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Rin Chupeco’s Favorite SFF Books

Sirens Guest of Honor Rin Chupeco shares a list of favorite science fiction and fantasy works. If you’ve enjoyed Rin’s work, we encourage you to check out these other reads. Take it away, Rin!

 

Gideon the Ninth Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

I cannot stop screaming about this series. Lesbian swordfighting necromancers arguing in space as they explore a haunted house space station is the wildest description I never thought I would want. Muir’s prose is gorgeous, and I have never wanted to paint my face like a skull till I read this book.

The Bear and the Nightingale Katherine Arden

Fantasy
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

How breathtaking is this book? A young Russian woman named Vasya who is worth her weight in magic, holding her own against a powerful zealot and the god of winter himself—this is a gorgeous, gorgeous delight.

Uprooted Naomi Novak

Science Fiction
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I don’t know how to even begin to describe this book. It hits all my favorite tropes, from surly cranky broody magician to powerful magical girls who finally understand their own worth.

Magic for Liars Sarah Gailey

Science Fiction
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
It’s a murder mystery at a magical school by a hard-knock private detective who is both seasoned and salty at the same time. I love a lot of Gailey’s works, and they are just fantastic at this.

An Unkindness of Magicians Kat Howard

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard This is urban fantasy at its best, and this was an amazing read. I am a sucker for magical fighting tournaments and seedy moneyed politics.


 

Rin 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

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Bone Witch Rin Chupeco

I’m going to confess: I picked up Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch with some trepidation. I had tried reading this YA fantasy before and stopped a few times before filing it away and ultimately restarting. The worldbuilding—freshly un-Eurocentric and inspired by the mythologies of the Middle East and Asia—was, at first, confusing. The novel’s structure demands time and patience, as it flips between short italicized chapters in the present, and longer, more narrative chapters set in the past before the storylines converge. And I’ll tell you upfront: Reading The Bone Witch is, at minimum, a two-book commitment—since the storylines don’t converge in the first book, nor the sequel. You’ll have to wait for the grand finale for that.

But damn, it’s so worth it.

Understanding The Bone Witch

And so, I do you a service because you all need to read these books. In the land of Eight Kingdoms, there are two rules of magic that, if you know them up front, will make the series easier to delve into. First is that magic is gendered in a fascinating and strange way. A chosen few have magic and can control the elements like fire, water, earth, etc. If you’re a girl when this talent is discovered, you are trained as an asha in the capital, where you learn how to wield your magic alongside learning etiquette, dancing, and entertaining heads of state in a diplomatic capacity. If you’re a boy, you’re conscripted into the Deathseeker army. There’s a lot to unpack here, especially through Likh, a trans girl who wishes to become an asha—and who is also one of my faves in this book.

And second, there’s a thing called a heartsglass that people wear around their neck, which is tied to one’s identity in complex ways. If your heartsglass turns silver, it means you have a capacity for magic; you can also give it away to a loved one in an act of romance or safety, but at the risk of that other person having control over you; if you are especially magically talented, you can read other people’s heartsglasses since they will change color depending on their true emotions (and you can tell if they’re lying to you).

What The Bone Witch is About

Then there’s Tea. We’re introduced to the world of The Bone Witch through Tea’s eyes, and she is only twelve at the beginning, when she inadvertently raises her brother, Fox, from the dead. It’s discovered that Tea is not only an asha, but a dark asha, with magic that allows her to raise and control the dead. And so, Tea is one of two bone witches in the realm, a profession that, despite its importance, is much maligned. Ever since The False Prince used death magic to raise the daeva, monsters that terrorize people every so often, bone witches have done the dirty work to keep them at bay and are tainted with that reputation by association.

The Bone Witch is a painstaking book of set-up. With uneven pacing, we get all the above, plus Tea’s origin story where she’s whisked away to the palace to train as an asha by the only other bone witch, Lady Mykaela. Despite her aptitude, she faces setbacks, including some pranks by fellow ashas-in-training, a training master who hates her, and mounds of backbreaking chores. She reaps chaos by not knowing how to control her power and accidentally raises dead kings and monsters. She catches the eye of the prince and his cranky cousin-slash-bodyguard, and is thrust into the royal court’s political machinations.

The biggest and most satisfying arc in this book is Tea’s relationship with her brother, Fox, where they learn these nice things called healthy boundaries and how to be a family despite the supernatural link between them.

But please, have patience. This is no worse than The Name of the Wind, which many of you have enthusiastically or like me, begrudgingly, read. You can see the schematic of something bigger before you—a cast of characters you will cheer on and love, a thoughtful musing on women rebelling against the roles their society has trapped them into, a descent into villainy (or anti-heroism? Let’s do some more unpacking) when justice is denied with each betrayal, and a girl who learns how to command her power despite the trauma inflicted on her by her peers and foes.

And I’ll just say, I’ll just say. There’s barely a hint of a romance in The Bone Witch. But then you read The Heart Forger and it does things to you and what the heck, Chupeco? How dare you? Must you make me agonize over this slow burn relationship and then smash my heartsglass into a million pieces in The Shadowglass? The seeds of the romance planted in the first book turn out to not only be SUPER SWOONWORTHY but like, really screws you up especially during this quarantine life when your emotions are dialed up to eleven, okay? And that’s just the main couple, there are other relationships that are lovely and meaningful, fantastically queer, and too adorable for words—sometimes all at once.

Just do yourself a favor, and acquire The Heart Forger and The Shadowglass so you have the whole trilogy before you start. You’ll thank me later.


Faye Bi

Faye Bi is the director of publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, and spends the rest of her time reading, cycling, pondering her next meal, and being part of 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. You can follow her on Twitter @faye_bi.

Further Reading: Rin Chupeco

Rin Chupeco Author

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

 

Rin’s Short Fiction:

Rin’s Interviews::

  • Interview with PJ (2020): On what’s next for them, “Writing the third and final book of the Hundred Names for Magic series (the first book being Wicked As You Wish) and then finishing up some adult crossover books I’ve started working on – one about bi vampires in the vein of The Witcher and Castlevania, and another that’s basically Swan Lake meets Untitled Goose Game.”
  • Interview with Enthralled Bookworm (2020): “What I love most about YA, particularly in the SFF genre, is that a lot of issues are frequently discussed there, but…the fact that it’s set in fantastical worlds means readers can have that necessary distance to process real world issues tackled in the book.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Guest Post with Adventures in YA Publishing (2017): “Writing for a hobby is a lot different from writing for a living. Creative writing is the only profession I know where experience is not required, where you won’t know if you did well until it’s frequently too late for you to do anything about it, and where anything you come up with will be put under a microscope almost from the moment you submit your manuscript and long after it’s been published.”
  • Interview with The Witch Snitch (2015): “Living as a writer in the Philippines is a lot different from living as a writer in most first world countries, which is hard enough as it is. Writing fiction here is like making street graffiti—you don’t do it for the money, because there isn’t any, but you do it for everything else that matters. Most writers in Manila were either literary fiction novelists who had hefty contracts with schools to use their books in literature classes, or those who wrote Harlequin-esque romances in the local language. I didn’t want to do either of those.”

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

 

This post was updated on March 17, 2021.

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.

Unsex Me Here: Gender, Power, and Villainy

In Act I, Scene v of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth learns three things in quick succession: that a trio of witches has prophesied her husband’s rise to Thane of Cawdor and later king; that her husband has, as prophesied, already been made Thane of Cawdor; and that the king will visit her house that night. Seeing an opportunity to bring the rest of the prophecy to pass, she—one of literature’s most infamous villains—gives her first great, bloody, fanged speech.

And in that speech, she laments her gender.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect, and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief.
– Act I, Scene v of Macbeth

Gender and villainy—and relatedly, redemption—is a fraught topic, one full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes.

In the wake of Lady Macbeth’s yearning to be free of her gender so that she might take the action—killing the king—necessary to feed her ambition, Macbeth progresses, and we come to a tired realization: One of literature’s greatest villains isn’t so villainous at all. She shames her husband into killing the king, but never wields the knife. Her bloody hands are born of framing the guards, not murder. She’s not, frankly, guilty of much more than a bit of nagging and conspiracy.

Ambition and Power in Female Villainy

In the absence of her hand in regicide or other dastardly deeds, we can conclude only that Lady Macbeth’s villainy, as it were, is her female ambition, a shocking defiance of societal stereotypes. Women are meant to be silent, not assertive; passive, not dominant; happy as a wife, not yearning to be a queen. Lady Macbeth’s villainy is nothing more—or less—than the intersection of her gender and her thus-forbidden aspirations.

For that defiance, Lady Macbeth is punished. And as with so many female villains, her punishment comes in the forcible relinquishment of any power she may have: in Lady Macbeth’s case, her descent into madness, her frantic scrubbing of her outsized guilt from her hands. By the time we reach Act V, her husband, too, is well and truly mad, but his power grows alongside his madness. Note, too, the difference in their deaths: her presumed suicide off-stage contrasts with Macduff’s parading her husband’s severed head around for all to see. His ending is suitable for a great villain; hers is an afterthought, a mere footnote highlighting her apparent irrelevance now that she’s properly lamented her unwomanly ambition. Ah, Shakespeare…


Contrasting Male Heroism with Female Villainy

To deconstruct female and nonbinary villainy you must, in many ways, start with male heroism—and the inexorable notion that male heroism is fundamentally based on performative hypermasculinity: physical prowess, superpowers, and future tech that enable physical dominance. In 2019, Sirens examined heroism and what it means for women and nonbinary folks to be heroes in a world where the very definition of “hero” is “illustrious warrior.” The societal construct of heroism was designed for cisgender men, and all too often, the notion of heroism as applied to anyone else is absurdly limiting, frequently available only to white cisgender women with swords—and even then generally requiring passive, sacrificial, or even charitable underpinnings.

Given this gendered dichotomy in heroism, you would be right to expect a similar dichotomy in villainy. As the tests for male heroism tend to be forgiving, rewarding hypermasculinity rather than treating aggression and violence as disqualifying, the tests for male villainy are certainly not as simple as “Have you killed anyone?” or “Do you want to be king?” Male heroes, indeed, have killed someone and they of course want to be king. Instead, the test of male villainy seems to be one of either intent or unfairness/mass harm. Do you intend to be villainous? Or are you just misunderstood? Do you perpetuate harm? The right sort of harm? Certainly, perpetuating the white heteropatriarchy is not the right sort of harm. You begin to see how difficult it is to qualify as male villain….

By contrast, it’s all too easy to for everyone else qualify as a villain. Given that everyone else’s heroism is so limited, and often requires self-sacrifice, creating female and nonbinary villainy is often as simple as removing that sacrifice. The test is then not of intent or perpetuating unfairness or mass harm, but rather of defiance or power. Lady Macbeth’s villainy was never truly about nagging or framing the guards—or if you want to get technical, co-conspiracy—but about both her refusal to operate within the boundaries prescribed for women and her active seeking of power.

All of this is, of course, by heteropatriarchal design: the overwhelmingly demanding test for female and nonbinary heroism, the seemingly accidentally but meticulously planned casting of all other women and nonbinary folks as villains, the notion that even women who are too effective at reinforcing gender roles are villainous.

Defiance. Ambition. Power. The three things most dangerous to the heteropatriarchy are conveniently the three things that will inevitably cast a female or nonbinary character as a villain.


Villainy, of course, prompts the question of redemption. Because we live in a world of good versus evil, and because we see ourselves as good, we always want to give evil a choice and a chance: redeem yourself or be vanquished.

But redeem yourself from what?

Presumably from that which made them villains in the first place. So male villains must be redeemed from their malicious intent and perpetuation of mass harm, while female and nonbinary villains must be redeemed from… their defiance, ambition, and power.

Villains and Choice in Speculative Fiction

When you consider villain stories, redemption is a cisgender male story. In fact, women are raised to believe that they should aspire to be the sort of good woman who convinces an evil man to give up his villainous ways and settle down and, one supposes, just stop with the torture and killings. He gets to choose, this male villain, and as long as he chooses correctly, he is free to go on his merry way, terrible no more.

Female and nonbinary villains do not get to choose. Rather, as with so many things, they are forced: forced to relinquish their power, forced into death or madness, forced to be subjugated by magic or marriage or children. They must be fragile, destructible, shattered. They must be relieved of their defiance, their ambition, and their power. They must be forced back into the constraints of the heteropatriarchy.

Is it any wonder that so many of our villain stories are feminist revenge fantasies?


In 2019, Sirens examined heroes—and found societal constructs of female and nonbinary heroism unrelentingly limiting. We demanded heroism far greater than what we were permitted.

In 2021, Sirens will examine villains—and we will also demand villainy far greater than what we are permitted.

We very much hope you will join us this October.

Sirens at Home: Books and Breakfast Selections

Each year at Sirens, we offer a Books and Breakfast program where attendees bring their breakfast and join us to talk books: timely books, popular books, even controversial books. While we’ll be saving all of our villainous selections for Books and Breakfast in 2021 (when we will, indeed, convene on a theme of villains), we’ve chosen different books for this year: seven 2020 releases that we think are all pretty terrific.

On Friday, October 23, 2020, we will hold our Books and Breakfast program online as part of Sirens at Home. If you’d like to join us, please do! All you need to do is register for Sirens at Home, read one of the following selections, grab your breakfast, and join the online discussion.

 
Sirens at Home Books and Breakfast Selections

Elatsoe

Elatsoe
by Darcie Little Badger (illustrations by Rovina Cai)

Elatsoe, or just Ellie, is your average teenager trying to figure out her place in the world and what she wants from life—except that her contemporary America has ghosts, vampires, and fae, and Ellie herself can raise the ghosts of dead animals. Think really dead animals, like mammoths and trilobites, not merely Ellie’s more recently dead dog, Kirby. As Little Badger’s work opens, Ellie’s cousin dies surprisingly and violently, confirmed first by paranormal reverberation that shocks Kirby and a dreamland visitation of Ellie’s. In a bit of a backward mystery, Ellie’s determined to find the clues that will lead to what she already knows: who killed her cousin. Little Badger’s work incorporates the traditions and legends of the Lipan Apache tribe (of which she is an enrolled member) and makes them integral to both her fantastical America and Ellie’s deductive skills. You’ll love Ellie—and you’ll clamor for a book about Six Great, her fabled foremother who looms large in Little Badger’s America.

Never Look Back

Never Look Back
by Lilliam Rivera

A contemporary retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice featuring Afro-Latinx characters in the Bronx, Never Look Back hums with bachata rhythms and the pulsing possibilities of hazy summer nights. Pheus, the popular golden-voiced bachata singer among his circle of friends, is drawn to Eury, a newly arrived girl from Puerto Rico. Eury is processing the trauma of her family losing everything in Hurricane Maria, and she’s haunted by a spirit whose only desire is to have her with him, always. Mythologies intertwine in this straight-talk novel fused with magical realism, and Rivera seamlessly weaves in examinations of colonialism, toxic masculinity, class, and mental health. This is both a romance and a book about community, and the relationships that strengthen it are a highlight—particularly Eury’s relationship with her cousin Penelope, and Pheus’s with his father. You already know what happens at the pivotal climax; Eury’s agency and empowerment makes this read as catchy as the tunes within.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
by Zen Cho

Though a greater war bleeds beyond its pages, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water centers a small group of roving bandits who, at the story’s beginning, convene in a coffeehouse for a job and encounter a former-nun-turned-waitress. The ensemble cast will please lovers of found family, though the narrative is driven by Tet Sang, a bandit with a past of his own who feels compelled to pull Guet Imm, the waitress, into the group. Cho’s novella is a masterclass in subtlety; instead of an epic volume that features wealthy nobles or expert warriors, it spotlights everyday people who make individual choices in the name of survival. There’s magic and violence—secondary to the interpersonal relationships among the characters—and a delightful queer romance woven so intricately within the action that you never forget there’s a bigger set piece. Reading this book is like becoming one of the crew.

Remembrance

Remembrance
by Rita Woods

By debut author Rita Woods, Remembrance is an ambitious blend of historical fiction and fantasy ultimately about the safe haven created by Black women throughout—and beyond—time. The multiple points of view give the work tremendous scope (and will appeal to fans of epic fantasy in particular): Gaelle in present-day Cleveland, Margot in 1857 New Orleans, Abigail in 1791 Haiti, and the mysterious Winter. As the characters face plagues, rebellion, slavery, death and separation of loved ones—and disenfranchisement in the most extreme sense of the word—we’re introduced to Remembrance, a refuge for slaves who do not make it out of the Underground Railroad. As the narratives converge, you’ll appreciate Woods’s thorough research and delicate hand, and how each of the women comes into her magic. She relates what we know to be true: Black women have been building sanctuary for their communities throughout generations.

Snapdragon

Snapdragon
by Kat Leyh

You already know Kat Leyh’s work as a cowriter and cover artist for the inimitable Lumberjanes comic series, but you’re about to know her for Snapdragon as well. In this graphic work, Snapdragon, an angry, ostracized girl, encounters Jacks, the town witch, while looking for her lost dog. Jacks has Good Boy, sure enough, but only because she found him on the side of the road and patched him up. When Snap, desperate for friends, finds orphaned possums, she ends up back at Jacks’s house—and Jacks strikes her a deal: She’ll help Snap care for the possums if Snap helps her with her business recovering dead animals and assembling their skeletons for sale on the Internet. That’s just the beginning of a work that weaves—through all of Snap’s anger and Jacks’s isolation, Snap’s mother’s trying to balance everything and Snap’s friend’s coming out, and a surprising thread of magic—a delicately human story about finding yourself, whoever that person might be, and finding a community, however unexpected that might be. In the end, Snapdragon is a sob-fest, happy-ending story about giving folks a chance, and sometimes even two.

Star Daughter

Star Daughter
by Shveta Thakrar

Sheetal’s mom is a star. A real, live star, who lives in the heavens and left Sheetal alone with her father when Sheetal was a little girl. Now a teenager, full of big dreams and bigger feelings, Sheetal finds herself torn between her modern desi-girl American life, full of expectations and accomplishments and a forbidden boyfriend, and staring at the night sky, wishing for her mom—and wishing that she didn’t have to dye her starlight hair dark and hide that the stars call her name. Lately that call has become stronger, and Sheetal finds herself caught up in something she doesn’t understand. She accidentally harms her father and must ascend to the sky to heal him. But of course none of this happened by chance: Her star family wishes for Sheetal to compete for them in a competition that will determine control of the stars for years to come. In all of this, Sheetal is a dang delight: all too real, and by turns flattered, confused, and furious with her star family. And as she navigates the politics of the stars, her nascent relationships with her family, and her erstwhile romance with her boyfriend, she’s the sort of heroine who’s always in charge of herself, no matter what her maternal grandmother might think.

Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable Sun
by Kate Elliott

If “genderflipped Alexander the Great in space” doesn’t grab you, then perhaps “genetically engineered human-aliens, cutthroat galaxy-spanning politics, queernorm worldbuilding, and imaginative future tech” will. An exciting opening to a new series, Unconquerable Sun has plenty of Easter eggs for those with interest in classical studies, but provides a standalone, fully realized world—nay, an entire galaxy, with deep roots and evocative details. Our protagonist Sun is an astonishing hero: charismatic, decisive, brilliant, sharp; the cast that surrounds her is equally grand, from the wily Persephone to the handsome Alika, and all the rest of Sun’s Companions. Elliott has taken some risks in the way she handles the various point-of-view characters, changing person and tense in a way that helps the reader feel the soul-deep shifts between each character. It pays off: The book is an enthralling adventure from start to finish.

Mexican Gothic Holds the Precise, Beating Heart of Modern Women’s Horror

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Mexican Gothic

On page 186 of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Noemí, our heroine, is mid-conversation with Virgil, the heir apparent of High Place, a crumbling family mansion in rural Mexico. She is in Virgil’s bedroom in the middle of the night, after experiencing a disturbingly vivid sexual dream featuring Virgil and his aggressive masculinity. The first words of the following exchange are Noemí’s:

“Were you in my room?”
“I thought I was in your dream.”
“It did not feel like a dream.”
“What did it feel like?”
“Like an intrusion,” she said.

As a reader, this is the sort of revelatory writing that requires that you put the book down and find something, anything—in this case, a Bath and Body Works coupon—to mark the page. Because this exchange is the precise, beating heart of modern women’s horror.


Let’s begin with a bit about Mexican Gothic. Noemí is a socialite in 1950s Mexico, mostly happy with her rounds of dresses and parties and beaux, but still, always, a girl who wants more: currently, a master’s degree in anthropology. When her family receives a nonsensical letter—troubling for all its nonsense—from her cousin, Catalina, Noemí’s father agrees to permit her to pursue that master’s degree, if only she’ll go check on Catalina and her new husband, Virgil, at High Point. Noemí takes the deal and is soon on a train, suitcases in tow.

Moreno-Garcia draws Noemí cleverly: She’s an assertive girl, but also a pretty one, and one who is accustomed to things being just so, one who thrives on appearances and flirtations and delicately upending social niceties with just the right amount of perceived danger. Because of who Noemí is, High Point reads initially as simply off-putting: dusty, moldy, faded, the home of an impoverished family unable to keep up with either cleaning or modern conveniences like electricity. Similarly, the household’s exacting rules—no talking during meals, no unsupervised time with Catalina, no second medical opinions—are designed to imply merely that Noemí has encountered a society foreign to her, one that a pretty girl cannot manipulate with smiles and teasing. But over time, through alarming conversations with her cousin, who seems only sometimes lucid, and forbidden conversations with locals, who share legends and mysteries, but rarely more, Noemí realizes that High Point is more menacing than simply unkempt, and the rules more dangerous than simply irritating.


Shirley Jackson’s seminal work of feminine horror, The Haunting of Hill House, was published in 1959, the same decade as the setting of Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. In 60 years, though, women have gained new terrors—and new insight into familiar terrors. Jackson’s work is about mothers, domineering, demanding mothers who, even after death, haunt our lives. How almost quaint, through a 2020 lens, to focus on the issue with mothers, rather than the issues with the heteropatriarchy that so often make them that way. Moreno-Garcia’s work, while clearly an heir to Jackson’s, goes deeper and is not so willing to elide the roles that men play in women’s terrors.

Mexican Gothic is a work about intrusion, specifically a work about men’s innumerable intrusions into women’s lives. Without spoiling the mystery or the jump scares, Moreno-Garcia’s work turns on the many, many things that men take from women and the sacrifices that women are required to make to perpetuate men’s power. This isn’t a work about Noemí’s mother, who is nearly absent from the book, even in reference. It is a work about her father, in his wealthy naivete; Howard, the ailing, racist head of the High Point family; Virgil, the skillfully abusive heir apparent; and Francis, the weak-willed cousin. And it’s a work about the women who enable them—Florence, Francis’s mother and the household disciplinarian, and Catalina, Noemí’s compliant cousin—and Noemí, who does not.

At its best, Mexican Gothic uses its horrors to lay bare the quotidian horrors of women, forced to endure a lifetime of male intrusions.

At its worst, we need to talk about Moreno-Garcia’s use of rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. Mexican Gothic is about male intrusions into women’s lives and, in many ways, very specifically about male intrusions into women’s bodily autonomy, both small (you may not take the car alone, you may not speak during dinner) and large (you may not leave High Point). In exploring those themes, Moreno-Garcia turns, often, to rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. With a single exception (the final horror imposed on a woman, revealed at the book’s climax), in this work that is so much about bodily autonomy, Mexican Gothic assumes that rape is the ultimate intrusion that a man can force upon a woman. Regardless of whether you agree with that, Mexican Gothic uses rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault liberally—and in my view, too often. We know that Howard and Virgil are threats and, by the midway point of the book we know enough about High Point’s history to know that they are both sexual threats. Because we know that, most of these scenes read as unnecessary, no longer a horror that Howard or Virgil is imposing on Noemí, but a horror that Mexican Gothic imposes on its readers. Men intrude on women’s lives in so many ways; must the second half of Mexican Gothic rely so heavily on this one?

Setting aside its arguable overreliance on the horrors of sexual assault—if you are able to, of course—Mexican Gothic is a must-read for anyone interested in both female horror and its evolution. Moreno-Garcia takes Jackson’s themes from 60 years ago and transforms them, erasing the mother in favor of striking at the heart of the heteropatriarchy itself. In a world where we are all told to be more likeable, where our options are always limited, and yes, where we all fear assault, Moreno-Garcia’s house of horrors will be all too familiar.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and handles strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president of a major media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape, plans literary conferences, bakes increasingly complicated pastries, and reads 150 books a year. She is a co-founder and current co-chair of Sirens, an annual conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, flagrant ambition, and a well-planned revolution.

New Fantasy Books: September 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of September 2020 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

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.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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