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Marie Brennan: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens registrar Erynn Moss speaks with Marie Brennan.

 

ERYNN MOSS: Can you believe it has been a decade since you were a guest of honor at Sirens? Our theme that year was faeries and you were in the midst of publishing your Onyx Court series, a centuries-long epic following the fae of London. But I recall you also led us in a workshop on writing fight scenes and your methods, like your writing, were so clear and enjoyable that it’s no surprise you’ve continued to dedicate time to teaching. Recently you held a similar workshop at Clarion West in Seattle and your New Worlds Patreon is essentially a world-building encyclopedia of knowledge gleaned from your folklore and anthropology background, which some of us love for the nerdy sake of human culture factoids. How are you balancing your time/efforts between teaching/essays and your own writing?

Marie Brennan

MARIE BRENNAN: This really has been the year of me diving back into teaching—not just the in-person workshop for Clarion West, but also a slew of online ones, plus I’ve taught for Cat Rambo’s Academy for Wayward Writers and the Kelly Yang Project, which works one-on-one with students in Hong Kong. The good news is, unlike when I taught in an academic context, I don’t have to do any grading!

To some extent I’m able to do both because they come out of different buckets in my brain. Writing nonfiction doesn’t make the same demands on me as fiction does—which isn’t the same thing as saying it doesn’t make any demands, but I’m able to shift gears and work on A when I’m tapped out on B. I’ll admit, though, that the Patreon is intermittently draining: it’s been running for over three years now, with an essay every single week, and I’m not anywhere near done yet. I’m still excited by the project as a whole, but I go through periods where I drag my feet on actually writing that week’s essay, because ugh didn’t I just do this last week?

In the long run, though, the New Worlds project has also been really good for my fiction. Brainstorming possible topics of discussion doubles as reminding me of cool things I could be doing with my worldbuilding—which has particularly fed into the Rook and Rose trilogy I’m writing with Alyc Helms. They’ve got the same academic background I do, and I’m only sort of joking when I call the trilogy “When Anthropologists Attack.” We’ve been having a blast thinking through all the different elements of the setting and how they could feed into our story. And hey, the other day I re-read my own Patreon essays on security systems as a refresher before Alyc and I worked out a plot problem—so they’re becoming a resource I can use, too!

 

ERYNN: A mythically rare and majestic beast, your dragon-naturalist heroine, Lady Trent, is—gasp!—an older female main character. Her story starts off in her youth but continues over a lengthy career of adventuring and all told from her post-retirement perspective. She frequently stops the flow of her story to inject humorous details and opinions from her mature viewpoint. As a reader, I felt like you were having a lot of fun with her. Can you tell us a bit about writing from this particular point of view? And to follow up, your latest book in that world, Turning Light into Darkness, is the story of Lady Trent’s granddaughter, Audrey Camherst, and written in an entirely different style. What was it like continuing in this world, but with such a different voice?

MARIE: I don’t think I’m the type of writer typically cited as having amazing character voices…but man, when they click, they click. It took all of a paragraph for Lady Trent’s voice to materialize when I first started poking at her story. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, the approach I took to the viewpoint was absolute gold for the story. It isn’t just first-person; it’s her consciously relating her life story to an audience presumed to exist in her own world. Which meant I could get away with absolutely everything, because in the end, it’s all characterization. I need to describe a jungle? You’re not just getting the jungle; you’re getting Isabella’s experiences and opinions of the jungle. I need to explain something about the setting? Drop in a line where she says, “You young people won’t realize this because things have changed so much, but here’s how it used to be.” I can play freely with foreshadowing and irony, because she has fun pulling her audience’s strings on purpose. I won’t say that suits every kind of novel, but for this series, it worked out perfectly.

As for Audrey, figuring out how to make her different was pretty much the first challenge I faced—especially since I decided to keep up the conceit where every story from that world exists in the world. Audrey’s novel is assembled out of many different kinds of documents, from diary entries to letters to newspaper articles to police reports…and yes, that did make for some interesting hurdles along the way, as I had to figure out how to get certain bits of information across. Audrey primarily shows up via her diary, which was a more immediate kind of first person than Isabella’s—told immediately after the fact, rather than decades later—but I also tried to modernize her tone, since she lives in a period that’s more like the 1920s than the late Victorian era. A lot of it also boiled down to thinking about the ways in which her situation is different from her grandmother’s: Her drive to prove herself comes less from facing sexism and more from feeling the burden of having famous relatives. She’s much more rash in some ways, and also much more careless of the consequences, because she trusts that her family will always be there to help her out.

 

ERYNN: You’ve got a reputation for very structured worlds and defined characters—and there was talk of color-coded reference charts on your coming collaborative trilogy. By contrast, one of your amazing short stories, “This Is How,” is so poignant and elegantly pared-down that it’s almost a poem. It’s essentially about transformation and makes me wonder how you, consciously or not, go about achieving that kind of squishy organic space for your characters when they might have the span of an epic series or less than 2,000 words.

MARIE: Now, let’s be clear: Those color-coded charts for Rook and Rose are very much an anomaly! On my own, I tend far more toward the “discovery writing” end of the spectrum, figuring out my plot as I go along. But when you’re working with someone else, and furthermore when you’re writing a two hundred thousand-word novel with complex intrigue and multiple viewpoint characters, you can’t just hold it all in your head as a vague cloud and hope the other writer can read your mind. Especially not when you find yourself describing your characters’ lives as “a layer cake of lies and deception”—that’s when you wind up having to chart who knows what, which persona of theirs knows it, who knows they know it, and when they learned it. There was a point along the way when Alyc and I realized our cleverness had looped clear around and stabbed us in the back; it took something like two hours of chewing on the problem before we found a way to un-break our plot.

A short story is not only a different beast, I think it might belong to a different taxonomical kingdom entirely. “This Is How” fell out of my head when I was getting ready for bed one night: I sat down and wrote the whole thing in a single go, and when I was done I wasn’t even sure what I had. Was it a story? Was it just a weird pile of words? It’s an intuitive creation, not one I consciously built. I’ve yet to have a novel happen that way, though I know for some writers it’s possible.

So I think part of the answer is that they’re different skill sets. I used to be abysmal at writing short stories, because I was a natural novelist first; it took me years before I even learned what a short story-sized idea looked like. But at this point I’ve published more than 60 short stories, so I’ve had lots of practice in how to do cool character stuff both in a few thousand words and in tens or hundreds of thousands.

Articulating how to do it, though…? Let’s just say there’s a reason I teach things like worldbuilding and fight scenes, not short story techniques. Just because I can do a thing doesn’t mean I can explain it.

 

ERYNN: As I mentioned, you are currently working with fellow anthropologist, Alyc Helms, under the joint pseudonym M.A. Carrick on a series called Rook and Rose, the first book of which (The Mask of Mirrors) is currently expected in January. The two of you met on an archaeological dig in Wales, which is a great backstory. You’ve mentioned how helpful travel and richness of experience has been to getting the factual historical details of your books correct. Since your Sirens Studio workshop will be “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions,” what sort of non-academic experiences have been helpful for you to accurately and sensitively represent cultural practices and beliefs?

MARIE: It’s a bit of a fuzzy boundary between academic and non-academic experiences, because a lot of it boils down to “I’ve read things.” For any kind of worldbuilding, I think one of the most valuable things you can do is read about actual cultures in the real world; don’t just draw all your ideas from novels and other forms of fiction. And while it’s fine to start with the simple, Wikipedia level of research—especially when the topic is one you aren’t very familiar with, and you need that kind of basic orientation—you can’t stop there. It takes an investment of time and energy, not just to understand X, but to understand the things around X that affect it and give it context. Especially since that can help you find the places where you have unexamined assumptions coloring how you process everything else.

But it helps not to rely entirely on books, either. That’s why travel is good, if it’s something you can afford, and anything else that helps get you out of your familiar zone. Sometimes I think the brain has a range of motion just like the body does, and building up mental flexibility means it’s that much easier to learn about New Thing #17.

 

ERYNN: Speaking of your Sirens Studio writing workshop, what can attendees expect from “Faith in Fantasy: Building Believable Religions”?

MARIE: It’s going to be a ground-up approach, focusing not on high-level theological concepts like “let’s design a pantheon” or “write a myth for how the world got created,” but on what it means to be a character in that world who follows that religion. When a faith is strongly felt, it tends to permeate people’s lives in a hundred different ways—and those ways are what’s going to show up the most frequently in a story.

 

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

MARIE: There’s no contest: Diana Wynne Jones.

Some of you reading this probably recognize her name, but for those who don’t: She was a British fantasy author, writing primarily for children and young adults (though the YA category didn’t really exist as we think of it now for most of her career). I credit her with turning me into a writer.

Like most kids, I made up stories. But when I was about nine or ten, I read her novel Fire and Hemlock—which, in addition to starting my fascination with the ballad “Tam Lin,” featured two characters who were writing a story together. It was the first time in my life I’d thought about that as a thing I could do, not just to entertain myself, but to entertain other people. I more or less decided on the spot that I wanted to be an author, and never let go of that decision.

(Though if you want to sample her work, I’m not sure I would recommend Fire and Hemlock as the place to start. It’s amazing, but its ending is also…really weird, and it was decades later that I found out part of the reason for its weirdness and half-comprehensibility was that I hadn’t read the T.S. Eliot poem woven into the logic and imagery of the climactic scene. Basically, I love that book even though I can’t entirely explain it.)

 


Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to Turning Darkness into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides.

For more information about Marie, visit her website or her Twitter.

Erynn Moss is an enthusiastic reader who likes refreshing her soul by spending time with the brilliant people she finds at Sirens. She’s into comics, sewing, knitting, costumes, and camping. She currently lives in Louisville with her bff spouse and their toddler trainee-Siren.

Casey Blair: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens communication team member Faye Bi speaks with Casey Blair.

 

FAYE BI: If you had to describe your “reading profile” to a stranger (or to a bookseller, librarian, or other gatekeeper), what would you list as some of your favorite themes, subgenres, or tropes in fantasy literature? What makes a “Casey book”? (We know dragons and magical cats can’t be beat!)

Casey Blair

CASEY BLAIR: These days the story features grabbing me most are ambition, irreverence, and radical compassion. Often in combination: There’s nothing quite as satisfying to me as a woman who doesn’t hesitate to dare to give the finger to anyone who would keep her down, who lifts up others as she rises, who understands from the start that she’s valuable, and who is unabashedly competent—as well as inspiring—by virtue of existing without shame in the world we live in and taking up narrative space.

You can probably tell by how I frame that that what I personally look for in any books are excellent characters—not necessarily likable, but depicted in nuanced and interesting ways. I’ll forgive silly plot holes and unrealistic world-building if I care about the characters’ journeys. The specific tropes I respond to are necessarily informed by how they have worked or failed for me in media I’ve consumed historically, and over the years my fantasy tastes have broadly morphed from “whatever shounen anime and epic fantasy I can find” to “shadowy worlds and darkness are Cool” to “holy shit The Goblin Emperor.” They’re all part of me: A shounen-passion-style protagonist who triumphs in spite of all odds through sheer determination is always going to speak to me; I’m a sucker for dark lords and secret guilds of assassins; and a character who can bring people together toward difficult growth and actively reckons with oppressive legacies is inspiring.

Ultimately, a Casey book is fun to read, makes me think, and prominently features women characters owning their power. It’s hopeful without making light of real problems. If you have an action-packed story about a woman burning down the patriarchy with magic, I’m pretty much set.

You know what, I feel like you planned this, but now I have a book list for you: Women in SFF Who Dream Big Dreams and Don’t Let Anyone Stop Them. Those are Casey books. [Ed. note: Coming soon to the Sirens blog!]

 

FAYE: Speaking of dragons—because we know you love them—what are some of your favorite, semi-recent depictions of dragons in fantasy? How do they compare to the dragon books you read as a child?

CASEY: What a question. SO many semi-recent dragons, and I’m sure I’ll miss some anyway but here we go: the Heartstrikers series by Rachel Aaron, Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, The Forbidden Library series by Django Wexler, the Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, Given by Nandi Taylor, and the Chronicles of Elantra series by Michelle Sagara.

As for how they compare, in general the dragons of my childhood were less accessible than dragons often are now. Like, you weren’t going to be friends with Smaug and Shenron, and even dragons in Harry Potter were mostly separate from human concerns. You certainly weren’t going to presume some understanding of their internal emotional state! Whereas many semi-recent dragons are treated more like characters than physical embodiments of natural forces and magic. There’s certainly space for all kinds, but I do like this trend because it increases the dragons’ agency. And I typically find increased character agency makes stories more narratively satisfying.

Mind you, this isn’t to say all dragon books were like that in my childhood—like, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede existed, though I tragically didn’t know about Kazul until much later. But when we talk about trends, I think that’s the major difference.

 

FAYE: You are also the author of the online serial, the delightful Tea Princess Chronicles, which has baby dragons, a tea shop, a princess who finds a new purpose in life, and best of all, a community of awesome women. After nearly three years, what has surprised you most about this publishing journey? And please match a tea to each book in your trilogy—and tell us why.

CASEY: What’s surprised me most about this journey has been the reception, and that it has largely reflected the same earnestness as the story. Tea Princess Chronicles aims to be hopeful and validating by acknowledging bullshit is real and then doing something about it—and gradually empowering more and more people to work together to fix bigger and more entrenched injustices. A really broad spectrum of people have responded to that core. But someone once described this series to her husband as “fantasy for chicks,” and she would have been surprised to hear that the majority of the most vocal supporters of this story—that unabashedly focuses on things like female friendship and cozy domesticity—actually present masculine.

So many people over my life have told me that I couldn’t be a real shounen anime or action movie fan—that they’re too violent for a girl, especially one who presents as femme as I do; that they’re not romantic, aka for girls; and that I must be pretending. You know, classic fake geek girl nonsense. But I am here to tell you that the dudeliest of dudes will read romance and like it. We don’t have to force people into categories, actually! A lot of publishing wisdom advises authors to write for a specific reader, but I think this approach can actually do people a disservice: Targeting readers, and what people respond to in stories, is more complex than that. But it’s been truly lovely that people who needed this story found it, and I hope that will be true of everything I write.

As far as matching tea goes, another surprise has been how many people now assume I’m a tea expert! My friends, I know enough to fake what someone who actually knows about tea would look for, but I am writing MAGIC tea. (I am a tea enthusiast only: It’s not that I can’t appreciate the difference with a really special cup of tea, but I am also happy to drink tea that comes pre-bagged and is extremely over-steeped when I inevitably forget about it and have to reheat my cup. I will drink All The Tea. Except for chamomile, so please enjoy my share of that one.)

So the only possible answer here is for me to give you magic tea recommendations in line with the theme of each book. And each of these fantasy ingredients has a short story to go with it on the serial website. =)

For A Coup of Tea, it has to be the ever starbloom green tea blend. It’s a very smooth flavor but also a blooming tea that, once open, constantly changes form and makes every second worth attending to. This is the book where the heroine learns how to live in the world outside the royal court and discovers new possibilities in the smallest moments.

For Tea Set and Match, I’ll go with a red tea brewed with lellabean extract and honey, which has a full, robust flavor. This book is about fostering the connections between people, and this is a tea for feeling rooted but not tied, and what that combination of freedom and community support makes possible.

For Royal Tea Service, I’d go with a white tea with a drop of dreamreacher, light like floating but with a zing at the back. This is a tea for believing in your power to achieve whatever you can imagine without limit, and doing it.

 

FAYE: You love talking about books! In your time as an indie bookseller, which new-at-the-time or little-known book(s) did you make it your mission to hand-sell? What makes a book talk successful?

CASEY: Not including some of the dragon books above: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, Witchmark by C.L. Polk, An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee, Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik, and In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan. I know it’s a good book talk when I can literally sell it every single time I try. It’s always satisfying when I nail that from the get-go, but sometimes it takes me more tries to find the right angle to connect with people. Ultimately that’s what I’m trying to do: Connect a reader to a book they’ll love.

Book talking involves first understanding what a reader is actually looking for, which is often not what they say they are looking for. Pro tip: ask them what books/authors they’ve read and liked rather than what kind of book they want.

The second important part is being able to isolate what makes a book unique. It’s not enough to say it has great world-building—what kind of world-building? Does the book have magical action scenes that would translate epically to film, or numinous magical struggles focusing on interiority? Is this a light-hearted adventure or grimdark? Dry humor or silly humor? The same person can like multiple things, but if they don’t want to have to think about consequences, I’m not giving them The Goblin Emperor even though it’s a brilliant book that changed me. That’s not how targeting audience works. If you don’t pay attention to what someone actually wants or cares about, you’ll only get to give them a recommendation once.

Those two pieces, weirdly enough, seem to be what a lot of people miss. You have to understand the books, and you have to understand the reader’s interests. I can successfully recommend (by which I mean, people acquire them and later tell me they liked them) plenty of books I didn’t actually enjoy based on being able to isolate and match those features.

But the other piece is understanding at some level what people think they’re interested in. If you keep talking about a brilliant trope subversion to someone who doesn’t know they like that, you’re not going to get very far.

 

FAYE: A fellow Siren once described one of your Sirens papers as “incisive thoughts about intersectional feminism delivered with pointed and precise fury.” We can’t be more excited about your workshop intensive for readers titled “Yeet the Patriarchy: How Fantasy Stories Can Undermine Systemic Oppression” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

CASEY: Absolutely. I feel like I’ve been tiptoeing around facets of this topic with papers at Sirens for a while, so I’m excited to just dive in and be like, fuck it, we are looking at patriarchy as a whole, on a broader level, and how to actually deal with it in our fantasy stories.

I read so many books that are clearly trying to be feminist but only managing the level of “girls can wear pants too,” which, okay, baby steps matter, but also very obvious and not sufficient; it’s a shallow level of engagement that often misses how institutionalized oppression works entirely. It’s not enough for one girl to be so awesome she gets to wear pants, because patriarchy will always adapt to defend itself: That’s how we get exceptionalism and “you’re not like other girls,” which, spoilers, is also sexist!

But how can stories actually meaningfully and dramatically—as in, in a narratively satisfying way that can be depicted through prose—say anything about sexism as a whole? If we accept that sexism is systemic (uh, further spoilers: we will indeed be starting with that premise), how can a single character, or story, make a difference that acknowledges the layered ways the system works and addresses it in a way that isn’t reductive?

There’s not one simple answer—I mean, obviously; systems are entrenched and complicated. But we’re going to talk about the challenges of depicting communal action. We’re going to talk about not erasing traditionally feminine-coded modes of power, and not shoehorning only women into them. We’re going to talk about how we talk about stories, what gets termed “universal” or “fun” or “narratively satisfying” and why, and how that translates financially and intersectionally. We’re going to talk about how stories shape our understanding of what is, what is possible, and what is desired, and how in so doing they reinforce or undermine sexism. Stories train readers, and we can use that—we can also learn how to understand what a book is in fact doing, and we can learn to reach for and demand different kinds of stories.

Not dealing a single blow to patriarchy that it can watch for and defend against, but unraveling it with a thousand cuts from every direction.

 

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?

CASEY: Sirens was the first con I ever attended, back in 2009 when I was 20 years old. I arrived at the welcome banquet apparently way earlier than anyone else but the staff, so I dropped my stuff at a seat and desperately lingered over choosing desserts from the buffet so I wouldn’t be sitting alone at a table having obviously missed the memo on when Cool Folk Who Know How to Con show up. When I finally returned, other people had thankfully camped there, and in short order I was enthusiastically analyzing Saiyuki (the anime, not the epic) with a person whose nametag I eventually looked at and struggled not to do a double-take when it read Sherwood Smith—one of the guests of honor.

For Sherwood’s keynote, she eschewed the usual fantasy topics and instead burst out with an academic lecture on salon culture in 18th century France. It was amazing. At the ball when we were all dressed up, I asked to take a picture with her, and she asked, “Normal or funky chicken?” The only possible answer was, “Funky chicken, OBVIOUSLY,” so I have a fantastic picture doing the funky chicken in a ballgown with the first pro fantasy author I ever met.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Sherwood better since then, and she is the best model I could have wished for the kind of author I want to be. On the artistic side, she has written everything under the SFF sun without limiting herself and done it all excellently. (In fact, Banner of the Damned was the first book I read with an explicitly asexual protagonist and helped me start connecting dots for myself, before pushes like #WeNeedDiverseBooks started improving the landscape of inclusivity.)

On the professional side, she doesn’t hide how smart she is, she doesn’t act like she’s better than anyone else and is always happy to learn, and she goes out of her way to support writers, with no disdain toward anyone less experienced, or self-published, or any of the many ways people often find themselves unwelcome or looked down on in SFF publishing spaces. I am lucky to have met a woman so early in my publishing journey who demonstrates the space she makes in her worlds, and I hope I can do the same.

 


Casey Blair writes adventurous fantasy novels for all ages, including the novella Consider the Dust and her cozy fantasy serial Tea Princess Chronicles. After graduating from Vassar College, her own adventures have included teaching English in rural Japan, attending the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and working as an indie bookseller. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be found dancing spontaneously, exploring forests around the world, or trapped under a cat. For more information, visit her website or her Twitter.

Faye Bi works as a publicity director in New York City and spends the rest of her time cycling, reading, pondering her next meal, and leading the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas.

Anna-Marie McLemore: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens co-founder Hallie Tibbetts speaks with Anna-Marie McLemore.

 

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

Anna-Marie McLemore

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

HALLIE: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. When we asked you this question a couple years ago, you talked about how your mom would be a brilliant and stylish queen or the most glamorous of witches. Would you like to shout-out someone else? Could you tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

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

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

 


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

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

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

Jae Young Kim: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens editor Candice Lindstrom speaks with Jae Young Kim.

 

CANDICE LINDSTROM: You’ve spent your career as a non-profit attorney providing free services to survivors of domestic violence and immigrants looking to start a new life in the United States. Did you always know you wanted to work as an advocate for those who can’t defend themselves, or did something draw you to this specific area of the legal profession?

Jae Young Kim

JAE YOUNG KIM: I went to law school in part to appease my parents, because they believed, as Korean immigrants, that the way to succeed would be getting a professional degree. In some ways, I was a disappointment because I did not go to medical school, as that was the pinnacle of achievement in their minds! I always received pressure to take the socially acceptable path and strive for mainstream acceptance. But once I was in law school, I knew I wanted to work for the public interest at a non-profit. I had always had a strong moral sense of justice. I had understood racism and sexism permeated the United States, but I had not ever really thought about using my degree and my work to fight those structural oppressions. In law school, I was fortunate enough to become friends with organizers and folks committed to fighting for social justice and realized that this was an option. In my third year of law school, I was in a year-long clinic defending immigrants in the legal system. I felt like this was a perfect fit for my passion for justice and my critical thinking and advocacy skills. Also, when I was in law school, the world of immigrant legal advocacy was much smaller and I knew there was a need for smart, competent immigration attorneys. Immigration legal work was not being funded; it took me a while to find a job where I could provide immigration legal services, so I started my legal career representing survivors of domestic violence on family law matters.

 

CANDICE: What do you love about your work, and what is challenging about your work that might surprise those of us outside it?

JAE YOUNG: I love that my work immediately and materially improves the lives of my clients, as orders of protection (restraining orders in New York), custody orders, and immigration status can dramatically change their lives. One of the challenges I face in my work is balancing the tension between knowing what may be “best” from a legal perspective while acknowledging that clients are human and ultimately, they must make the decision about their lives that extend beyond a case. Making informed choices in the legal system is not easy and, at the end of the day, I have to take comfort that I have done everything I can for a client, but they must make the decision they can live with. Law is still a service industry, which lawyers forget a lot.

 

CANDICE: What keeps you strong and hopeful in the face of the adversity that your clients face?

JAE YOUNG: Knowing that lawyers are not the way we will achieve justice. I am answering these questions while the protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless Black people take place.

 

CANDICE: Did you have any assumptions about or expectations of your clients that changed after you had been in this field for some time? Do you tend to see a lot of similarities or overlap in the legal problems faced by the different groups you serve, or is every case dramatically different?

JAE YOUNG: I mentioned this in my earlier answer, but I learned very quickly that clients make the decisions that are best for themselves and that is not always the decision you counsel them to make.

I would say that racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heteropatriarchy and other points of oppression can really inform the legal issues my clients face. I have worked with people across race, gender, class, disability and sexuality, and those with privilege engage in legal systems usually more easily than those without.

 

CANDICE: Does a successful career in non-profit work take a different set of skills or values than regular for-profit office work? Is burnout more of an issue here than with traditional for-profit legal work, and how does one work around or overcome that?

JAE YOUNG: I don’t think there is that much of a difference between the skill set for non-profit services work and regular for-profit services work. Law is a field whose guiding principle is zealous advocacy and that is true whether you work at a corporate firm or a non-profit. Strong written and oral communication skills, relationship building, critical thinking skills, creativity, thinking on your feet, crisis management—these skills are essential across the board. The values may be different in that a for-profit legal office has to focus on making money, but I think the same is true of non-profit organizations. We are funded by local, state and federal government and foundations and have to provide deliverables and outcomes to justify our funding. The metrics are different, but no organization can function without money within capitalism.

Burnout is common in both non-profits and for-profits because zealous advocacy is the polar opposite of healthy boundaries and self-care. With non-profits, we have the added burden of vicarious trauma as most of our clients are marginalized people who have suffered often many forms of trauma throughout their lives. I always remind people to take care of themselves and be a bit selfish. If you quit, they will always find someone else to replace you. You have to sustain yourself and take care of yourself, no one else will. I learned this lesson after being very hard on myself in my twenties. Drinking water, eating regularly, taking breaks, moving more, vacations are all important to survive in this field!

 

CANDICE: What one thing would make the biggest difference in your work? Changes in governmental/law-enforcement policy? More donations? More lawyers choosing to advocate for the marginalized members of society? Something completely different?

JAE YOUNG: I do think social change has to happen outside of the courtroom. I think non-profit lawyers do important harm-reduction work, but the legal systems are created by those with power and protect those in power. Marginalized people having competent lawyers reduces the harm the systems cause but that doesn’t change the laws that work to maintain the same power structures. So I guess I am saying change the government!

 

CANDICE: Do you find that your work influences the stories you’re drawn to in fantasy? Do you need an escape, or stories where justice is served? If the latter, are there any books where you feel justice (through the courts or otherwise) was served in a satisfying way?

JAE YOUNG: I definitely use fantasy as an escape in that I don’t necessarily want to read stories about law or deep political intrigue. I also really love stories that focus on relationships between characters: friendship, romance, family, all of it. Sometimes I wonder if there could be books that really critique the legal systems and the injustices in fantasy versus a legal thriller.

 

CANDICE: This fall, you’re presenting a career development workshop intensive titled “Working for Change: Can We Wear Capes in Real Life?” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

JAE YOUNG: I hope to share my real-life experience as a non-profit attorney and provide insights into legal systems. I can share what it’s like working for social change as part of your job and the good and the challenging parts of my work. Also, as someone who has also worked as manager for several years, I can talk about my transition to becoming a manager and share my experiences working with interns and staff with different strengths and weaknesses.

 

CANDICE: 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?

JAE YOUNG: I would say Darshan, one of my best friends from law school, a South Asian queer woman. She has really been a mentor and the big sister I never had in many ways, sharing ways of navigating being a daughter of Asian immigrants and a woman of color in the non-profit world. She has also taught me so much about centering myself and my self-care and doing what is right for me.

 


Jae Young Kim has worked as a nonprofit attorney advocating for immigrants, people of color, survivors of domestic violence, and low-income people for fifteen years in New York City. Currently, she is Director of the Family and Immigration Unit at Bronx Legal Services. The Family and Immigration Unit (FIU) is an interdisciplinary team of attorneys, paralegals, and social workers that provides holistic services to meet the family law and immigration law needs of low-income residents in the Bronx. She received a JD from New York University School of Law and a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Law from Binghamton University. Jae Young is also a lifelong fan of fairy tales and speculative fiction. In her free time, she tries reading for the book clubs she cannot stop joining, looking for the next meal, and watching too much reality TV.

For more information about Jae Young, please visit her Twitter.

Candice Lindstrom is an assistant editor for a business magazine publisher covering women, LGBT, minority, and disabled-veteran enterprises. In a past life she edited young adult and adult fiction for a paranormal publisher. When not reading for work, she’s reading for pleasure in almost any genre, but speculative fiction is her first love.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our Sirens community. In this attendee interview series, we talk to scholars, creators, professionals, readers, and more: about their love of fantasy literature, their current work and passions, why they chose to attend Sirens, and what keeps them coming back. We think you’ll find that our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Hero and the Crown

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

 


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

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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