Monthly Archives: January 2014

This is what we believe

I’m putting together a teaching portfolio – whee, fun – and I’m going through whatever I can stick in there to make me look attractive. I’m including this essay I wrote for The Sociological Cinema (amazing resource) and I had forgotten most of it – and the last couple of paragraphs are still poignant for me. As I’m thinking more and more about why I write and what I really want to get out of it and why I think it’s important, I’m seeing more and more ways in which those things connect to the rest of what I do.

Writing is teaching and writing is learning. It’s a toolkit and the tools are incredibly versatile. We ignore this to our detriment.

Fiction in general – and speculative fiction in particular – is not merely escapism. It’s conceptual voyaging. It’s pushing beyond what we know into what we can grow to understand. Myths and legends are all-too-often dismissed as untrue; what this attitude fails to recognize is that the deepest, most foundational stories are persistent precisely because the best of them are vectors for the most profound elements of who we are, of how we understand ourselves to be, of where we imagine we might go. These things may be harmful, they may reproduce things that we find undesirable, but we need to understand them on their own terms before we can act.

In my course, I characterize most forms of social inequality to be based on myth – on origin stories. We’re better than these other people. This thing is bad. This is what it means to live a good life. This is what justice looks like. And when we find the worlds these myths create to be undesirable, we depend on the ability to imagine the alternatives to work toward those alternatives.

Sometimes understanding these alternatives involves spaceships and robots. Or it can. And sometimes it’s better when it does.

Screw MFAs; we need to tell richer stories.

by Kendra Phillips

badass image by Kendra Phillips

Rahul Kanakia has written an awesome post over on his blog about the tyranny of privilege inherent in the creative writing industry, especially the bits of it centered in academia. Go read that first. I’ll wait.

Back? Great. There isn’t much that I can materially add to this besides a huge PREACH but I like to talk about things that bother me, so allow me to go into some detail regarding why this bothers me so much. It’s not just that it’s obnoxious, all this whining about how hard being a creative type is, and it’s not just that I’ll probably never get a creative writing job in academia since all my published work is lowly genre fiction ( a. why would I even want to be around creative writing people anyway given that I’ve actually met some, and b. I’m also already in academia and I’m starting to keep an eye open for exit strategies). It’s not just that it’s monstrously unfair, this system that privileges a certain way of being a Writer that certain demographics find waaaaaaaay easier to adopt than others.

It’s that it results in a literary culture that is massively impoverished.

The stories we tell describe us as a people, as a collection of people, as a collection of cultures and beliefs and identities. But as a society we’re persistently bound to hierarchy, to systems of power and privilege that benefit some at the enormous expense of others. That means that our stories are bound to the same – the stories of some are privileged and the stories of others are lost in the shuffle. Stories by poorer people, by less formally educated people, by women and People of Color and queer people of all kinds, by people with disabilities and people who are neuroatypical and anyone who exists on the margins. Those stories, if they’re told at all, reach few. Those creative voices aren’t heard. Still.

And our genres are hierarchically valued. There’s literary fiction – inherently worthwhile, true, beautiful, valuable, possessing tremendous cultural capital. It’s a great thing to be seen to be a reader of literary fiction; it’s an even better thing to be a writer of literary fiction and get to whine about how hard it is. Genre fiction is low, unrefined, and the territory of the proles.

Those of us in SF&F know that it’s had its share of major problems with inclusivity. Even now we’re struggling to deal with the under-representation of anyone who isn’t white/straight/cisgendered/male, and the genre’s environment is still often hostile to people at the intersections of marginalized identities. But romance, which often seems to have it even worse than SF&F in terms of general disparagement, is overwhelmingly written and consumed by women and extremely popular, two things that don’t work in its favor.

And horror? How can horror writers ever produce great fiction?

So genre is frequently locked out of the academy. But again, this isn’t even just about genre, but about who can afford the luxury of being heard, of doing what it takes to be heard. If MFAs are a requirement in the academy’s gateways into the creative writing industry, that has some very problematic implications, as Rahul points out:

[T]he fact that MFAs are used as such a gatekeeper in the literary world adds several major biases into the whole pool of literary writers. It excludes all kinds of people can’t really afford to leave their lives for two years to get even a very well-funded MFA: people who have kids, people who have careers, people who discover writing late in life, people with disabilities.

Those people all have stories that deserve to be told. That need to be told.

This isn’t just about writing, even. This is a problem in any academic field, in any discipline, and it’s been a problem since the beginning of those disciplines: Who is producing our knowledge? What assumptions are they operating on? What standpoint are they working from? My field is sociology; what use is our research on race and class and gender and identity if the people doing that research don’t come from a multiplicity of lived experiences? How can we work to overturn power structures if our own institutional structure maintains the status quo of social power?

But this is about stories.

I love stories because they’re fun, because they’re escapist, because they’re beautiful, because  they’re joyful even when they’re crushingly sad, because they give me glimpses of what might be, because they teach me about who I am, because they teach me about who others are, because they have the potential to be uniquely revolutionary.

Stories change things.

But if stories are going to change anything, they need to be vital. They need to be alive. They need infusions of new blood and new knowledge and new ways of producing that knowledge. I don’t see how that’s likely in the world Rahul is describing. When you’re dealing with a system of gatekeeping that produces the same kinds of work from the same kinds of people over and over, then you have a literary world that’s impoverished. You won’t find the truly interesting things there. The people doing the interesting things are, as usual, on the margins, but they don’t get to complain about how hard the Life of a Writer is. There’s no romance in what they’re doing. And if they’re genre writers, even successful ones, no cushy academic job for them, unless – like me – they’re privileged enough to get into the academy another way (and cushy jobs ain’t looking too good there anyway at the moment).

So no, white middle class MFA student – with whom I share at least two things in common – my sympathy is not with you. And I think maybe you need to step aside and let someone else’s story get told.

Especially if that story is about cyborg dragons in love.

(Please allow a plug for a couple of antidotes to this kind of thing: We See a Different Frontier, a collection of post-colonial spec-fic that both I and Rahul have stories in – his is amazing – and the forthcoming Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. I also have a story in that but that’s not why you should check it out. Look at that ToC. Look at it.)

No “convenient season”.

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We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

– Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.

Life Like a Pin

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(Trigger warning – and cut – for graphic descriptions of self-mutilation.)

Continue reading

Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2014: Cover, ToC, AWESOME

Revealed, courtesy of Paula Guran, the cover and table of contents for The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2014, which I am in:

“No matter your expectations, the dark is full of the unknown: grim futures, distorted pasts, invasions of the uncanny, paranormal fancies, weird dreams, unnerving nightmares, baffling enigmas, revelatory excursions, desperate adventures, spectral journeys, mundane terrors and supernatural visions. You may stumble into obsession or find redemption. Often disturbing, occasionally delightful, let The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror be your annual guide through the mysteries and wonders of dark fiction.”

Contents (in alphabetical order by author’s last name):

  • “Postcards from Abroad,” Peter Atkins (Rolling Darkness Revue 2013, Earthling Publications)
  • “The Creature Recants,” Dale Bailey (Clarkesworld, Issue 85, October 2013)
  • “The Good Husband,” Nathan Ballingrud (North American Lake Monsters, Small Beer Press)
  • “Termination Dust,” Laird Barron (Tales of Jack the Ripper, ed. Ross Lockhart, Word Horde)
  • “The Ghost Makers,” Elizabeth Bear (Fearsome Journeys, ed. Jonathan Strahan, Solaris)
  • “The Marginals,” Steve Duffy (The Moment of Panic, PSPublishing)
  • “A Collapse of Horses,” Brian Evenson (The American Reader, Feb/Mar 2013)
  • “A Lunar Labyrinth,” Neil Gaiman (Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe, eds. J. E. Mooney & Bill Fawcett, Tor)
  • “Pride,” Glen Hirshberg (Rolling Darkness Revue 2013, Earthling Publications)
  • “Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella,” Brian Hodge (Psycho-Mania!, ed. Stephen Jones, Robinson)
  • “The Soul in the Bell Jar,” K. J. Kabza (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2013)
  • “The Prayer of Ninety Cats,” Caitlín R. Kiernan (Subterranean Online, Spring 2013)
  • “Dark Gardens,” Greg Kurzawa (Interzone # 248)
  • “A Little of the Night,” Tanith Lee (Clockwork Phoenix 4, ed. Mike Allen, Mythic Delirium)
  • “The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning,” Joe R. Lansdale (Beyond Rue Morgue: Further Tales of Edgar Allan Poe’s First Detective, ed. Paul Kane & Charles Prepole, Titan)
  • “Iseul’s Lexicon,” Yoon Ha Lee (Conservation of Shadows, Prime Books)
  • “The Plague” Ken Liu (Nature, 16 May 2013)
  • “The Slipway Gray,” Helen Marshall (Chilling Tales 2, ed. Michael Kelly, Edge Publications)
  • “To Die for Moonlight,” Sarah Monette (Apex Magazine, Issue #50)
  • “Event Horizon,” Sunny Moraine (Strange Horizons, 21 Oct 2013)
  • “The Legend of Troop 13,” Kit Reed (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan 2013 / The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories, Wesleyan)
  • “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” Brandon Sanderson (Dangerous Women, eds. George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois, Tor)
  • “Phosphorous,” Veronica Schanoes, (Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy, eds. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, Tor)
  • “Blue Amber,” David J. Schow (Impossible Monsters, ed. Kasey Lansdale, Subterranean Press)
  • “Rag and Bone,” Priya Sharma (Tor.com, 10 April 2013)
  • “Our Lady of Ruins”, Sarah Singleton (The Dark 2, Dec 2013)
  • “Cuckoo,” Angela Slatter (A Killer Among Demons, ed. Craig Bezant, Dark Prints Press)
  • “Wheatfield with Crows,” Steve Rasnic Tem (Dark World: Ghost Stories, ed. Timothy Parker Russell, Tartarus Press)
  • “Moonstruck,” Karin Tidbeck (Shadows and Tall Trees, Vol. 5, ed. Mike Kelly, Undertow)
  • “The Dream Detective,” Lisa Tuttle (Lightspeed, Mar 2013)
  • “Fishwife,” Carrie Vaughn (Nightmare, Jun 2013
  • “Air, Water and the Grove,” Kaaron Warren (The Lowest Heaven, eds Anne C. Perry & Jared Shurin, Jurassic London)

Writer Me from five years ago says: jesus christ look at who I’m in a book with

Long Hidden – Cover reveal and amazing ToC

click to embiggen, trust me you want to

Sofia Samatar – “Ogres of East Africa”
Thoraiya Dyer – “The Oud”
Tananarive Due – “Free Jim’s Mine”
S. Lynn – “Ffydd (Faith)”
Sunny Moraine – “Across the Seam”
Rion Amilcar Scott – “Numbers”
Meg Jayanth – “Each Part Without Mercy”
Claire Humphrey – “The Witch of Tarup”
L.S. Johnson – “Marigolds”
Robert William Iveniuk – “Diyu”
Jamey Hatley – “Collected Likenesses”
Michael Janairo – “Angela and the Scar”
Benjamin Parzybok – “The Colts”
Kima Jones – “Nine”
Christina Lynch – “The Heart and the Feather”
Troy L. Wiggins – “A Score of Roses”
Nghi Vo – “Neither Witch Nor Fairy”
David Fuller – “A Deeper Echo”
Ken Liu – “結草銜環 (Knotting Grass, Holding Ring)”
Kemba Banton – “Jooni”
Sarah Pinsker – “There Will Be One Vacant Chair”
Nnedi Okorafor – “It’s War”
Shanaé Brown – “Find Me Unafraid”
Nicolette Barischoff – “A Wedding in Hungry Days”
Lisa Bolekaja – “Medu”
Victor LaValle – “Lone Women”
Sabrina Vourvoulias – “The Dance of the White Demons”

I don’t even know how to find the words to describe how gorgeous this whole book looks like it’s going to be.

What I’ve learned so far in 2014

Yesterday I finished doing something I’d never done before: Scrapping 95% of a book and rewriting it from scratch.

Initially I was committed to not doing so at all. I wanted to tell myself that it was about principle – dammit, it was the story I told and it was the story it was going to be – but I now recognize that stance as being augmented with a  jengahealthy amount of terror, as well as a lot of ego. Because it is terrifying, looking back on something you’ve spent weeks and even months on, recognizing that it needs a major overhaul, and diving in. In some ways I think it’s much less terrifying – or at least it was and still is for me – to start something entirely new. Extensive rewriting feels almost like a sadistic game of Jenga, wherein you’re shifting pieces around, stacking and restacking, and one wrong move will bring the whole thing down. Which isn’t true, of course – nothing you can do can collapse a story beyond repair, unless the foundations of the thing itself are just no good – but it still felt like that when I started out, and I wasn’t sure I could really pull it off.

But I was determined to try.

I finished the first version of Fall and Rising (Line and Orbit 2: Electric Boogaloo) last year, and it was a very different book from its predecessor. It was focused on different characters, and it was nastier,  more emotionally brutal, and possessed of some potentially uncomfortable politics. When it was done, I was very adamant that it wasn’t going to get toned down or lightened up – but then I had trouble selling it. And after a couple of rounds of that, I realized that I had to admit to myself that the problem was not necessarily the publisher – as in finding the right one – but instead the book. It was a good story – I still believe that – but it wasn’t the right story. It wasn’t the right successor. It needed to be something different.

It was really, really hard to admit that to myself. But it was liberating when I did, and that feeling of liberation did a lot to blunt the fear when I went back and hacked it to pieces. It remained as I started rebuilding, and it carried me through until I truly began to feel like I was working well inside the world of the book. It was like giving myself permission to take all the work I did and all the time I put into it and declare to myself that none of that mattered.

What mattered was writing the right story.

I didn’t have to hold onto the book just because I worked hard. I didn’t have to hold onto it because of all the time I spent. I sure as hell didn’t have to hold onto it because of some stubborn, misguided idea of what my art should look like. I didn’t have to hold onto it at all. I could let it go and just start (mostly) fresh. It was okay. I was okay.

So yesterday I finished it. For those who care about length at all, it’s about 115k words long, close to the length of Line and Orbit and in fact a good bit longer than Fall and Rising’s initial version. But way more important: I think it’s a better book, and it’s one that wouldn’t have been written if I hadn’t sucked it up and murdered my darlings.

I’d been thinking that the whole murder your darlings thing applied to small sentences and passages and turns of phrase. It does, and I suspect a lot of why I thought that has to do with the fact that I’m still more experienced with short stories than I am with novels. But it also applies on a macro scale. It applies to books, and to massive chunks of books. It would be difficult to overstate how major that was to realize.

What else has this process taught me? Marketability is not a dirty word. Changing something up in order to be able to sell it more easily is not (necessarily) a dirty thing. I didn’t initially start thinking seriously about a rewrite for artistic reasons, I did it because I wanted to sell the damn book and get paid. That line of thinking led me to the realization that I could make the book better, but I might not have gotten there if money weren’t also a concern. I’m in this game because I love it, but also because I want to someday be able to make (at least most of) a living off of it. That’s not something I need to be ashamed of. I’m embarrassed by how long it’s taken me to internalize that, and I’m still working on it.

So mostly what I’ve learned so far in 2014 is that I don’t need to be afraid of those things. I shouldn’t let them stop me from getting shit done. I shouldn’t let my own ego get in the way of producing good work that people want to pay for. I need to continue to work on getting out of my own way.

None of that is exactly new. But I think it’s all good stuff to start the year on.