It could’ve been great

You know, the thing I always try to remember when I’m borrowing from mythology is to be a shit-ton more careful with still-living traditions than I am with those long gone or transformed away from their roots. I feel relatively safe treading on the threads of Egyptian myth because there isn’t a centuries-long-and-ongoing history of using, say, the worship of Bast as an excuse to steal people’s ancestral land and children in the name of Christianity. But you know what? I’m still careful, even with “dead” faiths, because I don’t know how playing with these things might hurt real people. Nations have been built upon and torn down by the concepts I’m playing with. The least I can do is research the hell out of a thing before I put a toe in that ancient water.

It’s even more crucial for religions that are alive, and whose adherents still suffer for misconceptions and misappropriations. But these are easier to research, and it’s often much easier to figure out when you’re about to put a foot right into a morass of discrimination and objectification. All the evidence is there, sometimes still wet with blood. You just need to read. You just need to ask people. You just need to think.

And whether I believe in a thing or not, I always try to recognize that these concepts, these names, these words, have power. Power is always to be respected, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, present or past.

(For example, I was careful as hell with the Inheritance Trilogy, because so much of that was inspired by real, living traditions. Sieh is a combo of Loki and Anansi and Coyote and Japanese foxes and more, but I did everything I could to strip recognizable elements of those actual gods from him, leaving only the archetypal bones. It’s never wise to antagonize trickster gods.)

Anyway. This is just to say that there’s a number of ways Rowling could’ve made her Magical North America work without causing real harm to a lot of real people. That would be for her to have treated American peoples — all of us — with the same respect that she did European. Pretty sure she would never have dreamt of reducing all of Europe’s cultures to “European wizarding tradition”; instead she created Durmstrang and Beauxbatons and so on to capture the unique flavor of each of those cultures. It would’ve taken some work for her to research Navajo stories and pick (or request) some elements from that tradition that weren’t stereotypical or sacred — and then for her to do it again with the Paiutes and again with the Iroquois and so on. But that is work she should’ve done — for the sake of her readers who live those traditions, if not for her own edification as a writer. And how much more delightful could Magic in North America have been if she’d put an ancient, still-thriving Macchu Picchu magic school alongside a brash, newer New York school? How much richer could her history have been if she’d mentioned the ruins of a “lost” school at Cahokia, full of dangerous magical artifacts and the signs of mysterious, hasty abandonment? Or a New Orleanian school founded by Marie Laveau, that practiced real vodoun and was open/known to the locals as a temple — and in the old days as a safe place to plan slave rebellions, a la Congo Square? Or what if she’d mentioned that ancient Death Eater-ish wizards deliberately destroyed the magical school of Hawai’i — but native Hawai’ians are rebuilding it now as Liliuokalani Institute, better than before and open to all?

Sigh. She just shouldn’t have touched North America if she was going to gloss over everything that makes this part of the world what it is — the grotesque along with the sweet. This is who we are, for better or worse. Our history — all Americans’ history — needs respect, not pablum and stereotypes.

I’m a HP fan. It’s been tough over the years, as I’ve realized just how representationally flawed the books are (the real UK is far, far more diverse than Hogwarts, for example), but mostly I stuck it out for the seven books. Hadn’t paid attention to the whole Pottermore thing before now, though, because tooth-gritting frustration does not make for lifelong loyalty, surprisingly. But my interest in HP could’ve been reawakened by good worldbuilding. That would’ve shown me that Rowling has grown in the years since the books’ end, and that her afterthoughts are sincere, if belated. Also, this could’ve made for a much better story.

Oh well. Coulda woulda shoulda.

What I’ve Been Up To For the Past Week

So, I went on a boat.

camera photo of an island against a sunset sky, boats in harbor and lights glowing against its silhouette

St Thomas at dusk

This was my first time on a cruise ship, and while I have to admit that cruise travel isn’t for me — it was intensely frustrating to visit an interesting place for only a few hours, when I prefer to immerse for days or weeks — I did enjoy doing it with a buncha nerds, a.k.a. the SeaMonkeys of the JoCoCruise. The whole thing is a massive, 7-day-long immersive science fiction convention, except it’s also got cool stuff like comedy shows and performances by amazing musicians, so really it’s a thing all its own. Not cheap, and not extraordinarily diverse, and I did hear one woman mentioning some accessibility issues… though I get the sense they’re working on all these things. But if you’re looking for a nice nerdy vacation? This is the thing. I went snorkeling! I had conch fritters! Too many highlights to name.

I was there as a performer, part of the writing track run by John Scalzi and Pat Rothfuss. Giving a reading on a boat is a fascinating experience, not the least because your reading might be interrupted at dramatic moments by a shipwide safety drill complete with klaxons and the captain’s voice droning “BRAVO. BRAVO. BRAVO. ECHO. ECHO. ECHO,” et cetera, at the story’s climax. There’s really nothing to do but laugh at something like that. But I rallied and read the damn thing anyway, as loudly as I could, and most of the people in attendance tell me they were able to hear it. And they were so appreciative of my perseverance that they gifted me with this adorable, glorious creature, whom I have dubbed Bravo the Dolphin. Thanks, folks! ::still tickled pink::

stuffed dolphin decorated with sparkly things and a button that reads BRAVO! BRAVO! BRAVO!

So, that was my week. Today is recovery day, while I regain my land legs — really disconcerting to feel like an apartment building is swaying beneath you, hope that goes away soon — and get used to the northern winter sun again. How’s your week been, folks?

Gaming as connection: Thank you, stranger

Haven’t talked about gaming in a while. I still play, all the time, but with deadline after deadline looming I don’t dare buy anything new that might actually be good. (Side-eyes Fallout 4, warily.) I’ve been settling for comfort-gaming instead. You know, some soothing State of Decay and Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer, and my favorite real estate investment simulator, Skyrim (with Hearthfire DLC).

But I did buy a new, old game that I’ve been wanting to play for ages, which I could finally get now that I have a PS4: Journey. If you’ve never played the game, it’s haunting and beautiful and cute and terrifying and any number of things for which its studio, thatgamecompany, should be commended… but alas, the studio broke apart after producing this game. Anyway, I can’t describe Journey partly because it’s just hard to describe. But I also can’t describe it to you because it’s literally a different gaming experience every time I play it. See — oh, spoilers from here on, though this game has been out since 2012 so I think we’re kind of past the statute of spoilerations —
Continue reading ›

My 2015 Awards Post, For Those of You Who Keep Asking Me What Eligible Works I Wrote in That Year

cover of The Fifth Season, a novel by N. K. Jemisin, shows a stone wall decoration that appears to be covered in flaking gold leaf.

…Well, that was easy.

My new side-gig

So, as those of you who follow me on Twitter and FB now know, I’ve been keeping busy in addition to working on book 3 of the Broken Earth trilogy.

photo of a newsprint page from the NYT Sunday Book Review. Print is too small to see.

photo posted by Pamela Paul

So, yep, my piecemeal gig from last year has just become a permanent thing. The new column is called “Otherworldly”, and the first one — which will come out in print on the first weekend of January — is already up online. (No, you don’t have to squint at the text in that image.)

I’m an eclectic reader, so the new column will obviously feature science fiction, fantasy, horror, some YA, some graphic novels, some anthologies, and even some nonfiction where it impacts the genre. I’ve got no problem with self-published or small-press books, although I believe the NYT has a policy forbidding selfpubs if they can’t be found in “general interest” bookstores, whatever that means. I like books that feature complex characters, period, but stereotypes piss me off and stuff I’ve seen too often bores the shit out of me. I don’t “believe in” the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, for pretty much the same reasons as Laurie Penny. Obviously I’ve got a thing for worldbuilding and secondary world or offworld stuff. I believe wholeheartedly in the idea that we all should get to dream, and I look for books that let me.

Some general things to note about this new column:

  • I am not a literary critic. I didn’t even take lit classes in college — AP’ed out. My graduate degree is in psychology. I don’t know Derrida from Adam. I’m not actually sure I spelled Derrida right, just now. I do have some interest in litcritty stuff that everyone in the genre is or should be talking about — e.g. Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy. But I don’t have years of training in analyzing subtext, etc., other than what a lifetime of geeky reading and writing has given me. Just something to keep in mind.
  • How’d I get this gig? Somebody at the Times approached me through channels and asked if I wanted a freelance job. No, I’m not telling you who. No, they don’t want your number. Why me? Fuck if I know. I guess they like my writing.
  • Don’t send me books. For one thing, I live in a one-bedroom in NYC that’s already close to being a fire hazard. For another, I still have books of my own to write; I do not have time to vet the entire SFF book world. If you want your book to be considered for review, nothing has changed: send your books to the NYT. Weren’t you already doing that anyway?
  • …Okay, if you weren’t doing it anyway, do send them your books. I can’t review what I can’t read.
  • If you’re a close acquaintance of mine, if we’ve done a writing or critiquing date (or a date-date), if you’re one of my former Clarion students, etc., I can’t review your books. Sorry! If all we’ve ever done is sit on a panel together, though, or exchange occasional silliness on Twitter, that’s different. Where’s the line? Dunno. I know half the damn SFF world in one way or another. -_- But if I see your book in the pile and I want to read it, I’ll explain how I know you to my editor. He gets final say.
  • My editor gets final say about everything, actually. I get a lot of say in what gets picked, but it’s more of a negotiation.
  • Also, there are apparently several other reviewers at the NYT who are into SFFH! (Seriously, somebody keeps snatching the Stephen Kings. It’s not funny. I want to read those.) So even if I can’t review your stuff because you’re my bestie or something (hi, besties), somebody else might be able to.

I think that’s it. Questions? Feel free, in the comments.

Sharing — and contemplating — a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming

I get a lot of really nice fanmail, and I try to respond to all of it (though I can be slow). But I got one last night that really made me feel warm and fuzzy all over. Mentioned it on my FB earlier today, but the reader let me know it was OK to post her note, so I’m putting it here.

True Story: So I ordered a half dozen white cotton handkerchiefs (men’s) from Amazon and when they finally arrived (took forever) they were in a box with two copies of The Fifth Season by a writer I’d never heard of but figured was a woman because of the initials. Contacted Amazon – said mistakes were made, how to return, how to refund, never ordered…blah, blah, blah. Keep them, said Big A. Not worth the price of return when the error’s on them, their loss, my gain.
“Celebrated new voice epic fantasy,” on the front cover, more of same blah on the back, but what the hell – I used to read this kind of stuff when I was a kid; Tolkien out loud as my own kid grew up. No wizards or Orcs or Rangers or Elves. No fairies or witches and (thank God) none of that vampire-teenage romance business. To be honest, tough going at first – who are these, where are these people? But a mother’s just lost her son and the world’s coming apart at the seams and pretty soon it’s clear that I’m sucked down this rabbit hole for good.
Be still and be brave, he tells her for her own good, and I think, this writer knows the way of it, as my heart breaks right along with a little girl’s hand. Everything about this intricate, difficult, beautiful story just resonated for me and I can’t thank you enough for writing it. What a joy it is to discover a new writer who manages to not only tell a good yarn but to reimagine a dusty old genre in the process. I look forward to reading more, more, more! Sincerely, Kathy

OK, pause —

Everybody-squee

OK, just had to get that out. (A box of handkerchiefs! I got a new fan from a box of handkerchiefs!) Let’s resume.

There does seem to be a theme running through a lot of the fanmail I get, along these lines: people who’d stopped reading fantasy for whatever reason have been reading my work and then feeling pulled back into the genre. And that’s awesome. I love that my audience contains so many “non-traditional” fantasy fans. But this is the kind of thing that shouldn’t be happening just because of my fiction. There’s plenty of fantasy out there with “no wizards or orcs or rangers or elves”… and while I think there isn’t nearly enough fantasy out there starring middle-aged mothers of color (or biracial polyamorous proto-goddesses, or blind black women, or Asian male ex-gods with daddy issues, or gay black male assassins, or shy black female healers, or…), there’s some other stories like that out there, too. So what’s happening here, that so many ex-fantasy readers — readers who really just need one non-formulaic book to bring them back into the fold — aren’t aware that there’s stuff here they might enjoy?

(squee)

Whew.

That’s a sigh of relief. One less thing to feel conflicted about. One more thing I can celebrate freely, easily, and without reservation.

I’m talking about the World Fantasy Award, which will now no longer be represented by the head of H. P. Lovecraft. My feeling re the whole thing is a) ’bout time, and b) whew. Because while I have no idea if I’ll ever win a WFA myself — I’ve been nominated twice and that’s awesome — I have watched other anti-racist friends and fellow writers of color win the award. It’s impossible not to feel that visceral clench of empathy when they speak of the awkwardness of Lovecraft, of all people, as the representation of their honor. I’ve heard a number of winners talk about the ways they plan to hide or disguise or otherwise disrespect their own award so that they can reach a place of comfort with it. I’ve contemplated what I would do if I won, myself. (Was planning to put it on full display atop my cat’s litterbox.) I never show off my nomination pins, because I don’t feel like explaining when people ask, “Who’s that supposed to be?”

It’s not right, that so many of us should have a sour taste in our mouths when we speak of triumph and achievement. And yet that’s the position we get put into by the SFF genre again and again, because so many of its honors are… tainted. The Campbell is named after a man who rejected stories featuring black protagonists on principle. The Hugo’s namesake was not without his questionable ideas about black people. The Nebula was twice awarded by a jury that included Vox Day — and yeah, people knew exactly what kind of person he was when they put him on that jury. They did it anyway, because “back then” (as recently as ten years ago) the decision-makers in this genre just didn’t think hating black people or women or Jews or queer people was all that big a deal. A lot of people in this genre still don’t. (We’re so open minded, we dreamers and futurists.) But now here we are, and there’s hardly an honor in SFFdom that I can win without adding a rueful twist to my smile, or a sigh to the end of my cheer.

It wears on the soul, having to think about this.

(And I do have to. A good writer understands how the world works, and doesn’t flinch away from acknowledging what’s wrong with it.)

I’m not calling for the overhaul of all SFF awards — though if the various folks involved decided to consider making changes on their own, great. I get that other people don’t want to taste this sourness when they talk about our genre’s best and brightest. I don’t want to. Which is why it’s such a relief that I no longer have to re the WFA (provided they don’t replace it with something just as problematic). Whether I win or someone whose writing I love wins, I can now whoop and clap and stomp my feet with the same abandon as everyone else. This seems like such a small thing to be glad for… but some of us have to take our small pleasures where we can get them.

Thanks for that, Nnedi and Sofia and Daniel and all the other folks who named the elephant in the room, and pushed this conversation. Thanks to the World Fantasy decision-makers who finally realized you can celebrate an author’s work and still acknowledge that hating black people is a big deal to some of us. Thanks also to the fans, who’ve endured endless circular trollacious contributions to the conversation (e.g. “if we ban the imperfect we’ll have nothing left to read!” even tho nobody was talking about banning and “how much BLOOD on the FLOOR do you WANT, SJWs?!” oh ffs really and “but he was so polite” and so on), and kept it focused on what matters.

Whew. Gonna get back to revisions, now, with a little lighter heart.

TFS Snippet

So, I’m working on the revision of The Obelisk Gate, now that I’ve gotten my editors’ notes. And as I work on it, I’m reminded of changes that I made to The Fifth Season, in turn. Like this whole chapter that I removed, which would’ve been chapter 5. This was when I was playing with having Alabaster’s PoV included in the story — something I ultimately decided against, because I wanted TFS to thematically be Essun’s story. Note that all of this is non-canonical; I changed some names of places and concepts, some customs, etc., as I revised. So, spoilers, sorta!
Continue reading ›

Time for a captain who’s a black woman, Star Trek.

I saw this article suggesting, among other things, that it’s time for Star Trek to feature a non-human captain. It makes sense worldbuilding-wise; the Federation is supposed to be a multicultural and multi-species society. I’d love to see it eventually. Still… at its core, Star Trek has always been about us imagining ourselves amid a bigger universe, and understanding through contact with others what makes us human. An alien character could do that, with good-enough writing. But there’s one more step we should take before we go that route:

A black woman.

There hasn’t been one as a regular on the show since Uhura. FIFTY YEARS AGO. She was awesome — I like the Abrams ‘verse just for showcasing that instead of sidelining her — but it’s long past time for another. I’m getting really, really tired of SFF series being able (however grudgingly) to imagine black men present, but struggling to even remember that black women exist. (Or worse, ignoring black women because black men are present, and playing the There Can Be Only One game.) I have some hopes for this character to be more than peripheral in the forthcoming show The Expanse, but I guess we’ll have to see. Who was the last one before her, Zoe from Firefly? Almost 15 years ago. Martha from Doctor Who? Almost 10 years ago. What, one of us gets to exist in the future once a decade? Fuck that.

I’ve been in my feels a lot about how hard it seems to be for other people to find black women human — worthy of empathy, worthy of human rights, worthy of a moment’s spare attention. A lot of people are working really hard to change this; myself included, as I keep making black women important characters in all of my books. But so much more is needed, and yeah, something as “minor” as who’s running the Enterprise can help. Since black women have historically been at the bottom of the social hierarchy of the US, I think it would be a bigger challenge for the show to put her in the captain’s chair than an alien, but a challenge that’s more worthy of Roddenberry’s vision. SFF’s audience has always been willing to see the humanity of aliens, after all. SFFdom has a much harder time seeing the humanity in some of us actual humans.

So I want a black woman as captain. I want her fierce with attitude. I want her to have natural hair. I want her sexual — hell, pansexual. (Hey, Kirk got his. It can be done without stereotype, with the right writers.) I want her to have a robotic hand, just for shits and giggles. I want her to use capoeira when she has to fight hand-to-hand; she’ll be beautiful. Damn it, I want her fun.

And I want her to embody the quintessence of humanity, because that’s what Star Trek’s captains have always been at their core.

So let’s do this, ya’ll. I have no idea whether Janelle Monae can act, but I nominate her just because she’s already got the vision. Or Jada Pinkett Smith, who can act, but only if she agrees to wear her Niobe hairstyle at least once during the show. Alfre Woodard would be amazing, ’cause she was amazing in ST: First Contact. So many good choices, from among the established actresses — but somebody new would be cool, too. Suggestions?

On Family

I’ve been dealing with an unpleasant family issue lately in my personal life. Not anything I intend to talk about here, and I’ve found a good therapist so don’t worry, but thinking about these things triggered some thoughts about family in The Fifth Season that I wanted to share.

Now, As You Know Bob, I am not a perfect writer. It’s entirely possible that I did a poor job of trying to depict the relationships in this story, which are admittedly complex. But here’s what was in my head: the black family. Really, any families formed under oppressive conditions — but obviously black families are what I know best. Now please note: I am not talking about The Black Family ™, which I’m labeling this way because it has been pathologized, idealized, fetishized, stereotyped, and essentialized to such a ridiculous degree that it bears no resemblance to the actual, wildly varied, humanly complicated families that make up any group of people. I’m talking about real families: how people grow and protect and survive together when their very personhood is in question. How love camouflages itself when it’s under constant threat.

There were three families in TFS, roughly matching each of the three protagonists. Spoilers, obvs.

Continue reading ›