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).