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AAPI Month: Beyond Fractions Panel

May was Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month (sidebar: why is it Asian American and Pacific Islander rather than Asian and Pacific Islander American? I know I’ve seen APIA before, but suddenly AAPI seems to have become dominant), and the Asian Author Alliance organized a month of virtual author panels featuring many kidlit authors speaking on a variety of topics. Thanks to Twitter, I did not miss one of the panels that had caught my eye: Beyond Fractions: Writing and Living the Mixed Race AAPI Experience. Heidi Heilig moderated a conversation among Keala Kendall, Sarah Kuhn, Karuna Riazi, Pearl Low, and Rebecca Kuss.

To kick off the panel, Heidi said that when people who aren’t mixed race talk about the mixed race experience, they focus so much on pain. She wanted to know what joyful experiences the participants had had. Sarah agreed that people were always focused on, Oh, how sad you must be! She said joy comes from community, including community with other creatives like her fellow panelists. She and her brother grew up in a pretty white town, but there was one other mixed Asian family with two daughters, so of course they became best friends. She said it’s beautiful how mixed race people can embrace each other as whole people. For Pearl, being mixed has created so much abundance, with layers of experience on top of each other. She’s been able to connect with so many people, including people from the Chinese community, the Black community, and the general mixed community. Keala agreed, saying that you stand to inherit culture from all sides, and there’s a lot of pride there. She noted that in mixed race stories told by people who aren’t mixed, there’s a lot of focus on the mixed race character’s whiteness or their proximity to it. She also said she had a lot of great food in her family.

Sarah jumped in to talk about the creation of dishes, giving the example of her Japanese American mother’s teriyaki hot dogs. She said she hadn’t yet been able to replicate them; this is her tragic biracial quest. Rebecca said that her mother made hot dogs with water chestnuts and kimchi and that food was very tied to the mixed race experience for her. Here, Heidi said that, of her two sons, the one who looks more white likes a wider variety of foods and more Asian food than the other, and she feels like she’s colonizing (or decolonizing? I may not have caught this exactly) her husband’s white family.

Karuna, being South Asian and Black, saw two sides of resistance against colonization having come together to make her. She’s proud to be able to say she’s mixed race because two families came together and shared their backgrounds, resulting in a new generation that has a different experience. She mentioned a family photograph of her Bangladeshi grandmother and African-American grandmother hugging and crying the first time they met. Sarah said this was really beautiful because the stereotype about mixed race families is that they hate each other. As she gets older, Pearl sees more and more parallels between her Chinese and Black cultures. Noting that her mother is Chinese, she said that there’s a Jamaican fruit that’s kind of like a longan.

Next, Heidi asked whether anyone had anything special to share about the moment when they started to find community. Sarah always feels heartbroken when she hears about mixed race people who’ve faced racism within their families. She’s glad her mother made her realize she should appreciate all of herself and was so invested in making sure she was proud of who she was. Sarah learned about Japanese American incarceration and anti-miscegenation laws from her mother. Her mother also ensured she had a connection to Japanese culture, taking her up to Portland sometimes, where there was a little bit more of a Japanese American community. It made it more natural for Sarah to seek that out when she moved to more diverse areas.

Heidi explained that her mother is white and her father is Chinese, but her father didn’t connect very well with her and her siblings when they reached adolescence, so her mother encouraged her to talk to her Chinese grandmother, to learn her recipes, go over to her house after school every day, etc. So even though her mother didn’t embody that heritage, she encouraged Heidi to engage with it.

Pearl grew up with a single Chinese mother who made an effort to make Jamaican food for her so Pearl would know that part of her identity. Food is the strongest tether she has to her heritage, and she wants to know how to cook these recipes and share the food with others. She related to Heidi’s experience of having the parent from the other culture instilling a culture in you.

Rebecca said she’d had a similar experience, but perhaps not a positive one. She and her sibling(s?) were the only mixed race kids in their Jewish community and went to Jewish school. She believes her mother saw her children’s proximity to whiteness as being the best path for them, so she converted to Judaism, learned all the prayers, and cooks Jewish food better than people on Rebecca’s father’s side of the family. It was in college that Rebecca started to embrace her Korean side. She added that what Pearl had said about noticing the similarities between cultures resonated with her; in her case, it was Korean culture and Jewish culture.

Karuna also cited a similar experience. Her Bangladeshi grandmother only came to visit the U.S. once, but she taught Karuna’s mother how to make all her dishes, and now her dishes are considered to taste the closest to the originals, even though she’s the only non-Bangladeshi daughter-in-law. While Karuna spent every summer with her Black grandparents, her Muslim community is almost all Desi, so she experiences a pressure to present Desi, although that’s not fully who she is. She used to speak Bengali but no longer can (though she still understands it) because her father encouraged her to speak English. This language loss makes her “not Desi enough.” And then there’s the anti-Blackness, not within her family but within the community. Recently, she’s come to own that it’s both sides of her that make her strong and make her who she is. She’s decolonizing herself by refusing to choose a side.

Pearl shared that her mother was disowned for marrying her father. The first person in her mother’s family who reached out again was her great-grandmother, who Pearl thought would be the most stubborn. So this proves that people can change. Pearl said the whole battle to try to prove you belong to a culture you belong to is exhausting. Eventually you reach a point where you decide you don’t have to prove it, but it is really helpful when a family decides to open up and take in both cultures.

Heidi said she wanted to come back to anti-Blackness, but first she asked the panelists what the biggest misconceptions about the mixed race experience were and how they were reflected in fiction and other media. Keala named the misconception that mixed race equates to biracial with whiteness on one side. Consequently, a lot of stories emphasize biraciality from a white viewpoint. When Keala tells people she’s mixed race, their reaction is often, Oh, yeah, you look white, but in fact she’s a lot more “other stuff” than white. Mentioning that she has five siblings she loves to death, she said she rarely sees stories focused on mixed race families as a whole. Another misconception is that mixed race people are pulled toward one side or the other rather than experiencing abundance.

Sarah agreed that always centering whiteness was a problem. As Keala said, there’s a misconception that if you’re mixed race, you must be at least part white, and then the story revolves around how white you are, how colonized you are. She would love it if we could deconstruct that and get away from the idea that whiteness is what must always be centered. Being mixed is kind of like being a writer: people who aren’t that think they know what it’s like and tell you to your face. People make assumptions and express weird microaggressions that are supposed to be compliments. Sarah said mixed race people are always reduced to concepts instead of people, but she is still a person, with a totality of experience that others are perhaps not seeing. These assumptions and reductive conceptualizations are then reflected in stories, which is how we wind up with a lot of stories where mixed race people are just sad or there to teach someone a lesson.

Pearl feels it comes down to writing multidimensional characters. The mixed race experience is a human experience. There are so many assumptions out there: that a white/Asian mixed person has a white father and an Asian mother, that a Blasian person has a Black father… Another one Pearl has heard from Blasian friends, especially in Japan, is that mixed people like them are always supermodels. They just want to be regular people! So it comes down to actually having mixed race people in the writers’ room. Perhaps when you don’t, there’s a weird fetishizing of the mixed experience that happens. People think it’s fun to write about because of The Turmoil.

Karuna observed that the mixed race experience is really daunting for an industry like publishing that really likes to shoehorn people. It would be nice to not be seen as a trope and to see biracial kids who have a good connection to both sides of their family. While mixed race people with a white parent need representation too, not all mixed race people are part white!

Keala suggested that the commodification of the mixed race experience functions as a way to insert white writers in the writers’ room. For instance, you can have a mixed race character raised by their white parent while their parent of color is dead. Sarah agreed that having mixed race characters was seen as a way to “insert diversity,” say by having a mixed race character who’s “basically white with a bit of soy sauce.” She’s also frustrated with people who say, Isn’t it more diverse if this character is full [X race]? Heidi noted that so often everything is measured with respect to whiteness, so some white people can’t even handle the idea of mixed race characters who aren’t white at all.

I may have missed the last question, but next Sarah talked about how her latest novel, From Little Tokyo With Love, was her first time writing about the mixed race experience in a direct way. It was difficult for her to write about the Asian American community she loves in a way that might portray it in a negative light, but things do happen that can make people feel unwelcome. While she’d centered mixed race characters before, this was the first time she tried to delve into things that are not so great within the community that could be worked on. She would like to see more stories that engage with that complexity, specificity, and messiness. Finally, Pearl said that if we want to talk about these issues, we need to create space for it, space in which to express our different experiences.

The second part of the panel consisted of an audience Q & A. The first question was: for those of you who have incorporated your mixed race identity into your stories, what aspects of that experience did you choose to include (or actively not include) and why?

Sarah circled back to what she’d just said about how it had taken her a while to take on the complexity of the full experience. In her earlier novels, the focus was on being Asian American, but this time around, her editor, Jenny Bak, pushed her, if she was comfortable, to explore the feeling of not being enough in the Asian American community. It was scary for Sarah because she didn’t want people to think that it’s really the Asians who are the problem; “it’s still the white people who are the problem.” In the book, her main character is almost trying to flatten herself and take the nuance out of her experience so she can just uplift the greater idea of community. She feels bad about any negative feelings she has. With YA, Sarah feels like she’s writing a letter to herself and doesn’t realize it till later. She said that it’s okay to bring up discomfort and that you’re hurting yourself by not expressing it.

Heidi talked about her latest YA series, with its bipolar main character, and how the two sides of her family take different approaches to mental illness. She sort of brought in stuff from her white side and gave it to her main character in a pan-Asian fantasy.

Pearl, who primarily works in animation, TV, and film, tries to bring her mixed experience to whatever she works on. She can try to insert representation on a visual level where she can, and she felt like she put a lot of herself into Hair Love because even though the character isn’t mixed race, she has a single parent who doesn’t know what to do with her hair.

The next question was: would you ever write write a mixed-race character with ethnicities that are not your own? How far do you “cross the line” into another culture that isn’t your own?

Karuna said this would need to be done as respectfully as when writing cross-culturally in general. Being mixed race is often treated as POC Lite, which is really not the case; it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Being invited into such a space (she said “crossing the line” sounded negative) takes research, getting sensitivity readers, and listening respectfully. She pointed out that your mixed race experience may not be like someone else’s. She does have a WIP with a mixed race character whose ethnicities are kind of like her own but not exactly.

Keala said that she’ll never say never, but there are some experiences she knows she’s not equipped to write. She lives in Hawai’i, so she might be able to write certain characters, even if not as perspective characters. But she’s not sure she could write a Jewish character because she didn’t grow up adjacent to any Jewish communities, and she doesn’t think she could write a Blasian experience. She noted that if you want to write a Hawaiian Japanese character, you have to know about Hawaiian-Japanese relations.

The third audience question was: in the Asian diaspora, we still struggle with discussing intracommunity issues–colorism, intersectionality, purity policing, etc. How might we move forward in a genuine way to have these discussions?

Pearl said this was a hard one. A lot of it has to start with labeling things as a problem. As a Chinese Black person, she sees the Model Minority myth as very pervasive. There can be a Chinese attitude of you just have to work harder, our oppression is the same, so if we can do it, you can do it. We need to have honest conversations about what we face and not pit communities against each other, because they live different experiences. There should be discussions that don’t take the white gaze or white approval into account.

Karuna echoed Pearl and said she sees a lot of defensiveness when the word anti-Blackness comes up. She shared a story about an auntie at the masjid who suggested she might have better luck meeting someone if she didn’t bring up how she’s Black so often. As hate crimes against Asians were rising, she saw people in the Asian author community calling out Black people for not supporting Asians while not going after white people, even as Black people were posting. She wondered if others (on the panel…?) were raised with the attitude that we shouldn’t criticize within the community because there’s so much external criticism. She sees a frequent impulse to save face, but Asian (American) communities just need to start being comfortable with being uncomfortable. If the anti-Blackness conversation had already happened, it wouldn’t have derailed the conversation about how to support Asian elders. Keala added that coming from a marginalized group doesn’t exempt anyone from marginalizing others and causing harm.

Sarah said that she’s had to overcome her upbringing in order to say things that might make others uncomfortable. She recalled an Asian reaction to Black Panther she’d observed, which boiled down to, How do we get our own?  She also sees a wallpaper of comments about mixed race people in the community that goes unchallenged, but making people uncomfortable is one of the only ways to move forward.

Finally, someone asked whther the panelists could share some media or stories that they thought encompassed the mixed race identity in an authentic and/or positive/uplifting way. Rebecca cited To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which was the first book she read (in her late 20s!) by a Korean author with a biracial Korean character. She told her now-husband they couldn’t get married till he’d read it (he ultimately read all three books in the series). Lara Jean, the heroine, is proud of being biracial, but that’s not what the books are about, it’s just the reality of her experience.

Sarah named Akemi Dawn Bowman (yay!). One of the first times she saw some of her own experiences on the page was in Starfish, a novel about a Japanese and white girl. The way Bowman incorporates the experience of being multiracial into fun, poignant narratives is something Sarah would’ve died for when she was younger (and still loves today).

Keala cited Heidi’s The Girl from Everywhere, which is partly set in Hawai’i. Heidi had never seen a biracial character in a book before her own book. She gave a shout out to Karuna’s The Gauntlet because there was no whiteness. Karuna named the Color Outside the Lines YA anthology of interracial love stories, in which she has a story.

Pearl said she’s had a hard time finding stories that speak to her experience, but she definitely cried when she read Sarah’s Shadow of the Batgirl because it had a Blasian character (Sarah confirmed that Erik, the character in question, had gotten a lot of love). Pearl also mentioned the TV show Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts.

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!

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

C. L. Polk in Conversation with Amal El-Mohtar

It’s been over a year now since I joined Twitter, and yes, Twitter is too often shiny and distracting, but it’s also brought me a growing number of lovely things, and this post is about one of them. About a month ago I’d been seeing lots of good buzz about C. L. Polk’s new historical fantasy novel, The Midnight Bargain, and I also felt like placing some orders from independent bookstores because *gestures at the pandemic*. So I ordered The Midnight Bargain from Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul (it was their 36th birthday yesterday!), and it came speedily to Iowa by mail.

Book mail! The Magic Fish is also an excellent graphic novel!

C. L. Polk’s first novel, Witchmark, was one of my favorite books of 2019, and I still want to get around to reading the rest of the Kingston Cycle. As someone Polk thanks in her acknowledgments put it, The Midnight Bargain can be pitched as “Pokémon, but make it Jane Austen.” I’d call it a Regency romance set in a world where those born with the gift of sorcery become mages by making bargains with spirits who confer wealth or luck or strength or knowledge in exchange for the pleasures of sensory experiences. This is a patriarchal world: while women can be sorceresses, unborn children are vulnerable to possession by spirits, and so married, premenopausal women are locked into warding collars that rob them of their magic and dull their senses. Our clever and gifted heroine, Beatrice, wants nothing more than to practice magic and become a mage in her own right, if only to help her family’s fortunes, but to stave off ruin, her heavily indebted family needs her to catch a husband in this year’s bargaining season. As Beatrice plots a way to escape this fate, she falls in love with a fabulously wealthy, handsome, kind, and even enlightened young man. But is he enlightened enough to be worth giving up her ambitions for?

I loved The Midnight Bargain. It starts off delicious, but then it wades into complicated waters, tackling pressing social issues even as the characters attend card parties and picnic basket auctions under the cherry blossoms. But this post isn’t actually supposed to be about the book itself. Last week I spotted on Twitter an announcement of a book event with C. L. Polk and Amal El-Mohtar. El-Mohtar is an author I deeply admire (her short story “Seasons of Glass and Iron” and her novella This Is How You Lose the Time War, co-written with Max Gladstone, have deservedly been showered with honors), and she also seems like an utterly charming person. So I can tell you that I leaped on that registration link. In these times, an author appearance is often only a Zoom link away!

The event was hosted by A Room of One’s Own, an independent bookstore in Madison, WI. When I connected, there were thirty or so other attendees. After introductions, Amal El-Mohtar expressed her deep love for The Midnight Bargain and asked C. L. Polk about its origins. Polk explained that it had all started with a list she had drawn up of things she wished she was writing about (e.g. balls with social maneuvering) at a time when she didn’t want to be working on her current project. She found her element of conflict when she decided to write about women’s choices in society (even today), and ultimately she wrote the book very quickly. El-Mohtar said she found The Midnight Bargain very immersive and felt the prose was beautiful without calling attention to itself. She alluded to the current valorization of “transparent” prose, and she liked how Polk, in response to her question about the writing style, said she “let” the prose be gorgeous.

The conversation veered toward how fantasies of manners are one of El-Mohtar’s drugs of choice. Then when she named the clear parallels in The Midnight Bargain to real-world issues like access to contraception, there was a little interlude in which she and Polk, both Canadian authors, wished healthcare upon their beloved friends (and probably most of the audience) in the States. Oof. (At least the election was over, right?) Polk told us to ask Santa for healthcare, and a conversation was struck up in the chat about petitions to Canadian Santa and what cookies would most please him (answer: maple).

Coming back to The Midnight Bargain, El-Mohtar, who is fond of using “super” as an adverb, said she super appreciated the complicated friendships between women and relationships with men. She liked how Beatrice didn’t settle for “better than I expected” in Ianthe, the extremely eligible bachelor. To her, this felt like a challenge to the reader to not be satisfied with the beats of a usual romance. She found it satisfying that Beatrice and Ianthe argued. El-Mohtar is an advocate for books having more conversations in them and for having the plot be propelled by people having conversations to try to understand each other.

El-Mohtar asked Polk if she had a favorite Austen novel, and Polk said almost ruefully that her answer had to be Pride and Prejudice (I mean, who doesn’t love Pride and Prejudice?). Both authors said they’d first read it when they were too young to understand it.

Soon it was time for the Q & A, and El-Mohtar picked my question! (Not that it was competitive.) If this had been an in-person event, I think I might’ve been too timid to ask a question, so another 10 points to online events with chat features. Anyway, I was curious to hear more about siblinghood in the world of The Midnight Bargain, because there were several brother-sister pairs who were named things like Ianthe and Ysbeta, Danton and Danielle, Ellis and Eliza, it was fashionable for siblings to have matching outfits, and Danton in particular was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to secure his sister’s happiness. Polk had actually already talked a bit about thinking about, with Ianthe and Ysbeta, a brother and sister duo who were really ride-or-die for each other. In answering my question, she said she hadn’t done it on purpose, but she supposed that in The Midnight Bargain children were raised with the idea that their siblings would be who they would rely on first and foremost in life. El-Mohtar mused a bit more on the sibling relationships in the book (she loved the relationship between Beatrice and her younger sister Harriet, who first seems like a silly girl who’s read too many romance novels but quickly proves to be smart, pragmatic, and highly capable).

Towards the end of the evening, Polk revealed, to El-Mohtar’s delight, that she was contemplating another book set in the world of The Midnight Bargain. She had ideas for a murder mystery centering Ysbeta or a book about Harriet’s bargaining season. El-Mohtar started talking about how she liked trilogies that widened the lens, which I must say sounded like an unsubtle hint to Polk to please write both books.

The last minutes of the event devolved into excitement and hilarity over a t-shirt depicting Gritty driving a Four Seasons Total Landscaping riding lawnmower. What started out as a joke turned into a major fundraiser for Georgia Senate candidates and voting rights organizations, but still, there was a certain 2020 absurdity about it all. Has this year made us punchy or what? On that note, we all signed off. 

The Best of Uncanny, Part II

Two weeks ago I highlighted some of my favorite stories from the first half of The Best of Uncanny. Now that I’ve finished this behemoth, I wanted to follow up with some personal standouts from the second half. I’m not going to use the words “favorites” this time because it actually doesn’t quite seem to fit. Poring over the table of contents again, I’m struck more by distinct impressions particular stories left on me than any kind of obvious ranking among the pieces. So consider this a collection of assorted thoughts.

The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine: I enjoyed the worldbuilding in this one, as well as the slightly twisted strangeness of the auction. I also liked being in this protagonist’s point of view, although I didn’t understand her ultimate motivation. This story reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read A Memory Called Empire for ages.

“An Ocean the Color of Bruises” by Isabel Yap: This one has a brooding, slightly unsettled atmosphere, with a tight-knit group of friends struggling a little bit with adulthood and its disillusionments. I liked the sense of magical friendship, although I felt like there was underlying anxiety about the preservation of those bonds post-college. The ending doesn’t exacerbate that anxiety, though. Rather the opposite, in fact.

“Those” by Sofia Samatar: This felt like a subversion of Heart of Darkness-type stories. There was a bit of a claustrophobic feeling throughout, but then the ending was beautifully empowering.

“Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney: Very bizarre, but delightfully inventive, as well as humorous and vivid.

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard: I recognized this one as related to some of de Bodard’s novels, which again reminded me that I want to read some of her longer works (I’ve only read a couple of short stories). The setting was rich and intriguing and the main character sympathetic.

“The Words on My Skin” by Caroline M. Yoachim: A brief but still affecting exploration of a thought-provoking speculative concept.

“And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker: Okay, this one is a favorite! Imagine you were invited to an interdimensional conference for all the yous from across the multiverse. Hundreds of variations of you, some of whom made Choice X instead of Choice Y and whose lives diverged accordingly. I’ve also read Pinsker’s “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye,” and to me both stories share a flair for the bizarre and some satisfying Holmesian deduction. This story gets a little bit mind-bending and surprisingly philosophical. How does grief change you, and how far would go to see lost loved ones again?

“Pockets” by Amal El-Mohtar: Isabelle first introduced me to this story, and it’s one of our common all-time favorites. I remembered the concept but not the ending, and on this rereading it ended sooner and differently than I expected. It’s still a lovely combination of fancifulness and warm human connection.

The Best of Uncanny, Part I

The blog has been quiet lately in part because I’ve been staying home, as one does during a pandemic, and not having any notable adventures. But I have been slowly reading my way through a doorstopper of an anthology, and since I’m just past the halfway point, I thought I could share some of my favorites thus far.

The collection is The Best of Uncanny, which brings together some of the best short stories (and poems) published in Uncanny Magazine, a dream market of mine. The book came out in 2019, and the editors, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, went on tour, visiting bookstores around the country. At these events, they were joined by local authors whose stories appear in the anthology. Back in February, when I visited Honolulu, flying in and out of the Twin Cities, Isabelle alerted me to the Minneapolis event at Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. Alas, it was the night before I came back from Hawai’i, so I missed it. But Isabelle had heard there might be extra signed copies available at the bookstore after the event, so I decided I’d go check the day I returned from Honolulu. The book is gorgeous, but as a nearly 700-page hardcover it was also not inexpensive, so I decided to leave it up to fate: if I could snag a signed copy, I’d buy it, but otherwise I wouldn’t.

I was also glad of the excuse to visit Uncle Hugo’s because although I knew of it, I’d never visited (there are far too many Twin Cities indies I’ve still never been to!). I think I knew where it was, because it’s across the street from the Midtown Global Market, but I’d never been there. So the same day I got back from balmy Hawai’i, I drove over. It was a pretty cold afternoon, with occasional snowflakes swirling in the air. I think a bell rang when I entered the shop? I was immediately delighted; I mean, the bookstore looked like this:

It reminded me a bit of Raven Used Books in Northampton. Except Uncle Hugo’s specializes in SFF; in fact, it was the oldest independent science fiction and fantasy bookstore in the country. I poked around for a bit (and saw my first physical copies of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, another dream market), and then I saw it on a book cart: a single copy of The Best of Uncanny protected by a plastic sheath. I checked the title page: the book was signed by the editors and Twin Cities short SFF author Merc Fenn Wolfmoor. I was so pleased, and I left Uncle Hugo’s the proud owner of that copy.

I returned to Grinnell and left the book there when I went to France (it’s hefty, and I was already taking two thick books on the plane). Of course, I ended up staying in France for months, so The Best of Uncanny languished in my lonely Iowa apartment. Then, in May, while I was still abroad, Uncle Hugo’s burned down in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. I was stunned. I’d hoped to go back, to show it to Isabelle someday. Little had I known in February that my first visit would also be my last. At least for the foreseeable future: if you’d like to donate to help the owner recover and rebuild, you can do so here.

But this was supposed to be a post about my favorite stories so far! Now, none of the pieces collected in The Best of Uncanny would have been included if they weren’t already excellent, so here are my very subjective feelings about some of the stories that I enjoyed the most.

“Blessings” by Naomi Novik: I really liked Novik’s novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver (I’ve vaguely meant to go back and read her Temeraire series). Anyway, this riff on fairy godmothers features a wealthy mother determined to secure some nice blessings for her newborn daughter, a very funny narrative, and a satisfying ending for the daughter when she grows up.

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu: This novella is set in a fascinating future Beijing and has a sympathetic protagonist. Although I can’t really explain why, it also felt distinctly Chinese to me (I haven’t read tons of modern Chinese fiction, but I’ve read some), and it’s nice to read SFF with different sensibilities.

“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad: I found this story hilarious and adorable even though I’m only fandom-adjacent, at best.

“Catcall” by Delilah S. Dawson: I hesitated on this one because I’m not sure “enjoyable” is the right descriptor. More like “horrifying.” But it was certainly memorable and raises questions about the limits of revenge.

“Wooden Feathers” by Ursula Vernon: This one has some beautiful and creepy passages, and I liked how the relationship between the two main characters was of a type we see less often (in this case, vendor-customer/younger person-older person/sort of apprentice-sort of teacher/sort of friends). Also, this sentence: “The moon was the eye of an ink-dark whale overhead, barnacled with stars.”

“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong: A beautifully rendered setting (even if it’s a desolate one) and an intense platonic love story. I really liked this one.

“She Still Loves the Dragon” by Elizabeth Bear: I’d read this story before I bought this book because Isabelle had told me about it. The main reason I like it is for its depths of possible interpretation. You could spend a long time talking about it.

“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon: This one was so wholesome and sweet! Farming > fighting.

I’ll stop there for now. There were even more stories in the first half of the collection that I really liked, and this list probably could’ve been twice as long. Maybe by next week I’ll have finished the book!

 

Contrepoint and The Braided Path

Content warning: CSA

While I was in France, I read yet another short story collection, this one in French. Entitled Contrepoint, it was edited by Laurent Gidon, published by ActuSF, and distributed for free with the purchase of other books from the publisher. The idea behind the anthology was to showcase stories without conflict. That is, “stories in which there is neither war, nor conflict, nor violence” (my translation). When I first read this, I wondered about the editor’s definition of conflict, since I think most stories, even if they avoid violence or antagonists, involve some degree of conflict, if only internal (but maybe this is my Western bias). I suspected some of the stories would still qualify as containing conflict, according to my definition, but I was intrigued by the goal of the anthology. I was also amused by the fact that most of the author bios before each story talked about whether the author was accustomed or unaccustomed to writing the kinds of works that would fit this particular collection. The allegiances tended to be extreme: for one author, practically all her stories were conflict/violence-free while for another, this was his only story ever that could possibly fall into that category.

Now it might be that I’m not well-versed in French SFF (I haven’t read much more than Léa Silhol), but the stories in Contrepoint were some of the weirdest, most bizarre things I’d ever read. The first story, “L’Amour devant la mer en cage” by Timothée Rey, left me pretty bewildered, although the ending seemed sort of sweet. (What did these entities look like? What were they?) “Le Chercheur du vent,” by David Bry, I would say is a story without conflict, though for me that meant it wasn’t quite a story. “Petits arrangements intra-galactiques” by Sylvie Lainé was sort of cute, but I found the drinking of delicious orange fluid from the aliens’ popped boils to be just too weird and off-putting. “Nuit de visitation” by Lionel Davoust was one of my favorite stories in the collection, but I wouldn’t say it was without conflict, insofar as the main character wrestles with regret. (Plus, references to WWII?)

I didn’t quite understand “Tammy tout le temps” by Laurent Queyssi, but I liked what seemed to be the love between the two characters. However, this story involved flashbacks of child sexual abuse, and it was hard for me to see how that didn’t count as violence in an anthology that was supposed to be violence-free. “Avril” by Charlotte Bousquet was simultaneously one of the strangest things I’ve read and another of my favorites in the collection. Cyborg falls in love with reanimated mummified woman? “Permafrost” by Stéphane Beauverger really confused me because the whole premise was about warring tribes, and even if those wars weren’t on the page, the story itself was definitely not violence-free. “Mission océane” by Xavier Bruce was the last of my favorites in the anthology; it was lyrical and mysterious. Finally, “Semaine utopique” by Thomas Day was…all about the narrator’s struggle to think of a story idea that could fit the anthology’s criteria. So, very meta. But also one of the first things the narrator thinks is, Oh, they said no violence, but at least they left us sex! So, yay, I guess? The narrator proceeds to describe a number of activities in his daily life that were very distasteful to me, so the whole thing left me pretty perplexed.

Anyway, while it was interesting to get a taste of a bunch of French SFF authors’ work, I was also interested in the concept of the anthology. What would stories without interpersonal conflict and violence look like? I was a bit disappointed by the execution in Contrepoint, but I went on to reread a beloved book that I think is a perfect example of what I believe the ActuSF collection was going for. This book is The Braided Path by Donna Glee Williams. Isabelle had lent it to me a few years ago, and I’d loved it, and while in Paris I reread her copy.

The Braided Path is an expansion of the short story “Limits,” which you can read to get a feel for the lovely writing and wordlbuilding. The book is set mainly on a vertical world: a series of villages extending from near the mountaintop to the ocean below, connected by a single path that wends its way up and down a cliff face through different climes. There is exchange between the villages, but only barter, no money-based commerce. The villages are on a dialect continuum. In the higher villages, some consider the sea a myth, and in the lower villages, people hardly believe in snow. The main characters are Len, a widowed rope-maker who eventually journeys far lower on the world than what she thought her limits were; Cam, Len’s son, who never finds his limits and travels over the top of his vertical world to encounter new societies and languages; and Fox, Cam’s friend-turned-lover who gives birth to their daughter after his departure and formalizes a partnership with Len while she figures out her way in life.

Maybe now is the time for a spoiler alert?

To me, The Braided Path succeeds at what Contrepoint was trying to do: it is a novel where no one ever harms anyone else, where no one is malicious, where no one hates. That doesn’t mean there’s no conflict at all: all three main characters struggle with whether to stay or go, when they find themselves settled in a place but then a change comes along to disrupt the status quo. Fox isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life and sometimes feels restless. One thing I love about the world is that Fox is allowed to figure out what to do with her life at her own pace, even at her age (a young mother!). The people who love her will always take care of her (as everyone is cared for), even if she hasn’t settled on a vocation yet. I guess the world is utopian. When Cam and Fox are finally reunited, all isn’t rosy between them, and it’s clear they’re going to have to work through Fox’s anger toward Cam and the confusion each of them feels. But in general everyone always acts in good faith, and when conflicts, whether internal or external, do arise, loving people are around to encourage working through them in a healthy way. That sounds didactic, but it’s not; I wish I could convey how gentle and warm this whole book is.

Given how conflict-free The Braided Path is, you might think it would be boring, but it manages to be engrossing. And it’s also supremely comforting. If you want to read about good people being kind to one another and gradually choosing their paths in life–and embracing change and unimagined possibilities–without any harsh pressure or impatience from those around them, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Conservation of Shadows

I’m still reading collections of short fiction, and the latest one I finished was Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows. I bought Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit, from Small World Books in Venice a few years ago and really liked it. I’ve also read the next book in the Machineries of Empire trilogy, Raven Stratagem, and I regret that I’ve yet to read the third book, Revenant Gun. But the first two installments were enough to make me a Yoon Ha Lee fan, so when I saw Conservation of Shadows on Isabelle’s bookshelf, I knew I wanted to read it.

The short story collection is introduced by Aliette de Bodard, another SFF author I’m a fan of despite having only read a short story or two of hers. (I keep meaning to read some of her longer work. Also, fun fact: I have a trunked novel from before I’d heard of de Bodard in which the main character’s young cousin is named Aliette. I found the name in a French baby names book.)

Conservation of Shadows begins with “Ghostweight,” whose worldbuilding reminded me a bit of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. I read this story slowly. Recently I described Theodora Goss’s In the Forest of Forgetting as not being cerebral or demanding (which was not in any way intended as a slight). Well, I find at least some of Yoon Ha Lee’s stories if not cerebral then certainly demanding. “Ghostweight” was one of those. But the payoff. The ending blew me away. Was every story in the collection going to be this breathtakingly good?!

Then I read the second story, “The Shadow Postulates,” and loved it. I decided after that one that I needed to buy my own copy of the book.

I enjoyed the desert wasteland setting motif in “The Bones of Giants” (is this a motif? I’m trying and failing to put my finger on something I feel this story has in common with some other settings, such as the one in Moira Young’s Dust Lands trilogy). I liked that the protagonists of “Swanwatch” and “The Unstrung Zither” were musician-composers, since I often can’t help writing about music myself. Lee seems to have a thing for guns, and also math (of course), but also language! There were so many references to structural properties of language that were done so well that I kept wondering if Lee had a degree in linguistics as well as in mathematics. Or at the very least some kind of background. In reading interviews, I discovered he has a past as a conlanger, so that explains a lot. I have this urge to say more about the linguistics in Conservation of Shadows; we’ll see if that happen.

I appreciated all the Asian-inspired worldbulding, from the obvious, foregrounded, and central to the more subtle and understated. While I could recognize fictional cognates of Korea, China, and Japan, I learned more about Lee’s inspiration (one naval battle in particular) by reading the story notes, which I also found delightful. In another interview, Lee said he always enjoyed learning more about the author and the story from such notes, so he decided to include his own. This reader liked flipping to the end of the book to read the notes after each story!

Finally, I savored Lee’s excellent writing, which inspired me as I read since I’m currently novel drafting harder than I have in a long time (yay, confinement?) and everything I’m spewing onto the digital page feels like it’s horrible written. So it’s good to read some actual quality writing to remind myself what it looks like, take note of how it’s done, and reassure myself that I will fix the terrible writing in revisions.

What I’ve Been Reading: Confinement Edition

I arrived in France with Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (a library book), which I read with great pleasure. Pullman is such a good writer. Before the volumes of The Book of Dust, his new trilogy, started coming out, I hadn’t read him in many years, but each time I’ve picked up one of these new books, set in a beloved world, I’ve felt like I’m in such good hands. I remember being twelve or so and finishing His Dark Materials and simply being in awe. I was convinced I would never write something as great.

This isn’t supposed to be a post about The Secret Commonwealth, though. Since exhausting my own reading material, I’ve been raiding Isabelle’s shelves, and I’ve been on a short story collection reading spree.

Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino

This collection contains eleven short stories, each entitled “The aventure of an X,” where X is a soldier, a crook, a bather, etc. These were translated by William Weaver (whom I read in my translation workshop at Swarthmore), and apparently there were more of them in Italian! All of these adventures are love stories, in a way (sometimes a horrifying way), but I really liked many of them. Calvino writes in what could be painful detail about the minutiae of ordinary life, but he’s such a skillful writer that it’s enjoyable. In that way, he reminds me of José Saramago. Slightly ridiculous predicaments become suspenseful, and throwaway moments of everyday life become moving. “The adventure of a photographer” has thought-provoking remarks about the effects the desire to document one’s life has on actually living it.

This particular book also contained two novellas, Smog, also translated by William Weaver, and A Plunge into Real Estate, translated by D.S. Carne-Ross. I liked these much less than the short stories. They were rather depressing, and no one was a particularly sympathetic character. There were some darkly humorous aspects to the stories, I guess (construction never ends), but that was about all I took from them.

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Inside this seafoam green book (the cover art is by Eric Fan, of the Fan brothers), there was a matching promotional bookmark, announcing an event at Magers & Quinn, that I think I picked up for Isabelle ages ago. It turns out Sequoia Nagamatsu went to Grinnell (!) and currently teaches at St. Olaf (!). As the bookmark says, these are stories inspired by Japanese folklore and pop culture. Some of them were of a rather novel (to me) brand of weird, and many of them dealt with a couple’s complicated relationship, sometimes with a child in the picture. My favorites were “The Inn of the Dead’s Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost,” which was funny and featured a great voice, and “The Passage of Time in the Abyss,” which had a connection to the previous story but was very different in tone. I found it rather beautiful.

In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss

I had previously read some stories of Theodora Goss’s, and I knew of her novels about “the daughters of literature’s mad scientists,” which intrigued me. I’d also appreciated the references to academia in some of her work, since characters in grad school are relevant to my interests. This book, collecting stories published in Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony, AlchemyStrange Horizons, and elsewhere, as well as two new stories, was wonderful. One of the stories, “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, I had read before, but I no longer know where.

I really like Goss’s style, which strikes me as somehow traditional and old-fashioned in that the writing is lush and lyrical (isn’t beautiful language out-of-fashion in some quarters?), not experimental (for the most part). It feels like straightforward storytelling done very well, so that it’s extremely compelling. I feel like I’m unfairly casting her as unoriginal in some way because she does do interesting things with the boundaries between reality and fantasy. But I’m trying to describe something about her writing here. It’s not cerebral or too demanding of the reader (not that there’s anything wrong with being or not being those things); it revels in beauty and human emotion. And even as her stories feel traditional, they also feel fresh.

I was intrigued by Miss Emily Gray and her eponymous story because I seemed to remember a Miss Emily Gray in Goss’s story in The Starlit Wood. I checked; I was right. Then as I kept reading In the Forest of Forgetting, I came upon this character again in “Conrad,” and then once more in “Lessons with Miss Gray.” I liked how this immortal witch (?) kept making appearances through Goss’s body of work. I wondered about the recurrence of (different) characters named István and Eleanor (never terribly sympathetic, the Eleanors).

My two favorite stories–and they might be my favorites because they’re related–were “The Wings of Meister Wilhelm” and “Lessons with Miss Gray.” The former was especially lovely, and in the latter I was happy to meet certain characters again and learn more about their lives. I also found the point of view in “Lessons with Miss Gray” quite interesting: the story is narrated in the first person plural, that is, “we,” but there is no “I”. Initially I thought I’d find out which girl was the individual narrator of the story, but there isn’t one: all the girls are referred to individually in the third person, but the narrator is still “we.” I liked this device because it gave a sense of a collective character, a sum of the four central girls.

That’s all for now. I’ve just barely started Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows.