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Sirens At Home: Feminism, Patriarchy and Faith in The Khorasan Archives

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that 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. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

Feminism, Patriarchy and Faith in The Khorasan Archives

by Ausma Zehanat Khan

If you prefer, we offer a video of Ausma reading this essay:

When I first conceived of writing the Khorasan Archives, my four-book fantasy series set along parts of the Silk Road, Central Asia, and the Middle East, I was consumed by a set of questions: What was the place of women within the Islamic tradition? Why did we appear so infrequently in the annals of Islamic history, why had our names and contributions been lost to time, and how did our erasure from our own history affect our current status in Muslim societies and communities?

I was particularly interested in the communities I came from as a woman of Pakistani Pashtuni background, an ethnic group most famously known for constituting the Taliban. Perhaps the Taliban’s most notorious act was to shoot a young schoolgirl by the name of Malala Yousafzai in the head for daring to attend school in defiance of their strictures. Though critically injured, Malala would go on to recover and become an outspoken advocate for girls’ education around the world, ultimately winning a Nobel Prize.

As a fellow Yousafzai (though my family spells it Yusufzai), I was horrified by what had happened to Malala specifically, but as a thinking and feeling human being, I was also outraged by the status of women and girls under Taliban law. So much of what was imposed upon all women, not just Pashtuns, living under Taliban law, was done in the name of a reading of Islam that invalidated the humanity of half the population. The Taliban had taken a religion practiced by a quarter of the world and turned it into a weapon aimed at the women of their communities. And not just the women, of course. The Taliban’s creed of nihilism had a drastic impact on the rights of minorities, political dissidents, and male members of Pashtun communities, as well as any who opposed their rule.

As a Pashtun Muslim woman, I saw these two forces of systematic erasure and oppression as being indelibly connected.

And I decided that I would write a series that put women at the front and center of the Islamic tradition, a tradition they would then use to liberate themselves from oppression and to reclaim their personhood and dignity. In writing the series, I began with the minute and personal—my own background—then expanded to encompass the astonishing sweep of the Islamic civilization. And while in the process of excavating my personal history, I turned a lens on a moment of crisis and decline in the broader Muslim world, focusing on the issue of faith being used as an instrument of oppression.

There were many challenges to taking this approach. As I considered both the personal and the global, I had to be careful not to give ammunition to xenophobes with a particular hatred of Islam and Muslims, along with a contempt for nuance. And I myself had to be wary of falling into the trap of depicting an extremist fringe as representing the center, while still speaking up on the issues that concerned me. The Khorasan Archives were shaped by these tensions and concerns.

The touchstones of my fantasy series were taken from Islamic history, but placed almost exclusively in the hands of women, as a speaking back to narratives, both classical and modern, that treat us as no more than a footnote.

The Bloodprint

So in The Bloodprint, the first book in the series, a dark power called the Talisman, born of ignorance and persecution, has risen in the world of Khorasan. Led by a man known only as the One-Eyed Preacher, it is a movement bent on world domination—a superstitious patriarchy that suppresses knowledge and is particularly concerned with destroying the written word. The Talisman’s other passion is the subjugation of women: Their creed is founded on the oppression and enslavement of women.

In the different parts of the world of Khorasan, resistance groups have formed to fight the Talisman’s tyranny. At their forefront are the Companions of Hira, a group of women mystics whose power derives from the Claim—the magic inherent in the words of a sacred scripture. (Without naming it as such in the series, this sacred scripture refers to the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.) Arian and Sinnia are two of the most powerful members of this group, one knowledgeable in the Claim, the other in weaponry and war, bound by an unshakable sisterhood. Together, they have stalked Talisman slave-chains and disrupted the Talisman’s power. Now they set out in pursuit of the Bloodprint, a dangerous text the Talisman has tried to erase from the world, because it is the key to Khorasan’s salvation.

The quest for the Bloodprint is a quest to deliver the world from tyranny and ignorance. It’s an inherently radical and revolutionary tale because the women in this story—the Companions of Hira, the Empress of the Cloud Door, the Khanum behind the Wall, the Queen of the Negus, the leaders of the Basmachi resistance, the Teerandaz archers of Ashfall—have each imagined a different future for themselves, a future where they topple the patriarchy and reinstate themselves as full and equal citizens.

I wrote The Bloodprint because I wanted to write about my own culture, Pashtun culture—its strengths, its beauties, its fascinating traditions, yet also, its shortcomings. I particularly wanted to write about Pashtun women because of the rise of the Taliban.

Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Because there has been no recent reliable census in the country, that number could be anywhere between roughly 40 and 60 percent of the population. Pashtuns also make up the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan, at around 15 percent of the population. The Taliban, or as they call themselves, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is a political organization and military movement composed mainly of Pashtuns. They rose to power in Afghanistan in 1994 and were prominently involved in the civil war. Many Afghans believed they would guarantee stability after decades of war. Their stance against corruption in an era of rampant corruption also made them popular. The Taliban movement recruited Pashtuns from southern and eastern Afghanistan who were mainly educated, if educated at all, in traditional Islamic schools called madrasas. Kandahar became their stronghold, and over the years, there have been different manifestations of the group, with a spillover effect and related entities operating within northern Pakistan.

As is well known now, Taliban rule was characterized by an extreme fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law that resulted in the systemic oppression of women and minorities. In the period ranging from 1996-2001, the Taliban conducted a scorched earth policy of destroying vast areas of farmland, murdering civilians, destroying tens of thousands of homes, and denying UN food aid to 160,000 thousand civilians in need. (This is why the Khorasan Archives has as its backdrop the issue of on an ongoing famine.) The Taliban also became known for the crime of widespread cultural destruction, such as the blowing up of the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province in 2001.

As time went on, and their power became consolidated, the Taliban’s version of Sharia law became increasingly restrictive. Among the things they banned were kite-flying, poetry, music, dancing, singing, radio, television, the theater, various forms of fiction and nonfiction, and the reporting of the free press. A strict dress code was enforced on men and women both—the length of a man’s beard, the completeness of a woman’s burqa and veil—but the most egregious of their abuses were against women. Restricting women’s right to work, women’s access to healthcare, and the education of women and girls, as well as engaging in violent attacks—including acid attacks—upon schoolgirls and teachers, and ultimately, the burning and closing of schools.ii

To the Taliban, women are a constant source of temptation and corruption and thus their freedom, including freedom of thought, needs to be controlled and constrained. The extent of the Taliban’s influence has fluctuated over the years, but is on the rise again in parts of the country.

The name Taliban derives from “talib,” which means “student,” and Taliban is the Pashto-language plural “students.” Students formed the backbone of the Taliban. This painful irony of students who possess very little knowledge and wish to prevent others, particularly women and girls, from acquiring any, is at the heart of the Khorasan Archives.

It’s beyond the scope of this essay to examine the impact of decades of war in Afghanistan or the role of foreign interventions. My primary focus in writing my series was to explore the status of women and girls under a law where freedom is curtailed in the name of two things: a fundamentalist interpretation of ideology and the code of Pashtun culture, known as Pashtunwali/Pakhtunwali, where tribal and clan honor is seen as paramount. So how have these two factors affected women and girls?

In 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report on the status of girls’ education in Afghanistan. Sixteen years after the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan ousted the Taliban, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. Insecurity, poverty, and displacement keep girls out of school, no matter the promises of international donors. Only 37 percent of adolescent girls are literate, as compared to 66 percent of adolescent boys.

Afghanistan’s government provides fewer schools for girls than boys at both the primary and secondary levels. In half the country’s provinces, fewer than 20 percent of teachers are female, a major barrier for the many girls whose families will not accept their being taught by a man, especially as they become adolescents. Separation and segregation of the sexes is an important part of Pashtun culture, particularly in tribal areas.

In contested areas of the country, girls seeking to attend school also face security threats. The conflict has been accompanied by lawlessness. Militias and criminal gangs have proliferated, and girls face threats including sexual harassment, kidnapping, and acid attacks. In this environment, education is increasingly affected, and girls are disproportionately harmed. But they are not the only ones harmed. Boys, of course, are indoctrinated in Taliban schools, taught only an extremist interpretation of Islam, with no access to alternate points of view, or richer and more diverse forms of education. They’re taught by teachers with a vested interest in promoting the Taliban worldview, and from a young age, boys live the Pashtun code of Pashtunwali, which has its dignity, beauty and strength, but which can also be oppressive to all genders. For decades, Pashtun boys have grown to manhood fighting the Taliban’s wars or living with the outcome of those wars in a deeply war-traumatized nation.

So in writing this series I not only wanted to explore what happens to women under a law like the Taliban’s, but also the impact on the boys and young men who have no other path forward than war—no other guarantors of security than a group like the Taliban.

As I mentioned in my introduction, in all my writing, I’m engaged in the most delicate balancing act. It’s vitally important to me not to contribute to the demonization of Muslim communities through my work. Yet I can’t be silent on the issue of human rights, women’s rights, or the erasure of women from participation in public or communal life and from most accounts of Islamic history. To counteract this, I highlight the contributions of women to the dizzying accomplishments of the Islamic civilization in the worldbuilding of the Khorasan Archives.

And to facilitate that delicate process of critical self-reflection without falling into the trap of feeding racist anti-Muslim discourse, I began with the story of a Pashtun woman like myself. My main character, Arian, is from the city of Candour, and she’s living through a historical moment where women are treated the same way by the Talisman—some thousand years into a future where the world has burned down—as they are currently treated by the Taliban. In Khorasan, women have lost access to their history, to knowledge, to education and to individual freedom. In The Bloodprint, I write about what it’s like to live in that society, almost entirely from the perspective of women.

The Black Khan
The Blue Eye

But in the second and third books in the series, The Black Khan and The Blue Eye, without taking anything away from the heroism of the women in my series, I bring into focus Arian and Sinnia’s confederates and allies. Men who oppose the Talisman’s rule of law and who help to bring down a patriarchy that oppresses all the people of Khorasan with its anti-humanism. I write about Arian’s ward, Wafa, a Hazara boy—when the Hazara are a persecuted group, as they are today in Afghanistan—who has ample and intimate knowledge of the Talisman’s cruelty. I also open up the story to include Arian’s beloved, Daniyar, the Silver Mage and Guardian of Candour, a member of the Shin War tribe, a tribe that has fallen to Talisman rule. Daniyar in many ways embodies the code of Pashtunwali, the Pashtun way of life, with its traditional qualities of nobility, honor, and strength in war.

Perhaps less well-known or regarded is the concept of “namus” or women’s honor, which refers to the modesty, respectability and protection of women. A Pashtun man’s honor rests upon his ability to uphold and protect the honor and dignity of the women of his family and clan. Traditionally, the concept of “namus” has been a way of controlling the behavior of women so that it doesn’t diminish the honor of men.

But “namus” could also be conceived of as according honor to a man who upholds and protects the rights of women, a part of Pashtun culture which too often is disregarded, though not by Daniyar.

The Khorasan Archives spends some time developing the character of Daniyar as a man who has resisted Talisman law from its inception, and who has sought to teach the orphan boys of Candour another way of seeing and being. This conception of honor is given more weight as the series progresses. In writing about it, I was trying to answer the question of what other ways of being are possible for the boys and young men of a war-traumatized nation steeped in patriarchal culture. It was important to me to include Daniyar because I wanted to imagine what equality and partnership might look like in a world where relationships between the sexes are premised on subjugation and oppression.

This examination of roots and origins was only part of my project. It may have been the spark that lit my interest in writing the Khorasan Archives, but I realized I wanted to explore more than my own roots, or at least the specificity of my own roots. Which takes me back to the question of Muslim identity, to the interconnectedness—for good or ill—of a global community.

In looking at the role of religion in society, it was evident that there are many similarities between the Taliban and other extremist groups—who of course, do not represent mainstream Muslim society, practice or ethics—but who have evolved patriarchal theologies to oppress women in Muslim-majority lands. A common factor within these theologies is the obsession with Muslim women’s dress: the need to comment on it, to legislate it, to either veil or unveil Muslim women forcibly, depending on the society or the era, and to intrude ever more deeply into Muslim women’s lives. Wherever an extremist interpretation of Islam flourishes—whether in the heartland of Arabia, or in rural communities in Nigeria, or in the cosmopolitan cities of Iran, or with fundamentalist revisionism in progressive societies like Malaysia and Turkey, extremist ideology is nearly always accompanied by two things: (1) the oppression of women to varying degrees along a spectrum, and (2) the violation of the human rights and human dignity of minorities.

I want to emphasize that this doesn’t apply to all Muslim societies, nor to all interpretations of Islamic theology and practice. I am pointing specifically to places and moments of crisis and decline. The Muslim world is vast, it can’t be painted with a single brush. It encompasses many different cultures, practices and histories. More, many instances of crisis and decline can be attributed less to Islamic theology and more to broken politics, particularly in the Middle East; to prevailing social, economic and political conditions in specific states, such as Iraq, Libya, or Syria.

Having said that, there is a thread of commonality between groups like ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, or elements of the Iranian theocracy, etc.: the fundamentally exploitative, exclusionary, anti-humanist, intolerant and patriarchal use to which religion is put in the service of tyrants or groups who seek exclusive power and control in deeply religious societies.

My personal history is rooted in societies like these.

As a Muslim woman who is part of the global community, or the ummah, my present and future are also connected to them all. It was on that basis that I wanted to interrogate the interplay between religion and society, and to challenge an anti-humanist, patriarchal, intolerant and exclusionary reading of religion that denies women equality and dignity, rendering them a lesser order of physical and spiritual beings.

But I wanted to be even more radical than that in terms of how I addressed these issues in my books. The Islamic tradition is a tradition I venerate. Its history isn’t merely academic to me—it’s deeply personal. I claim it for myself, just as many Muslim women claim it for themselves. We refuse to be excluded from it, to be ignored, or underwritten or forgotten. This is why I gave the magic in the series the name of the Claim. The Companions of Hira are claiming their tradition for themselves. The Claim is an oral magic that speaks to the power of the written word so I performed a bit of linguistic wordplay deriving “claim” from “kalimah/kalam,” which in Arabic means “speech” or “utterance” or “the word,” and in the case of “kalaam Allah”, “the sacred word.”

I was also fascinated by the story of the “munafiqeen”—the hypocrites. In the context of Islamic history, the “munafiqeen” were those who promised to stand with the Prophet Muhammad against his enemies, but went whichever way the prevailing wind blew, refusing to stand for any principle. And in the context of the Khorasan Archives, I thought about this a great deal. I considered the hypocrisy of preaching morality and piety to women, while practicing the rankest injustice. I thought of those Taliban warlords who took a faith premised on equality and justice, and turned it into an instrument of humiliation, subjugation and war.

Thus, the themes of the Khorasan Archives were born. The idea of a liberation theology came to life, and my Companions of Hira set off not to fight a war against men, but to reclaim their tradition for themselves, to have an equal say in interpreting it, reading it, living it, to be able to use it as a tool of justice, to use it to bring down the patriarchy and end a reign of injustice.

I began with the story of Pashtun women in Afghanistan, then swept through the history, terrain and mythology of the Islamic civilization—which despite our linguistic, ethnic, cultural or sectarian differences—is what the Muslim ummah holds in common.

The series doesn’t use the terms and names that I describe in this essay because I imagined a future where history was erased, and languages intermingled into a common tongue, though without any difficulty at all, you’ll deduce that the high tongue in this series is Arabic. The Arabic language touches all the histories and cultures of the Islamic civilization and has penetrated all its mother tongues. Whether they speak Arabic or not, most Muslim children from observant families learn to read classical Arabic at a very young age. To me, this is a thing of beauty—a thing that links us, a history I cherish.

In writing about the moment of crisis and decline embodied by groups like the Taliban or Boko Haram—and their culture of ugliness, I wanted to speak back to ugliness with beauty. The beauty of Arian and Sinnia’s quest. The beauty of the future they imagine, a future that builds on the dignity of their heritage, in place of the perversion of it brought into being by the Talisman/Taliban.

The Arabic language was central to the story because the Islamic civilization is a civilization of the book. A civilization of the word.

So I wrote about an illiterate people, a people without access to the written word, without access to the holy word, and in their commitment to ignorance, in their anti-intellectualism, in their rejection of innovation and of independent reasoning, in their refusal to embrace pluralism or diversity of opinion—they brought themselves to ruin.

Only the Companions of Hira can redeem them, the group of women mystics who are at the center of my story, led by Arian and Sinnia, two of the most gifted and determined Companions. And I chose the name “Companions of Hira” quite deliberately. In the context of Islamic history, Hira was a cave in Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad received divine revelation. The Companions were Companions of Muhammad, and through their accounts, we’ve come to learn about his life and teachings, as with the disciples of Jesus. But in most accounts of Islamic history, little attention is paid to women. They’ve been all but lost to history, or relegated to footnotes, even when they were powerful in their own right, as jurists, mystics or warriors. So with the Khorasan Archives, I was deeply motivated to speak back to this erasure. Thus, the Companions of Hira in my series—those who hold what is effectively religious authority—are all and only women.

A final point about my radical intentions: in this introspective series that is essentially a calling to account, the women of Khorasan do not require liberation by outside forces, nor do they need to be educated by those who deem themselves superior. There’s no civilizing mission here.

Arian and Sinnia are more than capable of liberating themselves—not with the aid of foreign intervention, not by being enlightened as to the backwardness of their ways, nor through any colonial constructs at all.

In Khorasan, for revolution to succeed, for a democratic and egalitarian transition to take root, the new form must be congruent with the old. The roots of reformation must lie within the people of Khorasan’s own tradition, if it is to be seen as authentic. If it is to have legitimacy.

The Bladebone

And what the heroines of my series would argue is that you derive from a tradition what you bring to it. If you bring an ethical perspective to it, an ethical reading will flourish in your hands.

So far from being used as an instrument of oppression, Arian and Sinnia find their dignity and freedom in the Claim. Because their reading of the Claim is the reading of all people of decency. It’s one that recognizes beauty. It honors human dignity, and it enshrines and protects fundamental human rights.

In writing this series, and excavating my personal history alongside my connection to the Islamic civilization, that was what I hoped to recognize and re-claim.


i Pashtuns are called Pashtun/Pakhtun in the Pashto/Pakhto language, and Pathans in the Urdu language. My family is Urdu-speaking, but I use the term Pashtun as it’s more broadly known.

ii “I Won’t Be A Doctor and One Day You’ll Be Sick”: Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan. (Human Rights Watch, October 2017). See also, Afghanistan: Girls Struggle for an Education


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

Sirens At Home: A Wife Should Have No Secrets: Unthinking Privilege and Privacy in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that 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. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

A Wife Should Have No Secrets: Unthinking Privilege and Privacy in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”
by Faye Bi

If you prefer, we offer a video of Faye reading this essay:

Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “The Husband Stitch” published online in 2014 and is the first story in her acclaimed short fiction collection, Her Body and Other Parties. It’s the story of a woman with a green ribbon around her neck, who meets a boy who becomes her husband, and with whom she raises a son. Before I continue, Machado’s fairytale focuses on a cis-het relationship, so I will be using that language in my analysis. As a reader, I acknowledge the pervasive and structural nature of toxic masculinity. Male privilege affects queer, nonbinary and transgender people in ways that are similar, but often more violent.

Upon their first meeting, the boy asks the narrator if he can touch her ribbon. She says no. “There are two rules,” the narrator shares, “he cannot finish inside of me, and he cannot touch my green ribbon.” The ribbon represents a few things: her voice, given its placement around her throat; a piece of herself more sacred than her body, which she gives to her husband freely; and, with the introduction of other women with ribbons, an essential part of their identity women choose to keep for themselves and not to share with men, even their husbands and sons.

With “The Husband Stitch,” Machado has woven folklore, storytelling, and women’s pain and experiences—and men’s attempts to violate or invalidate them—in a social horror that too successfully captures the current zeitgeist in an era of #MeToo and #NotAllMen.

First, the green ribbon in “The Husband Stitch” is a reference to a European folk motif in which a red thread is worn around a person’s neck, which marks the place where their head was severed and then reattached. The most popular iteration of this motif—one that Machado may have borrowed from—is “The Girl with the Green Ribbon” in Alvin Schwartz’s 1985 children’s story collection In a Dark, Dark Room. There, too, a man (named Alfred) meets a woman (named Jenny) with a green ribbon around her neck, who agrees to marry him on the condition that he never touches it. Years later when Jenny is on her deathbed, she unties her ribbon and her head rolls off. The common adult response to this story from a cursory internet search is a) that it messed them up as a child, b) shock that it was published for children as young as four, and c) that Alfred had clearly been duped. Jenny was an “undead liar,” and Alfred should have pulled off Jenny’s ribbon far earlier!

Machado, of course, gives no fucks about Alfred. In “The Husband Stitch,” she reimagines “Girl with the Green Ribbon” solely from the girl’s point of view, our narrator. Given the strategic placement of the ribbon around her neck, it symbolizes her voice—and thus, her stories, perspective, truth, and literal speech. In the parenthetical introduction to the story itself, Machado’s narrator sets us up to read the story aloud, determining the voices to use for each character: for the boy who will become her husband, “robust with his own good fortune,” and for her father, “like your father, or the man you wish was your father.” For herself, the narrator tells us: “high-pitched, forgettable” and for all other women, “interchangeable with [her] own.”

We can deduce, then, that the narrator’s stories reflect a universality of themes women will recognize in their relationships.

Our narrator tells us then, how she meets a boy who both her parents are “extremely fond” of, and who they believe will be a good man. She tells us, too, that she and her boy have a lot of very intense, very consensual, very passionate sex throughout their courtship and their marriage, just in case anyone would try to read her boundary setting of not touching her green ribbon as withholding sex. By nearly all accounts, the narrator’s husband can be read as loving: faithful, polite to her family, a hardworking employee, an excited expectant father, and a supportive co-parent. Machado, in establishing a character who will eventually stand as a villain, has not depicted the narrator’s husband as a one-note misogynistic asshole. He has honorable qualities and these descriptions make him all the more recognizable as the dependable male family members in our lives: our husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, and sons.

At the same time, the narrator’s husband’s words of love, romance, and family can equally be interpreted as ominous, persistent, and violating.

He asks her worst secret, and she confides in him the pain of her molestation by a teacher. The day he proposes, he tells her, “I feel like I know so many parts of you…And now, I will know all of them.” When she tells him she is pregnant, he is thrilled, but asks in the next breath, “Will the child have a ribbon?” Perhaps the most disturbing is the joke he makes with the male doctor after our narrator gives birth: “You offer that extra stitch, right?” He is of course referring to “the husband stitch,” when a doctor sews up a woman’s uterus after childbirth to make sex pleasurable for her husband. Doctors (a profession long dominated by men after midwives lost influence) have denied that the husband stitch exists, and to this day it remains a procedure of speculation… but wouldn’t we ask women who have lived these experiences?

Yet, the passage that’s most illustrative of these violations, and the most enraging, is when the narrator’s husband touches her ribbon without her consent. She has lots of sex—consensual sex!—with him in many, many places: on park benches, in the woods, mere moments before they walk down the aisle to get married, in train cars. But she is most upset and most vulnerable the times he touches her ribbon. When he tries to untie it in a bout of lovemaking, she feels so violated and stops immediately. He tells her:


– A wife, he says, should have no secrets from her husband.
– I don’t have any secrets, I tell him.
– The ribbon.
– The ribbon is not a secret, it’s just mine.
– Were you born with it? Why your throat? Why is it green?
I do not answer.
He is silent for a long minute. Then,
– A wife should have no secrets.
My nose grows hot. I do not want to cry.
– I have given you everything you have ever asked for, I say. Am I not allowed this one thing?
– I want to know.
– You think you want to know, I say, but you do not.
– Why do you want to hide it from me?
– I am not hiding it. It is not yours.

Her simple request and his dogged persistence here only magnifies the pervasiveness of his male privilege and entitlement. She has no secret about the ribbon, and answers none of his questions. But he sees this visible reminder of something to which he believes he has a right. That he has a right to what he believes is a secret, because he does not have access to it, nor can he claim ownership of it—and by extension, of her.

For the narrator, the ribbon is more than just a physical object; Machado suggests it’s sacred to femininity and more private even than parts of her body, even her uterus. This small piece of herself is essential to her identity.

The relationship between the narrator and her son changes, too, around the ribbon. When he is a baby, her son treats and touches her ribbon “no differently than he would an ear or finger.” But as he ages, more layers build between mother and son. When he tries to pull at it, she rebuffs him and shakes a can of pennies. Machado lets us know this moment is the same as shaking a can of pennies and startling the person next to you. “Observe their expression of startled fear, and then betrayal. Notice how they never look at you in exactly the same way for the rest of your days.” And finally, when he is old enough to ask point blank about it directly, she must refuse. “I tell him that we are all different, and sometimes you should not ask questions. I assure him that he’ll understand when he is grown.” And like the narrator’s husband, Machado does not depict her son as categorically bad or even ignorant, but as a kind, gentle soul, who fights bullies and waits to walk with a neighbor boy who is slower than the others. It’s that he must be taught boundaries—and to his credit, he respects them—though our poor narrator is constantly on guard to protect this part of herself.

With husband and son, Machado shows that even “good, loving” men aren’t exempt from transgressions, which is what makes “The Husband Stitch” a brilliant horror story and all-too-close for comfort.

Interspersed with interactions with her family, the narrator has “always been a teller of stories,” and Machado expertly weaves the tale with anecdotes and retellings of other horror stories or spooky folk tales. Even if you are unfamiliar with them, as I was, it doesn’t detract from “The Husband Stitch”; familiarity only contributes another layer of appreciation of her craft. These stories range from the narrator’s father telling her that there couldn’t have been stubby toes among the potatoes at the grocery store even though she saw them with her own eyes, to the daughter whose mother died from illness and the entire city gaslighting her so she might not believe she had a mother at all. Each story has the reader question women’s voices and experiences and whether or not they are to be believed. Many of them lead to a woman’s demise—whether she followed her own instincts and was right (“Graveyard Girl”), put her faith in a man that got them into deep shit (“Serial Killer Parking Lot”), or self-sacrificed her own comfort and pain merely to satisfy a man (“Where’s My Liver?”). These asides not only propel the narrator’s timeline forward, but force us to revisit her husband and son’s varying degrees of fixation with her ribbon and its eventual consequences.

When the narrator discovers women’s spaces, her perspective shifts. The text suggests that all women have ribbons somewhere—the fact that neither her son nor husband have ribbons—and the narrator meets other women with ribbons of all sizes and colors tied around various body parts. In every case, and like in Schwartz’s story, the ribbon is present, visible and never explained. She commiserates with another mother at her son’s school with a pale yellow ribbon on her finger. “It’s such a bother isn’t it?” she tells the narrator, as it gets constantly tangled when she sews costumes for the play. The narrator attends an art class, where a woman with a red ribbon around her ankle poses nude for a figure drawing session. The narrator and the ribbon-ankled model bump into each other at the coffee shop afterward, and the narrator is so captivated, both emotionally and sexually. The model says she has a daughter, and our narrator is afraid to ask the specifics of raising a “girl-child” as opposed to a son with no ribbon. When she reluctantly discusses details of the other woman’s ribbon after being prodded by her husband, she feels a burning shame and never goes back to that art class, as if she has infringed upon another woman’s privacy.

But while these ribbons are visible and tangible in Machado’s text, they stand in for any kind of boundary a woman might not want a man to cross.

Like a man feeling entitled to a woman’s body because she is his wife or because he paid for her dinner, or a son being old enough to ask about a personal matter that his mother does not want to tell him. It can be an anonymous internet commenter (likely male) invalidating a woman’s story with a “pics or it didn’t happen,” or especially, as this essay was originally written in Fall 2018, a group of white male congressmen questioning a psychology professor (through a female proxy, of course) about her sexual assault, making her relive her trauma on national television as she and her family receive death threats. And she is so calm, accommodating and helpful, while her assaulter shows up a few hours later and throws a huge tantrum demanding that his position on the nation’s highest court is owed to him. And that, even if we do believe her, what can we do about it? Any instance of a man demanding a woman’s smile, conversation, affection, or time. All manners of microaggressions such as not being called by the name you choose for yourself, or having a doctor, vendor, official, or other authority figure address a male spouse first. Even though our narrator in “The Husband Stitch” does literally everything—emotionally and sexually—to please her husband, he still feels that he deserves access to her ribbon. He still feels like he deserves to know.

This masculine persistence is so incredibly wearying it’s unsurprising that the narrator eventually gives in to her husband’s unrelenting obsession. Even after successfully and happily raising a son and sending him off into the world, milestone after milestone, he still wants to touch it. “Do you want to untie the ribbon? I ask him. After these many years, is that what you want of me?” When she, despondent, finally allows him to do it, he does so gaily and greedily. His ultimate betrayal is both infuriating and pathetic, though you could interpret his actions as at best, curiosity killed the cat or prodding a dangerous animal with a stick, it is much more plausible to read “The Husband Stitch” as a woman’s husband who becomes a monster out of his own male privilege by destroying the only boundary she kept, on the one thing she kept sacred for herself, and that didn’t belong to him.

By depicting the ribbon as a uniquely feminine feature, a shared experience yet individual to each woman, Machado skillfully defends a woman’s right to privacy and shows a man—the narrator’s husband and to a lesser degree, her son—sometimes ignorantly, often willfully, attempting to violate it. When we talk of hearing, believing, and heeding to women’s words, Machado shows even “good” men fail to do this through her sympathetic portrayals of men. As with great horror writers, she dramatizes the social horrors of the day and captures the intangible fear women have of not being believed and their experiences invalidated or called into question, not just from acquaintances or strangers, but from the people closest to us.


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.

Sirens At Home: Women Are Already Powerful: The Problem of Privileging Masculine Modes of Power in Fantasy

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that 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. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

Women Are Already Powerful:
The Problem of Privileging Masculine Modes of Power in Fantasy

By Casey Blair

If you prefer, we offer a video of Casey reading this essay:


The fantasy genre continues to change and grow in response to how we—the writers, book purveyors, reviewers, educators, publishing professionals, and most importantly of all, the readers—push it. When we challenge standards and accepted limitations of what we want to read and what sells, we shift the landscape of stories available to us. We have the power to effect change, when enough of us across intersections care enough to exert that pressure. We see that power in effect—that it exists, and that we have a whole lot more work to do—in the way the publishing industry is putting out and celebrating more fantasy stories by and about marginalized people, and in particular, more stories about powerful women.

Women lead revolutions, women wield unprecedented magical powers, and women punch gods and monsters. Women helm stories of action and adventure, the kinds of stories boys have never had to search for to see themselves in. Especially in the young adult space, we are swimming in stories of women starring in fantasy worlds, and that is a victory worth celebrating.

But what I don’t see as much of, and I wish I saw more, are stories that center women where masculine modes of power aren’t upheld as the pinnacle, as the most important, as the only power worth aspiring to. Women should absolutely star in stories of fantasy combat and commanding revolutions. As Kameron Hurley has discussed, women, in all ages of history and all around the world, have always fought—and we deserve to see that in our fantasy. But women have exercised lots of other forms of power, too, and they’ve fought in many different ways, and we are still all too often erasing those ways from our stories, as well as our conversations about and acclaim for why all those ways matter.

Publishing won’t put out those stories in greater percentages or put more marketing dollars behind them if we don’t demand it of them, so I want to dive into why these stories that uplift feminine-coded forms of power are so important, and what it means that they’re comparatively rare. Which is not to say they don’t exist at all, or that we should slow down on writing stories about women stabbing the patriarchy with swords especially now that people of color and queer folk are beginning to be centered in more of them. Just that feminine-coded power, and its problematic erasure or devaluation, gets a lot less attention or celebration even though it can be just as inspiring and revolutionary.

I’m going to be talking about “coding feminine” or “masculine” as shorthand, so let me define that briefly, if broadly: These are the acts, the work, and the presentations we, in our western social framework, traditionally and stereotypically associate with the male or female gender. Big muscles and taking up space are coded masculine; daintiness and humility are coded feminine. Solving problems by punching is coded masculine; with teamwork, feminine.

So a fantasy that gives us an outgoing and belligerent heroine who loves sports, excels at punching, doesn’t care about dresses, and refuses to work with people—this is coding her power as masculine. And that’s not a bad thing! Women characters wielding masculine-coded power challenge the gender stereotypes that only men are able to succeed with that kind of power, the swords and the aggression and the alone-ness. Women absolutely can too, and I love these stories. The problem is with trends, historical and current.

For decades, we’ve read troves of fantasy focusing on men wielding masculine-coded power and generally not even noticing feminine-coded power exists, or if it does devaluing it or even making it evil. And in our current era, while that kind of fantasy doesn’t eclipse all the other fantastic work out there, by and large most fantasy stories starring women cast them in roles wielding masculine-coded power. These women are dueling to the death. They’re breaking communities with revolutions. They’re throwing away their dresses and donning pants. And while none of those are problems in and of themselves, there is a problem when over and over feminine modes of power are consistently abandoned, trashed, buried, and erased.

There is a problem when the only, or even the primary, way we can imagine women in stories focusing on action and adventure is to make them reject feminine modes of power. There’s a problem when the vast majority of women our stories present as heroes, as powerful in their own right, are coded masculine. There is a problem when you have a whole lot of women in your story, and all the Aryas, the warrior women, are narratively favored, where the Sansas, who try to follow traditional paths for women, have the most horrifying storylines. Not all the heroes of any gender should have to wield masculine-coded power to be at the center of a story—whether or not the story focuses on action and adventure.

The problem, to be clear, is that we’re tacitly upholding toxic masculinity by not challenging the underlying assumption that women who don’t behave in traditionally masculine ways are not just as powerful and as capable and deserving of adventures, in our stories and in our reality. When the dominant trend in our stories is to privilege masculine modes of power over feminine, and those are the stories we dominantly celebrate, that’s the message we send, absorb, and perpetuate.

I don’t just want to see women in my fantasy books who decide they should be able to wear pants, too, and work to make that happen. I want to see women and people of all genders who wear dresses proudly in a pants-dominated world and are treated with just as much respect without working multiple times as hard for it.

Or, to put it another way: I don’t want women to have to reject dresses to be taken as seriously as the people who wear pants. Women shouldn’t have to reject femininity to be powerful, and that is just as important in our fantasy as it is in our reality.

Women are already powerful.

***

Stories are both mirror and window. They help us figure out who we are and who we can be. They help us cope with our reality and imagine other ways of being.

So when we see that our stories dominantly privilege masculine-coded modes of power—of physical strength, noncooperation, aggression—it matters. The prevalence of this trend sends a clear and awful message that traditionally feminine modes of power aren’t, in fact, worthwhile. That women who want to wear dresses and talk problems out instead of stabbing them in their fronts are weak, and passive, and can’t go on adventures. I reject wholeheartedly the premise that to have power in our stories, which reflect the truth of our reality and offer possible escapes, we have to reject femininity, too.

We do ourselves a disservice upholding traditionally masculine roles as modes of power for women without also modeling femininity as strength worth aspiring to—by which I mean not inherently evil—by not also modeling that men don’t have to be brilliant warriors and ruthless princes to be heroes or to be desirable as heroes. We can’t unravel toxic masculinity if we don’t value other kinds of power for all genders, and worse, right now our stories are helping uphold it by dominantly privileging traditionally masculine modes of power for everyone.

And we can’t value other kinds of power when we erase and devalue them from our stories.

***

What other kinds of power do I mean? What does this look like? Happily, examples do exist in fantasy, even if they’re not the majority, so let’s look at some specifics.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit subverts gender role expectations across the board. Our protagonist Balsa is a professional fighter not because she has to be, but because she chooses to be. She’s not the only female character, either: The Second Empress uses her political power, which functions differently than the Emperor’s, to thwart him and save her son; for contrast the oldest and most powerful shaman is a woman who is explicitly called ugly, making it clear her power is not connected to beauty or any kind of feminine wiles.

On another side, our primary healer character, who may or may not be a love interest, is a man, not a woman. And the character who is forced to give birth to a magical egg is a prince, not a princess. Balsa is our protagonist, but in this book she’s also just the bodyguard: The prince must do the work of bearing the egg, and Balsa couldn’t protect him without the work of the healer. With this framing, Uehashi makes it clear both that avenues for different kinds of women to exercise power exist and, importantly, that the traditionally coded feminine roles are valuable work, while simultaneously centering a woman.

So this is the first way to successfully navigate giving us satisfying stories of action and adventure while avoiding the problem of privileging masculine modes of power for women in fantasy: Center the women with masculine-coded power but still uplift feminine-coded power by granting it to leading male characters and making it integral to the resolution of the plot. Feminine-coded power doesn’t have to be the sole province of women, nor should it be, lest it function as a way to pressure women into exerting only feminine power, which is its own trap. But including feminine-coded power as a desirable mode for other genders is one way to keep from restricting valuation of that power.

Stories can apply this kind of reversal—subverting gender expectations for centered women while also valuing feminine-coded power—in a lot of ways. In Robyn Bennis’s The Guns Above, our heroine is an airship captain who is very good at soldiering, while the male dandy assigned to spy on her is the one who is sensitive to people’s emotional needs. The story requires both their skillsets to get them out of trouble. In C.L. Polk’s Witchmark, our gay male hero is a healer, and it’s his sister, mindlessly following in the steps of her father’s masculine-coded ruthless heartlessness, that is the villain. In this case, victory requires a complete rejection of the dominant power system that subjugates others.

Trail of Lightning

In Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, our protagonist Maggie Hoskie is skilled and supernaturally talented at killing, while Kai Arviso is a medicine man still coming into his full power who needs Maggie to protect him—and he is also a love interest who is not preternaturally gifted at combat, and (BRIEF SPOILER) the one Maggie chooses (END SPOILER). Trail of Lightning is also in many ways a refutation of this kind of gender coding: others use the fact that Maggie Hoskie is a woman in possession of killing powers at all to make her out to be a monster, and unnatural, which she at turns embraces or rejects.

In Laini Taylor’s Dreamdark series, she sets up a similar dynamic in Magpie Windwitch, who is a champion because she’s the only faerie who can weave the tapestry of the world, but a hero not because of what she can do with magic or in battle, but because she’s committed to acting. And also in Talon Rathersting, who learns how to knit magic—so he can fly, and so he can keep his friend from being lost. Laini Taylor makes fiber arts and keeping people together, two skills traditionally associated with women, valuable in the world at large as well as for men specifically.

Sandry

In these stories, we get to have it all: action and adventure without privileging toxic masculinity. Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series shows us another way to do this with a group of four main characters: Sandry, a noblewoman whose magic is tied not just to fiber arts, but specifically to the perceived lower-class craft of weaving which includes weaving people together; Daja, who hails from a merchant clan—which is not coded as a masculine endeavor—and whose powers are tied to blacksmithing, which is; Tris, whose magic is fantastically destructive—which the narrative paints as problematic, not desirable—and who gets to be an explicitly angry, emotional woman without that making her less worthy or powerful; and Briar, our one boy, whose magic is tied to plants and gardening, which we traditionally associate with women. Every protagonist, taken individually and as part of a collective, challenges our understanding of gender-coded modes of power.

***

All these examples so far largely feature gender flipping, so before I go any further we have to take a minute to talk about matriarchies in fantasy, when it’s not just individual characters challenging gender roles but the entire fantasy society. Some fantasy matriarchies do a simple, blunt gender role swapping, having women exercise masculine-coded power and devaluing or subjugating feminine-coded power in men. Others take a more nuanced approach and bake the analysis into text with more subtlety.

Wings of Fire

We can talk about the outrageously popular middle grade Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland, which follows a group of dragonets who think they’ve been chosen to save the world, and each book of the initial quintet focuses on one of them. Sometimes the female dragons are the strongest or best fighters, and sometimes they aren’t, but in this matriarchal world they are always assumed to be the natural leaders. The series evaluates the flaws of masculine-coded antagonistic, heartless, and physical strength-based leadership modes on the page, and ultimately, amidst all the combat and bloodshed and assumptions of their necessity, it’s the tiny female dragonet who wants everyone to work together who is able to figure out how to end the decades-long dragon war.

We can talk about In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan and its misandrist elves, how the narrative hilariously and blatantly critiques traditional patriarchal arguments by flipping them on their head. We can also talk about how our bisexual male hero navigates through and around his narrow-sighted, war-focused comrades with a combination of blithely ignoring rules, which is traditionally a men-only prerogative, but also a commitment to diplomacy, nonviolence, and bringing people together, which is associated with women.

We can also talk about Martha Wells’s Raksura series and its, as the author describes them on John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea,” “matriarchal bisexual polyamorous flying shapeshifting lizard-lion-bee people.” Her world-building is significantly more complex than a simple gender flip, problematizing and elevating different social roles, how they interact with gender coding, and what those consequences look like on both a societal and narrative level.

***

“This is all well and good,” you may be thinking, “but these are mostly women in masculine modes of power even if those modes aren’t privileged above feminine. Don’t you have examples of women centered and exercising valued feminine-coded power?” I do indeed, but not as many as I want.

Gender flipping and subversion is only one way to navigate the problem of privileging masculine modes of power. Some of the authors I cited above in fact operate in multiple modes: Tamora Pierce, for instance, gives us Alanna, who is not only a warrior but also a healer, and the latter is just as critical to her character even if people tend to focus on the swords. Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player gives us Elin, who wants nothing more than to care for magical creatures and stay out of world politics and battles. Authors can successfully center women exercising feminine-coded power in fantasy adventures in so many ways, it’s infuriating to me how few I can point to and how little I hear this highlighted.

Torn

So what does this look like in practice? Let’s start with Rowenna Miller’s Torn, which values feminine-coded work from top to bottom. In this book, our heroine is a professional seamstress who stitches charms into dresses. It’s protective work and homemaking in fiber arts in particular, disciplines traditionally associated with women. Moreover, she’s also a business owner and pillar in her community, sharing her knowledge and uplifting other women in feminine-coded skills when she can. When men discover just how powerful her ability can be, they try to control her and twist her ability, and she masters her power to subvert their violent goals without having to follow their toxic paths to power.

The thread of community-building leads me to modes of leadership that code feminine rather than masculine, based less on dominance than on coming together, and for this reason two books I will tell everyone to read forever are Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore and The Goblin Emperor by Sarah Monette writing as Katherine Addison. I group them together in this context because both are fundamentally about whether it is possible—and how—to rule, to exercise power inherited from a deeply toxic foundation and history, with compassion. In Bitterblue, our heroine learns how to bring people together to begin healing not by ignoring the past or forcing people to expose their pain, but by creating a space where it is safe to do so. The Goblin Emperor codes Maia’s power feminine, is clear that he has been and is punished for it, and nevertheless, little by little, inexorably, he learns how to use his power to build bridges, literally and figuratively. He learns how to accept the institutionalized and personalized traumas the people he wants to lift up are starting from, and he surrounds himself with women who are likewise committed to lifting each other up. Both books analyze the failures of privileging masculine modes of power and actively work to uplift feminine modes.

Bitterblue The Goblin Emperor

Mirage by Somaiya Daud, a Moroccan-inspired space fantasy, not only centers compassion, it includes an incredible variety of women in positions of power: princesses and fighters, old and young, from the ruling culture and from the oppressed. That variety isn’t limited to living women, either: Even in the world-building, revered cultural heroes are women, and they are both warriors and poets, providing acknowledged, valued paths for women to wield different kinds of power. In this book, our heroine Amani doesn’t lead a revolution. Her true power is borne out of her ability to understand and communicate with different groups of people, to weave the foundations of peace when no one else is even looking for it. And she still gets action, adventure, and romance out of it.

Listening, sharing, adapting, negotiating, and leveraging networks—all of these traditionally feminine-coded skills are incredibly powerful. The Inda series by Sherwood Smith, which is at once epic fantasy, military fantasy, and fantasy of manners, is a masterful example of the many different kinds of power women can wield, or are forced to wield, when dealing with patriarchal frameworks. There are women for whom beauty is a curse or a weapon or both; there are women who fight in quiet ways, smiling ways, or stabbing ways. There are women who take the lessons of power from one culture and then have to apply them or learn new ways in different cultures. There are women who form networks to work together to survive patriarchal systems as we simultaneously watch those systems, and the men who internalize their ideals, rot from the inside.

Empire of Sand

Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand is one of my latest favorite examples of the different kinds of feminine-coded power women can wield in fantasy, one reason being she gives us multiple modes of feminine-coded power exercised at the same time, because why choose? In this book with its setting inspired by Mughal India, Tasha Suri gives us a window into what power looks like for women at court: those on the top, and those distinctly not, and how it functions differently within the sphere of other women and also more broadly—we see the power of controlling who sees women’s bodies, and we see women both lifted up and undercut by other women. We also see women’s power exercised outside the court: We see women leading nomadic communities, managing logistics, information, strategy, and social bonds. We see women in dangerous magical cults, as the enforcers and as the ones who create community bonds there, too.

More than that, we see our heroine Mehr with her complicated heritage navigate through these different spheres, finding her strength when people are always trying to control her, which is a narrative that rings deeply true to the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal world: survival and agency in the face of oppression. Mehr’s magical power, and that of her love interest, is borne out of dance, which is coded feminine—and it is in learning to exercise her power as a woman inside and outside these systems that she succeeds: she learns how to embrace her power but refuses to burn the world with it.

The Gilded Wolves

And last but the opposite of least is Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves, firstly because one of the best ways to accomplish everything I’m talking about here is just by having multiple important characters, and specifically multiple important women characters. Going back to gender subversion, even just among our group of main characters, there are boys who want nothing to do with violence and boys whose talents lie in communicating with others, which are feminine coded skills, and one boy who wants to rise to the top no matter what in traditionally masculine-coded fashion, which the narrative paints as tragic and flawed. Then there’s Zofia, an autistic Jewish girl who has difficulty understanding people, but she’s brilliant at mathematics, engineering, and explosions. And what more can you want in a heroine, right?

The answer to that is Laila, who doesn’t subvert gender roles at all except in the expectation of their comparative weakness, because she embraces her feminine coding powerfully. Her power is so fundamentally, fantastically coded feminine. Laila may not be human but understands people perfectly: her emotional intelligence is practically psychic, and she always knows what someone needs, whether it’s words or cake. She’s not just a genius at emotional management, but at baking, dancing, and consciously wielding her beauty and sensuality. Because that’s the critical second part of how The Gilded Wolves succeeds in navigating the problem of privileging masculine modes of power: it’s not just a matter of having multiple kinds of men and women; it’s how the narrative depicts that power. Laila, with her strong coding as feminine, is undeniably, unabashedly powerful, not only to the reader but within the narrative of the story, and the fact of her fictional existence is inspiring.

Domestic arts and crafts, logistical organization, physical appearance, healing, protection, compassion, community-building. Traditionally feminine-coded modes of power are power. And I think it’s worth pointing out, too, that every single book I’ve cited here features action and adventure while uplifting feminine-coded forms of power. Every. Single. One.

Power, adventure, and heroism for women do not have to come at the cost of feminine coding, because they are not mutually exclusive, and we need our stories to stop perpetuating that erasure and devaluation.

***

So again, I’m not saying that books that center feminine-coded power as worthy don’t exist; they clearly do. Nor am I saying that now that we have a lot of stories about women—and, let’s be clear, a lot of stories particularly about cisgendered, heterosexual white women—exercising masculine-coded modes of power that we don’t need or want more of them.

What I want, and what we need and deserve as a society full of women who have always exercised a wide variety of power, is a fuller variety of stories and appreciation of that diversity. We can read, value, and push for more than one kind of story at the same time. I don’t just want to be able to point these stories out as exceptions to the trend, for the work they’re doing to be so rare or rarely noticed that it merits highlighting. Because I don’t just want stories that say women can wield a sword as well as a man can; I want stories that say also that sword-wielding may not be the best way to resolve our problems. Women can lead just as powerfully in the ways they always have—and that includes fighting the way men are usually credited with, but it also includes ways we erase. We’ll never value feminine power if we don’t write it into our stories as valuable, and valuable to everyone.

The first part of that task is on all of us: It’s being aware of the messages we’re sending, whether we’re creating stories or promoting them, what we’re absorbing as readers and what we’re choosing to read, what those implications mean when we follow the logic all the way down, and what it means for these stories to be the exception rather than the norm in mainstream fantasy. I hope if nothing else this essay provides some tools to think about the ways we tend to privilege masculine-coded power in fantasy going forward and the many incredible other ways we can set up our stories, and demand from our stories, if we choose to.

Because it’s not much of a choice to wear pants or wield a sword if the alternative is passivity, victimhood, villainy, or the inability to be the star a fantasy adventure centers around. I want more worlds that understand that isn’t the only option. I want more stories that are able to see other ways, and value them, and model them for all of us—not just as a mirror to hold up to nature, but also as a door, to escape into what we all can be. And I hope that’s a direction where we can encourage the fantasy genre to grow.


Casey Blair

Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

Sirens At Home: Have You Seen Her? Looking for Shuri on the Pages of Her Comics Series

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that 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. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

Have You Seen Her? Looking for Shuri on the Pages of Her Comics Series
by Kaia Alderson

When the Shuri comics run was announced, I was so excited to have a chance to see more of the spunky teenager portrayed in the Black Panther film. I ran to the comic bookstore on the day issue #1 was released hoping to see a story that focused on her—an intelligent, spunky young woman who was Black. (Shuri is African. I’m using the more generic term “Black” here since I am examining visual representation in texts where character geographic origins aren’t always clear.) I understood that comic book Shuri was not necessarily the same character as the one portrayed on screen. But what mattered to me was that there was a new space for action-packed stories that centered a woman of African descent.

Shuri #1 set the scene for a lot of promise to come—a young woman working through the insecurities that come with stepping into a leadership role filled with external expectations, The Elephant Trunk, and a mysterious online admirer. But that promise fell short as the series went on. With a woman of African descent as the main writer penning the story, I expected a storyline that centered a heroine of African descent. Instead, it soon veered off into adventures where Shuri teamed up with other (mostly male) people and non-human lifeforms. It appeared that the title character was barely in her own story at times.

How did a #RepresentationMatters dream scenario go so sideways?

I decided to prove my suspicions by taking a more scientific approach. Time and access did not allow me to examine every text in which comic book Shuri has made an appearance, so I chose to focus on the Reginald Hudlin-penned trade paperback titled Shuri, written as a part of his Black Panther run, and the 10-issue run of the standalone Shuri comic written by Nnedi Okorafor and Vita Ayala. I kept it simple with a comparison of visual representation by counting the number of panels in which Black women, Black men, aliens/non-humans, Shuri herself, and other Marvel characters were depicted in the Shuri series. I also went back and counted the panels in the Reginald Hudlin-penned trade paperback Black Panther: Shuri – The Deadliest of the Species to see if there were any differences when the writer was a Black man. Ironically, however, it was the inclusion of nonbinary Afro-Latinx comics writer Vita Ayala (Shuri issues #6 and #7) who demonstrated how effective #RepresentationMatters can be in superhero(ine) comics, yet in an unexpected way.

My assumption prior to compiling my data was that there would be more “screen-time” on the Black female experience within the Okorafor/Ayala standalone Shuri run than within the Hudlin storyline. (And that the “gaze” would be more affirming and women-centric.) That assumption proved to be true in the case of the Shuri character. Shuri appeared in 58% of Okorafor’s panels and 44% of Ayala’s panels, while she appeared in only 29% of Hudlin’s panels. However, while Shuri was technically in more than 58% of Okorafor’s panels, she did not appear as herself visually in 38 panels (5.4% of Okorafor’s panels) because she was inhabiting the non-human Groot’s body. (I thought that this was an interesting choice for Okorafor to make given the criticism the movie The Princess and The Frog received because Disney’s first Black animated princess spent the majority of her screen time depicted, not as an African-American woman, but as a frog.) Regardless of that choice, Shuri was still more likely to appear in a story carrying her name when it is written by a person who identifies as a Black woman. But even then, she shows up in a little over half of the panels in the Black female-penned story arc.

It took me a while to digest the fact that Shuri only appears in 58% of the Okorafor-penned panels. (Actually, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that.) How depressing. Even when a Black woman crafts a Big 2 superhero comics story about a Black woman, that title character only showed up in 58% of the story. What the hell? I know I have yet to examine Eve Ewing’s Ironheart series this way—but I’m almost scared to do so after compiling these statistics for Shuri.

Thankfully, the next set of numbers I compiled were more promising. I looked at how often Black women in general (when not identified as Afro-Latinx) were depicted. I found that Black women were more likely to appear in a panel when the writer identified as Black (non-Latinx): 77% of Okorafor’s panels, 44% of Ayala’s panels, and 66% of Hudlin’s panels. In fact, the only Black (non-Latinx) woman in Ayala’s panels was Shuri. They did have one woman who identified as Afro-Latinx. But even so, she still only appeared in 5% of Ayala’s panels. In this particular sample, it is safe to say that the writer’s ethnic and gender identifications matter when to comes to who we see, and how often, in a comics story.

What really hit home for me in terms of #OwnVoices and #RepresentationMatters was my findings within the issues that were written by Vita Ayala (Shuri #6 and #7).

They were the only writer in my study who had Black women (who were not identified as Latinx) written into less than half of their panels. The only Black (non-Latinx) woman to appear in their panels was, in fact, Shuri. However, Afro-Latinx men appeared in 68% of their panels. Miles Morales shows up in 29% of the story. This is a win for the push to depict more diverse stories within Big 2 superhero comics. But it is frustrating for those who came to the Shuri comic hoping to see more of the equally underrepresented Black female experience on its pages.

It must also be noted that, while I didn’t record how often other groups were depicted, Ayala’s issues contained the most diverse representations visually out of the three writers. This makes sense given that their story took place in Jersey City, New Jersey (USA), while Okorafor’s and Hudlin’s stories primarily took place upon the African continent.

My examination here was not intended to be an exhaustive, definitive study. The point was more to start answering the question of whether it really matters who creates these stories. In taking a closer look at the visual text, my goal was to determine whether or not the visual representation of Big 2 comics characters with marginalized identities changes when put in the hands of #OwnVoices writers and artists via a micro survey of the Shuri comics run. Clearly in the case of the comic books’ Shuri character, how the person writing her story identifies socially influences how often she even appears in her story. But even when she is in the hands of a Black woman, much less in her own series, she still needs a chance to dominate the storylines marketed under her name. The fact that she only visually appears (as herself) in 55% of the panels in the entire standalone Shuri series may have contributed to why that run resulted in low sales.

As a Black female reader, it is frustrating to see that Shuri’s visual representation is so low in this 10-issue series that is supposed to be about her. Shuri is a not a traditional Big 2 superhero(ine). A comics series marketed under her name is going to attract a non-traditional audience, mainly Black women. It does a disservice to this character, and the audience she attracts, if Shuri is not depicted on an overwhelming majority of the pages in her stories. However, it is encouraging that the likelihood of seeing Shuri and other Black women on the page significantly increases when the story is written by a Black person, even more so when that person is a Black woman. Similarly, the visual representation of the Afro-Latinx experience appears to increase when the story is in the hands of an Afro-Latinx writer regardless of who the title character of the comic is. These findings, in themselves, are progress. I look forward to seeing more of it.


Kaia Alderson
Kaia Alderson is a comedy and fiction writer based out of coastal Georgia. Her recent publications include romantic comedy novella Calling Her Bluff and comics shorts stories in Ladies’ Night anthology volumes 4 and 5. She has performed with Atlanta-based 2 Girls 3 Eyes improv group and is an alumna of Spelman College. Kaia has studied writing with the Hurston/Wright Foundation, The Second City, and Voices of Our Nation (VONA) workshop. When she isn’t living her best life on Twitter, Kaia spends her evenings worshipping all things Nora Ephron.

Sirens At Home: “She’s Not Alone”—Or Is She?: The History of Idealized Friendship and the Limited Scope of Female Bonds in Blockbuster Sci-Fi and Fantasy

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that 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. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

“She’s Not Alone”—Or Is She?: The History of Idealized Friendship and the Limited Scope of Female Bonds in Blockbuster Sci-Fi and Fantasy
By Cass Morris

If you prefer, we offer a video of Cass reading this essay:

One of the greatest essayists of the Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne, wrote of friendship as “a general and universal fire, but temperate and equal, a constant established heat, all gentle and smooth, without poignancy or roughness.” He qualifies, however, that “the ordinary talent of women is not such as is sufficient to maintain the conference and communication required to the support of this sacred tie; nor do they appear to be endued with constancy of mind, to sustain the pinch of so hard and durable a knot.”

Montaigne was a brilliant man in many respects, but in this, I think we can all agree, he was staggeringly deficient.

Montaigne took his ideas from a long tradition of what the Romans called amicitia, a concept of perfect friendship: selfless, noble, virtuous, occurring between two men. Always two men. Women, the ancients and centuries’ worth of their descendants believed, were simply incapable of forming such flawless bonds. Not that women were considered entirely without merit—Aristotle spoke of marriage between a man and a woman as “a kind of friendship,” capable of providing delight, but still imperfect, born in almost all cases of the two lesser varieties of interpersonal bond, utility and pleasure, and damaged further by the inequality of status and power between husband and wife.

In some degree of fairness, true amicitia was thought to be rare even among men. The second century Roman author Seneca counted only six pairs of men throughout all of history up to that point who could fulfill the requirements, largely because the two men had to be precisely equal. Brothers could not truly be friends, in this mindset, because issues of inheritance would always come between them. A king could have no friends, since he had no equals—except among other kings, who would necessarily also be his rivals. Friends could not be indebted to each other, nor quarrel over romantic entanglements. Cicero thought friendships developed in maturity to be the best, stating that “friendships should be formed after strength and stability have been reached in mind and age.”

Despite these strictures placed upon it, the ideal of amicitia persisted in Western tradition throughout the classical era. It took on new tones in the medieval era, influenced by Teutonic stories of brothers-in-arms. Writers of the Renaissance blended these two traditions to create something both cerebral and emotional, and the concept has survived to this day in the concept of the “bromance.”

Obviously, people of all genders are capable of deep and true friendships. We know this. But popular fiction has been slower to represent those friendships, particularly in the franchises with the most money and media attention behind them. Forget classical ideals of amicitia; just getting two women on-screen at the same time, let alone bonding, let alone anything approaching a “perfect” friendship, has been a decades-long challenge.

In many cases, the dominant trope of “The Chick,” the inclusion of a token female character in a cast of male heroes, left those female characters adrift without even the possibility of forming bonds with other women. In the original Star Wars trilogy, Princess Leia is scarcely ever in the same room as another woman. The original Star Trek gave us only Uhura on the main cast. In Lord of the Rings, Eowyn rejects female companionship along with traditional femininity, and while we may presume that the ethereally distant figures of Arwen and Galadriel interact with other female Elves, we never see those interactions on page or screen. In Marvel comics, Jean Grey and Susan Storm were initially the only female members of their respective teams. For women, isolation from one’s gender seemed somehow an essential component of heroism.

The same is not true for men. Even if we hold ourselves to the classical ideals, eliminating family bonds and those with significant power differentials, we don’t have to look far for an abundance of examples. Luke and Han, Han and Chewie, Poe and Finn, Steve and Bucky, Rocket and Groot, Merry and Pippin, Harry and Ron, Kirk and Spock—the list could go on and on.

Even in modern sci-fi and fantasy, where casts are more likely to clear the so-low-you-could-trip-over-it bar of gender diversity, it remains a rarity for the women to be shown forming significant bonds with each other. Particularly in the largest franchises, female characters are often divvied up like a resource to be shared among the various components of the story. Place a girl with each section of the team, someone to be the “heart,” the conscience, and/or the romantic interest/sex object, depending on the tenor of the story, and call it a day.

We can look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example: A 2018 list of twenty-five MCU friendships included only one example of a friendship between two women among twenty-four bro-pairs or male-female bonds, and that was from the Netflix show Jessica Jones, not any of the mega-blockbuster films. Most sub-components of the franchise feature only one major female character at a time. Tony’s circle includes Pepper Potts (conscience and sex interest) and initially introduces us to Natasha Romanoff, but their few interactions are spoiled by internalized misogyny. Natasha also forms part of Steve’s circle, but never at the same time as Peggy (romantic interest). Natasha herself, the only female Avenger in the main line-up for the first three phases of the MCU, never leads her own story, but serves as the romantic interest/sex object, whether explicitly in the narrative or merely teased for the audience, to Hawkeye, Steve, and Bruce Banner at various points. Thor’s circle gives us Jane Foster (romantic interest), Frigga (conscience), the Lady Sif (conscience/heart), and Valkyrie (who blessedly defies those markers; if anything, Thor serves as the heart for her), but only brief interactions between any of them. Black Panther is a notable exception, with Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia, who clearly have their own relationships with each other outside of those they have with T’Challa. And, of course, 2019 gave us Carol and Maria (a relationship heartily embraced by much of the queer community as perhaps having a romantic and/or sexual component in addition to friendship). These may indicate a move in a positive direction, but it took the MCU a decade of mega-hits to get even this far.

Black Panther - Shuri Black Panther - Okoye Black Panther - Nakia

We can also consider A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. Both the books and the show are replete with female characters, to be certain. The split of point-of-view characters is representative. And yet those female characters are rarely afforded the opportunity to form close bonds or even to interact with each other—and almost never outside the bounds of family. The traveling pairs are predominantly either all-male or male-female—Ayra and the Hound, Brienne and Jaime, Jon and Ygritte. Ygritte is the only woman in her pack of wildling raiders; Asha/Yara Greyjoy is likewise singular among her Ironborn reavers. We are told that Margaery Tyrell has a flock of cousins and friends, but in the show, we never learn their names, and in the books, Margaery is never a point-of-view character, while Sansa, whose eyes the reader mostly sees Margaery through, is shunted to the outside of their merry circle, so we are never afforded the opportunity to know just what those bonds are really like. Show!Margaery makes more of an effort to befriend Sansa, but politics intervene, and there remains a troubling power differential between them.

Season Six of Game of Thrones offered us something truly tantalizing: not quite classically perfect friendship, but an opportunity to see multiple powerful women working together towards a common cause. Daenerys Targaryen forms a matriarchal alliance with Olenna Tyrell, Ellaria Sand, and Yara Greyjoy—and yet that gets smashed almost as soon as it is offered. Any potential friendships have no chance to succeed. Other relationships are held away from amicitia by those impediments enumerated by classical authors: differences in status, as with Daenerys and her handmaidens or Cersei and her courtiers, or the rivalries of kinship, as with the Sand Snakes. Catelyn and Brienne are closer-matched, and perhaps the closest the narrative comes to depicting amicitia between women, but there is still an element of rank in their dynamic; Brienne pledges an oath not to a friend, but to a lady of her parents’ generation whom she admires and feels she needs to do right by.

A Game of Thrones

Season 8 continues the trend. Sansa and Daenerys are set up as rivals, each jealously growling in defense of her perceived territory, rather than transcending such peevishness in the name of a greater cause. It seems such a woeful missed opportunity. Both women have suffered heinous abuse and come through stronger-forged; both know what it is to be let down and betrayed by the men they have trusted; both women have lost their systems of support and had to build new ones. They could enjoy a magnificent friendship, but instead, seem to have fallen into the “there can be only one female leader” mindset.

We might attribute all those fractured and fractious relationships to the nature of that fictional universe, if not for the camaraderie that is afforded to many of the men. When disaster threatens on the eve of the Battle of Winterfell, men come together, including those like Tyrion Lannister and Davos Seaworth, who have previously fought against each other on the battlefield, and even those with personal grievances like Beric Dondarrion and Sandor Clegane who literally fought to the death. They are allowed to reconcile, fight alongside one another, and share a laugh and a skin of wine. The women are not afforded the same opportunity. The night before battle, they are either isolated from other women (Arya, Brienne, Missandei, Gilly, Lyanna) or prowling snappishly around each other (Sansa, Daenerys). The show could have given us any number of significant moments between them: Sansa and Daenerys finding true common ground and setting aside petty jealousy in the face of adversity, Brienne and Arya and Lyanna bonding over their warrior skills and teaching other women how to defend themselves, Gilly offering comfort to Missandei as another woman despised as an outsider by the Northerners. But none of those were stories the showrunners found meritorious. The series closes with Sansa surrounded by male knights in the North, Arya by male sailors on her ship, Gilly alive and pregnant but unseen in the finale episode, and Brienne apparently doomed to a lifetime of trying to get Tyrion and Bronn to stop talking about brothels long enough to govern. Each surviving woman is entirely isolated from any other female influence.

I am weary of it.

Certainly there are authors out there writing magnificent bonds between women, plenty of them—as well as friendships between women and men, and between people of all genders. N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carriger, Kate Elliott, Sarah Kuhn, Roshani Chokshi, Tomi Adeyemi, Noelle Stevenson, and numerous others have produced works featuring not only multiple female characters, but female characters who work with each other, appreciate each other, enjoy each other, bond with each other. Yet blockbuster media seems reluctant to embrace such stories. 34 years after the initial development of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, we still find it worth commenting on when a major film manages to pass it.

Things may be on the verge of changing. Audiences cheered the all-female splash-page-esque shot in Avengers: Endgame, which brought together the amazing ladies of the franchise in an echo of the A-Force comics. If the MCU embraced that, rather than assuming we will be satisfied with a mere moment of fanservice and began developing films centering not just singular female heroes but coalitions of women, it would be a major step forward for narratives of friendship in Western media.

Captain Marvel - Carol Captain Marvel - Maria

I’m not suggesting we need women to match the ideals of classical friendship. Amicitia is an ancient trope that has influenced centuries’ worth of storytelling, but it’s restrictive and rather dispassionate. Wouldn’t it be amazing, though, if female and non-binary characters in major franchises were afforded the same opportunities for the full spectrum of emotional bonds as male characters are? Sisterhoods forged in fire and trials, wise mentors and plucky youngsters, enemies-to-friends, forbidden friendships, intergenerational friendships, healthy rivalries without malice—I want to see all the tropes, represented in as many permutations as men have always enjoyed, for the benefit of worldwide audiences.

And wouldn’t it be a fine thing if we could get some media might behind those stories that already feature these bonds and forms of friendship? And celebrate the authors who have already created them?

The question, then, is how do we put pressure on media conglomerates to tell stories which feature friendship bonds other than those between two men? We can vote with our dollars, of course. We can make sure we buy books featuring a variety of women with complex relationships to each other; we can run up the box office on Captain Marvel. Women spend more money on entertainment than men do across almost every form of media. So. How do we harness that collective power?


Cass Morris

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia and 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. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Her debut novel, From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle, is a Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books.

 

Sirens At Home: What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that 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. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?
By Emma Whitney

Girls of Paper and FireNatasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire is a treasure to me. Not because it is a perfect book (is there any such thing as a perfect book?) but because it is the first YA fantasy work I have read in years where the monarchy is clearly the antagonist. There is no “good” monarch waiting in the wings to rescue their people, but instead a whisper of revolution and behind it the knowledge that government structured around a concept of inherent inequality can never offer true freedom.

Why is it that, in YA fantasy literature, we so often write about the “good” monarch? Not that we don’t have bad ones, too. But the answer to a bad monarch usually seems to be a good monarch rather than the dismantling of a system that creates people with such a mass of concentrated power. For every Girls of Paper and Fire, I have seen a mountain of books where the seemingly problematic monarch is “only trying to do what is best” or, if we do have an evil king, the problems will be fixed by returning the “true” queen to the throne. There are a hundred variations on this, but only one story in a hundred seems to take the time to ask if it could maybe be the power structure itself that is creating the fundamental problems.

I know my personal feelings of antipathy towards royalty are particularly strong, and I don’t at all expect that others feel the same way. But I am continually surprised by the prevalence of “good” royalty in—particularly YA—fantasy literature. In this era, where many are focused on fighting for the equality of all, why do we continue to centralize in our writing a system that raises some above others merely by factors of birth and access? Does the presence of “good” monarchy in our stories mean we are longing for a monarchy to lead us?

I don’t think so.

Certainly I think it means we are (at least sometimes) fantasizing about good leaders in general. I think this is a common fantasy. Many “realist” pieces of fiction are indulging in that fantasy. (West Wing, anyone?) But why monarchy? What is it about that crown?

First, I think that we are accustomed to seeing monarchy in fantasy. I think we’ve seen so much of it that those are often the stories that grow in our heads. It is hard to get away from tropes we think of as normal. (Just like internalized misogyny.)

Second is an issue of scope. When someone without significant power has a piece of property stolen the story might be a mystery, a revenge story, or maybe a minor adventure. The theft may encompass their whole world but doesn’t expand to affect many others beyond their immediate circle. When that same thing happens to a monarch? Suddenly it becomes important to whole kingdoms, realms, worlds. Sometimes drama feels more meaningful when it has these expansive implications. It amps up the tension a hundredfold. If our heroes fail, the nation may fall or the world may end. (By the way, this is the same effect you get with a chosen-one story.)

Third is access. People with power have access that isn’t available to people without power. It’s why there are more millionaire superheroes than superheroes with student debt. Millionaires (and billionaires) can create the access they need to build freaking spaceships. And in the same vein, royalty often has easily substantiated access to armor and weapons, magical histories and relics. They do not have to worry about the family farm when they go on an adventure; they have retainers and servants for that.

But we know that your characters don’t need to have access, don’t need to be in control of the world they’re trying to save, to create an enthralling story. We have The Fifth Season, The Diviners, Texas Gothic. Stories where, while people may have the power to control earth or to commune with spirits, they don’t have power over other people. So why in high fantasy do we so often default to royalty?

We seem to love the story of the struggle to be a “good monarch.”

We have it in television (The Dragon Prince, She-Ra) and in comics (Sailor Moon), and in books (The Goblin Emperor, The Wrath and The Dawn, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga). Kate Elliot has done it and Patricia C. Wrede has done it and literally everyone who has ever had a go at writing about King Arthur has done it. But could you really have a monarch that is truly “good”?

Personally, I believe that the answer is no. Not without completely redefining the term. Not without letting “good” include a vast amount of systemic inequality. You cannot remake a system for true parity without undoing the structure that maintains a person or persons at the top, above their subjects. Monarchs, as we define the term colloquially, are people who live in a palace, who have resources that others do not, who take on the burden of final decisions when their main claim to the position is their birth, not their study, and if from their study, so often due to access available to the rich that is absolutely inaccessible to the people they supposedly protect. Good monarchs often “do the hard thing for their people’s good.” It is, regardless of the monarch’s gender, the ultimate paternal figure who sacrifices his daughters to save them from an evil greater than death. When the monarch “has to do a thing” to keep their country safe, why do we not question the power structure?

I’ve been watching The Dragon Prince. Besides being beautifully drawn and well written, it is generally a comfortably, and sometimes forcefully, liberal show. It explicitly prioritizes understanding and community over the slaying of any great enemy. It is one of the most diverse fantasy stories ever animated for a major platform (no shock as it comes from the people who created Avatar and The Legend of Korra). But why, in the midst of all this progressive storyline, do we still have Ezran held up as an idyllic “good king” who might save them all? Because when you really come down to it, a predominant factor in conflicts like this is the rulers. It was not the villagers of Katolis and the other human kingdoms who went to war against Xadia; it was people who wanted consolidated power.

Am I saying that every fantasy monarch is evil? I have to admit that my urge to say yes is strong, but no. It’s fantasy, after all. In a fantasy land anything is possible, including a ruler who truly is the protector and champion of their people. I still adore your classical Arthur (against all common sense), because in so many of the stories he is just trying to make a better life for everyone. I still cry when Boromir dies in Aragorn’s arms (and okay, if I’m spoiling that I don’t know what to tell you). But I believe that the vision of a “good monarch” is more fantastic than the possibility of dragons. (How is Archaeopteryx not just a small dragon?)

I do not want to discount what representation in the “classic” stories can give us. When I started reading Audrey Coulthurst’s Of Fire and Stars, having a classic princess scenario that I knew promised a queer romance warmed my cranky, bitter heart. I can imagine that is only a small part of the feeling others may get finally seeing a princess of color, a genderqueer princess, a disabled princess, all who lead the charge of their own stories. That warmth, that self-recognition, and empowerment, they are important. I do not want to ask for those stories to disappear.

All I want is to ask why we still tell these stories. Why do we want to relive the “romance” of the Tudors, when we have other history to revere in the shape of women like Dolores Huerta and Sojourner Truth, stories where no one was born to anything, but rather made their own fate?

Stories where someone took back a little piece of the power that had been hoarded by those with all the wealth, not by becoming part of their system, but by helping to fundamentally change it.

Ursula K. Le Guin famously said, “We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable—so did the divine right of kings.” I feel this to the marrow of me. Why do we continue to write about power that has been consolidated under one person or family when we can fantasize about a world that destroys the oligarchy and offers a vision of a truer equality?

By the way? There’s more to that quote: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”


Emma WhitneyEmma Whitney is a math-brained aspiring accountant who would rather be thinking about dragons. She works as an administrative assistant but spends most of her time plotting to overthrow capitalism and making costumes for her niece (who is still a little too young to enjoy them). She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her wonderful roommate, an exponentially growing yarn stash, and a robotic dinosaur named Dot.

 

Sirens At Home: How Tamora Pierce’s Books Saved Me from the Curse of “Not Like Other Girls”

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that 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. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

How Tamora Pierce’s Books Saved Me from the Curse of “Not Like Other Girls”
By Rebecca Kim Wells

If you prefer, we offer a video of Rebecca reading this essay:

Alanna

I grew up as an irrepressible tomboy who fell victim to the unfortunate misogynistic belief that I wasn’t like “other girls.” I roughhoused, played competitive sports, wore oversize jeans and t-shirts every day of my teenage years, and secretly thought of myself as better than the girls around me who wore dresses or nail polish. I was encouraged to be strong, healthy, smart, and athletic—and I was all those things. I heartily encourage those things. But what I didn’t understand as a child was that gender presentation is a fluid exercise, not an either/or situation in which anyone who chooses incorrectly (and in my mind there very much was an incorrect choice) is “shallow.”

There are lots of reasons for this, and I don’t mean to say that being a tomboy by definition means rejecting “other girls.” One of those reasons almost certainly was the fact that I grew up in a house without an adult female presence, and as a result, felt as though the door that unlocked the secrets of womanhood—whatever secrets those were—had been hidden from me. I considered myself an alien among girls, and over the years my feelings of superiority mingled with feelings of insecurity as I wanted desperately to know how the girls around me seemed to effortlessly understand things that for me, might has well have been written in a language I didn’t understand. (When I bought my first razor, I didn’t realize that electric razors needed to be charged, and ended up locking myself in the bathroom for close to an hour as my family was getting ready to leave the house. It was dire.)

Then I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series.

The Tiger's Daughter The Woman who Rides Like a Man

Most of you are likely already familiar with these books—so formative to so many fantasy readers in the 1990s—but for those who aren’t, here’s the brief overview. Alanna (a dedicated, smart, physically capable girl without a mother) is determined to become a knight in a kingdom where (you guessed it) only men can hold that title. So she pretends to be a boy and trades places with her twin brother so that she can take his place at court. I loved Alanna, and devoured the quartet whole. From Alanna I learned dedication and determination and how to stand just as tall as any boy. But I also learned lessons from several other female characters in the series, lessons that were more important than I realized at the time.

Once at court, Alanna does pretty well at being a knight, but struggles with aspects of traditional femininity. When she gets her period, she doesn’t immediately understand what is happening. It takes an older woman, the mother of one of her acquaintances, to explain menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and birth control to her. “The talk” is a common occurrence in the lives of people assigned female at birth, but the scene as depicted in Alanna: The First Adventure sent the message home to me that there is a wealth of wisdom in traditionally female domains.

One can certainly argue with many ways in which gender is presented in the Song of the Lioness series. Alanna in particular struggles mightily with her own lack of understanding of things that are coded female in the world of Tortall, as well as the fact that her livelihood depends on her being as good or better than the boys around her—even after she is knighted and has proven herself worthy, gender aside. The third book in the series is literally titled The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. (What does a man ride like? Why is “like a man” the gold standard?)

Lioness Rampant

But later books in the series (and further series in the same world) begin to interrogate these boundaries. In Lioness Rampant, the final book in the quartet, Alanna encounters Thayet, a princess of a neighboring kingdom who is in desperate need of assistance. Though Alanna initially expects her to be a simpering princess (she is exceptionally beautiful), Thayet soon shows her principles and proves her own intelligence. She advises Alanna on romantic entanglements, refuses to be led anywhere by the nose, and, after marrying King Jonathan, founds the Queen’s Riders, a battle troop that accepts both women and men. Thayet is beautiful, intellectual, and formidable, a woman written into the world of Tortall in part to challenge Alanna’s—and my—assumptions about what a woman can look like and be.

First Test

Further books by Tamora Pierce press further upon this issue. The third quartet set in Tortall, the Protector of the Small series, features Keladry, the first girl to apply to become a knight since girls have been allowed to join. Though she is similar to Alanna in many ways, Kel also spent several years of her childhood in the Yamani Islands, and trained with the noblewomen there in the use of the glaive and fan. Though in the Islands the weapons are meant to be used primarily for self-defense, the fact that noblewomen are expected to be competent with them helps deepen the gender portrayals in the world.

Sandry's Book

Going beyond the world of Tortall, Tamora Pierce also explores the idea of strength in the traditionally “feminine” in the Circle of Magic quartet, wherein three girls, a boy, and two crochety guardians are thrown together to form one of the best found family series I read as a child. The series is notable for the connections it draws between magic and “feminine” arts—Sandry’s magic is tied to threadwork, Tris’s weather magic is deeply tied to how in touch she is with her emotional landscape, and Briar (a boy) finds his magic in greenery and growing plants.

Power and legitimacy in the feminine. Like many books published in this time, Tamora Pierce’s work is not immune from criticism—of its portrayal of different races, sexualities, and even gender roles. But immersing myself in these stories still meant finding all sorts of female characters to respect and to emulate—warrior women, intellectuals, empaths; women who wore dresses and finery and those who did not; women of all sorts, all with their own individual power. Reading Tamora Pierce’s books provided me with a lens through which I saw and understood new ways of being female, ways that complicated the “strong female character” mantra I’d lived by without interrogating since childhood.

I wish it were so easy—that reading a book could immediately undo every impression of gender stereotyping and internalized misogyny I’ve ever experienced or perpetuated. But understanding the world and my place in it is the work of a lifetime, as are the choices I make every day in expressing my gender when I decide how to dress, what to put on my face, how to interact with the people around me. I’ve grown a lot from who I was as a child (I hope we can all say the same thing about ourselves!). I no longer make assumptions about someone’s seriousness based on how they choose to express their gender. Though I’m still a t-shirt and jeans sort of person, I sometimes wear dresses—and when I do, I don’t feel awkward about it. I’ve learned, and am still learning, a lot about internalized misogyny, toxic masculinity, and the fallacies of gender essentialism. And I can credit many of the books I read as a child, especially those set in Tortall, as opening the door.


Rebecca Kim Wells

Rebecca Kim Wells grew up in California before moving east in search of crisp autumns and snowy winters. Her debut novel Shatter the Sky was a New England Book Award Finalist, an Indies Introduce selection, and a Kids’ Indie Next Pick. She is also the author of Storm the Earth and Of Blood and Briars (2021), published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. She holds a BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Simmons College. When not writing, reading, or talking about writing or reading, she sells books at a fiercely independent bookstore in Massachusetts. She can also be found drinking tea, singing along to musicals, or playing soccer. (Usually not all at once.) If she were a hobbit, she would undoubtedly be a Took.

 

Sirens At Home: Moral Disability: How Villainy Looks When You’re the Monster

For two years now, Sirens has published an ongoing series of essays that 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. While we’ve postponed our in-person program to 2021, and we are gathering safely online this weekend, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature the exemplary work that the Sirens essayists have presented over the past two years. We hope that you find these works thoughtful, bold, and brilliant.

Moral Disability: How Villainy Looks When You’re the Monster
by by V. S. Holmes

If you prefer, we offer a video of V.S. reading this essay:


Our depiction of disfigurement and disability in villains—those in speculative works, particularly—taints our perception of disabled people in our own world with a dangerous morality. All of us know the ache of being unable to find yourself in a book and the annoyance when a character is just the lovechild of stereotypes and bigotry. So much of Sirens focuses on the importance and beauty in seeing ourselves—our strengths, our flaws, our lives—in speculative fiction. But when I search for a character like me, I find Captain Hook’s missing hand. I find Viren’s magical staff. I find villains.

Dr. Isabel Maru

We know the disabled villain trope well, from obvious monsters to the more human. Even works built on a platform of progressive ideals frequently fall short with ableism: Dr. Isabel Maru’s scars in the 2017 Wonder Woman film broke my heart (as did Steve Trevor’s cheap quip that Diana was blind). Sometimes it’s an offhand way to telegraph “This one’s the bad guy!” But when the character’s disability or disfigurement is part of their backstory, we often learn that their evil stems from the isolation and abuse they received because of their disability. Regardless of our fascination with darkness, if we look beyond the scarred, limping package of most classic villains, we see honest and understandable emotions.

Excluded, angry, desperate, misunderstood: We all have felt these at some juncture, and they are emotions disabled people carry with us every day. Frankly, they’re justified. So why are creators—including speculative creators—intent on making the disfigured and disabled evil?

Disability is feared because it is one of the few marginalizations that’s “catching.” As much as we want to believe we’re invincible, we aren’t. I’m often asked what happened to me when I use my cane or if I have a heart monitor strapped to me. Accidents happen. Genetics happen. I agree—finding out my body was unable to do what it used to was scary. Returning to the example of the Wonder Woman canon: Maru’s inception as a character was based on her terror that she might figuratively lose face, a fear turned literal in her modern film debut.

No one wants something traumatic and life-altering to happen to themselves or their families, even in a world as advanced as ours can be—have you seen the bionics from Hero Arm? Instead, we retreat to the rigid idea that people deserve what happens to them. Car accident leave you paralyzed? Maybe you shouldn’t have reached down to change the playlist. Connective tissue breaking down? Maybe you should have been better about taking those vitamins.

If the characters who limp, whose faces are scarred from birth or accident deserved it, then in turn, if you become disabled, you are also Bad.

The underbelly of these thoughts births horrific legislation and murder under the label of mercy. Husbands murder wives with dementia; parents murder children with development disabilities. These tragedies are termed “acts of love” when really it’s just fear and annoyance at a perceived burden.

The pervasive fear of illness and disfigurement in our world is seen so much more now as illness arrives on our doorsteps. Many think that, just by doing the right thing, they’ll be spared. As long as I follow the rules, I’ll be OK. As long as everyone likes me, I’ll be fine. As long as I do my yoga and take my vitamins and wear my mask, I won’t fall ill because, after all, I’m Good. Right? RIGHT?

It doesn’t work that way.

When we encounter disabled antagonists who have a redemption arc, the resolution is a magical cure—rewarded for being Good or Brave or Selfless and Doing the Thing. Suddenly they’re no longer blind, or their limb is restored, or the anxiety stops its incessant yammering. By this logic, disabled people must be Bad, because surely if we were Good, we would be cured by now.

Zuko

A good subversion of this was Katarra offering to heal Zuko’s burn scar in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The action is a classic symbol of his redemption, that he is accepted and loved by his new community, so now he can be Whole. However, the healing is interrupted and Zuko lives the rest of his life scarred—the rest of his fulfilling, long, and happy life, may I add.

This morality in our world is often mirrored in SFF worlds to show how terrible the world is, to show how tragic the history of war and magic and creatures has been. Where we do see disability addressed it is often on wealthy core planets that offer access to incredible therapies and technology or magic that all but erases our disability as nothing more than a fun worldbuilding quirk. Like in our own world, these treatments are gatekept by wealth. Additionally, we see this in heroes whose disability is the price for power, making it clear that no matter the world, being disabled is a negative.

Writing with this framework—which, like any privilege, isn’t easy to see and hard to disassemble—makes it tempting to cure the suffering and sickness in our speculative works.

In magical kingdoms and high-tech space stations, it’s easy to cleanse our world of hardship. Of scars. Of sickness.

I don’t want to be Clorox-wiped from the countertop or relegated to the corners as humans love to do with monsters. Disability cannot be erased. Many fall back on the reasoning that writing diverse characters isn’t realistic, but at Sirens we know that “reality” is based on a misunderstood, sanitized, and white-washed account of history—besides, what about the dragons? The realism argument does not hold up with disability, either. Gene therapy doesn’t prevent physical accidents. Nanobots and magical cures can’t stop evolution from testing countless new mutations—life will find a way, right? And honestly, not all disabled or disfigured people want a cure. In our world, seeking cures is often rooted less in our comfort than in freeing abled people of the “effort” of accommodating us.

Disability arcs grow complicated when we turn back to the villain’s past. There is no denying that enduring terrible things changes the way we view our world and the other people in it. Disability complicates our relationships with our bodies, our minds, and our entire sense of self. I’m in pain most days. It makes me short-tempered at the best of times. So, should I smile and make a go at world domination? I have my bad days like anyone else, but fascism seems a bit far.

Luckily for all of us readers and writers, cures are unnecessary with magical and advanced accessibility: A character doesn’t need to be able to walk without pain, because their hover chair can go anywhere on and off the electro-mag grid. Accessibility adds an incredible layer of worldbuilding from which to draw inspiration—both for worlds we can visit in our imaginations and those we can build from our own.

Plus, if you’re looking for a “wow” factor, changing a society’s perception is a way bigger miracle than just changing one person’s pesky meat-suit!

At its core, fantasy is about imagination, about pushing the boundaries of society and humanity on page and on screen. When building these worlds, it is easier to look backward at where we’ve been—and not just for our obstacles, but for our ideals. In small ways, we’re dismantling this framework: In 2018, the British Film Institute announced that they were banning disfigured villains to “remove the stigma,” though I’ve seen little mention of it since. If nothing else perhaps we’ll avoid a few poorly written origin stories that no one asked for, right?

I’d much rather imagine an accessible world where we can attend our places of worship, fan conventions, and job interviews. One where we don’t endure the embarrassment of being carried upstairs when there’s no lift. A world where someone will meet our eyes and we know they are looking at us, not the scar on our face, or the unique proportions of our body.

Casting a morality judgment on who becomes disabled or disfigured inherently changes the way disabled people navigate our world, often at the highest cost. Whether we are creatives or readers or activists, the worlds we imagine shape our perception of our own, and its people. Let’s envision a world not where people like me don’t exist, but where it’s easier for us to.


V.S. HolmesV. S. Holmes is an international bestselling author. They created the Reforged series and the Nel Bently Books. Smoke and Rain, the first book in their fantasy quartet, won New Apple Literary’s Excellence in Independent Publishing Award in 2015. In addition, they have published short fiction in several anthologies. When not writing, they work as a contract archaeologist throughout the northeastern U.S. They live in a Tiny House with their spouse, a fellow archaeologist, their not-so-tiny dog, and own too many books for such a small abode. As a disabled and queer human, they work as an advocate and educator for representation in SFF worlds. For more information about V, please visit their website or their Twitter.

Sirens at Home: Villains Books

Villains

In 2021, Sirens will examine villains, especially with respect to what that means for people with marginalized identities, with Guests of Honor Kinitra D. Brooks, Rin Chupeco, Sarah Gailey, and Fonda Lee, as well as Sirens Studio Guest of Honor Joamette Gil. We’ll deconstruct classifications of villainy and expectations of redemption, and how those differ based on a person’s gender, not to mention other axes of oppression.

Sirens currently suggests a number of books to expand your reading on villainy. For Sirens at Home, though, we want to feature 10 books that we think have something to say about gender and villainy, and how we so easily view those with marginalized identities as villains. Here are those books, as well as their opening words—and we’ve included links to those works at Bookshop in the titles. Bookshop supports both Sirens and independent bookstores, so if you’re looking to purchase any of these titles, they’re a great option!

1. A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

A Feast of Sorrows “My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did. It didn’t seem to bother her, perhaps because, of them all, she had the greater independence and a measure of prosperity that was all her own. Perhaps that’s why he loved her best.”

2. American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

American Hippo “Winslow Remington Houndstooth was not a hero. There was nothing within him that cried out for justice or fame. He did not wear a white hat—he preferred his grey one, which didn’t show the bloodstains. He could have been a hero, had he been properly motivated, but there were more pressing matters at hand.”

3. Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

Beneath the Rising “My earliest memory of her smells like blood. I remember just enough.”

4. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth “In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.”

5. Jade City by Fonda Lee

Jade City “The two would-be jade thieves sweated in the kitchen of the Twice Lucky restaurant. The windows were open in the dining room, and the onset of evening brought a breeze off the waterfront to cool the diners, but in the kitchen, there were only the two ceiling fans that had been spinning all day to little effect. Summer had barely begun and already the city of Janloon was like a spent lover—sticky and fragrant.”

6. Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

Queen of the Conquered “My mother kissed my forehead with a smile when I cried, upset that the party would carry on as I was sent away to sleep, and while I lay awake in my bed of lace, huddled beneath my covers and shivering in the cool trade-winds breeze, I heard when the tinkling piano stopped and when the laughter turned to screams.”

7. Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

Slice of Cherry “Fancy only allowed three people in the whole world to get close to her: Daddy, who was on death row; Madda, who was working the graveyard shift; and Kit, who was dead to the world in the bed next to hers. And so when she awoke to find a prowler hanging over her, violating her personal space, her first instinct was to jab her dream-diary pencil into his eye.”

8. The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

The Bone Witch “The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer. She held no weapons except for the diamonds glinting like stars above her brow, against hair like a dark mass of sky. She wore no armor save a beautiful hua of mahogany and amber spun from damask silk, a golden dragon embroidered down its length, its body half-hidden by her waist wrap. She raised her arm, and I saw nothing. But the creature saw, and its wrath gentled, until it did little but whimper.”

9. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War “‘Take your clothes off.’
Rin blinked. ‘What?’
The proctor glanced up from his booklet. ‘Cheating prevention protocol.’ He gestured across the room to a female proctor. ‘Go with her, if you must.’
Rin crossed her arms tightly across her chest and walked toward the second proctor. She was led behind a screen, patted thoroughly to make sure she hadn’t packed test materials up any orifices, and then handed a formless blue sack.”

10. The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

The Shadows Between Us “They’ve never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart. And they never will.”

For more information about our 2021 conference, please see our website.

Sirens at Home: Heroes Books

Heroes

In 2019, Sirens examined heroes in all their forms, but especially what it means to be a hero when you have multiple marginalized identities—and we did so with Guests of Honor Mishell Baker, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Rebecca Roanhorse, Suzanne Scott, and for the first time, a Sirens Studio Guest of Honor, Roshani Chokshi. As we interrogated what it means to be a hero, and explicitly rejected the traditional, hypermasculine notions of heroism, we discovered a pantheon of more revolutionary, but no less valuable, BIPOC, LGBTQIAP+, disabled and neurodivergent, and other heroes worthy of discussion and celebration.

In 2019, we suggested a number of books that portrayed this new definition of hero. For Sirens at Home, though, we want to feature 10 books that we think have something to say about what it means for anyone to be a hero, but especially those who haven’t been privileged as such in the past. Here are those books, as well as their opening words—and we’ve included links to those works at Bookshop in the titles. Bookshop supports both Sirens and independent bookstores, so if you’re looking to purchase any of these titles, they’re a great option!

1. A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers

A Pale Light in the Black “Commander Rosa Martín Rivas pasted another smile onto her face as she wove through the crowds and headed for her ship at the far end of the hangar. She and the rest of the members of Zuma’s Ghost had weathered the post-Games interviews with as much grace as a losing team could, answering question after question about how it felt to come within three points of beating Commander Carmichael’s SEAL team without ever breaking expression. That wasn’t entirely true. Jenks had slipped once, muttering a curse and giving the reporter a flat look.”

2. A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow

A Song Below Water “It feels redundant to be at the pool on a rainy Saturday, even though it’s spring, and even though it’s Portland, but maybe I’m just more of a California snob than I want to be. Back home I went to the beach on more than one cloudy day. I’d stand on the cold sand, burrowing my toes beneath the surface as though there’d be some warmth there, and I’d listen. Just like I’m doing now.”

3. Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

Aru Shah and the End of Time “The problem with growing up around highly dangerous things is that after a while you just get used to them. For as long as she could remember, Aru had lived in the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture. And she knew full well that the lamp at the end of the Hall of the Gods was not to be touched.”

4. Borderline by Mishell Baker

Borderline “It was midmorning on a Monday when magic walked into my life wearing a beige Ann Taylor suit and sensible flats. At the time I had more money than sense, and so I had been languishing at the Leishman Psychiatric Center in Silver Lake for just over six months. The Center had a rigid routine, and there was a perverse comfort in knowing what misery of boredom to expect and when.”

5. Every River Runs to Salt by Rachael K. Jones

Every River Runs to Salt “I keep an ocean in a jar on my nightstand and a handful of coffee beans in my pocket. My roommate Imani once held the Pacific Ocean hostage in our living room, but that was before she died and I followed her down to the Under-Ath to fix the mess she left.”

6. Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar

Star Daughter “Sometimes keeping secrets was the hardest thing in the world. Sheetal Mistry decided to make a break for it. Right past the mirrored walls that reflected one another until the swanky banquet hall expanded into infinity—a horribly overcrowded infinity made of noisy kids, successful aunties and uncles, and gossiping grandparents. Everyone watching, everyone talking and laughing.”

7. The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Bloodprint Seven. Eight. Six. Arian traced the numbers in the sand. She was crouched behind a dusty ridge, surveying the land ahead. The wide, flat plains extended in every direction, broken in places by sparse shrubs, the faintest traces of greenery and life. She passed her field glasses to the coal-skinned woman perched to her right. ‘Do you see it?’”

8. The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

The Candle and the Flame “The muezzin’s call pierces the thinning night air, extracting Fatima from dreams of fire and blood. Her eyes open to the darkness, and for a moment, she is caught in the dark space between sleep and wakefulness. This space is filled with beautiful snarling faces, fear as vast as the night sky, and grief only just realized.”

9. The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

The Light at the Bottom of the World “Hope had abandoned them to the wrath of all the waters.”

10. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Trail of Lightning “The monster has been here. I can smell him.”

For more information about our 2019 conference, including the programming presented that year, please see our 2019 archive page.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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