were born. The idea of a liberation theology came to life, and my Companions of Hira set off not to fight a war against men, but to reclaim their tradition for themselves, to have an equal say in interpreting it, reading it, living it, to be able to use it as a tool of justice, to use it to bring down the patriarchy and end a reign of injustice.

I began with the story of Pashtun women in Afghanistan, then swept through the history, terrain and mythology of the Islamic civilization—which despite our linguistic, ethnic, cultural or sectarian differences—is what the Muslim ummah holds in common.

The series doesn’t use the terms and names that I describe in this essay because I imagined a future where history was erased, and languages intermingled into a common tongue, though without any difficulty at all, you’ll deduce that the high tongue in this series is Arabic. The Arabic language touches all the histories and cultures of the Islamic civilization and has penetrated all its mother tongues. Whether they speak Arabic or not, most Muslim children from observant families learn to read classical Arabic at a very young age. To me, this is a thing of beauty—a thing that links us, a history I cherish.

In writing about the moment of crisis and decline embodied by groups like the Taliban or Boko Haram—and their culture of ugliness, I wanted to speak back to ugliness with beauty. The beauty of Arian and Sinnia’s quest. The beauty of the future they imagine, a future that builds on the dignity of their heritage, in place of the perversion of it brought into being by the Talisman/Taliban.

The Arabic language was central to the story because the Islamic civilization is a civilization of the book. A civilization of the word.

So I wrote about an illiterate people, a people without access to the written word, without access to the holy word, and in their commitment to ignorance, in their anti-intellectualism, in their rejection of innovation and of independent reasoning, in their refusal to embrace pluralism or diversity of opinion—they brought themselves to ruin.

Only the Companions of Hira can redeem them, the group of women mystics who are at the center of my story, led by Arian and Sinnia, two of the most gifted and determined Companions. And I chose the name “Companions of Hira” quite deliberately. In the context of Islamic history, Hira was a cave in Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad received divine revelation. The Companions were Companions of Muhammad, and through their accounts, we’ve come to learn about his life and teachings, as with the disciples of Jesus. But in most accounts of Islamic history, little attention is paid to women. They’ve been all but lost to history, or relegated to footnotes, even when they were powerful in their own right, as jurists, mystics or warriors. So with the Khorasan Archives, I was deeply motivated to speak back to this erasure. Thus, the Companions of Hira in my series—those who hold what is effectively religious authority—are all and only women.

A final point about my radical intentions: in this introspective series that is essentially a calling to account, the women of Khorasan do not require liberation by outside forces, nor do they need to be educated by those who deem themselves superior. There’s no civilizing mission here.

Arian and Sinnia are more than capable of liberating themselves—not with the aid of foreign intervention, not by being enlightened as to the backwardness of their ways, nor through any colonial constructs at all.

In Khorasan, for revolution to succeed, for a democratic and egalitarian transition to take root, the new form must be congruent with the old. The roots of reformation must lie within the people of Khorasan’s own tradition, if it is to be seen as authentic. If it is to have legitimacy.

The Bladebone

And what the heroines of my series would argue is that you derive from a tradition what you bring to it. If you bring an ethical perspective to it, an ethical reading will flourish in your hands.

So far from being used as an instrument of oppression, Arian and Sinnia find their dignity and freedom in the Claim. Because their reading of the Claim is the reading of all people of decency. It’s one that recognizes beauty. It honors human dignity, and it enshrines and protects fundamental human rights.

In writing this series, and excavating my personal history alongside my connection to the Islamic civilization, that was what I hoped to recognize and re-claim.


i Pashtuns are called Pashtun/Pakhtun in the Pashto/Pakhto language, and Pathans in the Urdu language. My family is Urdu-speaking, but I use the term Pashtun as it’s more broadly known.

ii “I Won’t Be A Doctor and One Day You’ll Be Sick”: Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan. (Human Rights Watch, October 2017). See also, Afghanistan: Girls Struggle for an Education


Ausma Sehanat Khan
Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She is a former adjunct law professor and was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women, and is the award-winning author of both the Khorasan Archives (The Bloodprint, The Black Khan, The Blue Eye, and The Bladebone, coming this fall), and the Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak series (beginning with The Unquiet Dead). Originally from Canada, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband. For more information about Ausma, please visit her website or her Twitter.

Sirens Essay: Have You Seen Her? Looking for Shuri on the Pages of Her Comic Series

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

Sirens also offers an online essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Kaia Alderson!

Have You Seen Her? Looking for Shuri on the Pages of Her Comics Series
by Kaia Alderson

When the Shuri comics run was announced, I was so excited to have a chance to see more of the spunky teenager portrayed in the Black Panther film. I ran to the comic bookstore on the day issue #1 was released hoping to see a story that focused on her—an intelligent, spunky young woman who was Black. (Shuri is African. I’m using the more generic term “Black” here since I am examining visual representation in texts where character geographic origins aren’t always clear.) I understood that comic book Shuri was not necessarily the same character as the one portrayed on screen. But what mattered to me was that there was a new space for action-packed stories that centered a woman of African descent.

Shuri #1 set the scene for a lot of promise to come—a young woman working through the insecurities that come with stepping into a leadership role filled with external expectations, The Elephant Trunk, and a mysterious online admirer. But that promise fell short as the series went on. With a woman of African descent as the main writer penning the story, I expected a storyline that centered a heroine of African descent. Instead, it soon veered off into adventures where Shuri teamed up with other (mostly male) people and non-human lifeforms. It appeared that the title character was barely in her own story at times.

How did a #RepresentationMatters dream scenario go so sideways?

I decided to prove my suspicions by taking a more scientific approach. Time and access did not allow me to examine every text in which comic book Shuri has made an appearance, so I chose to focus on the Reginald Hudlin-penned trade paperback titled Shuri, written as a part of his Black Panther run, and the 10-issue run of the standalone Shuri comic written by Nnedi Okorafor and Vita Ayala. I kept it simple with a comparison of visual representation by counting the number of panels in which Black women, Black men, aliens/non-humans, Shuri herself, and other Marvel characters were depicted in the Shuri series. I also went back and counted the panels in the Reginald Hudlin-penned trade paperback Black Panther: Shuri – The Deadliest of the Species to see if there were any differences when the writer was a Black man. Ironically, however, it was the inclusion of nonbinary Afro-Latinx comics writer Vita Ayala (Shuri issues #6 and #7) who demonstrated how effective #RepresentationMatters can be in superhero(ine) comics, yet in an unexpected way.

My assumption prior to compiling my data was that there would be more “screen-time” on the Black female experience within the Okorafor/Ayala standalone Shuri run than within the Hudlin storyline. (And that the “gaze” would be more affirming and women-centric.) That assumption proved to be true in the case of the Shuri character. Shuri appeared in 58% of Okorafor’s panels and 44% of Ayala’s panels, while she appeared in only 29% of Hudlin’s panels. However, while Shuri was technically in more than 58% of Okorafor’s panels, she did not appear as herself visually in 38 panels (5.4% of Okorafor’s panels) because she was inhabiting the non-human Groot’s body. (I thought that this was an interesting choice for Okorafor to make given the criticism the movie The Princess and The Frog received because Disney’s first Black animated princess spent the majority of her screen time depicted, not as an African-American woman, but as a frog.) Regardless of that choice, Shuri was still more likely to appear in a story carrying her name when it is written by a person who identifies as a Black woman. But even then, she shows up in a little over half of the panels in the Black female-penned story arc.

It took me a while to digest the fact that Shuri only appears in 58% of the Okorafor-penned panels. (Actually, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that.) How depressing. Even when a Black woman crafts a Big 2 superhero comics story about a Black woman, that title character only showed up in 58% of the story. What the hell? I know I have yet to examine Eve Ewing’s Ironheart series this way—but I’m almost scared to do so after compiling these statistics for Shuri.

Thankfully, the next set of numbers I compiled were more promising. I looked at how often Black women in general (when not identified as Afro-Latinx) were depicted. I found that Black women were more likely to appear in a panel when the writer identified as Black (non-Latinx): 77% of Okorafor’s panels, 44% of Ayala’s panels, and 66% of Hudlin’s panels. In fact, the only Black (non-Latinx) woman in Ayala’s panels was Shuri. They did have one woman who identified as Afro-Latinx. But even so, she still only appeared in 5% of Ayala’s panels. In this particular sample, it is safe to say that the writer’s ethnic and gender identifications matter when to comes to who we see, and how often, in a comics story.

What really hit home for me in terms of #OwnVoices and #RepresentationMatters was my findings within the issues that were written by Vita Ayala (Shuri #6 and #7).

They were the only writer in my study who had Black women (who were not identified as Latinx) written into less than half of their panels. The only Black (non-Latinx) woman to appear in their panels was, in fact, Shuri. However, Afro-Latinx men appeared in 68% of their panels. Miles Morales shows up in 29% of the story. This is a win for the push to depict more diverse stories within Big 2 superhero comics. But it is frustrating for those who came to the Shuri comic hoping to see more of the equally underrepresented Black female experience on its pages.

It must also be noted that, while I didn’t record how often other groups were depicted, Ayala’s issues contained the most diverse representations visually out of the three writers. This makes sense given that their story took place in Jersey City, New Jersey (USA), while Okorafor’s and Hudlin’s stories primarily took place upon the African continent.

My examination here was not intended to be an exhaustive, definitive study. The point was more to start answering the question of whether it really matters who creates these stories. In taking a closer look at the visual text, my goal was to determine whether or not the visual representation of Big 2 comics characters with marginalized identities changes when put in the hands of #OwnVoices writers and artists via a micro survey of the Shuri comics run. Clearly in the case of the comic books’ Shuri character, how the person writing her story identifies socially influences how often she even appears in her story. But even when she is in the hands of a Black woman, much less in her own series, she still needs a chance to dominate the storylines marketed under her name. The fact that she only visually appears (as herself) in 55% of the panels in the entire standalone Shuri series may have contributed to why that run resulted in low sales.

As a Black female reader, it is frustrating to see that Shuri’s visual representation is so low in this 10-issue series that is supposed to be about her. Shuri is a not a traditional Big 2 superhero(ine). A comics series marketed under her name is going to attract a non-traditional audience, mainly Black women. It does a disservice to this character, and the audience she attracts, if Shuri is not depicted on an overwhelming majority of the pages in her stories. However, it is encouraging that the likelihood of seeing Shuri and other Black women on the page significantly increases when the story is written by a Black person, even more so when that person is a Black woman. Similarly, the visual representation of the Afro-Latinx experience appears to increase when the story is in the hands of an Afro-Latinx writer regardless of who the title character of the comic is. These findings, in themselves, are progress. I look forward to seeing more of it.


Kaia Alderson
Kaia Alderson is a comedy and fiction writer based out of coastal Georgia. Her recent publications include romantic comedy novella Calling Her Bluff and comics shorts stories in Ladies’ Night anthology volumes 4 and 5. She has performed with Atlanta-based 2 Girls 3 Eyes improv group and is an alumna of Spelman College. Kaia has studied writing with the Hurston/Wright Foundation, The Second City, and Voices of Our Nation (VONA) workshop. When she isn’t living her best life on Twitter, Kaia spends her evenings worshipping all things Nora Ephron.

Amy Tenbrink: Witch, Please: An Apologia for and Indictment of Mean-Girls Stories in Young Adult Fantasy Literature

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Amy Tenbrink!

Witch, Please: An Apologia for and Indictment of Mean-Girls Stories in Young Adult Fantasy Literature
By Amy Tenbrink

The Wicked DeepThe Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw is premised on a legend—and because this is fantasy literature, the legend is true. In 1822, three white sisters—Marguerite, Aurora, and Hazel—moved to Sparrow, Oregon. The sisters were charming, witty, beautiful—and available. The men of Sparrow were entranced; their wives, less so. The three sisters were accused of witchcraft and drowned in the harbor—only to rise again, endlessly sexy, in order to drown three boys of Sparrow in that same harbor every year thereafter.


The mean-girl trope is so common that it hardly necessitates a description: A thin, beautiful, sexy, rich teenaged girl terrorizes her high school’s students through meanness, manipulation, and back-stabbing—and despite this, or perhaps because of it, everyone clamors for her attention and approval. As Roger Ebert said in his 2004 review of Sleepover, “I take it as a rule of nature that all American high schools are ruled by a pack of snobs, led by a supremely confident young woman who is blond, superficial, catty, and ripe for public humiliation. This character is followed by two friends who worship her and are a little bit shorter.”

Why are you so obsessed with me?

Once you begin deconstructing the mean-girls trope, however, you quickly realize that there’s a girl-power version: The entire trope—the entire casting of powerful girls as superficial, catty, and mean—is nothing more than a heteropatriarchal construct designed to villainize teenaged girls who have discovered how to seize power from within the system.

But continue with that deconstruction and you’ll find that a white women’s feminism version exists as well: A mean girl is ultimately a white teenaged girl who is willing to not only conform to the restrictions imposed by the white heteropatriarchy, but to weaponize her conformance against those girls who are deliberately excluded—black and brown girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, poor girls—in order to gain a limited amount of power from the white heteropatriarchy itself.

So let’s start at the very beginning: What is a mean girls story?

  • Aspiration: An ordinary teenaged girl aspires to be part of the popular clique of mean girls at her school. In fantasy literature, this clique is often the school’s coven.

  • Opportunity: For some relatively random reason, our ordinary girl has a chance to join the mean-girls clique—but only if she transforms herself. She becomes a dangerous, dragon-lipstick-wearing, miniskirt-sporting hot girl. In fantasy literature, if she is successful in her transformation, she’ll also acquire magic.

  • Achievement: Our ordinary girl becomes a popular girl: Everyone knows her name, everyone thinks she’s hot, and she might be nominated for prom queen. She might be a witch or otherwise monstrous. Except for her queen-bee mean girl, she’s invincible.

  • Villainization: Our ordinary girl becomes a mean girl. Spending time with mean girls both normalizes their behavior and demonstrates the power inherent in such behavior.

  • Girlfight: The queen bee stabs our ordinary girl in the back, generally over a boy.

  • Victory: Often, our ordinary girl rises to the top of the mean-girl food chain, dethroning—and replacing—the queen bee.

  • Loss: As part of this process, our ordinary girl loses all her old friends, but doesn’t really care because her new status feels like friendship.

  • Redemption: Someone upholding the heteropatriarchy inevitably intervenes and convinces our ordinary girl that she’s no longer “nice.” Our ordinary girl is devastated and, in her devastation, redeems herself. She gives up her dragon lipstick, her miniskirts, her magic, her power, and goes back to being an ordinary girl. In other words, she again subjects herself to the rules and structures of the heteropatriarchy.

Upon first glance, mean-girls stories seem immensely problematic: A nice, ordinary girl transforms herself into a skinnier, blonder, sexier beast in order to access the most exclusive club at school: the circle of hot, rich girls, with dangerous tongues and gorgeous boyfriends, who terrify everyone and stalk the school hallways while people scurry out of the way. Our heroine becomes powerful by becoming, definitionally, mean.

From the moment our heroine completes her transformation, we—the reader, the viewer, the consumer—inherently know that she’s no longer someone to root for.

We are the heteropatriarchy, judging our heroine for her failure to conform to heteropatriarchal standards: of niceness, of passiveness, of civility. To again like our heroine, we have to wait for her redemption—but that redemption invariably comes only after she’s given up her new look and her dangerous tongue, renounced her mean-girl friends, and again a nice-and-not-at-all-dangerous girl, subordinated herself the heteropatriarchy. The threat of powerful girls has been removed, balance is again restored to the heteropatriarchal universe, and we are again allowed to like our nice-girl heroine.


The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers

The best example of the mean-girls trope in fantasy literature is perhaps Lynn Weingarten’s The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers, where white heroine Lucy, just dumped by her boyfriend and crying in the school bathroom, receives the chance of a lifetime from white mean-girl witch, Olivia: break a boy’s heart in ten days and become a witch. Lucy does, accidentally and almost apologetically, and achieves her heart’s desire: magic coursing through her veins; a new, gorgeous look; formidable friends; and the power to do virtually anything she wants. All of this is true until the sequel, The Book of Love, when Lucy is sorry she ever lusted for power and gives it all up, wanting to be a “normal,” powerless girl once more.


Apologia

Despite the obvious problems with a trope centered around meanness, mean-girls stories are fundamentally about female power: what it takes to get it, what it takes to keep it, and just how unseemly it is to want it or wield it. These stories are simultaneously a massive interrogation of and a massive failure to interrogate feminine power structures.

In Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill Grace posit that every child wants three things out of life: connection, recognition, and power. Fundamentally, teenaged girls also want what everyone wants: connection, recognition, and power—and enough of each to feel both in control and less insecure. But teenaged girls run into an unfortunate intersection between their brains’ stage of development and relentless messaging from heteropatriarchal agents that what they are isn’t good enough. The quest for control and security is seemingly impossible.

So if you’re a teenaged girl, you’re at a time in your life when you’re emotional, but your brain hasn’t yet learned not to be reckless. You’re susceptible to other people’s opinions of you, especially your peers’. You have no control over huge aspects of your life. You want to have exciting experiences. You want drama, you want relationships, you want kissing and maybe sex. Your brain is primed for you to made bad decisions, in the direction of excitement and new things, based on peer pressure.

And then you add in the messaging of the heteropatriarchy.

Our heteropatriarchal society values good girls: Girls who are nice, passive, silent, and polite. Girls who defer and submit. The true purpose of a girl under the heteropatriarchy is, first, to be a breeder for the heteropatriarchal family unit, and second, to support her husband’s aspirations. This is, of course, antithetical to any dreams or aspirations or even thoughts that she might have—all of which are cast aside in response to the heteropatriarchy’s demands that she adopt marriage to a cisgender man and having children as her own dreams and aspirations. As political scientist Angie Maxwell has said, “Modern sexism describes feelings of resentment and distrust towards feminists and working women. Rather than believing that a woman cannot do a particular job, folks who express Modern sexism resent a woman for wanting to do that job.” To avoid upsetting that particular apple cart, teenaged girls must not want a goal, a job, or really anything that isn’t focused on a boy.

Rather than diving into the rabbit hole of the heteropatriarchy’s expectations of women, let’s focus on the degree to which teenaged girls have internalized this messaging. We teach them to live up to an impossible, exclusive physical standard. We teach them to diet, to lighten and straighten their hair, to whiten their teeth, to wear a face-full of make-up, to ruin their bodies with high heels, to enlarge their breasts. We teach them that expensive clothes are a must-have and if those clothes are revealing, so much the better. We teach them to smile, to be “happy,” to never rock the boat. We teach them to be dependent and helpless because boys don’t like girls who don’t need them. We teach them to be sexually available to boys, even when they aren’t feeling it or aren’t even interested in boys. We teach them to give in to sexting demands and sex demands and to not make a big deal about assault or stealthing or rape because to do so might ruin a boy’s life.

We teach girls to be everything that the cisgender men running our heteropatriarchal culture want in a woman.

Because of these endless strictures, teenaged girls—like so many women under the heteropatriarchy—are obsessed with conformance. Who has the right hair, the right make-up, the right clothes? Who is the thinnest, the prettiest, the sexiest? All with an eye toward attracting the right boys because the ultimate question—the ultimate status symbol—is: Who is dating the right boy—and here “right” is also defined according to heteropatriarchal standards, this time in terms of performative hypermasculinity.

Which becomes, very quickly, a question of competition. Girls have internalized American cultural messages of rugged individualism and meritocratic advancement just as much as their male peers, but we teach girls that these traits aren’t for them, that girls should be nurturing and kind, and that female competition is unseemly and unacceptable. We don’t want women competing for jobs, for venture capital, for elected positions because then they’d be competing with men. Girls are left with conflicting messaging: Be all that you can be—within the limiting confines of what the heteropatriarchy permits.

Which means that, after the heteropatriarchy has torn them apart and rebuilt them, the only competition left to girls is who can best succeed at playing heteropatriarchy. So girls compete within the confines of the heteropatriarchy—and when they win, when they succeed and are the thinnest, the blondest, the richest, when they’re banging the most masculine boy in school, there’s power in that success. Even if you’re playing a rigged game—and teenaged girls are—there’s power in winning the game.

But again, mean-girls stories are necessarily premised on the heteropatriarchy. Mean girls derive their power, directly and solely, from romantic and sexual exchanges with cisgender boys: dating boys, fucking boys, controlling boys’ attention, satisfying the male gaze, and denying other girls access to boys. While mean girls’ power might initially seem satiating—being a girl with magic and enough power to be immune from most consequences—that power is ultimately derived from men and ultimately requires pleasing men: Mean girls have power only because of the nature of the heteropatriarchy and only because men allow them limited power within those confines. If men were uninterested in sharing those romantic and sexual exchanges with mean girls, mean girls would have nothing.

Rather than attempting to find power in rejecting the heteropatriarchy, mean girls ultimately find power in embracing it.

While this power might look minimal to us, in high school, where so much of your life is in someone else’s control and when your brain feeds you daily doses of insecurity and desire for exciting experiences, this power is everything.

To achieve that success and that power, as part of that competition to see who can play heteropatriarchy best, teenaged girls not only build themselves up—for some value of “up”—they tear each other down. Which begs the next question of why girls, unlike boys, don’t simply fight like boys? Why don’t they just punch each other? Why the meanness, the manipulation, and the back-stabbing?

The inevitable answer is, of course, because those are the only tools society allows them—and frankly, girls weren’t allowed those tools at all. They just took them.

Odd Girl Out

As Rachel Simmons notes in Odd Girl Out, “Our culture refuses girls access to open conflict, and it forces their aggression into nonphysical, indirect, and covert forms.” Our society teaches girls that aggression and anger are for boys, not girls. We teach them to cry, not rage. And not only are girls prohibited from fighting, they are taught not to speak up or speak out—not only vis-à-vis boys, but vis-à-vis everyone. They are taught to be “nice” and “perfect,” which are too often synonyms for “silent” and “passive.”

But none of that makes the conflict disappear; it just makes girls find another path: Since they aren’t permitted to address the conflict head-on, they come at it sideways with back-stabbing, lying, whisper campaigns, icing, “jokes,” and slurs. As Anne Campbell has noted in Men, Women, and Aggression, men tend to use aggression to control their environment, while women believe aggression will ruin their relationships. Rather than ruin those relationships, girls simply use the relationships themselves as weapons.

But the mean-girl isn’t all manipulation and back-stabbing.

So often, women have to take their power where they can find it. While it’s easy to read a book about a girl who transforms herself into a witch by stealing the only power the heteropatriarchy allows her and to criticize her for doing so—perhaps because we fail to recognize the nature of her subversion, perhaps because her subversion makes us uncomfortable, or perhaps because we expect her to recognize and sacrifice her own support of the heteropatriarchy itself—it’s also hard to fault a girl for taking one of the few sources of power available to her. Our society allows girls so little power, finding endless fault in how they look, how they dress, how they speak, the things they like, and even their market power; why not applaud them for taking some in the form of lipstick, miniskirts, and magic?

Because the heteropatriarchy would have us position the mean girls in these stories—with all their power—as a villain, an adversary, or even a joke:

  • Villainy: We position her as a villain, nominally, because she’s mean. But that’s just a convenient excuse. In fact, we find her to be a villain because she defies stereotypes.

  • Adversary: We position her as an adversary of the protagonist. They can’t share a boyfriend. They can’t share the top of the food-chain. It’s one or the other, so to achieve her ultimate dream, our ordinary girl has to knock the mean girl down—which perpetuates that pervasive heteropatriarchal desire for girls to compete for boys’ attention, ceding ultimate power to boys and men.

  • Joke: Even worse, the mean girl is often the object of ridicule or scorn, either canonically or by consumers. We love Mean Girls. We love to mock Regina George. Karen can’t even spell the word “orange.” But these girls are everything we deride as a culture. They’re into clothes and makeup. They’re shallow and vapid. They’re boy-crazy. They upspeak and use vocal fry. They wear pink, yes, on Wednesdays. When we mock teenaged girls—and we do—we mock mean girls. But we don’t mock them for their meanness; we mock them for their femaleness.

If you interrogate this trope from a slightly different perspective, however, the mean girl is not villain, adversary, or joke, but the devil who offers an ordinary girl a deal.

She’ll give you what you crave—popularity, magic, power—but at what cost? Defiance of expectations. Is our ordinary girl willing to give up being nice, being obedient, being subordinate to the endless structures of the heteropatriarchy and claim her power?


Sawkill Girls

In Sawkill Girls by Claire LeGrand, two white sisters move to Sawkill Rock in the wake of their father’s death. The younger sister, a worrier, befriends Zoey, a black, asexual girl determined to discover what happened to her missing best friend. The elder sister, a soon-to-be victim, befriends blond, white Val, the rich girl with the hot boyfriend who lives in a mansion. As the book progresses, you realize that Val is the latest accomplice in her matriarchal line’s violent service to the male monster of the island—Val is, in fact, the heteropatriarchy’s appetite incarnate.


Indictment

When you examine comparative power, and girl-on-girl policing of that comparative power, mean-girl-ism goes from something almost empowering to something much uglier. In On Call: Political Essays, June Jordan says, “Patriarchy too often throws women crumbs in return for a limited form of power. Women who accept those crumbs are expected in return to uphold patriarchy, internalize its dictates, police other women and never forget that power bestowed is power that can be retracted.”

When researchers, among them Rachel Simmons (Odd Girl Out) and Rosalind Wiseman (Queen Bees and Wannabes), asked girls which characteristics were desirable in girls, the answers were predictable: pretty, thin, tall, big boobs, blond hair, blue eyes, trendy, expensive clothes, smiling, happy, fake, stupid, helpless, dependent, and sexually experienced, among others. Conversely, when asked which characteristics were undesirable, girls answered similarly predictably: ugly, athletic, fat, dark features, masculine, queer, disabilities, wrong clothes, poor, serious, brainy, opinionated, pushy, independent, egocentric, passionate, inexperienced, and promiscuous.

Teenaged girls have weaponized conformance.

When teenaged girls weaponize conformance, that is what it looks like: racist, sizeist, homophobic, ableist, classist. Hotness, popularity, and success—winning at playing heteropatriarchy, if you will—requires internalizing the rules of the heteropatriarchy and then policing those rules with respect to others. As with so many things, those rules are rigged so that many girls—black and brown girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, poor girls—cannot even play. While on the one hand, we might applaud the mean-girls trope for portraying girls seizing power from the heteropatriarchy itself, on the other hand, that seeming girl-power is nothing more than skinny, rich, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied girls weaponizing conformance to white heteropatriarchal standards in exchange for an iota of power, all in service to the perpetuation of the white heteropatriarchy itself.

As you might imagine, mean-girl-ism is a largely white middle-class construct—because the white middle class is where the confines of the heteropatriarchy are most rigid. Unsurprisingly, almost all books on mean girls are virtually silent on the construct of race or class, assuming rather that the white, middle class is an appropriate microcosm from which to extrapolate universal truths. But in Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons delves into this in some detail, noting, inter alia, that “For some girls, silence and indirection are neither attractive nor an option. They are instead signs of weakness. I found this to be true especially among the girls I met whose lives were marked by oppression. For them, assertiveness and anger were tools of spiritual strength.”

Simmons’s research shows that communities of color—and here, the research generally fails to differentiate between different races and ethnicities—raise their girls differently, as do lower-class families. They raise them to be authentic in a way that white, middle-class communities don’t. They raise them to recognize all of their feelings, not just those prized by the white heteropatriarchy. They raise them to stand up for themselves and even sometimes to physically fight.

This Will Be My Undoing

For a number of reasons—racism, classism, the fact that these girls are less susceptible to the messaging of the heteropatriarchy, the fact that these girls cannot even achieve the prized traits of the heteropatriarchy—these girls are also frequent targets of mean girls. Morgan Jerkins in This Will Be My Undoing tells a heart-rending story of being a black girl who just wanted to make the cheerleading squad. After practicing and practicing, perfecting her voice and nailing her jumps, she was devastated to learn that she didn’t make the squad—and to learn that she was never going to make the squad because she couldn’t achieve those white heteropatriarchal standards for women: thin, blond, hot, white.

To maintain their power in the heteropatriarchy, mean girls must police conformance. They must bully girls who cannot or will not conform. Without conformance, the building blocks of the heteropatriarchy start to crumble—and again, the immediate and direct source of these girls’ power is, in fact, the heteropatriarchy itself. Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields note in The Long Southern Strategy, “[Y]ou do need to protect men if you’re completely dependent on them financially and economically.” Maxwell and Shields said that in the context of dismantling the Southern Strategy, but it’s applicable here as well.

Moreover, the proximity and tokenism forms of power that are evident in hundreds of years of white-women’s history and power structures are evident here as well. By crafting conformance standards that black and brown girls cannot meet and then granting white girls power—through proximity to white men and the tokenism inherent in those standards—in exchange for ruthlessly policing those standards, the white heteropatriarchy perpetuates its own power, with only a minor, limiting sharing of that power with only white women.

Women, Race, and Class

This looks—unsurprisingly—similar to the history of white-women’s feminism in the United States. As Angela Davis explores in Women, Race, and Class, with the advent of industrialization, when the home was no longer the manufacturing hub of the community, when “woman” became closely aligned with “wife” and “mother,” when white women lost much of their power, economic and otherwise, to factory foremen (who then oppressed the white women’s working class), white women began to organize. But in many cases, that organization—sometimes negligently, but often intentionally—excluded women of color. From the First Wave’s compromises with white supremacists to the lynchings of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which were justified as protecting the white woman from the black man, to the Second Wave’s assertions that feminism must be about gender to the exclusion of other oppressions, white women’s movements in the United States have a long and awful history of specifically gaining power by oppressing others.

Mean girls—with their white skin, their blond hair, their blue eyes, with their willingness to uphold the white heteropatriarchy in exchange for the tiniest bit of power—are perpetuating a long history of white-women’s feminism in the United States.

So while you might assume that mean girls are awful because they are mean, the truth is that mean girls are awful because they are in the master’s house, using the master’s tools.

Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, like the NAWSA’s silence on lynchings despite the groundbreaking work of Ida B. Wells, like the women who listened to Teddy Roosevelt’s State of the Union in 1906 and heeded his warnings about race suicide, like the Southern white women who demanded that the Republication Party drop the ERA from its platform in the late 1970s, and like the white women today who continue to support and reinforce exclusionary beauty standards.

Like their white foremothers, mean girls cause cascading damage. Like their white foremothers, mean girls’ power is premised on both proximity and tokenism. Like their white foremothers, mean girls have ascended to a rather limited form of power by policing girls of color, working class girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, and others. Like their white foremothers, the longstanding exchanges between white-women’s feminism and the white heteropatriarchy are all too apparent in the transactions in which mean girls engage in order to establish their power.


The Lost Coast

In Amy Rose Capetta’s The Lost Coast, white, queer Danny arrives in Tempest, a tiny town in northern California among the towering redwoods. Danny almost immediately encounters the Grays: queer witches, outcasts at school who seem to think nothing of that status. The Grays need Danny. They summoned her to California to help find their missing friend, whose body is still going about its quotidian routine, but without any spark of the girl herself. This story of witchy, queer girls, who are perfectly comfortable being witchy, queer girls, who welcome another witchy, queer girl easily enough, is remarkable in what’s not there: any form of mean-girl-ism. Except for Black, bisexual Hawthorn, these girls have little interest in romantic or sexual exchanges with boys, and in its absence, they have little interest in competing for boys, conforming to heteropatriarchal standards, or even the heteropatriarchy itself.


In the end, if we want to dismantle teenaged girls’ meanness and the accompanying back-stabbing, lying, and manipulation, we need to dismantle so much more: the white heteropatriarchy. We need to remove the societal strictures that grant girls such limited forms of expression and power. We need to permit them hopes and dreams that don’t revolve around cisgender boys. We need to encourage them to compete in many arenas and to resolve their conflicts openly and honestly, without fear that their relationships are not perfect. We need to permit them full humanity.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans literary conferences and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

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