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New Story: Maghda’s Song

Happy September! This is a special Thursday blog post brought to you by my newest short story publication. “Maghda’s Song” came out yesterday in the August issue of Anathema. Although my short fiction is less consistently musical than my novels, music, as the title suggests, features heavily in this story. There is also a cat, if you need that in your life.

Fun facts: “Maghda’s Song” is set in the same world, but in a later era, as another story I wrote first and for which I have yet to find a home. I hope you’ll get to read that story someday too (it’s also…very musical). Additionally, I originally wrote “Maghda’s Song” for a call for submissions to khōréō, a young SFF magazine that publishes immigrant and diaspora authors and often features stories that touch on themes of migration. That focus is definitely reflected in “Maghda’s Song.”

I’m so pleased to be appearing in Anathema for the first time. Plus, it’s my first short fiction publication since 2020! You can read the story here.

À la rencontre du petit prince

I’m visiting Isabelle in Meudon again, and at the end of June, we went to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris to see the exhibit “À la rencontre du petit prince” (“An encounter with the little prince”). The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is right by the Louvre, but I had never been there before. We actually caught the last day of the exhibit (although Isabelle and Olivier had gone before).

English first edition of The Little Prince with a dedication by the author in French to Annabella Power

According to the museum, “À la rencontre du petit prince” was “the first major museum exhibition in France dedicated to the timeless literary masterpiece, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.” It was a big show (many rooms!) that explored seemingly every moment of Saint-Exupéry’s (tragically rather short) life, as well as the writing and publication of Le Petit Prince. There was a lot of emphasis on his dual identities as a writer and an aviator and on his humanistic vision of the world. On display was the original manuscript of Le Petit Prince, which is normally kept at the Morgan Library in New York City and had never been exhibited in France before. There were also scads of drawings, sketches, and personal letters in Saint-Exupéry’s own hand.

The little prince and the fox

I think I first read Le Petit Prince in 7th grade, in my French class. But I believe we also had a copy at home, so maybe I had looked at it before. I was very taken with the drawing of the elephant inside the boa constrictor. I also imitated others of Saint-Exupéry’s drawings, especially an image of two overlapping hills with a lopsided five-pointed star overhead, which I drew in the margins of a lot of school notebooks.

The little prince watching the sunset on his planet

I don’t know how many times I’ve reread Le Petit Prince, but it definitely had more of a lasting impression later. When I was in college, I wrote a story (which wound up basically novel-length) about a group of teenagers living on their own in a closed environment. One day, they discovered a hidden room in their living space. It was a library of books and music. They all began reading different books, and the main character discovered The Little Prince and was stirred by some of the passages in it. (The story was probably not very good; the premise was that the teenagers were sent unsupervised on a generation ship to populate a new planet, and a rogue member of the team that conceived the project built the library into the ship to break the teenagers free from their stultifying existence and state of forced ignorance.) Anyway, this story prominently featured my favorite part of Le Petit Prince, which is the little prince’s encounter with the fox. Isabelle also loves this part. In grad school, she made me a pin with a tiny book inside a glass dome, and on its pages she penciled an excerpt from the conversation with the fox.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s contract with his U.S. publisher for The Little Prince

Returning to the exhibit, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900 in Lyon. His father died when he was young, and his family scattered (boarding school, living with relatives, etc.), but they kept in close touch via letters. Many handwritten letters to his mother, from throughout his life, were on display in the museum.

Stamps of various countries featuring the little prince and Saint-Exupéry the aviator

Saint-Exupéry was taken with the idea of flight from a young age and became a pilot during his military service. He then worked as a mail pilot, flying routes in North and West Africa and South America. His flights inspired his first novels, published when he was around thirty. The exhibit went into quite a bit of detail about pretty much everything, so there were lots of photos of airplanes, a flight log, newspaper clippings, illustrated advertisements for airmail companies, various editions of all of Saint-Exupéry’s books… There were quite a few pictures of Saint-Exupéry too, and Isabelle and I agreed that he bears an (unfortunate?) resemblance to Mr. Bean.

Saint-Exupéry’s writing and art materials

In 1935, Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic, André Prévost, attempted to beat the record for fastest flying time from Paris to Saigon. They crashed their airplane in the Libyan desert and eventually set off across the dunes in search of help. Saint-Exupéry encountered some fennec foxes during this sandy trek. He and Prévost were ultimately rescued by Bedouins. As the exhibit pointed out, this episode inspired the opening of Le Petit Prince (and probably the fox too).

First editions, in English and French, of The Little Prince

After the Nazis invaded and occupied France in 1940, Saint-Exupéry went to New York to help persuade the United States to enter World War II. While in the U.S., he published a war memoir, but it was also in New York that he wrote and illustrated Le Petit Prince. The book was published in 1943 in both French and English in the United States; it wouldn’t be published in France until after the war, in 1946. Saint-Exupéry wanted to fight for France, and he returned to Europe to fly military missions. Apparently he didn’t fit in that well with all the young pilots, since at this point he was in his forties. Only a year after Le Petit Prince came out, in the summer of 1944, Saint-Exupéry and his aircraft disappeared during a reconnaissance mission. He was probably shot down by a German plane. He was recognized as having died in service to France.

Unpublished illustration of the little prince, with the narrator’s hand in the foreground (ultimately, Saint-Exupéry decided not to show the narrator in any of the book’s illustrations)

One room of the exhibit was dedicated to the original manuscript of Le Petit Prince, although there seemed to be pages from several versions, which was a bit confusing. One version was the manuscrit autographe, which is the one held by the Morgan Library. Another was the premier état, which suggests an earlier version…? I have not figured this out. In any case, it was cool to see the pages of the book written in Saint-Exupéry’s own hand. Le Petit Prince is dedicated to Saint-Exupéry’s best friend, Léon Werth, but somewhere in the exhibit, there was a letter he wrote to his wife, Consuelo, in which he said he regretted not having dedicated the book to her. He and Consuelo had a tumultuous relationship echoed by the relationship between the little prince and his rose in the book.

Manuscript (premier état–first draft?) of the first chapter of Le Petit Prince, with the iconic elephant inside a boa constrictor

In another room, there were draft chapters and illustrations that didn’t make it into the final version of Le Petit Prince. In the book, the little prince visits a number of planets inhabited by odd characters, and Saint-Exupéry apparently came up with some other characters, like a crossword puzzle fanatic, that he ultimately cut. There was also a scene in which the little prince walked into a house where a couple was eating dinner, and they basically ignored him.

The little prince and a baobab, surrounded by those lopsided stars

The last room in the exhibit displayed over a hundred different translations of Le Petit Prince. The book has actually been published in nearly five hundred languages, often with a version of the original cover but sometimes with art by another illustrator. I always love seeing the same title in a bunch of different languages and scripts. In this case, it was a testament to how broadly this slender and deceptively simple book has resonated.

Réunion Creole translation of Le Petit Prince (other translations on display included Basque and Breton editions)

Michelle Zauner at Grinnell

Back in May, the Grinnell Asian American Association hosted a reading and Q & A by Michelle Zauner, the author of the bestselling memoir Crying in H Mart. Zauner was also on campus to perform with her band, Japanese Breakfast, which I personally did not know of but which seems to be kind of a big deal? I had heard of Crying in H Mart, though pandemic time being what it is, I somehow thought it had come out before the pandemic rather than in April 2021. I wasn’t originally planning to attend the reading, but then my friend Laura, a colleague who also comes from a Taishanese-speaking family, asked if I wanted to go with her, so I did. It was well worth it.

The event drew a crowd that filled the auditorium. When Zauner walked out of the wings, I was surprised to realize she was mixed race. Somehow I had assumed she was just Korean; maybe Zauner was her married name. But the chapter she read from her memoir made her background pretty clear. Crying in H Mart is generally about her Korean mother’s death from cancer. I haven’t read it, though I’d definitely like to now. Zauner read the chapter about her and her white father’s vacation in Vietnam after her mother had passed away. They had thought to take a trip for a change of scene, to take their minds off things, and they decided on Vietnam. Unfortunately, Southeast Asia did not furnish an escape from the fog of grief, and the trip was not exactly fabulous. The chapter describes some of their sightseeing and then relates a fight she and her father had a Franco-Vietnamese restaurant, which culminated in her father telling her her mother had warned him not to let her, their daughter, take advantage of him after she was gone and Zauner saying to her father that she was exercising great self-control in not telling him all the things she could be. She then stormed out of the restaurant and wandered around the town. She ended up in a karaoke bar frequented by locals, where she met a young Vietnamese woman. They each told the other they were sad. When the Vietnamese woman asked Zauner why she was sad, she said because her mother had died. The Vietnamese woman was sad because she wanted to be a singer but her parents didn’t support this. She encouraged Zauner to sing a song, and by the sound of it, everyone in the bar did.

The chapter was very well written and funny in places, and Zauner read it compellingly. Afterward, the floor was opened for audience questions. I don’t remember all the questions and their answers, but Zauner was great at this part too. There were some questions about her dual careers as a writer and a musician. Zauner said that, funnily enough, when she was growing up, becoming a rockstar seemed more possible than becoming an author. I believe she said she wasn’t much supported in artistic pursuits. In college, she took all the creative writing classes available to her except creative nonfiction because she didn’t think someone like her (a mixed race person) could write nonfiction that anyone would be interested in reading. It sounded like she hadn’t seen any examples of this, that is, she hadn’t had any mirrors, so she didn’t think it was a possibility.

Someone asked her if her father had read Crying in H Mart and what he thought of it. By the sound of it, the memoir may not have been the most flattering portrait of him. Zauner said he claims to have read it, though she’s not sure if that’s true. He did object to her having written that he’d sold used cars to the military because actually the cars had been new. She found it funny that it was this of all things that he’d complain about.

Another thing Zauner brought up, although I can’t remember what prompted it, is a notion a fair number of mixed race people subscribe to, namely, that we aren’t “half” anything. I might not be recalling how she expressed it exactly right, but she said that a lot of mixed people nowadays see themselves or at least choose to describe themselves as whole: wholly X and wholly Y (rather than half-X and half-Y). And she thinks that’s great, but for her personally, that doesn’t really resonate or feel authentic to her own experience. She does feel half-Korean, and I think she also said it felt like an asset, in some way? (This is what comes of writing blog posts a month after the fact!) Maybe that it had helped her in her musical career somehow, this feeling of not being fully one thing or the other? I was struck by her comment because I count myself among those who try not to use “half-X” language when talking about their own identities. But adjusting your language is one thing, and how you actually feel is another. That’s not to say I feel “half,” but being mixed is definitely a disinct experience. I liked how Zauner addressed that head on and shared what she actually thought, even if it perhaps didn’t fit into recent prevailing sentiments.

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.

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.