Publication Announcement: “The Scaper’s Muse” in Glitterwolf #9

“The Scaper’s Muse” is included in Glitterwolf #9: The Gender Issue (available for purchase here)

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Through bad luck and circumstance, Gavin Camayo is very politely exiled to an alien planet. But Stahvi is a fascinating place, and his stipend keeps coming from the corporation back home, so Gavin doesn’t mind the exile so much. There’s plenty of strange wonders around to keep him amused. But what happens when a familiar wonder—the person who lands him in exile in the first place—appears on Stahvi, too?

“The Scaper’s Muse” is a science fiction short story about the interplay between identity and vanity set in an alien landscape.

Roundup: June 15-June 21, 2015

Black whalers in New Bedford, MA

Black whalers in New Bedford, MA

Paperbacks, Sales, and Free fiction!

  • Want Ariah in ebook format but haven’t gotten around to picking up your copy? Now is your chance! In honor of the recent SCOTUS ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, Ariah is available for $1 here until July 1st. Support queer love; support queer books!
  • Or, maybe you’ve been holding out for a paperback copy of Ariah. Well, you’re in luck there, too! Ariah is now available in both ebook and paperbook formats over at Amazon (though neither of those are on sale, FYI).
  • Also in honor of the SCOTUS ruling, I compiled three of my short stories–all F/F, all with happy endings, two of which feature characters of color–into a FREE collection called #LoveWins. You can download it here in mobi, epub or pdf: http://tinyurl.com/lovewinsstories

Ramblings Around the Web

Writing Update

  • The Search crept from 64k to 67k. Both Sorcha and Shayat miss each other, but neither will admit it (cue Dawson’s Creek theme song).
  • I started a short story tentatively titled “The Two Voyages of Pippin Tripp” and knocked out 3K words out of it. I probably have about 2k in it to go. It’s a retelling of pieces of Moby Dick from the perspective of Pip, the young Black cabin boy who goes mad. Sidenote: the history of Black whalers is utterly fascinating.

Book Review: DERVISHES

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Dervishes by Neal Starkman seems to be equal parts beat novel, radical feminist ethnography, and discarded Woody Allen script with a dash of someones’ physics dissertation thrown in as a garnish. It had a decidedly John Barth-esque quality to it.

The book is structured as the diary of a one Carolyn Anderson: assistant physics professor in Seattle currently facing a crisis in her professional life when her research funding dries up. Carolyn, in a fit of teenage cheekiness, dubs her diary “Lady Di.” The entries are conversational; an ongoing back and forth between Carolyn and her silent foil. Lady Di is a good listener and gives Carolyn the space to dig up her old war wounds. At the time she starts diarizing, Carolyn identifies as a lesbian, but she uses much of her diary to excavate her relationship with Philip Lester, a former lover with whom she never quite got the closure she needed.

In the mode of Woody Allen, the book tries to weave together philsophizing and blase comedy. Sometimes, as with an anecdote about a wayward crab on a beach excursion that starts horrifying and ends bittersweet and funny and revealing a humanity about Philip I didn’t think would ever get revealed, it works marvelously. Sometimes it doesn’t. Always, it’s ambitious.

The philosophical questions that the book wrestles with—that Carolyn and Philip and Carolyn’s current lover, Stephanie, wrestle with—are largely questions of identity and authenticity. To what extent, Philip asks, can one be truly authentic when one pins one’s identity on the prattle of others? If you say ‘I am X’ (a lesbian, a feminist, a socialist, a professor) to define yourself, and take on the trappings of that group, then you buy yourself some comfort from thinking. You buy yourself an in-group. But what is the cost of that?

Carolyn’s current lover, Stephanie, is a radical lesbian, and she veers the other direction. For her, everything is the movement, the community. If you are not fully bought into that, Stephanie seems to feel, then what’s the point? What are you contributing?

Carolyn spends the book spinning between these two extremes. And they are extremes, each as equally misinformed as the other. Philip’s myopia about groups and affiliation leaves him more and more isolated. His insistence that he might be a man, sure, but his refusal to engage with what having been raised as a man and what living in the world as once means drives a wedge between him and his beloved Carolyn as she develops more and more of a feminist consciousness. Stephanie, on the other hand, takes things as given which should not always be taken as givens, and her reluctance to ask questions leaves Carolyn suspicious.

This is, all in all, a curious book. I love that it’s voice is Carolyn’s—a lesbian scientist, someone who is not perfect and does not pretend to be, someone who struggles and questions herself and those around her. But I wish that Carolyn herself had been more front and center. She too often faded into the background for me; though it’s her book, her story, and her diary, it often felt like she was reporting on what other people did around her. And in specific, though she was a lesbian, much of the text was devoted to the autopsy of her relationship with Philip, poor doomed misanthropic unlikable Philip, who all too slowly mansplains his way right out of her life.

Some of this can be attributed to Carolyn herself, perhaps. Maybe she perceived herself to be more passive than she really was. It’s her diary, after all, and there is room to interpret her as an unreliable narrator. But that could also be wishful thinking on my part. I wanted her to take her life by its reins. She does so at the end, but over and over we watch, as ‘Lady Di’, trapped as this brilliant woman (she has a doctorate in physics, come on) gets pushed and pulled this way and that. Her inner monologue as it’s poured out to her diary is acerbic and sharp. I wanted her actions to be as acerbic, as sharp.

But, still, there’s much in the book worth liking. The characters are well drawn—though I would’ve liked more time with Stephanie to have fleshed her character out more. Generally I am wary of men writing from women’s perspectives, but Starkman was a pleasant surprise. Carolyn felt authentic to me.

3 stars

ARIAH Countdown: Anatomy of a Cover

click through to pre-order!

click through to pre-order!

Hi friends! Today I have for you a tour of the book’s cover. This Prezi calls out why certain elements were called out in the cover art and the relevance they have to the story. I want to thank C. Bedford once again for her incredible art!

ARIAH Countdown: Building a Genderqueer Culture

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Being gay, lesbian or bisexual isn’t an issue. Homophobia is the issue. While it’s a significant problem in the real world, I think that leaving it behind in a fantasy world is a wonderful and empowering way to say that being gay really is OK.

The above quote was written by Malinda Lo in regard to her novels Ash and Huntress. She writes about how in creating the secondary fantasy worlds in which her queer characters live she as the writer was presented with a choice—are these worlds homophobic, or are they not? Will her characters experience stigma for their queerness, or will their queerness simply be another kind of love?

I read Lo’s article just this week, but it got me thinking about why and how I created one of the cultures within Ariah. Towards the end of the book, in desperate straits, Ariah is forced to wander the eastern grasslands where the nomadic Droma elves live. The Droma elves are a hunted people—taken as slaves by both the Qin Empire where Ariah himself hails from and by the pirate colonies to the south of the Empire. The fact that they are hunted makes them necessarily wary of outsiders. The fact that they trickle into the Empire as slaves means that Ariah, who has a great facility for languages, has already learned to speak Droma by listening to the slaves at market.

One thing about the Droma language that has fascinated Ariah long before he ever meets the Droma in the grasslands (he keeps his distance from the slaves) is that they do not define gender as he himself does (or as most people in the real western world do):

And there was the question of gender, too. At first, it seemed binaristic like most other languages, like Qin and Semadran. There were terms for male and female, differentiations I heard the slaves use for those not of their culture and for animals. But I never heard them use such distinctions towards themselves. It took me some time to parse it, but it became increasingly clear that the Droma did not understand themselves as men or women, but simply as people. The slaves in the city, likely as a means of survival, acknowledged that we divided ourselves as such, and they must have understood that we divided them that way, too, but in the conversations I overheard they only ever used variations on the word voe—the Droma word for “person”—to refer to other Droma and themselves. It fascinated me—how could something so fundamental and so obvious as gender go unseen among them? And what did it mean? How could I be myself without being a man? I wanted very much to understand it, but it was elusive and exotic and always just out of my reach. I couldn’t help but gender them while listening: that one is a male person who is speaking to a female person went my thoughts.

Once Ariah is out in the grasslands, his only hope of survival is to be adopted by a Droma clan. When, by a stroke of luck, he is adopted by a Droma clan, he is confronted with this question of gender (or, rather, the lack of it) again:

I remembered the strangeness of Droma gender. I tried very hard to ignore all the signs of biological sex, to see the child as a person, as voe. If I was to encroach on their lands and ask for their help in survival, I felt the least I could do was get this one basic thing right. But it was hard. It took a very long time before it was easy, or natural, and even then it was hard.

So, here’s the thing about the Droma: to many of you out there they may seem strange. To me, they don’t. I’m genderqueer. I would fit right in. I didn’t set out to build a culture around that, one where I would fit right in—and actually I probably would only fit in in terms of gender because I really hate moving and am otherwise unsuited to a nomadic lifestyle. But the Droma evolved into an agender/genderqueer culture in my worldbuilding quite naturally. When it came time to decide, explicitly, whether they had genders it was easy for me to decide that they didn’t, largely for the reasons that Lo cited above.

Being trans* and/or gender-variant isn’t an issue. Transphobia and unexamined binarism is the issue.

Now this is already a long post, I know, but if you want to know more about what I mean by that, feel free to keep reading. I take a very materialistic approach to worldbuilding, especially as it regards to gender roles within a given culture. And, historically, cultures marred by a lack of resources—cultures characterized by lack and want—develop into very rigid gendered structures. Protection of lineage, parentage, and all that.

But the opposite often proves true as well. If the population is small, and if resources are abundant, then there’s no pressing need to pay strict attention to gender—note that paying strict attention to gender is code for controlling women’s bodies. But it could also mean literally just noticing and codifying gender period.

So, for the Droma, for whom the grasslands provide plentiful resources, and for whom roles in the clan are divvied up based on age and skill, gender literally doesn’t come up. Food and other resources are shared. Childrearing is communal, so lineages are not tied to inheritance or wealth or even parentage the same way they are in, say, the Qin Empire. It is a culture in which gender does not make sense. Even though the Droma have the same biological plumbing as Ariah (as you and I do), it’s still a culture where gender as a social construct does not make sense.

One wonders what kind of culture shock this means for the Droma who get taken as slaves—this is not yet something I’ve explored in my writing. Something I do know is that it has created a kind of minor reverse culture shock in some of my beta readers. At least one of the quotes above was added in edits due to feedback received because a reader thought Ariah adjusted to the Droma’s concept of gender too quickly.

I’ve said before that I like speculative fiction’s ability to pose radical ‘what ifs’. I think this is one of those for me. What if such a culture existed? What would it be like? For me, those are powerful questions worth asking.

ARIAH Countdown: A Short History of ARIAH

Today’s post is essentially a post-mortem. This is a short history of how Ariah the book came to be written, and then how it came to be published. I am always interested in that kind of contextual backstory, so I thought maybe some of you out there might be interested in it, too. Remember, you can pre-order Ariah here!

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ARIAH Countdown: What you missed on Radio Z

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In case you missed it, I was invited to participate in The Written Word, Zharmae’s weekly radio show. The live show took place yesterday afternoon, and the focus was on food in fantasy book. Both Christy Jones, author of Trinka and the Thousand Talismans, and I discussed food in fantasy literature in depth–everything from GRR Martin’s love of bacon to the way food symbolizes trust in fairy tales. The episode is definitely worth a listen, and you can hear it for free here!

I wanted to make sure my faithful blog readers were not left out of the Radio Z fun, though. On the show I shared this excerpt from Ariah:

I wandered east, endlessly east. After three days of travel, just as my supplies began to run out, I found a river and followed it further east. I survived mostly on edible water grasses and fish. I felt guilty about the fish until I managed to snare and eat a rabbit. I wept when I killed it and skinned it, and wept again when I ate it. It was a struggle to keep the meat down; the wrongness of it was overwhelming. Still, I needed the protein badly. After that first rabbit, I became carnivorous and killed and ate whatever animals I could.

This scene takes place nearly three-quarters of the way through the book. Ariah has faced capture, and has just managed to escape. By this point in the book the reader knows that Ariah was raised in a vegetarian culture–we have seen him turn down meat dishes politely, thoughtlessly, out of habit more than once.

Semadran culture, in which Ariah was raised, lives under the thumb of the Qin. The level of structural oppression the Semadran elves like Ariah live with due to the Qin leaks into every part of their culture–right down to the food they eat. They live in poverty, so richer and more caloric foods (like meat) are much harder for Ariah’s community to come by. Ariah’s people live in restricted neighborhoods with enforced curfews, far from the fresh markets, so food that spoils quickly is not practical, either. A plant-based diet is more practical.

But on an ethical/spiritual/political level (these things are tied together in complex ways for Semadran elves), there is another level of meaning here. Semadran elves are decidedly nonviolent, and this extends to their diet. In a social position where they find themselves mercilessly beaten, imprisoned, executed often by the Qin, one form of resistance may be a refusal to eat another being.

All of this rushes to the surface in this scene where Ariah, forced by circumstance, first eats a fish and later eats a rabbit. He has to do it. He has to eat that rabbit to stay alive. He knows this, but in the doing, he confronts a lifetime of enculturation. And he comes undone.

He comes undone, but his body overrides his shame and guilt. He so badly needs the nutrients and the protein that his hesitance is quickly overcome. This becomes the new normal for him at a pace which disturbs him.

New Pub: “The Demiurge” in THE WILD ONES

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I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “The Demiurge”, is included in the inaugural issue of The Wild Ones: A Quarterly Queer Lit Rage. The issue is available for purchase here, and I encourage y’all to check it out! Here’s a synopsis of the story to whet your appetite:

Sometimes a genius biologist needs an entire island to herself. Sometimes she needs to pursue her work away from the prying and judgmental eyes of everyone else. Temperance, a theologian, understands this about her wife. She whisks Vera way to an isolated island in the Hebrides, and there Temperance watches her wife’s holy genius unfold.

“The Demiurge” is a historical science fiction story brimming with big questions and mad science. Where is the line between science and religion? And when you find that line, should you cross it?

The really lovely thing about short stories, from a writer’s perspective, is that they allow you to step outside your comfort zone for just the right amount of time. There are elements in “The Demiurge” that were easy for me—it’s earnest, it’s speculative, it’s queer—but there were other parts that took me decidedly past what I’m used to as a writer. It’s historical and it’s not a secondary world—set in 19th century Britain. The main POV character, Temperance, grew up wealthy. I so often do not write wealthy characters, and she had a particularly restrained way of thinking that I found very interesting and very challenging to write. I like her, though. I like her secret feistiness.

“The Demiurge” has its roots quite explicitly in Frankenstein. But Frankenstein itself was a treatise on the question of religious and scientific ethics, a set of questions that fascinated me enough that I ended up minoring in religion in college almost by accident. This is one of the few times I’ve explored those haunting questions in my fiction. I’m grateful that it found a home with The Wild Ones.

Book Review: HYSTERICAL: ANNA FREUD’S STORY

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HYSTERICAL: ANNA FREUD’S STORY, by Rebecca Coffey, is an historical novel told from the perspective of Anna Freud. It is a memoir Anna writes on her deathbed, and in true Freudian fashion as Anna reflects back on her life—the choices she made, the actions which defined her, how she came to be who she was—much of her memoir centers on her childhood. And much of her childhood ruminations center on her relationship with her monstrously overshadowing father, Sigmund Freud.

In the Author’s Note of the book, Rebecca Coffey, a journalist by training, mentions that she did not set out to write a novel. When the various estates and Freudian strongholds kept Anna Freud’s personal letters and writings under lock and key, Coffey turned to fiction to fill in the blank spaces. This, I think, is an admirable approach—Anna’s is a voice that deserves to be heard. Anna was a lesbian, but her father’s work denounced her sexuality. At the same time, Anna Freud, of all of Freud’s children, was his clear intellectual heir and also his caretaker in his old age. They had a close professional and emotional relationship, but how did those theories about Anna’s “brokenness” affect her? Despite his warnings about the inherently erotic nature of the analytic relationship, Freud analyzed Anna, probably about her sexuality—what must that have done to their relationship? These are the questions Coffey sought to explore with her novel, and they are good ones. They are ripe for exploration. I was chomping at the bit to read this book.

This is a situation, ultimately, of unfulfilled promise. When Coffey allows Anna to delve into the questions above, it is only with glancing blows. The story behind the book—Coffey’s search for answers, the tired old Freudian vanguard circling the wagons and shutting her out, her turning to fiction to create answers for herself—is more intriguing than the book itself, which is a great pity.

For the book to work, Anna has to shine. As a narrator, for us as readers to carry with her, I feel the book could have gone one of two ways: she could have been blisteringly honest, terrifyingly honest about everything. There would have been anger, and evisceration, and confusion. A lot of emotion. A lot more emotion than she displays in the book as Coffey wrote it. Or, Anna could have been inherently unreliable—equivocating, hero-worshiping, lauding Sigmund in ways that betray to the reader that perhaps not all was what it seemed. Instead, we got an Anna who was removed and distant, smirking and gentle. It seemed it wasn’t her own story she was even telling.

The rhythm of the narrative was strange; so much focus on some episodes of her life and so little focus on others. This is, perhaps, an odd complaint to make here, but I would have preferred the book to be less psychoanalytically focused—I would have liked fewer exhaustive sessions of Anna detailing her weird dreams to her father and more scenes of her actively living her own life. I wanted to see and feel her actually fall in love with the women in her life and experience her grappling with what that meant—not in sessions with her father, but in her own mind and in her skin. Ultimately, given the tightness of the focus on the analysis sessions with Sigmund, and given the narrowing in on his homophobia, the book became more about Anna’s inability to save him from himself than about her thoughts or her life or her actions.

As a novel, the book suffered from a lack of characterization and flawed pacing. To succeed, Anna’s voice needed to be strong enough to carry the book, but Coffey never found it—Anna drifted into the background, and as in history, she was overshadowed once again by her larger-than-life father here. I applaud the intent of this work, but the execution left much to be desired for me.

2 stars

New Pub: “Real Monsters” in Cactus Heart issue #8!

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It’s my great pleasure to announce that one of my short stories, “Real Monsters,” is included in Catcus Heart issue #8! The issue is available for purchase here. Here’s the story’s synopsis to whet your appetite:

Scylla and Charybdis are sea monsters, but they didn’t start that way. In “Real Monsters,” Scylla tells her story. In Scylla’s version of events, what lies between Scylla and Charybdis is not death and destruction but a radical and vibrant love story. “Real Monsters” is a 3,600 word short story that uses Greek myth to interrogate what some conceive of as monstrous forms of love.

Cactus Heart is “devoted to spiny writing & art—sharp, relentless, coursing with energy and able to thrive in the harshest of places, all while maintaining a vulnerable, succulent interior”, and I believe “Real Monsters” fits that description well. This story was written fast: in a single sitting at an out-of-the-way Starbucks. In the preceding days, I’d had more than my fair share of brushes with homophobia and transphobia. I’d been put through the emotional wringer, and I was angry. This story poured out of me, a self-validation, an expression of unreserved and defiant queerness. I am glad it’s found a home.