Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

February fiction roundup

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

I didn’t keep up with my writing as much as I’d hoped in February. I stopped tracking word count because it became a slippery eel with all the edits I was making, but I did submit two stories before the month skittered off to hide under a sofa. I won’t tell you which sofa. It will be a surprise for later.

I also sold a story, “Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses,” to Innsmouth Free Press for their upcoming anthology, She Walks in Shadows. The cover is amazing. The other writers are amazing. My excitement has caused me to fumble all other available adjectives than “amazing.” They are probably under the sofa with February.

Stories I read this month:
The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill by Kelly Robson
And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead by Brooke Bolander*
The Girl Who Ate Butterflies by Mary Rickert
Nine-Lived Wonders by Rachael K. Jones
B. by Nicola Belte
The Language of Knives by Haralambi Markov*
Traveling Mercies by Rachael K. Jones
The Joy of Sects by Joseph Tomaras
And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea by Maria Dahvana Headley*
At Night, By the Creek by Ashley Hutson
A Shadow on the Sky by Sunny Moraine
The Weight of the World by Jose Pablo Iriarte
Map by Susannah Felts
The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zací by Benjamin Parzybok*

My favorites are marked with an asterisk.

I also read Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which has won so many awards that it’s starting to pull readers in through sheer gravity. If you like mystery revenge stories with sentient spaceships and gender ambiguity, consider yourself directly targeted with this one. The way the plot unfolds through a dual-narrative in the past and present of the novel’s galaxy… It’s like rhythmic gymnastics, or wuxia pian: beautiful and perfectly timed. I was hooked immediately and then dragged in a nautilus pattern that tightened as new information was revealed about the characters and plot, and then I was left at the center of it all to watch how it unraveled. So well-structured. The characters were also fascinating, flawed but noble in their own ways, and I’m excited to see what happens in the sequel.

Next month: more links! More asterisks! Maybe I will read another book! It will be amazing.

January reading, writing and rithmetic

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

I started the new year with good intentions, an excitingly stripey calendar and colorful star stickers. I had a plan, or at least about 12% of a plan, and I went bravely forward as only brave people can.

I tried to write something every day, and read something every day, and I didn’t do too badly. At some point I realized I was shortchanging myself by not counting editing as a task worthy of stickerdom, so I folded that into the writing sticker oeuvre. But that meant a few days where I did stuff but didn’t get a sticker. Shameful.

Stories I read in January:
They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain by Rachel Acks*
The Lion God by Benjamin Blattberg
Ether by Zhang Ran*
And That, My Children, Is Why We Can’t Go to Space Anymore by Shane Halbach
The Wizard of Ordinary Things by Eliza Archer
Beautiful Boys by Theodora Goss*
Headwater LLC by Sequoia Nagmatsu
The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History by Sam J. Miller*
The Last Flight of Admiral Franco Talbot by Adam Musil
All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein
“Hello,” Said the Stick by Michael Swanwick
In the Late December by Greg van Eekhout*
Milk Man by Cornelius Fortune
The Presley Brothers by Molly Gloss*
Immersion by Aliette de Bodard*
Give Her Honey When Your Hear Her Scream by Maria Dahvana Headley
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin*
The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal*
Of Blood and Brine by Megan E. O’Keefe
The Necromancer in Love by Wil McCarthy*
Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt by JY Yang
Dry Bite by Will McIntosh*
Shoelace by Laura Lovic-Lindsey

My favorites are marked with an asterisk. Some of them I read for the workshop I’m participating in, which has been a lovely experience so far. I need to critique two more stories for my classmates by Wednesday, and I’m excited to revise my own work based on the feedback I’ve received.

I also read a great book of poetry, Dear Hero, by Jason McCall. The comma is part of the title. The poems were short so it was a pretty quick read, but my gut was punched so many times I felt like I was battling a supervillain. Fitting given that the conceit of the book is essentially exploring the nature of heroism, with ruminations on superheroes and sidekicks and epic heroes. If you’re ever in Alabama and you can hear him read, I highly recommend it. Dude has a voice like a football coach, not the typical weird MFA lilt that so many poets pick up like some kind of verbal herpes. Not that herpes is anything to be ashamed of. Lots of people have herpes.

Tune in next month to find out what new stories I’ve read, and whether I’ve come up with any exciting new things to compare to venereal diseases.

Oh no, a new year’s post

Thursday, January 1st, 2015

I have a love/hate relationship with resolutions because I’ve made a lot of foolish ones, and seen other people make them, and then we all fail together and commiserate and learn little from the process. I’ll say, this year is the year I’m going to exercise three times a week, and I’ll buy new sneakers that are like walking on puffy clouds. I’ll run for a few weeks before waking up one day and thinking, oh no, it’s raining, can’t run in the rain, maybe tomorrow, but then the rain stops while my excuses keep pouring out.

Excuses are easy. Giving up is easy. Making unreasonable resolutions and then missing a day and feeling like a loser and never getting back on the proverbial llama: easy. Llamas are large and temperamental things, all spitty and bitey and kicky. Best viewed from afar. Do not engage.

Last year, I tried to set some manageable goals for myself. Write 12 short stories. Finish my novel in progress. Revise a previous novel and start looking for beta readers.

I did write the 12 stories, plus a poem and a play, but I didn’t finish or revise any novels. I abandoned the novel I was working on because I didn’t love it. I started to revise another novel and abandoned that one, too. I submitted stories and I revised stories and I got 39 rejections. I felt like a failure. If you’re wondering, failure feels like a sick tummy and a hot neck. And llama spit.

But the writing life is a game, and as any child can tell you, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you put away the board and sulk for a while, but eventually you pull it back out and pick your color and play again. Snakes and ladders. Sometimes you climb, and sometimes you land in the mouth of the beast and it craps you back out where you started.

The thing about being at the bottom in this analogy is, trite as it may be, you have nowhere to go but up. You can’t do worse than lose. There is no double-losing.

I took three classes: one with Nick Mamatas, one with Jillian Burcar, and one with Jeff VanderMeer. All were excellent in very different ways, and in all I found new friends who I hope will one day be counted among my old friends. I wrote a story, and people enjoyed reading it, and it turned into a novel project that still gives me a kind of giddy glee.

If there is a single vital thing I learned this year, that’s it: write what you love. What excites you. What entices you. I wrote a lot of stuff that was trying to be thoughtful and important, and so little of it was really what I wanted to write, as much as what I thought people wanted to read. Backwards of me, I think. And now, that’s behind me.

So, resolutions. Read more. Write more. Write better. Keep helping other people do the same. Snakes and ladders this may be, but you’re only really playing against yourself, and there’s no penalty for reaching down that ladder and giving someone else a hand up. And if you see someone sliding into a snake–if you’re that someone–cut the creepy crawler wide open and use its guts for a rope.

Get back on the llama. It’s actually kind of soft and warm once you get to know it better.

Confronting our biases

Friday, May 30th, 2014

I putter around in a lot of random corners of the internet, and in one of them I participated in a discussion about how to manage our biases and prejudices in our writing. What follows is a slightly modified version of my side of the conversation, with some portions rearranged to read more cohesively. Comments and critique are gratefully accepted.

One way to confront one’s own biases is to cultivate an understanding of the more pervasive social issues–racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc.–and how they typically manifest in individuals and society. Exploring the plights of the underprivileged can help us to be aware of our own privilege, and our inherent reactions to particular stories and situations can then help us root out and address our biases. As someone else mentioned, this isn’t to say that writing should be stripped of all bias, but it is worthwhile to acknowledge our power, and arguably our responsibility, to illuminate those social issues in ways that encourage their elimination.

I think this sort of progressive work (not as in politics, but as in positive forward motion) is best done from a trench rather than a soapbox. The more we understand not only our own biases, but the biases of others, the more we treat each other as people rather than platforms. When we write, many of us work to craft fictional people rather than mouthpieces for particular viewpoints. By doing so, we hopefully reach the people who favor those viewpoints by holding up a mirror that is flat rather than wavy, reflective rather than distorting. Few people like being talked down to or patronized. I think, ideally, we can do this good work by making the flaws self-evident rather than pointing at them and shouting.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a place for outrage in the public and private spheres. I wouldn’t dream of policing anyone’s tone or mandating how they express their feelings. That’s one more facet of life that we can reflect in fiction, one more type of person we can portray: the righteously angry who rail against injustice. We can also explore this in our non-fiction pieces, of course, in whatever way we choose. That has more to do with the “face to meet the faces that you meet” as Eliot said, the way we present ourselves to the public.

I disagree with the notion that it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, and that we can’t know for sure. I think in certain cases there are strong arguments for each side, and they can boil down to belief systems or unknowns that make “truth” impossible to pin down. But cultural and moral relativism only get us so far; in fact, they work as a philosophical method of stifling discourse by asserting that there is no right answer and that therefore discussion is essentially meaningless. They compel us to tolerate viewpoints and power structures that are dangerous in a very real and immediate sense for many members of society, and to suppress objections to such behaviors in all the ways they manifest.

However, as authors, for the most part our goal is to craft realistic characters, and they would be very boring indeed if all they did was walk around being nice to each other. Conflict is at the heart of all stories, characters with opposing goals striving against each other or against humanity or nature, etc. There is a difference between character and author; we can have a character espouse or epitomize perspectives that we might consider abhorrent, and we can present them in a way that both humanizes them and makes clear that we, as authors, do not support what they do or think. It’s a fine line to walk, because I hope that even if someone works to accurately portray, say, Hitler, there is no sense that the author is glorifying or apologizing for those darker words and deeds.

Writing things “as they were” in historical fiction doesn’t necessitate approving of them. The strength and agency that characters have can manifest in different ways, and the ways in which we write situations and relationships can convey a tone that is at odds with the “reality” of those times. And as readers ourselves, we know that not everything is meant to be taken literally, and that we can critique the actions of characters from our modern perspectives without it taking away from the realism of the narrative.

It’s also interesting, in my experience, to read stories that fill gaps in history, that draw from real people and events but whose details are largely lost to obscurity, and so are ripe for reimagining. A great recent example is Hild by Nicola Griffith, which explores the life of St. Hilda of Whitby. It’s beautifully written, and the amount of agency the main character, and the other women in the story, have despite the established social mores is very carefully developed.

The beauty of stories is that they can teach in ways that are so subtle as to be subconscious, or they can be more overt allegories with clear, stated rhetorical goals. One can encourage and provide visibility without sacrificing literary quality. It’s just one more plate to keep spinning in the massive spectacle that is our craft. One valuable part of our educational system, ideally, is to expose kids to a wide range of approaches to dealing with sensitive subjects. An essay and a poem and a short story are all delivery vehicles for themes, even if that is not the stated goal for a particular piece, but each tends to deal with that delivery in a very different fashion. Courier versus email versus skywriting, to use a bad analogy.

In my own recent work–and I do not offer this as a mandate, just a perspective–I try to tell stories of underrepresented minorities, be they from less visible races or classes or sexual identities. I do this not only because visibility is a very important way to facilitate greater understanding of and appreciation for the diverse perspectives in our world, but primarily because the members of those minority groups deserve to see themselves in fiction and poetry. I myself grew up rarely seeing Hispanics in fiction, and it subconsciously conditioned me to feel embarrassed about my heritage, and to emulate the white literature I was uniformly reading instead of digging into myself to find my own voice and stories. If there is any way I can help encourage minorities to feel pride instead of shame, and to share their own voices instead of mimicking the majority, I am glad to do it.

We Need Diverse Books

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

I was one of those kids who went to the library every weekend and engaged in the heady transaction of converting a bag of books I had read into a bag of new books I had not yet read. It was a form of magic that didn’t help my grades but did keep me out of most other trouble. I wasn’t terribly picky; I’d as soon devour Nancy Drew as Sherlock Holmes, Anne of Green Gables as Tarzan. My experience with movies was fairly similar, except that I wasn’t allowed to watch grown-up stuff, despite reading Stephen King books at probably too delicate an age. And comic books? I loved them when I could get them, and traded Marvel cards until my mom found out and confiscated them all.

But in retrospect, one thing stands out: I loved reading about female characters. Go figure, since I’m a girl. At the time, when reading about boys, it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t do all the same things they could. When I played pretend with my (mostly male) friends, I didn’t accept the role of damsel in distress and let them fight over me; I was a Strong Female. I was Kitty Pryde, or Psylocke, or Catwoman. If that character didn’t exist in the game, I made it up. I was a girl Ninja Turtle, not April. I was Princess Toadstool but with fireballs or ninja training. My Barbies kicked Ken more than they kissed him.

It wasn’t until much later that I started to realize how pervasive misogyny could be; how so many women strangely ended up being plot devices; how so few movies had awesome women that I wanted to pretend to be; how dudes who would happily play X-Men with me as kids started giving me the side eye for reading the comics. I found myself dressing more like a guy so I could keep doing the things I’d always loved. I bought into the misogyny and was embarrassed by my own gender. It took a long time to climb out of that hole and wash off the stink.

The next layer of grime I uncovered was a cultural blind spot, due to the lack of awesome Hispanic women for me to admire and emulate. I’d grown up living with or near my big Cuban family, but everything I read was white, white and more white. Again, as a kid, it didn’t bother me because I didn’t notice. It didn’t occur to me that it was strange, in the same way that I assumed everyone ate rice and beans with every meal and roasted a pig for Easter. And my dad was white, so it wasn’t as if I was totally excluded. I wasn’t really seeing my experience reflected, but hey, I was looking to read about new things, different things anyway.

Except those different things got pretty same-y after a while. Instead of feeling like my horizons were being expanded, I felt like a tourist who’d traveled the length and breadth of a world that didn’t have a place for me, and I was ready to go home. I took some classes where the teachers encouraged us to write from our lives, our cultural heritage, and my knee-jerk response was that no one wanted to read about that. It felt like pigeon-holing, like if I did that then I was digging myself another pit to fall into when what I really wanted was a house, a castle, a whole universe without limits.

And yet, I finally realized that I had already pigeon-holed myself, I had already limited myself, by buying into the notion that my differences were a problem rather than an opportunity. I was writing the same bland stuff that I’d lost interest in reading. I was burying the parts of me that made me unique instead of polishing them and showing them off, all because, my whole life, I hadn’t seen myself reflected in the media I was consuming. And since I wasn’t there, I assumed it was because no one wanted to look at me, except as an oddity, and who wants to be treated like that?

When I saw the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign taking off on Twitter, it made me happy, and sad, and angry, but mostly excited that people were talking about it. It made me think about my own life and how it’s led me to a place where I try to write stories about all kinds of people–mostly non-white, mostly female, sometimes queer. People like my friends, and my family. People like me. And I hope that means someday, some little girl will grow up feeling proud and powerful, knowing that she isn’t strange, or shameful, and that she most certainly isn’t alone.