37 - Jenn Brissett, Author of Elysium

This episode, Jenn Brissett, the author of Elysium, joins me to talk about her history with the genre, how Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing led to her own adventure, and how to structure a novel when the plot isn't a straightforward path between points A, B, and C.  I also fansquee just a bit as I uncover some of the genius of Elysium in the midst of the conversation, and at the end I share a story about faith told in the moments of books I've read.

Nasmina's Black Box (mentioned in the interview)

A Song For You (a personal favorite story)

Previous Episode, including Jenn's memories of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Recent interview on the MF Galaxy Podcast

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

Send feedback! Tweet meTweet the showBe a guest on the show

Music - Jazzy Ashes by The Underscore Orkestra

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JB - Each one is a Story.  Each one is a life.

*Intro Music*

JSM - Welcome to Cabbages & Kings, the Podcast for readers of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  I'm your host, Jonah Sutton-Morse.

My guest this episode is Jenn Brissett, she's a writer artist, former bookshop owner and web developer.  her debut novel Elysium, in addition to being one of my favorite books from last year, received the 2014 Philip K Dick Special Citation award, it was a finalist for the 2015 Locus Award for best first novel & placed on the honor list for the Tiptree award.  I found it wonderful, I found the structure very interesting, I found the ways that it played with notions of reality and also gender and the constant characters shifting gender & shifting settings really wonderful.  It was a tough first read for me, I was kind of OK on it, and the more I have thought about it since I finished it, the more it's really grown on me and I've really enjoyed it, so thank you for that.

JB - Thank you, thank you.

JSM - I tend to start by asking my guests how they got into Science Fiction & Fantasy and Speculative, and how much they read other things, my sense is that you are a lot more omnivorous than I am. Where did your reading come from and what are you reading now?

JB - Oh boy, well let's see, I've always been a reader, I have a difficult time reading so it's always a challenge for me to read, but I've always read a lot and growing up I don't think there was, they really understood that kids needed guidance, in their reading *laughter* so I mean I grabbed a lot of stuff that was, y'know, probably not appropriate for me to read but um I think from y'know picking up all kinds of crazy books, because I grew up in Cambridge, MA and at the time there were just a lot of bookstores there, and I would find myself in a corner, a dusty corner with a pile of books trying to read stuff, and it's not that Science Fiction wasn't of interest to me, but I just wasn't reading it and I really didn't have any guidance in it and I just read a lot of other kinds of stuff, sometimes silly stuff, but as I got into college I started to figure out that I was a little bit behind because all of the other kids had reading lists in their summer so they had read Moby Dick and all this stuff and I had not read any of that stuff. So, I started trying to figure out how to read on my own and I was, y'know somehow I got into Dostoyevsky. Do not ask me how! 

JSM - *laugh*

JB - *laugh* but I did, I got into that and I started trying to read some of those kind of british classics, y'know Thomas Hardy and all that kind of stuff because I was just trying to figure out how to catch up, and uhm I started reading things like, I mean I saw people around campus reading Malcolm X, so I'm reading Malcolm X, and I was just trying to catch up to everybody. I had a friend on our floor, I was an engineering student, I got my degree in electrical engineering, but there was a kid on my floor who had the Foundation Series, and I'd not, I think I had heard of Asimov, but I really didn't clue in to who he was, and what it was all about, and I asked him y'know can I look at the first book? and he said SURE, y'know he just seemed to like glow, I'm going to introduce somebody to Asimov kind of thing

JSM - yeah

JB - *laugh* and I read the first one, and I was like, I really got into it, and I came back for the second one and he was just glowing every time I came back, y'know the next week I'd come back for and Asimov was actually a professor emeritus at BU when I was there, so I got to see him, ah, speak so now I was like excited to see him speak because I actually knew who he was, so all us engineering kids went over there for it was like the 200th Anniversary of BU and they had this big symposium and huge crowd and Asimov was up there speaking about whatever he was speaking about, it was very exciting but I don't think even then, I mean that might have been my first inkling about SF, but I really didn't clue in to being Being a Writer at all, or that I would write Science Fiction. I guess when it really started to hit me is like after many many years now, I was an engineer for a while and then I cashed out back in the days when you could do that sort of thing, IPO and all that stuff I opened up the bookstore and I ran the bookstore for about three years and when that finally went away, in a very y'know *laughter* not fun way, because the economy and my life was somewhat destroyed, I had to start doing something with my life and I started writing, because it was really, to sort of stay sane. And I was really just confused for a number of years after the store closed and I would just get up at night and just start fiddling around with some stories, fiddling around with different things, not telling anybody I was doing it, oh my gosh *laughter* y'know it was just really, really bad stuff but it was really, it was getting stuff out of my system, and um around, I guess it was 2006 when Octavia Butler died, it was like this huge wakeup call, it just, y'know, meaning when I heard Amy Goodman announce that she had passed away, um, I, I, just shot straight up out of bed I was sleeping kind of listening to the radio and sort of sleeping in the morning and I was just floored, I just, and it that really made everything a lot more serious, and it sort of it was the, maybe the jerk that I needed to realize that y'know what, I should write, if I'm gonna do this writing thing than I should at least take it seriously and see what I can do. I started doing all the things new authors have to do like brush up on my grammar and I started taking all these books out of y'know used bookstores or whatever to really help y'know improve my writing, those kind of writing improvement books I went through so many of those things, I did them diligently I got my notebook & I really, really kind of cleaned up the way I wrote & started investigating the science fiction world, which I didn't know really that much about I was more of a fan and a very distant fan at that I didn't know anything about the field, I really didn't know about who the current people were who were writing, I didn't know anything, I really was just completely new.  And  I started listening to podcasts, because they were kind of new and um, and I listened to this podcast called Adventures in Science Fiction Publishing I think I got into it just because of the name, and they seemed to have a focus on new writers, and, ah, one summer when Clarion was having this crazy list of writers going to be the teachers, I think Neil Gaiman and James Patrick Kelly and Mary Ann Mohanraj and oh gosh I think Nalo Hopkinson and Justin Ryman, I mean it was just like this crazy list of people who ... and everybody in the world applied, including myself, and of course I did not get in, um, I've never gone to Clarion, I've applied 3 times, have not got in, that's fine *laugh* but, that summer Adventures in SF Publishing interviewed every one of the writers that taught at Clarion at the end of the week

JSM - Interesting

JB - So you got to hear them, what they had to talk about in the class, and it was like, oh, I'm totally going to listen to that if I can't go, I'm gonna at least listen, so I listened to all of them one by one, and the person who really energized me was James Patrick Kelley, I mean he's just full of energy, and just so enthusiastic and just really had all these great things to say, and then he mentioned that he was teaching at this place called Stonecoast, it was like an MFA program, and I said an um by then I was like, what could I lose, I mean I applied, it's the only graduate program I applied, I had no intention of getting a master's in anything, but I figured why not apply, y'know, and um I got in *laughs*

And lo and behold, James Patrick Kelly became my mentor, and I started writing seriously then, and Elysium ended up being my master's thesis, so about two years after that, y'know I had a full novel

*interstitial music*

JSM - It's so interesting ... partly ... it's amazing to me just to hear you say it & kind of the the string of events that led there, but it's also interesting as I talk to more people about how they got interested in the genre or as you hear writers tell their stories y'know the story about oh I've been writing since I was ... since I was six, I've always been ..

JB - yeah

JSM - It's fascinating how many different stories everybody has.

JB - I was definitely not one of those that said oh by 11 I knew I was going to be a writer & I was studying, no that was not me. *laugh*

That was completely not me.

*interstitial music*

JSM - There's this ongoing off and on discussion about Canon and what it means to have a Canon & how to find a Canon and the ways that Canons are confining and

JB mmm

JSM - Assert power hierarchies and it's interesting that it sounds like part of what you did especially with just general reading when you got to college was like what are the books I am supposed to have read & the weight of that,  do you feel that either with SFF as you're writing in it, or do you feel it generally, 

JB - Very, very good question actually, um because definitely I felt it in my early 20s, that's like I have to catch up feeling, and I just felt so behind, and all I was doing was trying to figure out what I should read, and in engineering school they don't exactly encourage you to read, but I still really wanted to do that.

because I really just felt like I couldn't have a decent conversation with another educated person if I didn't know, and I was missing out on jokes, or something y'know because people were making references to things & I was like I don't know what they're talking about.

So I definitely felt that pressure in my 20s.  And then past a certain point I started reading stuff on my own that I just, that weren't part of "oh you should know this book" kinda stuff, they were stuff that was just wanted to read, like I wanted to read Toni Morrisson & Gloria Mailer at that time, so I was reading that kind of work. and then after a while I started to realize that I was getting past people who had y'know read the quote unquote Canon but just stopped.

like they read what they were supposed to and then they were, y'know they were done, and I kept going.  and I, I find reading to be very enriching of my life, like a book I read like 20 years ago, something will happen in my life and something about that book will sort of put it into focus, so reading for me is very very almost spiritual experience and I'm so, I'm saying this in that when I got into Science Fiction yes I did feel a pressure to sort of read whatever the science fiction Canon is, and I quickly got over that um, because I realize that it was the same thing, that I was feeling with mainstream fiction. that the Canon and what people are sort of saying "you have to have read this, you have to have read Heinlein, you have to have read all this guy and that guy" um, it's not, it's just none of it is true.  I think it's helpful to just read what you like, read what you enjoy,

JSM - You mentioned reading being almost spiritual for you, does the, do you care physical books, electronic books, I'm going to assume based on having owned a bookstore that you're probably a physical book person, but does it matter to you? are you an audio book person?

JB - Oh I'm definitely, I fell into audiobooks a couple years ago, because I had bronchitis, when I had bronchitis I couldn't physically read and so I started listening to audiobooks because I couldn't sleep either so I was up 24/7 lying there with fever and I listened to so many books, I mean yes I listened to all of the George R R Martin

JSM - *laugh*

JB - The Fire and Ice stuff, but I listened to Don Quixote, I listened to, I just really long, long books um, so I'm really, I got into audiobooks, I'm sort of peeling away from that these days, physical books I do prefer, I haven't, I'm able to read articles and short stories on my tablet, but other than that I really have a hard time writing long, reading longer pieces electronically.  I do use my Tablet for my comic books, and I've been getting back into that which has been really great, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on with graphic novels these days.

I guess I go back and forth and in y'know each medium for different things sort of person, I'm not like religious on which medium ohmygod if you don't give me a physical book I will scream, I'm not really that firm on anything like that.

JSM - OK, Well let's move a little bit to narrative structure. When I mentioned that I was going to be interviewing you I got a question about this, and I grew up on the Epic Fantasy of the 80s and 90s in which a young farmboy is Chosen by Destiny

(JB - Oh god)

JSM - and goes to a place and collects an object and he confronts the evil, and then y'know everything is better, or at least that's where the story ends and who knows whether everything is better or not.

JB - The Hero's Journey,

JSM - Yes, over and over and over again, endlessly.

And that means that when I think about plot and structure I think about, getting from point A to B, and stories being about kind of the way the person is moving in the world. There are clearly lots of other ways to do that,


Elysium had a very different narrative structure, and how do you think about structure, how do you try to construct it, how do you read it, ... help me out here on getting out of my point A to point B framework and thinking about other ways to approach the books I'm reading.

JB - Well, I mean definitely that is the straightforward narrative structure is very popular because it's the one we know, it's the one the story that we're told when we're kids, Hansel and Gretel, all that kind of stuff, classic stories that just you know plot plot plot, you know what's happening like you just said. But, structure, a narrative structure is something that I like to play with because it can mimic what you're trying to say in the book. And give it much more texture, I mean I don't sit down and say I'm going to go play with this narrative structure now, I try to think of the story first, what it is that I'm trying to say, and the structure follows the story, so in the case of Elysium, and keep in mind this was my Master's Thesis, and I had my mentor at the time for my Master's was Liz Hand who was really just superb, and what she was really great about was not telling me that what I was doing was nuts, because really really it was, but the structure of Elysium was about describing what a disaster is, meaning I'm kind of um simplifying it to just sort of be able to explain it, but when you think about a disaster, when I see a mass grave and I hear about a mass grave, I mean it's a horrible thing, and y'know like when you had the Iraq war and you see the numbers, just see numbers of people who are dead, give me a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, a million and it's just numbers, but each one of those numbers is a story, and is a person's life, I mean I wrote a very early story, um, called Nasmina's Black Box, which was built on sort of a Haiti situation and a massacre in Haiti, um it's not really Haiti, it's a fantasy island I created  but the idea that within that mass grave, mass destruction, great mass of people who are gone, each one is a special unique story, and they have a beginning middle and end, that person in there, and now you just multiply it by 10, by a hundred, and now you see that the pile of people takes on a different texture it's not just numbers now, so when you look at Elysium, I'm telling yes the same story over and over, but this is one big disaster, one big horrible thing that has happened, and I'm telling y'know the story of ... they keep losing each other over and over, but they're different people, but it's the same story and, I mean when I was thinking of Elysium at the time I didn't even realize it, but I was really kind of thinking about 9/11 a little bit because that was still in my system, I was here when that happen and it was just a horrible, horrible thing and you see all these missing posters all over the place, and each one is a story, each one is a life that is gone, or people who's relationships are destroyed their whole family structure because somebody is gone, and you tell it over and over and over again, and so when I looked at the narrative structure for Elysium, I realized that I needed a spiral structure, to kind of give it the texture that it needed, to really explain what this disaster was that happened in this book, so that's why I chose that structure, now um, you can do all kinds of different y'know there're braided structures, there's y'know cyclical structures, there's all kind of stuff that you can do but I really, I mean to just say I'm going to just take a structure and play with it is not really what I do. and I mean I guess there's a real misconception out there that "Oh Jenn is just playing with...", no that's not what I'm doing here, I mean I really, I think of writing period, but y'know writing SF: this is an art form.  This is a craft and it's an art form and it's a means of expression.  Yes there's entertainment to it, there's entertainment to any kind of art that a person, an artist can do, but I mean this is my life's work, this is what's important to me, I'm trying to express things, I'm trying to say things, supposedly you only get one chance, so the idea of just sort of playing around is not really what I'm doing here, and so when I think of messing with y'know narrative structure I'm not messing with it, I'm really taking a look at the landscape of the piece and seeing how I can carve something meaningful out of it.

JSM - The thing that I pick up on and um a couple of the reviews I read described it as kind of ripples, like a stone dropped and then ripples

JB - yes

JSM - But there is near the end there is the separation between Antoine and Adriane and it's like we're moving towards that separation but we get the ripples and echoes of that separation told over and over again as a way I think maybe to sort of ... well, I guess it does a few things because it certainly impacts the, or heightens the emotional impact when we see that separation but I'm also thinking about your each one of those losses is a loss and a story and that we get a lot of separations and there are some real similarities between them and some ways that they're kind of universal but also some ways that each one of them is very very particular and specific

JB - Yeah you totally get that,

JSM - I am amazed that you, it's I'm thinking through it out loud because I hadn't really made all of those connections until you kind of described it and it's fascinating to me ... as I think a reader and a fairly unsophisticated reader in a lot of ways, or someone who's still learning this, it's amazing to me that you're able to sort of take the event and the theme and figure out the structure and the way to make that structure impact the reader

JB - well, thank you for saying that, um, y'know I mean there's a lot of great writers out there that are doing, not like I'm some genius or anything to figure this out  one of my favorite authors in the world is Jefferey Ford, I just think his work is just remarkable, in the SF field, I mean SFF, anything actually! He can do just about anything, I don't mean to limit him in that respect, and Ursula Le Guin, just fantastic author, but using using narrative structure but also landscape so that the physical space to sort of help to echo what it is that you're trying to say, is something very, a lot of authors have played with. I think the only thing that kinda made my book sort of stand out, was that I sort of introduced the idea of the computer code in there and using code as prose

JSM - I loved that

JB - Thank you!

JSM - I thought it was wonderful

JB - It was a very  scary thing to try because a lot of people just see the code and then they just blank out it's like I'm not even going to try to read that, and it's like well to sort of try and push that level and sort of say y'know code is not that scary, it's sort of fun.  But um, there's a lot of authors out there who really played with these ideas and honestly that's what I'm, I'm sort of following a tradition in this way and trying to push the edges that are in there.

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - Last Episode, Jenn shared a book that resonated with her - Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and I’d encourage you to go back and listen to that if you haven’t already.  To close this episode, I’m going to start a new occasional segment that I’m hoping listeners will be able to contribute to.  I’d like to tell a story via books, in this case, a story about faith and religion.  I still distinctly remember the first time I noticed religion directly addressed in a fantasy novel: in C. S. Friedman’s Black Sun Rising, the priest Damien Vryce vouches for his companion, a man he doesn’t truly trust yet, and indeed in the moment it’s not clear that Damien’s choice in the right one.  But for me, the scene was the first time I saw a piece of my own life, a church and a member of church turning for guidance to an ordained minister when she is at a loss to understand how to be in the world.  I’ve since encountered other times when fantasy stories picked out recognizable religious moments.  If Black Sun Rising reflected my understanding of a faith community as a place to turn when you’re feeling lost and alone, Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels showed me pomp and circumstance and also priests who turn to words, and to the rules and ceremony of their tradition to understand the world and their place in it.  In A Canticle for Liebowicz and The Sparrow, I’ve seen religious institutions transformed, and different members of their community participating in different ways, whether with fervent faith or simply because the Church is, as it has been for many people I’ve known, a source of community.

Most recently, I teared up when reading Nisi Shawl’s Everfair when the characters gathered together singing a hymn.  It’s been years since I attended church, but I still return to the hymns I grew up with as a source of comfort, and seeing that manifested in my reading was an emotional moment.  

To varying degrees, the Christian Church, as a message of faith, an institution, a set of words and practices, and a source of community, has been an important element in my life.  I can see that story in key moments of resonance with books.  The institution and the people who are called to it, or bend it for their own ends in Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, or Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels.  The faith and community it offers seen when the supplicant approaches the priest in Black Sun Rising, and the balm to my spirit when I set down Everfair, closed my eyes, and sang “There is a Balm in Gilead”.

*Musical Interlude, cut off abruptly because I am bad at editing*

If you have a story that you can tell with books, please let me know.  This was a particularly personal story that’s been bubbling inside me for a bit, but I’d also love to hear about the books that defined or redefined the genre for you and how that has changed.  Get in touch if you’ve got a story that’s well told through the titles on your shelves.

36 - Ancillary Sword

This episode, Ethan rejoins me to discuss the AI in Ancillary Sword (our previous discussions of Ancillary Justice are here and here), Charles Payseur recommends 5 stories around the theme of Age & Aging, and future guest Jenn Brissett has a memory of a significant book.

Charles' recommendations this episode: 

Transcript to come.

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

Send feedback! Tweet meTweet the showBe a guest on the show

Music - Jazzy Ashes by The Underscore Orkestra

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35 - Clarke Awards pt 2

Megan of From Couch to Moon and Maureen (and special guest Bridget of SF Bluestocking!) join me to discuss the 2016 Clarke Award shortlist. In this episode: Way Down Dark, Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and The Book of Phoenix. (Spoiler, discussed in ascending order of preference).

Here's Abigail Nussbaum at Strange Horizons on the Shortlist, and here's Tomcat Redroom blogging it.  

A roundup of reviews from Martin Petto.

Transcript to come.

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

Send feedback! Tweet meTweet the showBe a guest on the show

Music - Jazzy Ashes by The Underscore Orkestra

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34 - Science Fiction Recreated Anew

Megan of From Couch to Moon and Maureen join me to discuss the 2016 Clarke Award shortlist. In this episode: ArcadiaChildren of Time, and Europe At Midnight. (Spoiler, discussed in ascending order of preference).

Here's Abigail Nussbaum at Strange Horizons on the Shortlist, and here's Tomcat Redroom blogging it.  

Margaret Atwood - Squids in Space

Gary Wolfe - Evaporating Genre

Transcript to come.

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

Send feedback! Tweet meTweet the showBe a guest on the show

Music - Jazzy Ashes by The Underscore Orkestra

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33 - Representation with Justina Ireland (2)

This episode is part 2 of my interview with Justina Ireland about race, representation, and reviews in Science Fiction & Fantasy.  In addition, I'll be reviewing the Clarke Award 2016 shortlist with Maureen K Speller and Megan of From Couch to Moon, and I opened by talking a bit about what I think of when I think "Science Fiction"


The Atlantic: Reading a Novel Changes Your Brain (yes, I did just grumble about giving these sorts of articles much credence.  I am not particularly consistent)


Transcript of Interview

JSM - I feel like I've heard two different positive statements about diversity & inclusion.  One that there are familiar (I dunno that tropes is quite the right word), but familiar roles and stories that have been told where there's still a lot of value to retelling those stories with historically marginalized identities at the center of those stories - giving the black woman the chance to be the romantic lead, and probably, and I don't know a whole lot about disability and neurodiversity but I'm sure that being able to retell stories with more diverse or disabled leads, that there are a plethora of stories out there that would give a whole lot of people a chance to see themselves in a role they've never seen themselves in.  I remember that being one of the big things about MAd Max.

JI - Yes

JSM - And I feel like there's also - being able to to experiment and explore and get rid of some of the assumptions that we've always made opens up lots of new possibilities.  Where just there's all sorts of stuff out there that because we've been writing the same sorts of books and if we can get more creators in there & people willing to take more risks and explore the boundaries of their imagination even more, there's a whole host of stories well outside of things that may not put focus on identities that haven't been on the page very much, but will give all of us a chance to see commonalities & see differences in ways that we haven't before.  Which is I think kind of a thing people say about having aliens in SF.  And that that's also a very untapped field and area.

JI - So I think classic stories, I think familiar stories are a good entry point for people who wouldn't necessarily pick up a book with a marginalized main character.  I think there are people who are resistant to picking up a book with a neurodiverse lead, or resistant to pick up a book with a disabled lead, because they're like "oh, it's a hassle book, it's a deep book, it's going to be deep, I just want a light hearted fun read" that's what you hear a lot of times when people are kind of pushing back against diversity, I just want something light & fun I don't want all that seriousness stuff.

And I think when you take something like Snow White or Cinderalla or any kind of classical story, Romeo & Juliet, these stories that we know, I always call it the medicine in the hot dog.  I have a dog, so whenever I have to give him medicine, I shove the medicine in the hot dog and when I do that he wolfs it down and he doesn't even notice the medicine until afterwards.  And I think that when you take a familiar story & you racebend it or you y'know genderbend it or you do something that kind of shifts that narrative enough people seem familiar with the medicine they need, and the medicine they need is the diversity.  You need to see people outside yourselves in stories, just as people need to see themselves in stories, it behooves you as a human being to see people beside yourself so that you can be a better human being and build some of that empathy.  And there's actually a study that was done where if you read books and are situations

JSM - it increases empathy?

JI - Yeah, it increases your cognitive ability to deal with situations & you're more willing to embrace differences in real life & stuff like that.  So I think that's really important, but I also think there are only so many stories that are going to be told.  Ancillary Justice if you look at the story, it is nothing really new.  There are a million swashbuckling revenge space stories out there. What made it different was the way that Leckie used gender,

Rachel Bach who just wrote the Fortune's Pawn books, it's just basically a mercenary in space, but because the main character happens to be a female mercenary all of sudden it's something new & fantastic & fresh.  It's actually an awesome trilogy I loved it.

I think it's really important to think there really are no new plots.  Everyone's had that English Teacher who's like

JSM - Right

JI - all the stories were all told by Shakespeare

JSM - Yep

JI - And that's true to a degree but the difference is the character, y'know.  I will go to hell and back with an interesting character & a shitty plot.  But I'm not going to step 2 with a plot that's formulaic & bland characters.  I don't care how complex your plot is, if your main characters, if your characters are flat, no one's going anywhere with you.  And I think ... just writing different character, giving people something they haven't seen before & a familiar plot, it's really great, it's like training wheels for diversity, it's like people were going to read it just because they know the story, people LOVE the kidnapped Princess, or Mistaken Identity stories, there's million stories of Mistaken Identity in Fantasy, but if you y'know put in two princesses who fall in love instead of a princess and a boy, or if you put in a disabled princess or a neurodiverse princess, all of a sudden the story is different & the obstacles are different

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - Of course, even when authors do choose to write stories with characters from marginalized backgrounds who speak and act and live in their own communities and not the federation starships or pseudo-medieval Europe that so many stories are set in, their books are reviewed and discussed by a community that may or may not be familiar with those backgrounds.  I’m going to link to an annual survey by the genre magazine Strange Horizons which looks at the gender and racial backgrounds of reviewers at many genre outlets as well as the books they review.  Certainly there are authors and editors out there taking risks and telling stories from their own perspectives.  More than once on this podcast I’ve mentioned the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History.

*Interstitial Music*


JI - My biggest pet peeve when people do make those daring choices, when they do try something different is the reviews you read & the pushback you see in these reviewers - we saw it with the Long Hidden anthology where someone was like "it was all good except for this one story written in Vernacular AAVE"

JSM - "The Literrary Trick" I believe was the phrase

JI - Yes it was, and I'm like that's not a literary trick, just because you've never been somewhere where people speak that way, doesn't mean it's like a literary trick

Or, when Karen Lord's the Best of All Possible Worlds came out, there was I think a Strange Horizons review that was talking about like "I liked it but it wasn't very feminist because the Main Character falls in love with one of the other characters", and they were like it wasn't feminist because she fell in love, but the idea of a woman of color being able to be in love to be a love interest & to be cherished by somebody, that is pretty feminist for a woman of color, right?

Y'know WOC have been property for most of american history, they've been just something for people to use, so the idea that a WOC can be cherished and loved and be a love interest, that's revolutionary, to think that you're deserving of that same kind of tenderness that white women would take for granted, y'know when was the last time you saw a romantic comedy with a WOC as the lead, that wasn't a quote-unquote Black Movie (that Tyler Perry wasn't involved), so that's the point - just because it's not revolutionary for you doesn't mean it's not revolutionary for me.  And I think that's one of the things that reviewers are terrible at, is taking themselves out of their little narrow headspace of experience & say how would other audiences receive this piece & how do I review this in the broadest possible terms, because I don't think ... if you're a reviewer & you only read, y'know you'd never have a reviewer who's only like "I only read military SF set on a generational spaceship", you would never have a reviewer that's that narrow, yet we do have reviewers who are like I will only give a good rating to something that's very white male heterosexual and plays into that SFF,

JSM - And it may well be doing that not necessarily consciously

JI - Correct

JSM - not saying to themselves, I'm only, but just *we* (and I'm certainly including myself in this one) are used to reading things with a certain audience in mind and so when things are written not towards that audience it is I think easy for a reviewer to miss that and to not, not be aware of the significance of the ways that that's been changed.

JI - And I think that's one of the thigns that as a reviewer you should ... so one of the things I do now when I read, because I'm trying to read, I'm trying to question myself because obviously I have a lot of internalized bias, even against POC, right, that's one of the things about living in society is even as a POC you start to internalize those biases.  So one of the things I do when I read things if I have a negative reaction to something in the text I try to stop myself, and think, why am I having a negative reaction, is it because I find it truly offensive or is it because it goes against something I've been taught?

You see that a lot with promiscuous women on the page, you get that AAAUUGH, why is she a whore? It's like no, wait, like why am I thinking those thoughts when there's nothing wrong with ... if it was a dude, I'd be like yeah! Go Get it!

So that's one of those things that you have to question yourself and I worry about anybody who attempts to be a critic isn't always questioning their own taste and internalized bias, because if you're a critic that should be part of your mantra, is, looking at a piece of work & looking at it critically, looking at the subtext, looking at how people would receive it, and looking at how you received it & what that says about you as well as what it says about the work. And I think there's a lot of folks who aren't willing to look beyond the end of their nose when they read a book.

If it's not something that completely speaks to their experience it's crap.  And it doesn't mean it's not crap if it doesn't speak to your experience, but I do think we need to do better at thinking like how does this play into the larger canon, how does this, what does this say about the larger world around us, how does this fit in this space, and does it have merit even if it's not something I like.  There's a lot of stuff I read, I'm not a big fan of Literature, y'know capital L.  I'm not a big fan of the Franzen's and the ... all those deep Literary meaning kind of books where like middle-aged white dude tries to have sex with someone he shouldn't have sex with.  That's not my deal, but I understand why people like it, and I understand why people think that's a worthwhile  bit of literature. Why it’s a worthwhile reading.

JSM - You're a better person than I am.

JI - *laughs*

JSM - I will try to figure that out sometime later

JI - well they're pretty sentences, like you read those books at a sentence level and they're just yknow it's just a really interesting way of arranging words, and then sometimes you're just like aaah.

But at the same point I understand why people like it, y'know it's not my thing,  but I can critique something and say that this doesn't appeal to me but these are the the people it would appeal to. And I think that's something reviewers especially should do a better job of. I don't expect everyone to give good reviews, but I do think especially when it's something this was clearly not written for me, there was clearly a subtext I missed, that doesn't mean it was a bad book because you missed the subtext, it means you missed the subtext.  Those are two different things.

*Interstitial Music*


JSM - I remember you tweeting, and half the reason I had you on this podcast was to ask you about some things you tweeted.  You tweeted something like "If prejudice is shown on the page, it should be deconstructed on the page" and I think in that you were talking specifically about some books with historical setting, but I think it applies in many ways both to secondary world or to far off science fiction as well as historical.  Are there things that you've noticed that say to you "I'm gettting worried about how the author is going to handle this" or "I really like how the author is handling this, as they're able to both portray prejudice but also kind of deconstruct & show what the problems are with that worldview?

JI - Yeah, so one of the things we see, I see a lot in books, is when you have, we always call it the good white person or the white savior character who's the main character who doesn't necessarily know anything about this world.  We see it a lot with conquerors, the Dances With Wolves syndrome or the Last Samurai syndrome & this white dude shows up in a foreign culture, it could be an alien culture, it could be elves or orcs, or whatever the hell you want to put in there, because it's usually not POC, it's usually some other kind of fantastical stand in, and they show up & they learn a Valuable Lesson, because they do all these things that are wrong, there's this kind person they usually fall in love with, usually this very stereotypical kind of native american woman kind of character.  Just think, what was the movie with the blue people, that

JSM - Avatar, right

JI - Thank you!

JSM - I was just thinking that, I was just thinking are you just giving me the plot synopsis of Avatar here?

JI - I actually didn't watch that movie because I'd seen Dances With Wolves when I was younger, and Avatar's basically DwW with Blue People

JSM - I didn't see DwW, but that sounds right

JI - So what happens is like you have this character & it happens in fiction all the time, it happens on the page as well, they show up, do everything wrong, they're just terrible, ohmygosh, how can these people be so mean to them, you get to the end of the book, we all learned a Valuable Lesson to be more accepting, and then usually some kind of magical negro fatherly figure or motherly figure is dying, 10 pages from the end of the book, so the main character can learn this valuable lesson from the aliens or orcs or elves or whoever we're learning this lesson from

And we all read the page and we're like oh it was a great book!

But if you're the stand-in, if you're the orcs or the elves, you're like that guy was kind of a dick!  The whole thing! The whole book, and that's what has to happen, if your main character is doing all these things through the book, there needs to be something right after they do it where they deconstruct why they're doing these things that are wrong.

Because for me, I already know he's doing things that are wrong, like I don't need to wait to the end of the book to learn the valuable lesson.  I know racism is real, I know homophobia is real, I don't need to go 20 chapters to get to that.

So that's part of writing for an inclusive audience, if you're writing for that audience, you're like hey, I'm writing about blue people being marginalized, maybe some of my readers have been marginalized, maybe they know what that's like, maybe I should address it on the page right after that happens.  You don't have to have the main character realize it, that's part of craft, but your characters who are around the main character should say something about it, and should have some reaction to it.  And what happens nine times out of 10 is that main character, we're so deep in their POV or their perspective, there's nothing else to tell the reader this was a Bad Thing.  And it isn't until we get to the end and we all learn the valuable lesson that we learn that OOHHH that thing that happened on page 2, that was a bad thing.  But if I'm the person who's already experienced that and didn’t need to learn that lesson, I'm not hanging around with you until page 200, right? I'm bailing on page 2 because I'm like I know where this is going I've seen this story before.  So that's one of the things that I think if you're writing with a margin- and especially if you're writing from a marginalized perspective, so if you're in a marginalized character's POV, the marginalized character's not going to say "oooh, maybe these people are racist?", the marginalized characters going to say "OH, Hell, These People are Racist and I'm just going to get through this day the best I can."

JSM - mmm hmm

JI - What you see a lot of times ... and this is where the whole idea of authenticity, is like you'll have the Big Moment, right, you'll have the Big Moment where the marginalized character is Realizing They're Marginalized, instead of realizing that being marginalized is like a hundred little moments.  It's not a big thing, right, y'know there's it's very rare that I can walk down the street and someone calls me the N-word.  It happens but it's very rare.  But it's a lot of little things, where people are like "oh, can I touch your hair?" or "oh, let me hold your bags while you walk around the store", like y'know and nobody else's bags are being offered to be held, or people following you & offering to help you & they're a little bit too helpful and that kind of stuff.  It's not big things, it's a hundred thousand little things that add up to big things.  And I think that's one of the things that makes me crazy is when you don't address it on the page.  It's just all this stuff is happening and we’re supposed to know it's because this character's going to learn a valuable lesson, but I don't want to wait for them to learn a valuable lessons.

*Interstitial Music*

And part of that's what we call the promise of the story, like if you don't kind of give your reader the, this is one of the reasons I don't read George RR Martin anymore for example, because there's no guarantee that he's going to treat me as a reader well.  Once you get through book 3, you know he's going to kill the person that you love the most.  And it's like do you want to set yourself up for abuse like that anymore? Like how good is the story? It's like, every one you love is going to die, and I'm, I'm good, I don't need that.

And that's part of the promise of the story, it's that, kind of giving the reader, like hey look, it sucks right now, but I'm going to pull you through it and I'm going to make it worth your while.  And if you can't do that for people from marginalized backgrounds just as well as you do for mainstream readers, that's when you have that problem, and that's when you're not looking at your microaggressions and you're not looking at the crap that's going on your page, and deconstructing it.

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - Thinking back to Court of Fives, and remembering the kind of throughout that, the daughters are very aware that their situation is precarious.

JI - Right

JSM - And I feel like early on, there was the scene in the market and the spiders came through and rounded up a bunch of people, and it was kind of dangerous but it was much less dangerous for her, because the thing was it was going to embarrass her father.

JI - Right

JSM - But then one of the characters who got rounded up, he showed up later & there was a chance to reveal that the official explanation for what was going on was not the actual reason for the repression that was happening.  I felt like Court of Fives did *laugh* did representation really well, and in part did ... I felt like making the reader aware that the protagonist was privileged, and that she came to that realization, but she came to that realization gradually partly because I guess it took her a while to go from realizing I am privileged to "what does privilege actually mean?"

Like I think it is easy for me to acknowledge "I have white privilege" and "I have male privilege", but it is harder for me to describe what does it mean to have those things, and I felt like there was a kind of similar journey to discovery in Court of Fives.

JI - Yeah, I think she does a great job in that, so she, she does a great job in that marketplace scene, right, because you have the spiders who're coming in, because they’re looking for this playwright, this poet, and so y'know her and her sister are just shopping and they're kind of oblivious to all this stuff, she doesn't understand why the people in the marketplace don't like her, she knows she's privileged because her dad is this patron and he's taken care of her mother very well, but it's not until the small child is crushed by the spider and the soldiers are like, just don't even notice that they crushed this small child that she's like holy crap, what's going on here?

She thinks - it's OK, the spiders are here to help, whereas the people in the marketplace, the reactions are very different.  I think Kate does a great job of saying "this is what it looks like to not understand: this is what oppression looks like".  Because even though she knows hey, it's not really fair I'm not going to ever get to be a patron or have those kinds of opportunities, she still doesn't understand the true depth of what is going on in the country, the main character, Jes.

And I was actually lucky enough to read Kate's draft for her second book, and it goes deeper, there's a lot more of that awakening and she realized what it means for her identity to be in between these two worlds, and the second book's actually - I love the first book, but trilogies usually fall apart for me in the second book, I always hate that middle bridge, "what're you doing with this bridge book, just give us the third book!" because usually the second book in a trilogy is usually very weak, but this is a great, the second book is amazing! It's better than the first book, and there's a lot of growth that happens with the character, and there's a lot more of that realization that like y'know what does it mean to be a conquered people, what does it mean to have to give up your identity when somebody new comes onto the scene, y'know how much of history that we're told is true, and how much is rewritten by the conquerers, there's all these kinds of questions.

But I think that marketplace scene is like, for authors & writers who want to understand what it's like to write microaggressions on the page & dismantle them, and not in the obvious way, the obvious way is like "how dare you call that person that thing? that's not nice to call that person", it's a very obvious dismantling of a microaggression or a belief, then there's also the more nuanced where you just have the crowd reacting differently than your main character & you show that and your MC is like why is everyone acting differently? And they just kind of get to observe this stuff.  Court of Fives is such a great book and it's such a good example of how you can do diversity within fantasy without hitting someone over the head with the diversity.

(Close with Paul Weimer’s memory of The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings)