I have a new science fiction story, “Found”, in this month’s issue of Clarkesworld!
It’s one I started working on in 2008 – I had an early version workshopped at Wiscon that year, and owe Kelly Link my thanks for an insightful comment that changed how I saw the story and its protagonist. I also want to thank whoever it was in the workshop who suggested that ground spices and zero-G may not work well together. I tried rewriting it in 2010 and still couldn’t get it right, but earlier this year I started again, around the MA, and worked on it until I got a version that does what I want it to do. I hope readers agree!
It’s about spices, people living in asteroids, and dealing with the personal intersection of privilege with lack of privilege. And genderqueerness, because fuck binary futures.
I’m reading Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures by Sahar Amer for story research (a brief break from reading about Alexander legends in Armenia and the Caucasus for my MA thesis!) and she’s used a really interesting epigraph for one of the chapters that I thought others might want to read:
A willingness to descend into that alien territory split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism or multi-culturalism of the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. (Homi K. Bhabha, Location of Culture)
Sahar Amer’s own words are also very interesting. I heartily recommend her article “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women” (JSTOR access required – I found it hosted elsewhere online for free last year but that seems to have disappeared, so if anyone can’t get into JSTOR or any other academic resource, I’m happy to email the PDF), especially the quote about “the saffron massage” from the writing of the male poet Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Tifashi, who says of scissoring: “This operation is dubbed “the saffron massage” because this is precisely how one grinds saffron on the cloth when dyeing it.”
Meanwhile, in Crossing Borders, she quotes the Anglo-Norman Etienne de Fougères on lesbian sex:
In twos they do their lowlife jousting
And they ride to it with all their might;
At the game of thigh-fencing
They pay most basely each other’s share.
Euphemisms for lesbian sex are the best ever.
There’s a mini interview with me today on the tumblr of the Queer Fandom track at Nine Worlds, in which I talk briefly about current projects and recommend some genderqueer SFF.
Nine Worlds is a new SFF convention in the UK – with an entire track dedicated to Queer SFF. I will be a guest on that track and leading a panel called “Better History = Better Fantasy: Writing Outside the Binary”, which will talk about the existence of queer people throughout history so that a) people writing historical/history-inspired fiction can actually include us, and b) anyone who wants to hear about queer people in history can learn new things.
I’m really looking forward to Nine Worlds (an SFF convention with an entire queer track is going to be a breath of fresh air, and is a much welcome addition to the SFF conventions in the UK) and I hope I see lots of awesome people there!
My essays are done! I have been working on fiction and slowly starting to think about my MA thesis (due in mid-September) and enjoying a bit of that marvellous thing known as a holiday.
In mid-July I will be at Readercon! I will be on a lot of awesome panels (SOCIOLING OMG). Look!
THURSDAY JULY 11
9:00 PM – ME – The Endangered Alien.
Andrea Hairston, Robert Killheffer (leader), Alex Dally MacFarlane, Phoebe North, Bud Sparhawk.
Science fiction sometimes becomes enamored of a theme for several years and then nearly abandons it for various reasons: microcosms in the 1920s, psionics or mutants in the 1940s and 1950s, etc. In recent years, aliens seem to have become less common. Novels by Paul McAuley, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Alastair Reynolds, and anthologies like Jonathan Strahan’s Edge of Infinity, confine their action to the solar system, with little credible possibility for intelligent alien life. The classic alien-as-hideous-enemy and alien-overlord tropes have largely migrated to movies and TV. When aliens do appear, in novels like China Miéville’s Embassytown, Peter F. Hamilton’s Great North Road, and Malinda Lo’s Adaptation, how are authors treating them? What purposes do they serve and what roles do they play?
(Funnily enough, I have some things to say about recent alien fiction!)
FRIDAY JULY 12
1:00 PM – RI – Speculative Poetry Workshop.
Mike Allen (leader), Margo Lanagan, Alex Dally MacFarlane.
Speculative poetry can be defined a number of ways. One is that a speculative poem uses the trappings of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or more unclassifiable bends in reality to convey its images, narratives, and themes. Speculative poetry can unfold with the same subtlety and power that speculative fiction does, with considerably fewer words. Come prepared to write.
7:00 PM – ME – Sociolinguistics and SF/F.
John Chu, Rose Lemberg (leader), Alex Dally MacFarlane, Anil Menon, Sabrina Vourvoulias.
Sociolinguistics studies the ways in which language intersects with society. It looks at issues such as interactions of language with power, prestige, gender, hegemony, and literacy, bilingualism and multilingualism, translation, language birth, and language death to name but a few. We will look specifically at the kinds of tensions that are created in societies where people speak different languages or dialects depending on social and racial/ethnic status. We will also discuss genre books in which those topics have been explored, and consider sociolinguistics tools and concepts that may be useful to writers.
(OMG. I am going to read about Emesal and Ancient Near-Eastern language shifts for this. And listen to the other panellists say fascinating things.)
SATURDAY JULY 13
10:00 AM – G – Intellectually Rigorous Fictional Data: Making Up Facts That Are True.
Debra Doyle, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Margaret Ronald, Ken Schneyer, Harold Vedeler, Henry Wessells (leader).
How do you make up convincing fictional primary sources? No, not for purposes of seeking political office, but because you need to know the facts and how they underpin the world of your fiction and the lives of your characters. Imaginary books and letters are just the beginning, even if they never appear in the narrative. Which fictional data sources matter? How much is enough to make a narrative feel resilient and whole?
(As a historian, I have opinions about the constructions of documents, nonfictions, histories!)
12:00 PM – RI – The Works of Maureen F. McHugh.
Nathan Ballingrud, Dennis Danvers, Gavin J. Grant, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Charles Oberndorf (moderator).
As Jo Walton said in a review of Mission Child, Maureen F. McHugh’s work explores “chewy ideas rather than shiny ones.” This is true of her novels, such as the Tiptree Award–winning China Mountain Zhang; her intense short stories, each of which contains an astonishing amount of narrative and conceptual complexity; and her alternate reality games, including the groundbreaking “I Love Bees.” McHugh’s work introduces the reader to communities large and small (families, subcultures, towns, nations, planets) and describes them with compassion, affectionate humor, and honesty. This panel will endeavor to give her rich, nuanced writing the close reading it deserves.
1:00 PM – G – Authorial Metanarrative.
Leah Bobet (leader), Lila Garrott, Theodora Goss, Glenn Grant, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Sonya Taaffe.
A number of authors build in subtle links between otherwise unconnected works. A link may not be something as literal as a common character or name; perhaps, instead, there’s a repeated trope or event. Leah Bobet, discussing Patricia A. McKillip’s works in a 2011 blog post, described this as writing “epic poetry, and the whole of [McKillip's] output is the poem.” How do such links affect a reader’s interpretation of or approach to a body of work, and what motivates authors to link their works together?
3:00 PM – NH – Mythic Poetry Group Reading.
Mike Allen, Leah Bobet, C.S.E. Cooney, Gemma Files, Gwynne Garfinkle, Andrea Hairston, Samantha Henderson, Nicole Kornher-Stace, Rose Lemberg, Shira Lipkin, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Dominik Parisien, Caitlyn Paxson, Julia Rios, Romie Stott, Sonya Taaffe, JoSelle Vanderhooft.
Over the past decade, speculative poetry has increasingly turned toward the mythic in subject matter, with venues such as Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Jabberwocky, and the now-defunct Journal of the Mythic Arts showcasing a new generation of poets who’ve redefined what this type of writing can do. This reading will feature new and classic works from speculative poetry’s trend-setters.
7:00 PM – ME – Women’s Bodies, Women’s Power.
Athena Andreadis (leader), Alex Dally MacFarlane, Kate Nepveu, Vandana Singh, Sabrina Vourvoulias.
In many times and places, cisgender girls and women have been evaluated by their bodies, including their choice of dress, sexual behavior, virginity, and fertility. Juxtaposed with this are the mystification and taboos surrounding menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. This outlook has migrated wholesale into speculative literature. It’s still standard fare in fantasy for women to lose (or be thought to lose) any extranormal powers they possess when they first have penetrative sex, menstruate, or become pregnant, from André Norton’s Witchworld adepts to Zamia in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Athena Andreadis will explore the tropes and assumptions around this issue, including variants applied to trans* and non-binary characters.
I will admit that joining SFWA was never a major milestone for me as a writer. I joined because I had the spare dollars, I had heard good things about Griefcon and I wanted to nominate and vote for the Nebula Awards. I’ve been watching recent events with a rising sense of I am so fucking sick of this, and now my MA essays are done I have time to put some of my thoughts in words.
The recent problems are widely known. The SFWA’s professional magazine, the Bulletin, has contained sexist material: suggesting that women should have “quiet dignity” like Barbie (a good woman is seen, not heard!), then suggesting that women who protest about that suggestion are “liberal fascists” committing censorship! (A certain type of American likes to enthuse far more about free speech than about not being a piece of sexist shit.) (It was especially amusing~ to me that some white American males were crying about fascists when actual fascists were marching on the streets of the UK, attacking mosques and Muslims. Not to mention what’s been happening in Istanbul, say. That is fascism. That fear and violence. Not someone saying “Hey it’d be great if you didn’t suggest women should never speak.”) There’s a good link round-up here, as well as a much-needed international perspective here.
Then Theodore Beale, a member known for being a racist skidmark, used a SFWA Twitter feed to promote a post in which he used exceptionally foul, violently racist language against N.K. Jemisin, a black woman. Amal El-Mohtar rightly called for his expulsion from SFWA. As I write this, a decision has not been announced. Rumours do not bode well, although I hope the rumours are wrong.
While SFWA deliberates on whether to punish someone for violently racist language against a black woman, the people speaking up in support of her – especially other women of colour – are receiving threats of violence and murder. The forums of SFWA remain, as always, off-limits to those of us who are not white men: we will be dismissed, verbally abused. (Be quiet, like Barbie!)
SFWA is more than its racist members, of course. I know many people in the organisation want Beale out, want change: want SFWA to really be for everyone, not just a 1970s-era crowd of old white straight American dudes. A lot of this change takes time. Kicking Beale out? Not nearly as much time.
SFWA and the wider world of science fiction are not unique in their racism and sexism. Sexism is everywhere. Racism, likewise. But I am sick of SFWA-related bullshit, nonetheless.)
Here is what I’m sick of:
I’m sick of an organisation in which bigots feel welcome. I’m sick of forums in which bigots feel welcome, while anyone else is warned right from the start to steer clear. I’m sick of the fact that Beale’s language was not universally condemned, that reaching a unanimous decision to kick him out of SFWA is not proving to be easy. I’m sick of bigots having no consequences for their actions, while people speaking up in support of the people they hurt are harassed, upset and afraid. I’m sick of soft-footing in bigots’ favour.
No one can stop Beale from being a racist. No one can stop people from saying that it’s a bit too extreme~ to kick him out of SFWA.
Here is what can be done: create an environment in which racism and sexism and all other forms of bigotry are not welcome. Create an environment in which racist and sexist words are removed, their speaker banned from the forums, eventually banned from the organisation. (Yes, this needs a careful process of warnings and investigation and the potential for people to learn and change. Duh?) Otherwise bigotry will continue, bigots will continue to hurt and threaten people.
This is the beauty of being a closed organisation: it’s a closed environment, it can be shaped. It can be better. Racism and sexism and homophobia and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and ableism and all other bigotries are not matters of opinion. They are not. I am fucking sick to fucking death of them being treated like they are. I am fucking sick of an American idea of “free speech” in which bigotry is not stamped out. (I won’t claim the British hate speech law as it currently stands and is utilised is perfect, but fuck, the idea that there is such a thing as “hate speech” and that it’s unacceptable is such a good fucking starting point.)
So this, SFWA, is what I want. I want Beale out. I want bigots unwelcome.
The other beauty of a closed organisation is that I can choose not to be a part of it.
I want an organisation in which bigotry is unwelcome. Otherwise it’s worthless.
I see no purpose in demanding less.
Do you like deer? Do you like dead deer? Do you like the feet of dead deer?
A vital accessory for all book-owners, yes?
When I was staying in Dallas with Brooke Bolander, we went to a café (Mudsmith’s) she described as “hipster”. It had deer heads mounted on the walls and a taxidermied bobcat on the fridge. TEXAS HIPSTERS ARE THE BEST. Then Brooke took me to the shop (Mercantile 1925) where the café probably got their decorations.
Ahead of its official release date later this month (17 June is the date on the publisher’s website), print copies of my anthology Aliens: Recent Encounters have been sighted in the wild. Look! Look what I saw!
I may have held it for a while. (I assume this is pretty normal for anyone who finds their book in a bookstore. In this case, Barnes & Noble in Dallas. I may spend the rest of my US trip looking in bookstores for it. Faint whispers of “My precioussss” from SFF aisles.)
You can already order print copies from Book Depository and the other usual online places, as well as any bookstore that’s got it out on the shelves already. A decent number of Prime Books anthologies wind up in the UK, so keep an eye on Waterstones and Forbidden Planet! You can, of course, request that they order a copy if you can’t find one. There will be e-books available from Weightless Books, Kindle, etc, but they tend to come out on time rather than early.
A reminder of the Table of Contents, which contains awesome authors like Ursula K Le Guin, Catherynne M Valente, Nancy Kress, Genevieve Valentine, Ken Liu, Yoon Ha Lee, Zen Cho, Lavie Tidhar, Vandana Singh, Sonya Taaffe and many many more.
All sales, reviews, word-of-mouth spread are hugely appreciated. The more this anthology sells, the more chance I have of getting to edit anthologies on a regular basis. (Of course, I already have the The Mammoth Book of SF by Women gig, which remains hugely exciting, but I’d love to do even more than these two. I have plans and dreams for future anthologies.)
Today I’m over at SF Signal being interviewed about the anthology and my own writing. There’s another interview about the anthology to come elsewhere, and if anyone else wants to interview me, I would love that.
On the subject of my own fiction, I’m also on Book Smugglers, in a roundtable about SF and gender with several other authors talking about our stories in the anthology The Other Half of the Sky. Check it out!
Now I need to get back to my final MA essays, which are hard to concentrate on when I keep thinking about how my anthology is on shelves! where people can buy it! and hopefully are!
Poetry-friends, a question: have any of you published (or read) poetry about Sappho? I am writing an essay for my MA about Sappho and sexuality and personal reception, and am interested in other people’s writing about her. I already know Sonya Taaffe’s “Ψάπφοι Σελάννα” and several blog posts about Sappho, and Cat Valente’s translation years ago in Xelas Magazine, but what else is there?
(It is Sappho who makes me wish I read Greek. My languages are Akkadian and Sumerian; I want to continue with Akkadian this autumn, and the next on my list may be Classical Armenian, because it would open up under-studied aspects of the Alexander Romance, which is what I want to write a PhD on, eventually. Starting in autumn of 2014, I hope. So I am re-reading Sappho via Anne Carson, whose edition is beautiful; even in translation, Sappho’s words are wondrous.)
In gratitude for any poems you can give, and because I want to share this, a grave inscription by Nossis (whose wikipedia page yielded a book I want: Rabinowitz & Auanger, eds. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World):
Stranger, if you sail to the land of lovely dances, Mytilene,
To catch fire from the blossom of Sappho’s graces,
Say that a friend to her and the Muses, this Locrian land
Bore me. And knowing my name is Nossis, go on!
Today sees the publication of my story “Singing like a Hundred Dug-up Bones” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It is also available in audio format, read by Folly Blaine, for those of you who enjoy such things. It’s about ghosts, singing and archaeology on a remote island.
The island is inspired by the Orkneys. Here is the heather (although here it is in flower, in early autumn, not frost-got and flowerless in the early spring of the story):
It is said of the Orkneys that you have only to take a trowel to the soil and you’ll find archaeology. The people living there thousands of years ago – up to five thousand years ago – have left plenty behind. When I visited last year, I went from site to site (with a lot of walking in-between, over 10 miles a day on some islands): from the iconic Maes Howe and Skara Brae to the possibly-unique Dwarfie Stane to a chambered tomb in the car park of a café, still being excavated by an archaeologist slightly possessive of it, where I crouched in the puddle-filled narrow corridor-chamber and he pointed to the side-chambers still stacked full of bones and soil and otter excrement. It is not one person per side-chamber but an accretion over years, body upon body, by now a mass of bones to be interpreted, under these mounds that dot the Orkney landscape just as they do Knowe’s island.
That interpretation is one thing I am perpetually fascinated by in archaeology and history, as my poem “Thousands of Years Ago, I Made This String Skirt” attests (and another poem currently out on submission, and another story likewise). Of course, “Singing like a Hundred Dug-up Bones” cheats: there are ghosts to tell (or sing) their stories, bridging the centuries-long gap. Knowe can hear their voices directly. In a post written while I was writing an earlier draft of this story, I said of Patrick Wolf’s “Damaris”: “And yet again I find myself drawn to the stories of women that would otherwise be lost if not for a drawing out, an act of art that brings them back into wider memory.” The fun of fiction is that I can make stories – and the ghosts to tell them – where the bones in our world are nearly silent.
Knowe’s world, although inspired by ours, doesn’t completely match it. Knowe lives at a time not many centuries before ours, perhaps the 18th or early 19th Century CE. (Knowe’s name is a nickname, meaning ‘hill’, in the mostly-English now spoken in the Orkneys. I owe that name, some mentions of myth and the song Knowe sings in the mound to The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland by Ernest Marwick.) The mound she’s excavating is in the style of Maes Howe: a tunnel into a central chamber, from which you can access the small side-chambers where the bones of the dead were placed. Mounds such as Maes Howe are 5000 years old, yet the gap between Knowe and the mounds’ inhabitants can be measured in hundreds of years, not thousands. The mounds’ inhabitants – the ghosts – have Pictish names, taken in pieces from a list of kings’ names (Uuirp became Uuir, Gurum became Gur, Gurnait and Tolorg became Tolnait; others, like Tolorg, Aniel, Manath, stayed unchanged) – men’s names, but those are the ones largely attested, and google turned up a blog post (citing a piece in British Archaeology) about the possibility of Pictish women’s names being very similar to the men’s, distinguished only in writing by a symbol at the end. Taking that suggestion, I carved the women’s names from the men’s.
It is our world, askance.
It is Knowe’s own past, Knowe’s own heritage; but, though I know of no ancestors who lived in the Orkneys, it’s the closest I’ve yet come to writing about my own heritage (although, note, Scotland and the Orkneys are not the same; my cattle-thieving MacFarlanes were of a different place; in case there’s any confusion, the Mainland of the story is the main island, not Scotland). It’s written in my English, because that’s the only one I know; but if I’d lived in Scotland, I’d know Scots, which is not what the people of the Orkneys speak. (I say it’s written in my English, but of course the spelling was changed to American, sigh.) It’s remote. At the same time, it’s not so very. At the same time, it is.
It is also about singing, for which I owe a great deal of gratitude to Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman for leading a singing circle at Wiscon last year (how appropriate that this story is published just before this year’s Wiscon), as well as everyone who joined in, Liz Argall, Rose Lemberg and more, without whom this story would never have been written. Thank you. Perhaps the people who lived in these old houses (Skara Brae) by the sea would have sung similarly.
It seems relevant to note, in a story about singing, that the songs I listened to while writing it were Loreena McKennitt’s “Standing Stones” and “Ancient Pines”, and Patrick Wolf’s “Damaris”, “Thickets” and “This Weather”. (For all their prevalence in the Orkneys, there are no standing stones in this story. Perhaps in another.)
And now I kiss
I kiss the earth
Oh oh rise up, rise up, rise up now from the earth
And I smashed my fist
Into the earth
Oh oh rise up, rise up, rise up now from the earth
Out in late 2014
Aliens: Recent Encounters
"...this [anthology] blew us away more than any other. Mostly because of the sheer volume of greatness contained in these 32 stories... These are classic stories of alien encounters, from some of the best science fiction writers working today."
- io9.com Best Books of 2013