Tag Archives: DiYA Fantasy & Science Fiction Month 2015

Interview With Rainbow Rowell

By Malinda Lo

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Rainbow Rowell’s newest novel, Carry On, tells the story of Simon Snow, a boy wizard at a British boarding school — with a twist. Carry On is about characters that Rainbow first created for her novel Fangirl, but Fangirl wasn’t about those characters (well, not exactly). In Fangirl, college freshman Cath Avery spends much of her time writing fan fiction about Simon and his roommate Baz, who come from a Harry Potter-like series of novels written by the fictional Gemma T. Leslie. Cath’s magnum opus is also titled Carry On, but Rainbow’s novel isn’t Cath’s novel; it’s Rainbow’s version of the Simon Snow books.

Confused? Then forget about my attempt to explain Carry On’s meta origins, because you don’t have to understand any of that to enjoy this book. Carry On is a fantasy novel about a boy wizard named Simon, set in a fantasy world that is much like our own but with several key differences (magic being one of them). It’s about Simon’s identity as a chosen one, and how he struggles with that responsibility. It’s also about Simon’s first love, his roommate Baz, who happens to be a vampire. Their love story is a central element in Carry On, and it’s their love story that makes it clear that this is a Rainbow Rowell book.

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Carry On and asking Rainbow a few questions about her latest novel.

Malinda Lo: How would you describe Carry On?

Rainbow Rowell: Carry On is a chosen one story that’s also about chosen one stories. I think my UK editor Rachel Petty summed it up better than anyone else so far: “It’s is a love story to love stories and the power of words — it’s an homage to every ‘chosen one’ who ever had more on his mind than saving the world.”

ML: Carry On is your first full-length fantasy novel, though you wrote several Simon/Baz scenes in Fangirl and you’ve also written fan fiction based on fantasy novels. However, you’re best known for your realistic fiction. What did you find to be the biggest challenges in writing fantasy instead of realistic fiction? And what aspects of fantasy came most easily for you?

RR: I’ve always read more fantasy and sci-fi than realistic fiction, but I never thought I could write it myself. It seemed too much to get my head around. When you write realistic fiction, all the walls are already built, in a way. The laws of gravity apply. Plus I was a newspaper journalist for so long that even realistic fiction felt like too much lying at first.

I think that the Simon Snow scenes in Fangirl were a way for me to experiment with writing fantasy without risking too much. To splash around in the water without leaving dry land.

But those were my favorite parts of the book to write. And the first six months of writing Carry On were the happiest I’ve been as an author.

I have read so much fantasy in my life. I realized that there were so many tropes and magical situations that I wanted to play with. Carry On was supposed to be a short story about Simon and Baz falling in love, but it quickly became this whole big story with eight different narrators.

The most challenging part was definitely the plot. This book reads like one of my books; it’s character driven and relationship-driven. But I wanted it to have a big plotty engine under the hood. And I wanted the plot to make sense. (Even though I love so many fantasies with plots that disintegrate when you look at them too closely…)

ML: Obviously, one aspect of fantasy that is not present in realistic fiction is magic. In Carry On, rather than turning magic spells into Latin words the way J. K. Rowling does in Harry Potter, you use everyday English phrases that are heavily weighted with meaning. The students at Watford in Carry On even take a class called Magic Words to teach them how to construct their spells with phrases ranging from “U can’t touch this” (only relevant if the target of the spell knows the song) to nursery rhymes. How did you develop this idea? It seems so ingenious and I wish I had thought of it! Words do have power, even in our world without magic.

RR: Thank you! Well, it’s a familiar idea, I think, that there’s magic in belief and recognition. In Peter Pan, it’s our belief in fairies that keeps Tinker Bell alive. And in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Bill Willingham’s Fables, regular people give gods and fairy tale characters power by telling their stories.

I don’t know how I came to this exactly — the idea that certain phrases would be more powerful the more that normal people say them.

It was so freeing to build the foundation for Carry On — the magical rules and the way the society worked — while I was writing Fangirl. Because there was no pressure! I felt like I was playing.

Once I had the Magic Words idea, it was so much fun to come up with the spells, and to think about what would make a powerful magician in Simon’s world. Like, one of the reasons Simon is such a crap mage is that, even though he has infinite power, he trips over his words.

Probably it’s not that surprising that someone like me would imagine a world where words are the most powerful currency. They’re my only currency!

ML: If the World of Mages existed and we lived it and you could do magic, what spell would you use to get through a difficult writing day?

RR: Ohhhh … Maybe “Coin a phrase!” That would be a super powerful spell. Like a wish for more wishes.

ML: You’re well known for the romances in your realistic novels, which are all heterosexual. The central romance in Carry On is between two boys. Did you have any worries (writing craft-wise or otherwise) about writing a same-sex love story?

RR: Well, I wanted to be thoughtful about it. I knew how I didn’t want it to feel: like a homoerotic tease, all subtext and nothing real; or fetishized.

But mostly I just wrote Simon and Baz falling in love the way I always write characters falling in love. I want my love stories to feel real. I want them to have depth and texture.

ML: As you and probably everybody out there knows, same-sex love stories hardly ever make it onto the bestseller lists. David Levithan and John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson did, but only for a short time. Given your fan base, Carry On really does have a shot at making it onto those lists, and if it does, it certainly is poised to change a lot of publishers’ minds about same-sex stories. How do you feel about this?

RR: I hope it’s successful, of course. (I mean, of course.) And I’d love for it to be part of a huge wave of bestselling books about queer characters. But I try really hard not to think about the lists.

I wrote my two most popular books when I was in a place of not caring at all what would be successful — and not having any hope for success. After my first book, Attachments, didn’t do anything sales-wise, I wrote Eleanor & Park and especially Fangirl, feeling like I may as well write whatever I wanted because I couldn’t afford to keep going. I’d used up all my spare time and money and my family’s good will, and it felt very final.

Only later did people say things to me like, “Eighties stories don’t sell” and “Asian characters don’t sell” and “Fanfiction is a dirty word in publishing.” I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing!

So the publishing lesson for me has been: Keep your head down. Don’t listen to conventional wisdom. Write the book that you want to spend a year of your life on.

Carry On was that book for me.

ML: Carry On isn’t exactly fan fiction since you created the story, but it is definitely a metafiction of some sort. So I have to ask you a meta question. Fandom often generates a lot of love for secondary characters — Draco in the Harry Potter series is one of the biggest examples of this. If someone were to write fan fiction based on Carry On, which secondary characters do you think would generate the most (and unexpected) fandom love? (My money’s on Ebb. Honestly, I’d like to read some fanfic about her.)

RR: Yes! I love that about fanfiction! I really think people are motivated to read and write fic because of what they don’t see in the stories they love. It’s about filling gaps and exploring the unexplored.

And, oh, I’m glad you like Ebb! I loved writing the adult characters. And I’ve already thought about writing more about Baz’s aunt and her ex. Like, how they hook up again and become vampire-hunters.

I’d also like to write a story about Ebb’s true love, and how that person reacts after the events of the book. (That was a hard sentence to write without spoilers.)

ML: Oh, I would so love to read that story! Will you be writing more fantasy in the future, or is it back to realism for you?

RR: Oh God, I don’t know. This is the first time in my writing career that I haven’t had at least the first draft of my next book written when my book was coming out. The future is wide open, I guess.

But my next project is a graphic novel. I have two outlines — one fantasy, one sci-fi.

I think I’d like to stay flexible, writing about teens sometimes and adults sometimes, and moving between genres and media. I want to keep feeling completely engaged by whatever I’m working on.

ML: I have one more question, and it’s a selfish one for me. You now write across adult and YA, fantasy and realistic fiction. I think that genre and category boundaries are useful for readers in terms of finding books, but how do they affect the way you write, if at all?

RR: I agree, they are useful for readers — and useful for marketing; you don’t want people to be confused about what you’re selling. Unfortunately, categories and genre don’t seem to be useful for me as a writer.

When I get done writing a book, the last thing I want is to start something similar. I want fresh air and a new challenge. And my ideas are all over the place.

So I’ve decided to just write what I feel driven to write, and to hope that my readers follow me — or that new readers find me.

I think I’m going to be a sharper creative person and a happier person if I keep moving.

Some of this comes, I think, out of my career so far. I was a newspaper columnist. Then I was an advertising creative director. I’m really glad that I kept taking risks and trying new things.

I’ve been lucky to work with a literary agent and editor who support and encourage me on this path.

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Visit Rainbow Rowell’s website or follow her on twitter. Carry On is now available.

10 Recent Diverse* YA Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

* Diverse = Set in a non-Western world or inspired by a non-Western world; or with a main character who is non-white, LGBTQ+, and/or disabled

A Beginner’s Guide to Researching Your Diverse* Fantasy or Science Fiction Novel

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. This answer comes from writer and DiYA co-founder Malinda Lo.

* “Diverse” = a book with a non-Western setting or inspired by a non-Western culture; or with a main character who is non-white/non-Western, LGBTQ+, and or disabled

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iwouldrobabanktosavemylibrary said: Hi! Thanks so much for doing this. What suggestions/resources do you have for a white writer writing other races? I’ve found the writingwithcolor tumblr, know I need to find some beta readers, listen and process, and do more and more research, but do you have some great resources that are almost sure to help? Especially ones that have intersectionality? Most of my MCs are not white (and I am), so I’m trying to find everything I can to write as genuine a character as possible. Thanks!

daybreaksgaze said: In regards to writing diverse sci-fi/fantasy, how does one go about researching cultures other than their own (if they’re using other cultures)? And how do you know when ‘enough is enough’ in regards to research?

Questions about how to do research are among the most common questions I hear when it comes to writing books based on non-white cultures. Often the questions are like the first one: “do you have some great resources that are almost sure to help?” (emphasis mine) The answer is: no. There is no guarantee that any resources will be universally seen as true and right. The first thing you should do is forget about hoping for a 100% accurate resource. The second thing you should do is forget about the word “genuine” when it comes to writing a character, because “genuine” implies “authentic.” It implies that there is a true way to be something (e.g., an “authentic” Chinese person), and in reality, everybody is different. You should aim to write a character who is multifaceted, complex, and human.

That said, it is certainly very important to research the cultures you’re writing about, and although many writers know that they need to do research, they often seem flummoxed by how to do it, as the second question illustrates. That’s why I’ve put together this beginner’s guide to How To Do Research. It is truly a beginner’s guide, so if you feel like you have a handle on how to do this, the post may not be for you. Toward the end of the post there are some more advanced research ideas, as well as links to further reading.

One thing I want to stress is that this is a long process that takes a lot of work. If you want to write about cultures you know little about, you have to put in a lot of time. You cannot expect to get all your answers from one person or one website or even one day at the library. There are no shortcuts to doing research properly. If you’re not willing to put in the time, then it might not be a good idea for you to write this kind of book.

A second thing I want to say up front is this: If you’re interested in writing about a culture different from your own, do you have any friends who are from that culture? I mean relatively close friends — someone you can talk to about your families. If not, then why do you want to write about that culture? I fear that if a writer has no personal knowledge of that culture via at least a close friendship, they may have a difficult time seeing the culture as a living experience. Research can tell you a lot, but shared, personal experiences between you and a close friend can tell you a lot more.

Because this post is quite long, I’m putting the rest of it behind a cut. Continue reading A Beginner’s Guide to Researching Your Diverse* Fantasy or Science Fiction Novel

Normalizing Marginalized Identities in Fantasy and Science Fiction

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. This answer comes from writer and DiYA co-founder Malinda Lo.

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gogglor said: Suppose your sci-fi universe is more accepting of people with marginalized identities. Does portraying a universe like this run the risk of downplaying or erasing the prejudices that people with marginalized identities today have to face? For instance, if a black character faces very little racism in this future-society, is that in a way an insult to black readers today who face a great deal of prejudice?

writingandbooksandthings said: I’m having troubles with deciding how I want LGBT+ people to be perceived in my fantasy world. I want to show the struggle/issues so it would be relatable to people, but part of me wonders if it would be better to show a world where sexuality, gender, etc. isn’t seen as an issue by almost anyone. I feel like doing so would make readers see it really can be considered “normal” by a society and with no consequences. At the same time, I feel obligated to acknowledge real issues. What do you think?

These questions, like many questions about writing diversity, are framed in a way that hopes for a yes/no answer. However, the answer to the vast majority of questions about writing diversity is maybe. There simply are no black-and-white answers to writing fiction with characters who are traditionally marginalized, and the first thing writers should do is accept this. Whatever choice you make as a writer can be questioned by readers and critics, especially when it comes to writing diversity, which has often been done poorly and thoughtlessly. Again, whatever choice you make can be questioned, so it’s important to think carefully about why you made those choices, keeping in mind that your book is yours, and your duty as a writer is to be true to the story you want to tell.

It is not inherently insulting or wrong to write a book in which people of color and LGBTQ+ people are considered normal. It is a choice you can make as a writer of science fiction and fantasy — a choice that writers of realistic fiction simply do not have. If a book is set in the real world, people of color and LGBTQ+ people are not considered normal by the majority of people. Any realistic book that includes characters with these marginalized identities has a responsibility to incorporate that inequality in some way.

However, in fantasy and science fiction, things are different. That is one of the reasons that fantasy and science fiction can be so liberating and wonderful: We don’t have to create fictional worlds that are exactly like the real one. We can imagine a world in which it is normal to be non-white or LGBTQ+. I dare say that would be a better one.

One thing I find extremely frustrating about a lot of fantasy and science fiction is that many writers don’t seem to realize that everything in a secondary world is up for re-imagining. If you’re going to put unicorns or faster-than-light spaceships in your book, you can certainly also have equality for people of color and LGBTQ+ people.

Sometimes folks believe that equality for marginalized identities is unrealistic. When my first novel, Ash, was published, I was on a panel at a fantasy convention in which an audience member commented that it was unrealistic to have a fairy tale in which lesbians were normal. I responded, “There are also fairies in the book. Do you think fairies are more realistic than lesbians?”

That said, creating a fantasy or science fiction world in which people of color and LGBTQ+ people are normal does not mean you can simply wave your magic wand and everything becomes a shiny happy rainbow of equality and perfect joy. You have to build this equality into your world from the ground up.

For example, let’s think about a fantasy novel set in a preindustrial past, before the advent of modern science. If LGBTQ+ people are normal, you have to consider very basic biological things, such as how do LGBTQ+ people have children? Do they adopt others’ children? Do they have children with the assistance of magic? Do they not have children at all? Is there a place in this society for childless queer people? If you’re writing about rulers in this fantasy world, one of the most important thing to think about is heirs — how would a gay king choose an heir, if he hasn’t fathered any children? Additionally, if LGBTQ+ people are normal, how will you describe them? If it’s normal, would people even discern between those in same-sex relationships and those in opposite-sex ones? Will you use the word “gay” at all, especially because “gay” is a very specific English word with a clear history?

In a science fiction novel set in the future, other questions may also arise. If people of color in your futuristic world are normal, would they remain in separate racial enclaves (Black people in this part of town, Asians in that part of town), or would they have interracial relationships? And if they are in interracial relationships and have children, that does not mean their children all become a nice shade of tan; nor do they necessarily act like contemporary white people. Children in mixed race families do not always look the same, and you need to consider genetic inheritance and what a mixed race population would realistically look like. Additionally, cultures are passed down through generations and undergo changes. People always will have ancestral practices, so even if Chinese people are normal in the future, they probably are still going to retain specific Chinese cultural practices. Those practices also may have seeped into the wider popular culture. How would they be practiced by people who don’t have ancestors of that heritage?

Basically, normal does not mean white and straight. It’s very important to remember that, because if you normalize people of color and LGBTQ+ characters and then essentially turn them into white and straight-acting characters, that would be an insult. But if you normalize these marginalized identities in a thoughtful way that is built into the world itself, I think it can be a truly liberating experience to read.

Marginalized people in the real world don’t get very many opportunities to read books in which their identities are normal — and not erased. It is totally possible to do that in fantasy and science fiction, and I think that’s one of the best qualities of this genre.

Further reading:


Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, most recently the duology Adaptation, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2013, and Inheritance, winner of the 2014 Bisexual Book Award. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog, and her website is www.malindalo.com.

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.

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Truths and Lies About Diversity in Speculative Fiction

By Corinne Duyvis

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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.

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Writing About a Transgender Character’s Transition

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. This answer comes from writer Everett Maroon.

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silvermarmoset said: I know that one of the characters in my fantasy novel is a transgender woman, but I don’t know how to properly handle her transition. Is it disrespectful to have the transitioning process be easy, by magic? I’ve read divided opinions on this. Thank you!

Short Answer: It depends.

Long Answer: Asking if a plot point, character, narrative arc, or other aspect of your story is disrespectful is a great way for any writer to begin a project, and I appreciate that you’re coming from such a careful place. Let’s back up a step and ponder a question you’ve probably already answered: why is this character transgender? Put another way, why are you writing a trans character? This is, of course, the question I ask myself when I’m in the weeds of my character sketches, and I ask it no matter what string of identities I layer into the actors in my story. After all every choice you make as a writer opens up some possibilities for the story and closes down others, so I ask myself: what am I trying to communicate via the characters I’m establishing to tell the story?

The final analysis answers the question, does this character have to be transgender? If your answer is no, then you are risking tokenizing trans people through the placement of this character, and you should probably reconsider making them trans.

If your answer is yes, then great, write them as thoughtfully as you can. To be thoughtful, however, isn’t a simple task. First, you need to avoid stereotypes that have so often been attributed to trans characters, especially trans women — here I’m talking about as victims of violence, as sex workers (think, Law & Order: SVU), as lonely and unloved, as perverts, gay men and/or drag queens who can’t deal, as narcissists, broken men, and on and on. You need to be familiar with these stereotypes because 1: they amount to lazy, bad writing, 2: they’ve been done to death and aren’t interesting subjects, and 3: they actively hurt trans women by making the myths about their community persist in an untrue way in the popular culture consciousness. It is not an overstatement to say that people ignorant of trans issues will turn to someone they know who is starting transition and use these stereotypes that they’ve seen on television (I’m looking at you, NCIS), and matter-of-factly explain that they’re doing it wrong because so and so on TV did it this other way, or that they shouldn’t transition because yo, they’ll wind up dead in the street, etc. When writing for a mainstream audience, authors need to think about how the marginalized characters they’re portraying represent that community, because readers are real people who take our stories into their hearts and minds, and because marginalized people read books.

For more reading about trans stereotypes, there are many folks on the Web who write about them in a nuanced, helpful way (Casey Plett, Monica Roberts, and Janet Mock are a good start). But there are also tropes to avoid — let’s think about tropes as tiny pieces of narrative that become overused and that sometimes support the stereotypes in question. For trans women, tropes include putting on makeup (Amazon’s Transparent does this almost the time, and while I know the show just won major Emmys, this is not a reason to continue the trope), buying pretty clothes (or shoes) in a boutique, getting shunned by some relative, and there are many more, but they largely do include some aspect about transition. How one presents a transition can be problematic, so I’m glad you’re wondering about it. And if you really want to go against stereotypes and tropes, do something really radical and don’t show it at all. As a trans reader myself, I love reading trans stories that aren’t about transition, just like many gay and lesbian readers enjoy stories that aren’t about coming out. Those are our beginnings, full of trauma and conflict and revelation, it’s true, but ultimately they turn LGBT characters into their genesis when there is so much more to relay. Don’t pick the simplest story to tell when there are far more compelling ones out there.

There are other problems with depicting transition: if you show transition as a magical experience, you may present it as easy, when in real life, transition is anything but. If you show it as super onerous (which I just said it can be), it may come off like one of those stereotypes about trans people. So I ask again, writer to writer: Do you have to depict her transition at all? If you’re looking to write respectfully, your trans character may be best represented in your story after (thus, apart from) her transition. Also, remember that every identity aspect of every character needs careful thinking through — we don’t write in Mexican characters just to have someone dropping Spanish into the dialogue, so we don’t really need to write trans characters in order to have a transition in the story, either. A great example of handling transition without making the story about transition is Susan Jane Bigelow’s story “Ramona’s Dreams” in The Collection from Topside Press.

So, as with any kind of character work, research, research, research. Beginning writers are told ad nauseum to write from their own experience. If all writing were limited to that mantra literature would be a pale cousin of its actual self. But the further afield you push from your own lived reality, the more preparation, thinking, and reading you need to do in order to respect the people that character represents. And happily enough, that you’re asking around is a good sign you’re already on the right track.


Everett Maroon is a memoirist, humorist, pop culture commentator, and fiction writer. He is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association and was a finalist in their 2010 literary contest for memoir. Everett is the author of a memoir, Bumbling into Body Hair, and a young adult novel, The Unintentional Time Traveler, both published by Booktrope Editions. He has an essay, “In a Small Town, Nothing Goes Wrong, in the anthology Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity, from Ooligan Press, and a short story, ”Cursed,“ in the anthology The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, from Topside Press. He has written for Bitch Magazine, GayYA.org, Amwriting.org, RH RealityCheck, and Remedy Quarterly. He has had short stories published here and there. Everett’s blog is transplantportation.com.

Writing Disabilities in Fantasy and Science Fiction

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. Several questions focused on disability, so we’ve rounded them up in one post, answered by writer Marieke Nijkamp.

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acrossthetracksrebounding said: I have a main character in a fantasy story who uses a prosthetic right arm powered by magic. Her supply of magic has varied over the years, so sometimes her right arm works just as well as her left and other times it doesn’t. My concern is that, if it’s a prosthetic that’s so analogous to a ‘normal’ arm, does it count as a disability?

There are two interesting things going on in this question. First of all, the use of the phrase “normal.” While here it’s obviously set apart with scare quotes, the dichotomy of disabled vs. normal is (pardon the pun) quite normal. And very clearly something to be aware of, because by juxtaposing disability with normality, it’s easy to set up disability as abnormal. (See also the medical model of disability, that sets up disabled people as broken, in need of being fixed or cured.) This has long since been society’s understanding of disability.

These days, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes the social model of disability as being the prevailing paradigm. The social model differentiates between impairments (a medical condition that leads to disability) and disability (the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and, basically, the way the world’s set up). The social model of disability sees disability as:

“the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers. It therefore carries the implication that the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others.
“A social model perspective does not deny the reality of impairment nor its impact on the individual. However, it does challenge the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment to accommodate impairment as an expected incident of human diversity.
”The social model seeks to change society in order to accommodate people living with impairment; it does not seek to change persons with impairment to accommodate society. It supports the view that people with disability have a right to be fully participating citizens on an equal basis with others.” (See: http://ift.tt/1O7DBbx)

Which brings me to the question: “does a [magical] prosthetic count as a disability?” That then depends on quite a few things. Does this prosthetic allow your character to navigate physical barriers in their world? Does it depend on her energy and how does it depend on her energy? Would that be akin to a chronic illness maybe? What is society’s attitude toward her? Is her society systematically and inherently ableist, like ours is? How would she personally identify? What fits best with the way she looks at and understand the world?

And on that note, did you research or talk to people about living with prosthetics? Because representation matters, and even representation of magical prostheses can have repercussions in the real world.


gnomer-denois said: I am writing a fantasy novel and one of the secondary characters I have is a veteran from a war about 20 years prior where she was a surgeon, mostly just sewing people up because of her tailoring/embroidery skills and now she’s working as a tailor again, pretty high end. I was considering that she might have lost a limb in the war, and I lean toward her non-dominant hand. Still a set back for a tailor. There is magic in this world that might aid a prosthetic to be more like current ones. But I’m still not sure if this would be an unrealistic portrayal of an amputee’s ability because I don’t want magic to just fix the disability like it isn’t there, but more allow a prosthetic to receive some input from the skin interface and have some return of mobility for grasping, etc. Or if there is a more accurate way to show how someone missing a hand/lower arm would be able to sew, etc. If I can’t figure out how to do it realistically, I may change the disability, but I wanted to try.

Let’s divvy this up in a few steps too, because that’s a lot of information to process.

First of all, I think it’s important to make clear what “fixing” disability means and what it doesn’t mean. The dreaded magical cure or fixing disability usually presents itself by way of erasing the disability. Either through magic as a complete solution or by retconning the disability entirely. This often includes both the impairment, to use the terms above, and the way the disabled person interacts with the world. For example, a girl who has limped the entire book gets magically healed by the end of it is suddenly who she was always meant to be: whole, normal, and seen like that by everyone else. (And despite having learned to compensate for her limp, becoming suddenly non-disabled does not cause her to relearn to walk. After all: she is now “whole” and “normal.”) Her disability, and everything around it, gets completely erased.

This is very much informed by the medical model mentioned above, by the way, which claims that disabled people are broken and need to be fixed. Only then can they have a happily ever after. (This also happens the other way around — the “healing” happens in the interactions with the world because the character becomes more “likable” and as a result of that, they are healed.)

Hopefully you get why both of these options are super problematic — not to mention ignorant of the fact that for a lot of us, disability is an important part of our identity, exactly because it shapes the way we interact with the world. It actively informs us and that isn’t something you can easily erase.

Now assistive/adaptive technology (prosthetics, orthotics, and assistive devices), on the other hand, does no such thing. They make living with disability and interacting with the world easier, but they do not erase the disability completely. Using assistive technology is about accessibility. It’s about independence. As someone who uses canes and braces, in my experience it can even be about pride. (The flip side of it is that is doesn’t always change attitudinal barriers — and can even increase those.)

So whether or not this is about magically fixing disability depends on a lot of nuances. And those questions mentioned in the previous answer come into play here again. (On that note, let me also point out that I am no amputee and I have never used prosthetics, so please do be mindful of your research.)

Now, as for the second part of the question: how would someone be able to sew one-handed? By pinning material to a pad. By using a sewing bird — a table clamp that pins fabric to a table. By using a sewing brick or other weights. By using different needles, perhaps. In any case by adapting her process. By adapting to the situation. In a way, these are assistive devices too, after all.


thefrostbackbasin said: One of my main characters is disabled due to traumatic injury to the spine but my sci-fi story takes place in the far future so I’m concerned how developed the medical community should be in terms of ‘fixing’ disability

About a year ago, I was asked to be part of a panel called “We can rebuild you: disability in science fiction” about precisely this question. Considering we spent a good hour talking about it, I can tell you now there’s no easy answer — and a lot of it is up to the world you build.

There are a lot of variables in this equation. The most important one we’ve already discussed — the way society views disability. There’s a lot you can extrapolate from that in terms of how developed the medical community should or shouldn’t be. (And ask yourself: is the medical community as developed as it “should” be now? Under what paradigm? Should by whose measurement?)

The second point to consider has less to do with development and far more with accessibility. Even if the medical community is as developed to immediately fix traumatic spine injury … is that development accessible to all? What are the costs? The conditions?

And also — what are the costs to hospitals? Or to pharmaceutical companies? Is “fixing” all disabilities cost-efficient? There are plenty of medicines that exist in theory, could be produced, and could improve quality of life. If only their target audience wasn’t so small. Ask yourself how politicized the medical community in your world is and what the ethical discussions are about.

And if a solution is available: what are the physical costs? What kind of technology is used? What effects does that have on the body? How lasting is this solution? Is it a solution that’s surgical or based on medication? If the latter, what is society’s perspective of that? Because I can tell you from experience that even something as deceptively simple as taking daily pain medication is frowned upon by people who do not live with chronic pain.

Or look at it from a different perspective: if the medical community has evolved to a point where spinal injury cures are as common place as flu jabs, what does that mean for the overall development and society’s perspective of human health? Is life extension or enhancement normal? And if so, what effects does that have on the way injuries are perceived? The way disability in general is perceived?

In the end, there are a hundred different ways in which to portray disability in the future. There are a hundred different reasons why the medical community will have developed well enough and a hundred different reasons why they won’t have yet. In the end though, it’s your story. So go for what works best for you, your character, and their society. Just be mindful that it is and remains respectful or real lived experiences, whatever you do.


Marieke Nijkamp is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, and wants to grow up to be a time traveler. Her debut young adult novel This Is Where It Ends will be published by Sourcebooks Fire on January 5, 2016.

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)

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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.

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