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Archive for Sirens 2020

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.

Summer Nights with Amanda Hudson

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email! Today, we welcome a book list from Amanda Hudson on summer vibes and escapist reading.

Now that it’s summer, I’m longing for vacation and daydreaming about setting off on an adventure with friends. Given the state of the world, I can’t exactly turn on my out-of-office response, pack my bags, and leave town on a spectacular summer trip. What I can do is pour myself a cup of tea, snuggle down in my PJs, and crack open one of the dozen books sitting on my bookshelf.

If you, like me, are craving that summer vibe and an escape from the here and now, then I’ve got a book list for you. Not everyone is looking for the same summer experience, so pick the mood you’re craving below.

A Walk Through the Woods

Silver in the Woods

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

This queer Green Man myth retelling is beautifully written and is perfect if you’re looking to walk into the woods, risking unknown dangers for the beauty you find there. And if you fall head-over-heels in love, have no fear, the sequel Drowned Country is due out in August. At just over 100 pages, this novella is the perfect afternoon escape, although I’ll warn you that you might find yourself lingering in the world for days after you finish.

Road Trip!

The Summer of Mariposas

Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

This is a book about the bond of sisters. I don’t have sisters, so what drew me to this book was the promise of an Odysseus-like journey from Texas to Mexico with five sisters seeking to return the body of a dead man. I feel the need to admit that I was born and raised in central Texas, and so this book is on my list not only because it’s an epic road trip that makes me miss those too-hot Texas summers and the mischief of my past, but also because it takes place across lands I know well.

Wayward Son

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

Yes, this is a sequel to Carry On. If you liked Harry Potter, or even if you didn’t, but you like the sound of a chosen-one wizard who is bad at being the chosen one, and a snarky vampire roommate who wants to kill him, then jump on this series! That being said, if you wish you could get in your car and go on a classic American road trip, then Wayward Son is for you. Simon, Baz, and Penny are back and trouble keeps finding them as they speed across the American West with the top down (poor Baz) on their convertible.

Carefree Summer Nights

Night of Cake & Puppets

Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor

This novella is part of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone series but you don’t have to have read the series to be able to read this book. Here is where I admit that I have not read Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Sorry Amy. [Ed. note: Sirens co-chair Amy is also sorry!] I bought this book partly on recommendation of Sirens staff, and partly because the cover and book itself is delightfully bright pink and blue with artwork I loved. Then last fall I was having a rough day and I just wanted to pretend for a little while that I was completely carefree. This novella is the stand-alone story of a magically sweet first date. The book transported me to this feeling that anything was possible, and that taking a tiny risk would have a big reward. It made my heart swell with the potential of requited love. It made me smile into the palm of my hand and made my cheeks hurt with the sweetness of two kind of weird kids finding each other.

Taking to the High Seas

Seafire

Seafire by Natalie C. Parker

Caledonia is captain of an all-female pirate ship and she’s on a revenge mission. This book has friendship, romance, and tons of action. It’s a fast read that left me wanting to round up my best, most awesome friends, and captain a boat out into the open sea.

Dark Shores

Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen

Dark Shores introduces a new world with meddling gods and magic that blend so beautifully into the mysteries of the oceans. Teriana is blackmailed by rather Romanesque soldiers into helping them cross the “Endless Seas” so that they can conquer the East. In addition to the new world and magic system Jensen creates here, I have this book on the list because it made me feel like I was out on the open water with Teriana, and made me long to be back aboard a boat.

Traveling to Other Worlds

Furthermore

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

So far most of these books have been young adult or adult, but I’m including this middle grade book on the list because I read it back in 2017 and I still find myself thinking about its vibrant worlds years later. This is a book about a girl who has no color in a world where color is a currency and essentially magic. She goes on a quest with a boy who is not yet her friend to find her father who has disappeared. This book is about finding your value and it’s also about friendship. It’s a journey, and at its core, it reminds me of childhood summers spent with my friends, learning something about them and myself.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

January Scaller is a young girl left in the care of a rich white man while her father travels the world finding oddities to bring back to his boss. January finds a book that tells stories of magical doors to other worlds, and the tale of two people from different worlds who meet and fall in love. This portal fantasy took me all over the map. I thought I had it figured out at one point, and then it kept going. If you’re looking to go on a journey of emotions and wishing for a book that keeps you turning the page well after you should be asleep, dig right in to The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

Venturing to New Worlds

For some, nowhere on this planet is far enough away for the kind of voyage they’re looking for this summer. If that’s you, then let’s go to new worlds.

Dawn

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

A friend of mine recommended this to me at a time when I didn’t think I liked science fiction. By the time I’d finished this book, I realized I was oh so wrong about the genre. The first in a trilogy, Dawn takes you far in the future to a spaceship with an alien race that at first seems completely foreign and new. I put this book on this list because Dawn stretched my imagination in ways that were not always comfortable, but I look back on it in the same way I look back on the part of vacation that at the time was ‘super intense’ but later is one of the best stories you can share. I find myself randomly thinking of this book sometimes just like I’ll randomly think of that time my car broke down on a tiny hardly-ever-used backroad in Costa Rica. Both make me smile. And both were summer adventures I won’t ever forget.

Binti

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ll be honest, I’m recommending the whole trilogy really. They’re novellas, so you might as well get them all. Binti is the first of her people to be offered a spot at the best university in the galaxy. Going away to this university is a big deal for so many reasons, and Binti struggles to hold on to her customs and stay connected with her family while tackling higher education. At its heart, this is a classic story of venturing away from home for the first time and finding out who you are in the process. The trilogy is on this list because it’s a rich tapestry of African culture blended with science fiction that takes the reader on a trip that feels familiar but new.


 

Amanda Hudson

Amanda Hudson drinks far too much black tea and is frequently caught carrying at least one book in her purse. In past lives, she practiced law in Texas and was a lore master for a video game developer in Sweden. When not reading or writing fantasy, Amanda is usually lifting weights, practicing yoga, or trying to con her friends into playing just one more board game with her.

Sirens 2020 Postponed to 2021

Sirens 2020 Postponed to 2021

Like you, we have spent the last few months anxious and stressed as we try again and again to determine the impact of COVID-19 on our families and our communities. As we navigate our fifth month of isolation, the picture of the months ahead has, unfortunately, become clear: We simply cannot hold Sirens safely in 2020. For the health and wellbeing of the Sirens community—guests and faculty, presenters, hotel staff, planning team, and all attendees—we are postponing our 2020 Sirens to October 21-24, 2021.

This is a postponement, not a cancellation. While we will convene a year later than intended, we will still gather at the Hilton Inverness Hotel just outside Denver, Colorado. The theme will still be villains, and we will still host guests of honor Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks, Rin Chupeco, Sarah Gailey, and Fonda Lee. The Sirens Studio will be held October 19-20, 2021, with guest of honor Joamette Gil and faculty Casey Blair, Rin Chupeco, Ren Iwamoto, Fonda Lee, Marie Brennan, Anna-Marie McLemore, Kinitra D. Brooks, and Jae Young Kim.

If you have registered for Sirens in 2020, made hotel registrations, or have had a programming proposal accepted, please check your email for more information on how to proceed. Our website has been updated with the 2021 dates, and all are still welcome to register at the current rate.

2020 Activities

As you know, Sirens is carefully designed to foster community through an in-person conference, retreat, and experience. While some events have shifted to an online platform for 2020, recreating Sirens virtually is, of course, not as simple as setting up a few Zoom calls. Rather than ask our volunteer planning team, our guests and faculty, and our presenters to climb that particular mountain in a short time, we’ve elected not to offer Sirens online.

We are, however, planning online community gatherings, essays, interviews, book features, and more in 2020—including a number of offerings for the weekend that Sirens was to occur this October. We know that everyone is disappointed about not having Sirens this fall and about not having that weekend of rejuvenation with the Sirens community. Stay tuned for what we will be doing from a safe distance!

Our Thanks

Thank you for understanding about our postponement of Sirens. It’s clear to us that, in a year where every aspect of life is affected by COVID-19, the need for community and connection is as important as ever, as is a thoughtfully curated space to host challenging conversations. And it’s ironic that in a year when we expected to be discussing villains and villainy in a broad sense, a very tiny, invisible villain has disrupted our plans in ways we never dreamed would happen—and we’ve imagined our way through many disaster scenarios over the years!

We will miss you terribly this year. But we are hopeful that by the next, we’ll be in a better, safer place, and that we will be able to provide the conference you expect from us. In the meantime, we’ll be working with our team, our guests and faculty, our presenters, the hotel, and all of you, toward 2021. We very much hope to see you then.

Finally, here’s a special video message from the 2021 guests of honor, faculty, and Sirens staff with our well-wishes:

 

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.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Chelsea Cleveland on The Power by Naomi Alderman.

The Power

There is a certain type of book that I call a “chicken noodle soup” book. It’s a delicious escape; a beautiful little world that you want to return to when you catch a cold or a wave of homesickness. From a quick glance at the book flap, you might think Naomi Alderman’s The Power is that sort of title. It is not. But—in an entirely different way—it’s just as nourishing of a read.

Alderman’s latest comes out of the gate with a premise fit for any YA blockbuster. Something strange is happening, not just here, but around the globe. At first, it just seems like a rumor. A mad internet fad. Videos edited with special effects. But it isn’t long before the truth becomes impossible to ignore. More and more young women are developing a remarkable new power: an ability to generate electrical charges. And they’re not just creating electricity. They’re learning to use it.

We see the resulting shifts in the social and political landscape primarily through the eyes of four characters: Roxy, the illegitimate child of a UK crime boss and one of the first few to experience the power; Margot, a midwestern mayor and the mother of a teenage daughter with a secret; Tunde, a Nigerian college student who documents the growing turmoil from behind the lens of a camera; and Allie, a young woman who receives guidance from a voice in her head.

While the plot centers around these four individuals, the real story—and truly the most fascinating part of the book—is the author’s exploration of power and gender.

With the simple twist of giving women the ability to create electricity with their hands, Alderman overturns a key differentiator between men and women: physical power. And this one change affects everything.

I don’t want to say too much more about what happens. It’s best if you discover it yourself. I will say that while this isn’t the first title I’ve come across where supernatural abilities were attributed to one gender, I have never seen it done with such gut-punching impact or specificity. It’s a specificity that actually makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

There’s no denying Atwood’s influence on The Power. Even if you didn’t know Atwood and Alderman had been paired though a mentorship program, the literary giant’s book blurb—a cheeky “Electrifying!”—is prominently displayed on the novel’s cover. I was particularly reminded of The Handmaid’s Tale in a couple of ways: the intimacy of the book’s setting (a breath away from present day) and the manner in which the most shocking fictional events were clearly and purposefully inspired by things that have really happened. It’s something Atwood has talked about as a guiding principle and as a reader, you can feel how the truth in these details gives a speculative work a terrifying sense of realism.

The Power is not a title that I would recommend anyone turn to for comfort. On the contrary, it’s at once foreign and yet unsettlingly all-too familiar. Instead of finding myself reading straight through until sunrise as I often do, this was a book that I frequently closed, put aside, and contemplated. It’s a book with ideas that inspire discussions and debates outside the context of the characters and events. It’s intriguing and conceptually satiating. Rather than chicken noodle soup, I’d call it something else. Maybe quinoa or kale. It’s a nutrient-rich brain food that sticks with you and keeps you thinking things over long after the last pages have been turned.


Chelsea Cleveland is a Seattle-based marketer and copywriter. She has particular experience in the fields of books, design, travel, and technology. Her other passions include standing on tall things, feeding animals (human and otherwise), collecting art supplies, and discussing movies. She writes short stories, largely because it’s very difficult to finish long ones.

Sirens Essay: A Room of Her Own: The Post-Modern Haunted Houses of Nova Ren Suma

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

Sirens also offers an online essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Meg Belviso!

A Room of Her Own: The Post-Modern Haunted Houses of Nova Ren Suma
by Meg Belviso

There’s something enduring about a haunted house. For centuries, it’s called up images like the Gothic family manse crumbling from the inside, passed from one heir to the next, or the duplex on the corner where families come and go a little too fast. The whole idea of a house suggests a place to put down roots, settle down, grow up, over and over through many generations. For centuries—from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Ann Radcliffe to Emily Brontë to Barbara Michaels—when we talked about a haunted house, we meant a place where remnants of the building’s past affected the people of its present, threatening or influencing their future.

So goes the traditional haunted house story.

Modern horror, however, has begun to focus more on the haunted house as a transitional space. That is, a dwelling without a fixed position in time. A decaying building, for instance, that no longer functions in its original capacity, but has not yet become a ruin with a fixed place in the historical or mythical past. A Roman Colosseum that has lost its meaning as a working arena, but not yet found its meaning as evidence of an ancient empire.

Sometimes the modern ghost story emphasizes this idea further by giving the space other “in-between” qualities as well. The mansion in Alejandro Fernando Amenábar Cantos’ 2001 film The Others takes place on the Isle of Jersey, a self-governing possession of the British crown off the coast of France, in 1945, a time between WWII and what we’ve come to recognize as the post-war period. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables has a firm historical and legal history. By contrast, Amenábar has intentionally set his story in a place that does not belong to WWII, the post-war period, Great Britain, or France, but lives in a transitional space at the center of all of them.

In The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema, Jessica Balanzategui links this shift to twenty-first century anxiety about an increasingly uncertain future and a feeling that the foundations of society that had once seemed solid are now vulnerable. Today’s young—and even not that young—adults, for instance, are often accused of immaturity when they fail to hit landmarks by which life was measured in the past. One of the most obvious examples of this is home ownership.

These accusations of personal irresponsibility often flat-out deny the financial instability faced by so many young adults who, unable to follow the path their grandparents did, threaten critics by not only choosing to forge their own path, but questioning the value of paths in general.

The children at the center of postmodern stories are often young people who “will never fulfill futurity’s promise of becoming an adult…but instead linger at a point of continual transition to a corpse, dust, a ghost, a memory.” The settings of modern haunted house movies reflect this “unsettlingly liminal space of transition between states, with no triumphant end state.” Not becoming adults, but simply becoming.

Adolescence, that period of life between childhood and adulthood that’s center to YA lit and its intended audience, is also a transitional space. Today’s YA audience has grown up in the twenty-first century. Most YA heroes, like fictional heroes in general, exist firmly within fixed, linear time. They are no longer the children they were and not yet the adults they will be. Even in the bleakest circumstances, they move towards the future, figuring out what kind of people they are going to be, what values they will live by, how they will change the world. Sometimes they’re motivated by the fear of growing into the wrong kind of adult—of selling out, giving up on their dreams, perpetuating the unjust system they live in now. But even then, and even if they develop into what we would call a villain, they will be part of the future. They’re making choices, developing, moving forward.

In her two post-modern haunted house books, The Walls Around Us and A Room Away from the Wolves, author Nova Ren Suma connects these two transitional spaces, the haunted house and the adolescent. In doing so, she creates a new—one might even say revolutionary—bildungsroman for the twenty-first century.

Suma’s haunted spaces are not traditional homes, but temporary housing populated not by families but inmates and tenants. Specifically, young women between childhood and adulthood. They are places to reflect on the past and prepare for the future before aging out and moving on, rejoining the normal progression of life.

The Walls Around Us

In The Walls Around Us, Amber Smith and Orianna Speerling are sentenced to do time at the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center. When she reaches eighteen, a prisoner is sent either to a jail for adults to finish her sentence or released. Either way, according to Amber, she ceases to exist in the world of Aurora Hills, not just physically, but in the memories of the other inmates. “We’d recite [a former inmate’s] stories until the names and specific characteristics faded away…until it was somegirl, which may as well have been any of us.” When Amber glimpses a spectral girl in the prison who doesn’t belong, she’s not the ghost of a girl who once served time in the prison, but a vision of a girl who has not yet arrived. The inmates regret the past and acknowledge no future. There is only now.

A Room Away From the Wolves

Bina Tremper, the heroine of A Room Away From the Wolves, also checks into a temporary place. In this case, an old-fashioned boarding house that doesn’t seem to belong in modern Manhattan. At first Bina worries that she won’t be able to pay for more than one month at Catherine House, but she soon realizes that she’s no more able to leave it than the inmates of Aurora Hills can walk out of their prison. The staircase walls are lined with decades of annual photographs of former Catherine House residents, but the young adult lodgers themselves don’t seem firmly attached to any single time period at all. Bina herself carries bruises that still look fresh weeks later, as if no time has passed. Although her mother left New York decades earlier, Bina finds her belongings in her room. The house, too, seems to exist in a state of suspended decay, shabby and threadbare, but still habitable for now.

Where many YA stories take place in environments that explicitly measure physical development and count the passage of days, months and years, such as schools or camps divided by age, Aurora Hills and Catherine House have both, in their own ways, extracted themselves from the normal progress of time.

Suma’s girls are physically trapped by their surroundings, yes, but they also fear leaving them.

Both Amber and Bina begin their narratives watching another girl attempt a desperate and potentially deadly escape. They watch and choose not to follow. Amber admits, “No matter how I may have pictured myself leaving this place—face-first or feet-first—truth is, I can’t leave it. I would never. That’s my real secret.”

When told she’s being released from the prison, Amber’s attitude is similarly reluctant: “[The guard] was walking me down the corridor, confused maybe as to why I wasn’t leaping around for joy….We passed the window…and the blue sky flashed, and I turned my face away.” No matter how much she hates the prison, the outside world has betrayed Amber too much for her to want to return to it. She no longer trusts that she can restart the process that was cut short when she was convicted.

To emphasize this point, Suma creates a villain who moves in only one direction, forward, like a shark. Vee can’t wait to leave behind her hometown, her boyfriend, even her best friend, to reach the future she’s planned for herself since she was eight. Her best friend Ori, by contrast, voluntarily postpones her own pointe training to wait for Vee to catch up and is said, by Amber, to live in fear of “the halfway mark of anything.” That hesitation costs Ori dearly when Vee’s plans are threatened.

Wolves’ heroine, Bina Tremper, has her own reasons to fear the future. She’s been raised on her mother’s stories of the summer she spent in New York. The summer she paid for a room of her own, went on auditions, collected postcards, was cast in a short film. The summer that came to an end when she returned to her abusive boyfriend and got pregnant with Bina. Over and over, it seems to Bina, her mother plans an escape, only to wind up once again in a life that isn’t her own. Over and over she entices Bina with optimistic plans, only to betray them.

That one summer in New York becomes, to Bina, the only time her mother really had a life at all. When her mother kicks Bina out of their house for a month, she understandably decides to run there herself.

Bina’s initial escape masquerades as forward movement—she vows to succeed at the New York life that her mother gave up by returning to her boyfriend, to live the future her mother didn’t. But once she’s in Catherine House, her life does not move forward at all. Where the traditional bildungsroman would focus on Bina making friends, finding romance and getting her first job, Suma’s story barely touches on these things. The people in Bina’s new world are too hazy and mercurial to be actual friends. Her search for a job consists of walking the entire length of Manhattan for days without result and without seeing or doing anything worth noting. Her actual experiences are more focused on trying to understand her present than to build any future. “Some girls wanted to leave Catherine House,” Bina says, “and I couldn’t fathom why…it felt like nothing bad could happen within these walls, beneath this roof, to me.”

Following in her mother’s footsteps and completing the journey her mother started was an excuse for running to Catherine House. But her mother’s dreams were never Bina’s. She didn’t want to be an actress. She was never really running toward an imagined future. She just wasn’t wanted enough in her present. When her relationship with her bullying stepsisters got too bad, her mother chose to send Bina away to keep the peace. Amber’s mother, likewise, doesn’t write or visit while Amber is locked up and won’t receive her phone calls. Amber knows without a doubt that her mother loved her husband—Amber’s abusive stepfather—more than her. Bina wonders if her own inconvenient birth was what ruined her mother’s life.

Neither Amber nor Bina is interested in fighting for a place in the world they left behind.

They’ve internalized the things they’ve been implicitly told about themselves: That Amber is guilty. That Bina interferes with the life her mother wants. Neither girl is freed from these notions in death. Rather, she accepts them. She embraces her life outside society and once she’s done so, she finds power and space she couldn’t see before. It’s not paradise, but it’s no worse than the life she left. At the very least, it’s not a world she’s allowed into only if she meets the demands of others, or accepts being loved less than anyone else. In these new worlds there are no guards, punishments or rules at Aurora Hills, no curfew or contracts at Catherine House. Like the founder of Catherine House herself, Amber and Bina jump off a roof to escape a trap and fly.

Amber and Bina aren’t figuring out who they are going to be or preparing to take their place in society. They are coming to understand what they are now, learning to navigate the spaces they have both chosen and had chosen for them, spaces outside linear progress and the world that failed to protect them. Not growing up, but becoming. They are not traditional ghosts, tied to a specific historical moment or event, but post-modern spirits that have opted out of the historical narrative entirely. They are a past that can’t be changed and a future that will no longer be.

But they are still here.


Meg BelvisoMeg Belviso holds a BA in English from Smith College and an MFA from Columbia University. During the week, she chronicles angel encounters as Staff Editor of the bi-monthly magazine Angels on Earth and she loves a good haunted house story. As a freelancer, she has written for many different properties, including several biographies in Penguin’s “Who Was…?” series.

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.

Hearing the Siren Call in Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Faye Bi reviews Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water!

To my fellow Sirens,

It’s not a surprise to any of you that I claim the act of reading as revolutionary.

We know that reading is more than literacy and comprehension. We know that it’s about stories. Who tells them, who gets paid to tell them, and who can make a living off telling them. Whose books get more promotional budget online and off, whose books get placed front and center at bookstores and libraries, whose books get taught in schools instead of being outside reading, and whose books get revered as “great literature.” This discussion is not new to us. But you might be wondering, what can I do? I can’t singlehandedly force all these institutions and corporations to reckon with their racist, sexist, colonialist pasts.

But there is a lot we can do. So much we can do. While I am furious and dismayed on a daily basis, I control one realm entirely: Me. What I choose to read. What I choose to review. What I choose to recommend. What books I choose to buy and where I choose to buy them. And I know—like I hope you all do—that reading critically is an act of resistance.

And so, I am reviewing Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water for you, Sirens community. And I am reviewing it here, for Sirens, where I am not limited by wordcount or editing or pearl-clutching, and I can tell you exactly what I think.

A Song Below Water

A Song Below Water is set in Portland, featuring two Black teenage girls: Tavia, who is a siren, a group of magical people maligned for its association with Black women; and Effie, who plays Euphemia the Mer in the local Ren Faire and has a mysterious skin condition that is somehow linked to her childhood trauma. Effie currently lives with Tavia and her parents, and so the two are sisters, supporting and looking out for each other as they navigate family, school, life, secrets, and literal Black girl magic to save themselves.

To begin, Tavia’s siren identity is an elegant metaphor for being one of the most vulnerable in society. The book opens with a girl murdered by her boyfriend, and because of that girl’s suspected siren identity, her boyfriend will likely be acquitted. Because sirens are only Black women (but not all Black women are sirens), they are perceived as dangerous—and if you recall your lore, a siren’s voice can lure people into doing things against their will. That means sirens have incredible power, but because people fear Black women, sirens’ voices are literally stifled and silenced. There’s that girl on the reality show, for instance, who voluntarily uses a siren collar—designed to silence her voice and her power—to make others “feel safe” around her, and another Black girl, Naema, who wears one as a joke.

But can you imagine using a siren voice as a Black teenaged girl, when, say, the police pull you over?

Effie has her own grief to grapple with. She’s human as far as she knows despite her shedding skin, but she grew up without a father, and her only connection to her mother is that they both played mermaids at the local Ren Faire. Not only must she deal with the large gargoyle keeping watch over her and her grandparents’ continuing to keep family secrets from her, she’s known in the community as “Park Girl”—due to being the sole survivor of a mysterious attack when she was nine where all the other children were turned to stone. Now these “statues” are practically an attraction in a weird Portland tourist campaign, which underscores in a twisted way the variety of methods Black bodies are used for entertainment and how others trivialize her pain.

Morrow’s social critique is devastating, for all the reasons I detail above, but also because she lays out the emotional harm done by “well-meaning” allies, who are white, other races, and other magical identities.

An interesting foil for people of color or other marginalized groups is elokos—dwarf-like creatures who ring charismatic bells to lure human prey and then eat them. In Morrow’s world, elokos are a more socially accepted class of magical being, to the point that they hold political power, especially in Portland, which has attracted a significant eloko population because of that power. Tavia dates Priam, an eloko boy, before the start of the book, and in the best face-palming passage, she recounts the moment they broke up: when Priam bit her neck while kissing, and Tavia launched into an in-depth explanation on why that didn’t bother her despite eloko mythology. But on a more serious note, there are examples of Tavia and Effie at a police brutality protest with other honor students (of course, chaperoned by white parents!) that made me shiver and weep, and I could write an entire essay about Naema, another Black girl and also an eloko, who illustrates the trap of the model minority myth. Naema is especially fascinating as she is one of few outright villains on the page.

But besides pain and critique, there’s joy. Black joy. Tavia and Effie’s sister bond is strong and wonderful to read, and they are each other’s refuge when everyone else around them has failed them. Repeatedly. Not just allies, but also their families, other Black girls, and Black men. There’s a lovely scene at the climax of the book, where the two of them are in a mystical forest setting with lives on the line and literal chaos happening around them, and what do they do? Have a heart-to-heart about their emotional wellbeing.

Morrow brilliantly uses this mythos of sirens, gargoyles, elokos, sprites, mermaids, and magic to examine what it’s like to be a Black girl in America.

And with it, she seamlessly and ambitiously unpacks intersectionality, racism, sexism, police brutality, protesting, affirmative action, gentrification, education, beauty standards, and more. She calls out people who admire and consume Black culture but don’t see the pain of Black creators, and those who call themselves “woke” but are horrified and immobilized when their eyes are opened. I found the density of revelations to be necessarily challenging—and that effort allowed me to appreciate the skill involved in the telling. You know already that this book isn’t newly relevant in the summer of 2020, and that the protests, the pain, the violence, and the disenfranchisement of Black bodies and Black livelihood has been going on for a long, long time.

Tavia and Effie work together to save themselves because they have to. No one will do it for them. If you see parallels to Morrow’s sirens in your real life, I see your pain. I see it and am horrified, but I will do everything in my power so your voice can be heard, because you live these horrors daily. If you, like me, are not a Black girl, A Song Below Water is a call to action. There’s so much to do. Wherever you are on your journey to antiracism, this book is a part of it.

Let’s get to work.


Faye BiFaye 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.

Ren Iwamoto: Exclusive Sirens Interview

As we look toward Sirens, we’re pleased to bring you exclusive interviews with this year’s brilliant Sirens Studio faculty. These conversations are a prelude to the workshops that these faculty will teach as part of the Studio later this year. Today, Sirens content coordinator Cass Morris speaks with Ren Iwamoto.

 

CASS MORRIS: Your graduate studies are focused on twentieth-century East Asian literature, Japanese colonialism, and post-colonial discourse. What drew you to that cross-section of topics? What impact do you think greater awareness of them can have on fantasy fiction?

Ren Iwamoto

REN IWAMOTO: It’s a topic I actually shied away from at first; I think I saw a post on Twitter about the erection of a statue commemorating the Korean comfort women who were abused during the Japanese occupation. I didn’t want to acknowledge it. Growing up in the diaspora, there is a certain degree of nostalgia for “the homeland.” But I’m also Canadian. I demand Canada be held accountable for concentration camps, residential schools, its well-buried history of slavery, the continued forced sterilization of indigenous women—why should I excuse Japan? Especially when even now, many people deny that such events as the Nanking Massacre even occurred. I deliberately fought my impulse to brush past the initial discomfort and instead sought out content that educated me.

Politics and history always have impacted the literary landscape, so as an academic my next step was to source material in my field. This was actually the most difficult part. My Japanese is too poor to read untranslated texts, so I, despite my best efforts, turned to manga (this isn’t a knock against manga, but unfortunately it’s a little difficult to get academic clout as an undergraduate studying comics). This turned out to be fortuitous, because Japan’s manga industry turns a multi-million dollar profit every year and is rife with magic, high strangeness, and future imaginings. As such, my interest in topics like nationalism, war, and industrialization found a fantastically large puddle to splash around in. The aim of my research is to unearth patterns in how the Japanese cultural context informs these themes.

To speak broadly of impact, any and all knowledge of real-world events alters how we interpret science fiction and fantasy. On a more personal level, seeing fantasy elements “inspired” by East Asia (but that actually just fetishize East Asia), or people who watch anime and think that means they understand what it means to be Japanese, I kind of want to smash someone over the head with a chair WWE-style. So I think awareness of the academic discourse—even on a relatively shallow level—helps generate a more complete knowledge and hopefully operates as a gateway for further investigation. There’s no ultimate goal for this sort of endeavor, but I do think compassionate, intellectually robust fiction helps compassionate, intellectually robust people bloom in the world. So.

 

CASS: You’re also an intern at P.S. Literary Agency. Tell us a little about the agency and the work you do there.

REN: I was, from May to November 2019. It was a wonderful experience. I worked for Eric Smith and Kurestin Armada, both of whom represent SFF for teens and adults, amongst other things. My primary duty there was reading slush and writing reader’s reports, which essentially document what works, what doesn’t, and whether I felt the piece was worth the agent’s time to look at. I loved reading the slush. There’s something deeply personal, and yet anonymous about it. I was consistently impressed by the quality of submissions.

I’m hoping to leverage the experience I earned at P.S. Literary to pursue a more long-term career in fiction publishing, but for now I’m content to apply what I learned there to my freelance practice.

 

CASS: Speculative fiction has the wonderful potential to hold mirrors up to the past, present, and future. What are some topics you hope to see speculative fiction explore? What’s on your wish list?

REN: I’ve almost certainly said this before, but speculative fiction should destabilize. Topic is almost irrelevant to me so long as the story turns some stone over; then something meaningful was accomplished. Magic, futurism, historical reimaginings, whatever it is that straddles the line between science and magic—these all have the potential to interrogate heterocentrism, patriarchy, gender, race, and so on. Even concepts like time and space open themselves up to deconstruction. That’s very exciting to me as both a pleasure reader and an academic, so whether the story is about war or star-crossed lovers or two kids riding their bikes around the neighborhood becomes secondary.

 

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

REN: In the interest of honesty, I have to say H*rry P*tter. They were the first books I read for my own pleasure, not for school or because my parents had picked them out for me. But given current circumstances, I’ve had to re-evaluate exactly what I liked about them. The conclusion I came to is that they taught me to love magic. I was and am deeply interested in the idea of there being another layer to reality, a secret layer, which only a few could access. It appealed to my fantasy of being a Special Person who could see and do Special Things. Fortunately, there is an abundance of precisely that kind of content created by people I’m not morally obligated to throw hands at on sight.

On a less commercial level, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first “fantasy” writer I engaged with on an academic level. So lush and ripe with sentiment! I’m still in love. To me, magical realism and its cousin genres do the same thing as the portal fantasies I loved growing up—they reveal something secret. If you know, you know. You know?

 

CASS: At this year’s Studio, you’ll be teaching “Seasoned with Soy Sauce: Asianization in Western Speculative Media and What It Means to Be ‘Asian-Inspired.’ ” What do you hope attendees will take away from your session?

REN: In my experience, everyone at Sirens has come already having done much of the groundwork regarding cultural appropriation. So my goal isn’t to teach that, nor is it to discourage people who aren’t East Asian from creating content which draws upon East Asian inspirations. Rather, I’m interested in conveying how the fascination with “the Orient,” which has featured so heavily in Western colonial history, has translated into modern storytelling practices. The aesthetic of East Asia is very sexy to a Western audience. Westerners love the image of Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Bangkok, and so on. It appeals to their idea of the Far East as either a hyper-sophisticated, hyper-urban paradise, or otherwise an overpopulated mega-slum riddled with opium dens and wet markets. Because this depiction is fundamentally shallow, and most often created by white people for white people, it’s impossible for its audience to fully appreciate the nuance of the East Asian experience (I, as a Japanese person, am only slightly more equipped). This is a rambling way of saying I hope the audience learns a little bit of colonial history in East Asia and world-building.

 

CASS: 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?

REN: This is a cop-out, but I’ve become keenly aware of how every social movement which has benefited me as a queer person of color has been championed initially by Black women. Some of the most innovative and inspiring intellectuals in my field are Black women. And, because this is Sirens, some of the most exciting literature I’ve read this past year, both within and beyond the confines of SFF, has been written by Black women. So: Black women.

 


Ren Iwamoto is a Japanese-Canadian grad student from the tenth dimension. Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search of the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications. For more information about Ren, please visit her Twitter.

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia and occasionally moonlights as a bookseller in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. Her debut novel, From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle, is a Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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