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Joamette Gil: Exclusive Interview

We’re pleased to bring you the first in our 2021 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 2021 theme of villains! We hope these conversations will be a prelude to the ones our attendees will be having in Denver this October. Today, Sirens Communication team member Faye Bi speaks with publisher and comics creator Joamette Gil, this year’s Sirens Studio Guest of Honor

 

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

Joamette Gil Interview

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 


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

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

Fonda Lee: Exclusive Interview

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

 

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

Fonda Lee

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Fonda Lee Quote
 

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

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

 

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

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

 


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

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

Rin Chupeco: Exclusive Sirens Interview

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

 

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

Rin Chupeco Author

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

Exclusive Sirens Interview: Isabel Schechter

We’re getting to know some members of the 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 the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens communications team member Faye Bi interviews Isabel Schechter, a longtime member and builder of speculative communities!

 

FAYE BI: You have been part of science fiction and fantasy fandoms for over twenty years. What are some of the ways that fandom has evolved for you, both online and in person? What do you hope for the future of SFF spaces and fandoms?

Isabel Schechter

ISABEL SCHECHTER: The internet has done a lot to shape the evolution of fandom, but part of the draw of fandom is that no matter the technology, it’s about the ability to make connections. Before LiveJournal, Dreamwidth, Facebook, and Twitter, if I wanted to communicate with fans that weren’t local to me, I had to wait a year for a convention to reconnect with other fans. Today, I can connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

This year, because of the COVID pandemic, most conventions were cancelled or held virtually—something that would not have been feasible twenty years ago. Although it wasn’t the same as being with people in person, it did provide at least some way to connect with friends and loved ones. Hopefully some conventions will make program recordings available to all attendees—no more need to be in two panels at once! Some conventions (Sirens included) have started hosting Zoom events for convention attendees to connect with each other outside of conventions during the pandemic, and I would love to see that kind of connection continue once the pandemic is over.

I would also love to see fandom become more diverse and inclusive. WorldCon (the World Science Fiction Convention) and related fannish conventions have been working on this, albeit sometimes only because social media activism in fandom has forced them to learn from their mistakes. There is still work that needs to be done to get programming to be more reflective of and inclusive of all parts of the community. There also has to be a greater push to get WorldCon convention runners and convention site selection voters to be more open to having the convention take place in locations outside of North America.

 

FAYE: You are a member of a number of SFF communities and have attended so many SFF cons—and you’ve even written about how to create a welcoming community. Besides the POC dinner you mentioned, what are some other moments of connection that stand out? And what are some of your favorite con memories?

ISABEL: Fandom has not always been as welcoming as it is today, and it still has a long way to go in this area. RaceFail in 2009 laid bare the ugliness of racism in science fiction fandom and the science fiction industry. It was such a horrendous experience that my chest still gets tight when I think about it. That experience was the antithesis of welcoming. What came out of it, however, was a realization in White fandom that POC did exist in fandom and we needed to be treated as valued members of the community. Codes of Conduct were created and have been improved upon yearly, Con or Bust was created, and POC dinners and meetups are now regular events at some conventions.

I have been able to make connections at every convention I’ve attended. I remember being on a panel about found family and I started bawling and soon so was everyone else in the room. I’ve gotten cramps from laughing so hard at the Not Another F*cking Race Panel (a WisCon institution). I’ve been quite undignified at several WorldCons by jumping out of my seat and yelling in a most unladylike manner at the Hugo Awards ceremony because a friend just won a Hugo. I’ve also gone into a Spanish-language reading at a WorldCon thinking I hated poetry and walked out thinking I simply had to read every single poem written by one of the authors participating. I have danced at too many convention dances to count.

One of my most empowering experiences in fandom was at the 2018 WorldCon in San Jose, California. That was the year that John Picacio started the Mexicanx Initiative. There were more than fifty Mexicanx fans and creators at the convention because of the Initiative, and although I am not Mexicanx, I am a Latina, and it was affirming to be surrounded by people who spoke my language (literally), who ate the same food, and who danced to the same music. There were also so many POC (not just Mexicanx) attending the convention that we had to split up into multiple groups for the POC dinner.

 

FAYE: Along with Michi Trota, you are the editor of The WisCon Chronicles Volume 12: Boundaries and Bridges, recently available from Aqueduct Press! How did you get involved in this project? What did you love about it? Can you tell us anything about your next creative project?

ISABEL: I attended my first WisCon twenty years ago. At the time, I had no real fannish friends or connection to SFF fandom, but now WisCon has become an annual family reunion of many of the most important people in my life. I have had several essays in previous volumes of The WisCon Chronicles, and I was honored when Aqueduct Press invited me to edit this year’s volume. I have benefited from being a part of the WisCon community and I wanted others to share their experiences and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

It was important to me that the collection of essays represent the experiences of a variety of attendees, and invited Michi to share my vision to help bring to light diverse WisCon experiences. The collection includes essays from new and longtime fans and con-goers, writers at all stages of their careers, privileged and marginalized people, and even two pieces in Spanish. The part I am most proud of is knowing that I provided a space for those voices to be heard. It is my hope that they will continue to be heard.

For my next project, I would like to write about women’s friendships. Until I found WisCon, I had very few female friendships and a lot of internalized misogyny to deal with. I’m grateful to the wonderful women in fandom I’ve become friends with who have helped me grow in this area, and want to explore this aspect of women’s lives.

 

FAYE: What people might not know about you is that you are also a graduate of divinity school! What role does faith play in your SFF reading and community?

ISABEL: First, I have to say that while I believe in God, and that works for me, I don’t expect anyone else to believe the same thing. I don’t believe that my belief is the only right one, nor is my religion the only right one. And I absolutely don’t believe that atheists are incapable of being good or moral people just because they don’t believe in a higher power. Religion can be a wonderful thing that inspires people to act justly and righteously, and it can also contribute to pogroms, crusades, and inquisitions. The wonderful part is what I choose to practice.

I once heard someone at a convention say something about the role of how/why/what if in the relationship between science, science fiction, and religion that really struck me. What I took from that has helped inform my reading of SFF.

I have never believed that science and religion are mutually exclusive, and am perfectly comfortable believing that God created, well, Creation, and simultaneously knowing that evolution is real and provable. If we really are created in the image and likeness of God, then doesn’t it make sense that we should strive to learn about everything in Creation, and even do our own part in creating so as to live up to that image and likeness? Religion explains why we were created, and science explains how Creation works. And then there’s science fiction, which asks “what if?” What if we could use science to create a new world by terraforming? It would take longer than seven days, but even so. What if we could use science to go beyond reproductive technologies like IVF and create living androids? It would be more complex than using ribs, and we would have to be careful not to treat living beings as mere things to serve our needs. What if we could create a society where peace and equality were fully realized? And not just in idyllic gardens. What if?

 

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

ISABEL: I was intrigued by a hundred-person convention focused specifically on women in fantasy. I regularly attend conventions with a thousand attendees, and WorldCons with several thousand attendees, so a hundred people on such a focused subject was well outside the norm for me.

I asked a friend about her experience with Sirens, and based on her feedback, I decided to attend. Sirens’s programming is thoughtful, and I’ve learned a lot. One of my favorite program items is the one where folks from the conference committee recommend books, and I am ever so grateful that Sirens arranges shipping so I don’t have to figure out how I’m going to fit all my purchases in my luggage!

Sirens’s programming was the initial draw, but the other attendees are really why I keep coming back. I’ve met smart, nice, funny, and welcoming people at Sirens. I know that they are committed to making Sirens a place where people can come together and discuss women and fantasy literature in a thoughtful, engaged way, and they are genuinely interested in keeping the community going outside the conference.

 

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?

ISABEL: It’s simply not possible to name only one person. Although there are certain women who have played an immeasurable part in my life, I didn’t get to be who I am because of any one person or interaction. There is no one turning point—each has built on the one before.

There was my seventh and eighth grade teacher who told me I could do and be more than the narrow role my culture has assigned me. There was the friend in high school who lived her life without apologizing for having sex on her terms. There was my Jewish mentor who set an example of a Jew By Choice that was every bit as “real” as someone who had been born Jewish. And all the women in fandom that welcomed me into the community and treated me as a human being worthy to be valued.

Each of these women has been the person I needed them to be at that particular point in my life, and all those points together have shaped me into the person I am today. As I continue to find more of these kinds of women, I will grow and change, refine and expand my understand of my identity and my role in the world.

 


Questioning and rebelling against authority was frowned upon for girls in Isabel Schechter’s family. Anyone who knows Isabel is not shocked that she was considered an ill-behaved girl. Although other parents punished their children’s inappropriate behavior by revoking their television privileges or not allowing them to go out with friends, Isabel’s mother tried to be more strategic and instead revoked Isabel’s library privileges. Sadly for Isabel’s mother, this did not result in good behavior and instead led Isabel to check out the maximum number of library books allowed at one time (twenty-one!) and then stash them around the house for when the need arose. It arose quite often.

Isabel’s childhood love of books led her to discover the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, a popular gateway drug to science fiction and fantasy. Even though she was an avid reader, Isabel did not encounter organized science fiction fandom until adulthood. In the twenty-five years since then, she has been attending fannish conventions, including twenty years attending WisCon (the foremost feminist science fiction convention), and is a frequent panelist at conventions. Isabel has also volunteered as staff for a variety of conventions, including WisCon, WorldCon, and the successful bid to bring the 2017 North American Science Fiction (NASFiC) to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Isabel’s essays on race and representation in science fiction and fantasy have been published in Invisible 2: Essays on Race and Representation in SF/F, Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and several volumes of the WisCon Chronicles; and she is coeditor of The WisCon Chronicles Volume 12: Boundaries and Bridges. She is Puerto Rican, feminist, child-free, Jewish, vegetarian, and a Midwesterner living in Southern California, and embraces the opportunity to represent the fact that no one of those identities excludes any of the others.

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

Diana Pho: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re getting to know some members of the 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 the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens communications team member Faye Bi interviews Diana Pho, a speculative fiction editor, playwright, and scholar!

 

FAYE BI: Diana! People know you as a highly acclaimed speculative fiction editor, formerly of Tor, now at Serial Box. As the handler and curator of several award-winning novels (including some of our favorites here at Sirens), what do you most enjoy about editing?

Diana Pho

DIANA PHO: Hi Faye! Thanks for bringing me in to chat on the Sirens blog. 😊

I’m a reader who enjoys thinking about and picking apart story-worlds. I love to do a deep dive into how a fictional society is structured, why a magic system works that way, what happens when a certain tech changes a person’s life, etc. My favorite moments in editing is hitting that “ah-ha!”—whether it’s by myself or when talking to an author—about how to address an aspect of the manuscript that isn’t quite working. Writers and artists often talk about “being in the flow”: when they get a burst of sudden inspiration or they become so swept up in the immersive work that hours pass by in a flash.

The same thing happens to me when doing a developmental edit. Once I get my mind wrapped around a story, I get so involved in the building blocks of the narrative—re-tooling a line edit, constructing an editorial letter, or sorting out a reverse outline—that it is its own creative high. I don’t think writers know how much editing is an artform in itself. A “good editing day” for me is a combination of deep thought, strong soundboarding between myself and the text (and the author!), and having sudden epiphanies about characterization. I just love being in that headspace.

 

FAYE: What’s more exciting—the acquisitions or the development? What are some things you always look for in a manuscript or project?

DIANA: As much as I touted my love of developmental, I think acquisitions has a different type of excitement. I read manuscripts first as a reader. Is it interesting? It is telling me something worthwhile about the world, the human condition? Am I entertained? Did I have a strong emotional reaction worth having from the text? So for acquisitions, I read with anticipation: I want to be surprised, to be entertained, to feel invested in these characters, to be introduced to new worlds or ideas that stay with me after the last page. And if I’m satisfied after the cold read, then I think as an editor: how can I make this manuscript even better?

Any project that can answer those questions for me is a project worth working on. Once I’m pondering how to improve the manuscript, then on some level I’m already sold on the book.

For a more “Hey, these are the SFFH genres I’m looking to acquire” answer, my Manuscript Wishlist Profile is where I keep those updates.

 

FAYE: And what is one thing you’ve always wanted to tell your marketing colleagues?

DIANA: I tell everyone this, not just marketing: My job as an editor is to make sure that my authors’ stories can be the ones people need to hear, right now, for whatever reason. We build our communities out of the stories we tell about ourselves. No story is “too small” or “too niche” to be without a reader who needs it—and to have that story impact their life.

 

FAYE: What people might not know about you is that you have a master’s degree in performance studies and that you are also a playwright. What inspired you to pursue this field of study, and how does it augment your role as an editor and fan?

DIANA: Surprise, surprise, I’m a theater geek as well as a book nerd! I have a background in theater stemming from my first plays written and acted in high school. In undergrad, I was part of an Asian-American performance troupe and won several department awards for my plays. Through my twenties, I acted as part of a troupe of steampunk performers, under the persona of Ay-leen the Peacemaker—and my play about her character and time travel was published in the Journal for Neo-Victorian Studies a few years ago.

Theater, performance, and fandom go hand-in-hand. You have cosplay, convention personas, LARPing, filking, and so many other types of performance in SFF spaces. In fact, it was my curiosity about steampunk performance by people of color which subverts the ideas of imperialism and colonialism that started me on the journey to get my master’s in performance studies. Theater and playwriting techniques also inform how I edit, and I talk a little about that in this guest post for Grammar Girl.

 

FAYE: Please also tell us a little bit about Mimicry, and if we’ll get a table read soon! And finally—what are you working on these days?

DIANA: Mimicry is a short play about Asian-American identity as a fluid construct that outsiders like to place their assumptions upon. It’s also about how the Asian-American community undergoes a sort of “imposter syndrome” in the battle to recognize one’s own ethnic authenticity.

I’m not currently working on my own creative projects right now—as you can tell, editing takes a lot of creative juices to do effectively. But I know that “Zoom theater” has become a thing these days so who knows what that might inspire!

 

FAYE: One of your passion projects is the steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, which you started in 2009 after a series of discussions in the SFF community on non-Eurocentric representation within the genre. It seems that the conversations you were hosting 10+ years ago are more relevant than ever, as we continue to interrogate historically white spaces in every aspect of a book’s life cycle: writing, publishing, bookselling, gatekeeping, and so on. In what ways has the conversation around inclusion advanced? These days, are you more frustrated or hopeful? And how important is language and vocabulary necessary in having these critical conversations?

DIANA: It’s notable that you pointed out that it’s been a decade since I first started talking publicly about representation and inclusion in publishing, and now in 2020, we are still having this conversation. I think about the dialogue around diversity as cyclical: Marginalized people speak out, some significant changes are made, backlash happens concerning those changes, and whatever progress that has been made takes two steps back. But there is always that one step forward, and every time this conversation happens, the bar is raised in social consciousness. I don’t have to repeatedly explain how colorblind racism is a thing, for example, or that white (and straight and cis and able-bodied and male) privilege exists, and how privilege shouldn’t be a guilt point, but acts as an entry-point for collaborators to help the oppressed.

But having this convo repeatedly is a point of burnout for many advocates, including myself. I’m hopeful, however, that people are getting the point faster and in light of recent protests, able to act more immediately with direct and material actions, not just lip-service.

At this point in time, I think it is even more important to pay attention to language: how it can be used to clarify or manipulate. How racism and fascism work together often to change the language goalposts so oppression “doesn’t sound evil.” At worst, people squabble over semantics over how “both sides are just as bad” over actually seeing what others are doing to promote and instigate harm.

I also think about Spivak’s idea of “Can the subaltern speak?”: about whether a disenfranchised and oppressed person who has no political voice can ever find agency to do so, lest others speak for them. Her whole essay is great, though dense. What always struck me as the essay’s most memorable moment is the tragic real-life story she includes in the final section. A servant girl is asked to commit a political assassination but refuses to do so; she kills herself while menstruating, specifically to show on her body that she was not doing so because of illicit pregnancy (or out of sati), but because she cannot commit this assassination. Her action, in that instant, was the only way she could speak. After her death, however, people still assumed she died because of a love affair gone wrong.

That story reminds me how actions speak louder than words, and when they are made by the disenfranchised, it is because there is no other way they can speak out. These are the days for actions, even if they risk being misinterpreted.

 

FAYE: You’ve been attending and speaking at conventions since 2011, in your various roles as editor, scholar, and fan. What do you love about cons? Can you share with us a few of your favorite con moments?

DIANA: In better times, I really hope to have in-person conventions again! When conventions are run well (which includes an enforced anti-harassment policy and safer spaces for marginalized groups to connect), I think of them as welcome places for new imaginations to collide, ideas to form from serendipity, and gathering nests of social energy.

I proposed to my wife at a convention, at the tail-end of a steampunk fashion show we were both modeling at. Nothing can top that memory, I suppose!

 

FAYE: Why did you first decide to come to Sirens?

DIANA: I first heard about Sirens from my old colleagues at Tor as being a welcoming femme-positive space that combined the best qualities of a fan convention with the intellectual rigor of an academic conference. They kept raving about how great the programming was, and how intimate and welcoming the conference was toward new people. I love attending new conferences and signed up right then.

 

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?

DIANA: I don’t think I would be the SFF reader and editor I am today if it wasn’t for K. A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, to be honest. Reading that series introduced me to the concept of fandom life, especially online fandom life, as well as being about a diverse group of kids fighting a secret alien invasion. That series tackled a lot of topics you didn’t expect in a middle-grade series and didn’t talk down to its readership either. I read a lot of SFF books as a kid but it was those books that made me start writing fan fiction, join forums, make internet friends that I’m still friends with, and showed me how genre stories can speak to greater sociopolitical matters in our world. So I will always appreciate K. A. Applegate for creating those books.

 


Diana Pho is a queer Vietnamese-American independent scholar, playwright, and Hugo Award-nominated fiction editor. She has over a decade of experience in traditional, Big Five publishing, including Tor Books, Tor.com Publishing, and the Science Fiction Book Club. Diana currently works as story producer at Serial Box developing unique and cutting-edge science fiction and fantasy stories. Additionally, she has a double bachelor’s degree in English and Russian literature from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s in performance studies from New York University. Diana’s academic work includes critical analysis of the role of race in fashion, performance, and the media, in addition to pieces focusing on fan studies and fan communities.

For several years, she has traveled the country as a professional convention speaker about the intersection of social justice and fandom. In the steampunk community, she is best-known for running Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning, US-based blog on multicultural steampunk. She has been interviewed for many media outlets about fandom, including CBS’s Inside Edition, MSN.com, BBC America, the Travel Channel, HGTV, and the Science Channel. You can follow her on Twitter @writersyndrome and learn more about her work at dianampho.com.

Photo credit: Gerry O’Brien

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

Rine Karr: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re getting to know some members of the 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 the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens co-chair Manda Lewis interviews Rine Karr, a reader, writer, copy editor, and tea-lover who first attended Sirens just last year!

 

MANDA LEWIS: When did you fall in love with fantasy literature? What do you love about it?

Rine Karr

RINE KARR: Oh my gosh, I don’t really know exactly when I fell in love with fantasy literature. I was lucky to be raised by bookworms. My parents met playing D&D, which says a lot about how imaginative my family can be. As a child, I remember poring over my mum’s unicorn coffee table books, reading lots of fairy tales, Greek and Roman myths, and fantasy books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I also watched a lot of fantasy films like The Princess Bride, Willow, and The Last Unicorn. I somehow missed out on the Song of the Lioness series, but I read other fantasy books like A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Prydain, The Worlds of Chrestomanci, Redwall, lots of Point Fantasy books, as well as my parents’ Science Fiction Book Club books. I was close to the target age for Harry Potter when it came out, so I read those, of course (although I don’t really want to acknowledge J. K. Rowling right now). I was also obsessed with the His Dark Materials trilogy. Strangely, I didn’t read any Tolkien until after the Lord of the Rings movies were released, although, at the time, I think I got into those mostly because of Legolas!

Regarding what I love about fantasy literature, I could probably write an entire thesis on this topic. I think that back when I was a kid, although now too, I loved fantasy stories because they were a means of escape. There are times—like now—when life can be very difficult. Fantasy stories can transport us away from our problems, even if for only a little while. Fantasy stories are exciting. They often portray better worlds. But even if they don’t portray better worlds, fantasy stories show us how to be better in the face of injustices and truly frightening things. There have been many times when I’ve found solace and strength in the actions of a character in a fantasy story. Ella in Ella Enchanted, for instance, was an important heroine for me when I was a child.

 

MANDA: Close your eyes and imagine: You are in your ideal reading space, the aroma of your favorite beverage is wafting toward you, and you are holding a favorite book. Where are you? What elements are important to creating this space for you? And how much does creating this space affect your reading experience?

RINE: If I were to close my eyes and imagine the perfect reading space, it would be a private library with a big comfy chair to read in and a forest or a lake or the ocean outside the window. There would be tea—and lots of it—and probably a thick fantasy book in my lap. Unfortunately, I don’t really have a space like that right now. I live in a city in a one-bedroom apartment that is a bit of a mess currently because of the pandemic and having to find space for both myself and my partner to work from home. Most of the time, I read on the couch or in bed before bedtime. Reading is not really a ritual practice for me—it’s just something I always do! I read during quiet moments at work. I read on my lunch hour. I read while my food is cooking. I read whenever I can. Before the pandemic, I read a lot on my commute, both e-books and audiobooks on my phone. I think that I’ve learned how to make both space and time for reading, and that I hardly think about the atmosphere within which I read anymore out of necessity. Still, I’d love to have a devoted reading space in my home someday.

 

MANDA: I’m curious if your background in anthropology affects how you approach reading. Do you enjoy stories where there is a strong depth to the societies and the history of the world? Is it irksome when it’s not believable—and what makes it not believable for you?

RINE: My background in anthropology probably does affect how I approach reading, although it has been a long time since I’ve studied anthropology. It was one of my majors in undergrad, the other being religious studies. Also, my anthropology coursework focused more on archaeology, especially the science of it—lots of digging in the ground, learning how to use plumb bobs and such. So, when I see stories about archaeologists, I do often find it irksome when they’re portrayed like Indiana Jones, even though I do like Indy. I can be pretty critical of stories portraying archaeologists having wild adventures and basically stealing from other cultures. Archaeologists in the past did sometimes do these things, but good archaeologists now don’t.

But anyway, I think that I do enjoy stories that have a strong depth to the societies and the history of the world. I’ve always been imaginative and can suspend my disbelief, but I do find myself lauding books that have strong worldbuilding. When the world in a story is believable, when it feels more concrete, it makes it easier for me to fall into that story. Of course, believability is a difficult quality to describe because it can be subjective and different for everyone. But for me, I think it’s a sense of logic. I think that’s why, as an adult, I don’t really enjoy fairy tales or fairy-tale retellings as much as I did as a child. I want concrete answers about why something is happening in a story, and fairy tales don’t often explain why something is happening.

For example, I know a lot of people loved This Is How You Lose the Time War, but I struggled with it. I know the purpose of this story is the love story and the beautiful prose—which is thoughtfully written—but I couldn’t help but wonder about the future, the war, and the mechanics of time travel as I read this story. I wanted to know all of the things, which is why perhaps a book like Ancillary Justice is more my style. There’s a lot in Ancillary Justice that Ann Leckie doesn’t tell us—after all I don’t want all the answers—but there is so much about Radch culture—the tea, the deities, the gloves, Radch views on purity and impurity, their views regarding gender, the list goes on and on—that she does give. I really do enjoy that kind of worldbuilding!

 

MANDA: You recently created a wonderful dragon-themed reading list for Sirens. Have you come across a depiction of a dragon that you would befriend and wish to have in your daily life? If so, who and from what book? If not, what dragon qualities make you glad they are on the page and not in your living room?

RINE: I’m going to cheat a little with this question because one of my favorite dragons comes from a film and not a book, but…I can’t help it! I think my favorite dragon is Haku from Spirited Away. His love for Chihiro makes my heart melt. Also, I’ve always liked how Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki weaved Japanese Shinto and Buddhist folklore into the worldbuilding for Spirited Away, especially Haku’s true identity, which I won’t reveal here to avoid spoilers, but which is reminiscent of my own feelings regarding nature and how humans, no matter what we do, will always be part of the natural world.

 

MANDA: Why did you first decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens the next year?

RINE: If I recall correctly, I first heard about Sirens from V. E. Schwab’s Twitter. I think it was 2017, the year Schwab attended as a guest. At the time, I was still just getting into science fiction and fantasy writing, although I was of course reading voraciously as I always have. So, I wasn’t sure if Sirens was for me. I was definitely intrigued by the con, especially because of how Sirens focuses on women and nonbinary people in SFF. I’d thought about attending a local SFF writing convention before, but I’d decided against it because I didn’t feel comfortable going alone into what felt like a highly male-centered space. In the end, when Sirens moved down from the mountains and into Denver, I knew I wanted to attend because that made it much easier and more affordable for me to get there. I decided to return because although I only dipped my toe in last year, I had a wonderful time. I’d like to continue meeting more fellow SFF lovers, and I’d like to contribute more to the Sirens community in the future. I really want to support Sirens’s mission.

 

MANDA: 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?

RINE: This is such a difficult question because there have been so many wonderful women who have changed my life—my mum, my sister, my grandmothers, my maternal great-aunt, my mother-in-law, one of my partner’s aunts, a boss I had in the past, and a few Dharma friends that I have. All of these people, and more, have for one reason or another shaped who I am today. The ways in which they’ve changed my life are largely personal, but I think each of them has taught me in their own way how to find and kindle my inner strength, and many of them have taught me how to move with confidence in a world that so often pressures women and nonbinary people to conform to certain social conventions, many conventions of which I’ve learned to no longer accept. Basically, many of these people have taught me how to keep up the good fight against the patriarchy!

If I were to pick a fantasy author specifically who has changed my life recently, I think I’d pick someone I mentioned earlier: V. E. Schwab. When I was beginning to get back into reading fantasy again after a long break from it (grad school can unfortunately do this to people) and I was starting to work on writing my own fantasy stories too, a friend—one who has also changed my life—introduced me to the Shades of Magic series, and from that time on, I’ve primarily read fantasy stories written by women and nonbinary authors. I had finally realized with Schwab’s series that these are the types of stories that I wanted and needed—stories by and about women and nonbinary protagonists who are allowed to be who they are no matter what. Stories that remind me of the stories I read as a child. Stories like those of Gail Carson Levine, Diane Duane, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, and K. A. Applegate, but ones written by my own generation of women and nonbinary writers.

 


Rine Karr is a writer and aspiring novelist by moonlight and a copy editor by daylight, with a background in anthropology/archaeology, international human rights, and Buddhist studies/art history. When Rine is not writing or otherwise working, she can be most often found reading books and drinking tea. She also loves to travel, and her heart is located somewhere between Hong Kong and London, although Rine currently lives in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains with her partner. She’s also currently—and almost always—in the midst of writing a novel.

Manda Lewis served as an engineer in the Air Force for seven years. She currently works for a children’s museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, hosting after-hours special events. She is also the caretaker of two small bundles of chaos. Manda has always made it a habit to draw, color, and doodle on just about everything within reach and loves themes far more than anyone really should. She has been a volunteer for Narrate Conferences since 2007.

Adriana De Persia Colón: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re getting to know some members of the 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 the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink interviews Adriana De Persia Colón, an accomplished scholar who just earned her master’s degree in English Education!

 

AMY TENBRINK: You just completed your master’s degree in English Education at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, with a focus on studying the connections between books and society. Would you please tell us a bit about your scholarship and why you find that studying these connections is so crucial?

Adriana De Persia Colón

ADRIANA DE PERSIA COLÓN: My thesis scholarship mostly focused on twentieth-century Caribbean reimaginings of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the anti-colonial tradition of resisting the rule and influence of Western empires. Books—stories—play a role in shaping our consciousness, the way we see ourselves and those around us. Puerto Rico is a nation under US rule, previously under Spanish empire rule, so I was interested in exploring the ways stories colonize us or help us break free and continue to give us agency, collectively and/or individually.

 

AMY: Next up for you is heading to the University of Cambridge in the fall to pursue your Ph.D. in Education at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature! How do you plan to focus your work while you’re there?

ADRIANA: Whether I am physically present there or at home in Puerto Rico is a big question due to COVID-19. My original proposal was about reimagining villainy in Latinx YA fantasy as a framework that empowers marginalized characters and BIPOC. While working with villains is still in my plans, my focus shifted to Boricua YA stories specifically and Puerto Rico’s relationship to the world. Exploring the ways characters navigate ethnoracial identities, belonging, and agency are some areas that interest me.

 

AMY: What makes fantasy—and perhaps science fiction—literature special to you? What does this genre provide that you find that others don’t?

ADRIANA: I love that SFF is often intersecting with various genres because it’s so malleable. I also love that SFF can tackle complex issues such as imperialism and colonialism, for example, while having action-packed plots and adventures.

 

AMY: What do you hope for the future of fantasy literature—and the future of scholarship related to fantasy literature?

ADRIANA: I want more Boricua high fantasy and fantasy set in Puerto Rico by BIPOC Boricuas! Puerto Rico, like the rest of the world, is complex, with tons going on all the time, and I’d love to see all those narratives in all the languages that are spoken on the archipelago. As for the scholarship, that we continue to center and credit BIPOC voices as well.

 

AMY: Why did you decide to come to Sirens?

ADRIANA: An author’s tweet got me interested in Sirens a few years back. There are a few reasons why I decided to attend this year: the theme of villains, getting to hear from some powerhouses in fantasy, connecting with the community, and Sirens’s emphasis on making sure all voices are heard.

 

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?

ADRIANA: My mom. Wouldn’t be where I am without her.

 


Adriana De Persia Colón is a 2019-2020 Highlights Foundation Fellow. She has an MA from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. She starts her PhD at the University of Cambridge in the fall of 2020.

Traci-Anne Canada: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re getting to know some members of the 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 the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens Editor and Conference Administrator Candice Lindstrom interviews Traci-Anne Canada, a reader, teacher, and writer!

 

CANDICE LINDSTROM: You’re a teacher of both English and journalism. As you’re teaching, especially when real-world events are challenging or downright awful, what is your approach in selecting the books you ask your students to read? Do you look for different elements in the books that you select for your students than you might in a book you would read for yourself?

Traci-Anne Canada

TRACI-ANNE CANADA: I actually didn’t get to teach journalism. *sad face* I am in one of those counties that tells teachers for the most part what they are going to teach, but we are also very strongly encouraged to have classroom libraries. Between me personally buying books (I weep at how much I spend on my kids lol) and the donations I have gotten from my Amazon Wishlist and my connections in publishing, I have managed to get a sizable library. I spend the semester doing one-on-one book dates with students, pairing them with books based on movies or shows they enjoy, trying to get them to see that books can be just as fun. And since I predominately teach Black and Brown students, I try to show they can be heroes and heroines too.

My biggest way to help share books with students is our end-of-the-semester project, where they get to choose whatever book they want to do a multi-tiered project. That is one of the few times in their educational career where they get to choose what they will read. We will do a whole thing where they get to explore books and look at what could interest them. I believe it fosters an enjoyment of reading, which the forcing of reading certain books does not create.

As for looking at elements in the books, I try to figure out what the student likes and pair them with a book. It is less about what I would read myself, though many of the books on my shelves are ones I read.

 

CANDICE: Do you use fantasy and science fiction literature in your classroom? If so, how do your students respond to that—and do they respond differently than they might to the more traditional course curriculum?

TRACI-ANNE: Unfortunately, because we do not get to choose our own books to teach, I do not teach much science fiction or fantasy. We occasionally get to explore folktales, which can have fantasy elements. Some students do choose SFF books for their final project. I would love to be able to teach SFF and am currently plotting ways to slide it into my curriculum more. 😉

 

CANDICE: As a reader, a teacher, and a writer, what do you wish for the future of fantasy and science fiction literature?

TRACI-ANNE: I would love to see more inclusivity. Not just with race and LGBTQ+ characters, but different faiths and people who are differently abled. Since I write kidlit, I mostly want kids from all walks of life to be able to see themselves. Looking at the 2019 Cooperative Children’s Book Center stats, there are more books with cars/animals/inanimate objects as main characters than there are of all people of color combined. That is a problem and I think it should be a priority that we get more representation. While the CCBC is only about general kidlit, I believe that we would see even worse stats in SFF and the adult realm.

 

CANDICE: As a storyteller—and English teacher—do you think the way the world tells stories has changed? Has the audience changed? Perhaps neither or both?

TRACI-ANNE: I believe that the perception of the way the world tells stories has changed. With more cultures getting to tell their own stories, they are able to bring their storytelling styles to a wider audience. There is also the resurgence of oral storytelling that podcasts bring, and the short form of serials making a comeback and lending a hand in changing the way people tell stories. I don’t know if the audience has changed much. For years Black women have been the highest reading demographic and I just hope that publishing realizes this eventually.

 

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

TRACI-ANNE: I first decided to come to Sirens because my friend told me about a conference that focused on women and nonbinary people in SFF and I am a woman that reads and writes SFF so I was like, I’m in! I keep coming back because the community is so close and supportive and I love the vibe. It is a place I feel free to be me.

 

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

TRACI-ANNE: I always say that the reason I became a teacher is because of my AP Literature teacher, Dr. Rhone. She inspired such a love for books in me and gave me the confidence I needed to dive into books. I’m not sure I would be writing or teaching literature without her.

 


Traci-Anne Canada is a high school literature teacher that moonlights as an MG and YA writer. She has been a part of the literary community for several years, particularly in the kidlit, romance, and Black literature sectors. She also runs a YouTube channel about books and writing. She lives in Atlanta, but can be found online on Twitter at @TraciAnneCan.

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

Danielle Cicchetti: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re getting to know some members of the 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 the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens co-chair Manda Lewis interviews Danielle Cicchetti—who, we have to say, reads way more books than you do!

 

MANDA LEWIS: When did you fall in love with fantasy literature? What do you love about it?

DANIELLE CICCHETTI: I fell in love with fantasy as a teenager—my dad gave me a fantasy novel by Eddings when I was fourteen and I felt like I had found a gateway to another world. Looking back, it also introduced me to the concept of a found family which is still one of my favorite tropes today. I love the places fantasy can take you, the people you can meet along the way, and how much it shows you that love is a strong force that comes in many forms. It is also how I found my new family as an adult—my book clubs, my travel companions, my fellow adventurers in life. Fantasy literature helped me find the words to express who I am as well as find the people who understand those words.

 

MANDA: What do you look for in your reading? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you? Has that changed over the course of your life?

DANIELLE: I can never say it enough: I love a good found family. I was always a bit “weird” growing up and while I wasn’t necessarily ashamed of it, I did feel like an outsider. Stories where that weirdo found other weirdos that appreciated them will forever have a place in my heart (and on my shelf!). Becky Chambers, Sarah Gailey, and Möira Fowley-Doyle are some favorites for a good found family. For worldbuilding, I don’t care about the kind of world I am taken to because a good writer can make even the world I see around me feel completely different. Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia was just as transporting for me as A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney or The Deep by Rivers Solomon.

My taste has definitely changed over the years and a lot of it has to do with exposure. I love my father for introducing me to fantasy literature, but I wish he had known about Tamora Pierce as well as Eddings or Tolkien. These days, I look for books by women, nonbinary people, and BIPOC, not only because I tend to like the stories better, but also because I want to do what I can to make sure they continue to be published and are given more opportunities to do so.

 

MANDA: How many books do you read a year? Do you finish them all? If you don’t—gasp—what are the factors in whether you decide to finish a book or not?

DANIELLE: I read between 150 and 170 books a year. I would say I finish 99% of those. The ones I do not finish are those that have some element of a story that makes me angry or I get so bored that I dread having to pick up the book again. For book-club books (I am in three), I tend to listen to the audio version on a high speed while doing something else.

One example is a case where a book-club selection abused, maligned, and generally mistreated women as well as having the murder of a young child. This is a book club with content warnings required and this book’s warning had only “violence.” I finished the book simply so I could later list all the content warnings that should have been there.

 

MANDA: You’re a long-time attendee of Sirens. How has this conference or this community changed your reading—or even your approach to reading?

DANIELLE: I have found some of my favorite authors because of Sirens, both from the reading lists and the attendees. I then seek out books that those people have read and enjoyed. I also share the books I love, and people from those three book clubs quite often go and read them. I have become so conscious of how the books and media we discuss can affect the books and media that others consume, so I try to share the good works I consume as much as possible.

I had also mostly converted to primarily buying ebooks before my first Sirens. I now have so many full shelves…but I also do my best to pass along extra copies (it happens) and those I do not love to those who will love them.

 

MANDA: Speaking of Sirens, why did you first decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens?

DANIELLE: I first found out about Sirens from a Book Riot article about different yearly reading challenges. Then I saw the guest list, and decided “Why not?” I originally planned the trip on my own, as I enjoy taking solo vacations from time to time. When I saw the programming list, I was even more excited. It was the first event I went to where it was hard to choose between overlapping programming. It was a year that Sirens doubled in size, but I never felt like an outsider. It was the first time that I was told I was valuable as a reader.

I came back because it was great. And I brought friends my second year! They heard how I talked about the experience, and they wanted to feel some of that magic. And oh goodness, did they. The following year, our group grew again. We all speak of the wonderful experience that is Sirens and look for others to share it with that we know will appreciate it as we do.

 

MANDA: 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?

DANIELLE: One character from my formative years that has very much stuck with me is Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5. She was the only woman on a command staff, grew up in a non-Christian tradition, had a dangerous secret….but she refused to ever be a victim or seen as weak. Sometimes her fear of perceived weakness worked to her detriment, but she was a strong woman who showed me early in life that building your career and making your own family can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience. She is not the person I wanted to be growing up, but ending up a lot like her is not something I regret at all.

 


Danielle Cicchetti is an avid reader and lifelong geek. She works a desk job with numbers by day, and uses the free time that gives her to travel, read the never-ending pile of amazing books on her many lists, and encourage friends to join her on her latest adventure. She is a Southern California native but still runs in fear from the sun.

Manda Lewis served as an engineer in the Air Force for seven years. She currently works for a children’s museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, hosting after-hours special events. She is also the caretaker of two small bundles of chaos. Manda has always made it a habit to draw, color, and doodle on just about everything within reach and loves themes far more than anyone really should. She has been a volunteer for Narrate Conferences since 2007.

Nicole Brinkley: Exclusive Sirens Interview

We’re getting to know some members of the 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 the Sirens community is full of fascinating, accomplished individuals with much to share—and we hope you’ll join us someday!

Today, Sirens research coordinator and master of books Kallyn Hunter interviews bookseller and all-around book genius Nicole Brinkley.

 

KALLYN HUNTER: How and when did you fall in love with fantasy—or perhaps science fiction—literature? What does this genre mean to you?

NICOLE BRINKLEY:The real world is difficult enough, especially right now, and especially as somebody with an anxiety disorder. Fantasy allows escapism: both to take a break from the world I often find so overwhelming and to process the issues within this world in a way that doesn’t immediately stress.

It’s what I’ve loved since I was little. Whenever we visited our local mall as a child, I would hightail it to our Waldenbooks and curl up in a corner, working my way through the entire Secrets of Droon series. I combed through the stacks of our three local libraries, hunting for something to satiate my need for the magical. One of my most vivid memories is finding Through Wolf’s Eyes by Jane Lindskold in the deep recesses of the adult section and falling in love with it.

Fantasy is where my heart lies. It’s everything I love about our world and everything I want this world to be. It challenges me to be better and to make the world around me better . . . while keeping me sane at the same time.

 

KALLYN: In an essay you wrote for Tor.com last fall, you spoke so passionately about the evolution of the science fiction and fantasy shelves in bookstores—and about how readers are changing the industry, from what gets published to what is available in bookstores. As a bookseller—and as, let’s not forget, a reader—what do you hope for the future of the business of SFF books?

NICOLE: It’s weird to think that I want SFF to become more “mainstream,” considering how popular sci-fi and fantasy media is. Marvel films and shows like Game of Thrones are some of the biggest moneymakers in the world. Yet, within the bookselling community, SFF books are often relegated to the sidelines. The success of books within those communities are exceptions, not rules—and often, those successes are considered literary books with a dash of magic, not real fantasy. (That’s why you see Erin Morgenstern so often shelved in general fiction and not relegated to the SFF sections of bookstores.)

Within the world of bookselling, I want to see more people reading SFF. Not just books like Morgenstern’s, where booksellers can pretend they’re not reading SFF, but books deep within the genre: Leckie and Jemisin and Carriger and Okorafor and McGuire. I want to see them upheld and hand-sold and brought to bookselling conferences.

Within the world of publishing, I want to see SFF pushed more at bookselling conferences—but I also want to see more inclusive, joyous books published. Right now, books by and about people of color, and books by and about queer folks, and especially books where those identities intersect—they’re often relegated into a more torturous sort of story. L.L. McKinney talked about this quite elegantly on Tor.com. I don’t just want books about queer folks that are parallels for homophobia in our own world, and I don’t just want books about people of color where they’re still struggling against magical racism or other issues. I want books that are genuinely joyous, more in the vein of the Wayward Children series or The House in the Cerulean Sea or Binti: where genuine joy is taken in your identity, where it’s not a negative to be explored, where it affects the story without being an obstacle to overcome.

Bring me joyous fantastical stories, and make them mainstream.

 

KALLYN: You are an amazing hand-seller of books: all sorts of books to all sorts of people. What’s your approach? How do you match a reader with the right book?

NICOLE: I did a deep dive into the art of hand-selling over on my Patreon! Having a wide knowledge of books obviously helps, but the most important thing is to talk to the person looking for the book. You want to find books that match what a specific reader is in the mood for—and in order to do that, you need to ask questions. What books have you read recently and liked? What are you in the mood for? Do you prefer something realistic or something more fantasy? Serious or funny? How old are you? What other things do you like that aren’t books?

As a bookseller, it’s not about taking a specific book and selling it to anybody. The whole art of hand-selling resides in matching a reader to the book they want, the book that is appropriate for them, not just what you read most recently. (And yes: that does mean simultaneously hand-selling directly to children who will be reading the book and the parents with the wallet trying to guide their reading. High charisma rolls are necessary in the RPG game of bookselling, baby!)

And here’s a secret for authors: It’s totally okay to say, “Oh, I don’t think my book is what you’re in the mood for. It’s about X. But you’ll love Y!” It shows that you’re listening to the reader and that you understand the kinds of books they do like—which makes them more likely to pick up your books in the future when they do want to read them, rather than trying to weasel your way in when it’s not quite the right fit. Hand-selling can be a long game, too.

 

KALLYN: You were one of the founders of the (now-discontinued) YA Interrobang, which focused on news, features, and analysis of all things YA books. Why do you find that work like this is important? Why is creating and facilitating these conversations something that you poured so much of yourself into for so long?

NICOLE: When we love something, it’s not enough to accept it. We should want to make it better. We should want to challenge it as much as we want to embrace it. It’s why I’m so hard on the bookselling community nowadays, and it’s why I spent so long on YA Interrobang informing people about YA, talking about the gaps in the market, and uplifting authors and other voices trying to fill those gaps.

I haven’t stopped having those discussions: I’ve simply switched the way in which I have them. While I still actively discuss literature in public on Instagram or through articles on other websites, I also do a lot of work within my own communities: researching, discussing, doing back-channel pushes and trying to make change in more subtle and more nuanced ways. (As we all know, social media and short blog posts are not always the best place for nuance!) I’m also still actively trying to learn more and do better, which means being quieter and listening and reading books like The Dark Fantastic.

We can all do better, and be more inclusive, and we all still have more to learn.

 

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

NICOLE: I eyed Sirens for a long time and didn’t have the funds to go—and then the incredible Katherine Locke sponsored a spot for me, paying for my entire trip when they realized they were no longer able to attend.

I absolutely fell in love.

In college, I joined our college chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance: Dumbledore’s Army of New Paltz. It was a group full of thoughtful queer people who used their love of SFF to try and make the world a better place, and they’re some of my best friends to this day.

(Hey, J.K. Rowling, if you’re reading this: trans women are women! Women aren’t the only people who have periods and get pregnant! You’re [redacted].)

Attending Sirens is the closest vibe I’ve ever come to that group. It’s a thoughtful, inclusive space that focuses on fantasy and fandom while pushing to make those spaces better. I immediately felt comfortable . . . and the journal full of notes I took from my time there challenged my brain in exactly the right way.

 

KALLYN: 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?

NICOLE: I’ve met so many incredible people over the past few years, especially current and former booksellers: Rebecca Kim Wells, and Stephanie Heinz, and Stephanie Appell, and Read Davison, and Clarissa Hadge.

But if I’m going to tout one person who has changed my life especially within the realm of SFF, it’s gotta be Abby Rauscher. Abby is the kidlit buyer at Books are Magic in NYC, but more importantly, they’ve become one of my best friends over the past few years. They’re brilliant and smart, and their taste in SFF is superb—but they’re also wildly supportive. They’re always there on my worst days and pushing me to be better.

And they spent New Year’s Eve helping me move into my new apartment. I mean, come on. You can’t ask for a better friend than that.

I’m so excited to see what they do in the future, and I’d love to get them to Sirens at some point. I think they’d have an absolute blast.

 


Nicole Brinkley has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. She is the manager of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, NY.

Kallyn Hunter is a researcher, writer, and knight from northern Colorado. When she isn’t in front of a computer, she can be found traveling the wilds of her state with her adventure-Pomeranian or smashing the patriarchy with her theatrical jousting troupe, the Knights of the Tempest. She has been a member of the Sirens community since 2011 and has an endless to-read pile because of it.

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