Ignorant Mail, and Linkspam


I get emails from readers from time to time, and 99% of these emails are positive and welcome. (Thank you!) But every so often I get one that’s… soooo very not. It isn’t exactly “hate mail”. Generally I only get those via the comments on my more “controversial” blog posts, like when I complain about messed-up video games or movies. (Yeah, I don’t think those are controversial either, but the fact remains; I get more crap over the stuff I watch/play than the stuff I write.) I’m quick on the banhammer, so most of you don’t have to see those gems.

What people do occasionally send me, however, are what I’m starting to call “ignorant mail”. These are usually superficially-polite screeds full of passive-aggressive hijinx, many flavors of ‘splaining (man-, white-), and so forth. I’ve been lectured at length on how I disrespect the venerable epic fantasy genre by rejecting Campbell’s “hero’s journey” paradigm* in favor of heroines who don’t go anywhere. I’ve been helpfully advised by non-readers that they might eventually get around to buying my work, if only I make a greater effort to be like [their favorite author]. And today I got told that I was “playing the race card” because I wrote this story. Because most of the characters are black, see, and because the story actually talks about the racism of the era. Doing this is just like inviting some friends over to play a game — pointless and unnecessary, that is. The kind of thing you do just for fun, or as a tactic to win some prize.

::more sigh::

“The Effluent Engine” is meant to be a fun story, of course, because how could I not have fun writing a story full of bustle-wearing spies and derringers and secret societies and pecan penuche? But given the era it’s set in, I included some story elements that IMO it would’ve been disrespectful of history to ignore. It’s not real history in many ways; there’s an obvious divergence from the timeline of actual history at the point of the Haitian Revolution, which — in case you didn’t know — was not won by dirigibles. But I took pains to stick to history in every other way, as much as the narrative allowed. Norbert Rillieux was indeed a Creole inventor, though he probably wasn’t as much of an ass as he is in the story; his innovation to prevent Yellow Fever outbreaks in New Orleans was thwarted, and possibly stolen, by a rival named Forstall (Edmund, rather than Raymond). Norbert did have a sister named Eugenie, though I made up her personality from whole cloth. Rochambeau’s barbarous war crimes against the Haitian people are well-documented, and although I altered the name slightly, the Order of the White Camellia is based on the very real secret society called the Knights of the White Camellia, who thankfully were less effective than my creation. (Although they are theorized to have morphed into the very effective White Citizens’ Councils, later on.)

Of equal importance to me was trying to acknowledge the psychological and social impact of life in a slave society; for example the friction between Creoles and other free black people, between freedmen and slaves, and between women and men of color. The legacies of colorism, classism, sexism, and internalized racism still linger powerfully in American society today, so I tried to have all the characters reflect the earlier forms of this to some degree or another.

But working these things into my story, rather than ignoring them, was the wrong thing to do according to my detractor.

I’ll spare you this person’s rambling, condescending, self-contradictory WTFery; suffice it to say this one wasn’t even worth grading. But congratulations, Detractor! You at least merited a (brief) rant on my blog. Good job!

On a more positive note — I’ve been insanely busy lately, hence the slow updating. Sorry! But here’s some interesting stuff to tide you over in the meantime:

*I reject Campbell’s philosophies on the whole, because if not for him there might be more writers of color in the genre today. I don’t really care if he was right about some things. He’s wrong for me.

ETA: As folks have pointed out in the comments, I’ve been conflating John Campbell with Joseph Campbell, apparently for years. D’oh! Going to have to go back and re-read Monomyth!Campbell now; I might find my opinion of the theory improved if I no longer think of its author as a bigoted asshat. (Probably not, but we’ll see.)

Wikiwikiwikiwiki (shut up)

Cool points to whoever gets the subject line reference.

Just an FYI — I’ve mentioned this before, but finally got around to posting the Inheritance Trilogy Non-Wiki — that is, the notes I kept while I was working on the trilogy, to try and keep track of which godling had what affinity and where the Toks live and whether it was the Ken or the Min who were famous for their piracy. Why am I posting this? Because I’m not planning to write any more books in this universe — I’m not discounting the possibility of a creative bolt of lightning, but I’m not planning it — and because I figure it could be useful for folks who are contemplating fanworks, etc. Enjoy!

Now THAT was a trip.

Back from Hawaii. Exhausted, as one is wont to be after any 12-hour flight and jetlag, but it doesn’t help that I spent the whole trip doing stuff like this:

Me hiking Kilauea Iki; standing in hiking gear making goofy face

That was day 1 of the trip: a 4-mile hike around and across Kilauea Iki, which is basically the remains of a lava lake that was pretty jumpin’ — by which I mean, boiling hot and utterly deadly — back in 1959. These days it’s a much more sedate place, although the hike is substantially challenging even for people who haven’t just traveled to the other side of the planet and aren’t quite recovered from bronchitis. The ground is still hot in places, and most of the landscape there feels like something out of a desolate postapocalyptic story. I made it, though, and there’s no better feeling than finishing something like that. Better still, I decided to have lunch while sitting in the still-warm throat of an active volcano. Toasted my spam musubi over a hot crack in the ground, actually. Mmmm, delicious geothermal energy.

I also visited Mauna Kea, although I didn’t go to the summit (would’ve needed a 4WD vehicle — and the skill to drive it — to make it there, unless I wanted to go with a busload of retirees, which I kinda didn’t), and Pu’u O’o, the most currently active volcano on the island. Did the latter one via a helicopter tour, since I didn’t want to die; it’s been erupting continuously for the past 20 years or so. Apparently I’m now one of the last people to see the Lava House standing, as it was destroyed the next day! Alas, I wasn’t able to hike to the current site at which lava flows into the ocean; I was pushing the budget as it was, and while I can handle an old lava lake, I wasn’t about to go marching across a still-deadly-in-places lava field without a guide. But I did several next best things, so I’m happy.

And I did some stuff that has squat-all to do with research, like a day-long road trip along the northeastern coast of the island with fellow author and buddy Kate Elliott. Imagine spending a day talking about fantasy (and everything else) with an author whose books you’ve loved for years, and who’s as witty and adventurous as one of her own characters, while driving through one of the most fantastic settings on our planet! ::happysigh::

So. At this point I’ve been back a little over 24 hours, and I’m finding myself missing the Big Island in a way I rarely miss places I visit. The soft humid air, which my skin loved after being baked in New York apartment heat for the past few months. The coqui frogs, which are a recent and invasive addition to the island’s ecology… but their songs are beautiful. The food! HOMG, while I was there I had fresh local papaya, apple bananas, strawberries, kiwifruit, bacon made from wild boars, bread pudding made with Portuguese sweet bread, poke made with the freshest ahi tuna, sweet sticky rice treats sweetened with rambutan juice, and delicate liliko’i juice. I sampled kava (…ew) and listened to live folk music by the ocean and chased crabs along the beach on which the Kingdom of Hawai’i was unified. I wrote a chapter of the UMSP while sitting beside a koi pond at the B&B I stayed at (highly recommended, BTW), and even though I was missing Altered Fluid’s annual retreat in the process, I still managed to achieve that sense of inward stillness that’s so crucial for any writer’s creative process.

Hell, I’m even thinking about moving there, when I grow old and feel like retiring somewhere. So yeah. Good trip.

I’ll be posting more photos from the trip on my Facebook page shortly; just need a little more time to decompress.

Facebooking Hawai’i

No time/energy to post in multiple places, so for the next few days I’ll be mostly on Facebook, where I’m liveblogging (livestatusing?) my research trip to the Big Island of Hawai’i. You can see photos from today’s hike across Kilauea. Tomorrow’s menu includes a helicopter tour of the active lava flows, and hopefully a visit to the Mauna Kea observatory (depending on whether my rental car can handle the drive). Friday is assorted debauchery with Kate Elliott, as we get up to whatever shenanigans two wild fantasy-writing women can get up to and stay legal. Saturday’s anything-goes day, and then I go home.

Anyway, if you want to Facebook-friend me, friend away. I generally don’t post personal/family stuff on my Facebook page (mostly because I don’t want Facebook to OWN MY SOUL but also because it’s there purely for me to babble randomly at anybody who cares to read it. Might take me awhile to accept your friend request, though; sorry in advance. Busy climbing mountains.

And then it hits me.

This is where I’m going:

Kilauea at dawn, photo by Volcanodiscovery on Flickr

Kilauea at dawn, photo by Volcanodiscovery on Flickr

Off to Hawaii to research the coolest stuff ever. Back in a few days.

So, yeah. This happened.

Nebula nomination number three, for The Kingdom of Gods.

I found out on Friday, if you’re wondering why I’m so calm about this; had time to go out and celebrate with friends, recover from the hangover, and cool down over the last few days. But I’m still kinda ¡holyshit! about it, just more quietly so.

I totally wasn’t expecting it. Yeah, it’s common for the third thing of a trilogy to get nominated for the Oscars, and stuff like that, but I don’t think it’s particularly common in SFF. Also, I knew there was really good stuff out there to compete against this year — some of which I’ve read and raved about here. (Congrats, Genevieve!) Besides, I got nominated for fricking everything last year; the warmfuzzy of that still lingers. I was content to let it glow for awhile without trying to stoke up the fires again.

But, well, wow. Awed doesn’t begin to cover how I’m feeling right now. Seriously. Thanks to everyone who voted, and… yeah. Wow.

The Inheritance Trilogy: The Roleplaying Game?

woman wearing a t-shirt with RPG stats, from Zazzle.comNow, don’t get all excited. Nobody’s offered or expressed any interest whatsoever in creating a game out of the Inheritance Trilogy. It’s just that a fan mentioned the idea on Twitter, and it intrigued me, so I’m bringing the question here:

How would an RPG based on the Inheritance Trilogy work?

For now, let’s go with tabletop RPGs rather than a video game. Not that the idea of a Squeenix or Atlus take on 100K wouldn’t thrill me — ohholycrapyesitwould — but there’s so many ways for games like that to be formulated. Tabletops, though, are a little more strict. They need rules, stats, procedures.

And how on earth would someone apply that kind of quantitative rigor to a character like, oh, Nahadoth? His stats would change on a constant basis. The act of attempting to write down his stats would be a defiance of his nature and cause warps in the fabric of reality. The game would have to account for this by making changes to every other character, creature, and setting’s stats. And what about a character who’s elontid (the category of godlings whose nature fluxes and wanes — e.g., Lil, the goddess of hunger, who responds to the desires of everyone around her)? Their stats would vary depending on the context. It would be a numerical nightmare.

…But maybe my thinking on this is too limited. After all, I’ve never tried to create an RPG before, and have no idea what the process might involve. So I’ll throw this out to you. If you were making an RPG out of any of the books of the Inheritance Trilogy, how would you do it?

Not 100,000 Kingdoms, but quite a few

Just got another foreign rights offer! This one’s not signed yet, and I try not to talk about them until they are, but altogether The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is now available or will soon be available in a remarkable number of countries and languages. This is not an exhaustive list (because I’m doing it from memory; always a risky venture), but thus far the book has sold to:

  • Most English-speaking countries (Not sure about India; I’m a little fuzzy on whether everyone in the Commonwealth can buy from UK sellers. Frex Australia can — sometimes — and Canada can’t. It gets messy.)
  • Most Spanish-speaking countries
  • France (not Francophone countries to my knowledge, just in France)
  • Germany
  • Taiwan
  • Macao
  • Hong Kong (not mainland China, alas — traditional Chinese, not simplified)
  • Japan
  • Poland
  • Czechoslovakia

Nothing in the Middle East or Africa yet, but I have hope. And note that most of the above are print rights (occasionally ebook, no audio except English) and generally just for the first book of the trilogy, although some of the foreign publishers have come back to purchase rights for the latter books too. It all depends on whether the first book does well in the publisher’s country.

One of the things I didn’t understand when I first became a published author was how important foreign rights sales could be. This is one of the reasons why any author trying to get published should first seek a good agent, IMO, and ideally an agent that has an established relationship with lots of foreign rights agents. Many publishers ask for world rights, but then lack the infrastructure, translators, or contacts to actually publish in most other countries. By selling rights separately to publishers who are actually in those countries, there’s a much greater chance of the book actually coming out in multiple languages and markets. And the author might even make more money than if they sold the rights as a “whole world” package.

Not that we’re talking about a lot of money, note. Most foreign publishers are small, and there aren’t a ton of people willing to buy American fantasy novels in other countries. If I’m lucky I make (after agent fees; I do have to pay the foreign agents too, but it’s worth it since I wouldn’t be making the sale otherwise) an advance of a few hundred dollars on each foreign sale; if I’m luckier I’ll get royalties in a few months (or years). But considering it costs me nothing in effort to make these sales — the book’s already written, after all, and I don’t have to translate it — and in exchange I get the chance to build a readership all over the world? For somebody like me, who’s hoping for a long-term career in this business, retaining and selling foreign rights is absolutely crucial.

And no, if you’re wondering, I don’t get to see most of these books, nor do I have any input on how they’re marketed (except in rare cases). But it’s enough for me to know the text, translated or not, is being read all over the world.

So let’s hope for more! More Kingdoms! Ha ha ha!

Dreaming Awake

Explanatory note: This is an essay I wrote for the forthcoming anthology The Miseducation of the Writer — essays by writers of color on genre literature — to be edited by Maurice Broaddus, John Edward Lawson, and Chesya Burke. I’ll keep you posted on deets as they come.

Long ago, in the time before now, black people were all kings and queens.

This is not true.


There is a strange emptiness to life without myths.

I am African American — by which I mean, a descendant of slaves, rather than a descendant of immigrants who came here willingly and with lives more or less intact. My ancestors were the unwilling, unintact ones: children torn from parents, parents torn from elders, people torn from roots, stories torn from language. Past a certain point, my family’s history just… stops. As if there was nothing there.

I could do what others have done, and attempt to reconstruct this lost past. I could research genealogy and genetics, search for the traces of myself in moldering old sale documents and scanned images on microfiche. I could also do what members of other cultures lacking myths have done: steal. A little BS about Atlantis here, some appropriation of other cultures’ intellectual property there, and bam! Instant historically-justified superiority. Worked great for the Nazis, new and old. Even today, white people in my neck of the woods call themselves “Caucasian”, most of them little realizing that the term and its history are as constructed as anything sold in the fantasy section of a bookstore.

These are proven strategies, but I have no interest in them. They’ll tell me where I came from, but not what I really want to know: where I’m going. To figure that out, I make shit up.


Not so long ago, at the dawn of the New World, black people were saved from ignorance in darkest Africa by being brought into the light of the West.

This is bullshit.


When I was a child, my parents tried hard to give me a mythology.

I read every book they gave me. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (Verna Aardema) was a favorite. I voluntarily devoured volumes of Egyptian myths alongside the Greek and Roman mythology I was being shovel-fed in school. I eventually looked up the origins of my middle name — Keita — and discovered the half-mythic, half-real tale of Sundiata Keita, who might well have been counted among my ancestors.

Probably not. But my parents wanted me to be able to dream, and they knew that myths matter.

They knew this because they had been raised in the days when people like us were assumed to have no mythology, and no history worth knowing. Instead they were fed a new, carefully-constructed mythology: our ancestors were supposedly semi-animal creatures that spent all their time swinging around in the jungle until they were captured and humanized by lash and firebrand and rape. This shamed my parents — as such myths are meant to do. Generations before and including them wondered: if they truly came from such crude origins, did they have any right to want something more for themselves than powerlessness and marginalization? My parents’ generation was the first to really confront the lies in these myths, so I don’t blame them for trying to give me something better.

But as I grew older, I began to realize: the stories my parents had given me weren’t my myths, either. Not wholly, not specifically. My father has spent the past few years researching our genealogy. As far as he has been able to determine, I am many parts African, most of it probably from the western coast of the continent, though in truth we’ll probably never know. But I am also several parts American Indian — Creek/Muscogee that we know, some others that we don’t — and at least one part European. That component is probably Scots-Irish; we don’t know for sure because nobody talks about it. But that’s just the genetics. The culture in which I was reared, along the Gulf Coast of the United States, added components of Spanish and French to the mix. And the culture I’ve since adopted — New York, New York, big city of dreams — is such a stew of components that there’s no point in trying to extricate any one thing from the mass.

And no point in trying to apply any single mythology. I have nothing. I have everything. I am whatever I wish to be.


Very long ago, in the ancient days of the world, black people were created when Noah was sodomized by Ham, his son. In retaliation, Noah cursed all Ham’s descendants to be servants of servants for all eternity.

This is… I don’t even know what the hell this is.


J. R. R. Tolkien, the near-universally-hailed father of modern epic fantasy, crafted his magnum opus The Lord of the Rings to explore the forces of creation as he saw them: God and country, race and class, journeying to war and returning home. I’ve heard it said that he was trying to create some kind of original British mythology using the structure of other cultures’ myths, and maybe that was true. I don’t know. What I see, when I read his work, is a man trying desperately to dream.

Dreaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch onto those of others — even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this, I think because it’s human nature. Call it the superego, call it common sense, call it pragmatism, call it learned helplessness, but the mind craves boundaries. Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast, or crushingly tight.

Throughout my life as I’ve sought to become a published writer of speculative fiction, my strongest detractors and discouragers have been other African Americans. These were people who had, like generations before them, bought into the mythology of racism: black people don’t read. Black people can’t write. Black people have no talents other than singing and dancing and sports and crime. No one wants to read about black people, so don’t write about them. No one wants to write about black people, which is why you never see a black protagonist. Even if you self-publish, black people won’t support you. And if you aim for traditional publication, no one who matters — that is, white people — will buy your work.

(A corollary of all this: there is only black and white. Nothing else matters.)

Having swallowed these ideas, people regurgitated them at me at nearly every turn. And for a time, I swallowed them, too. As a black woman, I believed I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. Simultaneously I believed I was supposed to write about black people — and only black people. And only within a strictly limited set of topics deemed relevant to black people, because only black people would ever read anything I’d written. Took me years after I started writing to create a protagonist who looked like me. And then once I started doing so, it took me years to write a protagonist who was something different.

Myths tell us what those like us have done, can do, should do. Without myths to lead the way, we hesitate to leap forward. Listen to the wrong myths, and we might even go back a few steps.


Throughout history, all over this world, black people have been scholars and inventors, hard workers on whose backs more than one nation was built.

This is true, but not the whole truth.


After my parents divorced, I spent every summer visiting my father in New York. We spent every night of those summers watching Star Trek (the original series) and The Twilight Zone, which came on back to back in syndication on Channel Eleven. It was father-daughter bonding over geekery. It was also, for me, a lesson in how hard it was to dream of the future when every depiction of it said you don’t have one.

Because Star Trek takes place 500 years from now, supposedly long after humanity has transcended racism, sexism, etc. But there’s still only one black person on the crew, and she’s the receptionist.

This is disingenuous. I know now what I did not understand then: that most science fiction doesn’t realistically depict the future; it reflects the present in which it is written. So for the 1960s, Uhura’s presence was groundbreaking — and her marginalization was to be expected. But I wasn’t watching the show in the 1960s. I was watching it in the 1980s, amid the destitute, gritty New York of Tawana Brawley and Double Dutch and Public Enemy. I was watching it as one of five billion members of the human species — nearly 80% of whom were people of color even then. I was watching it as a tween/teen girl who’d grown up being told that she could do anything if she only put her mind to it, and I looked to science fiction to provide me with useful myths about my future: who I might become, what was possible, how far I and my descendants might go.

The myth that Star Trek planted in my mind: people like me exist in the future, but there are only a few of us. Something’s obviously going to kill off a few billion people of color and the majority of women in the next few centuries. And despite it being, y’know, the future, my descendants’ career options are going to be even more limited than my own.

Fortunately in 1992, reality gave me a better myth: Mae Jemison became the first black woman in space. She wasn’t the goddamn receptionist. Only after that came Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with its much-vaunted black captain.


In the present, black people can be anything they want to be.

This is not true. Yet.


For a long time, I was ashamed that I wrote science fiction and fantasy.

I write a little of everything — cyberpunk, dark fantasy, slipstream, space opera, liminal fantasy. But it bothered me most to write epic fantasy because, well, as far as I knew, epic fantasy was Tolkien’s British mythos. It was D&D campaigns writ large with stalwart pale-skinned people killing Always Chaotic Evil dark-skinned people, if the latter were even given the courtesy of being called people. It was doorstopper-sized novels whose covers were emblazoned with powerful-looking white characters brandishing enormous phallic symbols; it was stories set in medieval pseudo-England about bookworms or farmboys becoming wealthy, mighty kings and getting the (usually blonde) girl. Epic fantasy was certainly not black women doing… well, anything.

And that’s because there were no black women in the past, right? There will be no black women in the future. There have never been black women in any speculated setting. There are black women in reality, but that reality is constrained within wholly different myths from what’s seen in fantasy novels. (The Welfare Queen. The Music Video Ho. The Jezebel. The Help.)

And once upon a time I wondered: Is writing epic fantasy not somehow a betrayal? Did I not somehow do a disservice to my own reality by paying so much attention to the power fantasies of disenchanted white men?

But. Epic fantasy is not merely what Tolkien made it.

This genre is rooted in the epic — and the truth is that there are plenty of epics out there which feature people like me. Sundiata’s badass mother. Dihya, warrior queen of the Amazighs. The Rain Queens. The Mino Warriors. Hatshepsut’s reign. Everything Harriet Tubman ever did. And more, so much more, just within the African components of my heritage. I haven’t even begun to explore the non-African stuff. So given all these myths, all these examinations of the possible… how can I not imagine more? How can I not envision an epic set somewhere other than medieval England, about someone other than an awkward white boy? How can I not use every building-block of my history and heritage and imagination when I make shit up?

And how dare I disrespect that history, profane all my ancestors’ suffering and struggles, by giving up the freedom to imagine that they’ve won for me.

So here is why I write what I do: We all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories. And we all, every single one of us, no matter who we are and no matter what’s been taken from us or what poison we’ve internalized or how hard we’ve had to work to expel it —

— we all get to dream.


In the future, as in the present, as in the past, black people will build many new worlds.

This is true. I will make it so. And you will help me.

Attack of the Cute, Launches and Lunges

Sorry for the silence lately; been down with the plague, otherwise known as my annual bout of cold which turns into a sinus infection which turns into bronchitis. I’ve got an appointment with the doctor on Friday, and I’ve had it before and know how to take care of myself, so don’t worry. But I’m low energy — that’s the infection part — and afflicted with a painful, constant cough, so thus the lack of blogging. Barely got the energy to write, to be honest.

It probably doesn’t help that, when I began to feel a bit better last weekend, I stupidly went to my new gym and tried a cardio kickboxing class that was absolutely amazing — and exhausting. I’m still sore, and I’m pretty sure I wore myself out so much that the infection shunted to my lungs. I really should know better. But I’ve been on a fitness kick lately, trying to get back into shape because a) I used to be, before the 9 to 5, and b) I need to be, before I go to Hawaii at the end of this month for my UMSP research trip. Along with the helicopter tour of active lava vents, I’m hoping to do a hike across the Kilauea crater. It’s a mild hike, and I’m a moderately experienced hiker, but it’ll be new territory and I can’t do it if I’m in crappy shape. Can’t do it if I’m sick either, tho’, so gotta take it easy awhile.

But although I haven’t been blogging, I have been busy. Among other things, I’ve been trying to get the word out about a couple of friends of mine who’ve got new books coming out. E. C. Myers is gearing up for the launch of his first novel with a giveaway at Goodreads. Sign up for your chance! And Saladin Ahmed’s first novel, the Arabian-flavored epic fantasy Throne of the Crescent Moon, launches this week! Both these guys were in my writing group, and I’ve seen and loved their work for years. Glad to see them jump the line to published novelists at last!

And speaking of up-and-coming writers… The Shared Worlds writing workshop nurtures teen writers, and they’re doing a fundraising drive right now. To promote this, the workshop organizers did something hilariously creative: the Critter Map, an interactive mosaic featuring incredibly cute art by Jeremy Zerfoss and delightful mythmaking by me and a whole bunch of other authors, including Neil Gaiman, Scott Westerfeld, and many others. Go look! Admire the cuteness! And donate!