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 Mark Oshiro: Part II

Mark OshiroWelcome to the second part of my interview with Mark Oshiro, of “Mark Reads”, “Mark Watches”, and “Mark Plays”.     Last week Mark talked about how he started “Mark Reads” with his series “Mark Reads Twilight”.  In this interview, we talk about his thoughts on diversity and his essay, “Parched”, that he wrote for Invisible, an anthology about the importance of diverse representation in fiction.

In “Parched”, you talk about not feeling represented in science fiction and fantasy.  Do you still feel drawn to those genres, and if so, why?

I always was interested in those genres as a kid, long before I knew there was a fandom.  I knew there was a fandom for The X-Files because I was super into the X-Files.  I didn’t know there was a larger fandom for the general genre.  I didn’t go to my first convention until I was in my twenties.

In terms of the general genre – the books and movies – I always had an interest in the supernatural, so I liked The X-Files and the Twilight Zone.  I liked fantasy because it was such a huge escape for me.  I grew up in a super conservative part of Southern California.  Even if I didn’t see myself in the genre, it was still fun to imagine that I could go on adventures.  Part of the problem I had growing up was that I lived in a bubble.  My parents were extremely strict, so they didn’t let me go out of the house, I wasn’t allowed to have friends over, I wasn’t allowed to go to other people’s houses.  So fantasy and sic-fi was my chance to imagine what adventures I would go on if I could leave the house.

YA [Young Adult] was particularly important to me because the characters were close to my age range.  It was a lot easier to project myself into something like that than to project myself into something like Stephen King or Heinlein, because those characters were a bit older.  I was always more Sci-Fi than Fantasy.  I like the idea of using our world to explain another one and using things we’ve learned about our world in order to invent other ones.  It’s always been easy for me to write science fiction.

If you could adapt any book into a film, and you have total control over the script and the casting, what would you adapt into film and who would you cast?

My initial answer with no hesitation is to remake His Dark Materials because The Golden Compass was a disaster, and hearing how much the studio changed everything that Chris Weitz wanted to do is very frustrating.  That trilogy is my favorite thing I’ve ever read for “Mark Reads” hands down.

I’d love to do Tamora Pierce’s Tricksters Series, because that series is almost entirely compassed of people of color.  And it has such a great story.  And it’s uncomfortable.  Casting?  Oh My God.  I have no idea!

Can you talk a little bit more about the gap you refer to in your essay between the white dystopian future and the dystopian present that you already experience?

There’s a writer whose name I can’t remember who was talking about the omission of people of color from dystopias.  They stated that there’s a problem when you don’t write people of color in dystopias novels because you are implying that these people are not in the future.  Someone made this point about The Handmaid’s Tale, which I enjoyed as much as you can enjoy something that is one of the most disturbing stories ever written.  And yeah I was like twenty pages in and I went, “Everyone’s white!  Where are all these other people!  And there are vague hints that there’s this other place.  But when you don’t explain that, and you don’t include any other parts of the world – when I read that, all I can think is that you’ve killed them all off!  If they were all killed, then not having that addressed in the text becomes distracting.  It becomes like the controversy around The Thirteenth Child  by Patricia Wrede.

cover of The Thirteenth Child

Basically Patricia Wrede wrote The Thirteenth Child as a fantasy set in a version of the United States in which megafauna still exist.  I don’t know her intentions, but in the book none of the native peoples of America exist.  They’re all written out.  They never happened.  It’s very creepy.  I understand that it’s challenging to write about something that you’re not.  But to approach it as “They’re just gone” – there’s too much history in our country of wiping people out and not including them.  I think with dystopian fiction the problem is more glaring because you’re talking about a vision of the future in which things are awful.  But if your vision of the future is not addressing something that is very real and is already happening, it feels disingenuous to me.

This whole concept is actually playing a humongous part in the novel that I’m working on right now, which is essentially a pre-dystopian trilogy.  Because I wanted to address this idea that people of color have to deal with systemic issues that – well, it’s not that our lives are awful as marginalized people.  We all find ways to find joy and enjoy ourselves.  But when you face systemic issues you feel like you are living in these awful alternate futures that are described in these books.  I wanted to write a book that not only openly addressed that but also featured all of these characters.  Of course there’s a larger question of diversity in general, which is why the community in general should be asking themselves why so many of these books are purposely skewed towards one demographic.  It’s an uncomfortable question, and it has uncomfortable answers, but I don’t think that’s a reason why we shouldn’t ask it.  From that uncomfortableness so many things can be born of it.

On how including diverse characters makes for better writing:

I think the thing that bothers me the most about it is that it’s not like we’re talking about policy.  We’re talking about people who are creative, who are writers, who create worlds, who are constantly faced with  roadblocks in their own writing, where they hit plot holes or they get stuck or they get writer’s block.  Writers constantly have to adapt to those things. So I don’t understand how, when you’re faced with issues of representation and diversity, writers don’t see them as the same thing.  This is a challenge.  This is a way for me to write better, to fix problems. Instead it’s viewed as censorship.  But would you say that writing a plot hole and having someone tell you need to fix it is censorship?  No!  It’s not!  Also, usually, people who say sort of thing don’t understand what censorship is.  I think authors need to see this as a challenge to make your work better, to make your world better.

If you’re  complaining about how hard it is – well, how hard is good world building?  How hard is doing research to capture a historical event?  These are things that incredibly difficult, and it doesn’t make sense to me to suddenly say, “Oh, this one thing is so incredibly difficult, I’m not touching it”.  Why?  Why that one thing?  That, to me, seems less of “It’s difficult” and more of “I don’t want to do it”.

Whenever I talk about race or sexuality in my reviews, I always get a response of “Well, what do you want people to do?  Do you want everyone in the story to be a queer person?  Do you want everyone to be a person of color?”  And you’re not asking the reverse question, which is “Why is everyone straight?  why is everyone white?”  Also, what’s the problem with having everyone be a person of color?  Then I get a response of “More diversity would be unrealistic” and my response is, “Where are you going in the world where that’s not happening?”

I’ve been reading a series on YouTube called Rivers of London.  The books are super diverse.  It’s great.  I get comments all the time, “Oh, he just added that character in to be diverse”.  And I’m all, “No, that person is affecting the story – and also, Hey!  Have you not been to London lately?”  Honestly, it shocked me when I went to London for the first time last year, and maybe one out of every five people was white.  I said, “This is not the London I see on television”.  Same thing when I went to Toronto.  There are immigrants everywhere!  How are you creating these world, whether in books or on television, that don’t include these people?

London crowd

Busy Boxing Day Sales Shopping Crowd in London

An Interview with Alex Dally MacFarlane, contributor to “Invisible”

Invisible-FullThis summer we’ve been hosting a series of interviews with contributors to the anthology, Invisible, edited by Jim C. Hines.  Hines was inspired to put the anthology together when he saw the heated response that Alex Dally MacFarlane received when she posted an essay on Tor.com calling for “an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories”.  Thanks to Alex for this fascinating interview about non-binary gender and fiction!

1.  Jim C. Hines said that your essay, “Post-Binary Gender In SF:  Introduction”, and the responses the essay got, inspired him to invite people to share their own experiences with representation on his blog.  Since then, you have written several other pieces for Tor.com about non-binary gender.  Have you noticed any difference in the tone of the comments?  Do you feel like some people are starting to understand your message better?

 

Most of my subsequent posts have been post-binary reviews of particular books, which haven’t drawn many comments. My non-review posts have received more. They’re… mixed. I’ve had some incredibly valuable comments, whether from specialists (eg: linguist Rose Lemberg commenting about “closed cases” and other issues on my post about adapting to non-binary pronouns) or fans/writers who are interested in the subject. I know the column has reached other non-binary SF fans and I know some binary-gendered SF fans are finding it interesting and informative, because they’ve told me. I care a lot more about that than the opinions of certain bigots and other people who won’t change (and who, yes, still leave comments on my posts, some of which the Tor.com moderators have needed to remove).

 

 

2.  What does non-binary gender mean to you?  Are there any websites you recommend for people who want to learn more or get support?

 

Well, I’m non-binary (my gender is best described as “it’s complicated”). I’ve found the best website is Twitter: the sheer quantity of marginalised people talking about their lives, experiences and all sorts of subjects is incredible. There’s a lot to be learnt by listening to people’s lived experiences, particularly lots of people, because everyone experiences their gender differently and it’s important to understand that there’s no one way to be non-binary. (But remember: these are people, not textbooks and not quiz machines.)

 

3.   Are there any books that you think do an excellent job of not defaulting to binary gender?

 

Hmm! No. Not that I’ve read.

 

There are books that I’ve enjoyed, but… I like Maureen F. McHugh’s Mission Child a lot, but the protagonist is the only non-binary person in a story that spans multiple cultures and locations. The world’s default is definitely binary. I found Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man fascinating — one of its cultures defaults to five genders — but it reinforces the five genders in exactly the same harmful ways that we reinforce our two, so it does and it doesn’t fulfil your question’s criteria. Potentially there’s Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, but it uses a binary pronoun to refer to people across cultures that mostly seem to recognise two genders (and it seems the Raadch recognises two but doesn’t care to differentiate in language, which is different to a non-binary default). I’ve had much better luck finding short stories that don’t default to binary, some of which are discussed in the next answer…

 

4.  You edited an anthology called “Aliens:  Recent Encounters”.  Does writing about aliens seem to make authors more comfortable with presenting a variety of gender identifications, body types, and skin tones?  How is writing about aliens potentially freeing, and how is it problematic?

 

I think it’s absurd to write aliens with the same sex and gender set-up as humans (which itself is a simplifying statement: humans do not have binary sex or binary gender, nor do all human cultures construct gender in the same ways), unless the aliens are of the panspermia, closely-related-to-us variety. I welcome science fiction where the aliens are different to us in this regard. The only problem is that writers almost always write the humans as binary in sex and gender: this is sometimes set up as a specific contrast. How strange, that more than two genders exist! etc.

 

I have enjoyed some stories with non-binary aliens and binary humans, but it’s where this contrast is not very pronounced, such as Catherynne M. Valente’s “Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy”, where the aliens are multi-gendered (but this is not subject to remark). Then there’s Nancy Kress’ “My Mother, Dancing”, where humans encounter alien life for the first time — humans who all use a non-binary pronoun, hirs. Ditching the humans entirely is Eleanor Arnason’s “Knapsack Poems”, an interesting story, though the three sexes of her aliens are unfortunately gender essentialist by contemporary Western cultural norms. All three stories are reprinted in Aliens: Recent Encounters.

 

Meanwhile Ken Liu’s “The Shape of Thought” has humans hundreds of years in the future stymied by the non-binary pronouns used for the aliens they live with: zie/zir are compared to a pebbles obstructing the smooth flow of language. I am rarely so swiftly Othered!

 

I would like to see stories about aliens and gender, but not where the aliens’ non-binary gender system(s) contrasts a false binary in the humans. Multiple gender systems and aliens/humans who stand outside their cultural norms would be a bonus! Gender isn’t binary; it also isn’t tidy.

 

5.  What draws you to science fiction and fantasy?

 

I’m drawn to fiction I enjoy in all genres, whether realist or non-realist. I tend to prefer the latter, though, because I like outer space and surreal cities and so on, which all occur more often in non-realist fiction. From a post-binary perspective, I like the potential of science fiction and fantasy to thoroughly deconstruct the binary — or scrap it entirely. I wish they’d actually do it more! Non-binary gender system(s) as a norm is still so rare.

An interview with Gabriel Cuellar, Contributor to “Invisible”

Invisible-FullThis summer I’ve been posting a series of interviews from people who contributed essays to the anthology Invisible.  This anthology, edited by Jim C. Hines, explores the importance of diverse representation in genre fiction.  In the essay, “‘Crazy’ about Fiction”.  We asked Gabriel why she thinks it’s so common in fiction for female characters to be ‘driven crazy’ by rape or loss of a child, and what the representation of mental illness in fiction means for people who struggle with mental illness in reality.

On common tropes about the causes of mental illness in characters:

 

As a culture, we tend to want women to represent as mothers and sexual objects. I believe that’s why the two most common tropes to “drive women crazy” are those rape and the loss of a child. We don’t like to see women as soldiers, so PTSD from wartime tends not to be the event that breaks a woman down. There’s been a plethora of “strong female characters” in the media as a specific reaction against those roles, but sadly those characters tend to be so completely masculinized that they seem to just be there as a flag to wave about how someone can be BETTER in the media. Personally, I feel that most of Joss Whedon’s “strong” female characters fall into this trope, over-sexualized, always needing a male romantic partner, easily backed into an emotional corner and often killed to advance the story. Bleh.

 

Note I am speaking in generalizations when I say that “most” of the characters in the media fall into this dichotomy. Lots of characters who are strong and not neutered exist. Karrin Murphy from the Dresden Files is a GREAT example of a strong female character who is not masculinized to the point of being neutered – she’s described as “cute” but tough as hell, takes no shit from anyone, has a sexual/romantic life that is pretty much not with the protagonist, is emotional without being seen as weak, and definitely has agency of her own.

 

The other problem with the rape/child loss madness scenario is that male characters usually don’t suffer from these. It’s a shame, because men do get raped, and men do lose their children, but when that happens to them, they’re pretty much culturally pressured to keep it secret and get over it. We want as a culture to see men suffer PTSD from war and watching their buddies get killed, or not at all.

 

And that rounds out PTSD being the primary role of mental illness in media. People “go crazy” because an event in their lives. If they don’t get over it, they become a recluse like Mrs. Haversham or a mother who steals or kills children, or a mass murderer who thinks he’s still in Nam. When they stop being crazy, it’s usually because they “faced their fear” and stopped being afraid. This is so immensely frustrating to those of us who suffer from mental illnesses, including PTSD, because of course there’s no magic moment where you just find your rapist, spit on him, and magically your life is better. There are actual, physical changes in the brains of people with PTSD. Like bipolar or depression or OCD, it is a legitimate medical condition.

 

On why these tropes are harmful to real people:

 

I think a lot of the time, women who are suffering from mental illness, especially if it is from an external event like the death of a child or a miscarriage, have no portrayals which address their real feelings and struggle. Miscarriage is a secondary form of the death of a child, but one where only the woman is expected to show any grief, and which a lot of other characters will side-eye because after all, there was no child. These events are deeply traumatic, and the media shows us that women can either wallow in this until they become an insane recluse carrying around a doll and snatching other peoples’ babies, become grossly over-involved mothers who never let a child out of their sight because of the loss of an older child, blame one child for the death of the other… they’re expected to become terrible mothers because they lost a baby. It’s grotesque, because it both implies they were bad mothers for letting it happen, and warns them to get over it (at least externally where others can see) as quickly as possible so they don’t become the destroyers of other children.

 

Rape victims are usually portrayed curled into a ball in the corner, afraid to let any man touch them, jerky and alarmed at everything around them, barely able to function.  If they do get over it, it’s all at once. You never see the stages of recovery that most survivors have to go through. They go from completely traumatized to fine, usually because some male character (usually an outraged romantic partner) kills or in some other way dismisses the rapist from her life. Sometimes the woman has to kill the rapist herself – or even worse, confront him and torture him, then tell him it’s “not worth it” to kill him and walk away.

 

This is a terrible trope for women to internalize. It implies that it’s a good idea to see their rapist again, in a situation where violence is a given, or to simply tell a man about it and let him deal with it. But this trope tells a woman that the rapist must be dealt with in order for her to make her magical recovery. And that as soon as he is dealt with, she will be fine. In a country where police are more likely to interrogate the victim than the rapist, and convictions are infrequent compared to reports, making the rapist part of the recovery process is a terrible idea most of the time. At least one male character (a romantic lead who can save her or love the trauma out of her or the rapist himself) is required for her recovery. That is some deeply harmful stuff to absorb. Everyone’s process is different, and again we see our media telling women how to quickly get over it – and how they are weak and crazy if they don’t.

 

And now I’ve spent all this time on what bugs me the most – the trope that trauma “causes” mental illness. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve been with in various recovery groups who will say “I don’t know why I feel this way, it isn’t as if I’ve been (fill in the blank.)” Sexual abuse and rape are a huge issue in this country, but most mental illness isn’t caused by an external event. An external event can trigger it, or just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but people with medical depression, bipolar, OCD and many other illnesses are simply ill. Like having diabetes or a heart condition, these illnesses can be controlled with medication, and can’t be cured completely. We stigmatize mental illness to such a degree that if nothing traumatic happened to you, and if you have to be on medication for your lifetime, you’re simply weak. You can look forward to murderous rampages and living in a house with cardboard taped over the windows, collecting cats!

 

On what a positive or realistic portrayal of mental illness would look like:

 

I can’t really think of any positive portrayals of mental illness, sadly. Monk is played for laughs a lot of the time. As Good As It Gets was also played for laughs, and the guy is a giant jackass apparently because of his condition (because he becomes nicer over the course of the movie when he starts taking his meds.) You don’t have to be a jerk just because you’re ill.  In one of Orson Scott Card’s books, mental illness is actually inflicted on a whole population of a planet to keep them under control, and the ones who don’t “get over it” by the end are portrayed as too weak to understand that what has happened to them isn’t “the voice of god,” even when proof is shown to them. Even if there’s a good portrayal of how the illness works, it’s hardly ever treated respectfully.

 

I would really love to see a character just take their meds in the morning and get on with their life as a productive member of society, without having to “get over it” or make it disappear as part of a plot. The problem is that mental illness is seen as part of a plotline. Character don’t just have it, interfering with their lives but not paralyzing them. Usually when mental illness is brought into a story, it’s either as a plot device (character is raped and has to get over it, mentally ill character shows up to menace the protagonists, crazy mother, etc) for either one of the protagonists or as a temporary set piece character who is there as an object lesson and then rolled offstage.

 

What do you wish people understood about mental illness?

 

I wish people understood – and wrote for – the fact that mental illness is like any other illness. It needs treatment, and that treatment doesn’t need to be stigmatized. People who’ve undergone trauma aren’t weak if they can’t get over it right away. People with schizophrenia aren’t dangerous maniacs whose dog tells them to kill people. People with bipolar don’t have to ruin their children’s lives. People with OCD don’t have to become hoarders or wash their hands every five seconds. There are firemen and police officers who may have mental illness that isn’t caused by having to shoot someone or failing to save someone. Rape survivors can go on to have functional lives without shooting their rapist and without a magical man to save her with his love.

 

We may stigmatize the causes of other illness (“you have heart disease because you’re obese, why don’t you take care of yourself!”) but we don’t stigmatize the heart disease itself. We might tell that person to exercise more and eat less, but we don’t tell him that he’s weak for taking the meds that allow him to live and function, and we’re generally not afraid that the heart condition will turn him into a murderer. I wish we could see more of that regarding mental illness in fiction… but I suppose someone who is sick and high-functioning ends up needing to be some sort of inspirational exemplar if they’re going to appear at all.

 

 You can find Gabriel’s essay in “Invisibe” and find her blogging about breeding domestic rats at bvrattery.com!

 

An Interview with Ithiliana, contributor to “Invisible”.

Invisible-FullWe are spending some of this summer hearing from authors who contributed essays to the anthology Invisible, edited by Jim C. Hines.  These authors speak out about representation in science fiction and fantasy, and how the lack of representation or the nature of that representation affects them as readers and/or creators.  Today we have an email interview with Ithiliana , whose essay “Shards of Memory”  addresses how finding characters in science fiction who lived and loved beyond the binary helped her as she developed her own identity.   As always, my questions are in bold text and responses are in regular print.

 I love your fan name, Ithiliana.  Can you tell us how you found or created this name, and what it means to you?

Thank you! I love it too. When I came back into fandom in 2003, in online Lord of the Rings fandom, I needed a pseudonym. My favorite setting in the Lord of the Rings is Ithilien, so all I did was tweak the ending a bit, and there it was. It was an immediate inspiration once I asked myself, what word or term in Tolkien’s work do I want to have as my fan identity. I sometimes joke that my love for Tolkien’s work resulted in me becoming a nature poet, rather than a medievalist, and Ithilien is a big part of the cause. The description of Ithilien is one of the most evocative and detailed of settings in the book (Tolkien said in one of his letters that he was not very good at describing characters, being much more interested in the specifics of the landscape). The pseud felt so “right” that to celebrate my 50th birthday, and becoming full professor, I got a tattoo of it in the Beleriand dialect of Sindarin Elvish (a fellow fan helped me out when I could not learn enough to transliterate it myself—she was a member of LEAF (Learning Elvish Among Friends).  My primary fandom is Tolkien’s (and Jackson’s!), so having that connection with the world is important to me.

Ithiliana tattoo

In your essay, you talk about how important Joanna Russ’s work was for you.  Were there other authors that helped you form a positive sense of yourself and your sexuality?  Can you talk a little bit about some of them, and how they affected you?

Joanna Russ’ work was the first and the most important, but, yes, there were other authors. (I am terrible at the “list X favorite” authors because there are so many that I can never limit myself!).

Melissa Scott’s science fiction is incredibly important to me—I cannot remember what year I found her work first (I have a lousy memory for dates), but I remember the first work I found: the Silence Leigh trilogy, set in a future where space travel is done by astrological technology. The protagonist, Silence, marries two men, who are partners, and although there’s little explicit sex, it seemed fairly clear to me that the men were lovers before they met Silence. (Scott has issued a revision of the trilogy with more development of the characters which I have on my Kindle but haven’t had time to read yet!). Scott’s sf futures are so different from the shiny-nice ones that are popular in a lot of media (the squeaky clean image of the Federation): her characters are always from a marginalized group or underclass, either because of class, gender, ethnicity or sexuality (or sometimes all of them), and she has gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* characters as the norm, not as exceptional stand-outs or sidekicks. I cannot recommend Scott too highly (I teach her novels in my classes when I can—too many are out of print, and it’s a shame).

I went head over heels for Diane Duane’s adult fantasy (found years after I’d become a major fan of her Young Wizards series): The Middle Kingdoms (Tale of the Five). The first one (The Door Into Fire) was published in 1979, and the next one did not appear until 1984 (and then the next in 1992). This alternate world fantasy is one in which bisexuality is the norm—plus fire elementals and dragons and group marriages and incredible stuff. I went around dazed and mumbling about bisexual erotics (I defined myself as a bisexual for much of the 80s and into the 90s, and while I now identify as queer, bisexual erotics are awesome and far too seldom found).

Vonda McIntyre’s novels—but especially the Starfarers Quartet—first contact, academics! (not enough academics in sff—which is why I love Barbara Hambly’s fantasy novels though the relationships are primarily heterosexual, but wizardry is pretty much presented as getting a doctorate plus training in martial arts), poly relationships, pacifism—the whole series basically queers most of the sf spaceship/aliens narrative conventions. *Highly* recommended.

There are other authors who write fantastic LGBT characters that I read and admire, whose work does major deconstruction of patriarchal ideologies of gender and sexuality, but these three authors’ works are the ones who characters I most connect with on that deep emotional level. (Some others: Nicola Griffith, Samuel R. Delany, Jewelle Gomez, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson).

You point out that there is more representation of queerness in literature than in TV/Film.  Are there any TV/Film representations that you admire?  Why do you think that is?  If you had total control over the screenplay, casting, and directing of any book, which would you film, and why?  And who would you cast?

I had to Google to find lists of queer characters in TV and film—because while I’d heard of some over the years (Willow, in Buffy; Ivanova in Babylon 5 being the most notable), I could not recall any from my favorite series/films, but I do not *like* a lot of tv/film sff so there’s a lot I don’t watch. I do not enjoy series or films set in high school, so that meant Buffy didn’t make it, though I tried a couple of times, after hearing great presentations on it. And reading over the list that came up (https://www.blastr.com/2010/08/post_34.php) made it pretty clear why—they tend to be men (and mostly white), and (mostly) young (and I think claiming Dumbledore is cheating given that it was announced by Rowling well after the fact). I did enjoy Xena which I began watching fairly late into the series (luckily it was being re-run), but the simply dreadful final season or two (after the infamous “Gab drag”) turned me right off, and I didn’t enjoy the way in which the show (as is the case with a number of the other examples) refused to move much beyond sub-text into text.

Now, as a fan of slash fiction, I’m all about the sub-text, but I’m tired at this late a date of the fact that mainstream media still cannot have queer characters as protagonists, cannot move beyond incredibly limited portrayals of GLBT characters (and the older I get, the less interested I am in the shows about people in their 20s-30s—I was cheering Agents of SHIELD from the start because Coulson! and May! (not Skye and Ward)!

And the reasons—well, they’re all the reasons that Jim highlighted with the project—mainstream media marginalizes and erases almost all people who don’t fit into a very narrow and normative category.

I don’t tend to think to think in film terms, so I cannot imagine trying to cast and direct a film – nor, most of the time, do I think of casting my favorite characters from books.

Could you talk a little bit about how online fandom has supported you?  Do you feel that participating in online fandom has changed your sense of who you are?

Lucking back into fandom in 2003 (ironically, because of meeting and becoming friends with two women at an academic conference) was an incredible event. For some years, I’d been trying to run an sf book club at my university in rural Texas, but it was impossible to get more than a few people to attend (mostly men), and we shared no interests in common. Finding the LiveJournal Lord of the Rings fandom was like stumbling into the most fantastic 24/7 book club ever, where people were writing lengthy screeds about the films, about books, about their lives. I jumped right in and made friends (including a number whom I’ve met offline as well), found people who were interested in all the same things I was. There was the incredible high of getting comments on my fic, sharing cat stories and pictures, talking about going through menopause, talking about sexuality, and a million other things—it’s impossible to list all the fantastic things that happened during that time. I found a whole new sense of energy and optimism, new things to write about (both creatively and in my academic scholarship), and the sense that I was not this weird person who never fit in anywhere.

Fandom is not utopia—but I can say that meeting and engaging with the women I did during the first five years or so changed my life in all sorts of positive ways, giving me a community that simply does not exist in the offline spaces in which I live and work. And I don’t think I am alone in that feeling.

It would also be great if you could give us a little intro to what slash fiction is, and recommend a couple of sites that you feel have good quality stories.

Slash fiction—that could become a book all on its own! The simplest definition is that slash is a type of fan fiction (though there is slash art, and slash vidding) that focuses primarily on a romantic and/or sexual relationship between two characters of the same sex from the original source. The earliest slash stories were about male characters (with Trek fandom being considered the first slash fandom, Kirk and Spock being the first major pairing). Then it becomes very complicated (because of all the types of fan creations that exist, because the term might mean different things in different fandoms, because people tend to assume that the works are uniformly sexually graphic in a way that ignores that vast amount of G and PG rated romance fics, that there is a growing body of stories about female characters, and that slash is not limited to only fic about human beings—there is Transformer slash!, because a whole slew of people were shocked, shocked! to find women writing about male fictional characters in a sexy way and wanted to talk psychology rather than literature, and there are probably even more reasons than I can think of here).

The question of recommend sites with good quality stories is one of those complications: a lot of people assume that fan fiction in general, because it’s written by amateur not professional authors (though there are professional authors who wrote slash, and some who still do) is badly written. And it’s true: there’s a lot of badly written fan fiction and slash out there. (But there’s a lot of really badly written sex by professional authors as well as the Bad Sex Award shows!: http://www.theguardian.com/books/badsexaward).

There is a lot of excellent writing as well, but the aesthetics are not (often or always) the main reason for reading slash: that is, I read only some slash fics in Lord of the Rings fandom (no matter how well they’re written, I’m not interested in fics with Elves as main characters, for example), and pretty much only read in that fandom (though I read and write both Fictional People Slash and Real People Slash—the second being slash fiction about the actors playing the characters). So “good fanfic” is (for me as a reader) much more than the quality of writing (and there are some fics that I can say, objectively, are not very well written that I find incredibly powerful stories because of the content). I have some of my fics archived at Archive of Our Own (https://archiveofourown.org/), and I can recommend that site because it’s large/growing, with lots of fandoms represented on it, and run by fans (as opposed to the monetizing efforts by amazon.com).

I have tried reading some fics in other fandoms that are recommended by friends whose tastes, at least in part, I share, and have found them well written, but not doing what I want in a slash story which is tied deeply to certain kinks and desires, desires I did not have the language to name, or the awareness of having, until I found slash.

A good basic definition: http://fanlore.org/wiki/Slash

 

RPF: http://fanlore.org/wiki/RPF

 

While there tends to be a lot of snickering and dismissive commentary about slash as a genre, and about the queerness of the (mostly) female fandom (but not entirely straight!), some of the news from China recently of women being arrested for writing slash has shown the extent to which, for some, this sort of activity by women is seen as dangerously deviant and needing to be controlled.

 

http://www.dailydot.com/geek/in-china-20-people-women-arrested-for-writing-slash/

 

An Interview with Ada Hoffmann, contributor to “Invisible”

Invisible-FullThis summer we are featuring a series of interviews with contributors to Invisible.  Invisible is a collection of essays about the importance of diverse representation in science fiction and fantasy.  Ada Hoffmann’s essay, “Autism, Representation, Success” talks about how autistic characters are represented in fiction.  We are so happy that she was available to do an email interview with us.  My questions are in bold type and her responses are in normal type.

You talk in your essay about the enormous pressure people with autism face to be “successful”.  What would a middle ground look like to you?  And are there terms we can use that would be less limiting than “successful” or “high functioning” and “un-successful” or “low-functioning”?
I’m not sure if a middle ground is actually what I’m looking for. Instead I think I’d like to see more variety. People who speak fluently and at length, people who don’t speak aloud, people who can speak aloud a little or people who lose their language at certain times. Wealthy geniuses, people who never manage to hold a job, people who slip in and out of employment, people who work at an ordinary job and have an ordinary life despite their non-ordinary minds. Those aren’t the only two metrics, and being at the “high” or “low” end of one metric doesn’t mean you’ll be in the same place on another. Rather than having only two diametrically-opposed options for what autistic people can be, I’d rather see a wide pool of diverse individuals with diverse lives – because that’s what we have IRL.
In your bio you describe yourself as having Aspergers’ Syndrome.  Do you think that the change to the DSM V that eliminates “Aspergers'” as a diagnosis will have a positive or negative effect on how people who don’t have autism perceive people who are on the spectrum?
When the DSM V announced they were eliminating Asperger’s, my supervisor at school said, “Congratulations! You’re cured!” He meant it in fun, and didn’t know enough about autism to know why that was an offensive thing to say.

Joking aside, though, I’m not sure it’s making that much difference. At the time the change happened, I suspected that it would make it harder for Aspies to be taken seriously, and reduce the availability of diagnoses, since the new criteria are in some ways more stringent. But terms like “Aspie” have saturated public consciousness and the diagnosis rate continues to rise. I’m not sure that most people are even paying attention to the DSM, frankly.

What draws you to science fiction and fantasy?

One answer: I grew up with it. My parents are geeks who have huge shelves of science fiction at fantasy at home. Sharing and passing down their geekdom was a major family-bonding activity. I feel comfortable with genre fiction, not because it is necessarily written with my comfort in mind, but because it’s where I come from.

Another answer, equally true: Life is weird, people are weird, and imagination is more fundamental to life and consciousness than most of us realize. “Realistic” fiction has its place, but there are parts of the human condition we simply cannot discuss unless we’re willing to talk about myth, magic, and the future.

As someone with a love/hate relationship with “The Big Bang Theory”, I love the way you write about Sheldon.  Do you have a favorite Sheldon moment?
An obvious one is the Christmas episode, when he hugged Penny. I’m also rather fond of Amy Farrah Fowler. I think she’s just as autistic as Sheldon, but I rarely see her come up in these discussions except as “Sheldon’s girlfriend”. I love the way Amy keeps Sheldon’s more obnoxious tendencies in line when no one else can – like when they dissected brains together and he turned out not to know anything about it. Amy gets Sheldon, and knows what type of input he will and won’t respond to, in ways that completely escape the NT characters. That’s pretty adorable to me.

 

Ada Hoffmann blogs at ada-hoffmann.livejournal.com.  Invisible is available at:

Interview with Nalini Haynes, contributor to Invisible

Invisible-FullThis week’s interview is with Nalini Hayes, one of the contributors to Invisible, and anthology about representation edited by Jim C. Hines.  Over here at Geek Girl in Love we’ve invited the contributors of Invisible to share further thoughts about how representation in genre is important to them.  In her essay, “Evil Albino Trope is Evil”, Haynes talks about how representations of people with albinism have affected her life.  Haynes is also the editor of Dark Matter Zine.  My questions are in bold, her responses are in regular type.

Are there any media or literature portrayals of people with albinism that “get it right?”

I haven’t read or seen any portrayals of people with albinism that “get it right” so far although some people have recommended literature that I’ve added to my to-be-read list.

The best portrayal of an albino I can think of is Michael Pryor’s The Extraordinaires; his albino is a gutsy intelligent female protagonist teamed with a boy who has his own point of difference. The reason Michael’s albino hasn’t “got it right” is that she uses scientific gadgets – like special glasses – that fix her eyesight. This is problematic because people assume that, if I’m wearing glasses, my eyesight is fixed. It isn’t. Glasses can’t fix or replace the missing bits in my retina*.

There is a perception out there that science should be able to fix everything, either with glasses or surgery. It’d be great if someone could write an albino accurately, without magically healing the character, to help people understand this is real and it can’t be fixed. Not with current medicine, anyway.

*For a more technical explanation see Wikipedia. My eye conditions include macular hypoplasia (no fovea and an under-developed macular due to insufficient pigmentation),  photophobia, nystagmusastigmatism, iris transillumination and floaters; all of which are caused by albinism, either directly or indirectly. (My floaters developed very early, apparently caused by the nystagmus that was caused by the albinism.)

How has living with albinism shaped your thinking about people with other forms of disabilities?  

I grew up knowing I had a disability but I refused to accept I was disabled until 2005 when workplace bullying based on disability discrimination and refusals of disability access destroyed my career. Until then I tried to pass for ‘normal’. This ‘passing’ was also aided by the minimal contact I had with other people with disabilities.

People with disabilities can be quite disconnected from the community, from each other. We’re not a people group; we often grow up in families where we’re the only one, so isolation can be an issue.

I’ve seen communities develop and people come together over a period of time, aided by increased access to public transport (particularly for wheelchair users). Government funding for programs has helped develop communities and bring people together in programs to an extent although the usual focus is either for people with physical disabilities (wheelchair access) or intellectual disabilities.

Even when I finally started to accept that I didn’t just have a disability, that I am disabled, I found myself isolated in Adelaide. The Royal Society for the Blind was awesome in trying to help me find visual aids (that I couldn’t afford) and with programs to get people together, but most people with vision impairment are elderly. I didn’t know of any program or organisation that brought together people even remotely close to my age, people who were still of an age to expect to be in the workforce.

In 2007 I heard about Reins, Rope and Red Tape, a disability arts advocacy program run by Arts Access in South Australia. I applied and was accepted for the second semester program.

Reins, Rope and Red Tape was a program run by people with disabilities for people with disabilities. This was an eye-opener. I made friends, all of whom had disabilities and all of whom were different in the challenges we faced. We learnt everything from the hierarchy of disability (which reflects the emphasis of government funding for various disabilities) to disability advocacy action in various countries.

One of the worst things about leaving Adelaide was leaving those friends behind. Afterwards I learnt Arts Access and the (separate) disability library/centre had both been defunded so these programs and focal points for people with disabilities vanished.

It was my disability that brought me in to that program, that gave me the opportunity to make those friends. It was my disability that made me acutely aware of the fracturing of the disability community as funding dried up and programs closed.

These days most of my contact with people with disabilities is via facebook. I have some kick-ass facebook friends out there rattling cages, moving and shaking for change. I have some other facebook friends I’ve never met that I just want to hug, to say ‘thank you’ and to break down some gates – like the ones withholding catheters when my friends need them.

Some of the most awesome people on this planet have disabilities. Some of the people who suffer the most in our society have disabilities. It’s a two-edged sword: enlightenment comes with great empathic pain as I see people suffer.

What would you like to see change in our culture to make it a more equitable environment?

If people really truly understood that there are two kinds of people in this world – the disabled and the not-disabled-yet – and that the karma fairy will come back to bite them, THEN I believe we might see some genuine change.

If you had total control over the filming of any book, what would you film, and why, and who would you cast?

I’d film the Children of the Black Sun trilogy by Jo Spurrier because it is the best portrayal of disability, gender issues and society combined that I’ve read. Once Isidro, one of the central characters, acquired his disability, I expected him to be magically healed or to disappear from the story with only a cameo appearance at best. Not only does neither happen, Isidro continues in this story with a totally convincing disability – his crushed arm causes him immense pain, he engages with the issue of ‘to amputate or not to amputate’ and every time he performs a task he has to work around his disability. No other author I’ve read is so convincing in a portrayal of disability. While I’m not physically disabled, I suffer headaches from eyestrain and bright lights; Isidro’s pain and work-arounds are totally convincing to me. Isidro doesn’t suddenly get up and use two hands like characters who’ve been shot in movies.

Not only that, the women characters are awesome. Several central characters provide different viewpoints including experience of an equitable polygamous society and a contrasting, more traditional monogamous society where women are subjugated. There’s a truly three dimensional villain whose acts are truly evil yet he becomes a – somewhat – sympathetic character. There is romance with complications.

Basically, Children of the Black Sun HAS IT ALL. (Note: the 3rd in the trilogy is in my TBR pile.)

Who would I cast? I’d cast an actual person with a disability as Isidro. SFX could cover him up until the point of his injury and then he’d be the most kick-ass believable disabled character on screen. Apart from Isidro, I’d cast actors oozing talent who genuinely represent the various ethnic groups relating to the characters: Siberians, Arabs and the like.

I’d get the crew from Boy and What we do in the shadows to work on it so it wouldn’t be some Hollywood clone. It would be the most epic, the most awesome movie ever.

What draws you to science fiction/fantasy?

When I was very little I think it was the adults around me reading and watching science fiction that started attracting me to science fiction. I remember hiding behind my uncle’s chair watching Doctor Who.

When I was maybe 4 or 5 I found a book of poems by C J Dennis in a corner store and my father bought it for me. He read ‘The Triantiwontigongolope’ to me; I remember laughing, saying it was silly. He challenged me to think about a world where the grass was purple and the sky was bottle green, to really think about it. I did.

‘Could I belong there too?’ I asked.

After a pause he replied, ‘Yes.’

From that day onwards I loved and adored that poem, learning it by heart.

Science fiction and fantasy offers the promise of escape from this world and the possibility of being accepted or fixed in some other time or place. I don’t see myself in the worlds I read or watch so, these days, I build mental walls to protect myself from the albinos and albino-types I see in books and on screen. Instead I try to find little things to identify with or hope for healing for some other ‘me’ in generations to come.

How has being part of an online community affected you?  

It’s been very mixed. I have very few friends here in Melbourne; I count ‘friends’ as people who I at least meet for coffee. The online community is my social life. Some people are supportive; those people are like diamonds in the mud. They’re worth picking up and treasuring! Others, not so much. I’ve learnt the value of the ‘block’ button, not to visit certain websites and never to read the comments. Again, I’ve built walls to protect myself.

This year has been a year of building bridges and reaching out to people who value diversity. It’s been a year of growth. Because of studying at university, it’s also been a year of challenge and change. How do I balance the needs and wants of the community – especially the community that visits Dark Matter Zine – with the advice of lecturers and my desire to build a career? I’m walking a tightrope; I’ve never been good at balance exercises. My yoga ‘tree’ is AWFUL.

I’m looking for a way forward for my life and my career. I feel like Gretel after the bird ate the breadcrumbs. I’m hoping that the online community may light the path to some kind of purpose and goal, a means of making a genuine contribution.

What motivates you to put so much work into your website?

After losing my job at CNAHS (Dept of Health in South Australia) I looked for volunteer work to get a reference to find paid work. It’s surprisingly difficult to get volunteer work as a person with a disability, especially because I need disability access for low vision.

In 2010 I edited one issue of a zine for a club in Melbourne before being told my services were no longer required. That one issue gave me insight into the enormous potential of a zine. An online zine had similar huge potential with no outlay of money, hence the online-and-not-printing part of Dark Matter Zine in the beginning.

As Dark Matter Zine took on a life of its own, it took over my life. Demonstrating skills and dedication alongside a strong work ethic has to be good groundwork for getting a job, right?

Dark Matter Zine runs on WordPress and has a social media presence so the technical aspects of running both should demonstrate sale-able workplace skills, right?

Dark Matter is still online, it’s still not printed (usually), but these days it’s grown so big we have to pay a hosting service for a small business package. Donations are few and far between, not nearly covering basic running costs. I need better equipment to do a good job – like a decent camcorder. I had to discard video of a launch because the sound and visuals were so very, very bad. So why am I doing this?

My mentor in the Willing & Able Mentoring Program told me Dark Matter won’t help me get a job in the publishing industry. Challenges like this shake me to the core – what else can I do to convince people I have skills and abilities? – but they also reinforce that Dark Matter Zine isn’t just about getting a job. It’s become a part of my life, it’s my baby that I’ve grown.

One thing of which I NEVER tire is talking to creative people. I love the interviews and panels I’ve had the privilege of running as part of Dark Matter Zine. I love hearing about creative people’s loves, their journeys, their insights. I love the fact that, in my own small way, I’ve made a bit of the ‘convention experience’ accessible to those for whom conventions are not accessible.

Recently a fellow student commented that a Penguin employee had been reviewing books on her blog but, after starting work at Penguin, she was told she couldn’t do that anymore. That challenged me. While I love losing myself in a good book or movie/TV program and I enjoy sharing reviews, I confess I get “all reviewed out” at times. In contrast, I love talking to creative and interesting people. Now I’m concerned that, if I’m successful and get a job in the publishing industry, I’ll have to give up Dark Matter Zine. It’s a dilemma.

So, why am I putting so much work into my website? It started out as a means to sell myself to an employer. Now – I think it’s an addiction.