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Cass Morris: For women, isolation from one’s gender seems somehow an essential component of heroism

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 Cass Morris!

“She’s Not Alone”—Or Is She?: The History of Idealized Friendship and the Limited Scope of Female Bonds in Blockbuster Sci-Fi and Fantasy
By Cass Morris

One of the greatest essayists of the Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne, wrote of friendship as “a general and universal fire, but temperate and equal, a constant established heat, all gentle and smooth, without poignancy or roughness.” He qualifies, however, that “the ordinary talent of women is not such as is sufficient to maintain the conference and communication required to the support of this sacred tie; nor do they appear to be endued with constancy of mind, to sustain the pinch of so hard and durable a knot.”

Montaigne was a brilliant man in many respects, but in this, I think we can all agree, he was staggeringly deficient.

Montaigne took his ideas from a long tradition of what the Romans called amicitia, a concept of perfect friendship: selfless, noble, virtuous, occurring between two men. Always two men. Women, the ancients and centuries’ worth of their descendants believed, were simply incapable of forming such flawless bonds. Not that women were considered entirely without merit—Aristotle spoke of marriage between a man and a woman as “a kind of friendship,” capable of providing delight, but still imperfect, born in almost all cases of the two lesser varieties of interpersonal bond, utility and pleasure, and damaged further by the inequality of status and power between husband and wife.

In some degree of fairness, true amicitia was thought to be rare even among men. The second century Roman author Seneca counted only six pairs of men throughout all of history up to that point who could fulfill the requirements, largely because the two men had to be precisely equal. Brothers could not truly be friends, in this mindset, because issues of inheritance would always come between them. A king could have no friends, since he had no equals—except among other kings, who would necessarily also be his rivals. Friends could not be indebted to each other, nor quarrel over romantic entanglements. Cicero thought friendships developed in maturity to be the best, stating that “friendships should be formed after strength and stability have been reached in mind and age.”

Despite these strictures placed upon it, the ideal of amicitia persisted in Western tradition throughout the classical era. It took on new tones in the medieval era, influenced by Teutonic stories of brothers-in-arms. Writers of the Renaissance blended these two traditions to create something both cerebral and emotional, and the concept has survived to this day in the concept of the “bromance.”

Obviously, people of all genders are capable of deep and true friendships. We know this. But popular fiction has been slower to represent those friendships, particularly in the franchises with the most money and media attention behind them. Forget classical ideals of amicitia; just getting two women on-screen at the same time, let alone bonding, let alone anything approaching a “perfect” friendship, has been a decades-long challenge.

In many cases, the dominant trope of “The Chick,” the inclusion of a token female character in a cast of male heroes, left those female characters adrift without even the possibility of forming bonds with other women. In the original Star Wars trilogy, Princess Leia is scarcely ever in the same room as another woman. The original Star Trek gave us only Uhura on the main cast. In Lord of the Rings, Eowyn rejects female companionship along with traditional femininity, and while we may presume that the ethereally distant figures of Arwen and Galadriel interact with other female Elves, we never see those interactions on page or screen. In Marvel comics, Jean Grey and Susan Storm were initially the only female members of their respective teams. For women, isolation from one’s gender seemed somehow an essential component of heroism.

The same is not true for men. Even if we hold ourselves to the classical ideals, eliminating family bonds and those with significant power differentials, we don’t have to look far for an abundance of examples. Luke and Han, Han and Chewie, Poe and Finn, Steve and Bucky, Rocket and Groot, Merry and Pippin, Harry and Ron, Kirk and Spock—the list could go on and on.

Even in modern sci-fi and fantasy, where casts are more likely to clear the so-low-you-could-trip-over-it bar of gender diversity, it remains a rarity for the women to be shown forming significant bonds with each other. Particularly in the largest franchises, female characters are often divvied up like a resource to be shared among the various components of the story. Place a girl with each section of the team, someone to be the “heart,” the conscience, and/or the romantic interest/sex object, depending on the tenor of the story, and call it a day.

We can look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example: A 2018 list of twenty-five MCU friendships included only one example of a friendship between two women among twenty-four bro-pairs or male-female bonds, and that was from the Netflix show Jessica Jones, not any of the mega-blockbuster films. Most sub-components of the franchise feature only one major female character at a time. Tony’s circle includes Pepper Potts (conscience and sex interest) and initially introduces us to Natasha Romanoff, but their few interactions are spoiled by internalized misogyny. Natasha also forms part of Steve’s circle, but never at the same time as Peggy (romantic interest). Natasha herself, the only female Avenger in the main line-up for the first three phases of the MCU, never leads her own story, but serves as the romantic interest/sex object, whether explicitly in the narrative or merely teased for the audience, to Hawkeye, Steve, and Bruce Banner at various points. Thor’s circle gives us Jane Foster (romantic interest), Frigga (conscience), the Lady Sif (conscience/heart), and Valkyrie (who blessedly defies those markers; if anything, Thor serves as the heart for her), but only brief interactions between any of them. Black Panther is a notable exception, with Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia, who clearly have their own relationships with each other outside of those they have with T’Challa. And, of course, 2019 gave us Carol and Maria (a relationship heartily embraced by much of the queer community as perhaps having a romantic and/or sexual component in addition to friendship). These may indicate a move in a positive direction, but it took the MCU a decade of mega-hits to get even this far.

Black Panther - Shuri Black Panther - Okoye Black Panther - Nakia

We can also consider A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. Both the books and the show are replete with female characters, to be certain. The split of point-of-view characters is representative. And yet those female characters are rarely afforded the opportunity to form close bonds or even to interact with each other—and almost never outside the bounds of family. The traveling pairs are predominantly either all-male or male-female—Ayra and the Hound, Brienne and Jaime, Jon and Ygritte. Ygritte is the only woman in her pack of wildling raiders; Asha/Yara Greyjoy is likewise singular among her Ironborn reavers. We are told that Margaery Tyrell has a flock of cousins and friends, but in the show, we never learn their names, and in the books, Margaery is never a point-of-view character, while Sansa, whose eyes the reader mostly sees Margaery through, is shunted to the outside of their merry circle, so we are never afforded the opportunity to know just what those bonds are really like. Show!Margaery makes more of an effort to befriend Sansa, but politics intervene, and there remains a troubling power differential between them.

Season Six of Game of Thrones offered us something truly tantalizing: not quite classically perfect friendship, but an opportunity to see multiple powerful women working together towards a common cause. Daenerys Targaryen forms a matriarchal alliance with Olenna Tyrell, Ellaria Sand, and Yara Greyjoy—and yet that gets smashed almost as soon as it is offered. Any potential friendships have no chance to succeed. Other relationships are held away from amicitia by those impediments enumerated by classical authors: differences in status, as with Daenerys and her handmaidens or Cersei and her courtiers, or the rivalries of kinship, as with the Sand Snakes. Catelyn and Brienne are closer-matched, and perhaps the closest the narrative comes to depicting amicitia between women, but there is still an element of rank in their dynamic; Brienne pledges an oath not to a friend, but to a lady of her parents’ generation whom she admires and feels she needs to do right by.

A Game of Thrones

Season 8 continues the trend. Sansa and Daenerys are set up as rivals, each jealously growling in defense of her perceived territory, rather than transcending such peevishness in the name of a greater cause. It seems such a woeful missed opportunity. Both women have suffered heinous abuse and come through stronger-forged; both know what it is to be let down and betrayed by the men they have trusted; both women have lost their systems of support and had to build new ones. They could enjoy a magnificent friendship, but instead, seem to have fallen into the “there can be only one female leader” mindset.

We might attribute all those fractured and fractious relationships to the nature of that fictional universe, if not for the camaraderie that is afforded to many of the men. When disaster threatens on the eve of the Battle of Winterfell, men come together, including those like Tyrion Lannister and Davos Seaworth, who have previously fought against each other on the battlefield, and even those with personal grievances like Beric Dondarrion and Sandor Clegane who literally fought to the death. They are allowed to reconcile, fight alongside one another, and share a laugh and a skin of wine. The women are not afforded the same opportunity. The night before battle, they are either isolated from other women (Arya, Brienne, Missandei, Gilly, Lyanna) or prowling snappishly around each other (Sansa, Daenerys). The show could have given us any number of significant moments between them: Sansa and Daenerys finding true common ground and setting aside petty jealousy in the face of adversity, Brienne and Arya and Lyanna bonding over their warrior skills and teaching other women how to defend themselves, Gilly offering comfort to Missandei as another woman despised as an outsider by the Northerners. But none of those were stories the showrunners found meritorious. The series closes with Sansa surrounded by male knights in the North, Arya by male sailors on her ship, Gilly alive and pregnant but unseen in the finale episode, and Brienne apparently doomed to a lifetime of trying to get Tyrion and Bronn to stop talking about brothels long enough to govern. Each surviving woman is entirely isolated from any other female influence.

I am weary of it.

Certainly there are authors out there writing magnificent bonds between women, plenty of them—as well as friendships between women and men, and between people of all genders. N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carriger, Kate Elliott, Sarah Kuhn, Roshani Chokshi, Tomi Adeyemi, Noelle Stevenson, and numerous others have produced works featuring not only multiple female characters, but female characters who work with each other, appreciate each other, enjoy each other, bond with each other. Yet blockbuster media seems reluctant to embrace such stories. 34 years after the initial development of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, we still find it worth commenting on when a major film manages to pass it.

Things may be on the verge of changing. Audiences cheered the all-female splash-page-esque shot in Avengers: Endgame, which brought together the amazing ladies of the franchise in an echo of the A-Force comics. If the MCU embraced that, rather than assuming we will be satisfied with a mere moment of fanservice and began developing films centering not just singular female heroes but coalitions of women, it would be a major step forward for narratives of friendship in Western media.

Captain Marvel - Carol Captain Marvel - Maria

I’m not suggesting we need women to match the ideals of classical friendship. Amicitia is an ancient trope that has influenced centuries’ worth of storytelling, but it’s restrictive and rather dispassionate. Wouldn’t it be amazing, though, if female and non-binary characters in major franchises were afforded the same opportunities for the full spectrum of emotional bonds as male characters are? Sisterhoods forged in fire and trials, wise mentors and plucky youngsters, enemies-to-friends, forbidden friendships, intergenerational friendships, healthy rivalries without malice—I want to see all the tropes, represented in as many permutations as men have always enjoyed, for the benefit of worldwide audiences.

And wouldn’t it be a fine thing if we could get some media might behind those stories that already feature these bonds and forms of friendship? And celebrate the authors who have already created them?

The question, then, is how do we put pressure on media conglomerates to tell stories which feature friendship bonds other than those between two men? We can vote with our dollars, of course. We can make sure we buy books featuring a variety of women with complex relationships to each other; we can run up the box office on Captain Marvel. Women spend more money on entertainment than men do across almost every form of media. So. How do we harness that collective power?


Cass Morris

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia and as a bookseller in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Her debut novel, From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle, is a Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books.

 

Rebecca Kim Wells: I grew up as an irrepressible tomboy who fell victim to the unfortunate misogynistic belief that I wasn’t like “other 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.

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 a personal essay from Rebecca Kim Wells!

How Tamora Pierce’s Books Saved Me from the Curse of “Not Like Other Girls”
By Rebecca Kim Wells

Alanna

I grew up as an irrepressible tomboy who fell victim to the unfortunate misogynistic belief that I wasn’t like “other girls.” I roughhoused, played competitive sports, wore oversize jeans and t-shirts every day of my teenage years, and secretly thought of myself as better than the girls around me who wore dresses or nail polish. I was encouraged to be strong, healthy, smart, and athletic—and I was all those things. I heartily encourage those things. But what I didn’t understand as a child was that gender presentation is a fluid exercise, not an either/or situation in which anyone who chooses incorrectly (and in my mind there very much was an incorrect choice) is “shallow.”

There are lots of reasons for this, and I don’t mean to say that being a tomboy by definition means rejecting “other girls.” One of those reasons almost certainly was the fact that I grew up in a house without an adult female presence, and as a result, felt as though the door that unlocked the secrets of womanhood—whatever secrets those were—had been hidden from me. I considered myself an alien among girls, and over the years my feelings of superiority mingled with feelings of insecurity as I wanted desperately to know how the girls around me seemed to effortlessly understand things that for me, might has well have been written in a language I didn’t understand. (When I bought my first razor, I didn’t realize that electric razors needed to be charged, and ended up locking myself in the bathroom for close to an hour as my family was getting ready to leave the house. It was dire.)

Then I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series.

The Tiger's Daughter The Woman who Rides Like a Man

Most of you are likely already familiar with these books—so formative to so many fantasy readers in the 1990s—but for those who aren’t, here’s the brief overview. Alanna (a dedicated, smart, physically capable girl without a mother) is determined to become a knight in a kingdom where (you guessed it) only men can hold that title. So she pretends to be a boy and trades places with her twin brother so that she can take his place at court. I loved Alanna, and devoured the quartet whole. From Alanna I learned dedication and determination and how to stand just as tall as any boy. But I also learned lessons from several other female characters in the series, lessons that were more important than I realized at the time.

Once at court, Alanna does pretty well at being a knight, but struggles with aspects of traditional femininity. When she gets her period, she doesn’t immediately understand what is happening. It takes an older woman, the mother of one of her acquaintances, to explain menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and birth control to her. “The talk” is a common occurrence in the lives of people assigned female at birth, but the scene as depicted in Alanna: The First Adventure sent the message home to me that there is a wealth of wisdom in traditionally female domains.

One can certainly argue with many ways in which gender is presented in the Song of the Lioness series. Alanna in particular struggles mightily with her own lack of understanding of things that are coded female in the world of Tortall, as well as the fact that her livelihood depends on her being as good or better than the boys around her—even after she is knighted and has proven herself worthy, gender aside. The third book in the series is literally titled The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. (What does a man ride like? Why is “like a man” the gold standard?)

Lioness Rampant

But later books in the series (and further series in the same world) begin to interrogate these boundaries. In Lioness Rampant, the final book in the quartet, Alanna encounters Thayet, a princess of a neighboring kingdom who is in desperate need of assistance. Though Alanna initially expects her to be a simpering princess (she is exceptionally beautiful), Thayet soon shows her principles and proves her own intelligence. She advises Alanna on romantic entanglements, refuses to be led anywhere by the nose, and, after marrying King Jonathan, founds the Queen’s Riders, a battle troop that accepts both women and men. Thayet is beautiful, intellectual, and formidable, a woman written into the world of Tortall in part to challenge Alanna’s—and my—assumptions about what a woman can look like and be.

First Test

Further books by Tamora Pierce press further upon this issue. The third quartet set in Tortall, the Protector of the Small series, features Keladry, the first girl to apply to become a knight since girls have been allowed to join. Though she is similar to Alanna in many ways, Kel also spent several years of her childhood in the Yamani Islands, and trained with the noblewomen there in the use of the glaive and fan. Though in the Islands the weapons are meant to be used primarily for self-defense, the fact that noblewomen are expected to be competent with them helps deepen the gender portrayals in the world.

Sandry's Book

Going beyond the world of Tortall, Tamora Pierce also explores the idea of strength in the traditionally “feminine” in the Circle of Magic quartet, wherein three girls, a boy, and two crochety guardians are thrown together to form one of the best found family series I read as a child. The series is notable for the connections it draws between magic and “feminine” arts—Sandry’s magic is tied to threadwork, Tris’s weather magic is deeply tied to how in touch she is with her emotional landscape, and Briar (a boy) finds his magic in greenery and growing plants.

Power and legitimacy in the feminine. Like many books published in this time, Tamora Pierce’s work is not immune from criticism—of its portrayal of different races, sexualities, and even gender roles. But immersing myself in these stories still meant finding all sorts of female characters to respect and to emulate—warrior women, intellectuals, empaths; women who wore dresses and finery and those who did not; women of all sorts, all with their own individual power. Reading Tamora Pierce’s books provided me with a lens through which I saw and understood new ways of being female, ways that complicated the “strong female character” mantra I’d lived by without interrogating since childhood.

I wish it were so easy—that reading a book could immediately undo every impression of gender stereotyping and internalized misogyny I’ve ever experienced or perpetuated. But understanding the world and my place in it is the work of a lifetime, as are the choices I make every day in expressing my gender when I decide how to dress, what to put on my face, how to interact with the people around me. I’ve grown a lot from who I was as a child (I hope we can all say the same thing about ourselves!). I no longer make assumptions about someone’s seriousness based on how they choose to express their gender. Though I’m still a t-shirt and jeans sort of person, I sometimes wear dresses—and when I do, I don’t feel awkward about it. I’ve learned, and am still learning, a lot about internalized misogyny, toxic masculinity, and the fallacies of gender essentialism. And I can credit many of the books I read as a child, especially those set in Tortall, as opening the door.


Rebecca Kim Wells

Rebecca Kim Wells is the author of Shatter the Sky, an angry bisexual dragon YA fantasy novel coming from Simon & Schuster on July 30, and its sequel Storm the Earth, forthcoming in Fall 2020. She holds a BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Simmons College. When not writing, reading, or talking about writing or reading, she sells books at a fiercely independent bookstore in Massachusetts. She can also be found drinking tea, singing along to musicals, or playing soccer. (Usually not all at once.) If she were a hobbit, she would undoubtedly be a Took.

 

Sirens runs on donations, volunteer hours, and magic

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 6: June 2019

This month:

 

Programming Decisions Are Out

Congratulations to all our accepted presenters and thank you to everyone who proposed programming for this year’s conference! Our official big reveal is coming in July, so if you’re waiting with bated breath to see this year’s presentations and programming schedule, you don’t have to wait much longer. Just a reminder, all presenters must be registered to attend the conference (and paid in full) by July 10th.

If you are dying to know something coming up on the schedule this fall, the Books and Breakfast titles have been announced and here’s more information to help you select which titles you want to discuss over morning coffee. Or tea. We know how you all feel about tea.

 

Stay on Target with Sara Megibow

Continuing our monthly get to know you series of this year’s Sirens Studio faculty, we spoke to Sara Megibow, an agent from kt literary. Sara’s background in Six Sigma process improvement serves as magic-viewing goggles in her current role, where she proves that creative, passionate, literary people are not incompatible with the analytic and strategic world of publishing. During the Sirens Studio, Sara will be leading a professional development workshop, “Heroines Can Fly,” aimed at helping attendees define and achieve their personal goals.

Tickets are still available for this year’s Sirens Studio! And if you haven’t already checked out our past interviews with other Sirens Studio faculty, here are those links (with Nia Davenport, Juliet Grames, and Rebecca Roanhorse yet to come):

 

Introducing Sirens Essays!

This month we debuted Sirens essays, sometimes scholarly, sometimes personal, always thoughtful pieces crafted by members of the Sirens community. We hope these essays give you something to think about—and we think they’re a great example of the kinds of topics, debates, and programming that Sirens has to offer.

Both of the essays we shared in June examined the tricky task of specifying the individuals and instances that make up a great, long established, subtle system of injustice but in quite different contexts.

Nivair H. Gabriel’s academic paper, “Remake the World”: Algae, Art, and Indigenous Futurist Thought in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, takes a deep dive into the techniques used by Johnson to build a world’s worth of problems into the finite pages of her “cli-fi” novel.

Meanwhile, Robyn Bennis shares a personal shopping trip story as a tool to discuss the benefit-of-the-doubt optimism of cisgendered people and the mathematical theory they need to let go of polite indifference.

 

Support Sirens

When we created Sirens, we created something big and bold and bright: a place to discuss gender in fantasy literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable, diverse work of women and nonbinary people in this field. In doing so, we also created an upside-down budget where our expenses exceed our revenue. We do this deliberately—even though it gives us heart palpitations—so we can keep our registration prices low and make Sirens more affordable for more people.

But how do we close that budget gap? Through the magic of the dozens of people each year who donate a few bucks or a hundred, a fun or amazing auction item, or a few new or used books. If you are able to support Sirens, here are several ways you can help.

 

Your Sirens Community

Whether you have read, are considering reading, or just plain curious about Emiko Jean’s Empress of All Seasons, check out this month’s book club review on the blog and Goodreads. Amy has a lot of feels about the monster women, warrior women, and more.

From our volunteer review squad, Christina Spencer shared what books from this year’s reading list broke the mold of her avid reading mind in her list of 5 books that broadened her horizons.

Also up for review is E.K. Johnston’s The Afterward. This epic, young adult fantasy about what happened in the years after major world-saving heroics won over Andrea Horbinski with its real-world relatable political and economic drags but lost her in other ways. Click here for her full report.

 

Get Them While They’re Hot

Click here to see the summer’s new releases in fantasy fiction.

Erynn’s Pick:

Unraveling

Myth, magic, and forensic investigation. Karen Lord’s newest heroine, Dr. Miranda Ecouvo might have correctly put together the pieces of a string of strange murders and incarcerated the guilty party but since she has landed herself into a dimension of mazes and memories with the Trickster God, that seems doubtful. In Redemption in Indigo, I love how Karen Lord smudged the lines between myth and realism to tell a wonderful tale. Unraveling seems ready to do the same and to meander between layers of plot, philosophy, and humor.

 

Faye’s Pick:

Magic for Liars

A murder investigation at a magical school? Count me in! But Sarah Gailey’s debut novel is so much more than wizards, wands, and boarding school. Unreliable narrator Ivy Gamble hasn’t a drop of magic in her and, perhaps because of that, is estranged from her magical sister, Tabitha. When Ivy investigates a murder at the school where Tabitha teaches, Ivy gets to step into that world of magic. If this is anything like Gailey’s American Hippo novellas, I expect terrific characters, a fascinating setting, and, as Gailey has discussed, a queer story.

 

This newsletter is brought to you by:

Erynn Moss + Faye Bi


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Robyn Bennis: I always know how the employees have gendered me at the hardware store.

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 a personal essay from Robyn Bennis!

The Law of Large Numbers as a Substitute for Being Trans at the Hardware Store
A Treatise in Support of Calling Out Every Single Act of Petty Sexism in Your Life

By Robyn Bennis

I always know how the employees have gendered me at the hardware store.

This is one of those things, I suspect, that cisgender folk don’t even think about, but it’s a background concern to most transgender people. My every interaction with a stranger starts with the unspoken question, “Does this asshole think I’m a woman or a fruitily dressed man?” There’s also the possibility that they read me as nonbinary, but if I’m in that sort of company, I can let my guard down. Otherwise, knowing a person’s read on me can make the difference between a pleasant interaction, an awkward ordeal, or even assault.

The Guns Above

Which is why there’s a silver lining to the gendered treatment I notice at the hardware store. Sure, I have to exert a supreme effort to keep from rolling my eyes while the orange-shirted sales associate explains that gypsum is not a type of plaster (it is) and that I probably mean drywall (I don’t), which is the ideal repair material for my vintage lath and plaster walls (it isn’t—that would be barbarism). And yes, it ends up taking five minutes for the guy to say, essentially, “No, we don’t carry that,” but at least I know he reads me as female. If, on the other hand, we have a pleasant interaction during which each of us learns something about building materials and home repair, I know he’s read me as male, and I know that I should take care to not disabuse him of that notion, lest things get weird.

At this point, you may be asking, “What the hell does this have to do with my life?”

The key question I’m interested in, however, is what the hell does it NOT have to do with your life? I’m not trying to be funny. (I don’t have to try.) I’m legitimately asking you to look at the difference.

The answer is, when you’re trans at the hardware store, you know when you’re getting hit with low-key sexism. In most other situations, you never quite do. I mean, maybe that reviewer on Amazon was disappointed by your book’s “YA writing” because of subconscious sexism, or because the last young adult book they actually read was in the Hardy Boys series, or both. Maybe your boss pitched your own idea back to you because he’s so used to taking women’s ideas that he doesn’t even notice anymore, maybe he’s merely oblivious, or maybe he’s just an asshole. The point is, you don’t know, and given the perverse way burden of proof works against the victim rather than the purveyor of bigotry—even when the purveyor is safely anonymous—you can’t even bring up everyday sexism in mixed company without risk of a high roading from the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd.

By Fire Above

This, despite humanity’s ten-thousand-year legacy of subordinating and devaluing women. This, despite countless studies showing persistent bias all across the globe, even today. Seriously, do a Google Scholar search for gender bias and start counting. And while you’re counting, notice how many studies suggest that even the pettiest acts of everyday sexism can add up to fewer options, fewer opportunities, and fewer women in any number of fields.

Yet the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd acts as if this data was gathered in an entirely different universe. Sure, sexism is ubiquitous, but your specific complaints are invalid because you can’t prove them beyond a reasonable doubt. And, besides which, Creeper Larry is probably just socially awkward.

And hey, no one is denying that Creeper Larry is socially awkward, but that only forgives, like, four or five questions about your boob sweat. Six, maximum.

In defending Creeper Larry against your complaints, the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd is appealing to the fact that even a well-controlled scientific study can only tell us the aggregate effect. It can’t tell us whether any individual act is motivated by bias. Even within the study itself, any single observation can be put down to chance. And that’s true for Creeper Larry, too, even though—come on—it’s right there in his name.

So, if you can’t even call an individual act biased when it’s part of a study demonstrating bias, how is one to know? Without, you know, being trans at the hardware store.

The Devil's Guide

The answer, sadly, is you probably don’t. Cis folk lack my superpower, and as the Xanders to my Buffy, you’re just going to have to do what you can with your meager gifts. Which means you’re going to be wrong about some people. At some point, you’re going to think “sexist” when the person in question is actually just “Mr. Oblivious” or “Sir Random Variance the Third, Esquire.” And, given the fact that you’re going to be wrong some of the time, when should you call a putative sexist a sexist, if only with his name changed to protect the creepy?

The answer is related to the very same variance the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd wants to use against you: the law of large numbers. That is to say, the more often you speak up about everyday sexism, the more apt your hit-to-miss ratio is to approach its expected value. If you’re 90% likely to call an instance of everyday sexism correctly, then over time you’ll call 9 out of 10 instances correctly. Indeed, the appeal to variance from the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd leads you inexorably to the conclusion that you should ignore the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd entirely and speak the hell up. Not only that, but your horrible friends and co-workers will have a hard time rationalizing Creeper Larry’s behavior as the incidents pile up.

So talk about everyday sexism, even if you lack the certainty of a trans person at the hardware store. Science compels you.


Robyn Bennis

Robyn Bennis is a writer and biologist living in Madison, WI, where she has one cat, two careers, and an apartment full of dreams. She has done research and development involving human gene expression, neural connectomics, cancer diagnostics, rapid flu testing, gene synthesis, genome sequencing, being so preoccupied with whether she could that she never stopped to think if she should, and systems integration. She is the author of The Devil’s Guide to Managing Difficult People (2019) and the Signal Airship series (The Guns Above (2017) and By Fire Above (2018)) from Tor Books and wrote her debut novel within sight of the historic Hangar One at Moffett Airfield.

 

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince is a stunning example of ecofeminist climate fiction

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 academic paper from Nivair H. Gabriel!

“Remake the World”: Algae, Art, and Indigenous Futurist Thought in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince
By Nivair H. Gabriel

The Summer Prince

Asserting that “literary and postcolonial studies have ignored the environmentalism that often only the poor can see,” Rob Nixon defines the concept of “slow violence”: “a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries.” He laments the challenge of crafting narratives that make slow violence apparent in a fast-moving world of immediacy, but notes that “writer-activists in the Southern Hemisphere are giving imaginative definition to catastrophes that often remain imperceptible to the senses, catastrophes that unfold across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even the life of the human observer. In a world permeated by insidious, unspectacular violence, imaginative writing can make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn-out calamities inaccessible to the immediate senses.” Rebecca Evans discusses “cli-fi” as a literary response to this challenge, defining “cli-fi” not as a single genre but as “a literary preoccupation with climate futures that draws from a wide range of popular genres.” Cli-fi, she argues, via its use of multiple genres, “narratively conjures the future—a conjuring that inflects the representation of climate justice and the queer politics of futurity itself” (95). A stellar example of cli-fi for young adults is Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, which blends the science fictional and the fantastic to depict an ecofeminist vision. Rooted in a specifically urban sense of place informed by slow violence, and centering a queer, polyamorous relationship, The Summer Prince represents a climate-concerned future that resists both colonialism and heteronormativity. Its ecofeminist critique of the past, informed by indigenous histories, and its open-ended vision of the future bring it into the realm of indigenous futurism.

Palmares Três, the sparkling, futuristic matriarchy where The Summer Prince takes place, is a city of escapees from a plague- and war-ravaged Northern Hemisphere. The foundational belief of Palmares Três echoes Vandana Shiva, who contends that environmental destruction is the fault of capitalism, and cannot be alleviated—let alone reversed—by any solutions conceived within the limitations of modern, Western, patriarchal, capitalist thought. She writes that “all past achievements of patriarchy have been based on alienation from life, and have led to the impoverishment of women, children, and the environment” (88). Hence the matriarchal society of Palmares Três, in a speculated future four hundred years after Shiva’s present: women rule 90% of the time, and when men rule it is only as “summer kings,” figureheads who face inevitable martyrdom to Palmares Três when their term ends. “Kings are men,” June’s mother tells her, “and they can’t be trusted to give up power once they have it” (197). The mandated murder of male rulers exists to remind citizens that patriarchy caused the environmental devastation that turned places like Rio de Janeiro into ruins that humans can only visit in a contamination suit (47). The Queen who founded Palmares Três “put [her king] on a pedestal and … cut him down. A man, like the ones who ruined the world.” To “remake the world,” the story goes, the Queen took “from the world [she knew]”: “Candomblé, which always respected a woman’s power. Catholicism, which always understood the transformation of sacrifice. And Palmares, that legendary self-made city the slaves carved themselves in the jungle, proof that a better world can be built from a bad one” (Johnson 19). The cyclic ritual of king-killing ensures that colonialist patriarchy is perpetually named and condemned for the world’s destruction. Queen Odete, devising a new civilization “in a country that had once been Brazil,” might well have been reading Shiva’s ecofeminist call to action: “Putting women and children first needs above all, a reversal of the logic which has treated women as subordinate because they create life, and men as superior because they destroy it” (88). Aunties, women of advanced age, rule Palmares Três, and they insist that the city remain in isolation from the rest of the colonialist, patriarchal, destroyed world. Johnson’s speculated future makes visible the consequences of the slow violence Nixon observes, and points out “the way that climate change is disproportionately caused and disproportionately experienced along lines of privilege” (Evans 95).

The centrality of Palmares Três and its founding ideology in the text encourage an environmentalist and feminist reading. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas points out that “texts that present urban geographies provide an opportunity for young readers and the stakeholders in their lives to consider the present and future states of our cities wherein the privileged and the challenged meet” (20). Urban geographies “provide orientations and grounding in specific places,” she notes, and “are as diverse and interconnected as that of any natural biome” (14). In the glowing pyramid tiers of Palmares Três, bolstered by its slums of “concrete and algae” (Johnson 112), the story of June—a privileged artist from upper-class Tier Eight—and her love for Enki—a poor dancer from the verde at the bottom of the city—quickly becomes the story of “the politics of the visible and the invisible” (Nixon). June notices her privileged experience of the city when she ventures to the stadium in the lower tier to see the presentation of summer king contenders: “Growing up on Tier Eight, I’m used to seeing the glowing pyramid lattice of Palmares Três from a loftier position” (9). In this particular urban landscape, Enki’s neighborhood carries clear markers that indicate both low class and strong connection to the environment; “we call it the catinga, the stink,” June reveals, “but they call it the verde. Green” (13). The city’s automated voice technology sounds different in June’s top tier than it does in Enki’s bottom one, a difference that surprises the privileged and selectively ignorant June when he tells her (104). Enki’s controversial kingship, his deliberate sacrifice of his own life for the power that fame brings, is his project to illuminate the “hypocrisy of Palmares Três” (64). He insists on dressing in a way that identifies him with the oppressed lower classes in old-Brazil’s history, and reminding the Aunties every chance he gets of the people in the verde who enable their comfortable top-tier lives while struggling to survive storms and floods (34). The old pipelines in the verde recall the environmental destruction of another age whose detritus still stifles the poor (232). June and Enki’s art collaborations draw attention to the struggles of the verde, and to accomplish them they must travel intimately through the city. Regarding Palmares Três’s power grid, June muses, “Energy at no cost, some would say, but Enki and I know better. The cost is the verde, the catinga, the several hundred thousand souls who live at this literal bottom tier of society” (90). June thrills to Enki’s every callout of the Aunties, creating art that underscores his message of environmental justice. June and Enki’s are “intersecting trajectories that blend urban landscapes of privilege and challenge” (Thomas 18). They show that even in a futuristic world founded on apparently ecofeminist principles, Nixon’s “environmentalism of the poor” is still necessary.

The way June uses old-Brazil’s history in her and Enki’s art positions her as an indigenous futurist heroine. As Lynette James writes, “Indigenous futurist heroines cannot be casually ignorant of the circumstances that led to the collapse of major governmental, social, or environmental systems and created the worlds they inhabit. They live in communities in which this information is everyday knowledge” (159). Palmares Três is designed as such a community; grounded in Afro-Brazilian history, it also extrapolates into a future decimated by climate change, in which our Brazilian contemporaries are distant ancestors. June’s narration pulls together ecofeminism and indigenous futurism when she recounts, “It’s as though I can feel the strength of all our ancestors bearing us up. They are the heavy trunk and thick boughs of a tree on which I am only the tiniest budding leaf” (23). June’s revolutionary art grows naturally from her community, which is deeply informed by the history of her people. James describes indigenous futurist heroines who “cannot be whole persons without the relationships that tie them to communities” (171), just as June’s self and her art are defined by her relationship with Palmares Três.

As Evans writes that “representations of climate futures matter in terms of climate justice,” she contends also that “representations of climate futures matter in terms of resisting heteronormative systems” (95). The Summer Prince resists heteronormativity not only in June’s mother and stepmother’s relationship, but also in the love triangle between June, Gil, and Enki, which is queer both in terms of sexuality and in terms of resisting definition and closure. Throughout the novel, Enki insists that he is in love with both Gil and June, and Gil and June, in turn, love him back without attempting to claim him. Gil and June, too, share love, then grief when Enki dies. Enki instructs June not only to preside over a more just society as the new Queen, but also to take care of Gil (286). Unlike many love triangles in young adult fiction, The Summer Prince’s is open-ended, portraying a way that many truths that would appear contradictory by heteronormative standards can all exist at the same time in this queer futurity: Enki loves Gil, June loves Enki, Enki loves June, Gil loves June. Meanwhile, June reckons with the truth that her mother loved her late father and loves her stepmother; neither relationship takes priority, or has more validity, over the other. Complexity, rather than closure, is a primary value in the story; even the culminating symbol of June’s resistance art is “ambiguity” (224). The text’s prioritization of visible queerness, in tandem with its ecocritical resonance, casts resistance to heteronormativity as an essential part of a movement for environmental justice.

June’s movement for environmental justice, spurred by the loss of Enki and her father, reveals the flaws of any society that is built on power, privilege, and oppression. While Palmares Três resisted the specific Western colonialist norms that Shiva condemned, it still reified an unequal power structure: it created the classes of privileged and oppressed. Neither Enki nor June seem to know the ultimate solution to this quandary, but the search for an ultimate solution is itself a quest flawed by the idea of normative certainty. James notes that “too often YA dystopian franchises assume that a final battle decides all questions of the protagonist’s life in clear terms of irrevocable success, where all threat has been quelled forever. But … remaining negotiatiors and defenders is not a failure; failure would mean there was no community left to save. . . . In all healthy, living communities, there is more work to do” (172–3). The ending of Johnson’s text seems open on purpose: to encourage its young readers to imagine the future for themselves. James sees her indigenous futurist heroines as inspirations to “help us see the best possibilities, to imagine the what-ifs, to build the skills of dreaming the future in a grounded, rooted, and located world” (174). As Johnson’s heroine in Palmares Três, who becomes Queen because of the personified hopes of the younger generation, June’s mission is exactly that.

Nixon cites the unique challenge of addressing environmental justice in narrative, proclaiming, “To confront slow violence is to take up, in all its temporal complexity, the politics of the visible and the invisible.” In this way environmentalism, feminism, and postcolonialism are all inextricably linked. Evans’s ecofeminist reading of cli-fi underscores the temporal complexity of these particular politics: “Expanding our understanding of cli-fi’s generic wheelhouse … helps us see how the genre does more than extrapolate into the future—indeed, how it helps connect present and future, rather than posit a radical break between them” (104). In The Summer Prince, Johnson uses urban geography to explore all of these ideas, presenting a boldly extrapolated far future in which the injustices of its present-day ancestors are always visible. Its ecofeminist vision tells its readers, “When the world is destroyed, someone must remake the world. I think you’d call that art” (19). And art, as June would define it, is sacrifice—the disregard for self and the ecofeminist call to collective action. Such a call to action is foundational in the indigenous futurism that James discusses, which is “more than a name; it is an orientation, one meaningful not only to Indigenous peoples but to anyone hopeful or terrified about the future” (174). Drawing from existing discourses of environmentalism, feminism, queer theory, and postcolonialism, Johnson’s art of the imagination makes cli-fi for young adults that grapples with the temporal complexity of environmental justice and provides not answers, but open-ended questions that serve as foundations for indigenous futurist thought.

 

Works Cited

Evans, Rebecca. “Fantastic Futures? Cli-fi, Climate Justice, and Queer Futurity.” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, vol. 4, no. 2–3, 2017, pp. 94–110. Web.

James, Lynette. “Children of Change, Not Doom: Indigenous Futurist Heroines in YA.” Extrapolation, vol. 57, nos. 1–2, 2016, pp. 151–176. Web.

Johnson, Alaya Dawn. The Summer Prince. Scholastic, 2013.

Nixon, Rob. “Slow Violence: Literary and Postcolonial Studies Have Ignored the Environmentalism That Only the Poor Can See.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 57, no. 40, 2011. Web.

Shiva, Vandana. “The Impoverishment of the Environment: Women and Children Last.” Ecofeminism. Ed. Maria Mies & Vandana Shiva. Zed Books, 1993, pp. 70–90.

Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. “Landscapes of City and Self: Place and Identity in Urban Young Adult Literature.” The ALAN Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2011, pp. 13–22. Web.


Nivair H. Gabriel has written all her life, and feminist fantasy is her heart-home. At sixteen, she thought it would be fun to go to MIT and get a BS in aerospace engineering, so she did. She has also contributed writing to Marvels & Tales, io9.com, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Pittsburgh Magazine, and the Sirens benefit anthologies Queens & Courtesans and Witches & Warriors. She holds a dual-degree MA/MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children from Simmons College, and works as an Assistant Editor at Barefoot Books.

 

Why inclusive heroism is not just suggested, but essential

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 5: May 2019

This month:

 

What does heroism mean to Roshani Chokshi?

“To me, heroism is the act of celebrating the individual. There’s not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the Chosen One.” – Roshani Chokshi

Continuing our series of getting to know this year’s guests of honor, this month we’re getting to know our first ever Sirens Studio guest, Roshani Chokshi, known for the Star-Touched series, the Pandava series, and The Gilded Wolves.

In our interview, Roshani extolls most eloquently the way a hero’s weakness is possibly more important than her strength. And while storytelling may have created important bridges in her own identity, it took some overcoming to insert herself into her own narratives. Jae Young Kim, from the Sirens review squad, praises Roshani’s tales in her review of Aru Shah and the End of Time, and our community rallies to share their favorite sarcastic animal sidekick in fantasy in our #SirensIcebreaker.

If you finish Roshani’s books and need to get cozy in some more of her work, visit this list we put together here, or check out some of her book recommendations here. We also advise poking around on her enticing website, roshanichokshi.com, or be floored by the most glamorous of fantasy author Instagrams!

 

Sirens Studio Faculty Spotlight

If you haven’t yet signed up for the Sirens Studio, well, why not? Faculty this year include:

  • For reading workshops: teacher and author Nia Davenport, Soho Press Associate Publisher and brand-new debut author Juliet Grames, Dr. Jen Michaels, and Sirens Guest of Honor Rebecca Roanhorse

  • For writing workshops: Sirens Guest of Honor Mishell Baker and author and illustrator Nilah Magruder

  • For career development workshops: agent Sara Megibow and media industry executive vice president (and Sirens co-founder) Amy Tenbrink

Buy your tickets here!

This month, we interviewed fabulous faculty member, Nilah Magruder, who will lead the writing development workshop “The Visual Narrative: Developing Illustrated Projects and How to Write Like an Artist” this fall. Nilah discusses finding inspiration sources for her artistic styles, teaching writers to bridge narrative and visual story, and who she still needs to send copies of her books to. [Note from Erynn: Nilah’s How to Find a Fox is the only book on the Sirens reading list my toddler has finished. He recommends.]

 

2019 Books and Breakfast Selections

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfast and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary authors are doing in fantasy literature!

For 2019, we’ve selected eight 2019 Books and Breakfast titles that we hope will expand your definition of who might be a hero or what acts you consider heroic. Toward that end, we’re highlighting four areas in this year’s selections: religion, race, gender/sexuality, and body—and please note that some titles sit on multiple axes, not just the one they’re listed under!

2019 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

Religion

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Race

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Gender/Sexuality

Dreadnought by April Daniels
The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

Body

Faith Volume 1: Hollywood and Vine by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage
Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge

Click here for more on our Books and Breakfast program and this year’s selections, including a detailed spotlight on The Bird King and The Sisters of the Winter Wood!

 

Programming proposal submissions are officially closed…

…and the vetting board is hard at work reading all the amazing submissions. Fist bumps of gratitude to everyone who sent in proposals! Decisions will be made and relayed to you by email by June 12th. If you have any questions in the meantime, send them to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Sirens Community Round-up

For her book club this month, Amy Tenbrink reviewed Claire Legrand’s Furyborn, with exceptional praise on the satisfaction from a “competent” book, on the blog and Goodreads.

From our Sirens Review Squad, Lily Weitzman put together this list of seven short stories to refresh readers in need of variety, and Jo O’Brien’s review of Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, a companion to Mary Shelley’s classic, envisions the struggle to break free from toxicity and reclaim personal power.

Scroll through the official Sirens Twitter feed to admire all the geeky treats from the May the Fourth Sirens Meet-up in Denver! Other Sirens satellite parties joined up in New York and Seattle this month. For those who will be in Boston on June 6th or D.C. on June 22nd, click here to get the scoop on those meet-ups.

 

Start your summer with these 66 new books this month

By clicking on our collage of May’s new fantasy books!

Erynn’s Pick:

The Devil's Guide to Managing Difficult People

“I met the devil at a Motel 6, poolside.”

Cheeky author and Sirens attendee Robyn Bennis has delightfully captured the misanthropic esprit de 2019 with The Devil’s Guide to Managing Difficult People. Jordan is stuck in a bleakly entertaining deal with the devil that is highly relatable. If it’s at all like her previous novel The Guns Above, I expect great characters and battles on top of the humor.

 

Faye’s Pick:

The Dark Fantastic

Dr. Suzanne Scott mentioned it in her book round-up last month, and I’ll definitely be checking out Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic, a detailed analysis of the diversity—and lack thereof—in children’s books, television, and film. Thomas’s scholarly work traces the narratives of four black female characters in four popular fandoms: Bonnie Bennett from the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, Rue from The Hunger Games, Gwen from the BBC’s Merlin, and Angelina Johnson from the Harry Potter series.

 

This newsletter is brought to you by:

Erynn Moss + Faye Bi


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Reunion

Sirens logos 2014-2018, 2018 highlighted

Ten years ago, we dreamed.

 

And when we dream, we dream big and bold and bright.

 

We dreamed of an annual conference dedicated to the remarkable, diverse women of fantasy literature.

 

That conference is Sirens.

Each year, Sirens selects a theme: something we can use as inspiration. Something to spark programming ideas, and conference artwork, and guest of honor selections. Our first year, that theme was warriors, and we discussed how most of us feel, in our daily lives, like warriors not so different from Alanna. Whether we’re suited for combat or not, life is so often a battle.

We followed warriors with faeries and monsters, tales retold and hauntings. We examined ruthless faerie queens and what it means, as women or nonbinary people, to be monstrous. We analyzed retellings of some of the world’s oldest tales, and we discussed the early incarnations of the ghost story, a screen for women to discuss feminine issues. We shared how, in so many ways, we are revolutionaries.

But given that Sirens is often less a conference than an annual gathering of a community, it is perhaps inevitable that our theme would occasionally be not rebels or lovers or witches, but reunion. This year, our tenth year, we want to celebrate the Sirens community: the readers, scholars, professionals, and authors who, each year, contribute their time, their energy, their thoughts, and their hearts to sustaining a community that is welcoming, smart, and unabashed.

We have often said that Sirens is an annual respite: a place where you can repair your armor, replenish your magic, and remember how truly remarkable the women of fantasy literature—from readers to faerie queens—are.

If that is true, it is because of our community: truly remarkable (mostly) women and nonbinary readers who join us, sometimes every year, sometimes occasionally, to use fantasy literature as a springboard to discuss gender and power and ambition and, yes, big and bold and bright dreams.

There is nothing more important to Sirens than its community, and so in 2018, as we plan our tenth year, we raise our glasses and declare this community something worthy of discussion, debate, and celebration.

At Sirens, our reunion years are also an opportunity to reexamine the themes of the previous four years, in this case: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Please look for posts on these themes in the upcoming weeks—but please also know, as you begin to plan your programming proposals, that proposals need not focus entirely or even at all on theme topics. All proposals related to women in fantasy literature are welcome. Get inspired by our 2018 Reunion book lists, this year’s Suggested Reading and Reading Challenge.

 

Inclusivity at Sirens: Justina Ireland

Sirens is about voice: the voices of each individual attendee, how those voices come together in conversation, and how those conversations create a community. At Sirens, we want everyone to have an opportunity to use their voice, whether that’s as part of our programming schedule or late into the night over tea.

But we also know that building a space for those conversations—a space where everyone is willing to speak and, equally important, where everyone is willing to listen—is not so simple. So often, we as a society build barriers that prevent people from speaking, and so often those barriers are based on gender, sexuality, race, religion, ability, or other identity—and so often those barriers also help others ignore those voices.

This year, we are featuring a series of posts addressing diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality at Sirens in order to highlight voices that are both vital to our community and are too often unheard.

Sabrina Chin and Amy Tenbrink, Conference Chairs


When people ask me about literary conferences worth attending the first one that springs to mind is Sirens. Often people will ask me why. Are there great workshops? Do the panels crackle with personality? Is the food good? And of course, all of these things are a yes. But Sirens also has the one thing going for it that so many other conferences don’t: a keen eye for intersectionality.

Intersectionality has become quite the buzzword of late, but few people realize that it refers not to identities, but rather to how systems of oppression impact those identities and that those impacts are situational. So, for example, all People of Color face racism, but the shape and tone of the racism is dependent on race and situation. And People of Color may also face ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and a whole host of other oppressive forces as well. Basically, intersectionality is about recognizing that oppression doesn’t work in any one way, but rather works in many different ways based on the situation.

The term intersectionality was originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how both feminist and Black equality movements tend to leave Black women behind, failing to recognize that the aperture for social justice movements must be widened to include the myriad ways systems of oppression impact marginalized groups. Meaning: we can’t just address sexism. We must also address racism, ableism, homophobia, and any other prejudice that is used to categorize and limit the ability of all people to live a happy and healthy life.

This is what is great about Sirens. It’s rare to see such a weighty (and complex, since our brains are trained to think in binary from an early age) conversation happen alongside discussions of  fantasy literature. And not just in a couple of tokenized panels. A glance at the schedule shows this dedication to inclusivity. The panels always address multiple identities, and not just as a separate diversity panel. Instead, social justice is baked into every panel, all of which feature a multitude of identities and experiences. I always learn something new at Sirens, and even the casual conversations can feel like a revelation.

And this intersectionality is what makes Sirens so great. Attending Sirens is like having a good meal after years of living off of crumbs. Your identity will be respected and embraced, your opinion valued, and you will learn so much it will feel like a weekend of machine gun epiphanies, each one more amazing than the last.

Sirens is the best conference around, and I say that as someone who has been to quite a few conferences. You will leave nourished and satisfied, with a head full of ideas that you maybe hadn’t considered before. And isn’t that what a great conference is about?

 


Justina Ireland is the author of the teen novels Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows. She enjoys dark chocolate and dark humor and is not too proud to admit that she’s still afraid of the dark. She lives with her husband, kid, and dog in Pennsylvania. You can visit her online at www.justinaireland.com.

 

Inclusivity at Sirens: Kate Larking

Sirens is about voice: the voices of each individual attendee, how those voices come together in conversation, and how those conversations create a community. At Sirens, we want everyone to have an opportunity to use their voice, whether that’s as part of our programming schedule or late into the night over tea.

But we also know that building a space for those conversations—a space where everyone is willing to speak and, equally important, where everyone is willing to listen—is not so simple. So often, we as a society build barriers that prevent people from speaking, and so often those barriers are based on gender, sexuality, race, religion, ability, or other identity—and so often those barriers also help others ignore those voices.

This year, we are featuring a series of posts addressing diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality at Sirens in order to highlight voices that are both vital to our community and are too often unheard.

Sabrina Chin and Amy Tenbrink, Conference Chairs
 


 

I’m Kate Larking, reading and writing enthusiast, and I am one of the few people who has had the pleasure of attending Sirens every single year. I have been on the literary convention circuit for ten years, nine of them spent visiting Sirens each and every October. It’s quite the commitment, given the Canadian-American exchange rate and the international travel fares. But is it a pilgrimage I gladly make.

Sirens is more than a conference that focuses on women and other marginalized identities in speculative fiction. Sirens has become a community—a family—to me, my writing, and my reading. I’ve developed into the person I am because my wonderful experiences there, above all other conventions. If I only have the opportunity to attend one conference a year, I would choose Sirens—no contest, no comparisons needed.

Sirens’s growth this year has far surpassed expectations. After all, since I’ve been attending, the conference has held steady at a certain size. But for the 80% more new people, I am exhilarated—so many new voices, new experiences, new reading recommendations, and new friends to make!—and yet terrified. Sirens has become a safe place for me where I can be challenged to grow. I’m afraid of what may happen to the literary sphere I love. But the actions of the coordinators, assembling a group to write on intersectionality to ensure a lovely and lively community while at Sirens, gives me hope.

So let me illustrate to you what Sirens means to me:

When I was asked to write an article on intersectionality at Sirens, I immediately felt unqualified. Anyone would, after all. Each and every one of us is a single person among the world’s population. But I have come to understand that I am a cross-section of identities.

I am a cis white married lesbian mother, and a born-and-raised atheist Canadian. I am under the influence of depression more often than I—well, anyone—would like. This identity contributes to everything I do and everything I experience. Primarily, everything I create and everything I read.

My main creative project at the moment is the queer space opera webcomic, Crash and Burn. I work with a non-binary illustrator, Finn, and together we challenge existing prevalent queer narratives. We work hard to retain control over the comic, which means self-publishing, hand-selling at conventions, and speaking up about queer identities both in real life and fiction. The more I work on the comic and interact with readers in public spaces, the more aware I am of microaggressions and the weight they carry. Each time someone makes an insensitive statement (or asks a question) about the comic or us, the heavier it is to carry on through the day.

Actual statement at a convention: “Queer space opera? Who thinks of this stuff?”

It doesn’t stop at dialogue. The derogative and challenging rhetoric continues online, in review channels and in award nomination roundups:

Actual review excerpt: “I notice that the artist found it necessary to note that ‘they’ is/are ‘agender,’ and uses the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ in the preface; I do wonder why not use ‘xe’ and ‘xem’ as in the work? It would feel fitting—unless Finn is more than one person.”

As a queer person, working creatively in the face of these hurtful assumptions and comments can be difficult (understatement). On one hand, you want to create more, and assert the presence of these queer identities more. On the other hand, you are exhausted, frustrated, irritable, furious, and still trying to maintain a professional and affable exterior as required at a conference or convention. But it isn’t a queer person’s job to act as a sole ambassador and educator on their identity.

To combat these microaggressions and identity-challenges, we’ve deployed a few marketing tactics:

  1. We put “Queer space opera” on our biggest banner.
  2. Finn made a misgendering jar—like a swear jar but queer. Misgender one of us, pay a dollar (all proceeds go to an LGBT-supportive charity).
  3. We deployed flags from various queer identities represented in our work on the table, as a queer shorthand, to make that representation visible to those identities.

The banner does its job, I have to say. People see us across the hall, come over, and hear what we are about. And we love these passionate, enthusiastic, welcoming readers. They are kind and generous; they listen to our voices and learn from the context of our discussions of what they might need to Google and read up on later.

It works in other ways, too. Other people glance at the word queer and self-select away from our table. More often than not, it’s caregivers guiding their young charges away from us, as though we are more offensive than the scantily-clothed, misogynistic portrayal of women in comics at the table next to us. (In all honesty, we expect to meet the kids in person in a few years when this happens.) So while we’re fine with people self-selecting out, some of those would-be microaggressions become full-fledged aggressions.

Actual statement at a convention: “I want to let you know that I am not buying this because it is queer.”

I’m sharing these anecdotes because I want to make something very clear about these conventions versus this one:

Sirens is different.

One thing that unites us at Sirens is that we love developed, complex voices in speculative fiction. We embrace worlds that are different from our own and seek out the experiences of those who live within them. At Sirens, we don’t attack character identities in our discussions, criticize cultures, or apply an arbitrary-binary the character may or may not belong in.

The reason we read, the reason we gather, and the reason we discuss is to open our eyes, challenge our identity-based perspectives on the world, support representation and those represented, and grow together. And when we go home, we are stronger, wiser, better-informed, supported and supportive in our community.

 


 
Kate Larking is a book buyer for an independent bookstore. In her off hours, between binge-watching anime and leveling-up game characters, she writes speculative fiction for both young adult and adult markets. Her queer space opera comic, Crash and Burn, was a finalist for the 2016 and 2017 Aurora Award for best English Graphic Novel. She cofounded Anxiety Ink, a community of writers dealing with the stress and challenges of writing. She resides in Calgary, Alberta, with her wife, daughter, and six pets.
 

Inclusivity at Sirens: s.e. smith

Sirens is about voice: the voices of each individual attendee, how those voices come together in conversation, and how those conversations create a community. At Sirens, we want everyone to have an opportunity to use their voice, whether that’s as part of our programming schedule or late into the night over tea.

But we also know that building a space for those conversations—a space where everyone is willing to speak and, equally important, where everyone is willing to listen—is not so simple. So often, we as a society build barriers that prevent people from speaking, and so often those barriers are based on gender, sexuality, race, religion, ability, or other identity—and so often those barriers also help others ignore those voices.

This year, we are featuring a series of posts addressing diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality at Sirens in order to highlight voices that are both vital to our community and are too often unheard.

Sabrina Chin and Amy Tenbrink, Conference Chairs

 


 

I first came to Sirens in 2012 because a fellow literature-loving friend needed a roommate, and I had a flexible schedule. I was hesitant at first, because of the way it was pitched to me: As a conference “for women in fantasy literature,” which sounded like a place not for me since while I am many things, a woman is not one of them.

“It’s small and intimate,” she said. “You’ll like it,” she said. And she was right. (She usually is.) (I’ve been back every year since.)

“What is someone who’s not a woman doing at a lady conference?” is, it turns out, a bit of a trick question, although people ask some variation of that question with a depressing degree of regularity. Sirens isn’t a lady conference: It is a conference celebrating women in fantasy, and one where people of all genders participate in the conversation and work to push it further. It is a place where for a few days, cis men don’t get to be the center of the universe.

One of the things I love most about Sirens is that it is a place that is challenging. It is a place where I feel comfortable asking difficult questions, and it is one where the lens is turned back on me, as well—Sirens is the place that it is because we expect more of each other, on both a personal and institutional level.

For some attendees this is a novel and discomfiting experience, especially those in positions of relative privilege who may feel unsettled when confronted with world-shifting realities. While Faye referred to “taking off armor” in her discussion of experiences with diversity and inclusion at Sirens, this goes deeper than that—it is not simply that Sirens is a week where (some) attendees feel comfortable and confident, but also that taking off your armor leaves you vulnerable. Tender. Soft.

At some point during the weekend, it’s likely someone will say something that upsets you because it disrupts your worldview. Someone will critique a book you adore from the position of an experience you don’t share—as for example a co-panelist did on a religion panel I did several years ago. Someone will comment that a character archetype that feels very intimate, that speaks to you, comes laden with oppressive baggage you were blissfully unaware of. Someone will make a comment about the barriers holding underrepresented people back in publishing, will ask why we have to work four times as hard for half the recognition, and it will sting.

Perhaps it will sting because you’ve never thought about this issue before, or in this way, and it hurts to be confronted with the fact that diversity sometimes comes with hard truths. Or maybe you thought this would be a fun weekend of fantasy, and you weren’t expecting to be confronted with harsh realities. Your first instinct may be to lash out, to find a way to minimize the pain you’re feeling, to make this a problem for another time.

But that’s not what Sirens is about, and you will be shortchanging yourself if you take that route. When my co-panelist criticized a book I’d just professed to loving in front of a room full of people, my first reaction wasn’t to shut her down, but to take up the challenge. I wanted to learn more. And I did, because she spoke about how her experience of religious themes in the book differed radically from my own. Because a Hindu, a Jew, a Christian, and an atheist sat down to have a conversation in front of a room full of people, unafraid to contradict each other, our understanding of faith and literature was cumulatively enriched.

Learning is hard. Sometimes learning is scary. And Sirens is indubitably a place to geek out about books and celebrate our mutual love for the people who aren’t cis men who write and read and love and star in fantasy literature but it is also a place of learning. We develop programming because we want to share our thoughts and enthusiasms with the world, and we attend programming because we want to learn something fascinating about a text or issue; one of my panels this year is about gender and witchcraft, and I’m deliriously excited about all the things I hope to discuss, from reading The Mists of Avalon after hearing the truth about Marion Zimmer Bradley to how N. K. Jemisin explores gender in The Fifth Season. I’m hoping to learn things from my panelists, and I hope the audience does too. Along the way, panelists may challenge each other, or get challenging questions from the audience, and that will make the discussion stronger, more inclusive.

If diversity is the presence of historically underrepresented groups, inclusion is the belief that we have equal footing, a right to speak and a right to be heard—in any contexts, but particularly when we are wounded. Sirens creates a space for having conversations about those wounds, even if they are sometimes sticky and uncomfortable, as they spill from panel to dining room to after hours next to the fire to next year’s conference. For those who haven’t been in diverse and inclusive spaces before, it can be a bit of a shock—and for those who have been in environments where lip service and buzzwords define these issues, it can be awakening to realize that “diversity and inclusion” isn’t just a phrase but a way of being.

Even as a member of several underrepresented groups at Sirens, I must constantly acknowledge that I am not exempt from challenge. My experience isn’t universal, nor is it applicable across sociocultural backgrounds, and I hold privilege, not least as a white person, even as I am also on the receiving end of oppression. Even as I warn others to prepare to shift their worldview, I warn myself, as well—someone may say something that hits a tender point of my own, that forces me to expand my understanding, that questions an internalized belief. This is a dance, a give and take, not a one-sided dynamic.

This applies to microaggressions as well—the seemingly small instances of oppression that get tossed off without thinking, making members of underrepresented groups feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the casual racist joke, the reference to someone disliked as “crazy,” a flip comment about someone with ambiguous gender. When you belong to one or more underrepresented groups, you spend a great deal of time in a complex calculus of deciding whether individual instances of oppression are “worth it” to deal with. Do you correct the dinner guest who refers to you by the wrong pronouns when you’ll likely never see that person again? Do you patiently tell the TSA officer that he’s pronouncing your name wrong? Do you swallow it, for the thousandth time, when people pointedly exclude the disability community from public discourse? Or do you speak up, be “that person”?

Sirens is filled with “those people” and that is why I keep returning—but it is up to the attendees of Sirens to support “those people” and cultivate an environment that fosters conversation and exchange.

 


 
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based writer with a focus on social justice issues. smith’s publication credits include The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Teen Vogue, Bitch Magazine, Vice, and In These Times, along with entries in several anthologies, including the upcoming (Don’t) Call Me Crazy.
 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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