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?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

an alphabet of embers

Friends, we need this.
A Kickstarter campaign is currently in progress for An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables, edited by Rose Lemberg. The project is almost funded with ten days left--as of right now, the campaign has raised $5575 of the necessary $6000.

I really, really, REALLY want to see this project fund, and I hope you'll support it! Rose is a brilliant editor--she co-edits Stone Telling with Shweta Narayan, and has produced the wonderful collections Here, We Cross: a collection of queer and genderfluid poetry from Stone Telling 1-7 and The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry. The submission guidelines for An Alphabet of Embers--in which Rose seeks "lyrical, surreal, magical, experimental pieces that straddle the border between poetry and prose"--are delicious.

Beyond this, Rose is one of my favorite living speculative artists (two of my fave pieces to give you a taste: "Bone Shadows" and "Theories of Pain"). She is an activist. She believes in community, and her work as a writer and editor reflects that. It feels weird to say this about someone I know personally, but Rose Lemberg is important. She's a key figure in speculative writing today. Trust me: we need An Alphabet of Embers.

Monday, July 21, 2014

writers on gaza

A bloody night in Rafah. The shelling has not stopped nor did it go silent. I write a word and I am delirious with words. Where do we live? And why this abominable silence towards our death? Is our death that cheap? Do our lives mean anything to anyone? Is it enough that you cry, shed tears, and that a choking in the heart come upon you? 
~ Hedaya Shamun, "One Night Is Enough," July 10, 2014

Fado, I’ll sleep like people do
when shells are falling
and the sky is torn like living flesh
I’ll dream, then, like people do
when shells are falling:
I’ll dream of betrayals
~ Najwan Darwish, "Sleeping in Gaza," July 11, 2014

All the writing rituals escaped. I possess nothing except a lead pencil and a piece of white paper, even though I am wary of the word lead. I want a pencil of life because life is now so dear in Gaza, and there were so many who insisted on plucking it like a flower whose infanticide they hastened. Especially those small flowers because they are beautiful; the hands snatch them and do not let them live. Our children became flowers stripped of their leaves, colors, and nectar. I feel anguish.

Their house turning to rubble.
Their family turning to dust.
Their family turning to nothing.
Their world disappearing.
~ Nisha Bolsey, "Gaza, a poem," July 20, 2014

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

update: #kasaraniconcentrationcamp

According to an article in The Washington Post last month, "Twitter, with its #KasaraniConcentrationCamp hashtag, remains the best source of information" on the crackdown on ethnic Somalis under Kenya's "antiterrorism" operation, Usalama Watch.

It is exceedingly depressing that a hashtag is the best source of information on a program of ethnic profiling, harassment, and illegal detention and deportation that has now been ongoing for three months. But since that appears to be the situation, I've collected some of the material that's been posted to the hashtag, so that people can find it more easily.

The basics: Operation Usalama Watch was launched on April 2, 2014, following a major terrorist attack last year and a series of smaller bombings in Nairobi and Mombasa. The name "Kasarani Concentration Camp" comes from Kasarani Stadium, which was turned into a police station early in the operation, and where an unknown number of people are still being held. (Numbers have been a huge problem this whole time; those who have passed through the stadium are said to be in the thousands, those held at any given time in the hundreds). The detainees include women, children, and the elderly. Conditions at the stadium and police stations where people are held are atrocious. Humanitarian organizations have been told to keep out.

For a good early roundup, see this piece at The New Inquiry, which includes some history of Somalis in Kenya. A key part of this history--very much on the minds of those undergoing or witnessing the current crackdown--would have to be the massacres of Kenyan Somalis in 1980 and 1984.

Al Jazeera reports on the atmosphere of terror created by Operation Usalama Watch, and the victims' stories of beatings, extortion, and rape.

In this 15-minute video, journalist Asha Muktar interviews people in Eastleigh, security officers, activists, and detainees. "Are we leading this country towards genocide?"

In this 2-minute video, a pregnant refugee is interviewed inside Kasarani Police Station. "Where you sleep is where you urinate."

Despite their status as refugees and asylum seekers, hundreds of people have been deported. In the process, at least one person has died, while others face insecurity and harassment by al-Shabaab in Somalia. Three hundred children have been separated from their parents. Not a single person detained in this operation has been charged with a crime.

The effects of the ongoing violence are not limited to the stadium. There is the pain of those unjustly labeled as terrorists. There is the dangerous logic of exclusion that enables genocidal thinking. There is the creation of a situation in which it is difficult to argue for the human.

The term "concentration camp" obviously makes a connection with the European Holocaust. This is really the fear: that life will become impossible for ethnic Somalis in Kenya, whether they are Kenyan citizens, visitors, or asylum seekers. Literally impossible. The scenario is unfolding.

July 1, 2014: Start of the #kasaraniiftar movement to provide food and other necessities to detainees.

July 3: Hundreds still held.
July 4: Inspector General of Police denies existence of Kasarani detainees.
July 5: Reports of people being moved from the stadium to various police stations.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

small things i have written

Things I have published recently in various corners of the web:

For, a reflection on #KasaraniConcentrationCamp as a global issue. "We forget that migration is a human right."

For Lightspeed Magazine, a critique of Noah co-writer's explanation of why the whole cast was white. "What we're looking at here is the power of the neutral position."

For, a short essay on the use of entanglement in Angélica Gorodischer's dazzling Kalpa Imperial. "Entanglement is a haunting."

For Lawrence M. Schoen's "Eating Authors" blog feature, a memory of a dinner alone with a book. "Good food, good words, and solitude. You can get there."

And last but DEFINITELY NOT LEAST YOU GUYS a collection of some of my favorite quotes from our Interfictions authors, to entice you to support our Indiegogo!

me & my co-editor Henry Lien at the Nebula Awards weekend
this photo is also supposed to entice you to support our magazine
are you enticed?