Category Archives: Guest Posts

Everything We Are

By Anna-Marie McLemore

Spend enough time in the YA book world, and you’ll hear a writer—or several—speak with a stricken look about the stumbling process of writing a second book. Sometimes it happens on second published books. Sometimes it happens on second manuscripts, whether those books become agented or published or not. I wish I could tell you what it is about the second book that catches so many of us. I can’t.

But I can tell what it was for me.

Writing my second book, I told myself to be patient. Well, one part of myself: the queer part. I was already writing about characters of color, including Latinx characters that reflected my own experience. But I told myself this wasn’t the time to go further and include LGBTQ characters. I could do that on my third, or fourth book, when I’d earned it. Yes, this was how I thought, that incorporating two aspects of my identity into one book was something I had to earn.

So I wrote a very straight book…and, well, considering how I started this post, you can guess how it went. My critique partners patiently gave notes on different versions. My agent tried to shepherd me toward a better direction. My editor shared what was working and what wasn’t. But despite the help and advice of everyone I had in my corner, I kept turning out one forced, bloodless draft after another.

When my fear of writing a book I couldn’t stand behind overcame my fear of writing LGBTQ characters, I surrendered to this story. I gave in to its wishes. I made this book the queer, of-color book it wanted to be. A story about a Latina girl who grows roses from her wrist, and a transgender Pakistani-American boy who paints a hundred versions of the moon. A story in which they understand and love each other’s bodies, and in which they have sex on the page.

I turned in the book that had now become When the Moon was Ours, ready for someone to say, “We can’t publish this.” But what I heard instead was, “Yes, this is what this book was supposed to be.”

Until then, I hadn’t let this story be what it wanted to be, because I had been afraid of what I was. In the same way I sometimes feared there wasn’t space in the world for queer girls of color, I worried there wasn’t a place for this story I had in me.

This is what I’ve learned, not to resist what a story wants to be, especially if it’s because I’m afraid there is too much different about me for the world to accept. What’s at the heart of us is who we are. These are our stories. And when our stories ask us to speak from our hearts, from everything we are, they won’t let us go until we answer.


Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, raised in the same town as the world’s largest wisteria vine, and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Her debut novel, THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS (out now from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), was a Junior Library Guild Selection, named to YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list, and a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award. Her second novel, WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, will be released on October 4, 2016, and WILD BEAUTY is forthcoming in 2017. You can find Anna-Marie at annamariemclemore.com or on Twitter @LaAnnaMarie.

When the Moon was Ours is available for purchase.

An excerpt from SACRIFICE by Cindy Pon

By Cindy Pon

As a writer, I always feel like my second books are stronger than my first. My stories naturally seem to be told in duologies, and with the sequel, it might be that I’m more comfortable with the characters, their motivations, and worlds. As someone who does not outline, my process is pretty intuitive. I knew that Sacrifice would be told from dual narrations (as Fury of the Phoenix was told): Skybright’s and Zhen Ni’s. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft that I realized that I needed to include Kai Sen as a main point of view. This allowed me to expand the lens into this world, and I enjoyed it as much as it challenged me as a writer. I love this story, and I’m so happy it’s finally out in the world! I share an excerpt from Sacrifice below and ordering information for personalized and/or signed copies with pre-order gift!


Excerpt:

Someone opened the panel of her room quietly. “Zhen Ni?” a male voice whispered.

She smothered a scream. No man had ever been within her bedchamber, except for the doctor on rare occasions, and even then, she had been hidden behind silk drapes on her bed,  offering her arm so the man could examine her pulse. No common man had ever been allowed within the inner quarters, unchaperoned much less, and in the dead of night. Blood pounded in her ears, and Zhen Ni gripped her dagger tighter, prepared to use it if she had to.

“It’s me. Kai Sen.”

Recognition dawned. She had thought the voice sounded familiar, but she hadn’t seen Kai Sen since they parted ways over half a year ago, after he had escorted her home from visiting Lan one last time. What in the goddess’s name was he doing here, breaking all rules of decorum? Her reputation could be compromised if he were caught.

Zhen Ni smiled in the dark then. It was a wonder anyone would take her as a wife at all. She was notoriously known as a stubborn runaway and truly didn’t give a donkey’s ass about decorum now, but she had behaved perfectly to please her parents since returning home. She held still in her dark corner, waiting to see what Kai Sen would do.

A bright flame ignited within the bedchamber. She squinted, thinking he had lit a lantern, but it appeared as if he cradled a ball of blue fire in his very palm. Astounded, Zhen Ni stared as Kai Sen drew to her empty bedside, peering down at the rumpled coverlet, then turned to survey the room.

Dressed in a black sleeveless tunic, he seemed taller than she remembered and definitely bigger. Kai Sen had been all wiry muscle when they had traveled together but thin, still boyish in some ways. His time in the monastery since had filled his frame, as if he’d finally grown into his adult physique. He had looked strong before; now he looked powerful. She watched while the flickering flame danced across his face. Kai Sen’s dark eyebrows were knitted together as his alert eyes swept the large bedchamber. Zhen Ni could see why Skybright had been drawn to him—he was handsome. He exuded masculinity. Assuming a girl appreciated that sort of thing: rough hands and deep voice, the odd metallic tang of sweat. She knew from their travels together that he even smelled different.

Zhen Ni wasn’t attracted to these things.

For a brief moment, she remembered the soft curve of Lan’s neck bent over her embroidery, smelled the rose perfume she used to dab at the hollow of Lan’s throat, the scent sweet and mellow when she would kiss the same spot hours later … Zhen Ni blinked the memories away and whispered, “What are you doing here?”


Buy the Book:

Order from Mysterious Galaxy Books to get signed and personalized copies of Serpentine or Sacrifice, and choose a pre-order gift of your choice! Grace Fong’s gorgeous art of my girls Zhen Ni and Skybright magnet, or my hummingbird Chinese brush art card. You receive a gift for every book purchased AND you’re supporting my favorite indie book store!

Zhen Ni and Skybright by Grace Fong

Serpentine is also currently on sale across all ebook platforms for 99c. If you haven’t had a chance to read the first book yet, here’s the perfect opportunity for less than a buck! #nook #kindle #kobo #ibook #googleplay

Redefining Super

By C. B. Lee

I’ve lived with depression and suicidal ideation since I was a teenager, much of it stemming from an overwhelming need to live up to my parents and my own expectations, along with never feeling I was good enough, and never feeling like I fit in. I was ashamed of myself, ashamed that I was a burden on my family, ashamed that I had failed in every way: school, career, relationships, and more.

It was a long road to recovery with my depression, and it’s still a work in progress. There’s a huge stigma surrounding mental health, especially in the Asian American community where we were raised to “save face.” Learning the patience to work out what I needed emotionally from my family and friends and being able to voice it has been a long journey.

I escaped into books, devouring anything and everything, disappearing into endless possibilities of worlds, delighted in travelling alongside my favorite heroes as they saved the universe.

And yet at the same time I was always a spectator; I felt wrong and broken for being attracted to more than one gender, because I hardly ever saw it portrayed in novels, especially in speculative fiction. I wasn’t white or straight like the heroes of renown, and I had internalized that adventures and saving the world and falling in love and happy-ever-afters were not for people like me.

I started writing because I wanted to write the books I wish I could have read as a teenager. I want romance and adventure and fantasy and science fiction and horror and every genre imaginable.

My novel Not Your Sidekick began as a project that was born out of frustration. I was tired. I was tired of characters of color being sidelined in supporting roles, I was tired of stories where girls who fell in love with other girls were met with tragedy at every front.

I’ve always loved the superhero genre because there are so many ways you can talk about identity, super or otherwise. One of the things Jess struggles with in Not Your Sidekick is living up to expectations. Since she doesn’t think she’s going to get superpowers, she’s struggling to prove herself. Her parents are immigrants, and she and her siblings are the first born in this new country— similar to my own experience growing up, albeit Jess lives in the year 2132. This theme of redefining success really hits close to home for me, and I wanted to show how first-generation children really feel that pressure.

Not Your Sidekick is lighthearted and and often skirts the line of ridiculous. I don’t take myself too seriously, and the novel doesn’t either; I poke lots of fun at superhero tropes and secret identity shenanigans. While I touch on issues that are important to me, like the theme of expectations and defining your own success— I want most of all to bring joy and laughter and silliness and light. I want readers to have fun.

I hope readers will find joy in the novel, as I have bringing it to the world.


C.B. Lee is a bisexual writer, rock climber and hiking enthusiast based in California. She is a first-generation Asian American and has a BA in Sociology and Environmental Science, which occasionally comes in handy in her chosen career, but not usually. Lee enjoys reading, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Her first novel, Seven Tears at High Tide, was published by Duet Books (Interlude Press) in 2015 and named a finalist for two Bisexual Book of the Year Awards. Ms. Lee is also a Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow.

Not Your Sidekick is available for purchase.

The Stories You Have to Tell

By Traci Chee

When I was in college, I started work on a novel about about a boy who travels into the afterlife to find his dead sister. It was set in a small mountain town similar to my own–it had the same smell of pine, the same dry heat, the same graveyards–and I poured into that manuscript so much of what I loved: beautiful prose, paragraphs that reverberated like the tolling of brass bells, magic (of course), grief, wonderfully twisty formatting.

But when I met with my creative writing professor, a Japanese-American author, her main comments were these:

Why are you writing about a white boy? White boys write about themselves all the time.

Why don’t you write about a Chinese girl? A Japanese girl?

And my reaction was this:

I can write about whoever I want! This is the story I have to tell. The one about this small white town, the one about this white boy grappling with death.

You see, I’d been reading about white boys for years. I studied them in school. I joined them on their adventures in Narnia and Middle Earth and Hogwarts. I watched them battle super villains on TV. I knew white boy stories–perhaps, I think, even better than I knew my own. I could write white boy stories.

However, as with many first novels, it went nowhere. I didn’t even finish it. Didn’t know how. Didn’t feel that driving need to get to the end. As soon as I graduated, I let that story go.

#

Years later, I decided to give myself a real shot at being an author, and I thought about the stories I had to tell. The stories that I wouldn’t let go, no matter how difficult or challenging they got. The stories that were a part of me, at my glowing molten core, and wouldn’t let me go.

And I wrote The Reader.

There’s a lot of what I love in this book too: beautiful prose, cowboy-pirates and adventurers, magic (of course), loss, interesting formatting, long hikes through the forest and vast open spaces.

And a main character, Sefia, who looks like me.

To be clear, The Reader isn’t an Asian-inspired fantasy. If anything, the world is more like a heavily romanticized American wild west (which is also near and dear to my heart), and because it’s all made up, our categories of race don’t apply. I can’t say Sefia is Asian or Asian-American because Asia and America don’t exist. But she has straight black hair and teardrop-shaped eyes, and she’s small but mighty, which is generally how I feel about my own stature. She looks like me. (Although if you look closely, you’ll see some hints that in our world, she’d actually be biracial.)

I wrote her this way for a very specific reason.

Because ten years after my creative writing professor suggested I stop writing about white boys, I finally understood why.

When I was a kid, I clung to Trini the Yellow Ranger and Tina Nguyen from Ghostwriter and Mulan and Cho Chang because they were the only sci-fi/fantasy characters, out of all the books and comic books and TV shows and movies, who looked like me. And that made it nearly impossible to imagine myself in these stories. Because among the Goldilockses, Red Riding Hoods, Belles, Auroras, Wolverines, Raphaels, Susan Pevensies, Striders, Samwise Gamgees, Harry Potters, Hermiones, Lyras, and Wills, I–effectively–didn’t exist.

I had no story. I couldn’t even imagine having a story.

So when I set out to find the story I had to tell, I discovered that I needed to write a main character for me, and for girls like me–Asian and Asian-American girls who need more heroes who look like them, heroes whose image they could step into.

I wrote The Reader in 18 months, and not once did I feel like I wouldn’t finish it. I spent another 12 months revising it with my editor, and not once did I feel like I’d run out of power.

This story, with this character, was too important, too much a part of me, to let go.

I’m not sure if this will happen, but if there are readers out there who need this story the way I needed it when I was younger, I hope they find it. I hope it helps them, in some small way, to embrace their own stories, the ones they have at their glowing molten cores. The ones they have to tell.


Traci Chee is an author of speculative fiction for teens. An all-around word geek, she loves book arts and art books, poetry and paper crafts. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. The Reader is her YA debut.

The Reader is available for purchase.

I Want More Queer YA

By E. M. Kokie

Radical launches tomorrow. It is the culmination of more than four years of hard work. Research about guns and the survivalist movement and what it is like to be a butch queer girl in such a hyper-masculine pocket of America. Multiple drafts of first kisses and first touches and deciphering friends from enemies. And now it is book-shaped and people are reading it. I’m thrilled and excited and anxious.

Part of what is making this launch season even more exciting is the amazing number of young adult novels featuring queer characters out this year, especially this fall. If you aren’t following the #FallLGBTQ hashtag on Twitter, go follow it that to learn about and help celebrate many exciting queer YA books out this fall.

2016 is seeing a bumper crop of queer young adult lit.  There’s even another book about a butch queer girl! I love that like Radical, Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard also features a butch lesbian teen, figuring out what that means for how she sees herself, and how she navigates relationships and the world. So many queer books to love. And yet, we still need so many more.

In the last few years, I have heard and read so many people say LGBTQIAP+ YA needs to “move beyond” coming out stories and stories where the teen character struggles because they are queer. I bristle every time. Because here’s the thing, it may feel to the adult creators of queer books, or the adult teachers or librarians, or maybe even to the queer readers who have seen themselves in queer stories, that there are “enough” coming out stories and struggle narratives out there. That coming out and struggle stories have been “done” to death. I even get that some young readers are personally tired of the coming out and struggle stories. They are hungry for the humor and the light and the stories that aren’t about the character’s gender or sexual identity. But not all young queer teens live in comfortable and supportive communities. Until queer kids and teens don’t have to come out, until they are safe everywhere, we will still need stories about struggles and coming out.

Now, I completely agree that we need more than coming out and struggle stories. That we need much more balance in LGBTQIAP+ young adult literature. Of course we need more teen characters who are out and comfortable and supported and happy. More queer teen romances, especially funny, happy teen romances. And definitely more stories where the character’s sexual identity and gender identity or expression is not the focus of the story. When a funny or fluffy queer teen novel is treated as a rarity, we don’t have balance or parity in YA literature.

But today’s teens also need fresh, evolving coming out and struggle stories. Because they are still coming out. They are still struggling.  The world has changed, and continues to change, some for the better and some not. But the kids and teens coming of age in this changing world need to see their stories – not a version of what their stories might have been eight or ten or fifteen years ago.

I still get letters and emails from kids who are struggling. Teens who are coming out to me because they aren’t safe to come out where they live. And you will notice I didn’t say that they don’t “feel” safe – there are still many places where it isn’t safe for a LGBTQIAP+ teen to come out.  There are teens who are just trying to hold on. And of course they deserve happy stories as lights in the darkness. But they also need stories about the struggle, about coming out when it isn’t easy, so they are not alone where they are.

So when someone says we need to move beyond coming out stories or struggle stories, I always want to jump up and say, well, maybe you are ready to move on because your experiences feel well-represented, but there are too many queer teen identities who are barely represented in young adult literature. We need more stories of all flavors about queer teens of color. And poor queer teens. And many more stories about queer girls and genderqueer, genderfluid, and non-binary teens. More stories about asexual, bisexual, and pansexual teens. More stories about transgender teens, especially transgender boys. And many more stories about our truly questioning teens. And unless we are telling historical stories, those stories should reflect our world and be fresh, modern versions of these stories.

When we use LGBTQIAP+ to describe the literature for teens, it should mean that all of the letters are represented. Too often “LGBTQ” or “LGBTQIAP+” is used as a catchall when we are mostly talking about cis male gay characters, and, to a lesser extent, cis female lesbian characters.  The other letters have meaning, too, and until they are all adequately represented in our literature for teens, then we won’t have “enough” of any kind of story.

I want more queer YA, of all kinds, of all flavors. And maybe the balance in coming years should tip to the light, the funny, the happy, the stories where the characters’ sexual identities and gender identities and expression are not plot points. Queer characters at the heart of horror stories and space odysseys and grand adventures and rom coms. But it comes from a place of privilege to say that “we” don’t “need” any more of any kind of queer book when there is so very much unexplored territory in YA. “We” not only still have room for stories that reflect the tough realities many queer teens still face, but many queer teens still have a very real need for fresh and modern versions of these stories.


E. M. Kokie is the author of Radical (Candlewick Press, 9/13/16), which explores family, identity, survival, and guns, not necessarily in that order. Her first novel, Personal Effects (Candlewick Press, 2012), was a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults and Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults Top Ten, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, and a 2013 IRA Young Adult Honor Book. She also contributed to the anthologies Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick Press, 2015) and Violent Ends (Simon Pulse, 2015). Visit her online at www.emkokie.com.

RADICAL is available for purchase.

On Finding My Place in Fantasy

By Zoraida Córdova

“Write what you know” is one of the most overused and debatable pieces of writing advice out there. When you’re from a marginalized community this becomes increasingly hard for a few reasons. First, if you write about your own communities (#Ownvoices), you face the burden of representing everyone all at once. The next challenge is more brutal. You wrote what you knew, or thought you knew. You did the thing. Now, your work is suddenly too much your own. Too diverse. Too much of everything. Too unrelatable because, at the end of the day, no one knows you.

Being an Author of Color in the fantasy space is hard. You have to constantly wait for the market to be ready for you as a person. But more importantly, fantasy often borrows from other cultures to make something “new,” and the cultural appropriation line is blurred. Can you appropriate your own culture? What stories are you allowed to tell? Whatever your answer is, you don’t get a pass when you offend a group of people, even if it’s your people.

When I was writing Labyrinth Lost, I knew I wanted to write about witches with a Latin American background, but I also wanted it to completely fictional. So, I went back to basics and trusted my instincts. This is what I know:

BRUJAS

Bruja is the Spanish word for “witch.” The word itself has both negative and empowering connotations. In Latin American countries, like where I’m from in Ecuador, the neighborhood “bruja” might be someone to be feared, but always the person you go to when you think you’re “ojeado” or have the Evil Eye. Brujeria is a faith for many, but it is not the faith in my book. In Labyrinth Lost, I chose to call Alex and her family “brujas” and “brujos” because their origins do not come from European traditions. Alex’s magic is like Latin America, a combination of the old world and new.

CEREMONIES

I never had a quinceañera. I had friends who went all out. They were like mini-weddings. My mother was a single parent and, in my once introverted mind (really, I was), I didn’t want one. But it’s an important part of coming of age for some Latinas. It’s the representation of womanhood and familial responsibilities all at once. I knew I wanted to give my witches something similar because this book, above all, is about family. So I created the Deathday ceremony. A bruja’s Deathday is a magical coming of age, like a Bat Mizvah or a Sweet 16. Even though the Deathday ceremony was created for the world of Labyrinth Lost, aspects of it are inspired by the Day of the Dead and Santeria. The respect for the dead and family comes from the Day of the Dead. The use of singing, shells, small animal sacrifice, and drums comes from Santeria.

FAMILY

While I believe that Latinxs are not a monolith, the one thing we share across the board is family. The opinion that matters the most in my house is our grandmother’s. From tattoos to dating to haircuts; however big or small a decision, what our grandmother says is a big deal! For Alex in Labyrinth Lost, her connection to her sisters, mom, and deceased grandma is the same as her hope. My matriarchy of witches is based on my own experiences of having a close-knit family.

MYTH

“What’s real in Labyrinth Lost?” I’ve been answering a form of this question a lot lately. I think because my background is from South America, there’s an assumption that the stories in Labyrinth Lost are real/taken from stories I heard as a child. Don’t get me wrong; I’m super flattered that my world feels real. It is exactly what I aim for as a fantasy author, and I thank my readers for that.

Let’s unpack Latin America. Latin America has many superstitions, despite the deep roots of Catholicism. There is no all-encompassing Latin American mythology. It’s not real. It doesn’t exist. My brief childhood in Ecuador doesn’t come with all the superstitions of all the other countries in South America. The UN recognizes 33 Latin American countries. That includes U.S. territories, former Spanish colonies, Portuguese and French speaking countries. What we think of Latin America is a U.S. media portrayal of white Mexicans and sexy Colombians and Italian-looking Puerto Ricans. We think of the parts that Spain conquered and colonized. At the end of the day, Latin America is extremely complicated because we are all so different and individual, but also united under region and language.

So what’s real and what isn’t?

We tend to paint Latinos as these magical and superstitious beings, and some of us are. The Native American community knows all to well what that’s like to a much worse extent. In hopes of stepping outside myths associated with Latinos, I decided to make up my own superstitions and my own stories and gods. It was so hard to take out the Llorona myth that everyone knows because even we have that story in Ecuador.

The gods of Labyrinth Lost are all made up. The other realms of Los Lagos is entirely made up. The Meadow is more inspired by Alice in Wonderland than any other culture. One of my favorite parts of writing this book was writing the cantos (spells) and epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. Writing creation myths is something I love, and the story of La Mama and El Papa (the major gods) was a lot of fun.

There is one monster in particular that is inspired by my childhood in Ecuador. When you’re a kid, everyone scares you with monsters. Duendes are evil elves that can steal you away. The Duendes in Labyrinth Lost are a little different, and hopefully I’ll get to bring them back in another book. But the one that’s stuck with me for a long time is the Cuco. In Mexico, there’s the Cucuy, which is a demon. For us (Ecuadorians), we scare kids with the “Cuco.” It’s a demon that eats children who behave badly. I always pictured a black beast with sharp teeth and claws. So, naturally, I turned it into the Maloscuros in Labyrinth Lost.

It is my sincere hope that readers from all ages and backgrounds find themselves in Labyrinth Lost, whether it’s the search for identity, strong family ties, or a pure love of quests and fantasy.


Zoraida Córdova is the author of The Vicious Deep trilogy, the On the Verge series, and the Brooklyn Brujas series. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic. She is a New Yorker at heart and is currently working on her next novel. Send her a tweet @Zlikeinzorro.

Labyrinth Lost is available for purchase.

Q&A with M-E Girard, Author of GIRL MANS UP

By M-E Girard

M-E Girard’s debut novel, Girl Mans Up, is a coming-of-age story about a queer girl named Pen and what happens when her best friend and parents keep crossing the line—always blaming it on the fact that Pen looks and acts like a boy. It’s about Pen having to make choices about who deserves her respect and loyalty. It’s also about video games, hot girls, guy-code, and Ninja Turtles.

M-E joins us today to answer some hot button questions about identity, queerness, sexuality, and gender.

What is Pen’s identity? What makes her queer?

When I decided to write Pen’s story, I was most interested in exploring gender norms within the binary (man and woman), and how a teen who doesn’t quite fit on their assigned side of that binary might handle what life puts them through. My character, Pen, is not trans. She is cisgender (or simply “cis”), which means her gender identity is in line with the one she was assigned at birth.

What makes Pen queer is her sexual orientation: she is a girl who is attracted to other girls. Her gender expression and presentation complicate things, because she is also a girl who doesn’t look and act according to contemporary North American ideas about what a girl should look and act like. In fact, she very much conforms to our society’s ideas about what a boy should look and act like.

How much awareness does Pen have when it comes to her identity and queerness?

Pen knows very little about things like the gender binary, non-binary-identified people, transness, the concept of self-identifying, or even queerness. She just hasn’t been that curious about it, and definitely doesn’t have anyone in her life who would facilitate these kinds of conversations. This makes it really hard for her to understand what she’s dealing with. It makes her doubt herself because she doesn’t feel smart enough to “know what she’s talking about.” Words empower us, they help us understand what’s going on around us and within ourselves. Words give us the ability and confidence to work through our feelings and speak about our lives—they validate our existence. I know for myself, my
understanding of queerness and where I fit within it changed and evolved the more I learned about it: listening to other people talk about their queerness, reading theory books, reading novels featuring queer voices, etc.

Still, Pen has a strong sense of self—she’s been that way since she was very little. She’s presented herself in the way that felt natural, and she resisted the pushback she was getting, even as a kid. The older she gets, the more this pushback upsets her. She faces near-constant criticism and policing of the way she performs her “girlness.” She feels very dissatisfied with what it seems to mean to be a girl, and she doesn’t believe that all her masculine characteristics belong only to boys.

She knows everyone thinks she’s “not doing it right.” Part of her wants to redefine what being a girl means, but the other part—the part that feels beaten down by the criticism and judgment—feels like maybe she’s hanging on to an identity that she has no claim to. She wonders if she’s going to wake up one day and realize she was something or someone else altogether, and everyone around her knew it all along.

Was Pen always going to be a lesbian?

Yes. I could have told the story from the point of view of a heterosexual, cis Pen, because all of the gender expression stuff wasn’t dependent on Pen being a lesbian, but her being attracted to other girls was something that was important to me for a few reasons: I have always had a soft spot for girls like Pen, and since the inspiration for her came from my girlfriend (who obviously like girls!), Pen was always going to be attracted to girls. Her sexual orientation was also important because I wanted to explore the fact that the way a queer person looks—how identifiably queer they look—will often determine how much and what kind of negative reactions and treatment they’ll get from others. Pen learns that it’s not the fact that she likes girls that makes her stand out; it’s the fact that she looks the way she does.

You talk a lot about language, so why use sexist expressions like “man up”?

I write about real people, and we real people are not always all that pretty to listen to or watch, are we?! Realistically, a lot of people use these sexist words and expressions—often without even realizing what they’re saying. So with GMU I wanted to incorporate this into the story; I wanted to show the seeds of awareness, when it comes to language, being planted within this character’s consciousness.

Pen manning up never had anything to do with acting like a man. Just like Pen decides certain clothes and behaviors don’t belong exclusively to certain genders, she also realizes the definition of “manning up,” the actions and behaviors that constitute “manning up,” don’t belong to one gender in particular, and don’t describe one gender in particular either.

Anyone who reads GMU will hopefully see my attempts to complicate some of the sexist and misogynistic terms and expressions I used. In this story, words are tested on their meanings, and they’re assigned new meanings as Pen experiences life and decides what is true and what isn’t. It happens with the sexist/misogynistic words and expressions the same way it happens with words like respect, loyalty, friend, family. Pen’s whole world is shifting, and part of that shift involves the language she uses and the ways she understands those terms.

Does GMU engage with trans* issues?

I did not write about a trans character, but I did write about issues that affect gender-nonconforming cis people and trans people, often in very similar ways. Pen is a girl, and for the duration of the story, she struggles to retain the right to be who she says she is. She feels like the world is pushing her out of her identity as a girl because the way she expresses her gender is more in line with being a boy or being neither. There are similarities between the narratives of some trans people and some gender-nonconforming cis people. Pen deals with things like daily microaggressions, being misgendered, and bathroom issues. She may even be dealing with some form of gender dysphoria, depending on what one’s definition of the term is.

I hope many readers will be able to relate to Pen’s struggles—trans, cis, queer, non-queer, and straight alike.


m-e_girardM-E Girard lives just outside Toronto, where she splits her time between writing YA fiction about badass teen girls and working nights as a pediatric nurse. A 2013 and 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow, M-E is a proud feminist who is endlessly fascinated by the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding the concept of gender. Her debut novel GIRL MANS UP was published in September 2016 via HarperTeen and HarperCollins Canada. You can find her online at www.megirard.com and all over social media.

Empathy Machines

By Tim Floreen

floreen-willfulmachinesHere’s the setup of my young adult sci-fi thriller Willful Machines: in a near-future America, conscious, self-aware machines have just become a reality, and it has people seriously freaked. Members of the newly formed Human Values Movement insist machines can never be considered truly alive, like humans, because humans have something special: free will. Unlike computers, people don’t follow programs. Their actions and identities are up to them.

It sounds like a nice idea. But Human Values hardliners are now arguing seemingly fixed traits like sexuality are choices too. That’s bad news for the book’s main character, 16-year-old Lee Fisher, who happens to be both the son of the Human Values Movement’s founder (now the President of the United States) and gay.

In writing my book, I drew inspiration for the Human Values Movement from certain real-world groups and individuals who also call sexuality a choice. According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, four in ten Americans continue to think being gay or lesbian is “the way some choose to live,” and it always intrigues me how anyone could arrive at this belief. I don’t know for certain, but I have a theory it all comes down to a failure of empathy. I’m guessing people who hold this view have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that someone else could be so fundamentally different from them, so they end up assuming LGBTQIA folks are just like them but have chosen to be different.

Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself into another person’s place, and people fail to do it all the time. I’m pretty sure you could trace a lot of the world’s problems—maybe even most—to failures of empathy. Luckily, there’s a cure: the novel. When you read a book, it plops you in someone else’s shoes—often someone very different from you—and it takes you on a walk. And hopefully you become a more open-minded and compassionate person as a result. That’s the novel’s super power. Novels are empathy machines. It’s even been scientifically proven! A couple years ago, Scientific American reported on a study that showed reading literary fiction markedly improved subjects’ “ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions” and called fiction “a valuable socializing influence.” So there you go. You can’t argue with science. (Unless, of course, you still think sexuality’s a choice.)

Another cool thing about fiction: writing it can be just as mind-opening as reading it. As an author, I try to empathize with all my characters, including the ones whose motivations and values and beliefs differ radically from mine, because I know it’s absolutely necessary if I want to make my characters convincing.  When I wrote Willful Machines, I found Lee Fisher’s dad, the Human Values guy, pretty unsavory. But I did my best to understand him and how he’d arrived at his worldview, and in the end, though I still didn’t subscribe to his beliefs, I found myself caring about him.

In my book, the new (and very cute) kid at Lee Fisher’s boarding school, Nico Medina, has a thing for Shakespeare. He says when he acts in Shakespeare plays, the characters he portrays “might seem really different from me at first, but the more I read the lines and play the parts, the more I can relate to what they’re feeling.” Nico then quotes his drama teacher, who likes to say, “Reading Shakespeare helps us become more human.” (Of course, to complicate matters, Nico may also be an android—which would mean he would really need to study his Shakespeare—but you’ll have to read the book to find out more on that.)

I’d go one step further and say reading just about any literature makes us more human. Especially the stuff written from a point of view far from our own. The novel’s ability to foster empathy, to help us all understand each other a little better, is exactly what makes reading so important. It’s also what makes the We Need Diverse Books movement so vital. Readers—especially younger ones—need to see themselves represented in fiction, and they need to see people very different from them there too. If you ask me, it’s the only way we’re ever going to learn how to coexist peacefully. And then when the conscious, self-aware robots do show up, we’ll know exactly what to do with them too: just hand them a stack of novels. And maybe ask them if they’d like to write a few of their own.


timfloreenTim Floreen lives in San Francisco with his partner, their two cat-obsessed one-year-old daughters, and their two very patient cats. In a starred review, Kirkus called Tim’s first novel, Willful Machines,“gothic, gadgety and gay”—which is an accurate assessment. His second novel, Tattoo Atlas, comes out next year. You can find out more about Tim and his secret obsession with Wonder Woman on the Internet at timfloreen.com and on Twitter at @timfloreen.

“Dare to Disappoint” and the Fear of Other

By Ozge Samanci

samanci-daretodisappointI grew up in Turkey, in the cities of Izmir and Istanbul. I share stories from my life during that time in my new graphic memoir, Dare to Disappoint. I found it was impossible to tell a story that takes place in Turkey without touching upon the clash of women and men, west and east, poor and rich, believer and non-believer, Turks and other ethnicities.

It is more challenging to live as a woman in undeveloped or developing countries and in lower socioeconomic classes. Turkey is a developing country. I was relatively lucky: until age fourteen I lived in Izmir, one of the most westernized cities of Turkey. Izmir benefited from the liberating effect of the Aegean Sea. Since it was a beach city, women were able to wear shorts, tank tops, and stay on the streets late at night. In my childhood, I spent entire summers in my swimming suit, climbed on mulberry trees, then jumped into the sea to wash the smashed mulberries from my face and hands. In terms of lifestyle, I had a lot more freedom than average women growing up in Turkey. That said, there were still challenges.

While walking down the streets, even today, we deal with the disturbing gaze of entitled men who unapologetically stare at women in Izmir, Istanbul, or any of Turkey’s big cities. Many men stalk women and verbally or physically harass them. I have memories of physically fighting with men or yelling at them on the streets. When I and other women would raise our voices at harassing men, most of the time none of the passersby wanted to get involved. Occasionally a few other women backed us up and we left the scene with a sense of having bonded. But the general understanding of harassment in Turkey has always been the same: if someone lusted over a woman then it was the woman’s fault. That woman did something alluring and deserved it.

We learned ways of being invisible to protect ourselves. We dressed very conservatively (no short skirts, high heels, make up, fancy hair etc.), did not walk alone, ignored the words of the harassing guys, and did not recognize them by answering. There is a cost to avoiding the problem: we transformed into what the system wants woman to be. Invisible.

In Dare to Disappoint, my initial intention was not to tell about these forms of oppression. But as I told anecdotes from my life, the oppression of women just naturally came into every part of my narration, from the streets to the education system.

In addition to gender, ethnicity and religion are also sources of discrimination and hatred in Turkey. Turkey evolved from Ottoman Empire. Historically, Muslims ruled Ottoman Empire but the population of Ottoman Empire was a mixture of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Christian Greeks, Assyrians, and Jews. Unfortunately, today, many people show impatience or hatred towards non-Turkish ethnicities and religions other than Sunni-Islam. Since the collapse of Ottoman Empire, there has been an ongoing war between Turks and Kurds. The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, thinks being Armenian is shameful. He said, “Some called me a Georgian. Others called me even, excuse me, an Armenian in a shameful way. I am a Turk!”

If the president of Turkey thinks being Armenian is something to be ashamed of, it is not hard to imagine the violent mind of the ordinary citizen who defines him- or herself as a superior Turk. The entire religion system of Turkey serves the majority, Sunni-Islam. Alevi Muslim members of society are perceived as threats to the religion of Islam. They are accused of distorting the religion.

In Dare to Disappoint I tell stories about Turkish-Kurdish conflict, the planted hostility towards Greeks in school, and the polarization between Western and conservative Muslim values.

In Izmir, we can see the Greek islands with the naked eye. There are blue mountains on the horizon, and that is Greece. Even though we lived very close to Greece, I was in my late thirties before I had my first Greek friends. The two cultures did not mingle at all. When I visited Athens in 2013, I was blown away by its similarities to Izmir. The climate, food, architecture, life style, sense of humor, and people’s gestures in Athens were so much like of those in Izmir, yet Turks and Greeks perceived each other as enemies. When I went to the island of Mytilene in Greece, this time, there were the blue mountains of Izmir at the horizon. Turkey looked exactly like Greece from afar.

I believe, the fear of “other” is the fear of self. People who are unsure of themselves will always feel threatened when they interact with the “other.” The other has the power of reminding us of who we are and who we are not. One message in my book is this: whoever we are, if we are secure and content, getting to know the “other” will expand our horizons. We can then discover that there are blue mountains on both sides.


 

ozgesamanciOzge Samanci is an artist and an associate professor. She was born in Izmir, Turkey, and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. Her most recent book is the graphic novel memoir Dare to Disappoint.  ordinarycomics.com

Dare to Disappoint is available for purchase.

Judging People by Their Covers

By Zoë Marriott

marriott-darknesshiddenThere’s a photograph and a biography at the end of this post. Check it out now if you want. What’s your first impression of the person represented there? A pale-skinned, bespectacled blonde. British. First published quite young. Likes animals. That’s usually enough to give people a strong idea that they know who I am. But it’s not all there is to know.

If there’s one thing fiction is brilliant at, it’s proving to readers that nothing is as it seems.

In 2014 my first urban fantasy and the opening novel of my trilogy came out in the US. The Name of the Blade presented readers with Mio Yamato, a British-born Japanese heroine who is good with swords and almost recklessly valiant, her supernatural and seemingly perfect boyfriend, and a smart-mouthed best friend, Jack. Mio’s parents are out of the country on holiday and it’s up to Mio and crew to save London before those pesky adults get back and ground Mio for unleashing the monsters of Japanese myth onto the streets. Cliché cliché cliché. Right?

Well, I hope that the first book proved the characters had inner life and unexpected depth, and their world was darker and more complex than that.

But in Darkness Hidden, the second book of the trilogy, it was really time to start ripping back the reader’s assumptions. Mio, still suffering from the events of the first book, becomes paralysed with fear of making the wrong decision again, and all her ass-kicking becomes a sort of avoidance technique to distract her from taking more meaningful action. The perfectly devoted supernatural boyfriend is revealed to be psychologically fragile, maybe even broken, a habitual liar who seeks to protect himself by keeping the full truth from Mio. Tough, protective, physically capable Jack is left vulnerable and hurt. And the parents I’d so conveniently dispensed with in the first book? Turn out to have a great deal more to offer the story than either readers or Mio expected in this one.

I’m committed to diversity in my writing. Out of seven published YA novels, six have a protagonist who is a woman of colour (it will surprise no one that the single book with a white heroine is the most successful in terms of sales). Many of my books deal with mental illness and disability, and portray a whole spectrum of different sexualities and gender presentations. Sometimes people ask me why I ‘bother’ to do this, clearly assuming that my default must be the same as theirs — straight, white, able-bodied and cis. Surely it must be a lot of effort to include all these, you know, minorities and whatever?

It never crosses their mind that I might be among the minorities.

I don’t think authors should have to play privilege points in order to justify their choices. If someone wants to write books that are diverse, those books should be judged based on how good they are and nothing else.

But things aren’t always what they seem. That’s a good lesson for real life as well as fiction.

I hope readers will be intrigued and entertained by what I’ve attempted to do in Darkness Hidden — the gradual breaking down of what seemed at first to be the over-used tropes of urban fantasy. I hope they’ll come to see that their first impressions of the characters weren’t necessarily wrong, but that, just like in real life, what we can observe about a character at a single glance does not define them.

In choosing to write this particular series, which is set in contemporary London, has an all PoC cast, and pansexual, genderfluid and lesbian characters, I’m doing something that is vitally, personally important to me. Subverting the unquestioned assumptions I see in far too many YA novels. Taking characters whom all too often are pushed to the margins of the narrative, or even erased altogether, and offering them a voice, a point of view, and a story of their own.

I’m committed to diversity because I know how important it is to see your reflection in fiction growing up. I didn’t have that advantage, sadly.

What — not enough white-skinned blondes, you wonder? Oh yeah, plenty of those. But no one like me.

What my picture doesn’t show you, what my biography doesn’t reveal, is that I’m disabled, and have suffered with depression and anxiety all my life (I can quite clearly remember having my first suicidal thought when I was about eight). That my much-beloved family is mixed race. That I’m asexual, and after many years of work am now comfortable considering myself queer — although plenty of people (both gay and straight) like to tell me that I shouldn’t.

How many protagonists like me do you think I read about as a kid?

The best YA novels are not what they seem. They have unexpected depths and insights to offer that a reader will never discover unless they read on. And YA novelists — in fact, all people — are the same. Which means that, just as judging books by their cover is a bad idea, so is judging authors by their official biographies.


zoemarriott

YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folk and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing for The Swan Kingdom, and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon.

Darkness Hidden is available for purchase.