Category Archives: Guest Posts

Breathing Room: The Space between Art and Activism

By Rene S. Perez II

perez-seeingoffthejohnsI guess I’ve always been a writer. Such labels become important when you’re an aspiring writer, then a writing student, then a published writer (in some literary magazine, let’s say, print or online—they put your words on their page!), or even an unpublished graduate of a writing program, then as an author when the book your words are in only has your name on it. These distinctions are important among writers, because we wait for so long to be able to call ourselves “author” or, hopefully, “award-winning author” or “best-selling author”. They’re important because, when we are out in the world, punching a clock or pulling down a salary (often correcting or re-writing the words of other people when we want to write our own), or raising a family, we have to be able to tell ourselves at the end of the day, when we know there’s a word document that’s been untouched for days or weeks because of our paying work’s exhausting toll, when we’ve sent out a story and not received word back regarding our submission well past the 8 weeks by which a publication’s submission guidelines say we’ll receive a joyous “yes” or a merciful “no”, when we feel the cold pangs in our core at the hint of the fact that maybe, just maybe, our dream won’t be realized, when we have these dark nights of the soul, we can always tell ourselves, we’re writers. We write. It’s what we do. If we can’t do it every day, if we don’t get paid for it, we write. We are writers.

I’ve been a writer since long before I was a published author—since before I even knew my writing could or would ever be published. I would write in notebooks. Notebook after notebook. Loose-leaf page after loose-leaf page—to be folded or stapled or transcribed into my notebooks. I wrote mostly poems, some stream of consciousness reportage on the things around me—the this-and-that of a life in my shoes. I wrote what I know now were character sketches, but which I called stories at the time. I wrote in middle school. I wrote in high school. I wrote in college. But I never thought to become a writer. This was mostly, I believe, because what I’d read to that point was inaccessible to me. It was all just a bunch of dead white guys, and what did I care about them outside of needing to take tests and write essays about what they’d written. Do I now see the beauty of a fiery passion that had to be repressed for so, so many pages only to ever be expressed in the touch of gloved hands and a beautiful night traipsing in the snow? Of course I do. Do I now see the poignancy in a farmhand pulling himself up by his bootstraps and a willingness to bootleg all so he could build this palace as a setting for a party where maybe, just maybe, the girl who personified all that he was not, all that he pretended to be, could see him? Sure. But Ethan Frome and James Gatz were aliens to me. They were from places and circumstances that, when I first encountered them, kept me from understanding them as characters in stories—art—that represented feelings and states of being that were and are universal. In these vaunted tomes of American letters, I was presented with cultural barriers to access—just like many students are presented with such barriers in trying to access education at large.

It wasn’t until I was at college, a pre-law student by default, as the path that had previously been laid out for me—I was going to be an engineer—had been blown apart by a calculus class in high school that made me think twice about pursuing a career with those math-minded types, that I found an appreciation for literature. Having tested out of 3 sections of English, I was allowed to take upper-division English classes. I enrolled in a Chicano Literature class, almost certainly because it’s what was left to register for when I finally did. I’ve already forgotten some of the books we read. I know that we did end up reading And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, Tunomás Honey, Pocho, The Road to Tamazunchale, and Woman Hollering Creek. I remember Anna Nogar teaching these texts with vigor and an urgency to have her students understand their (ambiguity intended) potential. I remember my classmates, all also Latino, mostly Chicano, seemed to be having similar experiences to the one I was having—a light bulb was turning on for us; the dark of our exclusion from the books we’d read and the classes we’d taken was illuminated by the light of our torch-bearing forebearers, by Rivera and by Sagel, by Villarreal and Arias, by, of course, Cisneros. We could see ourselves in literature.

I decided then that, while I always wrote, I would become a writer. I know now that I’d always been a writer, that I had hoped, then, to someday become an author like those who had shown me it was possible to become one.

That’s when, already back then, I had to define the space between the art I wanted to create and the activism I wanted that art to accomplish. How political were my stories going to be? How loudly was I going to shout to the masses that, “We are here! We’ve always been here! This land was ours before it was yours, and this country is just as much ours as it is yours even now that we’re relegated to underclass status!”? How much Spanish were my characters going to speak? Was I going to Italicize?

These questions all overwhelmed me. So I did the only thing I could: I wrote from as true and real a place as I could. I determined that, no matter what, I would not write anything phony. I made that decision when I wrote my first short story, “Last Trip North”, and wanted to set it in my father’s hometown. While I’d lived in that town myself for a short period of my young childhood and travelled there from Corpus Christi, where I was raised, I was not really from Hebbronville, TX. So I named the town Greenton. It’s the same town in which my newest novel, Seeing Off the Johns, takes place.

I made this choice with one thing in mind: the authenticity of my art. Back when I wrote that first story, I would not have even known to call this impulse that. I just knew that the truth would set me free in my writing. It would allow me to create fictions that could be believed and characters who my readers could live with, experience the plot points with. The truth gave me permission to create the lies.

In that moment of truth, when I decided to name my town Greenton, all of the other questions about my responsibility to the cultural aspect of my writing were answered. If I would create stories and let my characters, mostly all Chicano characters, live and be there as truly and realistically as possible, I would be creating impactful Chicano literature. There’s no checklist of what a story or book does or doesn’t have to have in order to be sufficiently Chicano. There’s only the authentic and the not. Hewn closely to my own experience of the culture—to what else can literature be hewn but a writer’s experience—I know that my writing might just resonate well enough with young readers to flip the “on” switch in their minds, to reflect, in my work, something close to their realities.

With Seeing Off the Johns, I never reached out at young readers with my writing. I never had those readers or that section of the bookstore in mind when I wrote my novel. I wrote the story to play out as truly as possible within the situation it created. Sure, my protagonist is a high school senior, but I didn’t write this for high schoolers. That said, I did write his thoughts and actions to be as close as possible to those someone his age, in his situation, would have. In aiming to maintain the integrity of the art, I created something that I am already seeing resonates with young readers.

I am a teacher. I teach in a school that is made up of mostly minority students, among that majority, most students are Latino. It has been my great pleasure to point students in the direction of texts that I know will resonate with them. I try, particularly with my reluctant readers, to chip away at those barriers to entry to literature. Sometimes those barriers are language (And the Earth Did Not Devour Him is in both English and Spanish); sometimes it’s length and lexile level of texts (David Rice’s Crazy Loco has worked wonders with students who are daunted by a book’s size); sometimes it’s that “books are for nerds” (seriously, put a copy of Junot Diaz’s Drown in the hands of one of these kids, preferably if they’re older, and watch them at least have to respect that that notion is wrong if not then fully dive into that book’s stories).

On the teaching end of my professional existence, I am an advocate, a cheerleader, and an activist for getting the right books into the hands of kids who might not otherwise connect to literature. As a writer, though, I have to remain true to my art. I have to, or I wouldn’t be able to make it. Just like I wasn’t able to stain that first blank page with my stories until I could do it from a truthful place, I still can’t. Regardless of who my audience might end up being, the art I’ll create if I create it just for the sake of its authenticity will resound with more readers if they can flip through a few pages, realize I’m not full of it, and hop on for the ride.

Minority writers, particularly YA writers, often feel pressure to carry on the tradition of those who came before them and inspired them to create. I am a Chicano writer. I know that the word Chicano has historical and political underpinnings. I know that by simply being who I am, from where I’m from, there are expectations placed on me and what I write. Some of these expectations, sure, are ignorant and dismissive. Many others, however, are well-meaning. Outlets urging writers to write work to reflect the history and dignity of a whole community do so in order that such work can be available, so that it can be held up as exemplary both to youth within the community and to outsiders looking in from the dominant culture.

We are expected to be cheerleaders and role models, flag-bearers for movements gone by and struggles still being fought. We are the voices of diversity, so we had better be saying the big things, the important things. We better be writing positive characters. We better be showing that young Chican@s can be cool and smart and interesting. It’s all too much.

All we owe readers is our writing. If we make it as good and real as it can be, nothing else needs to be considered. Art without an agenda outside aesthetic and truth is more impactful than any propaganda or motivational speechwriting. If we forget, or at least ignore, the pushes from without and from within toward creating the “right kind” of diverse YA, if we aim only to make it as impactful and engaging as possible, the work we end up doing will serve to continue the revelation to young people of color that they have a place in literature, that their stories and their lives matter just as much any Frome or Gatsby or Caulfield, any Wharton or Fitzgerald or Salinger to come before them.


renespereziiRene S. Perez II was born in Kingsville, Texas, and raised in Corpus Christi. He received a BA from the University of Texas and an MFA from Texas State University. He is the winner of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and the 2013 NACCS Tejas Award for Fiction for his 2012 short story collection, Along These Highways. His latest book, Seeing Off the Johns, was named BookPage’s Top Teen Pick for July. He currently teaches high school in Austin.

Seeing Off the Johns is available for purchase.

On the Freedom of the Borderlands

By Shannon Gibney

gibney-seenocolorOne humid August afternoon many years ago, a 12-year-old girl huddled in the corner of a staircase, weeping. She was waiting for her parents to come home and comfort her, although she didn’t know if they could do it. A voracious reader, the girl had just found a copy of a book on transracial adoption — that is, a book about children of color adopted into white families — on the top shelf of her parents’ bookcase. Excited to finally find a book that spoke directly to her experience, the girl settled onto the family couch and dug into the worn paperback, devouring narrative after narrative on adult adoptees. After awhile, she began to notice her body heating up, as she read stories of black adults who had been raised in white environments. These grown adoptees stated that they would never fit in with white culture because they were not white, nor black culture, because they could not perform blackness. This is what will happen to me, the girl thought, and an alarm sounded in her brain. This is what has happened to me already. There is nothing I can do.

Of course, that girl was me, crouched, alone, and desperate for hope and some sort of recognition, on that step in my house as a teenager. Although it took me years to do it, I wrote See No Color for her. This coming-of-age young adult novel is for that scared 12-year-old mixed black girl, and all the other transracial adoptees out there, growing up alone without community, feeling like they will never really fit in anywhere and be “normal.” More universally, it is for anyone who has ever been outside the mainstream, and anyone who yearns to find a tribe where they can be truly accepted. It is for all those who have looked for themselves in the books and stories around them, and instead have only found a blank space, or something that scared them.

In telling the story of Alexandra Kirtridge, a mixed black girl adopted into a loving if somewhat misguided family, I wanted to offer that girl I was something else to pick up off that bookshelf. I wanted her to know that there are also stories of healing through the complexity of negotiating a multifaceted identity, not just stories of breaking under the weight of it. I wanted that girl to see herself years from then, as part of both black and white communities as well as others, standing right in the middle of that messiness and feeling all of it: the belonging, the not belonging, the shame, the joy, the endless questioning.

Now an adult with my own family, to me, this is the beauty of what Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua has termed the borderlands/la frontera: It is a place where one’s shifting identity and multicultural fluencies and deficiencies are assets — simply because one does not demand that the world make them feel safe or legible. There is a freedom to being misread, or not read at all. There is also a freedom in not being at the center all the time. I hope this is one message that See No Color conveys.


Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color, a young adult novel. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera America Magazine, The Crisis, Gawker, and other venues. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, she lives with her husband and children in Minneapolis.

See No Color is available for purchase.

Why I Only Write About LGBTQIA+ Characters (for now)

By Robin Talley

talley-whatweleftbehindRecently, a reader asked me if I’d intentionally set out for my new book, What We Left Behind, to have an almost entirely LGBTQ cast. The answer to that question is no, not really ― it wasn’t until I was on the seventh or so revision that I realized how few straight, cisgender characters have actual speaking roles in WWLB ― but his question really got me thinking.

What We Left Behind is very different from my first book, Lies We Tell Ourselves. Lies was set in 1959 Virginia. Both of its main characters, Sarah and Linda, are on the queer spectrum (in my mind, they’re both bisexual, but being that the only sex ed they’ve ever received is the 1950s public-school edition, these characters don’t have terminology for their identities beyond “That one girl makes me feel kind of funny”). They have no awareness of any other LGBTQIA+ people existing in their world. They assume that by default, everyone they know is straight and cis. (Again, in my head, there’s one other gay character in the book ― their choir teacher ― but Sarah and Linda aren’t aware of that, so it isn’t on the page.)

But What We Left Behind is set in the present day. It starts out in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where the lead characters are from. Then the setting moves back and forth between the two college campuses where they’re starting their respective freshman years ― Harvard, and NYU.

All three of those settings are considered hotbeds of liberalism by the Fox News types. And, well, they’re not entirely wrong. Toni and Gretchen, the two 18-year-old protagonists of What We Left Behind, have been out to various degrees about their queer identities for years. When they arrive at their new schools, they both find communities of classmates who are on the LGBTQ spectrum, too. And for Toni, who identifies as genderqueer at the start of the book, becoming part of a group of trans* friends opens up a whole new world that just might change everything.

Writing a book with an almost entirely queer-identified cast was so much fun I don’t even have the words for it. Now that we’re safely living in the 21st century, for some LGBTQIA+ people ― and yes, I was one of them ― college is the first place where you can really be part of a community of friends who get what it’s like to be you.

I get to keep indulging in queer communities after this book, too. The book I’m working on next, As I Descended ― which is also set in the here and now, though it’s more on the SF/F side of things (it’s a retelling of Macbeth set at a haunted Virginia boarding school) ― also has a lead cast made up entirely of gay and bi folks.

It’s awesome to get to write about more-or-less out-and-proud teenagers after spending years dwelling on the repressive world that was 1950s America. But more than that, there’s something unique and exciting in writing about queer communities, specifically. That’s also something that I feel has been lacking in YA. Sure, YA has been short on LGBTQIA+ representation (and marginalized community representation across the board) since its inception, and the numbers show that we’re nowhere close to rectifying that today. But even in many YA books with LGBTQIA+ protagonists, it’s still pretty common for just that one character, plus maybe a BFF and/or love interest, to be the only non-straight, non-cis people around.

And that’s certainly a common experience for a lot of teens on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. That’s basically what it was like for me in high school in the 1990s. But it’s not the only reality, especially in today’s social-media-connected world. And for me, writing ― and reading ― about queer teens who are plugged into that bigger world is both fun and fascinating.

But even when they’re living in relative isolation, like in my first book, I’m still more interested in writing about LGBTQIA+ characters than straight, cisgender folks, at least when it comes to protagonists. It’s partly that I relate to the sexuality aspect of their identities, being queer myself. But I think it’s also because, to some degree or other, these characters are operating outside cultural expectations. It may not be the 1950s anymore, but we still very much live in a world where straight and cisgender are the default. And for now at least, I’m most interested in writing about characters who don’t conform to that assumption.

Never say never, of course. Someday a straight, cis character might pop into my head whose story I simply can’t wait to tell.

But for now… I’m sticking with lesbian Macbeth.


robintalleyRobin Talley, author of Lies We Tell Ourselves (September 2014) and What We Left Behind (October 2015), grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin now lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at www.robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley.

What We Left Behind is available for purchase.

“Being Me” and the Complexity of Black Identity

By Pete Kalu

kalu-beingmeI began my literary life as a storyteller visiting classrooms across the UK. I found in the major cities — London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, pupils in one class might collectively know up to fifteen languages. In these same classrooms there would be children of amazingly mixed backgrounds — Turkish-Pakistani, Nigerian-Polish, third generation hyphenated Jamaican-Ghanaian-English-Irish children.

This hybridity is not an exclusively UK phenomenon. In Hong Kong I met third generation Indian-Chinese; in Lebanon I’ve met Nigerian bartenders who spoke fluent English having picked it up from American movies but who also spoke fluent Arabic and were engaged to Lebanese women. I’ve met Kashmiri villagers in Pakistan who spoke Scottish-English on account of Britain’s colonial ventures there hundreds of years ago!

Black identity is endlessly complex once you start to look up close. And to compound that complexity, culture (which forms a significant part of identity) is never static — it’s always on the move: absorbing new influences, throwing off the old. This is nothing new. I once traced a story that originated with the Mende people of Sudan and moved down into West Africa in different versions and which has now spread across to the Caribbean. In each location the story adapted itself, absorbing local influences. Hybridity is as old as the African hills.

Overlaying this aspect of hybridity and the resulting diversity of identity is the negative phenomenon of racism. Racism’s effect tends to be a flattening of the uniqueness of individuals and of the shifting variegation of cultures and their replacement with a monotone stereotype. Racism takes away individuation; it impresses its own images on individuals and communities. So Being Me tries to push back by exploring and celebrating the many complexities and ambiguities that black identity possesses.

In Being Me, Adele has an Ethiopian grandmother, a father who identifies as Italian and a white Liverpudlian mother. Adele considers herself black on account of her grandmother, but her father, who has a fine line in racism (see my first YA novel, The Silent Striker) considers her English-Italian. Adele occasionally speaks a form of urban slang which she attributes to her black grandmother. It is her confused way of boosting her ‘blackness’, as a means of pushing back against her father. Her frenemy Mikaela meanwhile has darker skin and two dark skinned parents. When annoyed, Mikaela rejects Adele’s attempt to identify as black and ridicules her for it. But if we hold the mirror up to Mikalea, Mikaela’s black identity is not ‘normal’ either. Mikaela’s parents are rich lawyers. Mikaela would prefer them to be poor in keeping with the stereotype of urban black families that she considers would make her look cool at school. To make things even more complicated, Mikaela’s parents were once Black Power militants and still champion the radical voices involved in anti-racism and pro-refugee campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and #refugeeswelcome. The whole bag of assumptions and expectations get thrown in the air in Being Me when Adele’s historically racist father inexplicably starts an affair with Mikaela’s mum.

To return to the source, as a storyteller, I would go into classrooms, tell a story or two from my life, then ask: what is blackness? Is it the way someone speaks? The way they walk? Is it where they are born? Their family? One story I would tell them   from my own adolescence was of how a white skinned Jamaican man arrived in Manchester, UK and set up a kung fu class popular with second generation Jamaican children. We were astonished when this white man opened his mouth and spoke more fluent Jamaican nation-language (patois) than any second generation UK born Jamaican kid. It had us all re-examining our understanding of Jamaican-ness, which at the time, was the coolest kind of blackness.

The school students loved debating this stuff and teachers said it was the first time they had had an opportunity within school to talk like this, there were no YA novels that gave UK black identity anything more than a token examination.

Coming back to Being Me, in the background of the novel, the questions I am considering (we novelists never have any answers — only questions!) relate to the nature of black consciousness as a lived experience. Does a black kid think any differently to a white kid? If so, when? All the time? If not all the time, then in what circumstances?

Take a math problem as an example. You might think on the surface everyone looks at a math question in the same way. Yet a black kid might go into class with reservations. One of racism’s early messages was that African people are not adept at scientific thinking. This translates down as black people cannot do math. When entering the math classroom, what examples of black scientific successes has the black kid seen, what role models of people good at math has she or he picked up, how does their black peer group see the idea of being good at math and what cultural influences have affected that wider peer group?

Add all this up and a black kid by the age of 14 may have been delivered a sufficiently negative message about their math ability as to be much more hesitant going into a math class.

So a simple task — the square root of nine — may be contemplated with completely different attitudes by a black kid and a white kid. That’s without any reference to the actual mathematical processing brain work that the task requires. The reverse might happen at Physical Education. Black people are expected to be good at that. How does it feel if you’re black and actually rubbish at sports or dancing or any of the other stereotypical things we are meant to be good at?

So much for being black in school. How about daily life? The UK born black journalist Gary Younge stayed for 12 years in the USA writing news reports for major UK newspapers, including the Guardian. He wrote recently about his decision to return from the USA, describing how his very young son did not want to walk down a certain street because he felt threatened. His son, even at that early age, was already adjusting his thinking and his behaviour to the fact of his blackness. Do all black kids come to learn which streets it is not safe to walk down, both literally and metaphorically?

Some might say, what about our common humanity? Surely we have more in common than that which separates us? Extending this reasoning, some writers consider that black consciousness (if I can use that phrase in a narrow sense of being aware of being black in society) is not central to the black child’s personality or experience of life: black awareness is an intermittent experience. It’s an argument that may hold some truth.

Such writers could therefore presumably write black characters as white and merely swap the name John for Kwame and, with a few extra touches here and there, arrive at a convincing black YA character.

To take the other extreme, if blackness or racism determined every aspect of a character’s life, what room would there be for individualisation, for showing the deeply felt unique emotions and distinctive intellectual life which we each have as individuals — is all that flattened out by racism? Does racism make us all the same?

The Holy Grail for a writer concerned with black identity is to create a black character who has a deeply felt emotional life, a highly individualized experience of the world and a fully active intellectual life, while not ignoring the societal structures which impinge on their world. Ultimately, I guess the emphases you choose as a writer when depicting black characters depends on your own experiences, observations and judgements.

With my own two YA novels I’ve plunged in and given two different takes on black identity. In The Silent Striker Marcus has a vociferous white mum who is a trainee magician and a proudly Nigerian postal worker dad who wants to be pop singer only he has a voice like a cat with its tail caught in a door. Marcus suffers racial bullying by a teacher and some of his classmates. In his own, Marcus looks set to go under. But his true friends rally round (including Adele, his sort of girlfriend) and in a ‘Spartacus’ moment help him oppose his scapegoating, lift his chin and get his dreams back on track.

In Being Me, Adele and Mikaela are best friends and worst enemies. Mikaela calls out Adele’s ‘skin privilege’ — the way Adele’s life is easier as she is lighter-skinned than Mikaela. Adele herself longs to be what she considers more authentically black but has wrong-headed ideas about what being black means. Teen life is a time of working out who you are. For Adele and Mikaela, bumping up against assumptions, trying out stereotypes and challenging expectations is part of their growing up. It is their enduring friendship that pulls them through it all.

Those are my two tales. Two approaches. There is room for a whole range of other takes on black identity. Currently there are very few YA novels with contemporary black characters published by mainstream publishers whether in the US or the UK.

As evidence of that I recently visited a Manchester branch of Britain’s leading bookshop chain. I randomly chose some YA stories that looked as if they were set in the UK in the 21st century and wrote down the first girl’s name I came across.   Here’s the list.

Rose. Minny. Penny. Eden. Zahra. Poppy. Mary Harriet. Anna. Georgia. Emmy. Evie. Lily.

A very white list. To find a black character anywhere on those YA shelves I had to leave contemporary YA fiction and look among books set either in a distant time, a distant land or in a fantasy universe. It’s time for YA fiction to fearlessly place black characters in the now. We are part of this world. We belong.


petekaluPeter Kalu is well known as a poet, novelist, playwright and script writer. He started writing as a member of the Moss Side Write black writers workshop and has had five novels, two film scripts and three theatre plays produced to date. In 2002 he won the Kodak/Liverpool Film Festival Award for his script, No Trace. In March 2003 he won the BBC/Contact Theatre’s Dangeorus Comedy Script Award for his play, Pants. He has lived in Hulme/ Moss Side/ Didsbury, Manchester; Edinburgh, Scotland; Leeds, Yorkshire; Lagos and Abia State (briefly), Nigeria; and San Francisco, USA. He has a degree in Law and further qualifications in software programming, Internet coding and Marketing. He runs a Hulme based Carnival Band called Moko Jumbi (Ghosts of the Gods) which takes to the streets at Manchester Carnival every year in July on three feet high stilts! He is learning to tightrope walk.

Being Me is now available.

Writing Around the Rules of YA

By Elizabeth Langston

perf5.000x8.000.inddWhen I first created Kimberley Rey, the heroine of Wishing for You, I knew she was struggling with her college decision and that her friend Sean had a terminal illness. What I didn’t know yet was that Kimberley had a disability.

It wasn’t until I was plotting her relationship with Sean that I could see it. He wanted to keep his cancer a secret as long as possible, and Kimberley was the only friend he’d told. When I thought about why that was true, I realized that it was partly because she’d had cancer too. And I knew exactly which kind.

Many years ago, I met a little girl on a bone marrow transplant unit, in the room next door to my nephew’s. Dana was happy, healthy, and cured of leukemia. However, the chemotherapy had damaged her short-term memory. Over time, we learned that the memory loss was permanent. She would fight a life-long battle to remember details, stay organized, and make decisions. Dana became the inspiration for Kimberley.

The realities of a memory disability sent the book down new paths.

Kimberley’s college choice changed from tough to intensely difficult — even terrifying. For many teens, cost is a constraining factor in their college search. But once they know their budget, they get to consider academic programs, social life, sports, and how far away they want to go. People who are neuro-atypical have other priorities. They have to think about accommodations, access to health care, safety, and how close they are to home.

I know how it feels to be an anxious parent and watch my kids wrestle with this decision. My older daughter has several chronic health issues, including depression. Her younger sister has a developmental disability. I’ve come to understand how important it is to find the right college — and what can happen when you get it wrong.

Kimberley’s disability also meant that she was completely unprepared for moving away to college. She’d been sheltered, with justification, by her overprotective parents. Her character arc had to include lessons in independence, like cooking without causing a fire or crossing a street without stepping into oncoming traffic. Her goals were small, tame, and absolutely necessary for her.

But too many scenes with mundane achievements would make for a boring book. So I experimented with the story structure, lightening up on the action plot and focusing instead on the more emotional subplots. She’s still the protagonist, the force driving the action forward, yet always with someone from her “supporting cast” nearby. It doesn’t take long for her friendship with Sean to become the heart of the story. While he encourages Kimberley along her journey of discovery, she helps him to laugh and forget.

“Strange how knowing our story had no happy ending had freed us to live in the moment. We weren’t guy and girl. We weren’t damaged and terminal. We were just now.”

Writing this book gave me unexpected insight into the rules of YA fiction. To get Kimberley right, I had to play around with genre conventions, tropes, and what’s expected of a good protagonist. I couldn’t send this heroine on a quest because she’d get lost. Involved parents were critical to her survival. And the consistent presence of friends provided the security she needed to grow. By the time I’d finished her story, I’d learned how to write around any rules that got in Kimberley’s way. It makes me wonder how much the rules have become a barrier to creating characters with disabilities.

As I wrote Wishing for You, I worried if I’d done enough research, kept Kimberley realistic, or strayed too far from the rules. But I never doubted the idea of telling her story, because I believe that YA readers are open to embracing all kinds of heroes.


elizabethlangstonElizabeth Langston lives in North Carolina, halfway between the beaches and the mountains. She has two twenty-something daughters and one old, geeky husband. When she’s not writing software or stories, Elizabeth loves to travel with her family, watch dance reality shows on TV, and dream about which restaurant ought to get her business that night. Wishing for You is the second book in her I Wish series.

Wishing for You is now available.

Don’t Be Cool

In Weird Girl and What’s His Name by Meagan Brothers, Rory and Lula are definitely not the cool kids, but they don’t care. They’re best friends who share everything from their “messed-up parent situation” to their obsessive love of The X-Files. But when Lula finds out that Rory, who’s gay, has been secretly dating his middle-aged boss, their friendship comes apart. In the aftermath, both of them will discover what it means to be friends, to be family, to be in love, and to be themselves.

By Meagan Brothers

brothers-weirdgirlI don’t know why I even went into Target in the first place, but it was too late to turn back now.  I was frozen in the aisle next to the Home Electronics section, beside a pop-up kiosk full of DVDs.  I was trying to talk myself out of the inevitable.  Nope.  No way.  I’m not going back to all that.  I’m a perfectly normal person now.  No way is that DVD going into this shopping cart.  No way – no – I said no – what are you doing?  Put that down!  I’m not kidding! 

But it was too late.  The damage was done.  A quick trip through the express line and I was the proud owner of a two-DVD set called The X-Files: Revelations, the “Essential Guide to The X-Files Movie,” featuring “8 Critical Episodes Handpicked by the Series Creator.”  Critical Episodes!  So what if I had no money to spare and I’d already seen almost every episode of The X-Files at least twice?  This was critical.

Actually, the only thing that was truly critical was this new story I was writing.  It was growing every day at an alarming (dare I say supernatural) rate.  It had started a couple of weeks before, in June of 2008, when I’d gone to see the new X-Files movie on opening night.  The last time I’d spent a Friday night alone with Mulder and Scully, I was 19.  Despite the fact that this new X-Files movie wasn’t the franchise’s greatest cinematic achievement, its effect on my psyche was downright Proustian.  A few days after the premiere, this story about two friends obsessed with the show started coming to me, and I started writing it down as quickly as I could.

But if we’re being completely accurate, this obsession – and this story – really started back in the early spring of 1995, during my junior year of high school.  My friend Liz, who shared her classic Twilight Zone episodes on VHS with me and knew my penchant for quirky TV like Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, casually mentioned that I should check out this show on Friday nights called The X-Files.  I was immediately hooked.  From the first episode, this dark, obsessive little show caused me to vibrate on heretofore unknown frequencies.  For a 17-year-old who spent much of her spare time down in the basement, pecking out bad poetry and odd little vampire stories on the family computer, The X-Files was everything.  Our hero, Fox Mulder, was literally and figuratively alienated, a brilliant agent exiled to the basement of the FBI because of his all-consuming quest to find his sister, who he swore was abducted by UFOs.  His partner, Dana Scully, was sent to spy on him and discredit him, but became his biggest ally.  Together, they investigated the strange, the disturbing, and the inexplicable, traipsing about in misty nighttime forests against the backdrop of an atmospheric synth score.  Here was a show about loneliness, about devotion, about friendship and faith.  Here was a show aimed directly at the heart of a moody little weirdo like me.

I became, in the parlance of the fandom, an X-Phile.

I spent the next few years taping every episode I could.  I bought any magazine that promised even the tiniest hint of an X-Files article.  When we went off to college, Liz bought me an “I Want To Believe” poster for my dorm room wall.  I remained a die-hard fan for the next few years, until graduation gave way to a more time-consuming life in the “real world” and the show, in its final seasons, became a bit mired in retcon and muddled mythology.  Unexpectedly, I found myself in Phile Apostasy, even giving away my treasured box of taped-from-TV VHS episodes to a guy named Moon Pie who worked with my mom.  He was a down on his luck sort who drove an ancient Chevrolet Celebrity wagon with a sheet of plastic covering the perpetually busted-out back window.  My mom somehow found out that he didn’t have cable or a TV antenna at home, just a TV set with a VCR, and he spent his weekends trolling the flea markets and thrift stores for budget entertainment.  Already a veteran thrifter myself, I felt for the guy, so I gave him my X-Files collection, which was just sitting around gathering dust.   A year or two later, Moon Pie won $100,000 in the lottery.  He ditched the Chevy, but I hope that he still kept my “X-Files Miscellaneous” VHS with the Simpsons crossover episode and David Duchovny hosting Saturday Night Live.  Because, as I now know, that’s the sort of thing that no amount of money can replace.

Which brings us back to Target, and the summer of 2008.  I was in the feverish throes of this story, but I knew that, to tell the story of these two best friends whose love for each other was matched only by their love of The X-Files, I would have to get back into the show.  This show had already taken over my life once, when I was a teenager whose main worry was that I was failing algebra.  Now I was an adult with a relationship, a job, and a burgeoning writing career.  No time for TV love, Dr. Jones.  And, beyond that, this weird thing had happened and I was actually sort of cool now.  I’d been in a band.  People in town who knew me knew me as “the guitar player from that band.”  I’d been introduced to other actually cool people in actual cool bands as “the guitar player from that band.”  I’d been on tour in a van.  I’d worked as a record store clerk and on indie movie sets.  I’d written a YA novel that got some nice notices and I was finishing another one.  I was a cool person doing cool things.  Why would I need to devote myself to sitting around, obsessively watching some TV show?  What could be more uncool?

Well, that’s one angle to the story.  But, brace yourself for the big confession: I was never actually cool!  Not even for a minute!  That person in the cheap sunglasses throwing the guitar around and trying to be a badass was never separate from the insecure kid with the terrible math grades and the I Want to Believe poster.  (I know.  It was a shock to me, too.)

So I’d bought my little 8-episode set, and I wrote my little story.  Which actually wasn’t very little at all – it ended up being almost fifty manuscript pages.  Way too long for any magazine or anthology that published short stories.  What the heck was I supposed to do with fifty pages of X-Files nerd lore?  Leave it to gather dust in a desk drawer, that’s what.  Oh well.  That was fun.  I guess.

I ignored the story for a year while I finished rewrites on my second novel and tried to dive into a third, a Big Serious Adult Novel.  But something about that too-long short story wouldn’t leave me alone.  So I dove back into this little saga of these two friends, Rory and Lula, joined by their impossible love of a television show.  I started watching the show again myself.  Somewhere along the way, I stopped caring whether people would think I was cool or not.  I’d already written one book that was inspired by my own Debbie Harry fandom – if I could weather the slings and arrows of my serious music snob friends and their eye-rolling disdain for Blondie, a mere pop band, then I could deal with people thinking I was a nerd for loving The X-Files.  I stopped caring whether people thought I was serious enough, or literary enough.  I was doing something I loved.

I loved writing this story.  It was a story about loving something that I actually loved.  And when you love a thing, or a person, or a song, or a TV show, then it doesn’t matter what other people think.  You just love that thing to death and worry about the rest later.  It took almost five years for this book to get published.  But that’s okay.  Not everybody is going to love what you love in the way that you love it.  It takes patience.  People might try to think up all kinds of ways to try and make you feel bad for loving what you love.  Don’t listen to them.  Just don’t.  Love is a truth that vibrates in every fiber of your being, and that is not a hyperbole.  It is truer than whatever name-calling or petty ugliness can be conjured up by people outside of your love.  Your love may not make you any money, or get you any awards, but who cares?  Those things all fall away in time, anyway.  What’s going to matter is that point at the end where you are tired and jaded and old and you look back on your love and you vibrate and light up and it feels like something supernatural is happening to you but in fact all it is is recognition.  That’s all love is.  It isn’t badass.  It isn’t cool.  It’s human beings, isolated and lonesome, waving to each other from across some nameless void, saying hello, I see you!  And you see me!  Thank God, you see me!  Hello!  I see you!  I love you!  Hello!


meaganbrothersMeagan Brothers is the author of two previous novels for young adults, Debbie Harry Sings in French and Supergirl Mixtapes. She has also been, variously, a musician, a performing poet, a record store clerk, and an adjunct professor of creative writing at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. A native Carolinian, she currently lives and works in New York City.

Weird Girl and What’s His Name is now available.

Avoiding “Special” Narratives About Disabilities in The Change Series

By Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

brown-smith-strangerRachel

Everything I write stems from personal experience, even if it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where people have mutant powers and the trees can eat you. When Sherwood and I first created the world of the Change, we wanted it to feel real and be true to our own lives and experiences. Fiction often shuts out people like us—old women, Jews, people with disabilities—but our actual lives have contained plenty of excitement, adventure, and romance. We wanted to write about heroes who were more like us and the people we knew.

In the Change series, we created some rules of thumb about disabilities to express what we believed to be true. One was that there are no miracle cures. There is a doctor with a mutant power that he uses to heal, but what it actually does is speed up time, to heal a wound quickly. If it’s not the kind of wound that could be healed with nothing more than time, his power won’t help. When young prospector Ross Juarez badly injures his wrist in the first chapter of Stranger, Dr. Lee saves his life but can’t fully restore the function of his hand. Ross spends the rest of the book doing physical therapy and learning to adapt; at the end he acquires a prosthetic gauntlet. And then he spends the entire second book learning to adapt to the prosthesis. Sherwood and I have both done physical rehab for various reasons, and we wanted to depict how long and difficult that can be.

Another world-shaping rule we had is that disability and accommodation to it is common and normal. We don’t normally think of nearsightedness as a disability, but it would be without glasses. (We both are so nearsighted that without glasses, we can’t recognize people from across the room.) So we have characters with glasses. We have characters who use wheelchairs. We have homes built to accommodate family members who can only see ultraviolet. We have characters who are disabled via injury, birth, life experience, or mutation, and show how they adapt and how society accommodates them—or chooses not to.

We also wanted to avoid certain types of narratives. Sherwood has a particular loathing for the cheap sentiment of the inspirational story, where the disabled hero does something heroic and is then exalted as extra-special. It tends to make the disabled person into a symbol rather than a character. We also didn’t believe that one heroic act is enough to get all prejudiced people to drop their biases. In real life, they’re more likely to keep their prejudices but decide that one person is an exception to the rule.

I especially dislike the disability tragedy stories, in which people with physical or psychological issues are ruined forever, typically dying at the end while everyone wrings their handkerchiefs and says it’s for the best because they were suffering so much. Apart from just being the flip side of the glurgy sentiment of the inspirational story, it sends a terrible message to people who do have those disabilities. Do we really want to tell readers that if they have Disability X, their life is ruined and they might as well kill themselves?

I can attest to the pernicious effect of the disability tragedy narrative. In my life, I’ve had severe depression and PTSD. Unlike some disabilities, those have a lot of inherent pain and suffering attached. In my own experience, those are not conditions of life, like being dyslexic or nearsighted, but illnesses that require treatment. So that’s hard to begin with. But you know what makes it ten times harder? When almost everything you’ve ever read with a character with depression or PTSD concludes with either a fake miracle cure, or with them dying and all the rest of the characters saying they were better off because no one who has been through the trauma they’ve endured can ever recover, let alone find happiness.

I did eventually find some exceptions to that narrative, and I treasured them. They gave me hope that it’s possible to go through terrible things, but to survive and find happiness, even if you do have scars. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo can’t find peace on Middle Earth and must sail into the West for his healing. But Faramir and Eowyn, who were also deeply scarred by trauma, find healing where they are. Several of Robin McKinley’s books, such as The Hero and the Crown and Deerskin, also offered the possibility of hope that I could believe in.

In my own personal experience and also in my work as a PTSD therapist, I have found that healing is very possible and very real. It’s not easy, but what worthwhile thing is? So I wanted to show that process in fiction, rather than the fake and cheap choices of miracle cure vs. death and despair. The other thing I wanted to show, in regard to trauma, is that it affects different people differently. Not everyone who goes through a traumatic experience gets PTSD! And for those who do, everyone’s PTSD is different and everyone’s path back from it is different.

In Stranger, our five POV characters all fight in the same battle. But they don’t all emerge with a cookie-cutter set of flashbacks, nightmares, and depression. One focuses on the life she saved, and remembers that with joy and pride. One gains insight into himself and his place in the world. One uses it to reaffirm what she already believed was true. One finds insight and still yet more trauma in a life that was already full of it. And one spends the entire next book quietly falling apart inside.

But in the end, for all of them, that battle and its effect on them was just one piece of their entire lives. PTSD has a huge effect on Ross, but it’s not all he is; trauma will always affect him, but it doesn’t ruin his life. Much like the linguistic shift from “disabled people” to “people with disabilities,” in our books, we tried to put the people first.


brown-smith-hostageSherwood

In the mid-eighties, a conversation with Jane Yolen crystallized my thoughts about a great deal of writing about disabled people. She wished writers would stop submitting variations on “The Special Little Animal With The Broken Tail”: well-intentioned but sentimental tales about an animal that has some kind of disability but whoa, it develops a special power or does something extra heroic, that makes everybody cheer about how special they are!

Those stories have been around for a long time. I read some when I was a kid, half a century ago and more. The “feel good” didn’t feel good past the ending of the story, even to me, as a not-very-savvy kid reader. Once you turned away from the story, the kid in the class who had some kind of problem still had the problem. And what does it say if the only way anyone will like a disabled person is if they get special powers or leap into a burning building and save a family? Even worse, the stories seemed to be saying that one’s ability issue was one’s identity.

Years later, my twenties, I knew people with various disabilities. In those days, society began to experiment with various terms, including differently-abled. A lot of people scorned that as pablum, but the verb that seemed the most appropriate to me was “adapt.” People with various types of issues (including us lefties in a world that is largely oriented right-handed) figured out workarounds. Some small, some awesome, like the paralyzed painter who used her toes. When you saw the end result, you weren’t thinking Blind! Wheelchair! Missing Fingers! Club Foot! You saw the result of the person’s skill or art or inspiration or wit.

One of my regular crowd during those days was a guy with albinism who was also legally blind, who I’ll call Pat. His eyes were also super-sensitive. His thick glasses had plastic extensions that fitted around his face so that no air could get to his eyes. Pat had been a chess champion in high school, and he was a math whiz, carrying everything in his head. If Pat heard it, he remembered it, and he navigated by memory, knowing pretty much the entire bus route of L.A. He fell into our group when brought by another science fiction enthusiast, and he loved the same sick puns and jokes and was also a dedicated Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan listener.

We were all barely out of college and still struggling to find jobs that paid minimum wage, so we all either got rides or drove junkers that were constantly breaking down. One day one of the group, I’ll call him Bob, came storming in to say he needed a ride. He turned to Pat and said, “Hey, if you can drop me at X, then swing by and pick up Y …” Then his mouth dropped open—he was appalled at his own insensitivity. The room went silent until we all saw Pat shaking with laughter.

That moment was proof to Pat that people saw him as Science Fiction Loving, Pun-Cracking, Dylan Quoting Pat, and not Blind Guy With Weird Glasses Pat. He was one of the crowd who happened not to drive because of his eyes, just like Bob was a rotten speller, and Tina was diabetic, and I was dyslexic. (We didn’t know the word “dyslexia” in those days, but everyone knew I could never dial a number correctly, ever, nor could I repeat numbers correctly or do math. So I had to repeat numbers several times, and even then everyone knew to double-check.) Nobody in our group was identified solely by their physical or medical or neuro-wiring issues.

I took that to heart when I became a teacher. Nobody wanted to be the “special kid” … unless they were playing us, which is a coping mechanism like any other. So I never gave talks about “specialness” or let anyone define anyone by whatever their issue was. And I refused to write variations on the Little Animal With The Broken Tail.

When Rachel and I began developing Las Anclas and its denizens, we let the characters define their identities. This was easier because we’d designed a world in which all kinds of variations on human life were seen everywhere—variety was everyday.

Early on in the first book Ross, who has some severe emotional issues, also gets wounded in one hand, which becomes a permanent disability. The other characters don’t see Ross The One Handed Guy, they see a guy who struggles to use a hand that used to be deft. One of the ways he and Mia Lee cement their friendship is her delight in finding ways to engineer workarounds for him.

Jennie’s mother is deaf, and reads lips. Everyone is used to making certain that Mrs. Riley sees them face on when they talk to her, but she is not defined by her deafness. She’s kind, and skilled with horses, and Changed, and African-American, and loves her family, and is deaf. No one attribute makes up all of a person’s identity.

As for Jennie, she’s always been a leader, but being a leader causes her some devastating emotional fallout. Afterward Jennie herself begins defining herself by her emotional issues, until she can slowly get a handle on herself.

Out of all categories of identity, the one that people in our books are most likely to use to define themselves is the Change, which is human mutation. It’s one of the few identities that’s still the focus of prejudice, so people often react to that by either hiding their Change out of shame or fear, or embracing it in defiance or pride. It’s also the identity most likely to have other people perceive as the only important thing about that person. They’re not seen as a complete person, they’re seen as That Changed Girl. Probably Las Anclas has stories about “The Special Little Animal With The Change.”

But we’re not going to write them.


sherwoodsmith-smallSherwood Smith (left) writes fantasy, science fiction, and historical romance for young as well as old readers. Her latest story is “Commando Bats,” about old women getting superpowers.

rachelmbrown-smallRachel Manija Brown (right) is the author of all sorts of stories in all sorts of genres. She has written television, plays, video games, poetry, and comic books. She writes urban fantasy for adults under the name of Lia Silver, and lesbian romance for adults as Rebecca Tregaron. In her other identity, she is a trauma/PTSD therapist.

Stranger and Hostage, the first two books in The Change series, are now available. Rebel, Book 3 of The Change series, is coming in January 2016.

sffmonth-graphic

Truths and Lies About Diversity in Speculative Fiction

By Corinne Duyvis

duyvis-otherbound

I don’t know who first said it, but there’s this idea of getting “One Big Lie” as a science-fiction/fantasy author. That Lie is generally the one speculative element in the book that distinguishes the world from ours: it can be that there are vampires amok, that some people are born mutants, that there’s an unstoppable alien virus spreading through the population, or a thousand other things.

A Lie doesn’t have to be an outright lie, of course. In this context, it’s simply an element of a story we’re asking the reader to accept, one which can be hard to take at face value. It can be a speculative element, but it can also be something else particularly implausible, like a teenager working for the CIA or a completely outrageous family.

The point is that, beyond their one Big Lie, authors need to work with what they’ve got. Adding in more Lies can make the story fall apart, requiring too much suspension of disbelief and mental gymnastics to keep track.

Of course, having multiple Lies can work wonderfully. There’s a wealth of stories out there, and we should never let arbitrary rules limit us.

That said, I do like the sentiment behind this “rule.” To me, the Lie is often the story, and the aspects beyond the Lie—keeping it true to life where possible, allowing your characters to react in realistic, human ways—are what ground that story and give it heart.

What I find fascinating (read: bizarre), however, is the implicit idea that an author writing diverse science-fiction and fantasy automatically engages in multiple Lies.

While every genre has a diversity problem, contemporary literature included, it feels particularly severe in speculative fiction. It’s as though having a protagonist who doesn’t fall into the straight-white-cis-abled-thin paradigm is automatically stretching believability and putting a burden on the reader. This is particularly the case when authors actually realistically address their characters’ marginalization rather than keeping it to surface mentions.

According to this idea, majority characters are the normal, unseen default, and a character with any other kind of background is a distraction. After all, why clog up a book with the microaggressions that a character from a marginalized group might encounter? Why deviate from the expected internal narrative by having a character consider issues that need never cross the minds of many privileged people? Why add in something so unnecessary as diversity, when we’ve got an asteroid hurtling toward Earth or an outbreak of zombie zoo animals to worry about?

As you can probably guess, I’m not a fan of this line of thinking.

For one, it assumes that majority characters really are invisible to everyone. This is true for many—marginalized or not—as a logical result of growing up in a society like ours. But for plenty of people, it’s the opposite. The more aware you are of imbalance, the more you see it in the word around you. I notice actions a character might take that only white characters would be able to get away with; I notice lines of thinking that make it clear the character has never had to worry about their mental health or disability; I notice heteronormativity and gender binarist assumptions. I notice stories that pretend I don’t exist. And so do plenty of other readers.

In other words, an attempted lack of distraction can be a noticeable and bothersome distraction to many. In particular, a lack of diversity and understanding of marginalization often results in oversights when it comes to the many complex social issues that can be tackled in speculative fiction.

For another, it’s skewed to think of it as a distraction or unnecessary element, rather than a reflection of human life. Writing stories with speculative elements doesn’t magically turn the world homogeneous, and it’s disingenuous to pretend that writing the story in any other way would be “too much” or a “distraction.” Marginalized people are not an optional add-on—we’re just as much part of the world as anyone else.

A lot of these ideas are deeply embedded into our brains, however. That means that the best way to go about countering these narratives is to be aware of them and purposefully defy them. To me, that is a large and important part of writing diverse sci-fi/fantasy.

duyvis-ontheedgeofgoneSo I take my Big Lie in Otherbound—a boy from our world seeing into the eyes of a girl from another, magical world every time he blinks—and take the rest of the world as it is. That means a Mexican-American family, physically disabled characters, bisexual characters, all having the same adventures and conflicts as any other protagonist in a fantasy novel might.

I take my Big Lie in On the Edge of Gone—a comet will hit Earth in 2035, and the wealthy are escaping the planet before it’s destroyed—and stick to the world around me for everything else. That means Surinamese-Dutch characters, autistic characters, trans characters. And, just as now, my Amsterdam of 2035 has gentrifying neighborhoods, structural inequalities, people who are racist and ableist and clueless despite their best intentions.

My other stories have their own Big Lies, and I explore those to the fullest; at the same time, I include asexual lesbians, abrasive trans boys who haven’t yet discovered they really are a boy, insecure teen girls dealing with severe anxiety … Sometimes, these identities play a significant role in the story. Other times, they’re entirely incidental.

When it comes to science-fiction and fantasy, I write precisely what I want to read; to me, none of these elements are extra Lies that confound and distract.

It’s the opposite. It’s honesty.

Fact is, even when my books aren’t set on this world, they will be read here.

I want them to resonate here, too.


corinneduyvisA lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative young adult and middle grade novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, released from Amulet Books/ABRAMS in the summer of 2014. It’s received four starred reviews—Kirkus called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while the Bulletin praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.”

Find Corinne at her Twitter or Tumblr. She is a co-founder of Disability in Kidlit and team member of We Need Diverse Books.

sffmonth-graphic

Writing as an Ally

In Alexandra Duncan’s Sound, 16 year-old Miyole risks everything to help the girl she loves rescue her brother from a band of pirates who attacked their spaceship.

By Alexandra Duncan

duncan-soundSometimes, like the adult that I am, I can be a little dense.

When I was fourteen, my dad and stepmother had a baby girl, my little sister M. When I visited them and wheeled her around the grocery store or carried her on my shoulders through the park, strangers often assumed I was her teenage mother and gave both of us the stinkeye. I adored her, but the gap in our ages and the fact that we lived in different states — her in Louisiana, me in North Carolina — meant that our relationship was more like that of an aunt and niece, rather than two sisters. At times, I envied her, growing up in a stable home with wealthy parents, a stay-at-home mom, and encouragement to develop her artistic skills. M has always been a remarkable visual artist.

I should have known that even with all of that going for her, things wouldn’t be as easy or perfect as they seemed.

M started dropping hints that she was unhappy a few years ago, when she entered high school. “I feel so different,” she told me over the phone. “I don’t fit in.” I sympathized, but I was sure it would pass. I had definitely felt like a dysfunctional weirdo in high school, stuck in a small, conservative community, and her high school was in an equally conservative, if larger, city obsessed with keeping up appearances. It was not her scene, but she would be away at college in a handful of years.

Then, last summer, my husband and I went to visit our Louisiana family. M had been having a particularly hard time that year, and I wanted to see her. I brought books for her and my other younger sister, like I always do, including Brandy Colbert’s exquisite and painful Pointe, about a young ballerina coming to understand and overcome her past sexual abuse by a pedophile. We had several wonderful days to hang out, share silly Youtube videos, play board games, make waffles out of cake mix, and catch up. One afternoon, M and I were sitting in the living room reading, like the introverts we are, when she let Pointe fall to her lap.

“Ugh. This is just like my life!” she said.

“What!?” I said, monumentally freaked out and ready to break kneecaps.

“This thing with Hosea,” she said. “It’s just like this girl at school.”

I calmed down marginally. Hosea is the sort-of love interest in Pointe who toys with the main character’s affections, not a creeper who preys on teenage girls. But in my momentary rage-cloud, I missed the really important part of what M said. There was a girl at school. Not a boy, a girl. It didn’t sink in until later. M was opening up to me about an important part of her life, and like an idiot, I’d missed the opportunity to talk to her about it.

M did end up dating the girl at school, and it wasn’t a Hosea situation at all. They really like each other, and as of this writing, have been together for a year. However, my desire to break kneecaps was back soon enough. While my father and stepmother supported M, the kids at school and her girlfriend’s parents reacted exactly the way you would expect in a conservative Bible Belt town. Bullying. Friends abandoning her. Lectures about Hell. Demands that the two of them break up. The whole nine yards.

Around the time all of this was coming out, I had been writing Sound. Miyole, the main character, is lesbian, but I wasn’t getting the chemistry between her and Cassia, the love interest, right. Their relationship was either moving too fast or not hitting the right notes. I knew love was love, but I hadn’t yet figured out that the power dynamic in a relationship between two women is very different than it is in a heterosexual relationship. I was getting it so wrong that my editor had suggested I pull back and make the two female characters friends. I was seriously considering her suggestion, though I felt like a massive failure.

Hearing about what M was going through strengthened my resolve to keep trying to make Cassia and Miyole’s relationship work on the page. I might have botched my chance to talk to M during our visit, but maybe this was a small way to make it up to her, to show her I supported her. Science fiction helped me escape a bad home situation as a teenager. I wanted to give M and other teens in her shoes a chance for escape, as well. I read more books with lesbian narrators, which are surprisingly harder to find in YA than those from the point of view of gay male narrators. I asked a friend and her partner to read my draft and give me feedback. I rewrote and rewrote, and with each draft, my book got a little closer to what I wanted.

Writing as an ally is tricky. Do you have the right to tell this person’s story? What if, despite all your research and your best intentions, you get it wrong? Are you helping or hurting the people you want to support? I’ve thought about this a lot while writing Sound (at least, when I wasn’t thinking about sci-fi pirates and sea monsters). What I’ve decided is that, even if I fail or only partially succeed, the only way to get better is to keep trying. If, along the way, one girl sees herself having fantastic adventures that she wouldn’t have seen otherwise, it’s all worth it. If M knows she’s not alone, it’s all worth it.


alexandraduncanAlexandra Duncan is an author and librarian. Her YA science fiction novels SALVAGE (2014) and SOUND (2015) are available from Greenwillow Books. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina with her husband and two monstrous, furry cats. You can find her online at www.alexandra-duncan.com.

Sound is now available.

Don’t forget! You can enter to win Sound and four other wonderful YA SFF novels at our Fantasy & Science Fiction Month giveaway (deadline Oct. 6)

sffmonth-graphic

Where Our Magic Lives: A Queer Latina on Magical Realism

Anna-Marie McLemore’s debut novel, The Weight of Feathers, tells the story of two rival families of traveling performers. In the midst of a bitter feud between the Palomas, who swim in a mermaid show, and the Corbeaus, who wear wings while dancing in the tallest trees, Lace Paloma and Cluck Corbeau confront not only their feelings for each other, but the truth about their families and themselves.

By Anna-Marie McLemore

mclemore-theweightoffeathersSo what is magical realism?

Right after “What made you tell a story about mermaids and winged tightrope walkers?” this is probably the book question I get asked most. And understandably so. Category classifications are hard enough, and magical realism defies labeling. It’s both a genre and not one. It’s as much a worldview as a category.

Magical realism is a literary and cultural language. I might be able to tell you its name, and its origins. But it’s hard for me to say what it sounds like because I grew up speaking it. I hesitate to give a brief, one-sentence definition of magical realism for the same reasons I hesitate to give a short definition of what it means to be Latina. I know what it feels like, but because it’s what I am, it’s hard for me to say how it differs from being something else. When the moon speaks in Lorca’s Blood Wedding, or when Tita turns to fire in Like Water for Chocolate, I take a deeper breath not because these things seem impossible, but because the moon’s words, and Tita’s desire, stay with me.

Okay, Anna-Marie, so you’re saying you can’t tell us what magical realism is?

Yes.

No.

Maybe.

Let’s look at this through the lens of a different question: How does magical realism differ from realistic fiction with supernatural elements, realistic fiction with fantastical elements, or even realistic fiction with touches of magic?

Though the distinctions can be as subtle and various as the differences between two cultures, here are the two main ones that come to mind: how the idea of the magical is handled, and the fact that magical realism has roots in oppression.

How the sense of the magical is handled

Magical realism isn’t just about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. In a culture of oppression, seeing the magical in the midst of the tragic, the unjust, the heartbreaking is a way of survival, for people, for communities, for cultures. We must find our magic where it lives, or we will lose it. Our spirits depend on not overlooking that which might be dismissed or ignored.

In magical realism, that sense of magic belongs not to individuals, but to communities. Characters may be worried over extraordinary events, but they’re not shocked or incredulous about them. The other side of this coin is the knowledge that oppression is a force that waits, and hovers. The world is more brutal than so many people believe, and more beautiful they than imagine.

Magical realism has roots in oppression

Take Lorca, one of my favorite authors of magical realism, who I mention above. In his late thirties, in the midst of the start of a war, he was executed for motives related to his politics and his sexual orientation. The pain and beauty threading through his work comes from the same places that made him a threat to those who ultimately ended his life. And this, heartbreakingly, is not an unfamiliar story. Some of the most transcendent art—magical realism and otherwise, literature and other forms—comes from artists all too familiar with oppression.

Am I saying that white/straight/cis writers can’t write magical realism? Absolutely not, no more than I’d say that a writer from one culture can’t write a character from another culture. (I recently swooned with joy when a white writer told me she’d taken special care to be respectful of the origins of magical realism when she wrote her novel.) Like a language, magical realism can be learned.

But like a language, it takes work. And though there are no limits to who can enjoy reading or who can write magical realism, it’s a language that might sometimes come a little quicker to those from marginalized groups. Being familiar with oppression, of any kind, can leave you more open to the idea that the magical belongs to everyone, and that trying to possess it is often an insidious incarnation of privilege.

Where Our Magic Lives

I’m blessed not to have grown up during the times of unrest that bore so many beautiful works of magical realism. But I come from cultures of oppression that taught me this world. It’s a world where magic is more heartening or frightening than it is surprising. Where you are always both yourself, and a single facet of your jagged, shimmering community. Magical realism is a place where magic spreads, and endures, and refuses to fit in any single set of hands.

A few book recommendations

  1. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Traditional magical realism against the landscape of familial closeness and conflict. Not technically YA, but I read it as a teen, and it was one of the books that made me a reader. It shares themes of becoming your own and making your own choices with many of my favorite YA books.
  2. Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. For an example of classical magical realism, play special attention to how the girls in this sister-story interact with la llorona, a mythical figure who takes on a different persona than how she’s historically cast.
  3. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. Nova Ren Suma’s novels defy genre; it’s one of many reasons she’s one of my favorite authors. In her latest, you’ll find hints of magical realism mixed in with other elements that are uniquely her own.

Thank you to Diversity in YA for having me, and thank you to everyone for stopping by and reading one queer Latina’s take on magical realism. Un abrazo fuerte, and happy reading!


annamariemclemorewebphotoAnna-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. She is a Lambda Literary fellow, and her work has been featured by The Portland Review, Camera Obscura, and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) is her first novel. You can find Anna-Marie at annamariemclemore.com or on Twitter @LaAnnaMarie.

The Weight of Feathers is now available.

sffmonth-graphic