Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Making your own toys: an unrecognised feminist education

I told my mom that I’m going to make dolls of intersectional women of all times as perks for the Problem Daughters’ fundraiser. So, when we meet, she hands me a large bag full of odd scraps of fabrics. “I thought I’d contribute” she says, making it seem like she just wanted to get rid of useless stuff. But I know that she actually likes the idea. I open the bag and empty its content on the table. “Look!” my mom says, “this is a piece of the lace of your first communion dress”. I grin. I really hope I will use it for the dress of some influential courtesan. I also spot some fur. Awesome! Fur coats were all the rage among rioters in the 70s. And I’m pretty sure a Mata Hari doll would require some luxurious accessory...
“I don’t know if you can have any use for it?” my mom asks, and casually singles out a piece of soft brown fabric. I recognise it immediately. It is a leftover from a teddy bear she made me when I was maybe four. It had buttons for eyes.

I smile and I remember.

I see myself desperate because my favourite doll has broken. A cheap plastic incarnation of Candy Candy in her nurse outfit. It’s cut in half at the waistline, like the old stage magician sawing trick went horribly wrong. I am in tears and I give the pieces to my mom asking to please, please fix it. “I don’t think I can” she says after a quick assessment. “Can’t you stick it back together?” I try to suggest. “No, you can’t just glue plastic together” The notion is lost on me. What is wrong with the idea of gluing plastic? Then my mom starts looking all around the house. She doesn’t have a solution, but she’s looking for inspiration. Suddenly a “Eureka!” expression appears on her face when she opens the cutlery drawer. She takes a bunch of toothpicks and fills one of the hollow halves of my doll with them. Then it slides it into the other half. Last, she adds a little tape around it. I am in awe. It’s not perfect, but I can play with it again.

Like many other women, I have spent my adult life thinking that I was nothing like my mother. Because while the world was on fire with political activism she chose a quiet life. She got married, had four children. She never explicitly challenged the patriarchy. She never sprayed anarchist slogans on a wall. She never listened to Janis Joplin. My sisters and I had to discover feminism by ourselves. Sometimes I had to struggle to have my life choices accepted by her. Because our society teaches us to be unforgiving to our mothers and overly critical to our daughters. And yet, here I am, with my own bag of scraps of fabric and yarn, accumulated over the years, making dolls and toys for the people I love. To amuse them, to show them that they are worth my time, and my patience. You need a lot of both, as a toymaker.

I see myself bored on a summer afternoon. I bet was getting extremely annoying. Out of the blue my mom says “today we make a rag doll”. We didn’t do a lot of things together, I am curious… She takes an old cloth and folds it into half. “You first draw your doll on paper” she explains “it’s easier than drawing on the fabric. Then you cut it out and place it on the cloth. Like this. Now we pin the paper to the fabric, so it doesn’t move while we’re tracing it. Done. Give me the scissors. That’s where you cut, not on the line. You want to leave some room. You’ll see why. Now that we have the two halves, we sew them together. Not completely though! We leave a little hole for stuffing the doll”. When she’s done sewing, she takes some plastic bags, cut them in pieces and uses them as filling. Then, she draws a cute face on it. Big eyes, long eyelashes, freckles. Last she makes the hair with yarn leftovers. She always had leftovers and scraps.

I take all the new pieces that my mom has brought me, and I realise, clearer than ever, that you don’t need to be a rebel to be a feminist. It works for some of us, but it is not the only way. I now understand better that raising three girls teaching them to be strong and smart before pretty is more important and impactful than all my talking. To teach them to be serious and competent about what you do, but do it with love. That perfect things are way less interesting than those that you’ve done by yourself. My mom’s take on feminism took subtler routes than those I was ready to recognise. They sometimes passed through knitted stitches.

That’s one of the reasons I decided to offer my dolls for the Problem Daughters fundraiser. First, I was very excited at the idea of making dolls with the features of inspiring women. Women that faced different kind of marginalizations, often at the same time, and nonetheless were strong enough to became an example to others. Reproducing their look in the highest detail, finding the right fabric and accessories for their outfit is my way to express my love and admiration for what they achieved. Second, I really look forward to reading the stories that will be published in Problem Daughters and I wanted to help raising enough money to pay pro rates to the authors and artists. But, it’s also my way to honour the women in my family, and what they taught me.

So, if you’ve always wanted your personal doll of Phillis Wheatley, or Carrie Fisher, or Josephine Baker, or whichever great woman inspired you… I will make it for you! We’ll decide together how to dress her and how she will look like. I promise, it will be funny and adorable! If you actually make me use my first communion dress lace for the doll of a kick ass feminist, you also get my eternal gratitude.

“Why don’t we make another doll?!”
“No, this time you make one”
“I don’t know how to do it…”
“Yes you do. What do you need?”
“A cloth. Some paper. A pen. Pins. Scissors. Plastic bags…”
“Do you see? You know it! Show me how you make it”
And I do. With her help, of course. But I do know all the steps.
At the end, the most difficult part is to draw the doll’s face. I bite my lips in concentration, trying very hard to copy the pretty face that my mom drew on the first one.
When I finish I’m delighted. I have done it! I can make my own toys! It is the first very strong feeling of empowerment that I remember.
The face of my doll is not even near my mom’s one. The nose is just a large “L” and the mouth is not a cute pouting one but a big, smiling “U”. I show it to my mom.
“It’s not very beautiful…”
“No” she agrees. “But it’s your first one. If you make more, you’ll get better”.
I grab both my dolls and go to play.
Yes. I’ll make more.

You can buy your custom crocheted doll of an intersectional feminist of your choice on the Problem Daughtersfundraising page. There are only two left, so hurry up! You can also just preorder your copy of the upcoming anthology and help make it happen.

* The crocheted and knitted toys in the pictures are my executions and customisations of patterns by: Beth Doherty, Marjorie Jones and Alan Dart

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Interview with Margrét Helgadóttir

Today, Problem Daughters editor Rivqa Rafael talks to Margrét Helgadóttir about her latest work with Fox Spirit Books, Asian Monsters.

Margrét Helgadóttir is Norwegian-Icelandic and lives in Oslo, Norway. Margrét’s stories have appeared in several literary magazines and print anthologies. She was shortlisted for the British Fantasy Awards 2016 as writer with the debut book The Stars Seem So Far Away, and as editor for African Monsters, both published by Fox Spirit Books. She is editor for the Fox Spirit Book of Monsters, seven annual anthologies published between 2014 and 2020, and the anthology Winter Tales (2016). Find out more about Margrét on her blog or Twitter.

World of Monsters seems like a hugely ambitious project, with each book aiming to cover a huge range of folklore and mythology. How did you go about trying to get a representative sample?
Well, it is ambitious. Not only do we want a broad range of monsters, but we also wish to show the world authors and artists in the different regions, many largely ignored in the western popular culture. So from volume two (Africa), I have searched for authors with a strong connection to the continent or region who can either tell a tale of monsters based on local folklore or create a new monster. This means that I need both information about the background of the writer plus knowledge of their writing style. I spend lots of time in the beginning of each book project researching and building up the table of contents. I want writers from every corner of the continent. It is a goal but I can't succeed hundred percent with this. It has something to do with language, if there exist writers at all, and if I can reach them and they want to participate. It is always sad when a writer backs out of the project at some point because he/she is carefully selected and is not only a good writer, but also a representative for this part of the continent in the book.

This is of course not a guarantee that the writers will write about their country or a monster from the local folklore. I am always talking with the writers early in the project to make sure they don't select a monster which is already picked by other contributors. We can't have a book with fifteen stories about vampires for instance. There are always one or two monsters which are more popular than others so I try to challenge the writers to think broader. As the book slowly builds and I know a little bit about what monsters will be featured, I can usually see what direction the book is leaning. I might then give hints and directions to the authors who haven't made up their mind yet, about what kind of monsters that are neglected. Also it is a balance. At the same time as I want a representative range of monsters I must respect that each region often has a folklore dominated by this or this kind of monsters. In Asia it was clear that demons, ghosts and spirits was the thing. In the Pacific Ocean it seems to be (of course) monsters in the water.

So it is an unusual and time-consuming anthology method since I am slowly building it up and taking lots of risks since I never know how the stories will turn out. Great fun!

Any illustrations in books (at least, outside of children's books) are enough of a rarity these days. What made you decide to go all the way in the other direction, with such a gorgeously and comprehensively illustrated book?
It has been our mission to give the monsters a renaissance as real monsters, a comeback of sorts with gorgeous art and in the style of a coffee table book, with short stories, art, and graphic stories. We really felt they deserved to be put on the coffee tables in the glamorous style right there the middle of the humans' homes. I am very lucky that the publisher Fox Spirit Books shares this vision as these books are quite expensive to make.

I'd never expect you to choose a favourite story or illustration, but is there something unique about the Asian monsters that you can share with us?
Oh I do have favourites but I would never share them! In the continent of Asia you find same monsters as in other parts of the world but what has struck me while editing this volume is all the spirits and ghosts who exist in much of the Asian folklore. Also, I would say that home is an underlying theme in Asian Monsters, but it’s not so much about the place but about the family itself and the strong relationships between loved ones, dead, living or not there.

American monsters seem timely, but Australian monsters are pretty cool. Which will be next?
We discussed the order quite long but Pacific Monsters is next volume up, covering Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, including Hawaii. The next two volumes after Pacific region will cover South, Mid and North America, including the Caribbean Islands, while the last volume in the series will take us to Eurasia, including Russia, much of Eastern Europe and the Balkan. So, four more volumes to go!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Problem Daughters blog carnival

As part of our campaign to fund the Problem Daughters speculative anthology of marginalized voices (see IGG fundraiser) the three editors (Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael & Djibril al-Ayad) are undertaking a furious but glamorous tour of blogs, interviews, and other posts hosted by friends and colleagues in the science fiction and fantasy worlds, and beyond. We'll keep a running link round-up of posts on this page as we go on for the next few weeks. (If you'd like for us to visit your blog too, or you'd like to offer to write something a guest post for us, get in touch!)

More links to come. Please check back for daily updates on the Problem Daughters Blog Carnival!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

#ProblemDaughters Book Club

The editors of the Problem Daughters anthology invite you to join us in a Twitter chat to discuss the project, and to ask the community for recommendations of books, stories, films, or other speculative works that successfully amplify the voices, lives and experiences of marginalized women, such as those who are of color, QUILTBAG, disabled, sex workers, and especially the intersections of these.

The chat will take place on Friday Jan 6, at 2100 UTC (1300 PST; 1600 EST; 0800 Jan 7 AEST). It will run for about an hour, and will be moderated by Elizabeth Fitzgerald of Earl Grey Editing. To find the chat, point your Twitter client or search at the hashtag #ProblemDaughters; to join in, simply make sure that hashtag is included in each tweet you want to share with the rest of the participants.

Please join us!

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Problem Daughters: the next Futurefire.net anthology

Today we kick off a fundraiser for a new anthology, Problem Daughters, showcasing speculative fiction by and about marginalized women, to be co-edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael and Djibril al-Ayad. You can find our Indiegogo campaign, all our goals and rewards, at igg.me/at/problem-daughters.

Like many good ideas, this began when a few people who didn’t know each other very well found a light-hearted chat veering into a deeper discussion of how we judge the feminist credentials of a story or film. The idea grew in the telling, as these things do, until we reached our brief:

Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, with a specific focus on the lives and experiences of women of colour, QUILTBAG women, disabled women, sex workers, and any intersection of these.

We’d love your support for this project, either by backing the fundraiser yourself (you can pick up some great perks, including pre-ordering the paperback or ebook, bundles of previous FFN anthologies, story crits, historical feminist dolls, or tuckerizations), by spreading the word to all your friends on- and offline, or by offering rewards or perks to add to the bounty!

This fundraiser will run for six weeks, and we’ll be adding further perks and stretch goals to our IndieGoGo campaign as we go. We’ll also be visiting various blogs and social media platforms to talk more about the project, and inviting guests to talk with us about intersectional feminism in spec fic more generally. We hope very soon to have exciting news about cover art, and all being well we’ll be able to share some initial images with you in the near future.

We’ll open our Call for Submissions as soon as we have raised enough contributions to guarantee pro rates, or when the fundraiser ends on February 14, 2017, whichever is the sooner. The anthology will then officially be published in October 2017, but perks will be delivered as soon as possible, and you can find us showing off ARCs at WorldCon in Helsinki this August.

We are:
  • Nicolette is a pirate queen, ruling her empire from her levitating Professor X chair. She writes stuff. Find her on Twitter @NBarischoff, or check out some of said stuff at nbarischoff.com.
  • Rivqa is a queer Jewish cyborg who lives in the future (ie, Australia), where she writes speculative fiction and edits science literature. She tweets as @enoughsnark.
  • Djibril is by night the dashing general editor of The Future Fire and Futurefire.net Publishing, by day a mild-mannered, bespectacled historian and educational futurist.

Friday, 30 December 2016

New Issue 2016.39

“I wrote from when I was twelve. That was therapeutic for me in those days. I wrote things to get them out of feeling them, and onto paper. So writing in a way saved me, kept me company. I did the traditional thing with falling in love with words, reading books and underlining lines I liked and words I didn't know.

—Carrie Fisher

 [ Issue 2016.39; Cover art © 2016 Pear Nuallak ]

Issue 2016.39

Flash fiction
Short stories
E-book versions coming soon

Review this issue on Goodreads

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Interview with Katrina S. Forest

This week we have a visit from Katrina S. Forest, whose wonderful mid-apocalyptic short story “The Poisoned City” appeared in TFF #31 back in 2014, and is now the title story in her self-published collection The Poisoned City and Other Stories. She answered a few questions about her writing, collaboration, and learning d/Deaf sign language.

Katrina S. Forest is a preschool teacher by day, speculative fiction author by any-other-time-she-can-get. In 2009, she had the pleasure of attending Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle, and her short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues, ranging from Flash Fiction Online to Crossed Genres. Her kids think she’s eccentric, but don’t say so because their vocabularies aren’t that big yet.

TFF: Your short story “The Poisoned City,” in TFF #31 two years ago, has a Deaf protagonist, a life-saving android, and a whole city trapped in post-apocalyptic quarantine. Where did the plot and the characters come from?

Katrina S. Forest: That story had an odd origin. I misheard something on a show I was watching and thought one of the minor characters was secretly an android. Then while the show kept going, I got stuck on this concept and started forming a plot around how the android might be holding a cure for some type of disease or poison. I was working on another story that had a deaf protagonist at the time, and her no-nonsense attitude seemed to fit right into the role I was looking for with the delivery person. So she got an alter-ego in that story and I got to turn my moment of confusion into a fun, creative project.

Would you like to have a robot assistant? What tasks that you hate would you happily assign to them?

KSF: I hate driving. I would be happy to have a robot drive me places. Of course, the car itself would likely be the robot. I am currently hoping that robot cars become the norm before my kids are old enough to get their driver’s licenses.

If you could choose, who (real or fictional) would be your companion in a post-apocalyptic scenario?

KSF: Hmm… let’s go fictional and say Hermione Granger. If I’m in a post-apocalyptic scenario, a companion with useful magical powers is a must. (Or am I thinking too practically about this?)

“The Poisoned City” was also the story that helped you gain acceptance to Clarion West a while back, I believe. What was the experience of such an intense, residential program like?

KSF: It was pretty crazy. Mostly all our time was spent writing, reading, or talking about writing or reading. It was six weeks of entering a completely different world. A lot of writers dream of writing as a full-time job, but this was more than that. It was writing as a full-time job in a building with seventeen other people doing the same thing.

I’ve heard other Clarion graduates say they’re divided as to whether the intense writing tuition or their new “family” of co-students was the best thing to come out of the workshop. Which is it for you?

KSF: I think it’s the family. Everyone there treated everyone else like a professional. It was okay to experiment and write something bad; you didn’t feel like you had to prove yourself to the group. I think often times in critique groups, writers feel pressure (valid or not) to show they’ve got some reasonable level of skill. They may only put forward work they don’t really plan on polishing anymore. I know my work has improved after Clarion West, but I think a lot of had to do with learning how to be critical of it and seek out people who will tell me what’s wrong, not just people who will pat me on the back and tell me I’m doing great.

Your current collection, The Poisoned City and Other Stories, explores the themes of what makes us human. Can you tell us a bit more about some of the stories, and how they approach this theme differently?

KSF: The collection largely consists of stories I’ve sold previously, but there are a few new ones in there, too. Some of the stories are about characters who are losing their human bodies. One character begins trading her flesh limbs and organs for synthetic ones. Another character is slowly transforming into an alien species. In these stories, there’s someone who views the protagonist as less than human, even though the person inside is the same.

Other stories focus on the commonalities we share—our emotions, our wishes, our desire to connect and communicate. Hopefully it’s a collection that people enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Have you ever thought of writing a sequel or prequel to a famous story?

KSF: Several times. When I was younger, I kept wanting to write a sequel to Rikki Tikki Tavi. I later got into Greek Mythology and I’ve taken several shots at writing a novel about the three gorgons. I always felt like they got shortchanged in the whole Perseus myth.

What is it like for you to engage with the Deaf community as a non-native speaker? You’ve mentioned that you have an editor who helps you with cultural sensitivity and accuracy, for example. How does that work?

KSF: So far it’s been very humbling. I’m fortunate; my area has an organization that, along with providing communication services for the deaf, also provides education for the hearing and organizes events to help bring the communities together. I’ve been taking ASL classes there for a few years, and all my teachers have been wonderful. I’m looking forward to when my skills are such that they don’t have to slow down their fingerspelling quite so much for me.

My editor is Chase from Chase Editing. We connected on a writing forum originally, and since then, he’s edited one of my novels and several of the short stories in my collection. For those stories featuring a deaf protagonist, he’s pointed out moments when I might not be portraying my character’s experience or culture as accurately as I could be. He also points out overuse of “that” and my comma splices. Thankfully, these are my more frequent errors.

Can you recommend any books (speculative fiction or otherwise) by Deaf authors or with Deaf protagonists that our readers should be aware of?

KSF: Deaf in America is a collection of essays by a variety of authors; that was one of the first books I read when I wanted to learn more about Deaf culture. If you’re into comics, El Deafo is a wonderfully heartfelt and honest book, exploring author Cece Bell’s childhood through vivid artwork (of bunnies!). Ms. Bell mentions that while she herself is deaf (with a lowercase d), she has not yet “pursued a direct role” in Deaf (with a capital D) culture, and her author’s notes at the end helpfully explain the terms for readers. If you’re a fan of YA, I recommend the blog Disability in Kidlit. There are a lot of books featuring Deaf and disabled characters that aren’t necessarily written by authors with that life experience, so getting the input of at least one voice from the community is invaluable to me as a reader.

I understand you’re currently working on a novel in collaboration with another TFF author. Can you tell us anything about that work yet?

KSF: I can tell a little, I think. The author I’m working with is Sara Patterson, whose story “A Sense All Its Own” was featured in Accessing the Future. The novel takes place in that story’s setting with Sara’s character on a world-saving mission alongside one of my own characters. Our book is tentatively titled Feral Prime, after the destination that the characters are headed towards.

Do you write differently when you do it as a collaborative work?

KSF: In the case of Feral Prime, the book is told from two POVs, so we each work on the chapters featuring our own characters, then we swap for editing. I’m going to miss it a lot when I write my next solo work… having someone guiding the book’s direction with me as we go is a huge advantage.

What can fans of Katrina S. Forest look forward to in the near future? Any more stories or other publications on the way that you can sneak preview?

KSF: Most all of my writing efforts are going into Feral Prime right now, but anyone who’s interested can always check out my website for updates: katrinasforest.com. Thank you so much for the opportunity!

Thank you for answering our questions, Katrina!

You can find Katrina’s short story collection at Amazon and other online booksellers. The first appearance of her story “The Poisoned City” was in TFF #31.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Guest post: Lost Manual for Life

The Lost Manual for Life (™)
Guest post by Jo Thomas

Futurefire.net Publishing recently (at time of writing) announced their next anthology, Problem Daughters, which will look at intersectional feminism and excluded voices, including (among many others) disabled women. Which set off a bunch of neurons in my brain, because I’m a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m not sure whether it shows to others in my writing but I feel that the experience of life it has given me does actually make it easier to write particular styles.

The best place to go if you want to know more about Asperger’s, considered to be part of the Autism Spectrum, is to go and have a look at some sources like the National Autistic Society. However, the bit that I want to mention is feeling like you lost the manual to life and everyone else has a copy.

This is, I’m told, a very common feeling. So common that when it’s mentioned to your GP or anyone else while you’re considering pursuing a diagnosis, the “But everyone feels like that” response will run the whole gamut between affectionate exasperation and outright dismissal. The main difference is that an aspie, given that we have problems processing facial expressions and tones of voice, may not actually pick up on the display of emotion that went with it. It depends on the aspie’s mindset as to how painful that disagreement is to them, not the feeling the other person was trying to convey.

Again, you may say this is universal, and I agree. These things are never binary and there is a matter of degree involved.

Because this feeling of not fitting in is so universal, it’s often a key part of a view-point character. As a reader, it’s easier to grasp what’s going on in a new world if it’s also new to the person they are experiencing it through or is describing it to them. As if they, too, are writing their own manual as the experience the world and adjust their understanding accordingly.

For me, this goes so far that it’s much easier for me to grasp the story I need to tell—and the world it is unfolding in—if I can hook into a particular character who is new to the world and to the plot I’m exploring. (Again, I have no doubt this is a “But everyone feels like that.” Then again, I can’t speak for other writers.) So it’s probably not a surprise that my first published novel was told in first person.

The first person in question is the young Elkie Bernstein who, in the not-so-urban fantasy 25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf from Fox Spirit Books, is a teenager without a manual when she finds out that werewolves really do exist. The first book is essentially Elkie working out how to write her own manual for life (something her creator has yet to achieve). Of course, even if she knows that there’s a way things are supposed to be, her plans are somewhat ruined by having monsters going bump in the night. Something her creator has yet to experience, thankfully.

Just when Elkie thinks she’s got a handle on things, despite not being on her imagined life-track, book 2 came along. A Pack of Lies (also Fox Spirit Books) is what happens when you realise that the world is bigger than you thought—that feeling we all run into when we gradate, or change jobs, or move somewhere new. These are all things that can be stressful for anyone, because the rule book changes and we have to learn what the new-to-us community or neighbours will or won’t accept. In my case, this is something I’m starting to realise is easier when one can understand more than the literal meaning of the words people use.

Now, of course, I have completed my act of trilogy, a common crime against fantasy writing, and Elkie’s world has expanded again. Fox Spirit Books saw fit to release this one into the wild as well and Fool If You Think It’s Over is due out in January. This time, Elkie’s manual needs to expand as she realises that no-one does a favour without expecting something in return. She’s also finally come to that stage of adulthood, required by the plot in order to tie everything up as much as possible, where she’s beginning to realise that much of what is happening is in response to her own reactions in earlier situations. It’s very rare for us to realise the full implications of our choices, and our misunderstandings, until it’s too late to do anything about them. Elkie’s misunderstandings and reacting without forethought has made her realise the manual needs to cover more than werewolves.

Writing Elkie has been about trying to make someone who had an experience that irrevocably moved their expected life-track and left their manual changed in a way that was difficult to get over. After all, 25 werewolves are going to leave a mark. Elkie, like the rest of us, has to deal with the results of every decision and face the next choice with the rules she has already worked out. As the quote goes “generals are always fighting the last war.”

Using first person allowed her to tell me the story in a way that made sense—and pulls the reader (and me) into Elkie’s view of things so that her reactions and mistakes are understandable rather than being just another young person flailing wildly in the dark. If she’d been given a manual, or even the script, in advance, I strongly suspect she would have refused the role.

I know the feeling.

Jo Thomas also has three stories in TFF: “Good Form,” “Hunting Unicorns” and “An Invisible Tide,” and can be found at journeymouse.net. The Elkie Bernstein trilogy can be purchased from Fox Spirit Books.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Interview with Nick Wood

We are delighted to be joined today by TFF author and friend Nick Wood. We invited him to talk about his stories and, in particular, the dystopian novel “Azanian Bridges” he published this year for NewCon Press. Nick's debut novel has been recommended by the Guardian as one of the best SF story of the year.

Nick Wood is a South African clinical psychologist, with over twenty short stories previously published in Interzone, Infinity Plus, PostScripts, Redstone Science Fiction, Fierce Family and AfroSF V1 and 2 (with Tade Thompson) amongst others. He has a YA speculative fiction book published in South Africa entitled ‘The stone chameleon’ as well as a debut novel ‘AZANIAN BRIDGES’ (NewCon Press: UK). Nick has completed an MA in Creative Writing (SF & Fantasy) through Middlesex University and is currently training clinical psychologists at the University of East London (UEL). He can be found at @nick45wood or nickwood.frogwrite.co.nz

The Future Fire: Your story The Paragon of Knowledge in TFF#33 features a panopticon-like dystopia, disability, race and an almost all-powerful posthuman protagonist who reasonably enough thinks he’s the good guy. Do you think it’s possible to write a story with only one issue? Or even one main issue?

Nick Wood: Well – maybe if it’s a relatively short flash-fic piece – and with a strong unitary focus. Otherwise, with intersectional identities existing in fully formed characters, as well as the complexity of the real world, I think longer stories should reflect at least some thematic density and diversity. The future should have a thick warp and woof, even though we act as if it doesn’t exist.

TFF: In Azanian Bridges, all the characters want to get hold of the incredible empathy box, for different reasons. Would you say that, in the end, no one gets what they were looking for?

NW: Like most ‘real’ life, yes! Even the empathy promised by the Empathy Enhancer ends up being a double-edged sword. As an old Stones song says, ‘you can’t always get what you want.’

TFF: As a psychotherapist, Martin (one of your two protagonists) often tries to use his professional knowledge and training to be in control of critical situations, and mostly fails. Being a psychologist yourself, does this reflect your personal experience at all?

NW: Yes, this reflects my experience as a human being in a world that seems to be unravelling fast. I have managed to get some positive movement in small scenarios, but ‘control’ has its’ downsides too and should not be over-egged, even though arguments have been made that an ‘internal locus of control’ is helpful. (That is, the sense that one is in charge of one’s own ongoing activities and fate.) I prefer control to be opened up and shared, however, to see where that goes, although this may be harder and more anxiety provoking initially. Many African definitions of identity have contextual or relational foci rather than seeing people as individual and controlling islands of identity.

TFF: Martin thinks that empathy has the power to defeat racism; that realising that other people feel exactly as we do would dissolve barriers. Do you think he is an idealist or naive?

NW: I think he is a naïve idealist – he would like us all just to appreciate our common humanity and ‘love one another’. But nothing is that simple, in a world still framed by the benefits and costs of colonisation. Further, in this overpopulated world of disappearing resources, fights between trapped rats on a sinking ship will increase. Unless the shock of rising water on our skins gets us to start co-operating, in order to protect a common but increasingly tenuous future. We humans are pretty good at denial and procrastination, despite our frontal lobes.

TFF: Do you think all white people are “a bit more racist than they think”?

NW: To some extent yes – for a start, most white people aren’t aware of their ‘whiteness’ and will insist on the need to be ‘colour blind’ to avoid racism. They can of course choose to do so – black people are unable to avoid racism and are aware that being ‘colour blind’ is a convenient avoidant excuse, for those privileged enough to be able to use it. So paler persons need to be aware ‘white is a colour too’ (to quote an academic paper by Dr. Nolte) and interrogate their own experience, as it’s so easy to suck in racist attitudes unwittingly from wider societal discourses. In the words of a group at the University of Cape Town, we need to find ways to ‘Disrupt Whiteness,’ in order to move towards real equity.

TFF: If you had the chance, would you actually try the empathy box yourself? And with whom?

NW: I would love to – and I’d do it with another animal, given we are all animals too. There is a dreadful ongoing destruction and killing of our conscious cousins the apes – as well as our other animal relatives, on the back of commodification of their lives. We don’t need to look for aliens elsewhere – they’re all around us, but they are fast being mercilessly exterminated.

TFF: Looking at the news of these past months, how “dystopian” do you think your story really is?

NW: It’s starting to look pretty tame by comparison. See question 10. I actually partly wrote the book to remind people of how close in history apartheid was – and something still so close, but supposedly consigned to ‘history,’ can easily re-emerge in ugly variations.

TFF: There are several foreign, untranslated words in Azanian Bridges. As a reader, I enjoyed them. I believe I even learnt a couple! Why did you decide to use them, and leave them untranslated? What do they add to the narration?

NW: The original attempt was to have the book published in South Africa, where there would have been no problem with the Afrikaans and isiZulu words. Given I ended up going with a UK publisher instead, I tried to ensure meaning was implied through context and these ‘foreign’ words were kept to a sprinkling, so as not to overwhelm the text or the reader. With hindsight, perhaps a glossary may have helped. However, I did write an essay, ‘One Language is Never Enough,’ on the importance of not anglicising everything, something the wonderful writer Rochita Roenen-Luis cued me in to. What other languages add are a crunchiness to the text, they make it harder to gloss over and make assumptions about what you are reading – they do what good SF does, i.e. they remind you this is not a white Anglophone world and that WME (White Minority Ethnic) is actually a more appropriate term in the context of the world than BME.

TFF: What was your reaction when they told you Ursula Le Guin was going to blurb your book? (I think I would have melted!)

NW: Thrilled to bits. She’s a long-standing favourite of mine, since I read her Earthsea books around 14 years of age and moved quickly onto her other ground-breaking works. Her Earthsea opener has a young wizard (Ged) at a school for wizards and written in 1964, long before Harry P. There are six books in the series, taking you through Ged’s lifespan and our relationship with dragons. Gorgeous stuff still.

TFF: You’ve been writing in the world of this novel for a while now. Are you planning a sequel or any other tie-ins, or will your next book be something completely new?

NW: I enjoy shorter fiction too so I’ve written a couple of shorts focusing on the unfolding ecological catastrophe as well as the financial divide between the one and ninety nine percent. I’m also writing a fantasy novella involving a family migrating along the south coast of Africa in post-catastrophic times. After BREXIT and Trump I’ve realised there is plenty of fuel for a British sequel to AZANIAN BRIDGES too – perhaps the break-up of the UK and Farage as English PM, the collapse of BRITANNIC BRIDGES? What a nightmare world we are descending into. Dave Hutchinson’s EUROPE trilogy (perhaps presciently) explores the fragmentation of the EU.

TFF: What is the most spooky or frightening thing that you ever experienced?

NW: Speaking with an archaeologist friend some years ago about an experience he’d had in a hut near a dig he was leading up the southern west coast of South Africa. Tim is a hard-nosed atheist scientist, with a materialist view of reality, but was obviously terrified out of his wits retelling his account of fleeing the hut at night, after an enduring visitation from a malevolent old lady ghost. He said it was either there - or he was losing his sanity. Seeing how grounded and level-headed he is, I was suddenly aware ANYTHING is actually possible. Tim’’s story seems to have been thinly fictionalised subsequently in Peter Merrington’s book Zebra Crossings.

TFF: Would you use a piece of art to tell someone that you love them?

NW: I have already done this on a number of occasions and will readily do so again. As an example, I drew and wrote a comic with a kick-ass heroine lead called ‘Brenda’ – and gave it to my partner ‘Glenda’.

TFF: I’ve seen an article few days ago, advocating the use of virtual reality to enhance empathy and, therefore, dissolve prejudice. You’re probably not surprised to hear that it reminded me of your novel. What do you think about it?

NW: An interesting development indeed and one I thought was probably not too far off when I wrote AZANIAN BRIDGES. I think it’s one way to go, but in and of itself it is unlikely to be enough to substantially change attitudes. As the article points out, you have to entice people into wanting to do engage with this in the first place – I made it into a competitive app game in AB.

Secondly, although the technology is immersive it is not fully immersive, in that you are not privy to their full experiential history, so identification will always remain partial. Thirdly, I’m sure there will be huge individual variation as to how much people identify with the experience of the other, partially based on pre-existing biases and prejudice. Finally, racism is more than a pejorative attitude to another – there is also comfort and privilege afforded to holding on to greater power and access to resources. So people may also actively discount their experiences of the other, in order to keep hold of what they may feel are fragile but ‘equitably earned’ entitlements.

Societal discourses within various institutions may further entrench this positioning. So, just for a start, we need to add another machine – an MM one – the Media Manipulator machine. Yes, I know one already exists in the form of RM, but like the EE machine, this needs to be appropriated by the 99%, to engender alternatives to the Daily Fail of the Sun.

TFF: What other developments would you like to promote?

NW: SIx Key Things (A-F Below):

A. African SFF – the newly launched African Speculative Fiction Society.
Voting is now open for the Nommos, the African SFF Awards. Geoff Ryman has a wonderful unfolding series of ‘100 African Writers of SFF’ at TOR

B. OMENANA – African SFF Magazine: http://omenana.org/

C. The work of Chinelo Onwualu – Chinelo not only edits Omenana but is also a wonderful writer. She is also co-editing ANATHEMA, a apeculative fiction magazine of work by queer POC, which has just met its Kickstarter goals. There is an extremely interesting podcast interview with her here.

D. ROSEWATER – Tade Thompson – A brilliant re-envisioning of an alien invasion narrative. A textured and gritty immersive world, with evocative words that puts VR technology to shame. This is set in Nigeria, like the Lagos-invasion of Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘LAGOON’, but ROSEWATER also shows how much difference two wonderful writers can bring, to what may look superficially like similar themes and setting.

E. Short African SFF, a selected some DOZEN significant anthologies/persons are:
  1. Hartmann, Ivor (Ed.) ‘AfroSF’, V1 (Short SFF) and V2 (FIVE Novellas);
  2. Arigbabu, Ayodele (Ed.) ‘Lagos 2060’

  3. Dilman Dila ‘A Killing in the Sun’
  4. Nnedi Okorafor: ‘Kabu Kabu’

  5. Lauren Beukes: ‘Slipping’

  6. Nerine Dorman (Ed) ‘Terra Incognita’ (Short Story Day Africa)

  7. Jalada – Afrofuture(s): https://jalada.org/2015/01/14/jalada-02-afrofutures/
  8. Nerine Dorman (Ed.): ‘Bloody Parchments’
  9. Billy Kahora (Ed.) ‘Imagine Africa 500’
  10. Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso: ‘Haunted Graves and Other Stories’
  11. Shadreck Chikoti – writer and key driver for Malawian SFF

  12. Wole Talabi - writer and also keeps a SFF short list at OMENANA. Here is also an overview of his favourite short African SF
  13. For a baker’s dozen, I’m keenly waiting the first African SFF short collection by women writers – Chinelo Onwualu?

F. Comics
  1. I have a round-up of South African comics here: 
SF in SA (28) ‘Is There Such a Thing as South African Comics?’
  2. The Comic Republic: http://www.thecomicrepublic.com/
  3. KWEZI is making giant waves in South Africa right now: http://kwezicomics.co.za
  4. Chimurenga Chronic: The Corpse Exhibition and older graphic stories http://chimurengachronic.co.za/in-print/current-issue/

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Interview with A.C. Buchanan

With just a few days to go on the fundraiser for the gender diverse pronouns issue of Capricious SF magazine, we had another chat with our friend A.C. Buchanan, the editor in chief, to find out more about the magazine, the theme, pronouns and diversity, the skies and beyond!

A.C. Buchanan lives just north of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. They're the author of Liquid City and Bree’s Dinosaur and their short fiction has most recently been published in Unsung Stories, the Accessing the Future anthology from Futurefire.net and the Paper Road Press anthology At the Edge. Because there’s no such thing as too many projects, they also co-chair LexiCon 2017 and edit the speculative fiction magazine Capricious. You can find them on twitter at @andicbuchanan or at acbuchanan.org.

We asked A.C. a few questions.

TFF: Capricious magazine has now been going for five issues. Have there been any surprises (good or otherwise) in how things have turned out so far, how difficult editing has been, the reception you’ve received?

ACB: There have been lots of surprises, but most of them have been minor—we received more submissions, especially at the start, than I expected, for example, and themes began to emerge in some issues even when not intended, and some aspects—like subscription numbers—were so hard to predict that I only had rough ideas in my head at the start. While not everything has gone entirely to plan, I’m really happy with how things have come together. I’ve had the opportunity to publish some amazing work, and made some great connections.

Tell us a bit about the diverse pronouns themed issue? This won’t be the first gender diversity to appear in the magazine, will it?

ACB: Over the past few years, I’ve had a number of conversations with people about how gender diversity is portrayed in fiction. I’ve also heard comments from readers that gender diverse pronouns aren’t easily understood, and from writers that they’re hesitant to use them in fiction, sometimes because they don’t know how, but more commonly because they’re concerned editors won’t be receptive. I firmly believe that gender diverse language is essential to portray our own world accurately, and even more important when we imagine other worlds and possible futures. So I’m hoping to put together a double issue (around 8 stories, depending on length) of science fiction and fantasy stories which all use gender diverse pronouns.

As you rightly point out, such stories are not new to Capricious. Our first two issues included “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” by Bogi Takács and “Moments of Light” by Toby MacNutt, both of which use multiple sets of gender diverse pronouns. I haven’t been keeping detailed stats on authors’ identities, but I do know that four (out of twenty) used gender diverse pronouns in their author bios. This special issue is very much not a one off; it’s highlighting just one aspect of the diversity of perspectives that is so important to Capricious, and which I’m working to increase.

Is there a particular audience (of authors or readers) you’re hoping to reach with this issue?

ACB: I hope stories like these become less and less niche; non-binary characters shouldn’t be only for a specific audience any more than female or male characters, and gender diverse pronouns should be as uncontroversial as adverbs (thought it’s possible that adverbs are more controversial than I realise…). But I particularly hope the issue’s audience includes other gender diverse people who love science fiction and fantasy, writers who might be encouraged to use such language in the future, and people who are unfamiliar with gender diverse language but, by the time they’ve finished reading, know a little more.

I have occasionally seen non-binary pronouns (in particular invented pronouns) used in stories as a marker for alienness—look how different from humans they are! They have more than two sexes! Do you think there is a problem with this sort of representation, if it doesn’t bring any real-world enby experience with it?

ACB: I’d love to see stories that depict the different ways alien societies might conceptualise gender and how it is or isn’t linked to their biological make-up or reproductive mechanisms. But sometimes those types of stories imply that all human genders are binary and cis and that all human societies understand gender in the same way, or conflate non-binary genders and intersex bodies, often exoticising those bodies as well, and I’d advise readers to steer clear of that. Stories don’t need to focus on human gender diversity—but they shouldn’t invisibilise it either.

Can you recommend any good, already published stories or poems that use diverse gender and non-binary pronouns in novel ways?

ACB: I’d particularly like to recommend Nino Cipri’s “A Silly Love Story” and “Geometries of Belonging” by Rose Lemberg, both of them stories I love for many reasons. Cipri describes a genderfluid character, using different pronouns at different times, while Lemberg imagines a world where (as in our own) multiple languages are spoken, languages which are gendered in different ways and have different ranges of pronouns.

What other plans do you have for Capricious magazine in the future?

ACB: The priority, of course, is to keep publishing, and make each issue the best it can be, with more great fiction, non-fiction, and cover art. But although I’ve no specific plans just yet, I’m hoping this won’t be the only special issue in our future - and I’m looking at getting some guest editors on board as well.

What about your own fiction? What are you working on just now—what do we have to look forward to?

ACB: I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo for the first time in several years! It’s fun to be back in that social, fast-writing space. I’m working on the third in a trilogy of novellas/short novels that began with Liquid City. I always have short fiction on the go - I have a flash piece called Syren Song that will be published in Kaleidotrope next year - and I’ve been experimenting a bit with interactive fiction recently as well.

If you could shut down the power so we all just have to stare at the night, would you?

ACB: This feels very timely; after a week of earthquakes and storms I’ve been revisiting emergency plans and going through the “what ifs”. And the honest, not very poetic answer is... I just really like the internet. I like infrastructure, and I like the ways technology assists my not-always co-operative brain.

That said, I love to see the stars; I’m lucky to live in an area with relatively little light pollution and I’m privileged to have visited more than one Dark Sky Reserve. So when it can be done safely and in a way that is attentive to people’s various needs, I’m in favour of… not turning off the lights, but maybe just dimming them a little.

What would be the most terrifying thing about being in outer space? And what would be the best?

ACB: Oooh, good question! Aside from the obvious dangers, there’s the potential totality of loss of communication. The knowledge that if something does go wrong, others may never know what happened to you, and that’s something that scares me if I think about it too much. The best thing is perhaps indicated by the fact that when I write about space travel, I always have a sense there’s something missing, something quite different from anything I’ve experienced. I feel like there would be something entirely new about it which I will never be able to predict.

The etymology for “capricious” that you cite from the Collins doesn’t sound entirely convincing, but it’s adorably bizarre! If you had to choose, would you prefer a true story, or a good one?

ACB: I think the best stories are both true and invented at the same time. Ones that are far enough away from reality that they help us see it more clearly.

Thanks for joining us, A.C.!

You can support or pre-order the gender diverse pronouns issue of Capricious magazine from Indiegogo, or visit Capricious online.