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?

Monday, June 2, 2014

my writing process

Maya Angelou, 1928 - 2014
So, I don't write like Maya Angelou, but I'm thinking of her this week, and I love this picture. What are the playing cards for? What was her writing process?

This post is part of a blog tour--I was asked to contribute by Daniel José Older, who was asked by Tananarive Due, and they both wrote excellent posts. Click those links! Next week you'll hear from two wonderful writers I invited to the party: Kiini Ibura Salaam and Carmen Maria Machado.

Here we go...

Question #1: What are you working on?

I'm finishing up the sequel to A Stranger in Olondria, currently entitled The Winged Histories. It freaks me out to even write that because my writing process involves a lot of superstition. I hate sharing anything about my WIP! But this one is so close to done that I hope it will be ok (I even read from it at a conference a few weeks ago). I'm also working on a book of prose poems called Monster Portraits, which I'm creating together with my brother Del. I've just finished a draft of a short story called "An Account of the Land of Witches." And I have two broken essays that need fixing, one on black academic life and one on Afrofuturism.

If this to-do list looks impossible, that's because it is.

Question #2: How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?

I can't say anything about this without my anxieties chiming in. I think I write fantasy that's particularly engaged with language, and science fiction that's particularly engaged with character. My anxieties think lots of other people also do these things, and that my fantasy doesn't have a lot of plot and my science fiction doesn't have a lot of science. I think my work shows an especially strong commitment to exploring the nature of belief, identity, and the power, for good and ill, of narrative; my anxieties think this is true of a lot of other people and also it's kind of navel-gazing isn't it? I think I'm a fiction writer who's also a poet, and it shows. And my anxieties are like um, yeah, exactly.

Question #3: Why do you write what you do?

Because Toni Morrison said:

"If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

Question #4: How does your writing process work?

Short answer: not very well. I mean, I think the end products have been decent but the process is a mess. This is partly why I love that picture of Maya Angelou writing with the playing cards and the crossword like she's halfway through some kind of divination ritual. There's so much chance involved with writing. It's one chance word after another. That makes it thrilling, but there's always the risk that you'll turn up some kind of horrible fate, like a book or short story or poem that just totally fails, and sometimes it's really frightening, putting your trust in a future you can't see.

I am not the kind of person who outlines or does a lot of planning. I tend to rush into projects--often, as I mentioned above, three or four projects at once. This has its advantages, because when you're procrastinating about working on the novel, hey, you can work on the essay or the short story! But jumping in with no plan also means that you do a lot of work before you find the shape of the piece. The first draft of A Stranger in Olondria was twice as long as the final version; the first draft of The Winged Histories was three or four times as long. That's because I had no idea what was supposed to happen and I just wrote and wrote and wrote until I got somewhere. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. IT IS VERY INEFFICIENT. For my next novel, I really want to find a new writing process! I'm looking for someone who's neat, hardworking, and interested in a long-term relationship, so if you know a process like that, hook me up.