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Susie O’Brien: What I love most about speculative fiction is the new worlds that it opens up for me

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

Accompanying our interview is a selection of book covers Susie O’Brien references in her interview below: Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mishell Baker’s Borderline, Artemis Grey’s Catskin, Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time, and Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

 

AMY TENBRINK: Every year, for several years running, you have been the first person to finish the Sirens Reading Challenge! In fact, I know you would have been done with the 2019 challenge in probably 2018 if one of the required works had come out before April of 2019. About how many books do you read a year? About how many of those are speculative fiction? Do you finish them all?

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter

SUSIE O’BRIEN: Reading is my passion. It always has been. My mom says I taught myself to read when I was about four years old. I’ve been reading for 58 years. I read an average of two books per week when I’m reading fiction. It takes me longer to read nonfiction. I wouldn’t have finished the 2019 challenge in 2018, though. It would have taken me until the end of January 2019.

I would say, right now, that about 80 percent of what I read is speculative fiction. I immerse myself in the world of whatever book I’m reading. I consume books…about 100 of them per year. I usually finish every book that I start, even if I hate it.

 

AMY: So…how? How do you read all of those books? Are you the world’s fastest reader? Are you listening to audiobooks while you do everything else in your life? How are you getting all this amazing reading done?

Borderline

SUSIE: I’m definitely not the world’s fastest reader. And, even though I LOVE many of the books I read, if you ask me the name of the main character six months after I read the book, I probably won’t be able to tell you. But, I don’t have a regular job. (I do the bookkeeping for my husband Mike’s consulting business, but that only takes a few hours per month.) Also, with my health issues now, I am forced to spend more time sitting still, so I read. I’m a night owl, and Mike is a morning person, so I read with a book light for a couple of hours most evenings, plus about an hour or so during the day. I DO listen to audiobooks, but usually only when I’m on the treadmill, and then it’s often stuff like the Harry Potter books or The Lord of the Rings.

 

AMY: What do you love about reading speculative fiction? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

SUSIE: What I love most about speculative fiction is the new worlds that it opens up for me. I immerse myself fully in that world while I’m reading that book. I don’t think I can tell you what kinds of stories interest me most, but I can tell you some of my favorites from the past couple of years of Sirens challenges:

  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: I loved the humor of this one, and I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes stories, so….
  • Borderline: I LOVE the intersection of elves and humans in this series.
  • Catskin: Artemis Grey’s book is wonderful.
  • Aru Shah and the End of Time: I loved the characters in this one.
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: What a wonderful lesson!

And then Dread Nation, Witchmark, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, and anything by Victoria Schwab, Anna-Marie McLemore, N.K. Jemisin, Ursula Le Guin, K.B. Wagers, or Nnedi Okorafor. The Prince and the Dressmaker, The Mortification of Fovea Munson (SO funny!), Ms. Marvel, and Lumberjanes are also favorites.

 

AMY: You are one of the most spectacular seamstresses I’ve ever known, and every year, you and your daughter Jo donate a custom creation–a coat, a costume, a haute couture gown–to the Sirens auction. How did you learn to sew and what about it do you love?

Catskin

SUSIE: When I was 12, I learned to use my mom’s sewing machine…just straight stitching. When I was 16, I made a cloth doll and clothes for a two-year-old that I was babysitting. When I was 18, Mom taught me to sew clothes. I started creating simple costumes in college, and then when Jo was very little, I started sewing for her. As her tastes have grown, I have developed my sewing abilities to keep up with her. My dad’s oldest sister was a professional seamstress, and she taught the basics to my mom, and then my mom taught me. I love sewing for a number of reasons…it’s a very practical skill; it allows me to be creative; and the finished product makes people happy. When I was diagnosed with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, it was the thought of finishing Rosamund Hodge’s coat [purchased as part of the Sirens auction] that kept me fighting to live, and it gave me a purpose.

 

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

Aru Shah and the End of Time

SUSIE: I started to come to Sirens after making the coat for Yoon Ha Lee [purchased as part of the Sirens auction]. I wanted to see what the conference was all about, for one thing. And I was looking for a group of people who were like-minded about books. When Jo first started going, I thought it was mostly for writers, but now I know it’s also for readers—not to mention teachers, librarians, and more. And I have felt like I belong ever since I started going. I hope to be able to attend Sirens for the rest of my life. I love how accepting everyone is there. I find the discussions and talks to be very interesting, but mostly I just love being there where I feel I belong.

 

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?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

SUSIE: My daughter Jo has changed my life. She is a wonderful person, and I can ask her anything. When I have needed to understand about the meaning of the terms that are being used to describe people, it’s Jo that I ask. I grew up in a time when “queer” was a slur, and as they have added more letters to LGBT (now they have added QIA+), I have asked Jo to explain them to me. I must say, the entire experience at Sirens has changed my life, too…it’s wonderful! Thank you!

 


Susie O’Brien was born the youngest of four kids in 1956 in Jackson, Michigan. Her sister Barbara was the oldest of the kids, and she was the first baby-sitter Susie ever knew. Her dad moved their family to Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1962. He had been working for the IRS as a tax collector, but he passed the exam they gave him, and he was given a job in the first US government computer center. Growing up in a smallish town in WV was interesting. 

Susie went to college in Virginia to become a teacher and then moved to New Orleans to find better teaching opportunities. But the pay was so wretched that she found a better-paying job with an oil company. That’s where she met Mike, her husband of 33 years. Susie’s daughter Jo was born in New Orleans, but they moved to Houston soon after her birth. They left Houston after only four years and moved to Tulsa. When Mike was laid off in 1999 and started consulting with big oil, the family could live anywhere as long as there was an airport and a good home office. They chose Evergreen, Colorado, where they’ve been for 17 years now.

 

Julia Ember: For me, queer love stories are what come naturally

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

 

AMY TENBRINK: When did you fall in love with fantasy literature? And what do you love about it now?

Julia Ember

JULIA: I can’t remember a time before I was in love with fantasy! My mom read to me a lot when I was a kid, and we would record audio tapes (another era!) of the books we read together. I loved fantasy and fairy tales even then.

Now, I love that fantasy can be simultaneously escapist and a scathing political commentary. I love stories about secondary worlds, mythical creatures and monsters with conflicts that echo our own reality.

 

AMY: How did you decide to be an author? And in particular, how did you decide to be an author of the loveliest, most incandescent queer love stories about mermaids and unicorns and everything glittery and wonderful?

JULIA: Becoming an author was never really a conscious decision I made! I was a voracious reader as a child and teen and wrote fiction through college. I always dreamed of having something published, but in those years it wasn’t something I was actively working toward. Then, I went to graduate school and with all the reading and writing I had to do for the degree, fiction sort of fell by the wayside.

In 2014, I made the decision to leave academia as it was doing a number on my mental health. While trying to figure out what else I could possibly do, I interned for a literary agent. I started reading fiction again and remembered how much I had loved it. I got a full-time job working for a book distributor, immersed myself in the book world and started writing again.

For me, queer love stories are what come naturally. I am a queer woman myself and find writing f/f stories much easier than m/f. I wrote Unicorn Tracks, my first novella, after a traumatizing breakup when I wanted to write a sweet love story to make myself feel better. The Seafarer’s Kiss duology allowed me to explore my feelings about the line between being true to yourself as an individual and being with another person. I think that my upcoming book, Ruinsong, is probably the most romantic of my stories, written at a time when I am about to marry the love of my life.

In terms of the glitter—I’ve always loved mermaids and unicorns! Ruinsong is in many ways a love letter to the power of musical theater, so it is pretty glittery too!

 

AMY: Would you please tell us a bit about your publishing journey? You have four books out now, and I know your path to publication hasn’t always been traditional.

JULIA: I stared my publishing journey with small presses, before signing with an agent and embarking on a more traditional path. My first works were novellas, which many major publishers don’t consider to be a commercial length. Additionally, when I first started querying in 2014, f/f books weren’t considered sellable commodities either. I stopped actively querying agents pretty early because so much of the feedback was about changing the girls into friends, or how there was no market. It was really discouraging!

Small presses are often willing to take more risks on books that are less commercial or genre—many of them were pushing the envelope with totally queer ensemble casts long before major publishers were willing to even read them. Interlude Press definitely did take a risk with The Seafarer’s Kiss as it blends Norse mythology with The Little Mermaid and dystopia. The duology is technically New Adult (the protagonists are 19), which also isn’t something a lot of major publishers work with.

In 2017, I decided to start looking for an agent again as my works were getting longer, firmly into novel territory rather than novella, and the commercial market was developing for queer stories. By then, traditional publishers had become more open to LGBTQ+ stories, both because they were realizing that they could sell and because a younger, more openly queer generation of editors were putting their stamp on the industry. I was lucky enough to find an agent who was hungry for queer stories and open to my gender-bending ways! Ruinsong will be published by Macmillan (FSG) in Fall 2020.

The Seafarer's Kiss duology

 

AMY: What advice would you give to authors writing stories—about queer heroes, say, or with protagonists that are not white or skinny or neurotypical—that aren’t common in publishing today? What do you tell that awful voice in your head that says, “No one will publish this. No one will buy this. No one will read this?”

JULIA: I think 2019 is a great year to be writing these stories. Only a few years ago, when I first started querying, I got rejections that said “f/f doesn’t sell.” The last few years (and several high-profile bestsellers!) have proven that this is not the case, and publishers and agents are starting to wake up to the potential of queer stories. Books like The Priory of the Orange Tree, Wilder Girls and Girls of Paper and Fire have done so much in terms of proving to industry professionals that books about queer women can sell given an actual marketing push.

There is definitely still work to be done in the industry. I write YA, and YA imprints and editors seem to be a little ahead of where adult publishing is right now in terms of representation.

 

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

JULIA: I first came to Sirens in 2015, prior to my first publication. I had never been to a conference of any kind before, and when I read about it online, a relatively small conference full of women and nonbinary people seemed a lot less intimidating than places like BookCon or Worldcon.

I came back because I had such a great time and met so many wonderful people! Some of the bigger conventions absolutely sap my energy. I’m an introvert and the rapid fire of new people, huge booths, panels and convention spaces can leave me feeling empty for days. Sirens is the opposite. The communal meals, the more relaxed pace of panels, spaces where everyone can write together, the views of the mountains…I found it very restorative. Both times I’ve attended, I’ve gone home ready to work again.

I’ve also gotten to meet some of my literary idols in a very relaxed setting. When I came in 2015, I got to meet Sherwood Smith, whose books I read when I was a teen! It was one of my favorite meetings because she was so down to earth and lovely.

 

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?

JULIA: My mom already got a whole book dedicated to her, as did my soon-to-be wife, so I’m sure they’ll forgive me for mentioning someone else! While I was in college, I took some creative writing classes with Professor Jennifer Boylan. She was really dedicated to her students, and I still remember her letting me tackle a senior creative project to write a historical novel even though she thought it over the top! At the time, I didn’t really understand a lot of her best advice. She was very big on writing what you know and writing from the deepest places of yourself. At the time, I misconstrued that advice to mean writing autobiographical. Much later, I came to understand that she meant exploring your beliefs, truths and fears. Once I figured out how to do that, it made me a better writer and it’s advice I still think about.

 


Julia Ember currently lives in Seattle with her wife and their city menagerie of pets with literary names. She has worked as an educator, bookseller and wedding cake decorator. She is the author of The Seafarer’s Kiss duology, which was heavily influenced by Julia’s postgraduate work in Medieval Literature at the University of St Andrews. The Seafarer’s Kiss was a finalist in the Speculative Fiction category of the Bisexual Book Awards and was named a “Best Queer Book of 2017” by Book Riot. Her upcoming novel, Ruinsong, will be published by Macmillan Kids (FSG) in Fall 2020. Julia also writes scripts for games and is the author of several published novellas and short stories.

 

Juliet Grames: When you read literature from a culture other than the one you grew up in, you learn to make a habit of challenging your own assumptions

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 Juliet Grames, who will lead the reading workshop “Not All Who Wander Are Lost in Translation: A Behind-the-Scenes Discussion About Translated Literature” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

 

AMY TENBRINK: You have a B.A. in History. What drew you to that major—and what can one do with a history degree? How does having a history background help you as a reader, editor, and writer?

Juliet Grames

JULIET: I’m obsessed with historical storytelling—it’s the reason I majored in history and the reason I didn’t pursue it professionally. (Real historians aren’t supposed to look for narrative in data—in fact they’re supposed to try to reject narrative assumptions! I was going to fail at that.) There is a lot you can do with a history degree—it was one of the two most common at my college, and a lot of my cohort went into law or government jobs. I ended up devoting my life to storytelling as a writer and an editor instead, but my history background has been really helpful for developing research and analytical skills.

 

AMY: As readers, we see a lot of books shelved or classified as literary works, crime fiction, or romance novels when they could be fantasy, and vice versa. And so often, these mis-shelved works examine myths, folklore traditions, or experiences that a mainstream U.S. audience might not be familiar with. What, in your opinion, makes a work one of fantasy as opposed to something else? Do you find these categories useful or not?

JULIET: In my opinion, the single genre-defining characteristic of fantasy is worldbuilding. It’s the reason a devout SFF reader can find satisfaction in a well-crafted historical novel with no speculative elements in it. What we (fantasy readers) want is richly and responsibly developed worlds that allow us a completely immersive reading experience. Worldbuilding is the reason we as readers are willing to accept elements of the fantastical—we are there to be convinced and transported if the writer upholds their end of things.

I love and hate categories. I love and hate genre distinctions. As a crime fiction editor who has professional reasons to both be frustrated by and adore genre conventions, I appreciate the readers who devote themselves to a genre but strongly dislike when genre labels are used as disparagement.

 

AMY: You’re the Associate Publisher of Soho Press, and you also curate the award-winning Soho Crime imprint. What does being Associate Publisher entail? What has been your biggest surprise in working with crime fiction?

JULIET: As Associate Publisher my main job is helping the publisher with day-to-day big- and small-picture running of the press (things ranging from budget planning to making sure inventory of individual titles is at the right level). That’s about half my job; the other half is the editorial side, acquiring and editing the Soho Crime imprint. I was surprised ten years ago when I started at Soho to find out how much I loved crime fiction—my only preferred genre up until that point had been SFF. Now I will happily get up on my apologist soapbox about either or both!

 

AMY: Your debut novel The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna came out in May and is based on your own tight-knit Italian immigrant family. How do your experiences reading and editing international fiction and fiction in translation affect your writing process—or is it the other way around?

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna

JULIET: Reading translations is a brain-breaking and -remaking practice that every writer of any genre should engage in. When you read literature from a culture other than the one you grew up in, you learn to make a habit of challenging your own assumptions, which makes you more creative. Thinking about different frames of reference and available lexicons is a hugely important part of character building—and of course character building is the most important part of storytelling. (Editing, which requires a really granular level of applied thought about word choice and phrasing to avoid cultural imperialism, has also been extremely important to me.)

 

AMY: This fall, you’re presenting a reading workshop intensive titled “Not All Who Wander are Lost in Translation” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

JULIET: We’ll outline the translation process from country of origin through English-language publication, talking about the access points, financials, and shortcomings of our systems for encountering literature in translation. We’ll cover different ways to be involved in literature in translation for those who are interested, including as translators, as publishers, or as advocate readers. And we’ll share favorite literature in translation!

 

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?

JULIET: I have been gifted with a life jam-packed with wonderful, generous, inspiring women. I have lingered a long time here over trying to pick one of them. In the end I will go back to the beginning and tell you about my Great Aunt Connie Sanelli, who passed away in April at age 97—she desperately wanted children but was never able to have her own, and instead raised my mother and her brothers, then later me and my cousins, like we were her own children. She emigrated from an impoverished village in Italy in the 1930s and made a different life for herself here through hard work and sheer force of will. She gave me my pride in my cultural heritage, my first access to language other than English, and my devotion to telling women’s forgotten stories, which I hope I have succeeded in doing by fictionalizing hers. Thank you for offering me the chance to talk about her.

 


Juliet Grames is the associate publisher at Soho Press, where she acquires and edits a range of fiction and literature in translation, and where she curates the award-winning Soho Crime imprint. Her debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, was published in May 2019 by Ecco/HarperCollins in North America and by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.

For more information about Juliet, please visit the Soho Press website or her Twitter.

 

Nia Davenport: In the collective conscience, literature defines who matters and who is human enough to have stories told about them…

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 Nia Davenport, who will lead the reading workshop “The Danger of the Single Narrative” this fall. To learn more and register, please visit our Sirens Studio page.

Accompanying our interview is a selection of book covers Nia references in her interview below: Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves, Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels books (first in series is Angel’s Blood), Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter books (first in series is Magic Bites), and L.A. Banks’s Vampire Huntress Legend books (first in series is Minion).

 

AMY TENBRINK: Let’s start at the very beginning! You have a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, a master’s degree in public health and another in teaching, you’ve worked in public health, you currently teach both science and English to kids (and lead the Science Department), and you write fiction. How do you manage to do it all?

Nia Davenport

NIA: Haha. That is an excellent question. If I was asked this question four years ago, I would’ve said a lot of sleepless nights, cramming tasks into every spare second of my day, and forgetting to feed myself a lot of the time. I’ve learned that my former way of doing things isn’t healthy or sustainable. Now, I’ve found a better rhythm. Teaching provides me the privilege of having summers off. So, I draft new writing projects during the summer when I can give them full-time attention without running myself into the ground. I use the fall and winter, when I’m back at work, to work with my agent to revise those summer projects. For me, book edits are much less time consuming than writing initial drafts. With edits, the foundation is already laid.

Teaching is also a job that comes relatively easy for me because I have amazing students. I love what I do, and when I’m at work it doesn’t feel like actual work. Since I write a lot of Young Adult stories, it also helps me write better. I’m constantly around young adult voices, having meaningful conversations with them about real-world issues. So, it allows me to see the world from a teenager’s perspective, and I employ that cool advantage in my writing.

 

AMY: What ultimately drew you to teaching? What do you love about being in a classroom and working with students?

NIA: I was a tutor before I decided to teach. The fact that working with students as a tutor never felt like a drag and it was a job that I never dreaded going to, is what drew me to teach. I realized I have a passion for learning and working with kids. Kids are amazing. Teaching them is also a constant learning process for me. I think I learn as much from them as they do from me.

The thing I love most about being in the classroom and working with students is being able to engage them in conversations about real-world issues. So often, adults dismiss teens as not having anything intelligent or competent to say. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A lot of them see things with more clarity and intelligence than us adults.

As a teacher, it’s never my mission to just deliver instructional content to my students. I care more about if they leave my classroom having more confidence in who they are as a person and having a greater love of critical analyses, reading, and investigating new things than I do them knowing the difference between a complex sentence and a compound-complex sentence or how DNA is replicated.

 

AMY: What kinds of fantasy books do you use in your classrooms? How do you incorporate them into your curricula? How do your students respond to these books—and which ones have they loved?

Six of Crows

NIA: I teach Sophomores who are pretty mature, so I use fantasy books skewed toward older YA or adult books which fit nicely in a crossover space. I pick books with thrilling plots, a good amount of gore, intrigue, betrayal, deception, fights—you know, all the things that in my experience easily hook a good number of reluctant teen readers into loving a book. In fact, I use exclusively fantasy books in my curriculum because by the time my students get to me as sophomores, they’ve had years and years of English classes with virtually no fantasy books and they are bored to death with realistic fiction. Not that there aren’t some really amazing realistic fiction stories that have been recently published. But a lot of educators elect canon stories that lack diversity and that fail to reflect the identities and experiences of the students reading them—which fosters an aversion to books in my opinion. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir are both books that I incorporate into my curriculum every year.

An Ember in the Ashes

I use Six of Crows to teach literary elements such as symbolism, theme, tone, mood, etc. More powerfully, I use it to facilitate discussions about dealing with grief, trauma and PTSD. I also use Six of Crows to discuss themes of identity, belonging, tolerance and acceptance. It’s a book that is intentionally diverse, and it does diversity pretty well. Before we start reading the book, we talk about how literature functions as a compact between readers and society. In the collective conscience, literature defines who matters and who is human enough to have stories told about them and who can be discarded or isn’t a part of humanity enough to have stories told about them. This then segues into a discussion of why diverse storytelling matters and why kids, teens, and adults need stories that reflect their individual identities and experiences.

The Gilded Wolves

My students really enjoy our fantasy reads and many of them tell me that the books have prompted them to enjoy reading when they did not before, specifically because they’ve seen themselves within the pages of the book and that is a powerful experience.

I keep talking about Six of Crows, but it is always an automatic hit with my students. It offers a plethora of diverse protagonists that make it easy for most of my students to see themselves reflected in some way in one of them. The same is true for The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi which I used in my classroom for the first time this past year.

 

AMY: What do you look for in your personal reading? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

NIA: In my personal reading, I love books with female protagonists who refuse to be pushed around and who are fighters. Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels books, Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter books, and L.A. Banks’ Vampire Huntress Legend books are my all-time top three treasured reads in no particular order. If you’re familiar with any of these, that should give you a pretty good idea of my reading tastes. I like immersive stories with epic world-building that are rooted in mythology. I like myth and magic and paranormal creatures and worlds with powerful, ruthless beings who are lethal and brutal. I also like a pretty steamy romantic subplot.

Magic Bites Angel's Blood

 

AMY: This fall, you’re presenting a workshop intensive for readers titled “The Danger of the Single Narrative” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?

NIA: Sure! I intend to lead a discussion on the harm that’s caused when only one type of representation of an identity is depicted over and over again in books. When stories feature Black characters, are there certain tropes, conflicts, or settings we automatically expect? Furthermore, do we judge the merit of those stories by the amount of pain or trauma inflicted on Black protagonists? “The Danger of the Single Narrative” will discuss several popular SFF books written by Black authors which feature Black protagonists. We will explore the struggles, settings, and identities put forth by these works and examine why stories that do not explicitly deal with Black pain are just as valid and necessary as stories which do.

 

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?

Minion

NIA: L.A. Banks is that person for sure. Her Vampire Huntress Legend books were the first time I ever picked up a paranormal series and saw myself, a Black woman, featured in the genre I adore. I was in college, and I bought all of her books and devoured them in one summer. I’ve always had a knack for writing, and I’ve always been an avid reader, but L.A. Banks’ stories are what prompted me to start dreaming about writing my own stories professionally. Her stories didn’t just give me a Black heroine. They gave me my culture, my unique experiences as a young Black woman, and a reflection of my family and relationships and friendships in a book.

 


Nia Davenport has always harbored a love of both science and crafting stories. After college, Nia studied and worked in the public health sector before discovering a passion for teaching. As an English and Biology teacher, Nia strives to make a difference in the lives of young people, minimize disparities in education for youths of color, and help students realize their dreams and unlimited potential. As a Black writer, her goals are much the same. Nia is also a freelance reviewer for Booklist.

For more information about Nia, please visit her Twitter.

 

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.

 

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