Thursday, July 6, 2017

Some Books I've Loved (Summer Recs!)

I’m late with this, but here are some books I’ve recently loved. I hope that you, dear reader, might love them, too. 

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

A year ago I read Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, her first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series. I fell in love with her Gothic-tinged world of fallen angels and Parisian ruins. The sequel, The House of Binding Thorns, is a worthy successor that—dare I say it?--may be even better than the first.

The first novel was a taut, atmospheric murder mystery set in House Silverspires. In the follow-up novel, the action shifts to Silverspires’ rival, House Hawthorn. A few characters from the first novel make their reappearance. Philippe, an outcast Vietnamese Immortal, is trying to resurrect a dear (and dead) friend. Madeline, a mortal alchemist addicted to angel essence (a drug which is the distillation of angel magic), has been dragged reluctantly back to service in House Hawthorn, and is simply trying to survive. The head of House Hawthorn, Asmodeus, is back and sarcastic and cruel as ever. Much of this book, however, is given over to an entirely new cast of characters. And while I was a bit sad at seeing so little of Philippe, there is abundant recompense in these new characters. Thuan is a badass dragon prince and spy who has infiltrated House Hawthorn under the guise of a Houseless teenager of the streets. Francoise and Berith are two Houseless lovers simply trying to survive: Francois is mortal (and heavily pregnant); Berith is an ailing Fallen angel who may die before her mortal lover does. The author’s world of magic and ruins is deepened and expanded in this sequel. The watery dragon kingdom under the river Seine is more fully explored, and the fates of the dragon kingdom and House Hawthorn become entwined. We also learn more about the Vietnamese (termed “Annamite” in this book) diaspora community in Paris. Indeed, for me one of the delights of this book is seeing the strength of this human community, and how it enfolds both Philippe and Francoise (and by extension, Francoise’s partner Berith).

A murder mystery was central to the first novel of this series, The House of Shattered Wings. In the House of Binding Thorns, de Bodard deftly juggles several mysteries. Who is smuggling angel essence into the dragon kingdom? What is really behind Asmodeus’ decision to ally with the dragon kingdom? Who is kidnapping Vietnamese dockworkers and why? Dragon prince Thuan, human Madeline, and others must play detective. Multiple factions battle for power, double-crosses abound, and de Bodard cleverly ties together the different narrative threads. As always, her prose is utterly gorgeous and richly evocative. She moves smoothly from gritty urban realism to scenes of sweeping magic and primal myth (the image of a carnivorous grove of trees is particularly haunting).  

As the action builds and accelerates, I found myself reading the last third of the novel at a fast clip, hardly able to put it down. Events sweep to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. This is a wonderful read, as beautiful and brutal as the first novel of the series, and with characters who may be even more emotionally compelling.   

*I have a crush on Thuan, that sweet but badass dragon prince. His interactions with Asmodeus are delicious.
**Francoise and Berith are wonderful.
***Madeline really comes into her own. I confess that I found her viewpoint the least compelling in The House of Shattered Wings, but she captured my heart in this book.

I’ve been a fan of Gwendolyn Kiste since first discovering her dark fairy tale, “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray,”  in the online pages of Shimmer. I was delighted to see her first collection debut this spring. Kiste has a gift for braiding darkness with beauty, for finding the arresting image and evocative line. There are fiercely retold fairy tales in this collection, creeping horrors, a science-fiction dystopia, and--amidst the darkness and fear--glimpses of freedom and light.  “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” remains one of my personal favorites, but “The Tower Princesses” (which plays with the tale of Rapunzel and tropes of trapped princesses in a contemporary setting) tore at my heart. I loved the building tension in the science fictional “The Five-Day Summer Camp.” I loved the way Kiste depicts body horrors with beauty, as in her tale, “Skin Like Honey and Lace.” And I love her exploration of painful emotional truths, as in her concluding tale, “The Lazarus Bride.” Her stories vary in subject, but they are all united by her immediately compelling voice. If you like darkness and tension illuminated with gorgeous prose, this collection is for you.

Tender by Sofia Samatar

Oh, and where do I begin with Sofia Samatar? She is one of my writing heroes. Her novels, A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, have truly changed the way I approach my own writing (my review of The Winged Histories is here). But she is master of the short form, too, and it was through her short stories that I first found her. Her first collection, Tender, is everything I hoped for, and more.

Samatar has the ability to evoke entire worlds and character histories in a remarkably short space. The first story, “Selkie Stories are for Losers" (which was nominated for multiple awards) is a prime example of this. We never learn much of the narrator’s mother, or of the mother-daughter relationship; the mother is a yawning absence in the narrative as well as in the daughter’s heart. But we do feel that absence, reflected and refracted through the daughter’s relationship with another (emotionally) abandoned girl. The story deftly evokes whole emotional worlds through rich, carefully chosen details within its brief space. Samatar performs similar magic in tales such as “The Closest Thing to Animals” and “The Red Thread”—but in these cases suggesting entire science-fictional near-future worlds as well as character backgrounds.  

Samatar’s stories range through space and time: there are stories set in contemporary America as well as historical pieces in America, Africa, and Vienna. There are stories set in rich secondary fantasy worlds, and stories set in the future. Samatar draws heavy inspiration from settings and histories in the Middle East and Africa, but she also draws from a myriad of other influences. 

While most of these stories have been previously published, not all are easily available, and two of the longer stories appear here for the first time. “An Account of the Land of Witches” is gorgeous, strange, rich fantasy that becomes progressively more surreal. And “Fallow” is a heart-breaking novella of survival in a future colony on a distant planet.

While reading, I kept underlining phrases that struck me:

“There is enough cruelty in the world,” she told me softly, “to justify all the music ever made.” (“An Account of the Land of Witches”)

 There is no end to writing, I think, no end to the project of rescue (“Fallow”)

These sentences are beautiful; Samatar’s prose is always beautiful. But I think these particular sentences also exemplify the humanity in Samatar’s work. There is the acknowledgement of human suffering, along with the acknowledgement of beauty and art. There is the concern with memory, stories, reclamation. “Fallow” is the longest story in the collection, and perhaps the most heartrending. It’s a slow, rich read that only gradually reveals the colony’s truth to the reader. And in its devastating last lines, it pays tribute to human endurance, to the decision to endure despite terrible and unavoidable loss.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Discussion at The Future Fire: Feminist science fiction/fantasy with POC characters

For those who may be interested, I wrote something for the speculative fiction magazine, The Future Fire! Head over here for my recommendation of Ken Liu's The Dandelion Dynasty, and check out the other great recommendations for works of feminist science fiction/fantasy with characters who are "people of color."

Thursday, May 4, 2017

March/April 2017 Reading Recs

There is so much good fiction coming out this May that I’m already buried! So, before I plunge into more reading, here’s a quick roundup of some of my favorites from March and April. . .

As an homage to Senator Elizabeth Warren and women persisting everywhere, Tor commissioned this series of flash pieces by women. The entire series is worth your time, but these three struck me particularly hard:

God Product by Alyssa Wong

Everything by Alyssa Wong strikes hard. And this one of her hardest yet—absolutely horrific, heartbreaking, and stunning.

Anabasis by Amal El-Mohtar

Prose-poetry that slices with light and pain. Borders, belonging and not belonging, and a woman who persists.

A gorgeous, rich fairy tale in miniature—and with an uplifting end that will have you cheering.

Flash pieces at Arsenika

Arsenika is a new magazine of speculative flash fiction and poetry which debuted in April. The first issue establishes a strong and distinctive voice: shimmering, poignant stories and poems.

Reflected Across the Dark by Laurel Amberdine

Portals begin opening across the world, and people disappear. A flash about siblings, love, separation, grief. The last line hits hard.

An absolutely beautiful piece; a delicate, shimmering tale of family, grief, and our belief in small chances.

All the poems in the issue are also well worth reading. I particularly enjoyed the fierce Mirror, Reflect our Unknown Selves by Tlotlo Tsamaase and the lagahoo speaks for itself by Brandon O’Brien. 

Short Stories

Real Ghosts by J.B. Park

What kind of memories do we want to leave behind for our loved ones? And do we really want to remember our loved ones as they truly were? Park takes on these questions in a story of complicated family ties and “memorial holos.” A deft, thought-provoking tale.   

On Grief and the Language of Flowers: Selected Arrangements by Damien Angelica Walters at Mythic Delirium

Another take on family. A florist provides unique arrangements for a funeral. This story with an unusual format delicately evokes a life and an entire web of complex family dynamics—grief, love, and knotty relationships for which resolution is no longer possible.

The Adventurer’s Wife by Premee Mohamed at Nightmare Magazine

An elegantly crafted alt-history with Lovecraftian tones. The sense of foreboding steadily builds, and the ending is a knockout. Quietly subversive—see the accompanying author interview for her comments.

Come See the Living Dryad by Theodora Goss at Tor (novelette)

Another lovely piece of historical fiction, exquisitely crafted. In nineteenth century London, Daphne Merwin is exhibited as a side show freak—a living dryad, a beautiful woman with branches on her hands and twigs on her feet. But what—and more importantly, who—is she? One of Daphne’s descendants tries to find out. Theodora Gross’s story is quietly moving and beautiful. I think she is one of the best writers working today; her plots and story structures are often remarkably inventive, yet delivered with such quiet grace that while reading you’re absorbed in the narrative, only incidentally noticing her technical brilliance. I have seen objections that this story is not actually “speculative fiction”; indeed, it’s a historical fiction/murder mystery which could easily have been published as “mainstream literary.” But however you label it, it is utterly lovely.

And in that Sheltered Sea, A Colossus by Michael Matheson at Shimmer

Some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever seen. A lushly atmospheric piece which immersed me in a world unlike any other. Ghosts, titans, and the weight of family. A woman living alone in a drowned land encounters a stranger who might just set her free. This piece is gorgeous.

A Complex Filament of Light by S. Qiouyi Lu at Anathema Magazine

I’ve read a few of S. Qiouyi Lu’s stories now. All beautifully written, strange, shimmering, liminal pieces. Like the other pieces I’ve read, this one shines with imagery and echoes with yearning and loss. But for me, there was also a moment of shocked recognition: of seeing a truth of my community in a place that I did not expect. Depression is a topic not easily discussed among Asian-Americans—not even among the younger generations. To see this addressed in a work of fiction is deeply meaningful to me. To see it addressed within the context of the pressures of graduate school makes it resonate even more. This is a lovely story about pain, but it’s also about hope.

(Note: Lu’s story appears in the first issue of Anathema Magazine, a new journal dedicated to publishing speculative fiction by queer people of color. The other stories I read in this issue are also gorgeous and well worth your time.)


“We have Ren Hang’s work; we no longer have Ren Hang. We have photography with its miraculous might, yet again we are reminded it cannot stop suffering, and is no match for death.” 

I had not heard of the Chinese photographer Ren Hang until his death this year. Clearly, he was a talent who will be missed. Chan presents a gorgeous, moving essay on Hang’s work and what it meant to him, accompanied by photographs which are erotic, mysterious, playful, and beautiful.

A Chronology of Touch by Kayla Whaley at Catapult

An extraordinarily beautiful essay about self-touch, shame, and innocence.

Stunning and moving. This aching piece entwines memoir with history, discovery, and the open spaces of the American West.

Touched by Stephen M. Phelps at Aeon Magazine 

The best science writing I’ve seen in some time. Phelps, a neuroscientist and professor of integrative biology, describes the science of touch perception and gives us an explanation of the “sheathless” (unmyelinated) neurons which mediate both pain and the pleasures of sensual touch. Interwoven with the science is the progression of a personal love story. This essay is wondrous—enthralling, gorgeous, moving, and a bit heartbreaking.

“Saudade” is a Portuguese word for longing. And while it feels a bit awkward to link to one of my own previous blog posts, it in turn contains multiple links to great writing (and a song!) on longing and sadness. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Interview with author Mary Fan at her blog, Zigzag Timeline!

Today science fiction and fantasy 
writer Mary Fan  graciously 
interviewed me at her blog, Zigzag 
Timeline. I ramble about writing and
my novelette, The Lilies of Dawn. I also fangirled hard for writer Sofia Samatar, one of my writing heroes, and a major influence and inspiration for The Lilies of Dawn.

If you're curious, you can check out the interview here: 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Thoughts and links on saudade, sadness, longing

I have been listening to sad songs in languages I cannot understand. It started when I stumbled on a Twitter link to this song. I cannot understand Mandarin; I had not, until recently, ever followed either of the musical artists featured in the video. I am not in exile, far from home and family. And yet I’ve been obsessed with this song of homesickness, listening over and over to the ache in the vocals, the clear longing in every line.*

There is a word in Portuguese for longing. Months ago, I stumbled upon this BBC travel article describing it: saudade. Saudade is untranslatable, writer Eric Weiner asserts before translating it thus:
Saudade is a longing, an ache for a person or place or experience that once brought great pleasure. It is akin to nostalgia but, unlike nostalgia, one can feel saudade for something that’s never happened, and likely never will.
At the heart of saudade lies a yawning sense of absence, of loss. Saudade, writes scholar Aubrey Bell in his book In Portugal, is “a vague and constant desire for something. . . other than the present.”

That’s it, I thought when I learned this word. That’s what I’ve felt all my life. A longing for something, some place. . . else.

I remember when I felt this most keenly. After college, I moved straight to a new city for graduate school, and like many grad students I felt lost and unmoored for the first years. I missed my college friends; I missed the network I’d built up there, the sense of familiarity and structure. I didn’t know what I was doing in my new field of study; I felt that I was floundering. I missed home deeply. And yet “home” wasn’t the college I’d just left--that world was over and done. I didn’t want to return. And “home” wasn’t the town where I’d grown up; it wasn’t my family there.

But I was homesick, deeply, helplessly. Homesick for where? For what?

The city’s light rail transit system had a station at the university medical campus where I was studying. I passed that station every day as I walked to and from my apartment and the research laboratory where I worked. It was the last station before the airport, where the train line ended. I remember walking past that station in the evenings, sunsets burning above the train tracks, dramatic swirls of red and pink amidst the gray block buildings of the medical center. Each evening I imagined boarding a train for the airport, buying a plane ticket at random, and jetting off forever into that sunset sky for some unknown country, never to come back.

I never did this, of course. And things got better, as they usually do. I met someone, and years later I’ve made a home with him. Yet still, off and on, underneath my contentment, underneath the placid surface of my days, I’ll feel a thin current of longing. A vague yearning for elsewhere, for a place I don’t know and can’t even describe. 

I think of how existential longing is threaded through so many of the stories I write. A selkie-girl longs for the sea. A snow-maiden longs to be human. Children raised on the Moon yearn to return to Earth. These are fairy tales of impossible longings, longings which can seemingly never be resolved.

In real life, longing is often so painful. But what about it makes us seek it in art? Why is longing at the heart of so many of our most beloved songs, movies, books, and stories?

I think of a post by blogger Lindsey Meade, which I bookmarked and read years ago. She writes of the loneliness, the sadness, at the core of human life. 

I thought everybody felt this vague loneliness at the center of their experience, this unnamed, ineffable emotion that waxes and wanes depending on the day, week, or hour.

In her post, Lindsey Meade references comedian Louis C.K. and the famous video clip where Louis C.K. explains why he won’t give his children a smart phone:

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty.

Forever empty. It's one way to describe it, this sadness, this yearning, this existential loneliness at the heart of being human. And I agree with Louis and Meade here: that so much of our distracted behavior is simply a way to not feel that emptiness. Obsessive checking of iPhones (I do this!), eating, drinking, drugs, sex, working 60+ hours a week. . . It's a way to not feel, to forget the loneliness, the ineradicable darkness beneath. 

I think this why we seek out sadness in art. Sad songs and books and movies and stories—they give us permission to sit with the sadness, to experience it in a safe way and even share it with others. American culture does not encourage sitting alone with one’s sadness. That doesn’t look productive, after all. We’re encouraged to be happy, positive, and as productive as possible. To push the darkness away from us as much as we can.

But we can feel it through art. That’s socially sanctioned; that’s okay. Fun is good. Contributing to the entertainment industry with our dollars is good. Having fun in a way that also taps into that undercurrent of sadness? That’s also. . . okay.

More than okay.
Saudade can be pleasurable, that BBC article asserts. The Portuguese even celebrate a kind of “joyful sadness” to be found in saudade. The writer of the BBC piece interviews a Portuguese clinical psychologist, Mariana Miranda:
Sadness is an important part of life, she told me, adding that she can’t understand why anyone would avoid it.
“‘I want to feel everything in every possible way. Why paint a painting with only one colour?" By avoiding sadness at all costs, she said, we diminish ourselves. “There is actually lot of beauty in sadness.”
I think there’s truth in what this woman said. There’s truth in what Lindsey Meade writes in her blog:
It’s through sitting with the emptiness, eschewing the behaviors that numb us to the darkness at the core of this life, that we learn to be human. 
And yes, sometime the sadness is too much and leaves us unable to function. But I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about clinical depression, and neither are the writers I’ve cited here. I’m just talking about that base level of sadness, of unavoidable loneliness. That sense of homelessness even when we are at home warm and safe with our loved ones; a sense, for me, that manifests as an inarticulate longing for a home I’ve never known, which I know doesn’t exist, and yet which I still vaguely intuit.
A place of belonging, true belonging, which I think is not possible for us, we sentient beings with our individual consciousnesses, separate from the world and from each other.**
I think that to long for something is to be alive. I think sometimes we need to sit with that oft-buried sadness to remember this, to be fully alive.
*The rapper in the video is Namewee, a Malaysian-Chinese musical artist. The pretty one with the aching vocals is Leehom Wang, an American-born singer/songwriter/actor of Taiwanese heritage. Both men are apparently Big Deals in Asia, particularly Leehom Wang who is a mega-star of the Chinese pop music scene. The music video here is about exile, about migrant workers in Beijing. But it’s also easy to read this song (written by Namewee) as Namewee’s own story of leaving Malaysia (Google it), and to also consider that Wang, too, is no longer in the land of his birth.

**I think of this line from the first elegy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Steven Mitchell's translation)
      . . . already the knowing animals are aware
           that we are not really at home in
            our interpreted world.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Winter Fiction recs! A Taste of Honey and more (Dec 2016-Feb 2017)

It's been a while since I’ve done one of these. I’d set a rhythm of reviewing short fiction bimonthly and then. . . just lost the rhythm. Life intervened, I would say, although in truth I have not been particularly busy (okay, I’ve been busy panicking over U.S. politics? But that’s not really productive. . .)

Anyway. I’m still reading, even if I’m not writing very much. Reading helps. It always helps.

Here are some stories that have stood out for me over the past few months. They’re beautiful, moving, and alternately shot through with darkness and light. Maybe some of these will help you, too.

Free to read online

Zombies in Winter by Naomi Kritzer in Persistent Visions 

A zombie story that doesn’t unfold as you’d expect. When the narrator’s friend Tom falls victim to a plague which robs him of personality and mind, the narrator steps in to care for his best friend—even though his friend no longer recognizes him. The narrator cares tenderly for the zombie that Tom has become, in tribute to the man Tom once was. This is a quiet, tender, heartbreaking tale. Editor Heather Shaw explains it all in her introduction to this piece: “I bought ‘Zombies in Winter’ by Naomi Kritzer because it’s centered on a beautiful example of compassion and of a close, platonic, male friendship.” I’ve only read a few pieces from Naomi Kritzer, but everything I’ve seen from her is suffused with humanity and generosity (Read her So Much Cooking --another plague story!—if you haven’t already. Also, read more from Persistent Visions, a relatively new magazine which is consistently publishing top-notch work).

Das Steingeschopf by G.V. Anderson in Strange Horizons

Another story of quiet heartache, although the love featured here is of a different kind.  In an alternate pre-World War II Germany, a Jewish craftsman (more precisely, a man who is perceived and treated as Jewish) begins his first commission for the Schopfer’s Guild. His task is to restore a valuable statue. But the statues in this world are not like ours; they are living statues made of a material called Queckstein, which draws upon the sculptor’s emotions, memories, and self. To restore this statue, the narrator must draw deeply upon his own emotional memories. This is a beautifully crafted, aching story of untold love. The foreboding atmosphere of pre-World War II Germany, under which the narrator faces prejudice (of more than one kind) is finely evoked.

The Dancer on the Stairs by Sarah Tolmie at Strange Horizons 

This is one of the most fascinating stories I’ve read all year. A dancer wakes on a mysterious staircase, in a mysterious world. She’s disoriented (like the reader), and only slowly begins to grasp the rules of survival on the staircase and beyond. Few fantasy stories show really alien cultures, but this one does. The people in this world are human, but their culture of rituals and dance feels both truly unique and convincingly detailed. This slow-burn of a story reminds me of some of Ursula K. LeGuin’s “thought-experiment” stories: stories that create alternate worlds to explore philosophical abstractions. A truly different, thought-provoking tale.

The Death of Paul Bunyan by Charles Payseur in Lightspeed 

Johnny Appleseed is working in Chicago (“Green spaces. Planned communities. Beautification projects”) when he gets the call that his old lover, Paul Bunyan, is dead. What follows is a moving, startlingly original take on American myths—not just the folk heroes of Bunyan and Appleseed, but the myths surrounding the settling of America, the clearing of the forests and taming of the land, our Manifest Destiny. The premise sounds as though it may be satire or humor, but it’s not; Payseur takes his premise with dead seriousness. This story is immediately compelling, gorgeously written, and shot through with loneliness and regret. The accompanying author interview, in which Payseur discusses his story’s themes, is also well worth reading.

A Lumberjack’s Guide to Dryad Spotting by Charles Payseur in Flash Fiction Online

This flash pairs well with Payseur’s story above; it’s another tale set in the North Woods of Wisconsin, featuring a pair of (more down-to-earth) lumberjack lovers. Longing and desperation suffuse this tightly written flash piece.

Postcards from Natalie by Carrie Laben in The Dark

And oh, this blew me away. The narrator’s older sister, Natalie, has run away from home and sends postcards from the road back to “little Mandy.” The speculative element is slow to kick in, but the realist story of family conflict and love is so well done that I would have been perfectly happy without any fantasy. This isn’t just a realist tale, however. Slowly, subtly, we get hints of something more. The buildup is fantastic. The ending is somehow both uplifting and devastating—a kick in the teeth. One of the best stories I’ve read this year.

Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light by Malon Edwards in Shimmer

In a dark, steampunk Chicago lit by gas lamps, a little girl fights a monster. This is the sequel to Edwards’ previous publication in Shimmer, The Half Dark Promise,  which you should go read now if you haven’t already. Both these stories are tense, beautifully written, atmospheric pieces singing with distinctive rhythm and snippets of Haitian Creole. The endings will make you want to cheer.

The Three Nights of the Half-Gent by Mario De Seabra Coelho in Strange Horizons

Coelho is a new writer to me. This is a gorgeous, mysterious, darkly evocative tale in which a dead man finds the courage to live.

Next Station, Shibuya by Iori Kusano in Apex

A lovely, quietly melancholy love story between a girl and a city.

First of Her Name by Elaine Cuyengeng in Lackington’s

Cuyengeng is killing it in horror. First, she came out with The House That Creaks in The Dark. Then she followed up with this horrific, horrific tale of ants? bees? a colony of social insects invaded by Something Which Does Not Belong. This story had me ranting/raving at dinner with my family the day that I read it. At the end, startlingly beautiful imagery is interwoven with the horror. Original and haunting.

For purchase (novella)

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson, published by Tor. Available for purchase at Amazon.

I’d heard so much about this novella, and about Wilson in general. This weekend, I finally made time to read it. And . . . it’s worth the hype. Aqib, minor royalty and son of the Master of Beasts and the Hunt, is walking the prince’s cheetah back to the Menagerie when he meets Lucrio, a handsome foreign solder from a visiting embassy. What follows is a whirlwind romance between two men which thrillingly captures the feeling of first love. But tension is also threaded through this story; Aqib and Lucrio met only ten days before Lucrio is to leave Aqib’s country forever. Moreover, they must keep their love secret, for homosexual relationships are forbidden in Aqib’s country (although not in Lucrio’s), and Aqib’s family is pressuring him to marry a woman of high social status so as to lift the family’s fortunes. The story flashes between the unfolding courtship and glimpses of a future where Aqib seems to have settled into a life without Lucrio. The drama of the story—will they be together? will they not?—had me flipping the pages furiously. A Taste of Honey isn’t just about the exhilaration of first love; it’s also a meditation on the choices we make, the alternative lives we might have had, and the love and loss that meet us no matter what fork in the road we choose. This is all wrapped in gorgeous, distinctive prose and set in a lushly realized secondary world of magic, mysterious technology, and sensuous detail. I loved the moments that highlight the cultural differences (and misunderstandings) between Aqib and Lucrio. I loved the author’s (justly praised) use of dialect in dialogue, and the evocation of complicated family dynamics. Most of all, I loved the characters and especially the character of Aqib. In the Tumblr/Twitter/Internet fandom parlance of today, Aqib is a “cinnamon roll”—a sweet, pure character you want to protect. Which certainly isn’t to say that he’s flawless. The young Aqib is adorably innocent, gentle, tender. He’s also haughty, completely clueless, and unthinkingly accepting of his privileges within his society’s class structure. And he’s passionate, brave, and strong in a way that’s not always recognized by others (for instance, by his abusive, stereotypically masculine older brother). A Taste of Honey is a lovely, passionate work with an ambitious plot structure (a non-linear chronology) and a twist which I won’t spoil here. But I will spoil the ending just a little bit to say: it made me happy. This story, although heart-wrenching in places, made me very happy. And to bring a bit of happiness and loveliness into the world is no small thing at all.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood: Quote

Just finished reading Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, a slim collection of linked short stories set in in Berlin, Germany during the early 1930s, on the eve of Hitler's rise to power.

The stories are primarily sharp, vivid sketches of the many eccentric characters the narrator (an Englishman named, like the author, Christopher Isherwood) meets during his stay. There's much lightness and humor in these adventures, but a thread of sadness also runs through these stories, and the tone of foreboding grows stronger as the book proceeds.

The most chilling passage occurs in the last pages, as the narrator prepares to leave Berlin as the Nazis take power. His German landlady is distraught, asking why he feels the need to leave. He thinks:

"It's no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about "Der Fuhrer" to the porter's wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousand of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves."

Monday, January 9, 2017

An interview with Djibril al-Ayad about Problem Daughters, an new anthology focused on speculative stories of intersectional feminism

Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, focusing on the lives and experiences of marginalized women, such as those who are of color, QUILTBAG, disabled, sex workers, and all intersections of these.

For years, the team at The Future Fire have been bringing us all beautiful, sharp, socially aware stories of speculative fiction. In addition to the magazine of the same name, The Future Fire has also published five acclaimed anthologies. Now the team at the The Future Fire is fund-raising for their newest project, Problem Daughters, a pro-paying anthology to be edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael, and Djibiril al-Ayad. Today I am pleased to be hosting an interview with editor Djibril al-Ayad about this latest venture.

Tell me a little about how this project got started and how you got involved. What kind of backgrounds do you bring to this project?

It’s starting to be a cliché now to answer this question by saying, “A chat on Twitter!” but in this case that’s literally true. Nicolette, Rivqa and I were riffing off of various easy definitions of positive representation (such as the way the Bechdel Test is sometimes used—as it was never intended—as a proxy for whether a film is feminist or not), and we started playing with ideas such as speculating on a positively feminist story that might technically fail the Bechdel Test (finding crappy, non-feminist stories that technically pass the Test is too easy!). From there we started trying to draw up an imaginary call for submissions that would attract stories that hit that spot—that were feminist stories that break the mold, that don’t pass those easy tests, that aren’t restricted to the limited imaginations of the “white feminist” mindset.

We liked the idea so much that at some point we were no longer talking about hypotheticals (and we’d probably moved from Twitter to email by this time), and so I asked Nicolette and Rivqa if they would consider guest-editing a themed issue of The Future Fire magazine along the lines we’d been describing. They accepted, and we carried on brainstorming the (no long imaginary) call for submissions. Eventually the idea became so big that we were no longer thinking in terms of an online magazine issue with 6–8 stories, but rather a full-size print anthology with fiction, poetry, essays and artwork, maybe even comics or other media, and the theme of “voices of women who are excluded from some mainstream feminisms” was settled.

As for what we bring to this project: my co-editors are both wonderful writers whose work I admire hugely, and I bring editing experience, both of which I think are very important perspectives. Rivqa is a queer Jewish speculative fiction writer and science editor based in Australia, and Nicolette was born with spastic cerebral palsy and writes about disability, feminism, sex—and body-positivity (as well as kick-ass SFF!). I have been editing the speculative fiction magazine TFF for twelve years, and have co-edited four social-justice themed anthologies with editors and authors who have opened my eyes to a lot of intersections I would never been aware of before. I’m sure this experience will be equally as illuminating, especially of my own ignorance.

What kind of pieces are you hoping to see in the slush pile? Are there particular intersections that you think particularly underrepresented, which you’re hoping to see? What is your vision for this anthology and how do you hope it will affect the field of science fiction and fantasy?

The best thing about a project such as this is the novelty and diversity that all the editors, authors, artists and others will bring to the pages—I don’t even begin to guess at the unexpected, underrepresented intersections that we will come across. What I do expect (from my experience with previous anthologies) is that we will end up with far more stories we love, across a much broader spectrum, than we could possibly include in a single volume, so that our job will be not merely to take whatever representations we are sent and publish them, but selectively to sculpt an anthology that contains as wide a range of what Claire Light calls “food groups” as possible, where in this case the diversity categories are precisely those underrepresented voices such as trans women, sex workers, hijabis and other religious women, disabled or mentally women, etc., as well as genres, styles, media and length.

I’m aware of course that we’re not the only small speculative press doing this sort of thing—Crossed Genres, Rosarium, Dagan, Aqueduct and many others have been blazing the trail of diverse scifi publishing far ahead of us—so I don’t pretend that we will change the field with this sort of publication, or that we’re doing something no one has ever thought of before. But I think we can bring an important contribution to this as-yet far-too-small movement, which includes an adventurous approach to genre and style (we’ll mix prose, verse, nonfiction, art and experimental forms like they’re about to go out of fashion!), an unapologetic social-political theme, and a growing community of editors and authors to make the project even more awesome and fun to work on (and hopefully to read). Every title like this that comes out, I hope encourages others that diverse fiction is feasible and marketable—and needed!—in this world. Especially today.

Could you give an example of a published piece (novel or short story) which exemplifies the type of intersectional feminism that you love and are perhaps hoping to see in Problem Daughters?

It’s hard to think of a single work that exemplifies the sort of thing we’re looking for, primarily because it is exactly that variety and diversity and multivocality that will make this anthology wonderful. But perhaps the most awe-inspiring and intersectional author that I can think of is Nisi Shawl, whose stories and novels are awash with race and sexuality and disability and colonialism and the prison-pipeline and kick-ass women and popular resistance and radical relationships and cyberpunk and EVERYTHING! If there is a writer who exemplifies what I think speculative fiction should have more of, I’d have to say Nisi.

There are a lot of complex discussions these days around issues of representation of traditionally oppressed and/or marginalized identities. (And I think that sentence itself contains terms to unpack—”oppressed” vs “marginalized”!) One issue that I’ve thought about a lot is the pressure that some of us may feel to write to certain expectations of identity—the idea, say, that an “Asian-American” story should hit certain tropes, should reference immigration struggles, assimilation issues, hypercritical Old World parents, etc. This also brings up the difference between writing stories that are about certain identities versus stories that simply happen to feature characters of those identities. For instance, I’m Asian-American and have written a few stories with explicitly Asian-American characters (not all yet published). But I don’t see any of these stories as being about Asian-American “issues”; they’re about neuroscience or sentient spaceships. They feature American characters of Asian descent, and family and cultural backgrounds are referenced, but they’re not about any kind of marginalization/oppression or ethnic identity struggle at all. I just wondered if you could perhaps speak to this—about the different types of stories important for representation, and the balance that you hope to find among them.

I love interviews with questions longer than some answers! :-D The one thing I’ll say is that I entirely agree that diverse stories don’t need to be issue stories, and they don’t need to contain characters or settings from the same demographics as their authors—diversity should just be the norm, and the stories all about neuroscience and spaceships and unutterably cold space. That said, the Problem Daughters anthology is keen to focus a lot on “own voices” fiction, meaning we’re less interested in straight white abled men trying to imagine—however well-intentioned—what it’s like to be a QWOC or whatever. We hear from plenty of those men, and that’s all great, but we want to hear from the QWOC themselves too. This is also explicitly an “issues” anthology, so we will be looking for stories about the issues faced by underrepresented voices—although that obviously doesn’t have to be all they’re about…

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

The main thing I would end with is an appeal to anyone who has a story about problem daughters, about feminist/womanist characters that aren’t always accepted as such in the mainstream, to send it to us. In our call for submissions we talk a lot about the sort of story we want, but above all we want stories from those excluded voices and those troublemakers and those intersections that we haven’t thought of, that we can’t have thought of because we don’t have those perspectives. That’s where you come in. That’s why we have an open call and we’re not commissioning stories to an agenda—we need you to tell us what we’re missing.

Thank you so much, Djibril!

For more information (and to support!) the Problem Daughters anthology, please visit the Indigegogosite here! 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

On narratives of hope, kindness, and happiness: Yuri!!! on Ice (very light spoilers)

Yuri on Ice saved 2016.
Yuri on Ice saved me.
Again and again across the Internet, I’ve seen variations on the phrases above. If you didn’t already know, Yuri on Ice is an anime that exploded into popularity this past fall, attracting a global audience and the attention of many people who don’t usually watch anime. On Twitter, it was the most talked-about fall anime by a huge margin. The airing of the finale apparently crashed the servers of the anime streaming site CrunchyrollNot since Attack on Titan have I seen a new anime with such cross-over buzz, and the two shows could hardly be more different. Attack on Titan was a grim, gory, almost unrelentingly dark action-thriller about teen soldiers battling man-eating giants. Yuri on Ice is a heartwarming, tender and uplifting sports anime about love and male figure skating.

Yuri on Ice saved 2016

I don’t think anything could have saved 2016, but I am not being hyperbolic when I say that Yuri on Ice helped me get through some rough days. I know that it helped others, too. 

There are so many different directions one could take with an analysis of this show. One could speak (and certainly many have) about the central love story, and the importance of this nuanced depiction of a happy, healthy, romantic/sexual relationship between two men. One could speak of the sensitive portrayal of mental health issues--depression,anxiety, distorted self-image--in the show. One could revel in the racial and international diversity of the cast. Much has been made of the realism with which Yuri on Ice depicts the rarified world of figure skating. Professional figure skaters have avidly followed the showIconic figure skating legend Johnny Weir himself seems to have fallen in love with Yuri on Ice, tweeting about it and saying in an interview with The Geekiary,There are so many details that pop up that wouldn’t mean anything to a casual skating fan, but to us as skaters who actually lived it, you can see so much respect for our world and what we do through the animations and story lines.” 

There have even been articles analyzing the way characters in the show use social media (they use it a lot, in a way that feels realistic and up-to-date) 

But here, I want to talk about this show and happiness. I want to talk about how it has brought happiness to so many viewers in what has been, in so many ways, a dark time. I want to talk about the structure and narrative of this show—how it touches on dark issues but is full of light, how suffused it is with kindness and generosity. This is a story of love and passion and character growth and the ending (spoiler!) is unambiguously happy. I confess that I have not consumed much in the way of such narratives. The stories I read and watch are so often dark, tragic, or at best bittersweet.

Yuri on Ice showed me something new.

Despite the show’s upward trajectory, Yuri on Ice starts off in a scene of despair.  Katsuki Yuri is a 23-year old figure skater from Japan, and when we first meet him he’s crying in a bathroom stall. He has just placed last in the international figure skating Grand Prix Final competition. He’s a talented skater, but he has issues with anxiety and self-confidence, and his dog died just before the competition, contributing to his stress. Yuri goes on to bomb the next major competition of the season, and returns home to Japan with his self-esteem in tatters, depressed and ashamed. He’s at loose ends, unsure of himself, and thinks that he may be looking at the end of his competitive skating career.

Into his life walks Viktor Nikiforov, five-time winner of the Grand Prix and Yuri’s long-time idol. While trying to regain his love for skating, Yuri has been privately practicing one of Viktor’s winning programs. A video of Yuri perfectly skating Viktor's free skate program goes viral and catches the attention of Viktor himself, who flies to Japan to be Yuri's coach.  

What follows is a love story on more than one level. Yuri and Viktor fall in love, yes (that’s pretty much telegraphed from the beginning), and it’s a beautiful love story, tender and delicately drawn. It goes past the will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation stage to the drama of a real, committed relationship—something I've found rare even in straight anime romances. But entwined with Yuri and Victor’s personal love is their love of skating; they find inspiration for their art/sport in one another. And as the story continues it also expands to the narratives of other skaters: Yuri’s competitors. Everyone has a story; everyone is deeply invested in skating; everyone wants to do and be the best. In addition to a personal love story, Yuri on Ice is a story about the pursuit of excellence. In the end, each skater’s true competitor is himself; each is trying, again and again, to score a new personal best.

In an earlier post I referred to this anime as “gentle.” I was only midway through the series at the time. Soon after writing that post I realized how wrong I was; the tension in the show ratchets up dramatically when Yuri actually enters the Grand Prix for the second time, and the viewer is taken on a roller coaster of emotions. Yuri’s confidence has grown under Viktor’s guidance and love, but his anxiety is not magically cured; his self-doubts and anxiety recur, threatening to undermine all he’s achieved. The emotional stakes rise. There are unexpected obstacles. Yet even as I was on edge with tension, I knew that in the end it would be okay. I trusted the show’s creators. I trusted the feeling of overall hope in their world.

Yuri on Ice doesn’t take place in what is exactly our world. It’s very close to our world, yes, and the characters feel grounded in realism; they’re complex and layered. But the world they move in is a better world than our own. There is no homophobia in the world of Yuri on Ice, no stigma whatsoever to Yuri and Viktor’s love. Queerness appears to be utterly normalized. Everyone in the cast is utterly decent. The show treats every character with compassion and kindness. The skaters compete fiercely against each other, but they also cheer each other on. And by the end, even the few obnoxious characters have been redeemed.

There appears to be no malice in the world of Yuri on Ice. There’s still heartbreak and angst, but there’s no evil.

In late 2016, the real world appeared (and still appears) to be falling apart to so many of us. And to be able to escape it for even a short time to this kinder, brighter, better world?

That was and is priceless.

I’ll repeat what I said in an earlier post: Fiction is needed to depict the world as it is. But I've come to realize that it’s also important for depicting the worlds that we want, the worlds that might be.

During this anime’s run I was squeeing on the Internet with new friends, shamelessly gushing. I saw a community form, and I saw how happy this show made people.

I want to write like this, I messaged a fellow writer. I want to write happy stories of character growth.

Squad goals for you and me, she messaged back.

I don’t know if I can write a story like that (my own written stories tend to fall toward heartbreak). But Yuri on Ice has shown me how important such narratives can be. Positive and affirming doesn’t mean simple. It doesn’t mean a story can’t be damn compelling.

And I learned that joyful, uplifting moments in fiction can wreck and lay waste to my heart as keenly as fictional tragedy and death.

I don’t quite know how Yuri on Ice achieves that, by the way—how it devastates with joy. I’ve spent so much time trying to work it out.

But I know I want more.

*You can watch the subtitled Yuri on Ice for free (and legally) through Crunchyroll

*Funimation has the English-dubbed version, but for god’s sake do not watch it first; the voices are goddamn awful (although apparently there are some interesting choices and improvements to the English translation)

*I have not even touched on the tight plot structure of this series, the masterful use of misdirection and the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator, the plot twist in episode 10 that had writers on my Twitter timeline losing their goddamn minds over how well-executed it was. Let’s just say that after episode 10 you will see everything that occurred before in a new light.

*Oh, and this show is also really funny at times. And hot. It’s sexy without feeling fetishistic or exploitive (unlike most straight-male directed fanservice, which does often feel uncomfortably exploitive).