Tag Archive | Amal El-Mohtar

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.

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.