Tuesday, November 11, 2014

world fantasy awards: what did i say?

On Sunday, I received the 2014 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel at the World Fantasy Convention in Washington, DC. I went up onstage, accepted the award, and said some words. Several people have asked about those words, but unfortunately I don't know exactly what they were. (I had written a speech, and was in fact revising it until the last minute, which you know if you went in the women's bathroom where I was scribbling feverishly in a corner--but in the end I didn't even look at it.)

I do know a few things about my speech! It was short. It had three basic parts:

1. WHAT.

I think I started by saying "What is going on" or something like that. This is the part of the speech in which I talked about how honored I am to have won this award, and how as a newcomer I'm pretty overwhelmed by the recognition my work has received from the SFF community. I thanked Gary K. Wolfe for his early review in Locus, because it helped get my book into people's hands. I may have thanked Small Beer Press at this point. I don't know! Write your speeches down and read them! It's not hard!

2. The Elephant in the Room

I think I used those words. I think I said "I can't sit down without addressing the elephant in the room, which is the controversy surrounding the image that represents this award." I said it was awkward to accept the award as a writer of color. (See this post by Nnedi Okorafor, the 2011 winner, if you are confused about why.) I also thanked the board for taking the issue seriously, because at the beginning of the ceremony, Gordon van Gelder stood up and made an announcement to that effect: "The board is taking the issue very seriously, but there is no decision yet." I just wanted them to know that here I was in a terribly awkward position, unable to be 100% thrilled, as I should be, by winning this award, and that many other people would feel the same, and so they were right to think about changing it.

thanks for the pic, Scott Edelman!

3. Small Beer Rules

Then I raved about the amazing Small Beer Press and how Gavin Grant and Kelly Link are the best team in the world. I pointed out that Nathan Ballingrud was also nominated for a World Fantasy Award this year, for his collection North American Lake Monsters, and that both of us are debut authors from Small Beer. Gavin and Kelly have a wonderful eye for fiction AND they take chances on new authors. Huge thanks to them, and to you all! And then I sat down.


A few more thoughts

Here are a few more thoughts I'll add because this has now become my post on the World Fantasy Awards controversy.

a) Nobody's post about winning an award should turn into a post about controversy! Everyone should be able to announce their awards with unadulterated joy! And unless the statue is changed, there will be a lot more posts like this. Can we not?

b) I don't think the statue should be an image of any person.

c) I am not telling anybody not to read Lovecraft. I teach Lovecraft! I actually insist that people read him and write about him! For grades! This is not about reading an author but about using that person's image to represent an international award honoring the work of the imagination.

d) I discovered, with a horror I'm sure Lovecraft would share, that we look a lot alike.

trying to make Lovecraft's face & succeeding all too well

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

the leopard princess

I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peek at a children's book, The Leopard Princess by M. O. Hadji, illustrated by Jose Lorenzo Pacheco. It is GORGEOUS. The story of Shabelle, a weaver's daughter who saves Mogadishu with her courage and wit, The Leopard Princess brims with enchantment. There's a riddling giant, a case of mistaken identity, and an invasion of ghouls on menacing green ships--all brought to life in Pacheco's stunning illustrations.

There are several ways to talk about this book. On its own, it's a treasure, offering a resourceful and determined heroine, an engaging story, and pictures you want to get lost in. But when you consider its context, the book becomes even more precious. This is a book for children offering a positive image of Somalis and Somali history. It gestures toward the diversity of Somali culture, invoking Arab influences in the series title ("Book One of the Wonderful Somali Nights") and Somali folklore in the story (Shabelle practices sword-fighting with a stick, imagining she's "the legendary Queen Arawelo"). The protagonist is a young woman who is rescued by her romantic interest, and also rescues him; she loves her parents, but not more than her own future. These things are rare, and we need them desperately. And by "we," I mean not just people with an obvious stake in Somali culture, but everyone.

Let me give you two horrid examples from Amazon dot com. I happened to come across another kids' book called The Leopard Princess, which do not buy it please.

no comment

According to the book description, this Leopard Princess lives "in a beautiful rainforest in mysterious Africa." Raised by leopards, she meets a guy who teaches her English and comes to know God and ok let me just stop. Now, you could say look, this thing is sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc and has no reviews, so who cares? But the point is not how much traction is gained by this particular piece of rubbish. The point is that the rubbish does not need traction. This book was produced by a dominant narrative, with a little bit of help from Laura Fairman-Powers. Her vision of the world rules, whether anyone reads her book (includes study guide!) or not.

As depressing as that is, my second example is even worse. As I prepared to write this, I did a little search for children's books involving Somalia. My search was in English (necessarily, I'm afraid) so if you have information about kids' books in Somali, please comment! My English-language search didn't turn up much, though along with the expected National-Geographic-style "This Is Somalia" ones I discovered some cool-looking bilingual picture books and retold folktales. However, I also found this:

Murder for Kids

Description: "Shadow Squadron hits the ground running in their first mission, operation SEA DEMON. When well-organized Somali pirates kidnap several V.I.Ps at sea, Lt. Commander Ryan Cross and his men are called upon to put these pirates down before innocent blood is shed." A reviewer comments that the author "keeps the action true to life without the gore (there is killing but it's the clean shot/clean kill variety--shoot the bad guys, they fall down)." The book is recommended for 4th- to 8th-graders. Children age 9 to 13. Nine. To. Thirteen.

I apologize for putting you through that. I feel it's necessary, though, in order to understand the importance of Hadji and Pacheco's beautiful book. Once it's out, there will probably be more critical views than mine: people may wish it had come out in Somali before English, or that it was a contemporary rather than a medieval story, or any number of other things, and that's fine. But my overwhelming impression is simple. I will buy The Leopard Princess for my kids. I wish I'd had anything close to it when I was a kid. It hurts me that I didn't.

There you go. That's my review. Invisibility hurts us. Violent representations hurt us. I thank the author and artist, and hope you'll treat yourself to their work.

The Leopard Princess
M.O. Hadji and Jose Lorenzo Pacheco
Coming November 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014

blue angel

(or, notes written after viewing Chagall's L'Ange bleu at the Santa Barbara Museum)

The blue is amazing. The composition is amazing. But most amazing of all is the lack of self-consciousness. The calm and happy desire like that of a child. Still the blue is very deep. Beside this painting, Aivazovsky's Crimean fleet looks like a sno-cone.

Blue. You could hold it in your hand. Blue.

To find such happiness now it is necessary to scheme for 18 hours a day.

I don't think that depth comes easily. Like Josephine Baker's dance. You experience things--perhaps necessarily in childhood--and your childishness earns its depth.

A blue book. Maggie Nelson has done it already. That book should be illustrated by Chagall.

Children are in here taking notes for school. That is weird. It seems like they should just be staring at the pictures.

Children in mourning looked at the marvelous pictures.


My question for you: is this life actually possible? Is it possible or just too hard, not worth it? And where would you go?

The angel says: "Don't fret about tomorrow."

If there is one Chagall in the museum why is anyone looking at the rest of this b.s.? The nitpicky realism and the flat abstract nonsense. Chagall's objects are molded like clay figures. They're a bit like balloons, a bit like things kids have made with play dough. No fear of bright primary colors. No fear of realism, no fear of fantasy either. No fear of happiness, of the dream. And yet they're not vacuous either. The blurb by the picture says Chagall didn't like the surrealists. Maybe he didn't like how they treated the unconscious.

Fairy tale. Folk culture. Fish. Violin.

And a painter up in the sky. And the little house upside down.

In writing, Carole Maso is closest. In painting, Rivera and Kahlo. Those bright round figures. In dance, probably a ballet.

The cow has a fan.

Something I thought was a window might be a ladder to heaven.

The closest thing to this painting in the museum is probably the semi-circle of seventh-century Chinese zodiac figures.

You should be able to sleep here.

From a distance the white is most striking. The little fish.

The whole thing would be unbalanced without the angel's hair.

We went shopping for hearts at the flower girl's booth. Things I have loved forever.

If I could go anywhere I'd want to go there.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

recent reads

Ok I have not blogged in forever but I have read stuff! A few recent ones:

Something Quite Unlike Myself
Michael Onsando

Brief, thoughtful, powerful. For some reason I remember everything in this book as circular. I remember the words making circles on the page. And I just opened it again, and there are a few images of circles, and one poem in which the words do make a circle, but that's it, so I think the impression comes from something else. Maybe it's the use of different fonts, and the way the text on the page fades--black to pale and back again. ("Pondering thoughts, swirling words, epiphany, fade to black," writes Onsando.) Or maybe it's the way the white space seems to lean out of the page like arms. Maybe it's the subject matter: the links between cafeteria and jail, dove and crow, death and dying, blistered feet and manicured hands. Or maybe it's just the fact that the book is dedicated to "you," as if drawing poet and reader into a common circle.

In the Time of the Blue Ball
Manuela Draeger
Translated by Brian Evenson

Probably the most interesting writer I have encountered this year. I mean are you aware that there is a heteronymous French writer publishing theory and poetry and children's books and I-don't-know-what-all under different names, or rather as different people, like some kind of bizarre 21st-century Pessoa? There is Antoine Volodine, which is itself a pseudonym for a French schoolteacher apparently, and in one of Volodine's books, there's a librarian in a post-apocalyptic prison camp named Manuela Draeger, and there are also several books for children by Manuela Draeger, and one of them is In the Time of the Blue Ball. If you are not comfortable with this kind of shifting reality, go away now, because it will not get better. (I am really interested in Volodine's concept of post-exoticism, and his book on it which is going to be published in English translation maybe? but anyway, this concept seems to concern utopian possibilities that infuse a world in which things are not getting better ever--hence the camp where Draeger tells stories to children.)

In the Time of the Blue Ball contains three Bobby Potemkine stories: "In the Time of the Blue Ball," "North of the Wolverines," and "Our Baby Pelicans." Bobby Potemkine is a hapless but cheerful investigator who gets into adventures with various others, including baby pelicans, but also a woolly crab and a tiger and these marvelous creatures called "battes" who are like a crowd of shrieking flying girls. The stories are dreamlike, cozy and creepy and wistful all at once. They remind me of Tove Jansson's Moomintroll stories, if the Moomin adventures unrolled against a backdrop of subtle bleakness. Everything's happy, yet you feel like everything is destroyed. They also remind me of Chagall's paintings, if the paintings were hanging in a bomb shelter. Sample sentence: "The battes had regained altitude and, while clippeting with the tips of their wings, they whispered new comic anecdotes in their secret language."

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"You can't write an honest novel about race in this country," says a character in Americanah, but Adichie not only writes that novel, she makes it a romance! And that is the amazing thing about the book to me--that it speaks openly about race and racism and gender and class and immigration and good intentions and failures and the toll of it all on people's ability to live and thrive, AND ALSO you are wondering the whole time if Ifemelu and Obinze are going to get together. (In a weird way this juxtaposition of various oppressions with romance raises the specter of romance as oppression, of the structure of the couple as oppression…)

I had an Awkward Yet Illuminating Book Club Moment with this one, in which a white reader said she thought the book was too preachy, that Ifemelu went on too much about race, that these little racist incidents couldn't happen every day, with every single white person she met, and I was like wow, Adichie's honesty about that was my favorite part of the book, and then the two of us stared at each other across the massive divide that had just split open the coffee table.

Recommended. Sample sentence: "How many other people had become black in America?"

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

accessing the future: an interview with Djibril al-Ayad and Kathryn Allan


There's a fundraising campaign going on right now for Accessing the Future, an anthology of disability-themed speculative fiction to be edited by the wonderful Djibril al-Ayad and Kathryn Allan!

The campaign has met its base goal with 13 days to go. If they can get to their first stretch goal, they'll be able to pay pro rates. In the interest of finding out more about the project and spreading the word, I asked the co-editors a few questions about accessing the future...

Sofia: This anthology will be the first of its kind. What’s exciting about that? What’s risky? What do you hope will happen?

Kathryn: While Accessing the Future is certainly a unique project, I think it’s only counts as the first of its kind (in its particular disability-theme) in today’s SFF community. Even then, there are other projects that have helped pave the way for this one: The Future Fire’s previous anthologies, such as Outlaw Bodies and We See a Different Frontier, are like companion anthologies in that they were interested in raising the visibility of marginalized and intersectional voices. As well, recent anthologies like Rose Fox and Daniel Older’s Long Hidden, and Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein’s Kaleidoscope, are projects that resonate with the goals of Accessing the Future. I think that resonance with other like-spirited anthologies, or in its contribution to the latest (and necessary) wave of discussion about diversity in SFF, is what makes Accessing the Future exciting. Of course, because our focus on disability will be erroneously considered by some people as a “niche market,” we risk not attracting as many people as we want to support us. My hope is that we boost the conversation about disability representation is SFF. Lots of people aren’t comfortable talking about disability; people with disabilities (both visible and invisible) encounter a larger social community that ignores or discounts their points of view. By bringing in as many voices as we can, and particularly from people with disabilities, we hope that Accessing the Future will be one more important part of transforming the SFF community to be truly inclusive and accessible.

Djibril: In particular, what I’ve found exciting about starting to work on a project like this is how much community there is that thinks about disability, neurodiversity or mental illness in literature, whether in SFF, in YA, or in mainstream fiction. Many people with interests in this area have been massively supportive of as well as very excited about this project. As Kathryn says, there is a risk that this topic will attract a smaller than more general feminist or postcolonial themes have, for example, but I would really hope all of our anthologies and themed issues take an intersectional view, and that people who work with us will recognize that disability is a feminist issue, a race issue, and so on.

Sofia: Can you say more about that? How is disability a feminist issue, a race issue?

Djibril: Because no oppression takes place along a single axis, and therefore no attempt at activism or progressive representation can deal with only one marginalization as if no other existed. To give a crude example, the lack of public visibility and support for people with disabilities is exacerbated by lack of financial means, a privation that is disproportionately faced by people in other marginalized groups. This means that any disability activism that only focuses on straight, white (and other “defaults”) people with disabilities, is not only unfair and propagating the invisibility of other oppressed groups, but it is also failing to serve those very people with disabilities who are most grossly oppressed and most need support and representation.

Kathryn: For me, my feminism is intersectional. While I know this is not the case for all people who identify as feminist, because of my specific life experience, training, and education, I have always engaged in feminist practice that addresses other intersecting marginalized or oppressed positions. People aren’t just one thing; different communities do and should talk to one another. Speaking in terms of chronic illness, for example, women are disapportionaly affected and yet they consistently encounter a medical profession that discounts their experiences. Disability is a feminist issue because affordable health care, access to employment and insurance resources, and quality of living are feminist issues. For anyone interested in reading more about the valuable connections between feminism and disability, I highly recommend Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013)—it is an academic book, but I think even people uninitiated in scholarly language can meaningfully engage with Kafer’s writing on accessibility, intersectional identities and our possible futures.

Djibril: To be fair, in my experience this has always been at the heart of good feminist, postcolonial and/or queer writing. None of the great pieces I read in the process of putting together Outlaw Bodies or We See a Different Frontier were single-issue stories.

Sofia: Talk a bit about disability in SFF. How have people written about disability? Are there tropes and trends you see that have changed over time?

Kathryn: This is a big question to ask someone who spends an inordinate amount of time reading and writing about representations of disability in SF! There are so many horrible, outdated, and humiliating representations of people with disabilities in the genre: from the start (whenever one decides that is), disability has been maligned and acted as a mark of monstrosity, deviance, moral failing, and evil doing. Generally, SF reflects social attitudes towards disability. In H. G. Well’s novels like The Time Machine or The Island of Dr. Moreau, for instance, eugenics is a prominent theme: disability was considered a flaw to be erased from the human future. We still see the same offensive trope being played out in SF, except it’s now called genetic engineering. Some writers may try to include a character with disability in their work today as a nod to inclusion or “hook” for the reader (e.g., “he’s a war vet, in a wheelchair… in space!”) but, inevitably they end up reiterating stereotypes of disability as something in need of “curing” or as a condition that acts as an inspiration for the able-bodied. Realistic depictions of people with disabilities in SFF—where they are three-dimensional characters not reduced to their disability—are few and far between.

Sofia: Here’s a huge, tough, exciting question from your campaign that I’d like to turn back to you: What does an accessible future look like?

Kathryn: Such an important question, thank you for asking it! For me, an accessible future is one wherein people have the access to the resources they need to live the lives they want (as long as that is not contingent on harming others, e.g., “tyrant” shouldn’t be an option). People exist on a spectrum of variation (of ability, sexuality, gender, etc.). As humans, we are not homogenous entities, neither on the global scale nor within our chosen communities. In my accessible future, that diversity of being is acknowledged and does not act as a barrier to the economic, social, and familial roles people desire. Of course, I don’t think that my idea of an accessible future will be everyone’s vision—I’m really excited to read the stories submitted to Accessing the Future, to learn from other people and, hopefully, keep refining my own path towards an accessible future world.

Djibril: Yes—to me too, accessibility isn’t about what new technologies or futuristic machinery we come up with to make life easier for people, it’s about society and culture changing to respect people’s needs and aspirations. It’s about not measuring people by their “value” or “function” or contribution to wealth, but as individuals who are priceless and unique regardless. It’s about deconstructing socially constructed models of “disability” (and race privilege, and gender binary, and controlled sexual morality, and, and, and), and replacing them with a society where step-free access into a building isn’t seen as “special needs,” but as a basic accommodation to the variety of humans among us (as are signposts in two languages). (And, of course in this future, mind-blowing and wonderful technologies might be applied to enhancing this accessibility as well, but I’ve always been more interested in imagining fantastic social-political developments than I have in flying cars!)

Many thanks to Kathryn and Djibril for chatting with me!

You can read more about Accessing the Future and make a donation at the Indiegogo.

Monday, August 25, 2014

my al-Jazari story

Hello! Since my last post I won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which was pretty astounding, and it reminded me that I've been wanting to talk about the background of one of my newest stories, "A Girl Who Comes Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals." Of course anything you write is full of things you've picked up from all over (I'm revising a novel and realized I lifted a scene out of A Room With a View! Completely ripped it off! I won't say which scene), but this story has one major influence and a couple of other minor yet important ones.

The big influence is Badi' al-Zaman Abu-'l-'Izz Ibn Isma'il Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari, which ok, let's just call him al-Jazari, a brilliant mechanical engineer of the 6th century H (late 12th to 13th CE). He wrote a book called The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which is full of descriptions and drawings of clocks and automata, including this girl who comes out of a chamber at regular intervals to serve wine:

This girl is the main character in my story. And in fact all the headings in the story ("On the construction of clocks from which can be told the passage of the secular hours," "On the construction of vessels suitable for use at drinking bouts," etc) are from al-Jazari. But the epigraph by Safiyya bint al-Jazari is by me! "Bint al-Jazari" means "daughter of al-Jazari" and Safiyya is Sofia. It's a corny joke.

If you are interested in medieval automata (and who isn't?), I recommend you check out the link to al-Jazari's name above, and also the information here and here. I wrote ONE al-Jazari story focusing on ONE mechanical device. There are many, many more al-Jazari stories to be written.

If you manage to get through my story, you will see that it's very strange. It contains a lot of sad feelings about time and clocks and revolutions. Revolutions, as in political changes, and revolutions as in going around in circles. I don't treat the aftermath of the "Arab Spring" in Egypt directly, but I reach toward it.

The tree "half blossoming and half burned, in the middle of the courtyard" is H.D.'s, from her great war poem Trilogy:

        we crossed the charred portico,
        passed through a frame—doorless—

        entered a shrine; like a ghost,
        we entered a house through a wall;

        then still not knowing
        whether (like the wall)

        we were there or not-there,
        we saw the tree flowering;

        it was an ordinary tree
        in an old garden-square.

The line "Tree of Hope, keep firm" is Frida Kahlo's.

my favorite picture of Frida with her dog

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Renee Gladman
Renee Gladman is one of my favorite writers. I've just finished the third volume of her Ravicka trilogy, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (the other two are Event Factory and The Ravickians). The books take place in Gladman's imagined city of Ravicka, where it's clear that some sort of crisis is happening, but unclear what it is, although we can be pretty sure it has something to do with architecture, or maybe all crises have something to do with architecture. With space.

Spaces moaned.

Something is happening to Ravicka, to the buildings and to the people. Lakes are there and not there. People are there and not there. If you call, they don't answer. Your old friend passes you, absent. Reading this book I thought about crisis and anti-realist genres. I thought about disorientation, and how very carefully and somehow slowly Gladman explores the effects of crisis, or crisis as an effect (or an affect). Spaces, buildings, bodies, language, the ability to speak and write--it's all disappearing.

It was the crisis, everything was dark.

The narrator, Ana Patova, is a writer. She is living through the inexpressible as a writer.

I was often trying to write about the crisis, which was hard and took everything you had, which was almost all your language for that day.

Trying to say a few things about what's happening is very hard. If you do it, you won't have any more language until tomorrow (possibly later). But if you say nothing, write nothing, you risk total isolation.

As a country this was our crisis: getting other people to see what we were seeing. 

Ana Patova is trying to get us to see what she is seeing, to cross a bridge to us, but she lacks both bridges and words.

I didn't have words for the buildings and their turned-in windows, folded into their evacuated state. I had lost architecture.

Gaza, 3 days ago

Losing architecture is different from losing a building, or even many buildings. It suggests the loss of something fundamental to being in space. To being in a human body in space. What is lost goes beyond objects. The loss of architecture indicates the absence of a way of relating to the world.

How to be a body in space. Ferguson, MO, yesterday

For me the loss of architecture gets at something very important about crisis, which is that it's not a thing with clear edges, like a building. It's not easy to tell what is inside the crisis as opposed to outside, or what is before, after, or during the crisis, because the lull between crises is also part of the crisis. I recently came across a project called Representing Postcolonial Disaster, and the website for their fall conference announces Disaster Is Not an Event, which makes me think about the title of the first Ravicka book, and how maybe a crisis is not an event but an event factory.

Is this the crisis or just a sign of the crisis?