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Sara Megibow: Publishing can feel opaque and frustrating, but we’re often frustrated with process, not people

Sirens Studio takes place October 22–23, 2019, just prior to the official start of the conference, and gives attendees the opportunity to enrich their learning in the form of small-group workshop intensives. We’re thrilled to interview a few members of our tremendous faculty on their work, reading, inspirations, and workshop topic! Today, we’re chatting with literary agent Sara Megibow, who will lead the career development workshop “Heroines Can Fly” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

Accompanying our interview is a selection of book covers from Sara’s clients: K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter, Sirens 2019 Guest of Honor Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, Margaret Rogerson’s Sorcery of Thorns, Julie E. Czerneda’s The Gossamer Mage, and Jaleigh Johnson’s The Door to the Lost.

 

AMY TENBRINK: Once upon a time, you were a process specialist and Six Sigma corporate trainer with GE. Can you tell us a bit about what that entails? How did you find your way into that career and what did you love about it?

Sara Megibow

SARA: Of course! Thank you!

I graduated college in 1996 which was the height of the dot-com boom (especially in Boulder, CO, where I was living). You asked how I found myself there and it was as simple as looking for my first post-college job. That’s how robust the job market was at the time.

A process specialist is someone who analyzes internal company processes and measures, then defines and improves them for profit. This might be something as simple as “please improve our hiring process” or as complex as “we need to prove 10% added profit on internal ordering procedures.” I loved it! There are very clear rules on process improvement and it starts with defining parameters. Anything that’s “outside of scope” gets pushed aside so an analyst can focus on the goal. The mantra was, “stay on target…stay on target” and I found that refreshing and inspiring.

I use analytics a lot as a literary agent. Publishing is opaque, confusing and ever-changing. But, if I define a process within publishing and analyze it carefully for profit, it really all does fit together like a big puzzle. Authors might find publishing frustrating but I find that we are frustrated with process and not with people. Behind it all, publishing is filled with passionate, experienced, enthusiastic, hard-working, focused people—and that fills me with joy!

The Tiger's Daughter Trail of Lightning

 

AMY: What challenges exist for literary agents, either generally or for you personally as you switched to this field? How do you tackle professional challenges?

SARA: I can’t speak for all agents but for me, the biggest challenge is explaining publishing processes to my clients. The second biggest challenge I face is setting client expectations.

I think the way we tackle challenges is…together. I communicate regularly with my clients and keep detailed notes and spreadsheets on their work, their goals, and their progress. And because publishing can feel opaque and ever-changing, we talk and email and strategize.

Sorcery of Thorns The Gossamer Mage

 

AMY: This fall, you’re presenting a career development workshop intensive titled “Heroines Can Fly” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

SARA: I describe the publishing industry as a duck. On the surface, the duck floats serenely in the water. Underwater, though, it is paddling madly.

Beneath the surface, there are many, many moving parts when it comes to working in publishing—author, agent, editor, publisher, sales representative, book buyer, bookseller, librarian, publicist, art director, subsidiary rights agent, blogger, reader, etc. For each of us there are dreams and goals, tasks and deadlines, successes and failures.

This workshop will focus on defining our individual goals as they intersect with our job(s) in publishing. Then, we’ll take those goals and quantify how to measure them for success.

The Door to the Lost

 

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?

SARA: My aunt is a Holocaust survivor. She’s 82 years old now and didn’t speak about the experience until recently. Recently, at age 80, she lit Hanukkah candles again for the first time since escaping the camps. She said that she finally felt safe enough again to light the candles and that watching our generation of Jews “go on” inspired her. The way that my aunt has embraced hope is a lesson for me.

 


Sara Megibow is a literary agent with kt literary out of Highlands Ranch, Colorado. She started working in publishing in 2006 and represents New York Times-bestselling authors Margaret Rogerson, Jason Hough, Jaleigh Johnson, and Roni Loren. Sara is actively acquiring and represents authors who write middle grade novels (all sub-genres), young adult novels (all sub-genres), romance novels (all sub-genres) and science fiction/fantasy for the adult market. Always LGBTQIA+ friendly!

For more information about Sara, please visit kt literary’s website or her Twitter.

 

Roshani Chokshi: There’s not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the Chosen One


We’re pleased to bring you the fourth in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2019 theme of heroes! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink speaks with Roshani Chokshi, our first ever Sirens Studio Guest of Honor.

S15_author_interview_graphic

AMY: What does heroism, especially in the context of speculative fiction, mean to you? How did you set about reimagining the Pandava brothers as Aru and Mini, reluctant, contemporary seventh-grade heroines? And please tell me that you knew how girls would react to their heroism! Because my seven-year-old niece—who demanded to know why everyone in Harry Potter was a boy—can’t get enough Aru and Mini.

Roshani Chokshi

ROSHANI: To me, heroism is the act of celebrating the individual. There’s not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the Chosen One. You can have the bravest, most compassionate mermaid in the world try to rise up against the forces of a Cheeto Overlord, but if the second she hits land, she’s barking in the eloquent lexicon of elephant seals, we’re still kinda fucked. A ridiculous example, of course, but to me it reflects how each of these character’s strengths and weaknesses makes them—and only them—uniquely fit to tackle the story’s situation. Kids need to see a thousand versions of heroism. They need to see themselves and feel that greatness and valor doesn’t belong to one type of person.

The Pandava brothers all had defining characteristics—the strong one, the beautiful one, the wise one, the responsible one, the one who’s good at everything wtf. I loved reimagining how their strengths and, more importantly, their weaknesses would translate in the modern world. For example, Arjuna—the main hero of the Mahabharata and whose soul Aru possesses—has a lot of doubt. And it really struck a chord with me that in the struggle to be brave, we often question the paths we’re on.

As for the girls’ reactions, that grew out of the Sailor Moon fanfiction I used to write. In those stories, me and my best friends became sailor scouts. Our reaction to this newfound strength and responsibility??? UTTER PANIC. “WHAT NO, TAKE IT AWAY, DO NOT WANT.” So, very similar to Aru and Mini. 🙂 I’m glad your niece enjoyed!!

Aru Sha and the End of Time Aru Shah and the Song of Death

 

AMY: Relatedly, perhaps, how do you set about writing gender in your work? Your characters frequently defy and subvert stereotypes, such as in A Crown of Wishes when Gauri’s go-to problem-solving technique is violence, while Vikram’s is charm. Your characters also often address gender issues on the page, from the gods’ relentless assumptions that Aru and Mini could not possibly be the reincarnated Pandava brothers to Laila’s admonishment of Tristan in The Gilded Wolves that “If you get in the way of a woman’s battle, you’ll get in the way of her sword.” How do you build these characters that are wholly themselves, despite our societal expectations of their gender?

ROSHANI: I love this question mostly because it makes me feel very smart. Woohoo! Characters take me a long time. They don’t come naturally to me, and it’s one of the parts of my craft I’m always working on. I think the reason why I struggle with building characters is because they demand a part of your soul, and I’m loath to make more Horcruxes and end up as a noseless Voldemort. I give each of my characters a part of myself. Either a part I’m ashamed of or a part I’m proud of, and then I put those characteristics in situations that move in the opposite direction…that which made me feel shameful becoming a benefit, that which I was proud of becoming its own poison. That is how they stay themselves despite the expectations the world may shove upon them. When it comes to societal expectations of gender, it makes me happy when a character celebrates who they are relentlessly, even if they’ve got other flaws. For example, Vikram is a prince and he knows he’s smart and adorable and celebrates that in himself. He would walk around in a shirt that says “BETA HERO” and really not think less of himself. Laila is different. She is a character aware that she exists on the margins; aware that she’s exoticized; aware that she sometimes must participate in exoticizing herself to live in this world. But she thinks no less of herself. I think knowing how your characters think of themselves is key to making them feel more alive.

The Star-Touched Queen A Crown of Wishes

 

AMY: Your dad is Indian and your mom is Filipino, and in an interview with Rick Riordan, you said, “The way that we bridged those cultural gaps at home was fairy tales and stories…. The more things that you read, the more stories, fables, etc., the more you see that they’re all the same across every cultural spectrum.” And you can see that, so readily, in your work, from your contemporary, America-set version of the Pandava legends, to your latest novel, Paris-set The Gilded Wolves, which features both Indian Laila and half-Filipino Enrique. You’ve also spoken eloquently about trying to bridge those gaps in your own life, including in your wedding this year! What is it like to put these cultural bridges, and related colonial deconstructions, into your work?

ROSHANI: It’s honestly sometimes awkward. I never know if I’m crossing into the realm of TMI or if I sound like a broken record. At the end of the day, all I can reassure myself with is that I needed to hear these perspectives when I was younger and those resources weren’t available to me. The very least I can do is try to help someone else avoid that situation of feeling erased and invisible. I think about this a lot when I look at some of my earliest stories. I was 22 before I wrote my first story with a character who looked like me. Until then, they were all named Erin or Hailey or Alice. I didn’t write myself in because I felt like I needed permission from the books I read.

 

AMY: Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly love any of your work more than Aru Shah, along you came with The Gilded Wolves: a dazzling, dizzying heist novel set in Paris during La Belle Époque. But your Paris is not all champagne and magic and courtesans, it’s racism and colorism and colonialism. Then you layered in a series of riddles based on things like the Fibonacci sequence, a cast of gloriously unique and hilarious characters, and a lush, slow-burn sensuality. How did you even begin to create this work? And perhaps more importantly, how did you get it from your head to the page?

The Gilded Wolves

ROSHANI: I’m so glad you enjoyed!!! The Gilded Wolves really challenged me both craft-wise and imagination-wise, and is far different from anything I’ve ever written. I rewrote the story top to bottom about eight times, and there were so many points at which I thought I should just throw in the towel and beg my publisher to let me write something else. The Gilded Wolves had innocent, jovial beginnings. I just wanted to write a National Treasure-esque tale without Nicolas Cage (lol). But the setting and deciding to put imperialism on the page changed the emotional scope of the book, and when I dug deeper into the characters and their motivations, I realized this couldn’t just be “Ooh! A thing! Let’s go to where the thing says!” I had to think about what this trilogy was saying overall and that took a lot of failed attempts! Getting it from my head to the page was like an organized, military attack. My whole apartment was taken up with plot/emotional schematics. The door to my office had red notecards in a vertical line that outlined every plot beat and plot twist. Beside those cards were the individual emotional arcs and beats that needed to be hit. It was…rough. But it taught me a lot!

 

AMY: You’ve shared how Aru Shah came to be: You’d heard about the new Rick Riordan Presents imprint and emailed your agent that same day to ask about the opportunity. Then you wrote the first three chapters in a “fugue state.” And they bought the books! So often we’re taught that ambition is unseemly and unlikeable. Would you please share what it was like to chase that dream—and what it felt like when you heard that Rick Riordan Presents would be publishing the Aru Shah series?

ROSHANI: Ambition is riotously attractive and let no one tell you otherwise! I think with any dream chasing, there’s a certain amount of feeling like you’ve lost touch with the ground. You’re drunk and floating on external validation, your head feels like it’s in the clouds, and it’s great until you start wondering if you’re too far away to hear commonsense. Like, how DARE you be so happy? How DARE what you wanted and worked hard for suddenly happen? Being a woman of color makes me especially awkward when it comes to talking about my accomplishments. I always deflect it, thinking that the happier I am, the higher the chances that the universe will snatch it away because of arrogance. The wonderful thing about an experience like RRP was that it was harrowing. For the first time, I felt very…public…in a way that I hadn’t experienced with my other books. I got bullied. I got weird Insta comments and DMs. And not taking ownership of my words was no longer an act of modesty but cowardice. It taught me to articulate that I was proud of the story I’d written, that someone couldn’t take this from me and don’t you dare chase me because I chase back.

 

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?

ROSHANI: I have dutifully spoiled my moms, sisters, grandmother and aunts so I know they’ll forgive me for not writing a novella of their wondrous and noble qualities for this answer and picking someone else for a change. I would say my eighth grade English teacher, Ms. Koscik. I did not like my seventh grade English teacher (except for that one and ONLY time she liked my writing) and I had a deficiency in her class. More than that, I always felt foolish. But in eighth grade, Ms. Koscik nurtured my imagination. She made me feel that what I said was worth saying. Eighth grade was when we tackled Arthurian myths and World Mythology, and read Shakespeare and engaged with the language. It was awe-inspiring. Sometimes it only takes one person to say they’re listening to make us have the courage to speak up.


Roshani Chokshi is the New York Times bestselling author of the Star-Touched series and Aru Shah and The End of Time, Book #1 in the Pandava series. She grew up in Georgia, where she acquired a Southern accent but does not use it unless under duress. She has a luck dragon that looks suspiciously like a Great Pyrenees dog. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Shimmer, and Book Smugglers. She is a 2016 finalist for the Andre Norton Award, and a 2016 Locus finalist for Best First Novel. Her short story, The Star Maiden, was longlisted for the British Fantasy Science Award.

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

 

Nilah Magruder: Art is a storytelling tool writers can use to make their work stand out

Sirens Studio takes place October 22–23, 2019, just prior to the official start of the conference, and gives attendees the opportunity to enrich their learning in the form of small-group workshop intensives. We’re thrilled to interview a few members of our tremendous faculty on their work, reading, inspirations, and workshop topic! Today, we’re chatting with Nilah Magruder, who will lead the writing development workshop “The Visual Narrative: Developing Illustrated Projects and How to Write Like an Artist” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

 

AMY TENBRINK: Your work is amazing—anyone who hasn’t glanced through your portfolio or spent an afternoon with M.F.K. should do so at once—but the scope of your work is also amazing! You’ve storyboarded for Dreamworks and Disney; you’ve created comics for Marvel; you’ve illustrated for other authors, such as Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill Squad series; and you’ve written and illustrated both a children’s book (How to Find a Fox) and a graphic novel (M.F.K.). How did you find your way into doing all these wonderful things?

Nilah Magruder

NILAH: Actually, I think Twitter had a lot to do with it. That’s how I first met Daniel José Older. He was editing an anthology, Long Hidden, and I may have tweeted at him or retweeted one of his tweets, but he saw I was an artist and reached out about contributing to the anthology. So we’ve known each other since then, and then when he sold Dactyl Hill Squad, he suggested my name to Scholastic and luckily they thought it was a good idea. I actually asked Kathleen Wisneski—the editor at Marvel who hired me for A Year of Marvels—recently how she became familiar with my work, and she suggested it might have been through Twitter, too. It helped that I was doing a webcomic at the time, but meeting other webcomic artists and finding a community through social media was also instrumental in building M.F.K.

Dactyl Hill Squad A Year of Marvels

 

AMY: I imagine that each of your projects is quite different. For example, storyboarding or creating for someone else must be very different from crafting your own graphic novel. And creating a children’s picture book must be very different from a graphic novel—and certainly your artistic style is very different in How to Find a Fox and M.F.K. How do you approach these different types of projects?

How to Find a Fox

NILAH: The needs of each project come first. When I’m working for a client, usually they tell me what those needs are, haha. It can be difficult to switch from project to project, so I always take time to research and reset my brain. For picture books, I’ll go to the bookstore or library and check out what’s new. For graphic novels, I’ll do some exploratory drawing, or read through notes or scripts I’ve already written. It’s similar for storyboarding, though in addition to scripts there’s usually also animatics or design sheets to reference. And for illustrating book covers, I keep Pinterest boards of illustrated book covers to inspire me.

 

AMY: What do you love about all the different things you do? Do you have a favorite type of project or a soft spot for something in particular that you’ve done?

All Out

NILAH: I have a background in marketing and journalism; in those jobs I often had to shift focus at the drop of a hat. Or maybe I just have a short attention span, LOL. The point is that I enjoy moving around and juggling multiple projects. When I get stuck on or bored with one, I can move to another. The glue that binds them together, though, is story. I love storytelling in its various forms, and I gravitate to whatever medium has the best storytelling potential at any given time. It’s hard to pick a favorite because each type of project has its challenges, but I guess I’ll always gravitate to stories about girls and women on journeys of discovery, whether they’re searching for home, love, or foxes.

 

AMY: In 2015, you won the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics for M.F.K. What advice do you have for creators generally, but in particular for creators who are not white, cisgendered, heterosexual, and male?

M.F.K.

NILAH: I usually answer this question with “finish something,” but this time I’ll add: trust your instincts. Because of the homogeneity in creative industries, you’ll sometimes find that you don’t have very many role models or examples for the type of story you want to tell or the type of creator you want to be. Get used to throwing caution to the wind and forging your own path. I usually create for myself and say, “If I like it, then it’s likely at least one more person in the world will like it, too.” So I create for me and that person; just the two of us.

 

AMY: This fall, you’re presenting a workshop intensive for writers titled “The Visual Narrative: Developing Illustrated Projects and How to Write Like an Artist” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

Marvel Rising

NILAH: As a visual artist who also writes, I’ve noticed that there can be a disconnect between the two sides. The conversations I have with artists are very different from the conversations I have with writers. With this workshop, I hope to bridge the divide. We’ll be discussing art as a story-telling tool, the responsibilities of the writer on illustrated projects and the responsibilities of the artist. We’ll cover where to find artists for your project and how to approach them. We’ll also be discussing some design techniques that writers can employ to make their writing stand out. Visual arts as a medium and as an industry can feel intimidating and exclusive, but I believe there’s a lot that writers can learn about their own craft by embracing the visual arts.

 

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?

NILAH: Haha, I told my mother I was stumped on this question and she said, “Well, you always have to answer with your mom!” She’s certainly where I got my deadpan sense of humor. There have been a lot of influential women in my life who have shown me the value of strength, kindness, commitment, and creativity. One such woman was my art professor Joyce Michaud. My final year at Hood College was a big one for both of us; just as I was preparing for graduation, Joyce was reinstating the art program, which had ended ten years prior. I’d been majoring in communication arts up until that point, but with Joyce’s encouragement and guidance, I took art as a second major… in my last year of school! I took more classes that year than any other year in my schooling history. It was challenging and frustrating, and Joyce pushed me hard and I was not always grateful, haha! But I made it through my senior thesis, I aced all my classes, and I graduated.

A couple years later, when I decided I was ready to look into animation programs, I went back to Hood and met with Joyce for more guidance. She hardly gave me a chance to tell her what schools I was considering when she said, “Oh, you have to go to Ringling.” I’ve since attended Ringling and graduated, and now work as a storyboard artist and writer for animated television in Los Angeles. Joyce had a pretty huge role in getting me from a college student who was particularly good at drawing to a working professional artist. Have I given her copies of my books? I should really do that.

 


Nilah Magruder is a writer and artist based in Los Angeles. From her beginnings in the woods of the eastern United States, she developed an eternal love for three things: nature, books, and animation. She has written and storyboarded for television studios like DreamWorks and Disney. She also illustrates children’s books, including the Dactyl Hill Squad series by Daniel José Older from Scholastic. Nilah is the author of M.F.K., a middle-grade graphic novel from Insight Editions and the winner of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity, and How to Find a Fox, a picture book. She has published short fiction in the anthology ALL OUT (edited by Saundra Mitchell), in Fireside Magazine, and for Marvel Comics. When she is not working, Nilah is watching movies, growing herbs, roller-skating, and fighting her cat for control of her desk chair.

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

 

Dr. Suzanne Scott: My OTP as a fan scholar is fandom and intersectional feminism

We’re pleased to bring you the third in a 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 2019 theme of heroes! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink speaks with Dr. Suzanne Scott, our first ever scholar Guest of Honor.

S15_author_interview_graphic

AMY: For attendees who may not know your work, would you please tell us a bit about it? What is your field? What are your main areas of research? What topics do you teach? What issues do you love to discuss and deconstruct?

Suzanne Scott

SUZANNE: My research sits at the intersection of fan and audience studies, media industry studies, digital culture studies, and feminist media studies. This is all just a long way of saying I’m interested in how media industry/fan relationships have shifted in recent years alongside the mainstreaming of both geek culture and digital technologies that allow culture to be more participatory and how gender shapes these relationships…for better and for worse. Much of my work focuses on boundary policing practices within fan communities, and who can more or less easily occupy the cultural category of “fan.” I joke that I teach the “geek culture” courses (video game studies, gender and fan culture, remix culture, a transmedia storytelling course that focuses on Star Wars, and so on), but really what I’m hoping students get out of my classes is an understanding of the politics of participatory culture, and the critical thinking and making skills to assert themselves within that culture.

 

AMY: What does heroism, especially in comic books or speculative work, mean to you? Does gender influence that definition?

SUZANNE: Heroism, at least from my perspective, is about the defiance of expectations. This is often manifested quite literally in things like superpowers, but I think more holistically all heroes force us to grapple with how the normative is entrenched, and our own relationship to hegemonic power. Hegemonic power, or the maintenance of sociocultural hierarchies, is all about people en masse buying into a sort of “common sense” logic that is undergirded by expectations about people that are raced, classed, aged, gendered, and so on. And it’s precisely because that work is speculative that I think it’s powerful. The speculative media I’m most drawn to takes place in the very near future, where the more dystopian elements represent a clear warning (we can understand, as audiences, how our sociopolitical failings in the present will bring us to this future) but also afford enough temporal leeway to shift gears and potentially right wrongs. Alternately, they can help us see our contemporary moment more clearly. Bitch Planet is one of those comics for me, which on the one hand makes a very compelling argument about the logical ends of growing antifeminist sentiment, but also clearly conveys who is most at risk in this culture, how identity shapes that, and also offers some nuanced critiques of how white feminism might counterintuitively be helping to fuel it.

 

AMY: Much of your recent work has been on heroism and bodies. And so much of your work for so long has been about the transformation of works when they reach the hands of fans, including the transformative work of cosplay. Talk to me about your work in this space: What is so important about the intersection of heroism and bodies, and how does that intersection change or evolve when you consider cosplay?

SUZANNE: One of my favorite things I’ve written is a piece on the Tumblr “The Hawkeye Initiative,” which is a fanart project that takes submissions of panels of female superheroes from comics that have been redrawn to feature the male superhero Hawkeye (often satirizing the initial representation both in back-breaking poses and skimpy costuming). It’s undoubtedly a fan activist effort, and I would argue a very effective one, in large part because it forces us to confront how desensitized we can become to this recurring imagery precisely because of its consistency over time. It becomes so commonplace that, while we might immediately recognize it as sexist or racist or sizeist or ableist, we don’t see any meaningful way to intervene. The fanart submitted to “The Hawkeye Initiative” ruptures that, and clearly conveys the absurdity of many of these poses and representations. Fans have a long history of using transformative works to comment on both a media object and culture at large, and this is one effort that I feel speaks both directly to comics book creators and the industry, but also comments more generally on beauty culture and norms.

My new book project I’m embarking on now is all about the fan body, both as a site of cultural anxiety and as a reflection of fandom as an emergent lifestyle brand. The key for me, here, is who gets to more or less easily occupy that body or capitalize off of that lifestyle brand. I’m excited, in part because I get to tackle issues of ableism, racism, transphobia, sizeism, and homophobia in ways I didn’t in my prior book, but also because I get to delve into things like food and nerdlesque (yes, that’s nerd burlesque) and cosplay and fitness. Heroic bodies feature heavily into this, particularly the fitness chapter, which surveys an array of “superhero” themed workouts and athleisure wear. I’ve just started researching and doing some field work (such as running a Wonder Woman themed 5K), but I’m already seeing some key distinctions in how the gendered superhero body as an aspiration fan body is presented.

 

AMY: You and I have talked, repeatedly, about gender and fandom, often about how women and non-binary people are the oft-unsung heroes of fandoms, doing the lion’s share of the invisible labor necessary to create and maintain fandoms. And indeed, your brand-new book, Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry, is all about gender and fandom—and the frequent marginalization of female fans. In your view, what does the current evolution of gender in fandom look like, and where are we headed?

Fake Geek Girls

SUZANNE: I think my book tells one very specific narrative about how cishet white men have been conceptually centered within both industrial and fan-cultural understandings of the ascendance of geek and fan culture over the past decade and how that, in turn, has marginalized already marginalized fan identities and empowered small segments of that privileged fan demographic to often violently police the boundaries of acceptable or “authentic” fan identity. So, on the one hand, we have women being consistently told they are unwelcome or inauthentic fans in ways that range from overt harassment to subtle messaging by industry about who can more/less easily occupy that identity. On the other, I end the book stating that my OTP as a fan scholar is fandom and intersectional feminism, and talking a bit about fan fragility (a play on Robin DiAngelo’s discussion of white fragility). This is to say, I think there is a real and immediate need for white women within fan culture (and I absolutely include myself here) to grapple with their role in upholding systems of power that they benefit from, and considering the ways in which women might be performing similar exclusionary work.

 

AMY: Let’s talk about money and power, specifically commercialization and fan appropriation of speculative works. We all know that female characters disappear somewhere along the way to toy production and that I can buy a sexy Ghostbusters costume in two seconds from Amazon. Relatedly, we also know that if I want a Black-Widow-on-a-motorcycle action figure or a full-blown Jillian Holtzmann costume, I need a fan to create it for me. But there’s power in those fan creations, power that isn’t there in simply buying something off the shelf at Target, power in actively taking back the commercialization that major media companies won’t readily provide. Talk to me about money and power and fans.

SUZANNE: I’ve written about this mostly through the #wheresrey pushback on social media to the lack of merchandise surrounding The Force Awakens, but yes this has been an ongoing problem wherein fangirl consumers (and particularly young girls) get routed into heterosexist fan merchandising traps early and that persist over the lift course. The easiest shorthand for this would be a boy’s t-shirt that says something like “I want to be a superhero!” and the girl’s variant proclaiming “I only date superheroes,” and then eventually women’s merchandising proclaiming things like “Training to be Batman’s wife.” One thing fan scholars have and do continue to focus on in our work is how fan community spawns production cultures dominated by women, which remains a rarity. So, as you suggest in your question it’s not all gloom and doom. I look at all the female fantrepreneurs who are very pointedly making alternatives to that sort of merchandise and are building legitimate brands around these alternatives to mainstream fan merchandise. Now, much of this form of “fan empowerment” is still couched in neoliberal or postfeminist consumption, so issues of capitalism and class are still very much in play, but there is something generative in feeling like you are supporting an individual (one who may even be a part of a broader fan community) rather than a corporation.

 

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, a scholar, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

SUZANNE: This is tough, as about twenty names of very real, very incredible women immediately came to mind. I’m going to go with a fictional (not to mention potentially controversial) choice, which is Cordelia Chase from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, for any who haven’t watched this series, Cordelia started out as a sort of stereotypically vapid rich bitch/mean girl foil, and eventually became a more nuanced character over time. That said, picking her has nothing to do with the character as it was represented on television, and everything to do with the fact that BtVS was the first digital fan community I participated in during the late 90s. I was a part of an IRC chat roleplaying collective where I portrayed Cordelia (as a newer member of the community, I wasn’t about to be trusted with Buffy), and it was my first time writing what was essentially collaborative, real-time fanfiction with a community of other women. That space was so special, because it exposed me to the transformative power of fannish textual production, and feminist fan spaces more generally (something that obviously has gone on to shape both my life and my research). Cordelia empowered me to rewrite narratives I found to be too facile, encouraged me to garner a deeper understanding of myself through identity play and performance, and introduced me to the ways in which fan works can function not only as media criticism, but media objects and art in their own right.


Suzanne Scott is an Assistant Professor in the Radio-Television-Film department at the University of Texas at Austin. Her current book project, Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2019) considers the gendered tensions underpinning the media industry’s embrace of fans as demographic tastemakers, professionals, and promotional partners within convergence culture. Surveying the politics of participation within digitally mediated fan cultures, this project addresses the “mainstreaming” of fan and geek culture over the past decade, how media industries have privileged an androcentric conception of the fan, and the marginalizing effect this has had on female fans. She is also the co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom (2018). Her scholarly work has appeared in the journals Transformative Works and Cultures, Cinema Journal, New Media & Society, Participations, Feminist Media Histories, and Critical Studies in Media Communication as well as numerous anthologies, including Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (2nd Edition), How to Watch Television, The Participatory Culture Handbook, and Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica.

For more information about Suzanne, please visit the University of Texas Radio-Television-Film department website or her Twitter.

 

Amy Tenbrink: When I thought the patriarchy was a meritocracy, I wanted to conquer and rule it

Sirens Studio takes place October 22–23, 2019, just prior to the official start of the conference, and gives attendees the opportunity to enrich their learning in the form of small-group workshop intensives. We’re thrilled to interview a few members of our tremendous faculty on their work, reading, inspirations, and workshop topic! Today, we’re chatting with Amy Tenbrink, who will lead the career development workshop “Negotiating Your Professional Life” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

 

FAYE BI: You’re immensely accomplished in your professional world, currently serving as Executive Vice President and Associate General Counsel–Revenue and Business Development for a major media company, and before that negotiating billion-dollar deals for one of the country’s largest television providers. (I’ve heard horror stories about your leaving for work Tuesday morning and not coming home until Friday!) How did you get here? What do you love most about your job—and what challenges have you faced?

Amy Tenbrink

AMY: I’m going to give you this answer and then I’m going to explain that, yes, I know all the reasons that this answer sucks.

How did I get here? I do the work. If you want to be undeniably successful at something—including sitting on the bleeding edge of media industry strategy and negotiating mind-bogglingly large deals—you have to do the work. You can’t miss opportunities, macro opportunities like jobs or big projects or micro opportunities like chances to impress a CEO or change the course of a negotiation, because you’re not willing to do the work. And that means late nights and weekends, certainly, but it also means working when you’re exhausted or when you’ve been yelled at or when it takes three times as long to teach someone else to do it as it would have taken to just do it yourself. It means doing the work when the work is boring or you hate the person sitting across from you at a negotiating table or you’re supposed to be having dinner with a friend whom you’ve already blown off four times. You do the damned work. To the best of your ability. Every time. No excuses.

And yes, that sucks. I know every reason that that sucks because today’s corporate culture is built for (male) executives who have (female) spouses at home managing the ranch, so they have the luxury of not ever having to worry about groceries or report cards or getting the house painted. I know every reason that that sucks as a woman, not only because for so many reasons we rarely have that particular luxury, but because we’re “not tough enough for business” (a CEO of mine once said that, honest to God) and sometimes approach problems with a lure rather than a hammer and don’t look like corporate America’s very homogeneous idea of “success.” I can only imagine the many, many reasons that that sucks as a person of color or an LGBTQIA+ person or a person with a disability. I have lived that day where you learn that the meritocracy is a myth (the day you realize you’ll never make a promotion, even though you’re clearly better at this than every man who has ever sat in that same chair with a better title than yours). I have lived that day where you realize that you have to work twice as hard and show up three times as prepared and be four times as impressive as a man in order to even enter the same playing field (the day I realized that my male business counterpart with the same title who worked a paltry seven hours a day made 50% more than I). I know.

And I know what I’ve sacrificed to do this. I’ve never really cared about marriage and kids, but if you do, as a woman, I don’t know how you even begin to balance that with being a corporate executive in America, at least not without outsourcing your personal life, which also sucks. I worked, minimum, 70 hours a week for more than a decade. I currently travel about 40% of the time. I live in hotels and airports and on a laptop and with my cellphone. And this works for me because I love what I do, and I don’t care about marriage or kids, and my fish can feed themselves (good job, fish!)—but I can easily see that I’m the exception, never the rule.

But even through all of that. Even through a thousand things that weren’t fair and weren’t just and were downright ignorant or absurd or offensive, I did the work, every day, no excuses. Because in any job, in any area, you make a daily estimation of how much work you’re willing and able to do for that job. And my answer, every time, was “a damn lot.” And that’s how you become a media company executive in America in 2019.

So given all of that, you’d hope that I love what I do, right? I do. I’m relentless, I’m ambitious, I’m brilliant, and I have a hard-wired need for a daily dose of conflict. What I do puts me in the same room with other relentless, ambitious, brilliant people. What I do takes my whole brain and sometimes parts of my brain that I didn’t even know I had. What I do gives me a quotidian battlefield of negotiations and contracts and consumer strategies. If you’re going to do something 70, 80, sometimes 100 hours a week, by God, you’d better love it. Not all of it, but an awful lot of it. And I do.

 

FAYE: What advice would you give young negotiators or anyone else entering a challenging corporate field? How about for all those young female professionals who are called bossy, pushy, or aggressive?

AMY: Two things. Two impossible, non-negotiable things.

First, become comfortable being uncomfortable, and even more than that, become comfortable making other people uncomfortable. Many people, but especially women, are taught an obligation of hospitality, one that applies not only in your home, but in every interaction that you have. We are expected to make people feel comfortable. We are instructed to please, to chitchat away awkward pauses, to always find the right thing to say to make the other person happy.

There is a time and a place for that. Some of those times and places are even at work. But by definition, women’s ambition makes people uncomfortable. Women’s demands make people uncomfortable. Every time I ask for equal pay at work, everyone is tharn in their discomfort. They will assuredly try to make this about you and how if you were just more polite or more patient or more whatever, the meritocracy would work for you in the end. That is bullshit. Unless you’re willing to sacrifice your ambition, your assertiveness, and your self-respect, I recommend that you start getting comfortable with the idea that you will sometimes make any number of people (starting with your boss) very uncomfortable. Which is not to say that you have to go into every room with a figurative sword (or a literal one), but that you can, and perhaps should, let those awkward pauses linger, that you shouldn’t mask your ambition, that you should bring up pay disparities, and that you should mention that you’ve done more than enough to earn more time in the CEO’s office. Because the meritocracy is nothing more than a tool of the patriarchy meant to make you feel uncomfortable for being bossy, pushy, or aggressive.

Second, now that we’ve talked about doing the work, let’s talk about what work that actually means. Because for all that women and people with other marginalized identities have to work exponentially hard to end up in the same place as cisgendered, heterosexual, white men, we also spend a lot of time doing work that no one cares about. Or that perhaps people care about, but that we’re certainly not getting paid to do.

Planning team birthday parties. Taking meeting notes. Listening to your (usually male) colleagues complain about their bosses (or their wives). These are easy things to understand: You’re (probably) not paid to be social planner, executive assistant, or psychoanalyst. If your company wants these things done, they could, in fact, hire a social planner, executive assistant, or psychoanalyst to do them. They are not paying you to do them—so do not do them.

Somewhat harder is the notion that—especially for people who work higher, further, faster, baby—you’re probably exceeding your boss’s expectations. And there’s some value there, at least in earning a reputation as someone who exceeds expectations. But just like you aren’t getting paid to plan birthday parties, you’re also not getting paid for the difference between your boss’s expectations and your higher expectations of yourself. In a utopia, the amount of time that we spend on a task would line up perfectly with the value of that task to the company. For a frustratingly easy example, I have a professional colleague who recently negotiated a promotion, and as part of that negotiation, she asked her company to assign pieces of her salary to each of her buckets of responsibility. The company assigned—I kid you not—$0 to one particular bucket. She assures me that, even though that bucket remains in her job description, she will spend 0 minutes doing any of those tasks. Things are so rarely that clear, but to maximize your value to your company, without spending every waking moment working, spend some time figuring out how to align your boss’s valuation of each project with the time that you spend on those projects. It’s hard, but ultimately, you’ll be much happier and much more successful for it.

 

FAYE: You have several bodies of professional work: corporate attorney, media executive, non-profit chief executive officer, and Sirens chair. All of these are hard science: law, budgets, strategy, and the like. How does fantasy literature fit into what you do 100 hours a week?

AMY: It’s revolutionary. It’s aspirational. It’s necessary.

I grew up in the upper Midwest, learning all the skills necessary to be a housewife. I cook, I clean, I sew, I hostess. I do most of these things badly, and most of them with a bad attitude, much to my matriarchal family’s dismay because, for all their belief that the women of our family are invincible, our needles are our swords and our cakes are our shields and I never feel like a bigger failure than when my house is a disaster.

And I went from that to corporate America, which is still run, every day, in every way, by the patriarchy. I spent the first 15 years of my career thinking that I could rule that world as is, if only I worked hard enough. I have spent the last five years with the increasingly ugly realization that no part of that world works for me or anyone else with a marginalized identity.

I want a revolution. I want to see what the world looks like when it’s run by women and people of color and LGBTQIA+ folks and people with disabilities. I want to see worlds that either topple the patriarchy or are so far beyond patriarchal rule that they can grapple with other issues. My quotidian reality is so firmly entrenched in a power system that doesn’t work for me that I need my reading to be something revolutionary, something aspirational, something so untethered from our daily notion of reality that authors and readers alike can dream big and imagine something different, something just, something worthy.

The best opportunity of speculative fiction, in my proverbial book, is to write those worlds, those power structures, those societies. And again in my book, the best speculative fiction does.

 

FAYE: You’ve mentioned that there’s a subgenre of adult fantasy about lawyers, accountants, and negotiators. What makes this sort of fantasy successful for you? What about these books get law, negotiation, or strategy particularly right?

AMY: One of my great loves in fantasy literature—and relatedly, one of my never-ending disappointments—is revolution books. I love a good revolution! But I know enough about legal structures and economics and strategy to be able to spot, immediately and with little patience, what these books gloss over or even get wrong. I’ve been known to yell about supply lines and crop burnings and hyperinflation at Sirens.

But sometimes, a book gets what I do really, really right—and when it does, I’m a fangirl. So rather than wax poetic for days, let’s focus on three authors whose characters do what I do in speculative spaces and do it really, really well.

Yoon Ha Lee (Conservation of Shadows, Ninefox Gambit) spends a lot of time observing people. He’s never told me this, but he doesn’t have to, because I’ve read his work. The best negotiators are, first, observers. After all, the point of a negotiation is to get someone else to do what you want them to do—and the most effective way to do that is to morph into the version of yourself that will be more convincing to them. Some days you’re a beauty; some days you’re a beast. But to figure out if you should be beauty, beast, buffoon, or bitch, you have to figure out the person sitting across from you. This is basic human interaction, but it’s almost impossible to get right, at least in a way that feels right to a negotiator. We live, after all, in the spaces between words, the eye twitches, the flushes, the reluctant smiles. But Yoon gets it right, every time, not only in his negotiation sequences, but in his strategies, his tactics, his conversations. He establishes his characters with an eye toward how his other characters will manipulate them later on. His books ring true to a negotiator because he gives a negotiator-reader the details you need to see the tactics, the strategy, and the manipulation play out. It’s one thing for an author to tell a reader a character has been manipulated; it’s another thing entirely for an author to give you a critical detail about a character’s personality in a casual conversation on page 24, only to have someone exploit that trait 200 pages later. To a negotiator and a strategist, his books are simply true in a way that few authors can manage.

K.B. Wagers (Behind the Throne) writes indomitable women. But truly, a lot of people write indomitable women. What’s rare about Katy’s women is that their women know that they’re indomitable, powerful women and they negotiate, strategize, and lead like they are. Hail’s aggression, in particular, is a thing of beauty, her violence even more so. She’s willing to use all the tactics a man in her position would use—and Katy does us all the favor of writing this like it’s no big deal. Hail bluffs, she threatens, she advances, sometimes she breaks a bone or two. And that’s glorious, the fact that Hail gets to do this and it only enhances her reputation—because I know what those tactics inevitably do to the tactics of our real-world female negotiators. But Hail’s also willing to play against type, to use patriarchal stereotypes and expectations as a weapon, an infiltration, and Katy is willing to break down what that means and how that works in a way that inevitably demonstrates the idiocy of the patriarchy. Long live Hail, a female negotiator we should all aspire to. I’m going to steal her tactics.

Fonda Lee (Jade City) writes indomitable women, too, but in a world that—at least in the first book in her Green Bone Saga series—feels a lot like my corporate America. It’s very patriarchal, it’s very toxic, it’s very violent. Lee’s world is, in so many ways, my world—and she writes these women who navigate this world with grace, with violence, and with immense power. Ayt Madashi, more than any other character in speculative fiction, is who twentysomething me wanted to grow up to be. Back when I thought the patriarchy was a meritocracy and I wanted to conquer it and then rule it. SPOILER: Reading about Mada going from fucking owning Hilo in a negotiating room to flipping tactics entirely and recruiting Shae? That’s the sort of facility and skill and power I aspired to—and frankly, that I still aspire to. Mada’s power is based on brilliance, strategy, and yes, aggression, and as a negotiator, I love her for every minute of it.

 

FAYE: This fall, you’re presenting a career development workshop intensive titled “Negotiating Your Professional Life” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

AMY: We all, every day, end up negotiating lots of things, whether we realize it or not, whether we want it or not. Sometimes it’s as simple as whether we volunteer to take notes during meetings. Sometimes it’s more complicated, like negotiating for a raise. Sometimes it’s literally sitting down across the table from someone to negotiate a contract. But whether you realize it or not, and whether you want it or not, people are negotiating with you. So I’m going to share some of what I do, and the tactics and strategies that I use, to help people more actively manage those daily negotiations. Schools don’t teach this, but by God, they should.

So we’re going to do some workshopping. Negotiation is, fundamentally, about a third preparation, a third creativity, and a third tactics. We’re going to discuss what that preparation might look like. Is it research? Is it practicing what you want to say? Is it gearing up to be uncomfortable? Then we’ll work though some exercises on creativity in negotiations. The best negotiators are able to come up with innovative solutions to impasses. If your company can’t offer you the salary you want, is more vacation time a good compromise? Is hiring a junior person an option?

Then we’re going to talk tactics. We’re going to see what awkward pauses actually feel like. We’re going to talk about personal space. We’re going to use smiles and knowledge as weapons.

Come prepared to work! But also come prepared to gain a much greater understanding of how the world around you, especially in your professional life, actually works—and how you can more successfully navigate that.

 

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?

AMY: As women, we think we’re invincible. I think we think we have to be invincible. That’s the great con of the meritocracy, right? If you’re just smart enough and you work hard enough, you’ll succeed. Which, of course, means that if you don’t succeed, you’re just not doing enough.

Which works on us because our foremothers spent sunrise to sunset demonstrating their love through work. They cleaned house and baked bread and darned socks and you knew your mom really loved you because she took care of you. Not because she was amazing and powerful and skilled and still wanted to hang out with you. Because she took care of you.

Hallie Tibbets, my best friend, is a magnificent woman. She’s been a music teacher and a non-profit professional, she co-founded Narrate Conferences with me 13 years ago and Sirens 11 years ago, and she is now an editor of books for children and teens. She is immensely brilliant and immensely accomplished and I say this both because she is, but also because God knows, I wouldn’t have listened to her if she weren’t.

But she taught me to forgive myself. She taught me that, if I were as forgiving of myself as I am of others, I would be a much happier person. She taught me that, if I hate a book, I get to bail after 50 pages, rather than finishing it out of some ridiculous idea that I’d fail the book if I didn’t. She taught me that sometimes “tomorrow,” or “next week,” or “fucking never” are all acceptable answers, not failures. She taught me that I am fucking extraordinary and that I am not letting myself down when I don’t do what I set out to do if it no longer makes sense or it’s a waste of time or it doesn’t fucking need to be done.

And because of that, because of all that work that she did, I was able to believe a Fortune 50 company’s negotiators when they called me a superhero in the middle of a negotiation and offered me a job. Or when my boss finally convinced me that I didn’t have to be certain before I spoke up. Or when I read a book about a “budget of fucks” and it was an epiphany. Or when I’m able to read 150 books a year because I don’t have to finish them if I don’t like them.

Because of her, I am much smarter, much happier, and much, much more disciplined in where I expend my time and energy.

Everyone needs someone in their life who speaks truth to your power. For me, Hallie is that person. Also, she is good at cuddles even though cuddling me is something like cuddling a grumpy cactus.


Amy Tenbrink serves as Executive Vice President and Associate General Counsel-Revenue and Business Development for Univision Communications, the leading multimedia company entertaining, informing, and empowering Hispanic America. In this role, Amy both leads the legal team with respect to all revenue-generating businesses and other initiatives for Univision (including content distribution and advertising sales) and serves as a strategic business advisor with respect to those same businesses and initiatives. Prior to this role, Amy served as the Senior Vice President Business Affairs for Univision, and led the content distribution legal team in deals ranging from traditional MVPD distribution to innovative digital arrangements. Before joining Univision, Amy was Director and Senior Corporate Counsel for DISH Network, where she first supported a wide range of business units (including consumer, commercial and advertising sales) and later, led the legal team for DISH’s content acquisition group, which negotiates billions of dollars in content deals annually. Prior to her work at DISH, Amy worked in private practice, focusing primarily on technology, intellectual property, and finance. Amy holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California and the Georgetown University Law Center.

For more information about Amy, please visit her Twitter.

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I draw upon the richness, beauty, and pluralism of my heritage

We’re pleased to bring you the second in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2019 theme of heroes! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink speaks with Ausma Zehanat Khan.

S15_author_interview_graphic

AMY: What does heroism mean to you? Does the gender of the hero affect your definition?

Ausma Zehanat Khan

AUSMA: It means different things depending on the context. There are the heroic acts of everyday life, where you’ve lost a loved one, and you battle through the pain for the sake of your children or others who matter to you. Or you step in for absent or incapable parents when no one else will, to nurture a child to their full potential. You stand with a friend who’s being bullied at school, or you attend an interfaith event after a synagogue or mosque has been vandalized. There’s heroism in all these things. But in a political context, I would consider dissenting voices in the face of mainstream conformity heroic. And through years of research in the field of human rights, the people I find heroic are often the most marginalized or vulnerable in their societies, with the organs of the state working to harm them further, and they still have the courage to stand up for themselves and others, despite the severe price that will be paid—torture, murder, disappearance. . . a long list of cruelties and abuse. So aid workers, journalists, artists, university professors and teachers, labor organizers, women’s rights activists, and human rights activists of all kinds, represent heroism to me.

When it comes to gender, I consider most women heroic. When you look at systems of oppression that have historically operated against women and continue to do so to this day around the globe, it’s easier to understand the context of that heroism. The denial of education to women and girls, the lack of fair employment and career opportunities, the lack of employment parity or adequate childcare, sexual harassment in the workplace . . . then there’s child marriage, sex trafficking, the aborting of female children, the curtailment of reproductive rights, domestic violence, sexual violence, rape culture and a surrounding environs of toxic masculinity, plus oppression in the name of religion, and on and on. The fact that women still transform their societies for the better while battling these challenges, which are amplified for women of color and other marginalized groups, is the kind of heroism we take for granted, but shouldn’t.

 

AMY: You’ve spoken about your faith and your work as Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine. Islam features prominently both in your mystery series, in which Esa Khattak is a practicing Muslim, and in your Khorasan Archives series, which seems to be set in a fantasy Middle East and Central and South Asia. What do you want to convey when you write about your faith?

AUSMA: In both my series, I write about identity, faith, exclusion and belonging, power and oppression, and the experience of being Othered. Part of that experience of being Othered is to know that my speech and actions reflect on the Muslim communities I come from, and to give that due weight as a consideration, even when I’d like to be less serious or a little more playful. I’m conscious of the gaze that may be reading my words. I’m conscious that writing for me is not only the opportunity to tell a story, but also the opportunity to change a narrative about people like me, i.e. Muslim communities in the West, that is so often dehumanizing and destructive. So my writing is a speaking back to a prevailing climate of anti-Muslim animus founded on ignorance and fear.

I try to overcome that ignorance with stories that draw upon the richness, beauty, and pluralism of my tradition and heritage. I often describe my work as a kind of counter-narrative . . . because the dominant narrative about who I am or where people like me belong isn’t something I recognize as truthful or authentic. It’s fearmongering, it’s prejudice, and in some cases, it’s hate.

At an event recently, I was asked if I felt the need to justify my humanity in some way or to justify Esa’s humanity, and I have to admit the question rocked me. “Is that what I’ve been doing all this time?” I asked myself. “Justifying my own humanity? And if yes, how did I fall into that trap?” Later, when I’d thought about this question more, I realized that although the trap was there in front of me, I was simply telling stories in my own voice about things I knew intimately from the inside, things that I thought mattered. If that felt like a kind of apologetics, that said more about the surrounding context in which a question like that could be posed than about the work I was engaged in.

Sometimes I just want to sit down and write without carrying all of this, but I don’t think I’d be writing at all if I wasn’t addressing precisely the question you’ve asked.

 

AMY: One of the prominent themes of The Bloodprint, the first of the Khorasan Archives—and indeed, of The Unquiet Dead, the first in your non-speculative mystery series—is the intersection of ignorance and complaisance. So much of The Bloodprint is Arian’s (and the reader’s) dawning horror that, within a generation or two of the advent of authoritarian rule, many of her people have accepted the terrible changes: They don’t remember (or care to remember) any differently; they’ve found the changes not so bad; they’ve adapted, acclimated, adjusted to their new reality. Arian finds herself fighting not just the Talisman, but the ignorance and complaisance of her own people. Why is this theme so important to you, and how much, if at all, does your work reflect the past or present state of the world?

The Bloodprint

AUSMA: With the Khorasan Archives, I set a difficult task for myself. As a Pashtun/Pathan1 woman, I wanted to examine the patriarchal elements of Pashtun culture that have been warped to extremes by the Taliban, but somehow manage to accomplish this without demonizing Pashtuns in general, and with some understanding of the social and political factors that would drive generations of young men to join a group like the Taliban. Central to that was an examination of the Taliban’s rigid and dehumanizing interpretation of Islam, an interpretation that strips women and minorities of their status as equal human beings entitled to dignity and freedom, and whose view of religion and society is fundamentally nihilistic and joyless.

It is extremely challenging to write a series that attempts to be self-critical and reflective in a prevailing climate of anti-Muslim animus, but as much as I’ve been looking outward at Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism with my crime series, I’ve also been looking inward at problems of patriarchy and orthodoxy and how both have contributed to the dehumanization of women and minorities in many Muslim-majority societies. There’s a lot of debate about whether vulnerable communities should air their dirty laundry in public, but one, as a person of faith, I am for justice even when it is against myself, and two, these are conversations we need to be having to halt or reverse the present moment of crisis and decline in parts of the Muslim world.

This crisis and decline can be attributed to several factors, a few of which I’ll mention briefly here. 1) One of these factors is the entrenchment of authoritarianism in some parts of the Muslim world, and the use of fundamentalist orthodoxy as a cudgel to beat down Muslim populations who aspire to dignity and freedom. This same rigidly intolerant creed also serves to oppress vulnerable minorities like Yazidis, Hazaras, or in some places Shia Muslims. This is the antithesis of everything I know and believe about the grace, beauty, pluralism and ethical framework of the Islamic faith. So as someone who is deeply engaged with these issues, my writing has to find a way to address them. This was the idea at the heart of the Khorasan Archives. But note that in my series, redemption comes from within, it is not imposed by external forces who possess more enlightened views or who have built more egalitarian societies. Arian and Sinnia and all the women of the Council of Hira have the gifts, tools and knowledge to reclaim their tradition from the established patriarchy and to use it as a means of empowerment and deliverance. That’s the whole point. If we move away from Jahiliya (the Age of Ignorance), the things we already venerate and hold dear are the answer to tyranny and despair. The only way to defeat the forces of ignorance is with an ethical reading of our own tradition. That was what I wanted to write about.

2) Having said that, those who argue or even campaign on the premise that ‘Islam is the problem’ are willfully ignoring the social and political conditions that have led to the present moment of crisis and decline that I’m speaking of. (Of course, the Muslim world reflects tremendous diversity, and no singular analysis applies to all parts of it—I am only speaking to those parts of it that represent this moment of crisis.)

There are social ills that have contributed to this crisis: poverty, economic stagnancy, the drug trade in Afghanistan in particular, high rates of illiteracy, war generations come to manhood with few other prospects than war or criminal activity, and corrupt governments that often operate as kleptocracies, who ruthlessly exploit religion and/or religious divisions in order to maintain power and control over resources that should rightly be allocated to the common good. In circumstances like these, a group like the Taliban was likely to come to power. There might even be periods when a group such as this would be welcome because it could provide stability in lieu of endless war.

So to return to your question about the Khorasan Archives, I don’t think that acceptance of the Talisman’s control represents complacency, or at least, not just complacency. To me it represents human despair at the lack of any other option—with the even more troubling understanding that the Talisman are Arian and Daniyar’s people. People become inured to hardship and suffering because that may be all they’ve ever known. In my series, the Talisman seek to control knowledge because knowledge is the key to freedom. By the same token, the poverty and illiteracy they promote ensures that they maintain their power and privilege. It’s a lot to grapple with, I know, particularly in a fantasy series that also includes magic, blood rites, ghost cats, and romantic rivalries, but I felt like it was a story that I was uniquely positioned to tell. It was just important to me to tell it from the inside.

1 In the Pashto or Pakhto language, ethnic Pashtuns are called Pashtuns or Pukhtuns. Urdu-speaking Pashtuns, like my family, use the term Pathans to identify ourselves, but the term Pashtun is more broadly known.

 

AMY: In reading The Unquiet Dead, it inquires relentlessly into what “justice” means, for both the dead and the living. Further, I would assume that your background in human rights law, with a research specialty in the Balkan War, vastly informed, at the very least, The Unquiet Dead, and perhaps more of your work. What does justice mean to you?

The Unquiet Dead

AUSMA: This is a question with a lot of depth to it, so I’ll try my best to grapple with it. We often see justice defined in these rigid or binary ways that fail to take into account other important factors, such as the imbalance of power between different groups in society, or the surrounding political context of socioeconomic deprivation, or in the case of certain societies, of the ruthless suppression of political and civil rights. So depending on the context and the issue, justice may both look and feel very different to different groups in society, depending on the place they occupy. What I mean in particular is that what seems so clear to someone with power, privilege and control feels very different to the person on the receiving end of those things, or whose interests conflict with those in power.

When we see a foiled terrorist plot for example, as in my novel The Language of Secrets, we want the hammer to come down swiftly and hard on the young men involved in the plot, regardless of how or why they were radicalized. Political commentary, public response, media coverage . . . isn’t willing to afford the same space to reflect on the humanity of these young men as might be afforded to someone like Dylann Roof or Alexandre Bissonnette, two young men who enacted violence against vulnerable communities. In the case of the crimes Bissonnette or Roof committed, we did see an exploration of the circumstances that had shaped them—an exploration that afforded them their humanity—without much attention being paid to the larger problem of the radicalization of young white men. So if we think that race, class, religion, and other social indicators don’t affect how we determine justice, we haven’t been paying attention.

To me, true justice allows for compassion, complexity and nuance. It centers our humanity. Depending on the circumstances, it could include rehabilitation, re-integration, restoration or even amnesty, if there is accountability first. Justice can be redemptive, as in my novel, A Dangerous Crossing, which addresses the devastating war in Syria and the refugee crisis. It can be restorative, as in A Deadly Divide where a mass murderer must account for their deeds, or it can be experienced as a pro forma ritual carried out without the long-term impact that a community in need is looking for, as in The Unquiet Dead. The Unquiet Dead was about a local crime linked to the Bosnian genocide, and the question I was exploring was why it wasn’t enough to mete out traditional methods of justice to the criminals who had enacted that genocide—why didn’t it feel like enough to the victims of those terrible crimes? The idea that justice should look the same to everyone fails to account for the depths of the horrors experienced. . . it also suggested to me that while observing the forms of justice is extremely important, there are still some crimes for which nothing can atone, crimes for which there should be no impunity. So in my books, these are the issues I’m wrestling with . . . how to convey that complexity and nuance, and how to decide where that line should be drawn.

 

AMY: Why did you delve into speculative fiction to write The Bloodprint (and its sequels, beginning with The Black Khan)? What can you do in a fantasy realm that you couldn’t in your mystery series?

The Black Khan

AUSMA: My mystery series closely parallels real life events, so I have to do an enormous amount of research and fact-checking to ensure that I have credibility in telling these stories in a way that they’ll resonate. What I love about writing crime fiction is that it’s the perfect vehicle for exploring the meaning of justice, and for understanding the nuances of justice when applied to different communities. Creating a diverse cast of characters also allows me to explore the different points of view around an issue without, in most cases, casting judgment, though there are some issues such as war crimes or crimes against humanity where the record is clear, and I don’t hold back. Mainly, my stories offer the opportunity for reflection or for viewing a subject from the perspective of voices that are usually marginalized.

So all those considerations weigh upon my mind when I’m writing a crime novel and that weight has only deepened as my series has progressed.

My fantasy series isn’t much lighter in tone or in terms of subject matter, but there’s more freedom to be inventive with the worlds I build. I’m free to indulge my imagination in writing these books, which don’t have to adhere as closely to reality.

I also turned to fantasy because I’m interested in the history and mythology of the Islamic civilization, and particularly of the different cultures along the Silk Road. There’s such richness and texture to these histories that the epic sweep of fantasy felt like the perfect medium through which to explore them. I often say that my mystery series looks outward to the tensions that exist between different communities, but with my fantasy novels, I’ve been looking inward to a culture, heritage and history that I know and cherish. And of course, with fantasy, there’s much more room to play.

 

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?

AUSMA: It would definitely be my mother. I come from a conservative Muslim family and an even more conservative Pashtun culture, and there were things about this in my upbringing that limited my choices and the risks I was allowed to take. Things like studying away from home or studying abroad. But even though my mother’s upbringing was so different from my own, she whole-heartedly supported me in completing the education I wanted to complete in the face of external pressure for me to get married relatively young. My mother had an arranged marriage at the age of 18, which was the custom at that time, whereas I married a man I chose for myself when I was 31. My mother’s marriage was filled with laughter and love, and my siblings and I grew up in a home that was imbued with its blessings. But that doesn’t mean that things weren’t very different for my generation than for hers—so the extent to which she must have struggled with her children’s independence is something I’m only beginning to appreciate.

I realize now that my mother’s ability to adapt to these huge cultural and generational shifts is a reflection of her strength of character, her intrinsic sense of her own worth, and her willingness to take risks that must have seemed overwhelming at the time. She wanted me to have choices that she didn’t have, and I can only hope to be as courageous when it comes to thinking new thoughts or standing up against the sometimes suffocating weight of tradition.


Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She is a former adjunct law professor and was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women, and is the award-winning author of both the Khorasan Archives (The Bloodprint, The Black Khan) and the Rachel Getty and Essa Khattak series (beginning with The Unquiet Dead). Originally from Canada, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband.

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

 

Mishell Baker: My heroes’ special superpower is survival

We’re pleased to bring you the first in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor, covering everything from inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2019 theme of heroes! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink speaks with Mishell Baker.

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AMY: What does heroism, especially in the context of speculative fiction, mean to you? Does the gender of the hero affect your definition?

Mishell Baker

MISHELL: Gender doesn’t affect my definition at all, and my definition seems to differ greatly from Joseph Campbell’s. A hero isn’t someone who has to be dragged reluctantly into doing what’s right even though some prophecy or mentor has laid the path out for them and placed helpful signs along the way. A hero is someone who is told, “You can’t, it’s hopeless, better people than you have failed, turn back now,” and who decides they’re going to ignore all that and do what’s right anyway. Not because they’re confident they can succeed, but because they simply can’t live with themselves if they don’t at least try. That’s the kind of hero we need in a day and age when all the signs are pointing backwards. We need someone whose internal compass points relentlessly forward anyway, someone who ignores official signs and doesn’t wait around for a gold-embossed invitation.

 

AMY: For readers who haven’t yet read Borderline, Millie is magnificent: a cynical, disabled filmmaker with borderline personality disorder who, much to her surprise, becomes a quasi-detective in a noir-ish, faery-filled Los Angeles. Prior to the opening of Borderline, she attempted suicide, and you’ve mentioned that you wanted, in creating Millie’s story, to depict her phoenix-like rise following that attempt. “I guess you could say she’s given up on giving up.” That determination, that she’s given up on giving up, is so evident in Millie: She’s relentless, despite her ignorance of faery, her endlessly troublesome job, her dysphoria, and a million other things that you throw her way. Why did you want to give Millie this story arc and this determination?

Borderline

MISHELL: Because I can’t imagine anything more important in life.

Every time I write something, I try to entertain, but I also understand that I have a captive audience for at least a little while, and I want to give them something that will last beyond the several hours or days of escapism I’m naturally also hoping to provide. The books that have meant most to me in my life are those which have saved me the trouble of living through something myself in order to learn from it. We have enough hard lessons in our own lives; sometimes it’s nice to grow as a person simply by reading about what someone else is living through.

Millie’s determination is, at times, the only thing she has going for her, when everything both inside and outside of her seems to be turning against her. We see so many heroes, especially in fantasy, that possess some special power or aptitude that saves them in the end. I wanted to write a story where the “superpower” is simply… survival. Continuing to try, again and again, even when everything repeatedly falls to pieces. Millie does have some assets, to be sure—she’s clever, and gutsy, and knows how to see the humor in situations. But she’s no demigoddess. She just keeps picking herself back up, even when she loses friends, or pieces of herself. And I want anyone who reads my books to carry that idea with them, just in case chaos starts raining down on their own lives. I want them, even if it’s only subconsciously, to have the idea that all they need to do is keep moving forward, and that will be enough to turn a disaster into a good story.

 

AMY: You’ve spoken at length about how Millie’s borderline personality disorder is surprisingly helpful as she navigates the unknown rules of a fantasy world—and I’ll add, becomes a hero. Would you share a bit about crafting a hero that is so far outside the mold of hypermasculine, sword-and-sorcery stereotype?

Phantom Pains

MISHELL: I think it actually came more naturally to me than trying to write a standard hero. Neither I nor anyone I’ve ever been close to has ever done what was expected of them in life or moved smoothly through social situations. In my life history, the people who had the characteristics of the typical fantasy hero were people who ended up very unlikable: the powerful preyed on the weak, the beautiful mocked the ugly, the talented basked in attention and glory while the kids who were struggling got kicked off to the sidelines. So when I pick up a book and the author immediately tries to convince me how beautiful, special, and powerful a character is, my first instinct is to mistrust that character, even resent them.

I’m used to thinking of sympathetic people in terms of how they fail to fit in, how they chafe against the fabric of the society that surrounds them. So if I know I have to cast someone in a role, be it hero, sidekick, or villain, I think my natural inclination is to ask myself, “What is expected of someone in this role, and who would seem to be the worst possible fit?” That’s what interests me the most: watching someone who is forced to do a job they would appear to be terribly suited for, and finding a way to hack their own hidden strengths and find a different way to play the role that is somehow just as effective.

 

AMY: The pace of your work is full-speed ahead! In many ways, that’s driven by the actions of your main group of characters: They don’t wait, they act. They don’t discuss, they advocate. They don’t dither, they decide. And then I think of something, perhaps related, that you once said in an interview, about how gaming has influenced your writing process: “I’m constantly thinking of the reader as a person who wants to take the wheel. I can’t give readers actual choices in such a linear form, but I can try to imagine what they’d choose, and I can decide at a given point in the story whether it’s best to gratify their desires or frustrate them.” Why are you so focused on reader interactivity? Aside from speed and compulsive readability, what do you think it brings to your work?

MISHELL: I’m an extrovert. It’s a bit of a curse, actually, as a writer, since it’s by nature a solitary profession. But even when I’m writing alone, I’m not alone. I’m always in a sort of conversation with an invisible reader. I can almost hear them yawning if I start to dwell too lovingly on a description or an inner monologue. I feel a constant sense of tension, of push and pull, between myself and this imaginary person who is always just on the verge of wandering off to do something more interesting. “Wait, wait!” I call after them as they start to turn away. And then I make something explode, to bring them back.

A lot of writers say they write for themselves. I’ve been told that’s healthy, and possibly it is. But I have never written for the sake of self-expression. I couldn’t do that any more than I could wander around the house speaking eloquently to empty rooms. I have to imagine that reader. It is interactive from my end from the very beginning, whether I want it to be or not. My measure of success for myself is always the effect on the reader. I don’t care much about purging my inner demons or making myself understood—perhaps decades of therapy have taken care of that urge—I care entirely about creating an experience for another person.

As far as what it brings to my work, I think it affects the way readers view me. I think it’s obvious from the way I write that I’m not reaching for some inner pinnacle of artistic perfection, but reaching outward instead, and readers seem very inclined to reach back. I’ve heard authors urging their readers not to be shy, to get in touch; I’ve never had to do that. My readers seem more-than-usually inclined to contact me online and in person, and that makes me happy.

 

Impostor Syndrome

AMY: Once upon a time, I loved Los Angeles—and not so differently, Borderline and its sequels love Los Angeles, a bright, electric, pulsing sort of Los Angeles. Was it important to you that your Los Angeles be so gloriously sentient? And how did you go about getting that vibrancy and that adoration on the page?

MISHELL: This is one of the areas in which I think my BPD actually helps me. I simply describe Los Angeles as I see it, as it makes me feel. I think any writer can manage to translate only a small percentage of their emotion onto the page when they write. I have a theory that since I tend to experience emotions an order of magnitude more intense than that of a neurotypical person, my paltry percentage of expression may come closer to capturing the average person’s entire emotional experience.

To answer the other part of the question, I wanted to make Los Angeles a vivid, breathing character in the story simply because, when I started writing the first book, I had an injury that left me housebound and a new baby that chopped up my mental focus like a tiny Cuisinart. I wasn’t able to do a lot of research on exotic settings and cultures, so I was sort of stuck with trying to take what was immediately around me and make it sing as though it were an alien planet. And Los Angeles, frankly, kind of is. I think you know what I’m talking about.

 

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?

MISHELL: Oh gosh, where to start. One of the things about having BPD, about missing that outer layer of skin over your emotions that most people have, is that you are deeply impressionable, and can be dramatically influenced for good or ill by the people who appear in your life, even briefly. But I’ll choose one, because she’s a fantastic writer in her own right (in both senses of the word) and I truly believe one day I will have to stand in a long line to compete for the honor of being her biggest fan – Wren Wallis.

Before I met Wren I actually had a bit of a fear of other women, an internalized misogyny that came both from media brainwashing and from my unfortunate experiences at an all girls’ private school in the South. I really bought into the destructive messages the media gives us about women and the “false” friendships between them. But about a decade ago I met Wren, and she was the kind of person who calmly stood between me and the people who behaved as my high school classmates had. Wren’s patience, honesty, loyalty, and genuine love for humanity with all its flaws forced me to rethink the stereotypes I’d been fed.

The irony is that I initially met her online and the only reason I had the courage to befriend her in the first place was that I thought she was a man. I’m glad I made that mistake. Now she’s like a sister to me, and my friendship with her ended up being the “gateway drug” to many fulfilling relationships with people of all genders. Maybe this isn’t the flashiest answer I could have given, but sometimes it’s the quiet people, the ones who rarely draw attention to themselves, who can have the greatest impact on a life.


Mishell Baker is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Fantasy & Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Redstone Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. Her urban fantasy series The Arcadia Project, released by Simon & Schuster’s Saga imprint, includes Borderline, Phantom Pains, and Impostor Syndrome. The series is narrated by Millicent Roper, a snarky double-amputee and suicide survivor who works with a ragtag collection of society’s least-wanted, keeping the world safe from the chaotic whims of supernatural beasties. When Mishell isn’t convention-hopping or going on wild research adventures, she lives in Los Angeles with her co-parent and two changelings.

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

 

Sirens Guest of Honor Interview: Violet Kupersmith

We’re pleased to bring you the third in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor. We’re covering a variety of topics relevant to Sirens with each author, from their inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2018 theme of reunion, as well as the themes of our previous four years: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Beaver Creek this October! Today, Amy Tenbrink interviews our third guest of honor, Violet Kupersmith.

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AMY: Women have a long history with ghost stories, from using them to examine cloaked feminine themes to finding themselves in the strange position of, after establishing the genre in the 1800s, now needing to reclaim them as our own. Why did you choose ghosts, hauntings, and horror as your medium for your work in The Frangipani Hotel?

VIOLET: In my family, only women see ghosts. I think this is part of the reason why I was drawn to them when I started writing about Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora. In the American imagination the dominant narratives about the war and its legacy are Western, male, and soldier-centric, so I set my stories in the realm of the supernatural—one of the few spaces where the rules aren’t set by men. Ghosts can act as a stand-in for female characters, giving them agency in a society where they are denied it, and working in the horror genre allows me to shine a light on the kinds of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American characters who are scarred by the war but generally overlooked in stories about it: women in nursing homes, first-generation teenagers who work at grocery stores, long-haul truckers. In so many ways, the Ghost is the perfect metaphor for the immigrant: both are liminal beings, hovering between worlds, and here, both are feared and other-ed. And I think that there’s something fitting about using a literary genre which is often unfairly dismissed as silly or lowbrow to tell stories about a marginalized people. Each is able to empower the other.

 

AMY: Your work frequently, and often subversively, explores culture: its transformation following devastation, its vital connections, its loss and sometimes desperate preservation as people’s lives change. In “Skin and Bones,” Thuy eats her culture, literally, and finds a connection she didn’t think was there through Vietnamese foodways, while the American grandchild in “Boat Story” seeking an “A-plus” refugee story, hears an account of her immigrant grandparents and a boat, yes, but not one she ever expected. Conversely, your work, too, is often about invasion of culture: the American expansion in “The Frangipani Hotel,” where a single American businessman, looking for a Vietnamese woman to take out on the town, stands in for hundreds of thousands of American soldiers; or the American ex-pat in “Guests,” who can’t see her own condescension in her artificial competition with Vietnamese girls for her boyfriend. On your website, you share a bit about your family’s experiences and legacy. For you, how do written versions of stories intersect with the history and culture that you’re writing about?

VIOLET: My stories definitely feed off of my own neuroses about the place my ambiguously-brown Amerasian self occupies between these two cultures, and my hyper-awareness of the fact that I exist because of cruel historical circumstances that put my mother on a boat to America, where she met my father. I’ve always felt a bit like an amphibian, able to move between both worlds but never belonging wholly to either. When I started writing what would eventually become The Frangipani Hotel there was this common assumption, from both my relatives and from outsiders, that the pinnacle of the collection would be something like “My Refugee Family’s True and Terrifying Boat Journey,” that it was the ‘big story’ I had inside me and had been waiting to tell. And I bristled at this. I did want to honor my family’s legacy, but on my own terms. I’ve threaded their experiences into my books in fragments, because our story is one of brokenness, not boats. It started long before they left the shore and it’s still unraveling.

 

AMY: The Vietnam War is woven into every inch of The Frangipani Hotel, sometimes as a literal intrusion as in “Descending Dragon,” but more often as a looming shadow of memory or of devastation. Even—or perhaps especially—the American businessman in “The Frangipani Hotel” reads strongly as the personification of a modern-day capitalist invasion, a deliberate echo of American soldiers, while the Vietnamese men of “One Finger” relive their war-time horror in exacting, horrifying detail. How do you prepare to write work that, like this, is so inherently tied to such a complex, horrific tragedy?

VIOLET: To me, the Vietnam War is like a big, metaphorical black hole. You can’t see the thing itself; instead you see the material bending around it, the light that’s being sucked in. And that’s how I approach writing about it as well—I know that if I, personally, set out to write a realistic story about a bombing, or a battle, I would never be able to capture it in a way that would feel true to the reader, or give it the emotional gravity it deserves. I can’t face it head-on. This is another reason why I turned to the supernatural in my fiction—it lets me avoid writing explicitly about war while doing exactly that, on some level. The ghosts act as both a kind of shield and a conduit. I have to make monsters of my own in order to address the real ones in the country’s history.

 

AMY: You lived in Vietnam for a number of years, and spent much of that time exploring Vietnamese folktales and, I imagine, researching The Frangipani Hotel. What did you love about Vietnam? What surprised you about Vietnam? How did Vietnam change your writing and your stories?

VIOLET: Sometimes I hear myself talking about Hanoi and I realize it sounds like I’m talking wistfully about an ex-lover. It’s embarrassing. I can’t think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound silly, but I think Vietnam is just enchanted. Old-school, Brothers Grimm-style enchanted—equal parts dangerous and divine. The entire country seems to run on a dreamy and feverish, ‘It’s-4 AM-and-anything-could-happen’ kind of energy, for 24 hours a day. Everybody you meet has at least one truly weird story that they’re willing to tell you. And there is no other place on earth that has better food (there is a reason why the character in my stories I identify with most is sandwich-gobbling Thuy). The biggest surprise was a sad one. I arrived expecting that when I encountered discrimination it would be because of my Americanness. I was prepared to bear this. But instead, every time it was because I was a woman. The anger that I’ve felt about this, in particular, has seeped into my writing; my upcoming novel is simmering.

 

AMY: The nine stories included in The Frangipani Hotel explore a veritable mountain of themes: modernization and reclamation of folktales, an unmistakable indictment of the Vietnam War, the legacy of suffering and loss, the preservation of culture, everyday spirituality as immutable tradition, and about a thousand more. Of all the themes in your work, which do you most hope readers will discover and consider?

VIOLET: I think that in each of the stories the reader can latch onto the idea of inheritance, of what we are handed down—regardless of whether or not we want it or even feel we deserve it—from our parents, our parents’ parents, our nations. The skins, stories, memories, and trauma that we are given, the dangerous weight of these inheritances, and the lengths we have to go to in order to free ourselves from them. And I think that buried within this theme is an even trickier question: what we are owed by our histories, and what do we owe them? This was what I was attempting to answer when I wrote The Frangipani Hotel, and what I hope readers will ask themselves too.

 

AMY: Sirens is about the remarkable, diverse women of fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, even a character—who has changed your life?

VIOLET: My mother is four-foot-ten and—I do mean this as a compliment—she is the scariest person I know. She is a survivor, a scholar, and an activist, and she possesses the kind of fearlessness that I can only write about. Growing up, she always gave in when I demanded bedtime story after bedtime story after bedtime story. Ghosts do occasionally talk to her. She is a remarkable woman in every way.

 


 

Violet Kupersmith is the author of The Frangipani Hotel, a collection of supernatural short stories about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and a forthcoming novel on ghosts and American expats in modern-day Saigon. She spent a year teaching English in the Mekong Delta with the Fulbright program and subsequently lived in the Central Highlands of Vietnam to research local folklore. She is a former resident of the MacDowell Colony and was the 2015–2016 David T.K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Her writing has appeared in No Tokens, The Massachusetts Review, Word Vietnam, and The New York Times Book Review.

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

 

Sirens Guest of Honor Interview: Kameron Hurley

We’re pleased to bring you the second in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor. We’re covering a variety of topics relevant to Sirens with each author, from their inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discussing our 2018 theme of reunion, as well as the themes of our previous four years: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Beaver Creek this October! Today, Amy Tenbrink interviews our second guest of honor, Kameron Hurley.

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AMY: In a recent series of tweets, you said, “The older I get, the more I feel an artist ruins a piece of work by being expected to talk about it endlessly … The audience brings half the experience to the work. All this creator bloviating takes that away from them.” Edith Wharton once said something similar, that in reading and writing ghost stories, she was conscious of a “common medium” between author and reader, where the reader actually “meet[s] [the author] halfway among the primeval shadows ….” As you gear up for another book release, and all the promotional time and energy that that requires, what are your thoughts on the intellectual, emotional, and experiential exchange between writers and readers?

KAMERON: I don’t recall where I first read that half of the reading experience comes from the reader themselves, but I’ve seen this truth borne out time and again. There are many books I’ve read and adored at a certain time in my life that would have meant nothing to me before or after that time. I remember talking to people about the short story by Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life,” and the movie based on it, Arrival, and not understanding why there were people who didn’t find it brilliant and cathartic. What I realized, on speaking to others, is that you either connected with the emotional truth of the film, or you didn’t. That work evoked the feeling of knowing how difficult and hard and painful and tragic life is but doing it anyway. It’s the feeling that even knowing what you know now … that you would still make the same choices. And that simply didn’t connect with some people. In a discussion with my agent about the book Twilight, she noted that what it did very well was convey the feeling of being in love for the first time. This surprised me, because the book hadn’t connected with me at all. I couldn’t get into it. When she said that, though, it occurred to me that maybe I hadn’t connected with it because I simply didn’t share that feeling; it didn’t convey that feeling to me; it didn’t resonate with my experience.

This is why you can have novels that get a thousand five star reviews and a thousand one star reviews, and how you can get novels that … well, simply have no reviews, or only middling reviews, because they didn’t connect with anyone on any level.

I’ve also found that I’ve been able to go back to works that I didn’t connect with or understand when I was younger, and have found them much more evocative on second attempt. One of those was Joanna Russ’s book, The Female Man. I tried to read it when I just turned twenty and kept bouncing off it. But when I came back to it as I neared thirty, it connected. I’d experienced enough sexism in my life by then that I totally got it.

As you noted, I have less of an interest in speaking deeply about the particular meaning my own work has to me in case it contradicts what a reader took away from it. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes that’s important. There are readings of my work that make me think someone was reading something entirely different from a completely different political perspective. But hey, all I can do is hope that they return to the work after a decade or so and find something different in it. That’s probably the real magic of any creative work, that its meaning for you, as a reader, a viewer, can change depending on when you experience it. Just telling someone, “The Female Man is about sexism,” isn’t going to get them to connect with it. They have to come to it on their own.

 

AMY: The thing I admire most about your work—and I admire many, many things about your work—is that it’s so very unflinching. It is unafraid of conflict, not only between characters, but between the work and the reader. Its presentation of topics such as gender, sexuality, and abuse are, frankly, challenging in their naked honesty—and in their great aspiration. I find your work quite similar, in that way, to the works of authors like Carmen Maria Machado, with her very fuck-you feminist approach, and Sarah Pinborough, with her brutal truth-telling. How much of this do you draw from yourself, and what is it like for you, as a writer, to put pieces of yourself—your hope, your rage, your grief—on the page?

KAMERON: Every great writer puts pieces of themselves on the page. For many of us, this is how we process our own experiences, emotions, and impressions, whether that’s in response to something we have done ourselves or something we’ve seen, read, or heard about from others. War and genocide feature heavily in my work; I’ve never been to war, nor been the target of genocide, but I was watched after often by my grandparents. My grandmother grew up in Nazi-occupied France, and my grandfather’s primary duty after the war was driving truckfuls of bodies out of concentration camps. Most of my family has served in the military, many of my friends. Violence, addiction, family tension, abuse, mental illness, are all things that my extended family has struggled with. My grandmother’s house was the center of the universe for my father’s side of the family, so all of the trauma and grief experienced by that side of the family came through there. I either saw it or heard about it. So while my parents kept us fairly safe and coddled out in the country in the evenings, during the day, until I was twelve or so, we were intrinsically connected to what was, on the face of it, a pretty complicated family bound by love, abuse, addiction, and mental illness. Nothing but love to them all, but whew! Looking back, we were all a hot mess.

As a kid, you don’t know that, of course. It’s just how your family is. Your grandpa grabs you by the hair and knocks your head against the wall. He throws your cousin down the stairs. He calls your aunts whores. Your grandma throws plates and runs after you with a wooden spoon. All strung together like that, it looks like a horrifying life, but the truth is that human beings are complicated. There was always essential love in our grandma’s house. We always knew we were loved and wanted. When my cousins came out as lesbian and me as bisexual, my grandmother the hardcore Catholic thought that was fascinating more than anything; it allowed her to imagine how things could be different. She got a kick out of it, I think. When I look back now I see how isolated she must have been. She had to teach herself English when she finally came to America with my grandfather. People made fun of her accent. She would have my dad go with her to doctor’s appointments so the doctors would take her seriously. She had bouts of deep depression where she’d close all the curtains in the house and just call all her kids and cry about how unloved she felt.

But oh, there was love! She crafted creative lunches for us every day, filled the pool outside and let us romp around the garden and run the hose to fill up puddles in the yard for our GI Joes and My Little Ponies. We were treasures, to her. This dichotomy, this darkness and light, has always fascinated me. It’s something I explore a lot in my fiction, certainly: these abusive families who still care fiercely for one another, but don’t have the tools to love properly, and these human beings who have all the best and all the worst of what makes us human, and who muddle along trying to find their way.

I grew up white and middle class, and believed wholeheartedly in the myth of fairness and equality. “A woman can be anything,” my mom told me, often, “she can even be president!” My parents said, “If you just go to work every day, and work hard, you’ll be rewarded. You’ll make it.” And while I felt I was treated just the same as anyone else in my immediate family, once I went out into the world I was shocked, grief-stricken, and then profoundly angry about the lie I’d been told about fairness and merit. White families like mine can yammer on all day about how life is fair, but it doesn’t make it true. I understood this, as a woman, once I joined the workplace and was treated not as someone with merit, but as, simply, a woman. I was a woman first to the world. I went away to grad school in South Africa, which effectively opened my eyes to the bigotry and racism in our own country. It’s funny, how so many of those who are privileged in certain ways, as I am, have to step outside their own experience, their own family, their own country, to see the world for what it truly is. Travel was transformative for me in the same way that reading fiction has been. It allows me to transport myself someplace really different. To not only imagine, but to see, truly see, the world around me.

I went through a period after the election where it was difficult for me to write anything that was emotionally resonant, for me. The experience of writing is very often a cathartic one where I’m drawing on and processing real emotions that I’ve translated onto the page for my characters. After the election I didn’t want to feel anything at all, so I spent a lot of time just going through the motions. There were words there, but nothing behind them. Nothing mattered. I had to stop the book I was writing and take a break. When I returned, I began a new project, and whenever I got stuck, I consciously pulled on my own real experiences, on the things that interested me. I made myself feel those experiences again, through the lens of the characters, and it made for a much more powerful book that may be my best work to date. We’ll see what folks think when The Light Brigade comes out in March.

So yes, of course, I’m there on the page. So is my family. The people I’ve encountered. The joys and horrors I’ve read about. You take it all in, you remix it, you try and understand it. That’s really all storytelling is: trying to make sense of this wacky world we got born into.

 

AMY: Your work is tremendously ambitious. The Stars Are Legion is often summarized as “lesbians in space,” and while it certainly is that, I find that description shockingly simplistic for such a rich, vibrant story of a panoply of women that also interrogates a panoply of issues—love, power, revenge, motherhood—from a uniquely female perspective. Your work’s structures, from the gloriously unreliable point-of-view characters in The Stars Are Legion to the sheer complexity of the narration in the Worldbreaker Saga, are necessarily and unusually complicated. Your fantasy worlds, cultures, and societies are minutely detailed: You consider the impact that your fantasy-world creations have on the functioning of society, such as, as you’ve mentioned, what consent looks like in a consent-based society. Would you please share a bit about your writing process? How much of what you do is research or brainstorming? How do you get all of this from your head to the page?

KAMERON: I do a lot of research up front to get the gears turning, then research during the revision process to fill things out, to lend the book some color, some vibrancy, to find those telling details that make a scene or a person memorable.

I tend to look at the writing process like an oil painting. You do an underpainting first, then a second or third layer of increasing detail, and a final finishing layer where you’re adding highlights and low lights.

In the initial research phase I’m often just collecting quotes and anecdotes and ideas from books, articles, random tweets, memes, snippets of dialogue, all of those things. I generally have a character and a “big idea” in mind first, and I’ve learned that the next best step after that is to figure out what they want and what I want their emotional journey to be. That part of the process I used to never figure out until the end, which was an exhausting and backward way to write. I ended up spending a lot more time in revision when I did that. I had to learn that “plot” isn’t just “things happen” but how events unfold that impact the emotional journey or emotional state of the character. What’s their essential emotional wound or emotional driving force? Those deep emotions—a driving force, a wound, a passion—are really key, for me, in whether or not a story or novel of mine works.

A novel like The Stars are Legion could be summed up as, sure, lesbians in space, or an abortion allegory, or a sentient organic worldship adventure, or simply “a space opera” and in fact, it’s all of those things. But the core emotional journey, the question it asks, is if we are more than the sum of our memories; if evil truly is capable of change, and if some abuses are simply too much for a relationship to recover from (spoilers: yes). That is the emotional journey Zan takes throughout that book (and to a lesser extent, so does Jayd). The book could have all the squishy grossness and adventure, but without any kind of emotional core, it would be more forgettable, I think, and certainly less satisfying for me as a reader or writer.

But hey! It is indeed the world building that compels me to write science fiction and fantasy instead of historicals or literature set in the present. Worldbuilding has the ability to strip away all the trappings of what we believe to be “true” and asks us to interrogate it. How could things be really different? Who would we be, if the world was different? Who would we be, with different social mores? Different cultural expectations? It’s the same thing I learn from traveling, but even more disorienting. You can’t ignore just how many things you take for granted when you do really deep, immersive worldbuilding. You have to owe up to how lazy your brain can be.

 

AMY: You’ve talked a lot about failure—and how difficult it is to reconcile failure with that especially American brand of rugged individualism. You, I, and most Sirens attendees struggle every day with the overwhelming juxtaposition of that mythic American meritocracy with inescapable systemic biases. What advice do you have regarding failure and perseverance for women and nonbinary people who live in a society that encourages cishet white men to “fail fast” while demanding insta-perfection from everyone else?

KAMERON: I have been using my own anger and disappointment to fuel me for many years. When I was fourteen, I read an interview with Kevin J. Anderson where he said the secret to being a writer was, in one word, “Persistence,” and that really stuck with me. The truth is, of course, not fair or equal. Many of us are going to have to work harder than others to succeed. Many of us, despite all that enduring, will not make it to the bestseller lists or even be able to make it as full-time writers. But we’ll have another kind of success, which is the success of continuing to be a part of this field, continuing to produce exceptional work, long after others have given up.

It sucks, yeah. It sucks that we have to work harder. That we don’t get the attention. That we have to slog in obscurity for longer (or for infinity). But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to build a career. We, too, can get lucky. Being really, really good helps, too. I’ve been conscious that I need to level up my skill with every book. I can’t coast along writing the same thing, at the same level. I made a goal of being the very best writer—not necessarily bestselling or making the most money, because I can’t control those—but being an exceptional writer, among the best in the world. That’s a lofty goal, but it means that my journey is infinite, that I will need to keep pushing, that I can never sit back and rest on my laurels. That isn’t for everyone, but it works for me.

It’s funny—when I play World of Warcraft, I enjoy playing a defensive character, known as a tank, who can endure an incredible amount of damage and whose role in a multiplayer instance is to protect the rest of the party. The purpose of the tank is to endure. To take the hits. And to keep swinging. It’s my favorite type of character to play. This is the same mindset I’ve taken to approaching my writing life. The rejections, the failures, are all hits. I’m a tank. My purpose is to endure until the end.

Maybe not everyone sees that as inspiring or motivating, but I do. There is something about knowing that—if nothing else!—you can outlast your opponent that I find deeply satisfying.

 

AMY: So much of your work is revolutionary. So much of what you advocate is revolution. In the epilogue of The Geek Feminist Revolution, you explicitly state that you want to change the world. So, tell us, what does the revolution look like to you? And what can the women and nonbinary people writing, publishing, and reading speculative fiction do to join you in that revolution?

KAMERON: Revolution is a break from the status quo. An assault on the system. This can be a political revolution, a violent revolution (not my preference), a peaceful transfer of power, an abolition of current power structures. Revolution can also be quite personal—calling out an act of sexism or racism, refusing to participate in an immoral act that reinforces the status quo, refusing to carry out an order, refusing to serve a fascist, not complying with a request to detain an immigrant, even calling out a friend or colleague for perpetuating a stereotype.

Revolution on a grand scale requires us to find our people, to organize with others. But there are also the quiet, individual acts of resistance that groups can rally around—Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus, suffragettes chaining themselves to park benches, a restaurant owner refusing to serve the mouthpiece of a fascist regime.

Resistance leads to revolution, and increasingly I’ve found that simply continuing to do our work, to speak up, to participate in interviews like this one, to create our podcasts and our essays and our stories, is also an act of resistance. The trolls that tried to shut me up with death threats early in my career have now become far more organized and vitriolic. They are desperate to silence us now more so than ever. The simple act of being here, of speaking up, of not looking away, of not repeating the party line, of voting, of protesting, of not being still, not shutting down … that makes them very angry.

And, you know, I’m a tank, so—I like to make them angry.

 

AMY: Sirens is about the remarkable, diverse women of fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, even a character—who has changed your life?

KAMERON: I found the work of Joanna Russ to be transformative in many ways. I read a great deal of feminist science fiction in my early 20s, and I found Russ’s work to be the most blistering, the angriest, the most unapologetically revolutionary. She was full of a white-hot rage and not afraid to show it.

In particular, her story We Who Are About To … channeled that anger to its ultimate, grimly realistic end. I also saw a great deal of myself in her semi-autobiographical work, On Strike Against God, which helped me understand my own sexuality. No small feat!

Whenever I’m concerned something I’m writing is “too grim” or “too angry” I think of Russ. We should be unapologetically angry. The system isn’t made for us. It’s literally there to reduce our voices and power in the world. That should piss us all off.

 


 

Kameron Hurley is an award-winning author and advertising copywriter. Kameron grew up in Washington State, and has lived in Fairbanks, Alaska; Durban, South Africa; and Chicago. She has a degree in historical studies from the University of Alaska and a Master’s in History from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, specializing in the history of South African resistance movements.

Kameron is the author of the nonfiction collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, which contains her essay on the history of women in conflict “We Have Always Fought,” which was the first article to ever win a Hugo Award. It was also nominated for Best Non-Fiction work by the British Fantasy Society. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous online venues, including The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, Huffington Post, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly, and she writes a regular column for Locus Magazine. Kameron’s space opera, The Stars Are Legion, was published by Simon and Schuster’s Saga imprint in February 2017. Her epic fantasy series, the Worldbreaker Saga, is comprised of the novels The Mirror Empire, Empire Ascendant, and The Broken Heavens (forthcoming in March 2019). Additionally, her first series, The God’s War Trilogy, which includes the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. Kameron’s short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed, Vice Magazine’s Terraform, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons.

Kameron has won two Hugo Awards and a Locus, and been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her work has also been included on the Tiptree Award Honor List and been nominated for the Gemmell Morningstar Award. In addition to her writing, Kameron has been a Stollee guest lecturer at Buena Vista University and taught copywriting at the School of Advertising Art. Kameron currently lives in Ohio, where she’s cultivating an urban homestead.

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

 

Sirens Guest of Honor Interview: Anna-Marie McLemore

We’re pleased to bring you the first in a series of candid, in-depth interviews with this year’s Sirens Guests of Honor. We’ll cover a variety of topics relevant to Sirens with each author, from their inspirations, influences, and craft, to the role of women in fantasy literature, and discuss our 2018 theme of reunion, as well as the themes of our previous four years: hauntings, rebels and revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Beaver Creek this October! Today, Amy Tenbrink interviews our first guest of honor, Anna-Marie McLemore.

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AMY: Your work is so often based on families: biological families sometimes, as with the feud between the Palomas and the Corbeaus in The Weight of Feathers, but just as profoundly, found families, such as Aracely’s mothering of water-tower-born Miel in When the Moon Was Ours or Estrella’s shocking discovery of Fel in La Pradera in Wild Beauty. Perhaps similarly, your work often addresses the legacies of those families, from the aforementioned feud to the Nomeolvides women’s immutable ties to La Pradera. Why is the idea of family so important to you, and by extension, your work?

ANNA-MARIE: I love that you include found family in this question, because that’s a concept that’s there for so many of us, especially in the LGBTQ+ community. For better or worse, family makes you. No matter your family’s size, no matter if they’re the ones you grew up with or the ones you found along the way.

Sometimes family is something you push against: Cluck and Lace from The Weight of Feathers will always carry their families with them, even as they realize that their own survival may depend on taking paths that lead away from them.

Sometimes family is something you find in the moment of becoming yourself: When Miel spills out of the water tower in When the Moon Was Ours, Aracely becomes someone who exists in the space between mother and big sister to her; at the same time, Aracely also becomes an older sister figure to Sam, the boy who finds Miel in the first place and who hangs the moon outside her window.

Sometimes family is made by common languages: Wild Beauty centers on five cousins who are not only Latina, not only blood-related, but also all queer. They know the strength of community and family. As curious as they may be about the strange boy who appears in the gardens, they wouldn’t make him part of their family if they couldn’t tell how much he respects that sense of community.

The family I grew up with and the family I’ve chosen both hold space in my life, and I think that ends up showing in my books. You’ll find that again in Blanca & Roja, a Latinx reimagining of “Snow-White & Rose-Red,” so it’s all about sisters, but it’s also all about the families we make.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Blanca & Roja is due out in October.)

 

AMY: To me, the most profound, most present theme in your work is a trinity of acceptance, redemption, and forgiveness: Cluck’s saving Lace’s life, Miel’s love of Sam, the Nomeolvides’ welcome of Fel into their home. In your work, acceptance frequently creates a necessary foundation for redemption and forgiveness, and those are lessons that are important to a number of readers. What about those themes speak to you as a writer?

ANNA-MARIE: I think I often end up writing stories about how those around you can sometimes love you before you know how to love yourself, and how you do the same for them. Lace and Cluck in The Weight of Feathers recognize in each other the things that make them outcasts from their own families, and find those things beautiful in each other before they can in themselves. Miel and Sam in When the Moon Was Ours desperately want to show each other unconditional acceptance and love, but can’t until they feel safe acknowledging the ways in which their own hearts are broken. In Wild Beauty, Fel comes into the Nomeolvides family’s lives with a lot of humility, both for good reasons—he recognizes them as the queens of La Pradera—and for tragic ones—he carries a lot of free-floating shame without having any memory of what it’s attached to. They treat him as family in a way that reminds him of his own value, and he’s their reminder of the tremendous power they have as a community of Latina women.

In Blanca & Roja, acceptance becomes even more intertwined with the idea of redemption and forgiveness. In addition to being a reimagining of “Snow-White & Rose-Red,” 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.

 

AMY: The first work of yours that I read was The Weight of Feathers, which you set in California’s Central Valley. I grew up in rural Michigan, and your Central Valley read to me as an almost sentient character full of that so-called American quiet desperation. Similarly, La Pradera, the magical garden in Wild Beauty, drives not only characters, but the plot, as the Nomeolvides women react to its apparent power and rage. How do you choose and create your settings?

ANNA-MARIE: The settings usually choose me, or, I should say, they choose my story. In The Weight of Feathers, the smaller towns of the Central Valley matched with the idea of the Palomas’ and Corbeaus’ traveling shows. Wild Beauty is so much about heritage and legacy and the terrifying truth that sometimes lives beneath that which is beautiful. So La Pradera, with its stunning gardens, enchanting magic, and bloody history (I won’t share more, because spoilers) became the perfect landscape for the story of the Nomeolvides women.

 

AMY: When the Moon Was Ours is a transcendent fairy tale, especially for readers who don’t often see themselves in such stories. Wild Beauty is both a story of magical women and incisive commentary about class and social struggle. Would you please share a bit about including and balancing both individual identity and societal themes within your work?

ANNA-MARIE: I love that you use the term fairy tale, because that’s really my heart as a writer. Even before I started writing fairy tale reimaginings like Blanca & Roja, it was my heart as a writer. My fairy tales are usually queer, brown, or both, because those are the communities I know. The fairy tales that are truest for me to write are ones grounded in identities I know.

In the process of taking myself seriously as a writer, there was an aspect of awakening, of realizing that my existence—as a Latina woman, as a queer woman, as a woman who loves a trans guy—that all of that was politicized, whether I wanted it to be or not. That it always had been. Leaving identity politics out of art isn’t a luxury I have, and knowing what I know about my own communities, it’s not one I want.

I want to write fairy tales for my communities. I want to write stories that are honest—in all their blood and history—and also hopeful—in placing LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color at their centers, in giving them space to claim the magic that belongs to them. A story about a Latina girl with roses growing from her wrist and a Pakistani-American trans boy who paints the moon cannot exist without acknowledging what it’s like for these characters to navigate their hometown. A story of five queer girls of color can be filled with enchanted gardens and ball gowns and still carry an understanding of the characters’ identities. I may not go around constantly thinking about being a queer Latina, but I never forget it completely, because the world never forgets, and because I have to choose, over and over, to be proud of it.

 

AMY: Your craft is, in a word, exquisite. Lyrical, poetic, honest, unforgettable. Would you please tell us about your writing process?

ANNA-MARIE: That’s so kind of you to say. In terms of writing process on a craft level, I sort of say everything at once and then pare back. I’ll describe something three ways, and then only one of those three ways will end up being the right one. So much of the magic in writing is letting your brain and your heart go wherever they want, and so much of the power of revising is in deletion, in pulling back, in distilling.

 

AMY: Sirens is about the remarkable, diverse women of fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, even a character—who has changed your life?

ANNA-MARIE: My mother. If she were a fantasy character, she’d be the queen who’s equal parts brilliant and stylish, or she’d be the most glamorous of witches. I won’t say we always agree, but she’s so often been my model for finding power in being a woman and in being Latina.

 


 

Anna-Marie McLemore is the Mexican-American author of 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 won the 2016 James Tiptree, Jr. Award; and Wild Beauty, a fairy tale of queer Latina girls and enchanted, murderous gardens. Blanca & Roja, a magical realism reimagining of Snow-White & Rose-Red meets Swan Lake, is forthcoming in 2018.

Anna-Marie’s historical short stories are forthcoming in the anthologies All Out, The Radical Element: Twelve Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls, and Toil and Trouble. Her shorter work has previously been featured in The Portland Review, CRATE Literary Magazine’s “cratelit,” and Camera Obscura’s Bridge the Gap Gallery, and by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

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

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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