A Visit to Des Moines

Last week, my mother came down to visit me in Iowa, and we spent a morning under a changeable sky at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Despite having lived in Iowa for a year and three quarters (minus a big chunk of the pandemic), I’ve spent next to no time in Des Moines. That’s still mostly true, but at least I’ve seen a little bit more of the capital. Here are a few of my favorite plants from the botanical garden:

Baptisias (false indigos) in many colors!

Borage, or starflower, which my phone camera unfortunately made too purple and not blue enough

I think this is Taylor’s Sunburst lodgepole pine

Then there was this adorable baby rabbit I stalked!

There was a spectacular collection of columbines that my photos did not do justice to

Quite the peony

After seeing the botanical garden, we got takeout bún from Á Đông. Then my mother left for the return leg of her Iowa peony tour while I went down the road to check out the Chinese pavilion on the Des Moines River. The structure is in the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens, named for a former governor of Iowa who worked to resettle Southeast Asian refugees in the state in the 1970s.

Firebreak Reading

Earlier this month, I attended a reading and Q & A with Nicole Kornher-Stace, author of the recently released adult SFF novel Firebreak. The event was hosted by C.S.E. Cooney, with guest co-host Amal El-Mohtar. While I read Nicole’s YA novel Archivist Wasp years ago (2015, apparently!), I have still not read its sequel, Latchkey. But I like following Nicole on Twitter, and of course I like Amal El-Mohtar, and I’d just enjoyed C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez’s short story “The Book of May,” so I jumped on that registration link.

As we settled into Zoom, Amal talked about her walk that day and the swarm of swallows she’d seen over the river, which led to a discussion of what the collective noun for swallows is (options include gulp and kettle). In the chat, attendees shared where they were connecting from. Then Claire (that is, C.S.E. Cooney) eased her co-presenters into the Q & A by asking Amal what she’d been burning to ask Nicole. The answer, it turned out, was what she was going to plant in her garden! Nicole revealed that she lives in a townhouse without a backyard but has lots of containers, potentially in defiance of the homeowners’ association. The pandemic inspired her to try to grow food, so she has (in upstate New York) a baby nectarine tree, a cherry bush, a fig tree, a persimmon tree, and three kinds of raspberries, among other things.

The three authors then reminisced about how they had met one another at various cons and how they were all connected through the online poetry journal Goblin Fruit, founded by Amal and Jessica Wick. Somewhere in here, my Wifi failed me, and when I returned, Amal was asking Nicole about Firebreak, the novel whose release we were celebrating. Specifically, she asked her why, in the book, she’d wanted to have giant robots in the real world (as opposed to the immersive video game that plays a major role in the book). Nicole said that she just takes a bunch of things she enjoys, squishes them together, and sees what sticks. She also cited watching anime and playing lots of video games.

Claire noted that Mal, the protagonist of Firebreak, is employed as a dog walker and then mentioned how she had this constant sense of thirst while reading the book because all the characters are dehydrated. (Maybe I should mention that Firebreak is a near-future dystopian novel in which a corporation controls all access to drinking water and collecting rainwater is illegal.) Claire asked Nicole what kind of research she’d done on water scarcity and dehydration. Among the sources she mentioned was the documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars. For the benefit of the audience, Claire said that the rage and the thirst (and the tenderness) were part of the experience of reading the book.

Amal said one of the things she loved most about Nicole’s writing, of which there was more in her recent work, was the physicality of everything, how the prose was always slamming and hurting. She called her writing extremely embodied. Then she invited Nicole to talk about the origins of Firebreak. Nicole said she’d been kicking the idea around since before Archivist Wasp came out and spent three years telling herself she wasn’t good enough to write it and could never do it justice. (Of course, she did write it!) Firebreak is a standalone, but it’s about the war that’s referenced in Archivist Wasp. She’d gotten a review of Archivist Wasp that said obviously the war mentioned in that book hadn’t been fully thought out, so she wrote Firebreak out of spite. She also said there was a lot of her in her main character Mal, including being bad at people and having a gamer background.

At this point, Claire put in that Mal thinks she’s bad at people but is actually surrounded by friends and is good at friendship and at being loyal. She asked Nicole if she’d chosen her name for malcontent. Nicole said she hadn’t but that Mal’s name made her think of Amal. Amal said the only time she saw her name in books was when someone she knew tuckerized (new word for me!) her. In Firebreak, she’d enjoyed seeing a name that was most of hers. 

My Wifi was being exceptionally persnickety that evening, so I missed another bit, but when I was back online, Nicole was talking about how she’d been thinking a lot about social media activism. There’s so much organizing you can do if you get people together in any way. In Firebreak, the company that runs the game Mal plays is trying to keep everyone isolated and unable to organize. Nicole said this was like the world we live in. Especially now, we’re all isolated. She said she’s an idealist, so she wanted to write about the potential and where it could go, but she still wanted it to be realistic. Claire said, in relation to the organizing, I think, that it was a collaboration between Mal, her friend Jessa, and all the viewers of the game, who were supplying the players with what they needed. Amal said it was striking to her now how much that dynamic of having to fight to keep your rank was echoed in Archivist Wasp. And that dynamic doesn’t change until people stop fighting and start working together against the people who want them to keep fighting. I believe she said this dynamic was one of the few true things in fiction.

Then Amal shifted gears (“speaking of desire!”) and said she wanted to ask Nicole to elaborate on something she’d been talking about a lot on Twitter, namely, ace representation and aromantic representation. She (Amal) said that in some books she sees a “box of chocolates” approach to representation (“here is an ace character!”), but what Nicole was representing in Firebreak was actually what a certain kind of asexual desire and experience and longing looked like. Amal thought it was really valuable and gorgeous. Nicole said she could talk about this topic for a really long time. She described Mal as introspective but not very good at expressing how she talks or thinks about herself. She’s figuring it (i.e. herself and her feelings) out, but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to her because, like for us today, she doesn’t have a template for this. So she talks about it, but without using the words we might use. Here, Claire added that Mal’s friends talk about it too. Nicole said she didn’t want Mal to exist as a teaching moment but rather to just be who she is. She wanted to leave Mal’s experience in a gray area. Mal feels something for someone in a way that most people would read as romantic, though in fact it’s platonic. But Nicole wanted to leave room for different interpretations because she doesn’t want to say that platonic relationships are only for aroace people. Claire observed that no one can give the ace-aro experience in a single character.

Amal pointed out that the relationship between Mal and 22 wasn’t the only platonic relationship in Firebreak. She found the one between Mal and Jessa so gorgeous. She noted that she was on the record multiple times as saying she wantd to see more female friendships as driving narrative forces, to see them given the same weight as romantic relationships. Then she had some musings on the transactional nature of romance vs. the creation of a bond in friendship, but I don’t think I captured all the nuance (and am also not sure I agree with the distinction). Claire’s last thought here, which may have been related to this thread, was about Nicole writing characters who grow less lonely while remaining loners. This was something she saw in Archivist Wasp too.

This concluded the host Q & A. Next, Nicole, Amal, and Claire read two scenes from Firebreak. Nicole read Mal’s first person narration and lines while Amal was Mal’s friend Jessa and Claire was 22, when he appeared. In this first scene, Mal and Jessa were in the video game, playing with a bunch of new gear. At the end, Jessa lets Mal go off with 22 so she can get closure with her friend crush or somesuch. After this reading, Claire asked Amal for her best supervillain laugh, which she delivered. Then she (Amal) said to everyone, “I don’t know if this is apparent, but I love this book so much!”

At this point, Carlos Hernandez, who’s Claire’s husband, loosened Zoom’s video permissions so attendees could join with video and applaud. A few people stuck around on camera for the remainder of the event, and I’m pleased to say no fewer than two audience members had cats appear in their windows.

The second reading was from the end of the novel’s third section (of four). Right before this scene, Mal had seen a deepfake of herself supporting the evil corporation, and all her video game fans thought it was her. This excerpt was an intense showdown between corporate soldiers and protestors, and then it started to rain and people lifted cups to the clouds. But things were looking pretty iffy for Mal. 

There was a little time at the end for audience questions. The first question was what meal or drink paired perfectly with Firebreak. I think Nicole was stumped, and then everyone concluded the drink would be water, given everyone’s chronic dehydration? Then someone asked what games had been major influences on the book, and I know Nicole at least mentioned Anarchy Online. But also action movies like Fury Road, Edge of Tomorrow, and Aliens. There was a request for anime recs, and Nicole said that every time someone asked her for some, her mind went blank. She said Evangelion was formative, though not necessarily good; it was the weirdest thing she’d seen at the time. Right now she was enjoying Dorohedoro. (I should just come out and say I barely get any of the references in this paragraph.)

Claire asked Nicole what she was enjoying reading right now, and Nicole said she was in a nonfiction phase. Although she was writing a list of friendship books, so she was reading recommendations. To everyone, Claire recommended The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry, and Amal recommended Hench. Then she slipped in a last question to Nicole, asking her if she’d watched the show Killjoys. Nicole said she hadn’t, although many people had recommended it to her. Amal said she found it very delightful but extremely “a lot”; she also cited the core, non-sexualized friendship between a man and a woman (whom Amal had a crush on). Amal made one last plug to the audience for word-of-mouth recommendations, and then that was about it!

Growing Microgreens

Earlier this year, my mother gave me a Great Northern Microgreens Starter Grow Kit she’d bought at the Fulton Farmers Market in Minneapolis. On May Day, I decided to plant my first crop. The kit comes with everything you need (except the water mister), so first I hydrated and crumbled one of the pucks of coco coir growing medium into one of the rectangular black containers. Then I sowed one of the five seed packets; I picked the blue curled kale, for no particular reason. I misted the scattered seeds so they were nicely ensconced in the soil.

The seeds right after sowing

As instructed, I used the second black container to cover the seeds and misted them once or twice a day. The morning after I planted them, they were already starting to germinate!

First signs of germination

I continued to keep the seeds covered and to mist them. On the second day, germination had progressed, but the little white tendrils emerging from the seeds had white fuzz, like cilia, and I worried it was mold.

Is it mold?!

But the sprouts began to stand up, with their little yellow cotyledons.

Sprouts!

After four days, I removed the top container covering the crop and began to set the growing tray in front of my full-spectrum lamp for ten hours a day. My apartment has extremely limited natural light (only one window), so I needed a grow light.

Sprouts drinking in the light and turning chartreuse

Since the lamp was placed on one side of the container, the sprouts would lean toward the light, so I turned the tray several times a day.

Sprouts reaching for the light and getting greener

As the days passed, the crop grew into a lush carpet of cute microgreens.

Microgreens!

The instructions from the kit said most microgreens were ready to eat after 8-12 days, so on Day 10, when the greens had grown taller, I decided to harvest.

Bigger microgreens!

Here they are right before I gave them a “haircut”:

I hadn’t really thought of anything special to do with my homegrown microgreens, so I just threw them on top of this spinach-feta orzo dish I like to make:

A pile of microgreens on top of orzo cooked with spinach, feta, and peas

I mixed them in, so I’m not sure I tasted the blue curled kale microgreens, but the dish tasted very good this time. And I have four more crops to grow!

Farewell, March!

I know it’s been quiet around here this year. Looking back, I’ve apparently never gone a month without posting at least once since I inaugurated this blog (I could have sworn that wasn’t the case?!), and it’d be a shame to break that streak now. So here I am, emerging from the depths to poke my head above water.

We are still in a pandemic. I hope that wherever you are, you’re weathering it still.

What have I been up to in the early months of 2021? Well, in the midst of the Iowa winter, a curious phenomenon created these magnificent ice crystals, which I first noticed on the municipal Christmas trees, now unadorned after the holidays. I’m not sure what happened–meteorologically, atmospherically–but I hypothesized that the fog had frozen into something like snow on the branches. On the first day, the crystals looked like this:

The crystals were thickest on north-facing boughs, branches, and needles, and all the trees in town were thus bedecked. In the following days, I saw the crystals in sunlight, and miniature drippy icicles dangled from the tips of small branches, the icicles themselves feathered with crystals. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this.

In February, for Chinese New Year, I made homemade potstickers all by myself for the first time. (I did use storebought wrappers.) The filling was pork and cabbage, and I found snow pea sprouts to serve with the dumplings.

Then earlier this month, for Pi Day, I made a pie for the first time in a very long while (the piecrust was not homemade, alas). I had some frozen rhubarb in the freezer that I’d been meaning to make a dessert with, and I supplemented with blueberries.

The first flowers to bloom on the college campus are the squills. Nothing like blue flowers to herald the coming of spring!

Finally, I take every opportunity I can get to ingratiate myself with Mama Kitty, the local bar cat. She’s very sweet and likes rubbing her cheek past a hand or a knee, but I’m waiting (in vain?) for the day when she’ll sit in my lap.

Kristin Cashore and Malinda Lo at Mysterious Galaxy

A couple of weekends ago, I attended a virtual author event with Kristin Cashore and Malinda Lo, hosted by the San Diego bookstore Mysterious Galaxy (which did the bookselling all those times I went to YALLWEST). The Q & A was moderated by Tui Sutherland; Sutherland, Cashore, and Lo all live in the Boston area and belong to the same book club. I’ve long been a fan of Kristin Cashore. I’ve actually read all of her books, except for the one that just came out, and I love both the Graceling Realm books (GracelingFire, and Bitterblue) and Jane, Unlimited. I also saw her speak at the Boston Book Festival one October when I was in college (wow, that was a long time ago!). I’ve also long been a fan of Malinda Lo. I’ve read most of her books (and it’s been in the back of my mind to reread Huntress for a while), and I also admire her work with Cindy Pon on Diversity in YA, her research on LGBTQ+ YA By the Numbers, and her posts on craft.

Cashore and Lo were promoting their newest books, released in January. Cashore’s Winterkeep is the latest installment in the Graceling Realm series and features a deep sea creature and telepathic foxes. I believe it has strong environmental themes inspired by Cashore’s travels in the Arctic. Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club is about Lily Hu, a science-minded Chinese-American girl coming into her lesbian identity in 1950s San Francisco.

The event began with brief readings by each author. Cashore read a passage from Winterkeep featuring an amazing cat named Lovejoy (are not all literary cats amazing?). Lo read an excerpt from Last Night at the Telegraph Club in which Lily tells her friend Kath from math class about a pulp novel she read at the drugstore in which two women fell in love and asks Kath whether she’s ever heard of such a thing. Kath says yes!

Sutherland then asked both authors what the spark was for their respective books. Lo explained that her novel had grown out of the short story she’d written for the queer YA historical fiction anthology All Out (which I own). She’d been inspired by Rise of the Rocket Girls, a book about the women computers at the Jet Propulsion Lab (one was Chinese-American!), and another book about the queer history of San Francisco; the two books combined in her head. Cashore had also drawn two disparate things together: she’d wanted to write a dorm book, and she’d had an idea about a deep sea creature who wants to be left alone, who doesn’t want to engage or have responsibilities. She added that Winterkeep has five points of view, including those of the sea creature and a telepathic fox. Lo remarked that the creatures in Winterkeep seemed very themselves, which I took to mean convincingly non-human.

Next, Sutherland asked what felt different when approaching a new genre as an author. Lo has written books in many different genres, and Cashore wrote each section of Jane, Unlimited in a different genre. Lo explained that she reads widely across genres and wants to write all genres (her oeuvre certainly testifies to this!). The time had just come for historical fiction. She’d already been thinking about writing a historical novel before her agent suggested turning the short story in All Out into a book. She said that even within a genre, books differ in tone (she gave the example of her two fantasy novels, Ash and Huntress), and for her, genre is secondary to the specifics of the story. Cashore said she was always happy to be where she was in her writing. She agreed with Lo about the primacy of the specifics of the story. For Jane, Unlimited, where the choices of genre for each section were very deliberate, she had to really think about what made a story a mystery, a spy novel, etc. Each part of Jane, Unlimited felt challenging until she reached the fantasy section, which felt so easy, even though writing her fantasy novels isn’t easy! That made her realize that the experience of writing her previous fantasy novels had counted for something.

At this point, Sutherland commented that historical fiction was hard because of all the research necessary to write each sentence. Lo said that she loved research (she almost got a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology), but if you don’t love research, you probably shouldn’t write historical fiction. To her, historical fiction felt like writing fantasy because of all the worldbuilding involved, but in the case of historical fiction, you could just look stuff up instead of having to make it up. Cashore asked if there was a sense of pressure or anxiety about not getting it wrong, and Lo said there was always anxiety, that most of writing was getting through your anxiety. She didn’t know much about the 1950s when she started working on this book and was surprised by how interested in the era she became. She reached a point where she felt like she knew what was happening in San Francisco in September 1954. The world at one point in space and time came alive for her, like she could walk through 1954. She described it as a weird feeling. But also, she’s quickly forgetting all of it. Cashore said this happened with her research too: she has the information when she needs it and subsequently loses it, but the book holds onto it all.

The authors then talked about point of view. Cashore said that after writing Winterkeep from many POVs, a point came where she had to decide which viewpoints were the most important. The hardest POV to cut was Nev’s. Nev was another dorm character; she had all this veterinary training, as well as a terrible boyfriend from whom she had to recover. (To be clear, she’s still in the book; she’s just not a POV character.) Cashore said she hung on to the remaining five POVs even against some pushback. The book was complicated to plot, but coming off Jane, Unlimited, she knew she could do it. So while it was hard, she wasn’t worried about it. At this point, one of the attendees suggested in the chat that she use Nev in a later book, and Cashore admitted that was one of her little ideas. Lo said that Cashore could just send those extra scenes to her instead. As far as POV in Lo’s book, her editor, Andrew Karre, had suggested including a few scenes from the perspectives of adult characters. She wrote a bunch, some of which didn’t make it into the final book. The ones that remained come in between the six parts of the novel. She mentioned here that in order to figure out how Lily’s parents got together, she had to research World War II. Cashore said she’d loved seeing the perspectives of Lily’s mother and aunt.

Sutherland’s next question was about the family backgrounds of Lily and of Lovisa (one of the POV characters in Winterkeep) and how they contributed to the characters’ complexity. She wondered if these characters had changed as Lo and Cashore had filled out their family backgrounds. Cashore replied that Lovisa had a pretty dysfunctional family and that she’d come to the book already feeling some of those scenes. That said, while she knew how different family members made Lovisa feel, she didn’t always necessarily know what motivated those family members. She described it as having the trunk and the roots and having to do some extra planning work to fill out the branches. She also mentioned that a fellow author had encouraged her to differentiate the emotional reactions of Lovisa’s brothers at the end instead of having them all be the same. She said that Lovisa’s three little brothers were her first time writing siblings! But not her last. In the chat, some attendees pointed out that she’d written Bitterblue and Hava. This made Cashore laugh and say something about the author being too close to the work.

The image of the tree and the roots resonated with Lo. She described having to develop things more in the book, especially when it came time to write the parent POV scenes. It took her a really long time to figure out how Lily’s father could have gotten U.S. citizenship (unlike Lily and Lily’s mother, he wasn’t born in the U.S.). It wasn’t until she’d gotten at least through the first draft that she realized he’d have to have enlisted in the army in order to gain citizenship. Apparently many Chinese men in the U.S. did this, as it was one of their only possible paths to becoming citizens.

Sutherland then switched to audience questions. The first came from a reader who asked Cashore and Lo what their days were like as authors and how they balanced writing and other activities while keeping motivation for both. Lo said that when drafting new material she writes in the morning. She just sits there. If you sit there long enough, you’ll get so bored you’ll write. She doesn’t go on Twitter on writing mornings. Often the words start flowing about 20 minutes before she’s freed for lunch, but there are good days that go faster than that. Sutherland asked her whether she came back to drafting after lunch, and Lo said that for a first draft, she has a daily word count goal of 500 or 1,000 words. If she hits it, she stops. I think the reasoning was that if she went beyond her goal she’d get depressed the next day if she didn’t achieve as much. Or alternatively if she exceeded her word count goal one day she’d let herself not meet it the next day? (Sutherland said that she cheats on her word count goals: 1,500 words yesterday means only 500 today!) For revising, on the other hand, Lo can work all day.

Cashore explained that she has an office outside the home. At the start of the pandemic, they decided to stop the internet service there. She also uses the Forest app, planting motivational trees (Isabelle and I did this while dissertating!). Moreover, she writes by hand. So all this means she has neither computer nor internet in her writing office. But even so, there are so many things you can find to do in a small office before you finally sit down. She keeps a post-it on her window that says The only thing that will make you feel better is having written. I actually remember reading about that post-it in a blog post of Cashore’s, some years ago, and it stayed with me (though I remember it saying having worked). It actually has helped me accomplish things sometimes.

One last note on distractions: Cashore is not really on Twitter, Lo is not on it when she’s seriously working on a book, and Sutherland is not on it at all.

The next question asked whether any of the authors were re-readers and what they reread. Cashore immediately answered Rebecca, and Lo said she was about to reread it. Sutherland said she didn’t reread except for events like this one. Lo brought up Anne of Green Gables, and Cashore agreed it was a good reread, and even Sutherland had read it multiple times.

A teacher in the audience asked about the last time they’d geeked out about a book. Cashore brought out her literal to-be-read pile to show us. Lo had just read Something to Talk About, which was “so fun.” A slow burn sapphic romance, it was like dessert. She also plugged Shelley Parker-Chan’s upcoming She Who Became the Sun, which she called “epic,” “amazing,” and “very queer.” Cashore talked about Elizabeth Lim’s upcoming Six Crimson Cranes, and Sutherland recommended Amari and the Night Brothers and Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries.

There was an audience-submitted question about the representation of marginalized characters and authors writing from the POV of such characters when they don’t share the given marginalization (I suspected this question was prompted by the fact that Cashore is white while Lovisa, one of her POV characters, depicted on the cover, is brown-skinned). This question got a lot of up votes from the audience. Sutherland noted this but remarked that she knew the authors had addressed it before, so she seemed to leave it up to them as to whether they wanted to answer it. Lo said she’d written a lot of blog posts on this subject before. But then they went ahead and took the question.

Lo said that no matter who an author is, they can write whatever they want. As a reader, she can then choose what she wants to read. Writing is an expression of art, so she wouldn’t want to limit anyone, but for instance as an Asian lesbian she’s not interested in reading Asian women written by white men. She thinks the writing and reading are separate. Cashore acknowledged that Lovisa was brown-skinned and wore her hair in twists, mentioning in passing that people had different interpretations of Bitterblue. She said the world of her books was not the real world and so had not been shaped by the same history. She felt that in a book with multiple POVs, it would also be wrong to privilege just the white humans as POV characters. She wasn’t sure she’d center a book on, say, Lovisa, but maybe now she would, now that Lovisa was part of the world. Cashore said these issues are a constant conversation and people come to different conclusions.

Sutherland briefly brought up the fact that both Lo and Cashore write craft posts. I’ve been reading both Cashore’s deep dives into specific books and their craft achievements and Lo’s newsletter, for which she wrote a craft series last fall. Sutherland was curious to know whether they’d ever turn their craft posts into books, but Lo said that was a lot of work, and Cashore said there were other things she wanted to write, namely, fiction.

Finally, Cashore and Lo shared what they were working on next. Cashore is in revisions on a book about Hava and currently writing a “magical contemporary thing.” She said it was going to be a short book. Everyone teases her when she says this, but she’s determined to show them she can write a short book! (This sounds like me saying I’m going to write an actually short short story.) Lo is working on a book that used to be a contemporary, but then the pandemic happened, so the book takes place before the pandemic. By the time it comes out, it will be a historical novel. Cashore said they’re going to have to give that historical period a name.

The Books I Read in 2020

In 2020, I read 69 books, down from 93 in 2019. I didn’t actually think it would drop by so much! Quite a few of those 69 were picture books and graphic novels, and in 2020 I also did a lot of rereading, which was enjoyable. Most notably, I reread Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, which I adore, and then I reread the first four books of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series in preparation for reading the final two books, and now I am a rabid fan. I was so sad when I didn’t have any more Return of the Thief to read.

Here are the books I read in 2020, rereads bolded, with links to any related blog posts:

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Lisa See
A Treason of Thorns Laura E. Weymouth
Fireborne Rosaria Munda
Mission catiche! Aurélie Del Prete, Eliane Garmy, Valentin Mathé, Marie-Noëlle Schmitz & Fabienne Cinquin
This Is How You Lose the Time War Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Every Heart A Doorway Seanan McGuire
Down Among The Sticks And Bones Seanan McGuire
Beneath The Sugar Sky Seanan McGuire
The Downstairs Girl Stacey Lee
Northanger Abbey Jane Austen, performed by Flo Gibson
Possession A. S. Byatt
We Contain Multitudes Sarah Henstra
Last Seen Leaving Caleb Roehrig
Un Voyage Sans Fin Sang Miao, translated by Shaïne Cassim
everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too jomny sun
Tu m’attraperas pas! Timothy Knapman & Simona Ciraolo, translated by Alain Gnaedig
Le cimetière des mots doux Agnès Ledig & Frédéric Pillot
Quelle horreur! Claire Lebourg
Les petits chats sont comme ça Jan Pfloog, translated by Mireille Archambaud
Mon île Stéphanie Demasse-Pottier & Seng Soun Ratanavanh
The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth Philip Pullman
The Song Is You Arthur Phillips
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
This Is How You Lose the Time War Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Débridée: Le monde vu par mes yeux chinois Siyu Cao
Difficult Loves Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver and D. S. Carne-Ross
La toute petite Olga Olivia Godat & Raphaëlle Barbanègre
Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone Sequoia Nagamatsu
Le chat qui n’aimait pas les croquettes Odrade
In the Forest of Forgetting Theodora Goss
Grimoire Noir Vera Greentea & Yana Bogatch
Animus Antoine Revoy
The Dam Keeper: Book One Robert Kondo & Dice Tsutsumi
The Dam Keeper: World Without Darkness Robert Kondo & Dice Tsutsumi
Decelerate Blue Adam Rapp & Mike Cavallaro
Conservation of Shadows Yoon Ha Lee
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen Lucy Knisley
Stargazing Jen Wang
Contrepoint edited by Lauren Gidon
The Dam Keeper: Return from the Shadows Robert Kondo & Dice Tsutsumi
This Was Our Pact Ryan Andrews
The Braided Path Donna Glee Williams
The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth Philip Pullman
Journal d’un enfant sage Jean-Michel Maulpoix
The Best of Uncanny edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
The Scholars Wu Ching-Tzu, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang
The Question of Hu Jonathan D. Spence
So Far from the Bamboo Grove Yoko Kawashima Watkins
A Line in the Dark Malinda Lo
The Raven Boys Maggie Stiefvater
The Dream Thieves Maggie Stiefvater
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
Blue Lily, Lily Blue Maggie Stiefvater
The Raven King Maggie Stiefvater
La loi du rêveur Daniel Pennac
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly
The Magic Fish Trung Le Nguyen
The Midnight Bargain C. L. Polk
The Queen of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner
The Thief Megan Whalen Turner
The King of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner
Till We Have Faces C. S. Lewis
Binti Nnedi Okorafor
A Conspiracy of Kings Megan Whalen Turner
Thick As Thieves Megan Whalen Turner
Return of the Thief Megan Whalen Turner
Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction! edited by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Dominik Parisien, Nicolette Barischoff, S. Qiouyi Lu, & Judith Tarr
A Tale of Three Wishes Isaac Bashevis Singer & Irene Lieblich
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments Aimee Nezhukumatathil

The Numbers:

  • Total books read: 63
  • Books in French: 13 (21%) (well, that was a jump, even if a lot of them were picture books!)
  • Books that were not prose novels: 39 (57%) (Like last year! Non-fiction/memoir: 3; Short story collections: 7; Graphic novels/comics: 12; Picture books: 10; Novellas: 7)
  • Books read in translation: 5 (7%) (English to French: 3; Italian to English: 1; Chinese to English: 1)
  • Books read for the first time: 50 (72%)
  • Books read not for the first time: 19 (28%)
  • Books written by women or non-binary authors (where at least one co-author, co-editor, or contributor is a woman or non-binary): 45 (65%)
  • Books by authors of color (obviously, how someone identifies can’t always be deduced from a name and an author photo, so this isn’t guaranteed to be 100% accurate): 24 (35%)
  • Books by category (as decided by me): Adult: 28 (41%); Young Adult: 21 (30%); Middle Grade: 9 (13%); Picture Book: 10 (14%); Indeterminate: 1 (1%)

Finally, my favorite books of 2020 (no rereads, I again picked these on New Year’s Eve without thinking about it too hard and ended up with a lucky seven):

  • This Is How You Lose the Time War Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
  • The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth Philip Pullman
  • In the Forest of Forgetting Theodora Goss
  • Conservation of Shadows Yoon Ha Lee
  • The Magic Fish Trung Le Nguyen
  • The Midnight Bargain C. L. Polk
  • Return of the Thief Megan Whalen Turner

2020 in Review

Well, 2020 was something, wasn’t it? Looking back on my previous year in review posts brings back lots of good memories, but also some lines that, in retrospect, are…interesting. In 2016, I remarked that “[a] lot of people have been saying that 2016 was awful”. I would bet that pales in comparison to what they’ve been saying about 2020. And last year, I said, “let me zoom back in on 2019”! Little did I know how much Zooming was to come (though in fact I personally have been doing very little Zooming, since my institution prefers other platforms).

2020 was admittedly a devastating year for my country, for much of the world, and for many, many people. I have been extraordinarily lucky to have been sheltered from the worst ravages of the pandemic. I don’t blame anyone who’s not ready to look for the silver linings or who’s not interested in hearing about all the good things that happened to other people amidst a year of suffering and loss. Paradoxically, the pandemic gave me a marvelous gift I would never have otherwise had, so it’s impossible for me to say it’s been all bad.

I will say that 2020 has felt long. The things I did in January and February feel incredibly distant. But they belong to this year too. Here is the bird’s-eye view of my 2020:

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t imagine what the future will bring. Nevertheless, I wish you hope and connection in 2021.

AugurCon 2020

It’s been nearly a month since AugurCon, but I’m only now getting around to writing about it. Consider it a belated Solstice present! I took a bunch of notes during the panels I attended, and now I’m going to attempt to postify them. I’ll be mostly retelling, not editorializing, so if you want to know what happened, you might like this. (It’s long.) If you want to know my personal thoughts on allegory in spec fic, well, I haven’t really come up with any yet.

AugurCon was a conference (I think they were trying to keep it ambiguous with “con,” but I’d call it a conference?) held on the Saturday after (American) Thanksgiving and brought to us by Augur Magazine, a relatively young Canadian spec fic magazine. They put together a day of amazing-looking panels (not to mention workshops!), and I tuned in to two of them. Did I buy a ticket to AugurCon mainly because Amal El-Mohtar would be speaking and I am kind of a fan of hers? Quite possibly.

The first panel was “Problematic and/or Powerful: Allegory, Analogy, and Spec Fic,” moderated by Augur Magazine co-editor-in-chief Terese Mason Pierre and featuring panelists Daniel Heath Justice, Evan Winter, Amal El-Mohtar, and Amanda Leduc. The panel opened with a general discussion of allegory in relation to spec fic. Amal noted that allegory is one of the strengths of spec fic, but spec fic is often reduced to a tool for exploring real world problems when in fact it has much more expansive potential. She maintained that all fiction is the opposite of reality, which is inherently random and meaningless (an observation she attributed to Ken Liu), and so all types of fiction are subgenres of fantasy. Daniel said that allegory was great as a starting point but was not an endpoint of what spec fic writers do. Trying too hard to write an allegory will get in the way of doing justice to your story. While allegorical resonance makes sense to him, strict allegory doesn’t make for god storytelling. Amanda described using allegory as a tool, not as the entire backbone of a story. She said allegories work best when they’re soft and shifty, when you can’t tell where they begin and end. She made a comparison to chocolate cake with zucchini. Evan pointed out that literary fiction also uses allegory but maybe isn’t so much “accused” of doing so. Amal proposed an analogy: allegory is to story as rhyme is to poetry. That is, don’t let allegory constraint your story. Where it occurs naturally, it will contribute to what you’re writing. Daniel also said that if readers think they’ve picked up on an allegory, they’ll think they know what your story is about, and they’ll start applying preconceptions to it, which can be more troublesome for minoritized writers.

Next, Terese asked whether spec fic writers were pushed toward allegory in order to avoid the accusation that they were writing about political or social issues directly. Recalling Amanda’s zucchini chocolate cake, Amal said that there is a sense that writers have to get people to eat their vegetables, a notion which has its own weird politics (why are vegetables bad?). She drew a distinction between didacticism and pedagogy and used the example of Natalie Zina Walschots’ novel Hench (which apparently has difficult, thorny friendships? Ooh!). In Amal’s words, you don’t have to be convinced of the evils of late capitalist modernity to appreciate that the characters in Hench are having a hard time. Moreover, she said that reaching out to bigots through literature doesn’t appeal to her, but reaching people who may not know how to articulate their own oppression does. Evan evoked the labor of having to code switch in daily life, of having to make what he wants to say palatable to others. Allegory allows him to talk about things on his own terms. Amanda talked about the political context out of which magical realism developed as a way to criticize regimes in disguised arenas. She also mentioned how fairy tales are instrumental in shaping who we become as adults. She observed that today’s sensibilities seem to favor subtler allegory and consider older texts too obvious. On the other hand, Daniel noted that people can ignore allegory quite easily and take what they want out of the stories they consume.

Soon after, Amal said that although they were all using analogy and allegory interchangeably, there are in fact different kinds of each. She also saw two ways of treating fairy tales, which kind of do opposite things. There are fairy tale retellings, like those of Angela Carter, and there there’s building a secondary fantasy world around a fairy tale, creating fully realized characters instead of archetypes. She called this making fairy tales stand up to scrutiny, endowing them with emotional realism, logic, and catharsis. Evan and Amal then talked a little bit about the stories that get told and have an impact on the real world. Stories in the justice system, for instance, or about the police. Amal said that allegory, like any model, inevitably reduces the thing it’s intended to model, and different models are suited to different tasks.

There followed some discussion about the (in)completeness of allegories. Daniel said they don’t work when they’re being used to avoid the truth (e.g. to avoid a direct depiction of racism). If they’re being used to illuminate, though… Evan contended that allegory and analogy are not necessarily doomed to be incomplete; rather, it’s the points of view of the people who create them that are incomplete. Amanda said that analogy and allegory are inherently incomplete, but she saw that as a good thing. An allegory that is too complete is too pat and doesn’t have staying power. It may not involve enough work on the part of the reader. Amal, citing others, said that incompleteness is necessary in storytelling, but not being totally accurate to the thing you’re representing allows you to open up other things. Allegories can be too close, but perhaps they can also be too open, in which case they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Finally, Terese asked the panelists whether there was something particularly useful about allegory for marginalized folks. Amanda said that although she is a disabled writer, she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Daniel said that marginalized people already live lives very much impinged upon by dominant allegories, constantly coming up against existing scripts. He finds marginalized writers’ uses of analogy and allegory liberatory, but he’s much more suspicious of those who want to allegorize them from an outside perspective. Amal mused about the extent to which the lives of marginalized people (I think) are lived in an act of translation and how there’s an aspect of dislocation to that translating work. Riffing on T. S. Eliot, she suggested that SFF writers break reality into its meanings. She said that for her the recourse to fantasy was instinctive. Fantasy feels like a kind of native language. Evan agreed that something about fantasy did feel very much like coming home.

The other panel I attended was the Featured Conversation, also moderated by Terese, with Jael Richardson, Joshua Whitehead, and Larissa Lai. Early on, the panelists talked about what drew them to spec fic. Joshua said he was drawn to the ability to destroy. He evoked the indigenous perspective of needing to burn or deadhead to allow for future growth and said a lot of things needed to be destroyed to make way for rebuilding. Although Jael wasn’t immersed in spec fic as a child, she wanted freedom from the constraints of reality as she asked the question: what is it like to grow up in a world designed for your failure? Spec fic gave her a space to explore these questions without being tied to truth of a real time and place. Larissa said that spec fic was a space in which she didn’t have to explain herself to white folks. She said she came from a culture that doesn’t like to talk, that carries things in the body. When you don’t have a lot of concrete knowledge about your own history, a genre that doesn’t require factuality to tell the truth can really work for you. She said she took an interest in her own history and mythology because she wasn’t given them as a child. She has also lost her mother tongue.

Jael laughingly noted that her forthcoming debut novel, Gutter Child, is an alternate history, rooted in the past, while the panel was supposed to be about futures. But part of our problem today is that we’ve forgotten things that came before, so how can spec fic force us to make connections between the past and the present? Joshua talked about wrenching the past into the present and then breathing life into it for the future. In spec fic, we can craft the worlds we want and need. Referencing the pandemic, which may feel like the first time the world has ended for more privileged people, he noted that indigenous people already have primers for the apocalypse. Larissa said that when she started writing, there was so little out there on the Asian-Canadian front. It was important to just get some language on the page, and she was looking to make a place in story for young queer Asian women, for people like herself, but broadly construed. Jael observed that the more specific you get with who you’re writing too, the more universal your work actually becomes. Larissa added that writing to a non-mainstream audience can open things up for you.

Terese then asked how the panelists would like the publishing landscape to change in the future. Jael said that self-publishing has been the path of the marginalized for a long time and she would like to see a more comprehensive and respectful relationship between self-publishing and traditional publishing. She talked about support for self-published writers, paths to traditional publishing for those who want them, and space in bookstores and review systems for self-published works. She referenced fringe festivals in the theater world as a way of bringing the fringes close together and creating communities. Joshua said he wanted to see ethics in publishing, and he talked up small indie presses. I think Larissa joked about Jael’s pragmatism and said she herself had a pragmatic side she didn’t like to talk about. Then she said there’s a pragmatics in the dreaming and a dreaming in the pragmatics. Impossible dreaming is important; you don’t know what to make happen until you’ve done the work of dreaming.

Next, Terese asked about ways of connecting with other writers of color and marginalized writers and the potential for community building in spec fic. Jael characterized the Black community in the U.S. as very defined, even as it contains multitudes, while in Canada there’s more disconnection in the Black community. Black people are underrepresented in literature, and there is both a community disconnect and a disconnect between publishing and the community. There are opportunities to make more connections, but it’s a long game. Larissa felt that Canadian publishing wants realism from BIPOC writers. She’s found support from the feminist spec fic community in the U.S. and from the queer communities in Canada and the U.S. During the panel, I think, she got an idea for a hashtag #DecolonizeRealism. Joshua stated that nothing could be more real than the stories indigenous people share with each other. CanLit may want memoir and realism, but this stuff is real, however fantastical it might sound to a white audience. He was advised to remove dream sequences from some of his writing, but for him, dreams are very real. They’re grounded in the body and the community and are instructive.

Lastly, Terese asked whether the panelists had dealt with gatekeeping, perhaps even from people within their own communities who didn’t think they should be speaking for them. Jael wasn’t sure she’d experienced that from within the Black community, but she said that publishing has trouble seeing different kinds of stories. While she had “amazing white ladies” involved in her book, their experiences disqualified them in some ways from shaping certain parts of the story, particularly the ending. So she had to navigate that alone, as well as learn that gatekeeping would come at multiple levels/steps of the publishing process. Joshua said that most of the gatekeeping he’d experienced was on the part of older gay men who weren’t happy with his critiques of gayness. He also described the gatekeeping he’d faced as mostly from people who felt they’d been called out just by his existence or his story. Larissa said that yes, she had felt policed, differently at different times in her life. Some of the most painful forms had come from within her own community, but she didn’t want to bring those spirits into the room at the end of a beautiful festival! She said that “policing” at its best is accountability, and she might make a distinction between the two, citing some extraordinary experiences she’d had with sensitivity readers.