Book Review in latest issue of CSZ

The latest issue of the Cascadia Subduction Zone is out and I got a book review in there! I reviewed “Time’s Oldest Daughter” by Susan W. Lyons, a retelling of the Creation Story from Sin’s point of view. You can buy the issue at their website–PDF is $3, print copy for $5. There’s also book reviews from fine people such as Arley Song and Maria Velazquez, poetry from Rose Lemberg, Sonya Taafe and Nancy Kress, and an essay by L. Timmel Duchamp. 

Reconciliation within the SFF genre, one writer at a time (or finally getting around to the SWFA kerfuffle)

My name is LaShawn M. Wanak, and I am a black female writer.

I’ve been making up stories since I was four years old. I’ve been reading fantasy and science fiction when kids were still in their primers. I fell in love with the whole genre and knew exactly what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a black writer, telling black stories, with characters who looked just like me.

I have been writing professionally now for about 9 years. I’ve garnered some sales. My name’s getting a little known. And most importantly, people are reading my stories and are being touched through them. I’m also learning a lot about the industry I’ve chosen. I’ve seen its wonders, and I’ve seen its darker bits.

I’ve been following what’s been happening in SWFA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America for my non-writer friends) and the hullaboo over an essay that was printed in its bulletin a couple of weeks ago. The internets exploded in reaction, most decrying the essay. I did not respond because a) I haven’t read the essay because b) I’m not a SWFA member. And because I’m not a member, I don’t feel that I have enough experience to adequately respond to the situation. Besides, there are many, many others who have done so, and done it very, very well.

One of those was Nora K. Jemisen, who referenced it in her GOH speech at a Continuum in Australia last week. If you haven’t read her speech, read it now. It’s brilliant. It’s honest. It’s hopeful. And best of all, it calls for reconciliation within the SFF community. Reconciliation. This is a word I would hug if I could. It’s a word I’m used to hearing since I work in a Christian ministry, but this is the first time I heard it used within the SFF community. To use Nora’s own words:

“I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone. – See more at: http://nkjemisin.com/2013/06/continuum-goh-speech/#sthash.XbLijUKw.dpuf

It got me fired up, because yeah, I can see it, writers using bridges of words to reach those who would never step foot in communities that don’t look like their own. Stories that stretch the imagination, that would represent all cultures, that would stretch minds, put them in other people’s shoes. This is totally what I would say is my calling as a writer.

And then this happened.

Sigh.

Right.

Common wisdom for such things is to ignore it, to let this guy spew his hate and not respond. But what this guy did was not only name Nora, but he then linked it to SFWAauthors Twitter feed. SWFA caught wind of it and took it down, but the damage is done.

This is more than just a troll. This is an attack. It goes completely against what Nora called for in her speech. It is used to tear down, to discount her as a writer, as a woman, as a black person, and as human.

And do you know what that post says to me?

This is what happens if you try to make a difference. We like our organization just the way it is. And we define how women are portrayed in SFF. We like our bikinis. We like our women stupid and dependent on us. And we like them all white, because their prettier and sexier than you—well, okay, we’ll allow Asian girls, because they’re nice and quiet and subservient.. And if you try to say anything about it, we will tear you down, rip your head off, drag your name through shit, because that’s what you deserve, you monkey you. So go ahead and write your stories, little little girl. You can even join. But keep your head down, don’t make waves, and most of all, keep your fat lips shut.

There are many writers, not just black writers, not just women writers, but all sorts of writers, who will not join because of this.

And this is why I am writing this post.

I’m writing this because I don’t know if I’m going to join SWFA. I don’t think I’m at the point of my writing career where it would be beneficial to me, at this point. (David Steffen wrote a post that sums up my feelings quite well.) But if I do decide to join in the future, it would be because there are writers like Nora and Mary Robinette Kowal and Jim C. Hines and Nisi Shawl and so many others who have paved the way before me, fighting to bring diversity to a genre that needs it so desperately. Because they refuse to be silent, because they call out bullshit when they see it. Sometimes they’re successful. Sometimes they’re not. And sometimes, people would viciously attack them.

I’m writing this not just to show my support to Nora (and did I tell you she’s going to be GOH at Wiscon in 2014?) but to support her vision of reconciliation that is so much bigger than any one of us. And the only way for that to happen is for us to write our stories, our own stories, and get them published, and write more stories and get those published.

I’m writing this because I am a black female writer, and this affects me deeply.

If you wish to show support for the vision of reconciliation in SFF as well, there are a couple of ways to do it.

1) If you are a member of SWFA, you can demand for the expulsion guy who wrote that damaging post. It’s true that he can say whatever he wants, but to use SWFA as a platform for such harmful threats is uncalled for.

2) If you’re an writer of color, or a woman writer, or genderqueer, keep writing. Don’t let this guy dissuade you from submitting. There are markets out there hungry for your stories. And if you’re an editor or publisher, please, make these voices heard.

3) If you’re a reader, expand your reading tastes. Don’t know where to start? The Carl Brandon Society Awards page has some good recommendations. This Tor post is also has an awesome list of POC and women authors in SFF.

It will take a while, but I do believe SFF can one day reflect true diversity. I’m doing my part, and tomorrow, you’ll see how. And if you can’t wait until tomorrow, here’s a sneak preview.

Book Review: The Female Man

The Female Man
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m still trying to decide if I liked this book.

Being a meta lover, I dug Russ’s writing style. It had this wonderful stream of consciousness that reminded me of Virginia Woolf, particularly during Jeannine’s parts. I also kind of liked the whole breaking the fourth wall aspect, though it made for difficult reading. I remember when it came to me like a jolt that all three characters were the same person. And I felt proud for recognizing that.

But aside from the writing style, I grew bored with the story real quick. I’m sure when it first came out, it was amazing and it rattled cages and whatnot. I also got a lot of the anger Russ was expressing. But I couldn’t identify with it. Part of it is the characters. There’s no real women or men in here, just cardboard cutouts. Aside from the “J”s, all the women are either asinine or male versions of women, and all the men are chauvinistic sexaholics. It got old real quick.

The whole “get married, then stay at home and be pretty” lifestyle Russ rants about just did not apply to the black women of my childhood. My grandma did laundry for a living, put herself through nursing school and had several kids through different men (she eventually married the last one). She didn’t have time to sit around looking pretty. There was this whole educated white woman privilege theme running through the story that grew wearying after a while. There were even a couple of scenes where Russ lapses into black slave “Massah” talk. I know she was trying to show how farcical it was for women to put on a show for men, but to try to compare that with how Black people were treated in that time was very ignorant and stupid on Russ’s part.

I really wanted to read more about Whileaway. Russ told us all these details, but the story never focused on it. It was more Janet playing commentator: “I’m a visitor here! Your world is weird!” Then she sort of faded into the background. At least Jeannie’s story grew on me, simply because it was the most complete and coherent. Joanna grew tiresome after a while with all her man hate. By the time Jael came along, I was skipping more pages than reading them. Laura, the only female character not a “J”, faded in and just as quickly faded out. What I wanted was a science fiction story. What I got instead was a long diatribe dressed up in science fiction clothes.

Was Russ’s anger justified? Yes, I think so. Did this book need to be written? Yes, absolutely. Is it relevant now? Is many of the ideas in it still relevant? As I write this, everyone is talking about Steubenville. It feels like nothing’s changed. And yet there are women and men alike challenging rape culture, calling out the media for their coverage. So people are at least more aware and crying out for justice and change.

But was this a good story? I don’t think so. I think I’m going to go read When it Changed, which I believe has what I want: a story set in Whileaway, and Russ’s good writing to boot.

View all my reviews

Book Review: "The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood

When I was a kid, I watched The Handmaid’s Tale on cable television. You know, the one with Natasha Richardson. I thought it was a cool movie. A bit on the strange side, but cool nonetheless.

Flash forward to a couple of Monday’s ago. I’m at our book club and we just finished reading the book. As we go around giving our likes and dislikes of it, I mention that I saw the movie as a kid. The responses were along the lines of GASP! SHOCK! YOUR MOTHER LET YOU WATCH THAT?! This startled me because I really don’t remember the movie being all that bad. There wasn’t any nudity, and the only real lasting image I kept from the movie was when a woman in red went medieval on a guy who supposedly killed a mother and her unborn child. I say ‘supposedly’, because this is in a movie where truth spoken by loudspeaker can never be trusted.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about a woman named Offred. It isn’t her real name—that had been taken away from her along with her property, her identity, even her sex. Dressed in all red, she is now a ‘handmaid’ who can only go out in the presence of other handmaidens. She’s not allowed to read or write. She’s not allowed to have any thought of fun or pleasure. Her sole purpose is to produce a child for her Commander and his wife.

What’s scary is that before all this, Offred had a normal life. Granted, she was sleeping with a married man, but she had her own life and the freedom to live the way she wanted. Now, all that exists in painful flashback. It doesn’t matter how her world had gone from normal to this cultish state of existence. All Offred can do is keep her sanity intact as she deals with the mundane of doing nothing except wait for the Commander’s wife to call her to do her duty.

I’ve always been a huge Atwood fan. This book first introduced me to her work and it’s just as good as I remember. Atwood has a wonderful knack for detail, and it helps carry the book along where the main protagonist spends most of her time sitting and waiting. Conversely, I liked how we never get any infodumping on what happened to Offred. We are as baffled as she is as to why all this is happening and how she should deal with it. The flashbacks to the past are bittersweet as well as informative–we can feel Offred’s despair and longing to know what happened to her lover, her best friend, and her only daughter, who was taken from her.

When I was younger, I never saw the feminist angle on this. I’m catching it now: how they other women to keep the handmaidens in line. How she starts doing forbidding things with the Commander, like play Scrabble, but not because he pities her—he’s only using her to satisfy his own needs. This is evident when he sneaks her to Jezebels, sort of a black market nightclub where women are free to dress whatever they like and talk to men. Of course, it becomes apparent that it’s just another form of prison.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that Atwood doesn’t really make it clear that Offred’s a handmaiden because she’s been sleeping with another man’s wife. It’s not until we reach the end of the story, when there’s a "transcript" of an academic talk that discusses the finding of Offred’s story, and it’s there we learn that only those women who were deemed "unmorally fit" were the first wave of handmaidens. Apparently there were other women who were pretty much left alone. Other than those useful bits of information, I felt this transcript was tacked on and provided way too much back history into the story.

I found it interesting that our club read this right after reading "Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow. Both deal with dystopian near futures that can easily come to pass if we allow it. While I wasn’t as scared as such a thing happening in the Handmaid’s Tale as I was with Little Brother, it does make you think about other places where this is as commonplace as sin. This gets 3-1/2 red dresses out of 5. And try to learn Latin—you’ll never know when you need to translate an obscure message you’re not supposed to read.