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Sarah Gailey: Further Reading

Have you already loved Sarah Gailey’s work? American Hippo? The Fisher of Bones? Magic for Liars and Upright Women Wanted and When We Were Magic? Are you looking for more? Have we got a treat for you! As part of Sarah’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of their short fiction, essays, interviews, and other work from around the web.

Sarah’s Short Fiction:

  • Drones to Ploughshares (2020): “No one ever had to know that he noticed things he didn’t log.”

  • Away with the Wolves (2019): “I can’t feel anything, really. That’s how it always is when I wake up. I can’t feel anything, because I have not yet tried to move. When I do try to move, there will be pain. There’s no telling where it will be—my hips, my shoulders, my spine, my thighs, my hands. Some days it lives in the muscles between my ribs, making every breath feel like an argument.”

  • The Thing That Hides in Your Home (2019): “Knowing where it is won’t protect you from it, but that won’t stop you from reading, because some part of you believes that knowing is the same thing as safety.”

  • Reynard Is Coming (2019): “Reynard used to be just like you. He thought he was clever. He thought he was above the rules. He thought he didn’t have to watch his back when he was stretching his legs and straddling the centuries.”

  • An Augmented Reality (2018): “Denise was already late, even before her augmented-reality glasses decided to perform another endless system update.”

  • From the Void (2018): “The way I miss Esther is a slow-spreading bruise.”

  • Bread and Milk and Salt (2018): “The first time I met the boy, I was a duck.”

  • The Catch (2018): “They didn’t usually come right up to vessels, not without being lured in by chum over the course of an afternoon, but there she was. Lean, chap-lipped, hungry eyed. Her hair was black — no, blacker than that — and it fanned out in the water as she smiled up at him.”

  • STET (2018): “Anna, I’m concerned about subjectivity intruding into some of the analysis in this section of the text. I think the body text is fine, but I have concerns about the references. Are you alright?”

  • There Are No Hands in the River (2018): “All that I wanted: to escape the ghost-rattling chains shackled to the thing at the center of me.”

  • All the Stars Above the Sea (2018): “All the stars are closer now than they have ever been. If you were still beside me you’d reach up on tiptoes, fingers spread to touch the brightest one.”

  • An Introduction to Pain (2018): “How badly are you hurting? Please identify your pain by weight and measure it from end to end, please rank the force and flavor of this guest that’s wedged itself into your life.”

  • Anne and the Stairs (2018): “Anne told Edgar that she was barren on the day that the stairs appeared.”

  • As Simple as Vanishing (2018): “When Maurice decided that he wanted to vanish that first time, all he had to do was try.”

  • What Grew (2018): “Before I knew I was pregnant I would stand before the mirror and wonder why I was different why I was growing what was wrong with my too-small skin.”

  • Worth Her Weight in Gold (2018): “Winslow Remington Houndstooth had a problem. The problem was Ruby.”

  • The Legend of Tania and Lula (2018): Lula’s gold tooth glinted in the light of the dying sun as she stared into the barrel of Tania’s Pulsar-1500. Sand swirled in eddies around her dust-clouded boots. Her eyes watered, but she didn’t blink. The sweat that had beaded across her forehead during the hike back to the ship evaporated in the rising wind as she came to understand her situation. She would die at Tania’s hand.”

  • Go Home, Go Home, Go Home (2018): “Earth’s gravity pulled at Anton’s bones like an insult.”

  • Our Collection (2018): “She died in a sea of wind-swept fury, her arms spread wide to catch the waves, she died with her cheek to the wind.”

  • The Nightmare Stays the Same (2018): “In the nightmare, Bess is having a fistfight. In the nightmare, she is winning.”

  • Anonymous Croupier (2018): “It was a hot night. One of those nights that would feel like mid-afternoon anywhere other than Vegas, you know?”

  • Single Parent (2017): “The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.”

  • A Lady’s Maid (2017): “Isaac hadn’t taken the news of the engagement well. Nadia reflected on this as she pressed her cheek against the cool wall of her washtub. She was strong, and Isaac Cornette was a small man, but wrestling his dead weight into the tub hadn’t been easy.”

  • The Art of Asterculture (2017): “Star-wine is very difficult to make. It’s a complex and sometimes dangerous process. But one must have a hobby, and this is mine.”

  • Rescue (2016): “When they went to the dog park, Malachai had to wear sweatpants to blend in with the humans that congregated there. Going to the dog park required him to use very un-demonic magic: a careful layering of glamours to make him look like a small, balding human male, rather than the top-tier demon that he was.”

  • Homesick (2016): “I close my eyes, but it doesn’t really help, because it’s more the feeling than the seeing that’s the problem. I feel Moira’s dry lips scratch closed around my finger; I feel her split tongue wrap around my knuckle and slide up and down my fingernail. Then, a blessed numbness creeps up my hand, all the way to the wrist, and I don’t have to feel anything she’s doing anymore.”

  • Haunted (2016): “When he came inside, he kept his shoes on. That was my first clue. She took her shoes off, and looked around like she was standing in a cathedral. He rapped his knuckles hard on a wall, and I flinched.”

  • Stars (2016): “Maria can feel his voice, the vibration of it, but she cannot hear him over the ringing in her own ears. The ringing is loud, and she isn’t going to try to hear over it because she knows it would be impossible, like trying to see over the top of the horizon.”

  • Bargain (2016): “Malachai worked exclusively with those humans who had found themselves at the limit of how much power they could possess. They called him to bend the rules of time and space around their whims, so that they might be even more feared and loved by the other mortals.”

  • Look (2015): “Caroline raised her head a few inches to see the thing the doctor held up—a loud, purple thing, covered in white smears of vernix. She let her head drop. Her vision blurred with fatigue. The past thirty-seven hours had been pain and blood and screaming and working and waiting and then pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing. She knew the moment should be beautiful, but all she could think was ‘finished.’”

Sarah’s Articles and Essays:

  • Aging, Which Is Linear (2020): “I’ve decided, with this birthday, to let some things go.”

  • What Makes a Story Queer? (2019): “Magic for Liars is a book that is immensely concerned with identity, and whether or not identity is immutable.”

  • Magical Accessories, Definitively Ranked (2019): “A staff is a great magical accessory… for your great-grandfather to wield. A staff tells everyone who looks at you that you’re a very powerful wizard who doesn’t know how to use email and will never be on time. It’s the rotary phone of spellcasting.”

  • The Enduring Legacy of Bunnicula, a 40-Year-Old In-Joke That’s Still Hilarious (2019): “James and Deborah Howe were two struggling actors in their late twenties, married and underemployed, and they thought the idea of a vampire rabbit was funny.”

  • Imposter/Abuser: Power Dynamics in Publishing (2019): “We tell ourselves that we’re not important for a lot of reasons, many of which boil down to self-protection.”

  • Leave the Hookhand Murderer Alone (2019): “This story punishes the would-be-killer by taking away the device that functions as his prosthetic hand. This is a punishment that’s repeated often in media across genres: a disabled villain is separated from his adaptive device, and the audience is asked to view it as justice.”

  • Whiskey, Trauma, and The Doctor (2019): “[U]ntil recently, whiskey has tasted to me like burning death.”

  • Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed My Life (2018): “I thought I was writing in-genre. Fantasy stories have magic. Science fiction stories have rules that I don’t always understand because I somehow got through high school without taking a physics class. Queer stories have death.”

  • Iconic Outwear of Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature, Ranked (2018): “When I was in grade school I would have given my right arm for a way to get through my day without anyone seeing me. But does this cloak really deserve to beat out all other forms of fantasy outerwear? I say no.”

  • Fear No Evil: On Sorting Hats and Forest Gods (2018): “The hat does not require your input. The hat knows.”

  • The White Mountains (2018): “Occam’s razor: if you’re walking among gods and something is strange, think magic, not physics.”

  • Gods and Beggars (2018): “Simply put, a God disguised as a beggar isn’t testing the individual–they are testing the world that has created that individual. They are testing the health of the community.”

  • Fear of the Female Voice (2017): “For millennia, Western society has insisted that female voices—just that, our voices—are a threat. We’re afraid of wolves, and we’re afraid of bears, and we’re afraid of women.”

  • Harry Potter: A Beginner’s Guide to Evaluating Authority (2017): “Harry Potter is not a resistance manual. Harry Potter is a guidebook.”

  • The Hubris of Icarus: Women Who Fly into the Sun (2017): “There are two kinds of hubris. There are two kinds of hope. And the sky is so wide. If she could only fly.”

  • A Woman, Explaining Things (2017): “If they had the opportunity—if this new woman arrived at their front door with an extended hand, inviting them to come into the blue box with her and see a universe full of new and frightening things—I wonder what these furious people would do.”

  • River Song in Hades (2017): “She loves the adventure. She loves the journey. Like Persephone, she knows that winter and death are coming for her, but she rushes at them headlong, because she knows that the path she’ll travel to get there is one to be savored.”

  • Why Millennials Yearn for Magical School (2017): “We were told that a better world was waiting for us. We were told that a letter was on the way. We’ll just have to write the letter ourselves.”

  • On Feasting (2017): “You are a character in a fantasy novel. Congratulations: you have been invited to a feast.”

  • Finding Facts: American Identity Is Based on Alternate History (2017): “It’s the story told in my American History textbook, and it’s one of the most comprehensive works of fiction I’ve ever read.”

  • The Ecology of Alt-History, Or: The Hippos, the Hippos, the Hippos Are on Fire (2017): “The water hyacinth was a problem, and the meat shortage was a problem, and for a time—for a brief, glorious time—America saw a solution. We were going to fight an invasive species with the power of our big, important brains. We were going to get ourselves some hippos.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Woman in White (2017): “In a blood-soaked world where survival is dependent upon grit and determination, the woman in white is spotless. She is radiant. She is pure.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Badass Black Tank Top Walks the Line (2017): “She can wield a flamethrower the size of a Prius while biting out the word “fuck” and lighting a cigar, her boot firmly planted on the jugular of the man she just finished beating up for calling her a girl.”

  • Storytelling Through Costume: The Allure of the Red Dress (2017): “But the red dress isn’t just a costume; it’s an archetype. When we see the red dress, we already have an idea of what we can expect from the woman inside of it. She’s not bad; she’s just drawn that way.”

  • Mentally Ill Women Belong in Your Stories, Too (2016): “[R]egardless of the treatment mentally-ill women receive at the hands of literary authors, we are seen. We exist, and we participate in the world, and we hurt and heal and struggle and live. But we are not invited into space. We are not invited to attend on the Faerie Queen. We don’t attend Hogwarts or fly TIE fighters.”

  • Why We Write About Witches (2016): “When we write witches, we are writing about our expectations of women, and what we hope—and fear—they would do if they had access to power.”

  • Do Better: Sexual Violence in SFF (2016): “I want to be furious that SFF writers seem to have an easier time imagining faster-than-light travel than they do imagining a world in which sexual assault isn’t a constant threat.”

  • In Defense of Villainesses (2016): “We love her and we hate her in equal measure. We feel that way because she revels in being all the things that we are told we aren’t allowed to be.”

  • Dissociation Is Scary. Dissociation Is Safety. (2016): “And when I’m in the little dark room of memory, surrounded by words that remind me who can hurt whom, the only thing to do is to grope around in the blackness, trying to find a doorknob.”

  • The Harry Potter Series Is Actually One Long Story About PTSD: “When you read Harry Potter through the lens of trauma psychology, what you start to realize is that these books explore the aftermath of trauma in a surprisingly deep and compelling way.”

Sarah’s Interviews:

  • Q&A: Sarah Gailey, Author of When We Were Magic (2020): “I’m proud to have written something that, as I was writing it, reminded me that things can be good even when they’re messy and hard.”

  • Talks at Google (2019): On bringing fantasy and noir together in Magic for Liars, “I was really able to answer them with each other. They fit together like puzzle pieces.”

  • Spotlight On: Sarah Gailey (2019): “Some characters grow best in haunted houses, and others grow best in spaceships, and still others will only be able to put down roots in the house next door to mine.”

  • Interview with an Author: Sarah Gailey (2019): “I would definitely be into theoretical magic. It’s dangerous and ambitious and will kill you if you do it wrong, which is totally my jam. Also, it’s hard to explain at cocktail parties, which seems to be a central theme in all of my interests.”

  • An Exclusive Interview with Sarah Gailey (2019): “Everything I write has a queer perspective, even if the characters aren’t engaged in a storyline that interacts directly with queer sexuality or relationships. Themes of isolation, self-examination, identity, and found family are common in my work.”

  • Author Interview: Sarah Gailey (2017): “Fortunately, like any good writer, I happen to have a close relationship with an explosives expert.”

  • Sarah Gailey Talks Heists, Hope, Feral Hippos, and Defiantly Joyful Characters (2017): “River of Teeth imagines that Broussard’s dream came true, and that hippos came to America…and immediately did what hippos do—which is to say, whatever the hell they want because you try telling a hippo it has to stay behind a fence.”

  • Sarah Gailey on Sexual Violence in SFF (2017): “Everybody’s argument is, ‘Oh, we need to reflect real life.’ But really when you look at genre fiction, that’s not what we’re about. We’re not writing in order to reflect real life; we’re writing to paint new worlds and new social norms.”

  • Hugo Award Winner Sarah Gailey on Self-Care, Self-Imposed Deadlines, and Where Ideas Come From: “If I can get outside with a good book and some fresh fruit and maybe a glass of wine, I’m the happiest I can be.”

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Sarah Gailey: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

 

AMY TENBRINK: The home page of your website says, big and bold and just after your name, “Writer. Reader. Enthusiast.” I first encountered your work with your novella, River of Teeth, which I adore for the unrelentingly fuck-you subversion among all the gleefully ahistorical hippos, but almost immediately thereafter, I ran across your essays, which I adore for their unflinching and hilarious insight. Would you tell us about these three parts of you—writer, reader, and enthusiast—and why you think each deserves a place of proclamation on the home page of your website?

Sarah Gailey

SARAH GAILEY: I think that those three words summarize pretty much all of what I do and who I am! I read compulsively, because stories are the fuel my brain feeds on. They’e nourishing and I’m lucky enough to be reading during a golden era of storytelling. Reading isn’t just a thing I do; being a reader is a part of my identity.

I write for a living, which is an enormous blessing. I am so fortunate to be able to support myself by doing the thing I love most. Of course, that means that I write way too much—when you do what you love, you never stop working a day in your life. I’m still learning how to set boundaries for myself, to take time away from work and nurture myself in ways that have nothing to do with being an author.

Which is why it’s crucial that I’m also an enthusiast. I love to be excited by the world around me, to learn new things, and share the thrill of discovery with others. I find cynicism and incuriosity to be a form of cowardice — people let themselves be governed by a fear of looking foolish, or a fear of having to apologize for things they believed in the past, or a fear of the pain that comes with growth. I’m not interested in letting that kind of fear shape my life, so instead I run fast as I can in the opposite direction, with great enthusiasm.

 

AMY: In Upright Women Wanted, you use the phrase “gallows courage,” a phrase that’s not out of place in a work that opens with a hanging. But Upright Women Wanted is dedicated “[t]o everyone who thought they’d never live this long,” which is a reference to your 2018 essay “Between the Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed My Life” about your claiming queerness as part of your identity and how, for a number of reasons relating to your queerness, you didn’t think you’d live this long. You’ve also said that your short story, “Bread and Milk and Salt”, about cycles of abuse, is your most personal short story. I think your work—your honesty, your rawness, your admitted errors and apologies and desire to grow—takes gallows courage. Would you share some of your thoughts about putting so much of your heart on a page?

SARAH: For a big part of my life, the circumstances I was in required me to keep too many secrets. That secrecy is a hallmark of abusive environments and relationships. You internalize this idea that it’s wrong to tell anyone what’s happening inside your home, what’s happening to your body, what’s happening inside your heart. Saying “I’m hurting” or “I’m scared” or “I’m sad” feels dangerous and forbidden.

When I started trying to build a life for myself that didn’t include space for abusive dynamics, one of the things I found to be most healing was transparency. I learned how to invite people into my space, physically and emotionally, in ways that are safe for everyone involved. It was really scary, and I did a terrible job for a while—it’s a very steep learning curve that I’m still climbing—but at this point, secrecy isn’t a part of who I am or who I want to be.

I draw a very firm distinction between “secrecy” and “privacy,” which is crucial when you write about yourself and your life in the ways I do. There are a lot of things about me that I don’t share with the world. But the things I do share, I share because I think there can be healing in that sharing, for me and for readers. This last birthday, I finally stopped being private about my age; I publicly discussed the dynamics that made me hide it for so long, because I know that there are readers of mine who have struggled with the same issues. If I can safely reveal parts of myself and, in so doing, help a reader to feel more seen and more safe in the world, then I think my work can have real meaning.

 

AMY: In 2019, after Magic for Liars, your noir magical boarding school novel, was released, you wrote an essay, “What Makes a Story Queer?,” in which you say, “Were I to end Magic for Liars on an optimistic note, I would allow Ivy’s story to continue mirroring mine: Ivy Gamble would find a community of people who were, in fact, just like her…. Through the love and support of that community, Ivy would come to understand herself. She would develop a sense of security. She would develop a sense of self. She would develop a sense of pride.” In When We Were Magic, your new young-adult novel, you give Alexis, struggling with her identity and her friends and her failures and fears and hopes, just that optimistic ending. In many ways, when I read the three works you’ve published in the last year—Magic for Liars to Upright Women Wanted to When We Were Magic—I can follow a single thread from struggle to defiance to joy. Would you please talk about what you hope readers take away from your books?

SARAH: That’s an incredibly astute observation! I put a lot of myself onto the page, intentionally and unintentionally, and I love that the journey I’ve taken in my own life — from struggle to defiance to joy — is visible on the page.

In every book I write, I want readers to take away something different. In Magic for Liars, I wanted readers to take away an understanding of how everyone is involved in their own story and their own struggle, and those narratives aren’t always visible to the people who are living inside of them. Ivy Gamble is lying to herself, and she’s lying to herself about why she’s doing it, and she’s lying to the reader about how honest she’s capable of being. She’s not doing that on purpose, to be sneaky or malicious—she’s doing the best she can, and she’s still failing, because sometimes that’s what we do.

In Upright Women Wanted, I wanted readers to take away the idea that tragedy isn’t inevitable, and it doesn’t have to be the end of a story. For so many people, especially queer people, hardship feels defining, and tragedy feels final. But Esther’s story begins with tragedy, and from there, she finds triumph and joy alongside her grief. I wanted readers to feel in their bones that they can have both.

When We Were Magic is the story of what life can be when you lean into that joy. It’s a story of supportive community, emotionally healthy and loving friendships, good boundaries and tenderness even in the midst of conflict and trauma. I wrote it for the teen I once was, who needed to hear that it’s okay to let your friends love you even when you’re a mess, and that’s the message I hope readers—especially young readers—take away from those pages.

 

AMY: In your work, both fiction and nonfiction, you dive deep on gender issues, particularly those affecting people who aren’t cisgender men. As a few examples, you did a boatload of research into abortion and abortion ethics in order to write Magic for Liars; your short story “STET” delves deeply into a mother’s grief and the societal silencing thereof; your nonfiction is rife with intersectional feminist issues, such as “Fear of the Female Voice” and “A Woman, Explaining Things.” How do you do your research? What do you read? Who do you talk to?

SARAH: I’m so fortunate to be part of a community with a ton of brilliant people in it! Often, when I need help learning about an issue—like, for instance, abortion and abortion ethics—I start with general reference material from reputable sources. I check out Wikipedia and look at the citations on articles, and there’s often great information available from trustworthy organizations like Planned Parenthood. Once I feel like I have a good grasp on baseline information, I reach out to closed sections of my community, like private slack channels or broad group chats. That’s how I add color and texture to the reference material. I get most of my information from one-on-one conversations. I find that the best way to learn is to talk to people who are passionate about their area of expertise, both because then you get the really good, reliable intel, and because there are nuances to information that reference material can rarely supply.

 

AMY: In 2020, the Sirens theme is villains, so let’s talk about gender, sexuality, and villainy. Society, of course, frequently demands that we cast women and queer folk as villains, often simply for defying the limitations imposed by the heteropatriarchy. And often, given that your characters, across genders and sexualities, walk a fine line between antihero and villain—from the River of Teeth gang to Alexis’s killing a boy in When We Were Magic—I imagine you have something to say on this particular topic. Talk to me about villains!

SARAH: I have always loved villains. I don’t think this is rare—villains are often the more complicated characters in children’s media, the characters whose motivations feel grounded in emotions that children can relate to. Heroes in children’s media often exhibit more grown-up behavior than villains do—they don’t tend to throw tantrums or get petty and pouty—and so they can feel a little out-of-reach. Villains are also visually fascinating in a way heroes often aren’t (picture Jafar vs. Aladdin in Disney’s Aladdin—only one of them has facial features you can grab onto). And of course, as a tiny queer baby, I saw the queer-coding in those villains and identified with it in ways I didn’t really understand.

As an adult, I find villains fascinating for a different reason. I think the best villains, the most fascinating ones, are the ones who are truly trying to Do Right. Few people act in ways that they believe to be evil or selfish, but doing bad things is a part of the human condition that we’ve never been able to escape. In my writing, I want to explore the things we do to hurt each other, and why they feel so necessary and inescapable.

The one exception to this is in Upright Women Wanted, where the villain is a fascist police-state. I think we’ve had more than enough media that aims to humanize those particular types of villains, and so in writing that book, I let them be a little more one-dimensional than I usually would. The villain in Upright Women Wanted is a villain because he wants to hurt you and the people you love, and sometimes, that’s enough.

 

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

SARAH: My friend Elisabeth. I met her during the year I lived in Portland, and our friendship has been completely transformational for me. Elisabeth has taught me how to take up space, how to expect support and love from my friends, and how to demand that my emotions be acknowledged and attended to. For so much of my life, I accepted the idea that my feelings had to be reasonable, logical, and explainable in order to deserve care. I will never forget the day that Elisabeth told me “it’s okay to be emotional sometimes—it’s an expression of what you’re feeling, and the people who love you should make space for that.” All of my relationships have flourished so much with that perspective. I started asking for space for my own feelings—and refusing to have my feelings shut down by men saying “you’re just being dramatic” or “you need to calm down.” The result has been that my friends, family, and loved ones have started asking for space for their needs and feelings, and we all have so many more opportunities to see, acknowledge, and care for each other. It’s been stunning, and I owe it all to Elisabeth.

 


Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.

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

Further Reading: Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks

Have you already loved the work of Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks? Searching for Sycorax? The Lemonade Reader and Sycorax’s Daughters collection? Are you looking for more? Let us help you! As part of Kinitra’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of her interviews and work from around the web.

Kinitra’s Articles, Essays, and Lectures:

Kinitra’s Interviews:

  • The Conjure Is Political (2020): “I think ‘conjure’ is associated with a lot of women’s knowledge, and particularly Black women’s knowledge practices that are often easily dismissed, that a lot of times are hidden.”

  • The Lemonade Reader: Black Feminists Read Beyoncé (2019): “I believe the most important takeaway is that you have to do the internal work to grow into your happiness. And it takes work, especially in a world that actively hates Black women and girls. And that Southern Black women have long been onto something in articulating and laying the pathway for their Black girl descendants to make such a journey of self-healing and self-discovery. Beyoncé has simply excelled at coalescing all of these insights into a 55-minute avant-garde film/visual album.”

  • The Public Medievalist Podcast, Episode 1 (and transcript) (2019): “I’m a literary scholar. It’s not necessarily what I wanted it to be, it’s are you being true to the story. I think a lot of people were like, oh you’re mad that they made Daenerys the Mad Queen, you know, they have been foreshadowing this… Yes, you know, those of us who are fans of the show, those of us who have done some of the reading and everything else, we realize that that has been foreshadowed for a long time. But … you shit the bed in the execution.”

  • OutKasted Conversations: Kinitra Brooks (2019): “And I am obsessed with how black folks define their monsters while being considered monstrous and all those things that flow in between.”

  • An Interview with Dr. Kinitra Brooks, Who Teaches a Class on Beyoncé (2016): “I am most interested in how black women take folklore and syncretic religious practices (so spiritual practices that mix West African religion with Christianity) in their creative fiction and use it as a place of power and subversion against the horror genre and classic readings of black women’s literature.”

  • Interview with Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks, Horror Scholar (2016): “I believe horror offers many of the black women horror creators I study a sense of agency to push back against the horrific. Authors such as Chesya Burke, Kiini Ibura Salaam, and director/activist Bree Newsome use horror to examine the simultaneity of oppressions (race, gender, sexuality, and class) and offer interesting avenues for their black women protagonists to gain control and fight back against these interlocking systems of oppression.”

  • When Theory Meets the Incredible: Changing Perceptions of Black Women in Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy: “Brooks came to theorize that white women were capable of rescuing themselves while maintaining their femininity, blurring gender lines by assuming forceful attitudes and still remaining sympathetic figures. Black women who took on similar roles, on the other hand, were portrayed as unnaturally strong, losing their femininity and the sympathy of the audience in the process.”

 

Kinitra Brooks: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

 

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

Kinitra Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

AMY: The 2020 Sirens theme is “villains,” and I imagine a black woman horror scholar has something to say about that. What does “villain” mean to you—especially in the field of consumption and criticism of speculative works—and how is that entangled with gender, race, and sexuality?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 


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

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

Further Reading: Rin Chupeco

Have you already loved the work of Rin Chupeco? The Girl from the Well and The Suffering? The entire Bone Witch trilogy? The Never Tilting Planet? Wicked As You Wish? Are you looking for more? Let us help you! As part of Rin’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of their interviews and work from around the web.

Rin’s Short Fiction:

Rin’s Interviews::

  • Interview with Enthralled Bookworm (2020): “What I love most about YA, particularly in the SFF genre, is that a lot of issues are frequently discussed there, but…the fact that it’s set in fantastical worlds means readers can have that necessary distance to process real world issues tackled in the book.”

  • Interview with Rin Chupeco, author of The Never Tilting World (2019): “I was in Boracay, an island resort in the Philippines, when the super typhoon Haiyan hit, and it first made landfall there. It was a frightening time; the power was out, all routes out of the island were unavailable, and all communication lines were down, which meant we had no way of contacting friends and family for days. In that time, it felt like the world had shrunk down to just that one tiny island. That experience stuck with me ever since, obviously, so when I thought about writing a book where climate change is the villain, where the world seemed to have decided that the only way for it to survive is to get rid of the parasitical humans on it, this was what I drew from.”

  • Interview with JeanBookNerd (2019): “[…]I’m now in the position to talk to other writers who want to take the same path and tell them that yes, this is a feasible option and that it’s possible, and it’s been gratifying to have people tell me that my books are their incentives to be writers themselves, especially among other Filipinos living in the Philippines!”

  • Interview with Fae Crate (2019): “I think I’m very partial to most of the characters in The Girl from the Well, simply because that book is my first ever baby (I like to joke that it’s my autobiography couched as fiction). That said, Okiku, my ghost girl in that series, and I share similar worldviews, but it’s Tark, the boy unfortunate enough to be haunted by every ghost within his reach, that has my personality and ridiculousness, so he tends to be my favorite.”

  • Who Stokes the Fire: Talking about The Bone Witch and World-Building with Rin Chupeco (2019): “The problem with [writing] hard magic, though, is that you need to make sure your magical system or your world-building answers every problem you might come across while writing the book.”

  • Interview with Rin Chupeco for The Shadowglass Blog Tour (2019): “The Bone Witch came at a difficult, sleep-deprived time in my life. I just had my first son, which was an emotional time. I had a brother I never knew, who died before I was born, and I started wondering about what our relationship would have been like had he lived. It’s how Fox first came to be, who’s sort of an idealized version of the brother I would have liked to have.”

  • Spooky Q&A: Rin Chupeco (2018): “My absolute favorite ghost is the kuchisake-onna—a pretty girl wearing a flu mask who’ll ask you if you think she’s beautiful if you encounter her along a dark road. If you answer wrong (and based on the legend, practically all possible answers are the wrong ones) she removes her mask to reveal a long slitted mouth, and kills you.”

  • Interview with The Witch Snitch (2015): “Living as a writer in the Philippines is a lot different from living as a writer in most first world countries, which is hard enough as it is. Writing fiction here is like making street graffiti—you don’t do it for the money, because there isn’t any, but you do it for everything else that matters. Most writers in Manila were either literary fiction novelists who had hefty contracts with schools to use their books in literature classes, or those who wrote Harlequin-esque romances in the local language. I didn’t want to do either of those.”

  • Filipino YA horror author Rin Chupeco on life and The Girl from the Well (2014): “Okiku kills other murderers. She has the same triggers and sadistic tendencies as in the original. In my book, she goes to different places looking for murderers. Think Sadako with a conscience.”

 

Rin Chupeco: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

 

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

Rin Chupeco

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

Further Reading: Fonda Lee

Have you already loved the work of Fonda Lee? Jade City and Jade War? Exo and Cross Fire? Zeroboxer? Are you looking for more? Let us help you! As part of Fonda’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of her interviews and work from around the web.

Fonda’s Guest Posts:

Fonda’s Interviews:

  • Fonda Lee: When the Alien Invaders Win (2018): “My dad takes credit for introducing me to SF. He says when I was an infant he’d hold me on his lap in this battered yellow rocking chair, and bathe me in the glow of Star Trek original series reruns, so I must’ve been osmosing science fiction stories as a baby.”

  • Interview: Fonda Lee (2018): “I’m very interested in creating worlds that feel as though they’ve been around for a long time and are now on the cusp of another chapter in history.”

  • Portland author Fonda Lee builds worlds that give readers ‘things to think about’ (2018): “All alien stories are fundamentally human stories.”

  • Author Interview: Fonda Lee (2017): “To me, there are two equally wrong-headed extremes when it comes to portraying women in a testosterone-dominated culture, fictional or not. One is to ignore or marginalize them completely. The other is to pretend that there is no systemic prejudice and to make them every bit as prevalent and accepted as the men. Both are unrealistic.”

  • Michelle Rial and Fonda Lee: “I find it frustrating that people feel compelled to draw judgmental distinctions between “high art” and “commercial art.” Of course, there are differing objectives and audiences for different types of art, but I think that as creatives, we’re all just trying to express our own truth.”

Fonda’s Short Fiction:

  • “I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married” (2019): “I filled out some information about myself, put in my preferences for gender and age, and in seconds I had an AI-generated virtual girlfriend named ‘Ivy.’ ”

  • “Welcome to the Legion of Six” (2019): “Call it idealism if you will, but when I joined the Legion of Six at the height of the Cold War, we really believed we had a calling. A solemn responsibility to use our powers to save the world from destruction. You know what? I think it’s just not the same for young superhumans these days.”

  • “Universal Print”: “Art Strung stared at the grounded vessel, then turned in a slow, disbelieving circle. The afternoon Thedesian sun beat down on the scrubby, arid landscape: dusty, rolling purple hills dotted with copses of bushy blackish-green trees, and in the distance, piled rock formations that made Art think of enormous heaps of animal dung. I’m screwed, Strung decided. I am so going to be fired.

  •  

Fonda Lee: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

 

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

Fonda Lee

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 


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

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

Further Reading: Joamette Gil

Have you already loved publisher and comics-creator Joamette Gil’s work with Power & Magic Press? The 2017 Prism-award winning, Ignatz-nominated Queer Witches Comics Anthology? Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy? Haven’t read those yet but interested in finding out more about Joamette and her work? As part of Joamette’s Guest of Honor week, we’re pleased to compile some of her interviews and comics from around the web.

Joamette’s interviews:

  • Vision 2020: Joamette Gil (2020): “As an introverted, low-income immigrant kid, escapism was my thing, and my favorite way to escape was watching Sailor Moon. The way she made me feel convinced me that, when I grew up, I wanted to make others feel the same way using characters of my own.”

  • Indie Comics Spotlight: Joamette Gil Channels Power & Magic in Her Comics (2019): “So often, a “witch” was any woman embracing her authentic self, rejecting social obligations. I relate to that as a queer woman of color who always had to hear that there was “something wrong” with me, for no other reason than that I didn’t fit a certain “womanly” ideal.”

  • This Joamette Gil Interview Has Nothing To Do With Comics (2019): Joamette shares her recipe for arroz con pollo and also that “my favorite witch in all fiction is Kiki from the Ghibli film Kiki’s Delivery Service. She’s not particularly powerful or impressive, but she is inherently special. Her magical powers stand in for concepts like independence, self-confidence, and purposefulness.”

  • Smash Pages Q&A: Joamette Gil on ‘Heartwood’ and More (2018): “In a lot of ways, Heartwood was also about pushing P&M Press’ boundaries: how many people can we hire, how much can we pay them, how many invites vs open submissions, how many people can I edit at a time, how well will this fund? The hypotheses across the board were ‘more, bigger,’ and I was mercifully right, hah. I eventually want to publish books by individual creators, so in addition to shining more light on less represented voices, every anthology is a chance to grow into a publisher that can do a solo creator justice.”

  • Joamette Gil Summons ‘Power & Magic’ for Queer Witches Everywhere (2016): “My ‘thing’ has always been telling stories that resonate with people from marginalized communities, especially queer people of color who grew up (or currently live) in poverty, which is my own experience. Power & Magic exists because I don’t just want to resonate; I want to be materially supportive to others like me.”

Joamette’s comics:

Joamette Gil: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re pleased to bring you the first in our 2020 series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and research, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2020 theme of villains! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens Communication team member Faye Bi speaks with publisher and comics creator Joamette Gil, this year’s Sirens Studio Guest of Honor

 

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

Joamette Gil

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 


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

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

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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