An Interview with Diana M. Pho

Diana Pho_side_Credit Amy StappToday’s interview is with Diana M. Pho, author of the essay “Breaking Mirrors” in Invisible 2, edited by Jim C. Hines. We’ve been thrilled to feature interviews from several authors from this anthology recently – you can read my review of Invisible 2 here.

I loved how, in talking about Julie of the Wolves in your essay for Invisible 2, you expressed how even though later you learned that the book had problematic aspects, you took something positive from it. How should we approach books that have both positive and problematic elements to them?

No work of art is perfect, and I think people fear being judged by liking something that is imperfect. Everyone has their own boundaries about what they like and what they don’t, and it can feel very personal when one’s boundaries are being examined.

Interacting and creating art should prioritize a code of ethics, for artists and people who enjoy art. I don’t think we can use the excuse, “Art for art’s sake!” anymore, because the meaning of art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and to claim that it does is to effectively render art meaningless.

It’s always important to keep in mind that art-making is subjected to many different types of responses. Of course, there’s entertainment value– no one wants to be bored by something (unless boredom is the point, and hey, I don’t have any desire to be an expert in ennui). There’re also the internal responses a participant has with the work of art and the external conversation among other participants.  And those things can be messy and complicated.

There’s also the role of the creator too; I think in today’s culture, the creator’s intent is put in the spotlight, while at the same time, the creator’s intention is frequently disregarded when criticizing the effect a work has on another person. So creators are being told two distinct messages: “Just make art for yourself and don’t listen to what others think!” but also “If someone tells you your art is racist/classist/sexist/oppressive in any way, you *must* acknowledge something or be smeared on the Internet forever!”

No wonder the internet explodes whenever someone points out something “problematic about their fav.” (Joss Whedon isn’t a feminist! Slash can fetishize queer relationships! There aren’t any PoC main characters in this thing!) Everyone gets their hackles up because people associate their personal happiness with the stuff they like. They don’t want to think that their happiness is false or flawed.

Acknowledging the weaknesses of an artwork doesn’t shortchange my personal relationship with it, because I know that thing is imperfect (and so am I).My personal relationship with Julie of the Wolves changed over time. That’s also significant to acknowledge. People can grow and change by art in many ways. As much as the book helped me when I felt isolated by my family’s identity, recognizing its racist flaws also developed my sense of political awareness. I am comfortable with seeing both; it’s an honesty that develops over time and thought, but ultimately is rooted in the initial love I had for the book.

(By the way, I use the word “art” in the most general sense — creations made by creators. Highbrow, lowbrow, pulp fiction, cosplay, religious icons, popcorn movies, symphonies, Shakespeare, nursery rhymes — it is all art to me. Age of Ultron is not the highest example made by the human race, but I’m not dismissing it as meaningless dirt either. Even the fluffiest or shallowest bit of storytelling is still telling — that is the soul of art — the existence of a narrative.)

What draws you to science fiction, fantasy, and steampunk?

It’s potential. The ideas. The feeling that our own lives exist on the surface of a deeper emotional and intellectual world, and SFF helps brings those qualities out to the forefront.

I’m a big fan of your blog, Beyond Victoriana. what, in a nutshell, is your advice for people who want to explore and enjoy Steampunk without glorifying the British Empire (including its colonialism, sexism, and racism)?

In a nutshell: own up to the bad stuff. Don’t romanticize it or explain it away. You also get much richer stories in dealing with the darker side of history and find may even find new spots of light.

People tend to shy away from addressing these more serious implications of history because they don’t want to spoil the sense of fun to it. But good storytelling — including the fun adventurous stuff — has roots in conflict.To me, why not address all of the social conflict in your storytelling — it only makes it more interesting, increases the stakes for your characters, and makes readers more invested in them. So beyond building verisimilitude in stories, it makes creators better creators.

It’s summer – should we be lucky enough to head to the beach, what book should we put in our beach bag?

I’m currently in the middle of both Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and Lev A.C. Rosen’s Depth, so I’ll rec those. The Three-Body Problem is a meaty sci-fi read, and Depth is a stylish post-apoc noir set in a flooded New York. I don’t read your typical fluffy beach reads.

 

Diana M. Pho is an editor at Tor Books and blogs for Tor.com. She is also a published scholar, activist, performer, and general rabble-rouser. She is best-known for running Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning, US-based blog on multicultural steampunk under the moniker Ay-leen the Peacemaker. For several years, she has traveled the country as a professional convention speaker about social justice issues and fandom. Her most recent publications include the introduction to The Best of Spanish Steampunk, edited by James and Marian Womack and a forthcoming article in Like Clockwork, edited by Professors Brian Croxall and Rachel Bowser. You can follow her on Tumblr and Twitter.

An Interview With Matthew “Novastar” Carauddo

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This week’s interview is with Matthew “Novastar” Carauddo, founder of Saber Combat, which specializes in lightsaber classes and performances.

Tell us about your saber combat business – it involves shows, classes, and parties, right? Tell us about what you do!

There are many facets to the goals of, and the actions/work of SaberCombat.com.

One aspect of the work is regarding unique performances that run the entire gamut of staged work, including fight choreography, staging, sound editing/engineering, vocal recording, music, and–naturally–costumes and building LED saber props that are meant for hard strikes and punishment.

An example of one of SaberCombat.com’s projects is at this link–a complete re-enactment of the famous “Empire Strikes Back” saber fight scene between the two epic heroes we’ve grown to know and love:

A second aspect of SaberCombat’s contributions & work are more about workshops, birthday parties, and special events.  No two are alike as every event has its needs, desires, requirements, and circumstances.

Events can be as complicated as a corporate event with a performance and “saber workshop” for adults in mind:

…or, they can be much simpler (to a point)–as events designed for youth, birthday parties, or martial arts schools. Parents end up having MORE fun than the kids… SOMEtimes… 😉

A third aspect of SaberCombat is… helping OTHERS to do awesome saber combat / staged combat work, in the form of tutorial videos, the SaberCombat fight choreography system (DVD tutorials on the website), and classes.

How did you get the idea to run a saber combat business – and what was your first step in making it a reality?

To be perfectly honest, a lot of it simply occurred “over time”, and in some ways, was simply a subset of my fencing instruction and experience.  The site and business didn’t actually come from one, singular, resolute decision.

Taking a step backward in time, back in 2005, I was brewing upon an idea I had to do an entirely LIVE light saber performance, involving 10 performers all on stage at once, complete with sabers, sound editing, music, vocals, a general story & characters, dramatic staging, and of course… awesome fight choreography.

At the time, I was running a small saber fencing business, and my involvement with anything “Star Wars” was limited to a few video games, the films themselves, and being inspired by John Williams awesome music.  I didn’t even have any kind of “jedi costume”–never had any need.  🙂

But my sudden idea to do a 10 person fight required a lot of behind-the-scenes work, planning, money, initiative, research, and of course… even auditions & casting!  🙂  Also, initially, it was VERY difficult to get or build the appropriate props for actual staged combat, as… at the time (again ~2005/2006), the technology simply wasn’t present.

Nova - Palpy edited by Rosika

The 2006 performance of “Balance of Power” was a huge hit with viewers (Youtube was actually very new at the time!), and it emblazoned me to continue on to… see where the proverbial “rabbit hole” went… 🙂

Over due time, I actually ended up helping to further innovate LED saber props as part of a small “saber community” (which built props on their own, independent of large toy companies)… and even ended up designing some of the first custom “saber sound fonts” that were installed into more present-day sabers.  🙂

 

Examples of my sound font work can be found here:

More time passed, and I made a simple staged combat tutorial (care of numerous requests from fans & viewers) and released it as a single product for people to learn from.  A year passed, and I had greatly built upon my own basic system, and wanted to share more of it… so I paired up with a local martial artist to film some more in-depth tutorials to become a part of two DVDs–each with several videos entailing how to do high-level staged combat with the right kinds of tools, notation, drills, patterns, training, etc.

Shortly after that, the DVDs and work became so popular, SaberCombat.com went from being a site “solely to launch the DVDs” into something MUCH larger!  I’d taken my first step into a larger world.  🙂  Well… more like my 4th or 5th step, I suppose…

What’s the biggest challenge in your business?

Lately, the biggest challenges have been tenfold (unfortunately).  I’ve recently run into a lot of health issues–despite my lifestyle being fairly well revolved around fitness and staying in shape.  I’ve had to pour almost every dime I have (which isn’t much, sadly) into two MRIs recently, and… there isn’t much I can do right now except fight through extreme pain, shoulder issues, and so forth.

Finding the RIGHT people with the right work ethic, team spirit, dedication, and true desire to innovate has been very, very difficult!

But, I’m extremely hopeful, as… I HAVE worked with some REALLY great people–really talented individuals, such as my associate Gary Ripper (Ripper Sabers & Ripper Blades), who not only portrays “Darth Vader” in my “Empire Strikes Back” re-creation, but designs and sells some AMAZING acrylic & polycarbonate saber and sword prop blades, all hand-designed.  For more information, just look up “Ripper Sabers” on Facebook… you’ll know his incredible work when you see it.

Ultimately, challenge is a good thing.  If a hero in a film “quit” when things became overwhelming or difficult… he or she would NOT be much of hero, now would they?  🙂

You have a cyberpunk project in the works – tell us about your involvement with that!  What’s the series about, and what’s your role?

Ah, you’re resourceful, and… must be watching my “Novastar” Facebook page!  🙂  I can’t really say all that much about it right now, but here is a video which shows a different side of my work, as… I’m not just a “light saber guy”, my background is varied.  Performance, acting, writing, costuming work, vocal work and electronics fit into many ways of expressing art:

I have since grabbed myself a “long length” leather jacket (only $30–discount store) in order to help the costume & look work better, so… progress is being made.  Stay tuned for more later on!

It’s summer, it’s hot, kids are bored, mom is tired. What movie that ISN’T Star Wars should we watch?

Ironically, since you noted this possible cyberpunk project I may be involved in… instead of a film, how about a game?  An “old” one, but a great piece of work that won “Game of the Year” twice over, if I recall correctly.

The game is “Deus Ex” (2000), the original one created by Ion Storm, made for PCs.  It couldn’t be more than $10 now to buy, and it’s definitely one of THE best games I’ve ever played, winning on so many levels: excellent gameplay / skill trees / RPG elements, excellent music, excellent storyline, perfect ambiance, great characters… it’s the way a game is supposed to be made!  Not just “shoot everything in sight” like they seem to be doing these days.  🙂

Here is a short animation where I was able to voice the “J.C. Denton” character.  I’m hoping to do more with this, too:

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My only final thoughts would be… whatever your passions & dreams are–keep pursuing them.  I realize that this is cliche’, but here’s something important I will add to that…

The most difficult part about pursuing your dreams & passions is the fact that you are going AGAINST the grain.  Society will prefer to push you toward ITS desires, and let’s face it: when 1000 voices are telling you to “go left” when your heart tells you to “go right”… you question yourself, and sometimes–it’s MUCH easier to just stop listening to yourself.

You have to also do the WORK though, too.  🙂  Nothing good comes without dedication, consistency, and weathering the proverbial storms & tsunamis that life often casts your way.  When the storms come–you mustn’t stay there, you must fight THROUGH them, and as the old quote goes… “keep going”.

“When you’re going through Hell… keep going.”  –Churchill

An Interview with Emerian Rich!

Emerian and I became friends at local coventions where I had to admire her hair and her eye make-up, which is amazing art! Turns out she’s also a tireless blogger, a prolific author, and a dynamic speaker! I asked Emerain to talk to us about the many hat she wears and how she finds time to juggle her many, many projects.

You have a lot of balls in the air – Horror Addicts, Regency Romance, SEARCH Magazine– tell us a little bit about your various projects.

Man, we could be here all day. My personality type is one that gets bored easily and I’m quite hyper, so to feed my “have to do something new” monster, I get myself involved in all sorts of stuff. I’m also OCD so let’s do this in a format I’m more comfortable with.

  • Horror Writer: I love writing my vampires in Night’s Knights Vampire Series, but I also have become a fan of short horror. It was hard to get involved in the short story game because my head just naturally thinks in novel length, but when I realized that shorts take a different sort of talent, a small idea, well crafted, the challenge was set. Now I enjoy the experiment of a horror short and when someone asks me to be in an anthology, I jump at the chance to stretch my short story muscles!

 

  • Horror Hostess: I started HorrorAddicts.net as a podcast to tide my vampire fans over until the next book, but it has become its own entity. With 10+ staff, we operate a podcast, blog, and now publishing house. Sometimes it seems very overwhelming, but it is so rewarding, that I must keep it going. This has also increased my voice acting jobs and opened my career up to new possibilities such as MC’ing and interviewing.

 

  • Romance Writer: Although it’s no secret, a lot of people don’t know I also write romance under the name Emmy Z. Madrigal. My Sweet Dreams Musical Romance Series started it all. It’s centered on older teens who are music lovers, including pop stars and the whole Jazz music scene. The spin off Anime Girl is targeted to twenty-somethings and is more of a chicklit type read about an Anime artist who falls in love at an Anime con. My most recent romance sale is a Regency romance called Lord Harrington’s Lost Doe. It’s more of an Austen-like novella with a rain-tormented estate, a lost girl, and the dark, tall, and grumpy Lord that finds her. Lost Doe should be released within the next year.

 

animegirlcoverfinal-copy

 

 

  • SEARCH Magazine Editorial Director: This is my newest baby and I am having fun learning all the new things the magazine can teach me. I’m also loving the new relationship it gives me with my writing staff. Writers are great people with vivid imaginations and I love seeing what they will bring me next!

Your newest baby is SEARCH Magazine (disclosure – I write for it). How did you get involved with this project, and what can readers expect from the magazine?

I was approached by the publisher to help her launch this local San Francisco Bay Area magazine. I loved the idea and jumped at the chance to add one more feather in my hat. I’ve directed many publishing projects, but this is the first mainstream publication. Her vision of bringing new and innovative ideas to our area really hit a chord with me. I love her slant on arts, entertainment, and her passion for growing local businesses along the way. If your readers would like to check out the magazine, they can get a free eCopy online at: searchmagazine.net

 

cover of SEARCH magazine

With so many projects happening at once, do you have any time management tips for us?

My answer to the first question shows that I like to segment my projects into boxes. So here we go with some bulleted tips that help me accomplish the impossible:

  • Become a note taker and list maker. Take a few minutes in the morning of each day to sort what is urgent and what can wait.

 

  • Try to get through as much as you can in one sitting, but make sure to give yourself realistic goals and breaks.

 

  • Make rules about social media. When you do it, when you don’t. We all need to do it, but it can end up gobbling up a lot of your time.

 

  • Above all…make sure everything you are doing is either working toward a goal, or enjoyable for you to do. If a project isn’t fun for you, honor commitments that you’ve already made, but then cut ties or figure out another way to contribute that is less irritating to you. The more enjoyable the work, the easier it will go.

If people want to start reading your work, where do you suggest they start?

At my main website, emzbox.com, they can find everything I do. I have horror, vampires, modern romance, regency romance, a little scifi and now a mainstream magazine. There’s a little bit for everyone. If they are looking for a good book to start off with, I would suggest Artistic License. It’s about a woman who inherits a house where everything she paints, comes alive.

cover of Artistic Liscence

It’s summer and I’m headed to the beach (in my dreams). What book NOT written by you should I put in my beach bag, and why?

I’m reading a great Pride and Prejudice variation by my favorite variation writer, Kara Louise. It’s called Pirates and Prejudice and it features Darcy becoming a pirate. A lot of time is spent on the ship, surrounded by water and beaches. Darcy being taught how to talk like a pirate is hilarious, even my husband enjoyed that bit. It’s a must read.

Guest Post: Heather Thayer Reports From San Diego Comic-Con

Logo of SDCCThe biggest joy of attending San Diego Comic-Con is that I usually get to bring at least one person with me. This year I took three kids (see my post here: Surviving SDCC With Kids). I also took my friend Heather, and if you are wondering why it’s taken so long for another post about SDCC to come out, I suspect she just woke up! I have never seen another person more thrilled about SDCC and it was a highlight of the trip for me to see her excitement. Here’s Heather’s report!

I went to San Diego Comic Con and It Was AWESOME

I don’t know what possessed her to make such a generous offer, but last year Carrie asked me if I would be interested in going to San Diego Comic Con (SDCC). It has always been a dream of mine to go, although I was worried because I don’t like crowds or standing in line. But hey, given the offer I agreed that I wanted to go as a “bucket list” sort of thing. Carrie warned me that there were a lot of “ifs” before it would be possible, but as winter finished and spring began, I started getting jazzed about the idea. I tried for my own badge and failed, so it wasn’t looking good, but then Carrie got badges, stuff happened, some family issues got resolved and suddenly, with only weeks to spare, I got the email from Carrie that we were a go.

The Schedule

The first thing to know about SDCC is that the schedule is insane. At any given time there are tons of interesting panels, autographs to get, offsite events, gaming tables, cosplay to look at, movies and shows constantly playing and a stupendously huge exhibition hall with merchandise, art, giveaways, and events.

Choices Choices-2

As soon as the panel schedule was posted in early July, I pored through it picking items that I was interested in seeing, but knowing that I’d be lucky to catch even a fifth of what I had selected. Early on I realized that I didn’t have the stamina to camp out overnight to get into the famous Hall H – the colossal hall where the biggest panels are held. The hall holds 6,500 people and the line usually starts the night before, serpentining across a plaza outside. While it was a disappointment to give up the Hall H experience, I decided that there was plenty else to see and do. I picked one or two things per day that I really wanted to attend and other than that decided to take things as they came. I was particularly interested in some of the “how to” panels about creating characters, writing tips, insider perspectives on script development and costume design. I planned to be perfectly happy attending such panels for three days in addition to catching a panel or two on some of my favorite shows. And I think I would have been happy, if that had been how things turned out.

Serendipity

The first day came, I took the train into town (I was staying in Carlsbad with family friends), easily found Carrie and her be-winged daughter, we went right in and were handed our badges with no delay and there we were – inside SDCC — crowds of people being directed by armies of volunteers, people in cosplay and long lines, celebrities and fans. After an interesting writing panel in the morning, Carrie and I split up and I decided to get the lay of the land. I wandered outside – in part because I wanted to get a picture of the famous Hall H line. As I walked by the Hall H entrance, volunteers were there announcing that there was no line for the Hall and there was seating available. Alrighty then! I went in. I saw Bill Murray, then the Hunger Games: Mockingjay panel (I saw Catching Fire six times in the theater, so I’m a bit of a fan), the Doctor Who panel (I paid to go see the 50th Anniversary show simulcast in the theaters, so I’m a bit of a fan) and then the Con Man panel – the crowd-sourced web series created by Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion (I contributed a substantial amount to the campaign, so I’m a bit of a fan). For me, that final panel was the culmination of everything awesome since all of my favorite geek icons were there Chris Hardwick! Seth Green! Wil Wheaton! Felicia Day! And then this happened and everyone in Hall H cried.

Best. Day. Ever.

The other days were not quite as exciting, but every day I was able to see panels on shows that are my absolute favorites. On Saturday morning Carrie and her husband and I went to an offsite event for Orphan Black (we are HUGE fans – Orphan Black was our cosplay).

That's Heather as 'Alison' and me as 'Cosima as Alison'!

That’s Heather as ‘Alison’ and me as ‘Cosima as Alison’!

I was vaguely hoping that one of the actors might show up, so I was delighted when almost the entire cast was there. I was also able to see the Outlander panel on Saturday, so now I can die happy. And on Friday was able to ask J Michael Straczynski a question about Sense8. Me, talking to J Michael Straczynski about a show I love! How cool is that?

The Vibe

There were lots of people, but SDCC has line management and crowd control down to a science, so it never felt crushing. All of the people there want to be there and are interested in fun, geeky things, so the energy is uplifting. The spaces are vast, so with people spread out in the different rooms, waiting in various lines, prowling the Exhibition Hall, or outside the Convention Center at offsite events – there are few times when one finds oneself in a crush. The two primary exceptions were in the Exhibition Hall, which was crowded and loud and overwhelming; and trying to get onto the trolley at the end of the day – an exercise that made the Tokyo subway seem orderly and spacious. Besides, it was a pleasure to just stroll, looking at the people and the terrific cosplay.  I’ve never seen so many Boba Fetts and Lady Siths in my life.

Exhibition Hall

A fair amount of time is spent in lines – if there is a panel you really want to see the trick is to get into the room a few panels ahead of time. I saw The Man in the High Castle and Vikings panels this way – panels that I enjoyed that I otherwise wouldn’t have attended. Most of the medium and large rooms have lines that snake around the Convention Center, crossing hallways and eventually ending up outside under tents on the terrace. The lines are orderly and well-marked, and unless movement is imminent, most people sit down and wait, which actually turned out to be some of the most interesting times of the trip.

Autograph Line

I am not the most outgoing person in the world, but it was easy to talk to people in line and in the halls because no matter what they looked like (Suburban housewife? Gangbanger? Hacker dude? Thor?) they were all there because they shared an interest in geeky things and simply saying “what are you in line to see?” could start off an intense conversation about this genre that we all love. What a refreshing thing to be able to fangirl and not worry that the other person didn’t know what I was talking about! The other great way to start a conversation was to ask a cosplayer how they created a certain prop or effect – anyone who put so much effort into a costume was always delighted to have someone notice.

Cosplay4

Madame, you are KILLING IT. Kudos!

The Verdict

I don’t think I’ve ever had quite as much fun in three days as my three days at SDCC: exciting, overwhelming, fun, interesting. I came away inspired to be more creative and to spend more time on my writing. I may need to take cosplay to the next level – Halloween is right around the corner. I was expecting crowds and hassle and some interesting moments, but instead it was energy and excitement and fascination. I can’t wait to go again.

An Interview With Sarah Kuhn

kuhnheroineFull disclosure: Sarah Kuhn’s book One Con Glory was one of the first books I reviewed for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I loved the book and I’ve been reviewing for SBTB for five years now, so it has a special place in my heart! 

Can you tell us a little bit about Fresh Romance and how it is similar to and different from the romance comics of the 1950s – 1970s?

Fresh Romance is a monthly digital romance comics magazine from Rosy Press (rosypress.com) — the whole thing is the brainchild of brilliant editor Janelle Asselin, and since romance and comics are two of the things I love most in life, I was thrilled when she asked me to be part of it! Every issue has three ongoing stories and a bunch of other goodies, like advice columns and fashion reports. It’s similar to old school romance comics in that love stuff — blushing and kissing and feelings — is positioned front and center. I think it differs in that the stories span a wide range of sub-genres (historical, high school, supernatural) and star a diverse range of protagonists. As an Asian American lady, I don’t see myself a lot as a protagonist in the romances I enjoy, so featuring a diverse crew of characters was very important to me.

Tell us a little about your story! What’s the deal with Ruby’s “homeworld”? 

My story, “The Ruby Equation” (with artist Sally Jane Thompson, colorist Savanna Ganucheau, and letterer Steve Wands — we call ourselves Team S), is a supernatural romantic comedy about Ruby, a grouchy barista matchmaker from another dimension. Her mission is to help humans find love…but she’s really, really bad at it. I was fascinated by that idea because I think whenever we try to describe what makes a romantic relationship successful…we sort of can’t. Like, it’s not math, you know? But Ruby thinks it is, like if she just lines up the right variables — boom! She’ll get immediately successful relationships. I love female characters who are forceful like that, who have a lot of attitude and are single-mindedly convinced they’re the best at everything — even if we sort of see that that’s not the case as the story unfolds. Oh, and we’re not visiting the homeworld — at least not for this installment of the story. I think it’s probably so epic, it’s best left to the imagination.


Right now Fresh Romance has three stories – a Regency romance, a high school romance, and your story. Will these stories run for a limited time and then be followed by new stories?  What can we expect to see?

My story spans five issues, so we have two more to go! The others — “Ruined” by Sarah Vaughn and Sarah Winifred Searle and “School Spirit” by Kate Leth and Arielle Jovellanos —  I’m reading as a highly enthusiastic fan, so I don’t know when they wrap up. But you will see new stories introduced as the others comes to an end.

What are some other projects you are working on?

My novel Heroine Complex comes out next summer from DAW Books! It’s the first in a trilogy starring Asian American superheroines and it’s all about the adventures of Evie Tanaka, the put-upon personal assistant to a glamorous superheroine. It has demonic cupcakes, supernatural karaoke battles, and a hefty helping of romance. You can read the first three chapters here: heroinecomplex.com/excerpt I’m currently working on the sequel! Additionally, I have some film projects in development and I’m helping produce an LA-based comedy festival at the end of August (comedycomedyfest.com).

OK, it’s summer, which means the beach (YAY). What book (comic or otherwise, and not written by yourself) should I put in my bag?

I absolutely loved Trade Me by Courtney Milan — a sexy, beautifully-written New Adult with truly endearing characters. (And an Asian American heroine!) I’m refreshing her website constantly in the hopes that the sequel might magically appear. Comics-wise, I highly recommend Thrillbent’s The Best Thing (thrillbent.com/comics/the-best-thing/) by writer Seanan McGuire and artist Erica Henderson, which offers a fun, spiky twist on the magical girls genre. And don’t we all need more magical girls in our lives?

Sarah Kuhn is the author of One Con Glory, the soon to be released novel The Heroine Complex, and a contributor to Fresh Romance. She’s a frequent panelist at San Diego Comic-Con. One Con Glory is in development as a feature film.

Summer TV – Mini Reviews to Get You Through the Dog Days

Are you ready to do some serious binge watching? Guest reviewer Heather Thayer has you covered!  Here’s her mini-reviews of new TV this summer.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I can summarize everything wrong with this show in one word: summer. The dark, brooding mood of the show and the heavy, gloomy Victorian settings are unappealing on a bright sunny day when it is light until late at night. I did watch two episodes and they were quite well done. The actor playing Mr. Norrell is perfect. The Man with the Thistledown Hair is frightening and ominous. I wonder whether someone who has not read the books will find the show easy to follow, but the source material is so great that I would hope that people new to the story could pick it up. DVR this show and wait for a storm (or winter) to watch it. I trust it will be excellent in the right weather.

Dark Matter

The concept of this show is intriguing – six people come out of stasis on a space ship with no memory of who they are, where they are, or what they are doing. They start to realize that they have skill memories, and there is an android who can handle the basics of operating the ship and everything else, so that’s helpful. After a few episodes I am still curious about the mystery, although the show can’t seem to steer clear of tropes – for example, one character is sullenly offensive and consistently resorts to conflict and violence. So tiresome. Another character is a manic pixie dream girl who dreams other people’s dreams. Hello, River Tam. The premise is interesting and they occasionally manage to avoid cliché, but it is turning into an “only if there isn’t something better to do” show.

Killjoys

Oh, how this show wants to be the new Firefly. Oh, how it isn’t. The premise is bounty hunters in outer space. Fine, great. I like that the lead character is a kickass woman and I like that the two initial main characters (a straight man and woman) have been business partners for six years but aren’t romantic partners and it is no big deal. I like the feel of the show (which does feel like Firefly) and the world building (which also feels like Firefly). But it is missing the wit of Firefly, the characters aren’t very interesting, and the writing is formulaic. Watch this one if you are sick and you don’t want anything challenging to hit your eyeballs.

Mr. Robot

Full disclosure – I am a lawyer who works with banks on consumer lending issues. I am going to have an issue with a show that has as a ridiculous premise “we’ll hack the banks and everyone’s loans will go pffft, and it will be wonderful for everyone!” But I love this show, even with that nonsense going on. The main character is fascinating. The show has a bleak outlook and is heavy-handed with its depressing message. It is terrific. It is slow-moving and complicated and spends most of its time looking at computer screens. It is riveting. Deliberate, lecturing, absorbing, mesmeric, thrilling. Impossible to explain or categorize. Best show on television right now.

True Detective

First episode. Meh.

First fifty-nine and a half minutes of the second episode. Meh.

Last thirty seconds of the second episode. WTF!!! WTF!!!!!! WTF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Guest Post: Magical Indians That Aren’t Magical Indians: Faith Hunter and Patricia Briggs get it right

cover of Invisible 2This post is part of a series of interviews and guest posts from contributors to Invisible 2, edited by Jim C. Hines. You can find our review here. In this post, Jessica MacDonald talks about how to write Native American characters without resorting to stereotypes.

In April, news broke about a new Netflix-based movie by Adam Sandler where he and his producers showed extreme disrespect for indigenous people. It served as a reminder that in 2015, Natives are still fighting to be seen as part of the world, not as historically inaccurate stereotypes. Reading books, watching movies—it’s like playing Are You Kidding Me bingo. Magical Indian here, Noble Savage there, Red Devil over here. Tropes so ingrained that most viewers or readers don’t even realize how off base they really are.

Which is why it’s refreshing to come across series that put in the legwork to not only craft multi-dimensional Native characters, but also ground their mythology in actual Native legends. Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series both nail it.

Let’s start with Mercy Thompson. She’s a mixed-race protagonist, another rarity—Blackfeet and white. She’s a mechanic who owns her own garage in the Tri-Cities area of Washington state, and she’s also a skinwalker: she can change into a coyote. A distinction is drawn in the series between werewolves, who are beholden to the moon and must preserve mass (so a 200lb man becomes a 200lb wolf), but Mercy can shift at will, and becomes a true coyote, small size and all. More of her story and power is revealed through the series, tying her ability not to her status as an indigenous person, but more because of her specific backstory. This point matters: In many Magical Indian portrayals, no explanation is given for the character’s abilities other than her Native status. This form of positive stereotyping is othering; it confers that Natives are magical, connected to the earth, control the elements, whatever, simply by being Native. As if we are not human. But with Mercy’s story, there are specific reasons related to the Blackfeet legend of Napi that explain her powers. Hers is a hero’s story, where she is indeed special, but with reason and depth.

Jane Yellowrock is a Cherokee vampire hunter, and also a shapeshifter. Her mythology is a little different: the animal spirit, “Beast” as she calls it, is a consciousness living inside her. They share one body but are two entities. Where Briggs keeps the Blackfeet legends at the edges of her world, Hunter brings Cherokee myth front and center, both as an explanation for Jane’s powers and as part of her overall world-building. It’s a nice break from European-centric mythos, even as both authors do a great job of blending European monsters with Native myths. There’s a specific scene in the first Jane Yellowrock novel with a tribal elder that’s offering some information that Jane needs. This elder is not dressed in buckskins and a headdress; she is modern, speaks proper English (as opposed to Tonto-ese), and lays the foundation for revelations about Jane that come later in the story. This flushes out both Jane and the mythos; it’s not a hack job pulling a few Native legends in for flavor, but a well-developed, rich world that remains respectful of the Cherokee origins that inspired it.

Briggs and Hunter do exactly what we’re asking for when we say we want representation. They give us dynamic, multi-dimensional indigenous characters that are not defined solely by their Native-ness. It can seem like a fine line to white authors—how do you bring in Native stories without stereotyping characters as Magical Indians, Indian Princesses, or Noble Savages?

The answer is fairly simple: Create real human beings. Research the experience of indigenous people, maybe even meet with a tribal government and interview them. Ground characters’ powers in a rich backstory rather than in what amounts to “because Indian.” Be respectful of the mythologies. Your Native characters can be magical, badass, savage, noble, murderous, heroic, powerful, weak—but make them real, the way Briggs and Hunter have. Our race is part of who we are, but it is not all we are. Your characters should be the same.

# # #

Jessica McDonald lives in Denver and is a writer, technophile, gamer, and all-round geek. She serves as the marketing director for RF Digital, where real life magic happens. She earned her Master’s degree from the University of Denver and holds undergraduate degrees from The Pennsylvania State University, and has worked for everything from political campaigns to game design companies. She has published original research on online user behavior, and writes about marketing, technology, women in STEM, and diversity in media. Her background in the technology and defense industries makes her an insightful critic of gender representation in fiction, film, video games, and comics. Growing up looking white but with Cherokee heritage, she also advocates for representation of people of color and mixed-race characters. Jessica has presented at SXSW Interactive, Shenzhen Maker Faire, American Public Health Association’s national conference, and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. She is the author of the urban fantasy novel BORN TO BE MAGIC and currently is writing a YA novel based on Navajo mythology. Find her on Twitter at @coloradojess or on her website at http://www.madewithwords.net.

Math as SuperPower: An Interview with SL Huang

cover of Invisible 2This post is part of a series of interviews and guest posts from contributors to Invisible 2, edited by Jim C. Hines. You can find our review here. In this post,SL Huang talks about math as superpower, and the advantages to the writer of including diverse characters in a story.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Russell’s Attic series?

It’s about an antihero protagonist whose superpower is mathematics — being able to do math really, really fast.  Which basically lets her do almost anything.

But I’ve been reliably informed by my readers that the books aren’t really about math.  They’re action/adventure stories about friendship and found family and sticky moral situations and trying to make the right decisions while not really being sure of anything.  They’re about nerdiness and snark and superpowers, and gun fights and car chases and close escapes.

More than anything, I hope they’re about being entertaining!

In other words, you don’t need any math knowledge to read the books.  But if you like the idea of a heroine who thinks she’s in a Hausdorff space while drugged up on painkillers, this might be the series for you.

I love the idea of math as a superpower? How did you choose that superpower, and how does Cas use it?

I’ve had this idea of math as a superpower ever since I was a kid, because . . . I always wished I had it!  I’d be doing something like learning softball and think, “But I can calculate exactly where the ball will be!  WHY CAN’T I HIT IT???”

I gradually realized that math would be the best superpower ever, because what couldn’t you do with it?  I’ve actually had to put some limits on Cas’s powers (for instance, the fact that she doesn’t have a perfect memory means she can’t use her math ability to analyze past events) to avoid her becoming TOO powerful.  But she can calculate anything in the moment, which makes her an incredible sharpshooter and fighter, as well as giving her subtler skills like the abilities to become effectively invisible or listen in on conversations just by doing the right calculations.  Economics, computer science, and physics are all her playground, and she can do everything from detecting AI to piloting a helicopter.

She’d make a fortune on Wall Street if she were ever interested, but she’s kind of allergic to a nine-to-five job . . . or, you know, joining society.

In your essay for Invisible 2, you talk about no longer being afraid to write characters who represent a variety of demographics (non-white, female, non-binary, disabled, non-neurotypical, non-Western). Can you tell us about a few of your characters? Did you find that having a diverse cast of characters enriched your story?

Oh, I have definitely found a diverse cast enriching.  The characters’ backgrounds inform how they interact with the world, so greater diversity means they push or pull the plot in a greater number of different directions.  If all my characters were the same, they’d give me a pretty homogeneous set of possibilities.  But the more differences they have, the more plot and character arc opportunities I have, and that includes not just differences of personality and opinion, but differences in background, gender, sexual orientation, race, and more.

That all sounds terribly selfish, doesn’t it?  Richer writing opportunities is certainly not the main reason I write diversely!  But I kinda DO wish it were talked about more.  Including diverse characters is instead always referred to as this onus, this thing that we should do but is hard work — so much research and (horrors!) THOUGHT that needs to be involved, etc., etc..  People never talk about how there are so many ways having diverse characters is beneficial to the writer.  If we’re going to be self-centered about things, I’ve come to realize it’s a natural conclusion to write diverse characters.

Most of the ways my characters’ differences end up pushing the plot are subtle ones.  For instance, in Book 3 (out this fall!), which features two new nonwhite, female mathematicians, one of them has her assumed anonymity turn on the use of a pronoun.  In book 2, an African-American character points out my protagonist can pass using another woman’s ID because they’re both nonwhite.  The non-USA-ian background of my protagonist will become a clue to her past in book 4.  In both books 1 and 2, giving a character with a physical disability the proper accessibility created way more plot and character possibilities than it limited.  And on and on — character backgrounds, relationships, reactions, and conflicts are all enriched by the characters’ diversity.

I don’t plan these things.  I make my characters first, and let them drive the plot.  But the more diverse they are — either by being different from the hegemonic majority in their world, or just different from each other in all sorts of ways — the more it opens all sorts of avenues I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Why should we care about representation in fiction?

1) Allowing for the possibility of diversity improves storytelling.  I recently saw an interview with George Miller, the creator and director of Mad Max: Fury Road, which has been lauded for being an ensemble action movie that dared to have a mostly-female team of heroes.  Miller said he didn’t intend any shattering feminism with the movie — he was just trying to tell a good story, and that was where the brainstorming took him.

Which is amazing to me.  I want that.  I want that in our world, that people’s brainstorming will take them to a team of female heroes for an action movie just as often as it will populate an action movie almost entirely with men.  It’s ridiculous to me that we can look at this movie that grew out of a normal brainstorming process with no overt feminist design and think, “Wow, how on earth did they get a movie with that many women in it greenlit?!”

But all Miller did was allow for the possibility, and we got an incredible story.  I love Mad Max because it’s a great movie, full stop.

2) It’s a matter of honesty.  When I look around my life in LA, the amount of diversity is staggering.  I’ll look around at a party and realize that half the people are nonwhite or half the people are queer, not by any intentional selection process, just because they are.  Once I worked on a string of three films in a row that had almost no white people on the cast and crew — they were an African-American Western, a Colombian music video, and a Japanese commercial.  The group I used to watch Doctor Who with only had one guy and one white person (not the same person).  None of this is by design; it’s just the world I live in.

When we write fictional worlds in which this sort diversity is purposely excised — and, yes, purposely, no matter how non-maliciously, because writing non-diversely is a choice as much as writing diversely is — it’s dishonest.  It’s taking reality and altering it for no good reason whatsoever.  And it’s not only dishonest, it’s dishonest in a way that is hurtful to members of the audience.  The feeling that “people like me” are erased from fictional realities is not a pleasant one . . . and after a while, it becomes exhausting.

3) Media impacts the way we interact with other humans in reality.  We all have subconscious biases in thousands of ways; that’s just the way our brains work.  It’s illogical to think media representations (or non-representations) of diversity don’t affect how we perceive the world, or that the biases in media don’t have a cheerful give-and-take with real-world systemic prejudice.  Characters in fiction can affect how we see others and how we see ourselves.

Unconscious institutional bias is one of the hardest types of bias to combat.  The more good representation in fiction can push back against that, the better a place the world will be.

4) If you want a selfish reason: It opens up more plot and character opportunities, as above.

5) Also partially selfishly: I’ll add that writing people with backgrounds vastly different from mine is constantly improving my own empathy and humanity.  Most of the research I do is to go and read and listen.  And if I’m listening well enough to help me write a character, it’s impossible for me not to become a more understanding human.  This is especially true considering that (obviously) people from any one demographic are not a monolith, so there’s no limit to the nuance of human experience I can learn from.

What book (other than your own) should we stick in a beach bag this summer, should we be lucky enough to have a beach visit in our future?

I’m going to diverge a little from my usual here and recommend a graphic novel. I don’t read a lot of graphic novels because I tend to get eyestrain from them (sadness!), but this one is TOTALLY WORTH IT.

It’s called “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage,” by Sydney Padua.  And it’s about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in a steampunk alternate universe, one where she doesn’t die young and he actually finishes his inventions and they team up to FIGHT CRIME.

For those who don’t know, Charles Babbage is often credited with inventing the computer, and Ada Lovelace — a brilliant mathematician — is credited with being the first computer programmer, as she wrote a program for the machine Babbage had invented but not yet built.  Yes, you read that right — she wrote a computer program for a computer that hadn’t been built, and she did it before programming had been invented.  The two were, in fact, good friends in reality, but both had lives (a short life, in Lovelace’s case) punctuated by tragedy and personal demons.

Anyway, I have been head over heels for Padua’s work since it debuted as a webcomic.  The wit!  The humor!  The art!  Ada Lovelace debugging a giant Difference Engine by climbing inside and hitting things with a crowbar!  Oh, and the FOOTNOTES!  Padua includes a whole mess of historical footnotes, some even funnier than the comic, and some that read along the lines of, “Yes, believe it or not, Charles Babbage said this for real. It’s in his autobiography.”

This is one of those books I can’t stop trying to get people to read, because it’s just too good.  Definitely pop it in your beach bag!

SL Huang justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction, starting with her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords. Online, she’s unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

Guest Post: My Life with the Society For Creative Anachronism, by RedHeadedGirl

I’ve always been a “make-believe” kind of girl. I started dabbling in table-top role-playing, and moved on to online text-based role playing, and went to Rennaisance Festival when ever I could (not easy when I didn’t have a driver’s license and tickets were expensive and my parents would only go once a year), and I heard about this “SCA” thing once or twice, but had no idea what it was.

Then a friend who I knew from the bad old days of AOL mentioned that she did this SCA thing, and then I went to college. There was a student SCA group, and my AOL friend informed me I was going to check them out and that was just shy of 18 years ago.

The Society for Creative Anachronism is a world-wide educational organization that focuses on researching and recreating (…kind of…) the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It started, as these things do, as a May Day party in Berkeley in 1966 hosted by author Diana Paxson. It was a Grand Tournament, with fighting (plywood swords were involved) and people kept having similar parties, which included Marion Zimmer Bradley and Poul Anderson, and here were are, in the 50th year with over 60,000 participants.

The world is divided into 20 Kingdoms, most of which are in the US and Canada, but there’s one that takes up Europe (they have events in REAL CASTLES) and there are groups in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Each kingdom has defined borders, and there are local groups usually corresponding with metropolitan areas or other regions (I’m in the Barony of Carolingia, which is the greater Boston metro area. The Barony of Smoking Rocks encompasses southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod. As two examples).

The main thing the SCA is focused around is events- a day, a weekend, or up to two weeks, where we get together and wear medieval clothes, fight, eat medieval food, sing, ride horses, learn arts- an event can be as focused as sitting around telling stories all day, or as universal as having just about every activity you can think of that relates to the Middle Ages (save, perhaps, dying of the plague or burning witches). You could go to an event every weekend of the year, depending on how far you’re willing to drive.

People participating pick a “persona,” a medieval name and idea fo when and where you’re from. How detailed a persona is ranges from just a name, and wearing clothing from many different times and places, or only wearing clothes from a very specific time and place, and having a detailed persona story. The great thing is, there’s no one true way. All that’s required to show up at an event is an attempt at pre-17th century garb, and most groups have a stash of loaner garb for new people.

In my barony, we have activies and practices that people can go to every week. We have a dance band and a choir, we have dance practices every other week. Storytellers get together every month to read period stories or poetry, or discuss which translation of an Arthurian legend is the best. The cooks guild meets every month to experiment with medieval recipes, while the Accademia D’ella Danza researches and recreates dances from period dance manuals. There are sewing groups, and embroidery groups, and people who weave and work leather and brew alcohol and make armor. We have a weekly fight practice and a weekly fencing practice, plus archery and thrown weapons (knives, axes, javelins). We have a Mummer’s Guild that puts on plays (not always Shakespeare!) Basically, if someone did an activity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we have people who do it in the SCA.

Oh fighting? Our fighting style is not period- our swords are made out of rattan and aren’t padded, and the armor has specific safety standards that don’t always apply to period construction, but some of the armor people use is gorgeous and as period as possible, and some of it is made out of pickle barrels.

Fighting with rattan (called “heavy fighting”) is so integral to the SCA that its how we choose our Royalty. Each kingdom has two or three tournaments a year that determines who the next King and Queen will be. Fighters fight for the honor of a consort, and the pair will become King and Queen (or King and King or Queen and Queen) for four to six months. We’ve had one woman become Queen by winning a Crown Tournament, and most do have at least one woman combatant.

Between the history, the pageantry, and the friends I’ve met through the SCA, I’ve become a better person. I have friends all over the world, and have developed people skills that you can’t buy with management training seminars. I’ve worked with volunteers on everything from planning a feast for 150 people to running a local group with many divergent interests. It’s been 18 years and I still love it.

Sense 8: A review By Heather Thayer

Last week I posted a video (which I’m posting again at the end of this review) and said that I wasn’t totally on board with Sense 8 yet. Well, Heather Thayer sent me that video and told me to keep watching, which is why I spent thirteen hours last week glued to the screen. The show is a slow start, but once it hooked me, it REALLY hooked me. Here’s Heather’s review!

Sense8 – Watch It, Be Confused, Fall in Love

Sense8 is the new Netflix show by the Wachowskis and J Michael Straczynski — the first season was posted on Friday, June 5.  It was stormy here that weekend, so I watched the whole thing in two days. Like all Wachowski productions it is fun to look at — sometimes beautiful almost to the point of being distracting.  At its core, the first season is simply a character study — the premise is that there are certain people, “sensates” (get it?) who can share thoughts, experience, knowledge etc within their cluster of eight, even though they are scattered all over the globe.  The show begins with a new cluster being created — a group of eight people who share the same puzzling vision that they each dismiss as a dream or hallucination. How it is that these people can sense each other and share experience is confusing (an attempt to fully explain later in the season would have been best left out of the script as it reeked of woo), but I was willing to go along with it because I wanted to see more of these characters.

Many early critics complained that the show is confusing, and that criticism has merit at the beginning. Netflix goofed by only providing the first three episodes to the preview critics when this show takes at least four episodes for the viewer to get invested.  For most of the season, each character just continues with her or his own life as if nothing has happened.  Granted, many of these characters are at individual crisis points in their own lives and it takes a while for them to figure out that what has happened is real and not a strange dream, but it would seem that suddenly being part of a collective with seven other people around the world would be . . . riveting.  But no, the show just keeps following each character in their individual story rather than following a collective narrative, and much of the first season is simply following eight separate stories about eight separate people.  What makes the show more confusing is that rather than using each episode to introduce one character in depth, as is customary in multiple-character dramas, we meet all of them all at once and follow all of them all at once. This makes it hard to keep the characters straight or to invest in the outcomes until nearly the fifth episode. While there are lots of action sequences (must every one of these people get into a fight?), very little of the action propels the overall narrative arc but is simply in service of a character’s individual story.

Yep, that’s a rocket launcher.

This show is built for binge watching because with so many stories to follow with little connecting arc, it would be (even more) difficult to follow if one left too much time between episodes.  This is a show where no episode could stand on its own — with eight characters to follow, each episode takes baby steps to move each of the eight stories forward.  That also makes it difficult to get hooked. But sticking with it produces rewards. As a good friend (okay, it was Carrie) said to me, “I was not that into it but then I kept thinking about it. It kind of sank into my head.” It’s that kind of show – initially confusing and slow, but with random beautiful moments that draw the viewer in gently.

They find the plot confusing, too.

As we get to know the characters better we start caring about their individual journeys and an overall arc begins to show up (evil corporation anyone?) with villains with mysterious motives. Some of our characters start to be in a danger that threatens the whole cluster and some of them know what is actually happening while others simply accept without understanding.  The characters get better at stepping in to help each other out, and by the end of the first season the cluster starts to work as a collective team.

There is something about the show that eventually becomes compelling but it takes time to just look at the scenery along the way.  There is one sequence where one character listens to a song and they all, where ever they are, sing along.  It is a long sequence that doesn’t do anything to move the plot, but it is a joyful moment that sticks with me and I find myself singing that song.  I like a show that will take time to create interesting moments just for the sake of delight, and in the end I found that I had fallen deeply for the characters and the show. I can’t stop thinking about it. And I want more.

Reading and Writing Arthurian Women: A Guest Post by Lavinia Collins

91HVAiboMKL._SL1500_Several months ago I reviewed the Guinevere Trilogy by Lavinia Collins.  Her new book, The Witches of Avalon, was released in April 2015 and tells the story of Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan.  I asked Lavinia to share her perspective on the women of Arthurian legend and how she humanizes them in her books.

Reading and Writing Arthurian Women

I’ve always been obsessed with the women of Arthurian legend. Ever since I was a little girl and we went to Tintagel castle. I wondered what they would have been thinking, what they would have wanted, living in a world where they were not really able to do anything. This obsession only grew stronger after, at ten years old, I had a rather alarming sexual awakening after finding and reading my mother’s copy of The Mists of Avalon (she claimed not to remember any of the sex bits when many years later I asked her why she had let me). So, then, when I returned to Arthurian Legend as part of my masters research, and found that so many of the answers I had wanted when I was younger were there in the medieval texts, I knew I had something to write. I knew I had something to share.

cover of Mists of Avalon

I started with Guinevere because I really felt that there was nothing in modern popular culture (or really in adaptations after the medieval period) that did her justice. Even The Mists of Avalon which did such incredible work locating the Arthurian world in a newly converted ancient Britain and rehabilitating the image of Morgan Le Fay failed to provide a Guinevere who was anything like the powerful character of Malory’s Morte Darthur or Chretien de Troyes Lancelot. Instead, we have a simpering repressed Christian who exists mainly to provide a counterpoint to a powerful, sexually affirmative Morgaine. Between that, Victoriana condemning legend’s most famous adulterous queen, and that terrible Starz series where a completely vacant Guinevere played by Tamsin Egerton failed to close her mouth for the entire short run of the series.

Tasmin Edgerton

Most adaptations I came across seemed to be operating under the assumption that we could only “like” Guinevere if we felt sorry for her, if she were fundamentally passive and vulnerable. That, if we are to portray her sympathetically, she must be “nice” and “helpless”. I was disappointed because this was not at all what I had read in Malory. In a text where all of the men are essentially chivalry-bots on different settings, Guinevere is the only figure that emerges as anything like a real character. Even Lancelot only achieves anything like personal conflict because he’s too perfect, trying to fit every model of chivalry. Among all of that, Malory’s Guinevere appears as forceful and mercurial; she changes her mind, she’s full of contradictions, she’s unkind. And that was where it all began for me; I was reading someone like a kind of medieval Betty Draper, struggling against the bounds she found herself in while simultaneously needing to be perfect within them. So that’s where it all began for me, feeling like this incredible character had been lost in translation (and Victorian moralising).

I’m very aware when I come to Morgan (Morgaine) that anything that deals with her will necessarily (and fairly) fall under the shadow of The Mists of Avalon, but it’s been more than thirty years now, and I do think there’s something else to be said. Zimmer Bradley wanted to remove Morgan from any kind of Christian context, and to identify witchcraft with a matriarchal religion. I’m interested more in the performance of power, and how women gain access to it. Especially queens. So much of Morgan’s representation in Malory negotiates what space an outsider, and in particular a woman alone, can take within male chivalric society. And particularly what a woman who has no place in society (as witch, adulteress and eventually widow) gets up to when she just happens to be cleverer than all of the men. Because Malory’s Morgan is conspicuously clever and bookish, and her witchcraft so particularly associated with learning – even learning in the “safe” Christian space in the abbey – that it seems to suggest that any woman educated past a certain point is a de facto “witch”. And in some ways I feel the shadow of that idea in my day-to-day life; an educated woman who speaks her mind is – in some situations – still a de facto outsider. And negotiating that space – wanting to be part of society, but not wanting to give up any part of yourself – was something that I felt hadn’t been done with Morgan, and something I wanted to explore.

 Morgan shocks a nun

I was also interested in the relationship between Morgan and her sister Morgawse, and the way the networks of women in these Arthurian tales were largely ignored in adaptations in favour of focussing on the networks of men. This has brought me to think about Morgawse, Arthur’s other half-sister (and the mother of his child); Morgawse, who (why why why? such an error) almost always gets left out of adaptations, merged with Morgan to suggest that the occult antagonist of the Arthurian world must have plotted a child-by-incest and remove the blame from Britain’s favourite legendary King. So that’s where I’m heading next, up across the wall (as it were) to an ancient Scotland, and another queen, but this time one who appears only briefly and obliquely in the Arthurian world. She’s so often left out or shuffled around when there’s a whole other northern perspective there, one that perhaps in an Anglo-centric understanding of the legend gets missed out.

But, ultimately, what is it that has attracted me to the women of Arthurian legend so strongly? I think it’s power. In a completely masculine world, and even in medieval texts, they appear as enticingly influential, as changeful and threatening. As everything that female characters in so many modern films, tv and popular culture are not.

Lavinia Collins Latest Book The Witches of Avalon is available on Amazon now: http://www.amazon.com/THE-WITCHES-AVALON-thrilling-Arthurian-ebook/dp/B00WN9F2K4/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8

 

Lavinia blogs regularly on her own site vivimedieval.wordpress.com

and can be found on Twitter @Lavinia_Collins

An Interview With Emily Jiang, Author of Summoning The Phoenix

I met author Emily Jiang very briefly at the Nebula Awards and again at the Locus Holiday Party.  That sentence made it sound as though my life is far more glittering than it actually is.  Anyway, emily and I had a great time at the party talking about how parties are terrifying and singing scraps of Sondheim to a long suffering Setsu Uzme  and long story short Emily agreed to do an interview for us here at Geek Girl.  Little did I know that it would include haiku!

 

I’ll be doing several posts this month on the importance of diversity in children’s literature and YA this month.  Emily’s picture book is gorgeous to read and to look at, thanks to illustrations by April Chu (all images below are by April).  It’s a series of poems and prose about Chinese musical instruments.

 

EmilyJiang-SummoningPhoenix-cover

 

What did you do to prepare for this book?

Before I decided to write the book, I was only familiar with the erhu and the guzheng, so I had to research quite a bit.  I found books written in English about Chinese Music and read them cover to cover and I scoured the internet for sound clips and Youtube videos to hear what they sounded like. It was great fun.  I love learning about little-known cultures and finding little-known facts.  Sometimes those facts are not relevant, but often I’ll stumble upon a fact that shines like a gem.

 

Writing is spinning

stories from all the juicy gems

gathered from research.

 

What was your process like when working with an illustrator?

 

Unlike comic book writers, picture book authors working with traditional publishers are not supposed to suggest artwork to their books’ illustrators.  All I asked was that the children be ethnically diverse and not all Asian.

 

Here’s an example of April Chu’s fabulous artwork illustrating one of my poems.  It’s why I am so grateful I did not dictate the images in my head while I was writing my picture book:

 

EmilyJiang-Xiaospread

 

A picture book is

a true collaboration

of words and pictures.

 

 You can read more about how Chu’s illustrations complement the story at My Favorite Bit

 

Why was this book important to you?

 

I think of myself primarily as a fiction writer, more specifically as a novelist, so it’s a bit of a surprise to me that my first book was a picture book.  But I now I absolutely love it!  I am passionate about music and I am passionate about understanding non-American cultures, especially that of my ancestors.

 

Someday I will write

stories of my ancestors,

stone names worn away.

 

One thing that I’ve noticed is that the illustrations show children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds playing the instruments.  Why did you choose to have so much diversity in our book, and why should we care about diverse representation in children’s literature?

 

These questions are  best answered in this guest blog post at diversify (which also includes samples of April’s gorgeous art):

 

images

 

Highlighting some key facts from my blog post to directly answer your question:

In this article Lee & Low also used statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and made this chart that shows that while the population of people of color in the United States has risen to 37% as of 2012, the number of new traditionally published children’s books by and/or about people of color has stagnated at roughly 10% over the past eighteen years. The US census projects that by 2060, the percentage of “minority” populations will be 57% of the United States. “The US is projected to become a majority-“minority” nation in 2043.” Clearly the children’s book publishing industry in the US is not keeping up with the changing population of their young American readership.

Here’s another more immediate statistic. My acquiring editor Renee Ting wrote an article “Writing Race: Reflecting the Modern World” that stated another fact from U.S. Census Bureau: “as of July, 2011, white babies no longer comprise of the majority of births in the United States.” Therefore, right now as of 2014, our American-born three-year old children are more diverse than ever. Hopefully their parents are already reading books to them, and in a few more years, these children, our children, will start reading books on their own. Considering the needs of the newest generation of Americans and assuming the American publishing statistics remain somewhat similar to those quoted by Lee & Low in 2013 (which is highly possible since traditional publishing typically takes an average of two years to get an accepted manuscript turned into a book that can be purchased on the book shelf), the issues are pretty obvious:

We need more books where an American non-white child is the protagonist, not the sidekick. We need more books where children from underrepresented populations can see themselves as the center of the story.

Shouldn’t the American children depicted in American books reflect the growing racial diversity of the United States?

This is the epiphany I had almost two years ago, right after I had completed the revision of my manuscript that my editor was going to send to my illustrator. So I asked my editor if it would be okay to ask the illustrator to make the kids ethnically diverse with an emphasis on Asian children. Luckily, I had made a conscious choice before writing the poems to focus on the child’s relationship to music rather than to ethnic identity. This gave the illustrator even more freedom to choose each child’s appearance according to race, age, and gender.

***My book is an American book written by an American author and illustrated by an American artist and published by an American publisher.  So the children in our book should reflect America.***

…it boils down to this simple statement:

Everyone can enjoy my book about Chinese music, regardless of cultural background and/or ethnicity, because Chinese music can be enjoyed by everyone.

 

We look so diverse

on the outside, but inside

we are all human.

(Note the passage surrounded by *** is not in my original article)

 

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An Interview with Elyse Discher

unnamedElyse Discher is one of my fellow reviewers at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, where she write about romance, romantic suspense, and knitting.  See that cowl in her photo?  she made that.  She made me one too, mine is purple.  Contain your jealousy.

I asked Elyse about her experiences with fandom, and here’s what she has to say about growing up isolated and then finding community:

Were you always a big reader?  Was there any reading that you felt you couldn’t share?

I was always a big reader. I grew up in a house with a lot of books, and my mom was a reader, so it was just something that I naturally fell into. Somewhere around 5th grade I transitioned out of junior books and into adult books. I read all of my mom’s Michael Crichton and Kinsey Milhone books over the summer. This was also around the time I discovered Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I started reading SF/F around the time my family life was in upheaval. I was looking for escape, and the farther away I could get, the better. I became very interested in Star Wars, and I read the Timothy Zahn and Kevin J. Anderson novels voraciously.

What were you into growing up, and how have your interests changed?

As a girl in 5th or 6th grade, I absolutely would not share that I was really interested in Sci-fi. I already felt like an outsider–I was very small, I was nerdy and I was shy. I loved Star Wars and I liked Star Trek and I read some epic fantasy, but I would not bring those books to school. The idea that my peers would see me reading them was mortifying.
This was way before nerd was chic. Girls my age, in my area, were supposed to be into boys and horses and makeup, and none of that interested me at all. I also didn’t get boobs till I was almost 20, I swear. I felt like a little kid hanging around with girls who were much more savvy and developed than me. I’d rather talk about Star Trek The Next Generation than what the boys in our class were doing.
next gen

Were you able to share your interests when you were a kid, or did you feel like an outsider?  

It was a very isolated experience. I had friends, and we had common interests, but even they didn’t know about my interest in sci-fi. There was no one I could talk to about it. When I hit high school, Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out and some of my friends were really interested in that too. It was really the first time I could talk to my peers about this stuff. We’d call each other immediately after each new episode to discuss. It was the first time I had an opportunity to share an interest like that with my friends.
Buffy-The-Vampire-Slayer

How do you think fandom has changed with the advent of the internet?

With the internet you can reach out and find people who share the same interests you have–that was available to me as a kid. I’m sure there were message boards out there, but I was too young to really use the internet that way yet. I think the big shock for me as I got older was that there were tons of other women who were interested in these things. I had convinced myself that I was fairly unusual. I have a friend whose daughter is very into anime. I see her talking to her friends on Facebook and other social media about the anime fandoms she loves. I really wish that sense of community was available to me when I was younger because I think it would have done a lot to bolster my confidence.
That said, not being able to escape into the internet was probably beneficial too. I am sad that I felt compelled to hide my interests, but I think that if I had the forums that are available to me today, I might have used it as an excuse not to socialize int he way I needed to learn to. As an adult, I’m incredibly grateful for all the awesome people I’ve met online who I can discuss romance novels or knitting or anything with. I think for me the concept of a fandom, as an adult, is kind of like a knitting circle. We all come together to discuss a common interest and participate in it, but we wind up discussing our jobs, kids, vacations, etc. It becomes a broader social experience. It’s made me realize that I can talk to someone on the other side of the world, and they have the same basic experiences I do. It’s very affirming.
I still read sci fi and fantasy but I’ve turned to reading more romance novels and mysteries–especially historical mysteries. Smart Bitches introduced me to a community of AWESOME romance readers and writers. I also love to knit and sites like Ravelry are a God send. So is Twitter; people are awesome at offering advice.

If you want to read more by Elyse, I highly recommend her amazing, powerful essay for Smart Bitches about how reading romance helps her deal with chronic pain.

Guest Post! No Need for Subtext: Queer Characters in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Old night train

Today’s guest post is from Holland, who asked to have only her first name used.  Thank you, Holland, for this great post which has added many titles to my to-be-read list!

Let’s start this off by establishing that I am a huge nerd. A good 90% of my book collection is science fiction and fantasy, and has been since I was old enough to pick my own books from the library.  I love the exciting stories where the only limitation is the author’s imagination. But there is one glaring problem that I see when I look at science fiction and fantasy: where are the queer people?

 

It’s getting better, but few and far-between are the books that pass what I consider the queer equivalent of the Bechdel test: one LGBTQA character, who has a name, at least a minor role in the story, and a character trait beyond ‘isn’t straight’ or ‘isn’t cis’.  Part of that is due to censorship – until relatively recently, putting queer characters in a book was seen as unmarketable, or risking being classified as erotica, as if those are the only stories we are allowed to have a part in.  Things are changing for the better, however, and so I’ve chosen today to talk about a few authors whose works do pass the aforementioned test, and do so with flying colors.

 

As a young queer teen from a conservative family in the semi-rural Midwest, an environment where queer people just weren’t talked about, the local library didn’t exactly have a LGBT section.  They had a smattering of teen books – the ever-classic Annie on My Mind and a few forgettable books that read more like Lifetime Original Movies than anything I was interested in. I was nerdy, female, non gender-conforming, and desperately alone, and it was hard enough finding books with female protagonists. I needed science fiction and fantasy for the escapism and inspiration they provided – I just wondered where people like me fit into it.

NancyGarden_AnnieOnMyMind 

One of the major changes came in 2005, when Tamora Pierce’s The Will of the Empress came out and Daja Kisubo, a character who we’d been with for 8 books already, came out as queer, though her own identity was still in flux, aside from knowing she liked women. For fifteen-year-old me, that was a bombshell. Here was one of my favorite authors, writing a character – an established character, especially – as something other than straight! It felt validating in a way I can hardly describe – I was surrounded by messages that told me what I was was wrong, that I should just try harder to be straight. Daja’s “coming out” made me feel that much more bolstered, especially since Daja had been my favorite ever since starting the series. The series also includes two women who are in a devoted relationship to each other, and who act as sort of co-mothers to the quartet of young adults we follow through the series. We also see queer characters in her other books – the Provost’s Dog series has a gay cop dating a genderqueer artist, both of whom are major characters in the second book and are integral to helping the heroine survive, and are free of problematic stereotypes.

Willoftheempress

John Scalzi has never had a queer character as the main protagonist of a book, but he gives them a good share of POV time.  The first time I encountered this was in The Android’s Dream, which is still my gateway book for people who swear they don’t like science fiction. It’s a fast-paced book that’s at times a mystery, a military drama, and a deep yet hilarious reflection on the nature of life – in other words, it’s a book by John Scalzi.  In it are two characters, Archie and Sam.  Each of them is a fully-fleshed out character with motivations and traits in their own right, but they’re also a couple. And while we don’t even find out they’re a couple until ¾ through the book, since each of them have been pursuing their own related missions for most of the story, it makes so much sense and the strength of their relationship gives the characters added motive as to why they are so dedicated to their cause.  In the Old Man’s War series, the protagonist, John Perry, finds an unexpected best friend in theoretical physicist-turned-soldier Alan Rosenthal, who is also gay. It’s a defining characteristic of him, but it’s not his only defining characteristic, and that’s what I look for in books: representation without it feeling like tokenism.

51G5RdZkdeL

And speaking of representation without tokenism, we come to my favorite author on this list, Seanan McGuire.  Everything she has written has queer characters! I repeat, everything she has written has queer characters.  I know of no other author who has done this.  While I could probably write an entire article on her genius, now is neither the time nor the place. Still, I want to make clear that she is lightyears ahead of where most other authors are in terms of representation. When I asked about this at her most recent signing, she said that she felt it was part of being a decent human being, and her queer characters are some of the most fleshed-out I’ve  ever seen.  The Hugo-Nominated short story In Sea-Salt Tears, set in her urban fantasy Toby Daye series, centers on the relationship between two bisexual women and the cultural and personal forces that both bring them together and tear them apart.  She has canonically stated that most of the fae in the Tobyverse are bi, and it’s not just an informed trait, either – we see onscreen queer relationships.

 

In her novel Indexing, we also see one of the best-written trans characters I’ve seen in fiction. There is not a problematic trope to be found – Gerry is who he is, and no amount of memetic incursions by cisnormative fairy tales are going to tell him otherwise.  Her Velveteen vs books also include a transgender superheroine, The Princess, who is the physical embodiment of the fairytale princess archetype, as well as a lesbian couple whose relationship is poignant and brilliantly-executed. Her works under her open pseudonym Mira Grant are just as awesome, with queer characters in every book.  She’s also going to be editing the forthcoming anthology Queers Destroy Science Fiction, an anthology of short stories by queer authors.

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I have every hope that things will continue to get better.  While researching this article, I was introduced to the works of Tanya Huff, who has been bumped up on my reading list. Malinda Lo’s Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, is literally next on my reading list, thanks to a chance find at Half-Price Books.  Diane Duane, one of my favorite authors, has announced that her next book, Games Wizards Play, will feature queer characters: some we’d already met, who were getting things sorted out and hadn’t come out yet, and some new ones, and I am super stoked for that.

 

The future is getting brighter, and with it, I hope we’ll be seeing more and more queer characters in science fiction and fantasy.  In the meanwhile, all the authors mentioned in this article are enthusiastically recommended, and I look forward to seeing what this new year has in store.


Holland is a PhD student by day, CrossingsCon treasurer by night and can be found at geekhyena.tumblr.com.  She lives in the Bay Area of California, where she lives in an apartment that is slowly being taken over by books, Gundam models, and supplies for making pumpkin bread.  Check out the fundraiser for CrossingsCon at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/crossingscon-2016

A Guest Post From Eileen Carr: A Response to the Attacks in Paris

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Eileen Carris new book, Veiled Intentions, was published on December 29th.  Thank you, Eileen, for this lovely response to the murders that have occurred in Paris this week.

Nine days after I published Veiled Intentions, a book about a small town erupting into violence and hatred after the arrest of a Muslim teenager for a crime she did not commit, armed terrorists broke into the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and gunned down twelve people. The violence was in response to some cartoons published in the satirical magazine. It wasn’t the first time the magazine had been targeted by Islamic extremists. It was, however, the bloodiest.

The message of my book (not to give too big a spoiler) is that hatred breeds more hatred and that we must combat the forces of intolerance with acceptance and understanding. In the face of what happened in Paris on January 7, that feels incredibly weak and naïve. Is it enough to express outrage? Is it enough to verbally condemn reacting to satire with AK-47s? Would putting flowers in those gun barrels make anyone change their minds?

I don’t know. I don’t know the right way to move forward after an attack like this one. I do know, however, a few things that would be wrong.

It would be wrong to condemn all Muslims for the actions of a small number of Islamic terrorists.

It would be wrong to attack mosques.

It would be wrong to make Muslims feel unsafe on our streets.

It would be wrong to stop talking about these very difficult issues.

There is no doubt that there is a strain of Islam that is breeding extremists who feel justified in killing people who don’t agree with them, in oppressing women, in persecuting people of other religions. It’s imperative to remember that those extremists do not represent the vast majority of Muslims. In fact, the Islamic community is responding to the attack with every ounce of the outrage the rest of the world is with the added heartbreak of knowing that the violence tarnishes a religion in which they believe. Let’s stand with them. Let’s honor their words. Let’s make sure their voices are heard.

One of the cartoons I saw in response to the attacks showed a pencil labeled yesterday, then a broken pencil labeled today and then two pencils made from the one broken one labeled tomorrow. What if the outcome of this attack was more people writing about this difficult and complex issue with compassion and forbearance? What if it was more people trying to promote understanding and tolerance? What if that was really how we could defeat the terrorists?

I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to keep writing. I’m going to keep trying to understand. I’m going to keep trying to accept. I’m going to keep my mind open. I don’t want else to do. #JeSuisCharlie

cover of Veiled Intentions