Weblog #5: Queer Africa, queer teens

Queer-Africa-2

I went to the Cape Town launch of Queer Africa 2 last night. The anthology follows the award-winning success of its original and contains 26 stories by African writers. It’s published by Ma’Thoko’s Books, the publishing imprint of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), an initiative for LGBTI culture and education in Africa. Cape Town’s LGBTI community is clearly hungry for this literature because the launch was packed. I recently got a buzzcut so I felt like I fit right in. My curls, I thought, would have looked so straight.

One of the best moments of the evening was when they opened the floor to the audience and this 12-year-old kid asked, ‘If you’re my age and you’re queer, would this book be helpful?’

The whole room was delighted.

I think this particular book would be too adult for her, but one of the panelists did mention the need for a Queer Africa for teens, and to close off the evening, Book Lounge owner, Mervyn Sloman, mentioned that his daughters organise regular Teen Pride events at the bookstore for LGBTQI teens and their allies.

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Daily Reads: 16 February 2015

I’m just going to avoid talking about how very very long it’s taking me to finish my current review, and instead give you a moment to appreciate the Joey Hi-fi cover of my current read – Fletcher by David Horscroft, published by Fox & Raven.

FletcherDavid Horscroft is a South African novelist and Fletcher is his debut, a postapocalyptic sf thriller with one of the most insanely violent main characters I’ve ever read. I took a break from all its bleeding and screaming to see what was happening on my favourite blogs.

I’ve been seeing the Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear floating around the internet lately, but, for no reason in particular, I didn’t take a closer look. However, I put it on my priority list after reading Bear’s guest post about writing an authentic prostitute character for whom selling sex is a job, not a definition of who she is. Yay for interesting, complex female perspectives 🙂

Then today I learned that Neil Clarke, creator of Clarkesworld magazine, is publishing a new digital-only sff magazine called Forever. I find this both exciting and kind of depressing. Exciting because I’m expecting more wonderful sff from it, and depressing because I feel like I’m being buried under all the short fiction I need to read. But the nice thing about this new magazine is that, for now, it will only have one novella and two short stories. That means I might actually be able to finish reading one in a month! I used to be able to do that with Clarkesworld, but they’ve since expanded to six stories a month, and I never get around to reading all of them. I know I don’t have to; it just feels good to finish the whole magazine.

Finally, there’s this nice, short personal essay by Haralambi Markov on writing queer characters in sff – the fear of doing it, and why you absolutely should do it. The essay is part of Lightspeed magazine’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter campaign. Can’t wait to check out that edition 🙂 Surprisingly, this brings me back to Fletcher, whose raving psychopath protagonist also happens to be openly bisexual… Lemme go see if I can finish that book tonight.

Happy reading!

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Photography for this post is courtesy of Ruth Smith. You can view or buy her work here, or contact her at photobunny24@gmail.com.

#DiversityInSFF: Readers and Reviewers

If you weren’t following yesterday, I highly recommend you check out the #DiversityInSFF hashtag that Jim C. Hines started on Twitter yesterday. Twitter can be one hell of a time-waster but it has its moments and following last night’s discussion was undoubtedly time well spent. The problem is a clear one often talked about in sff circles: these genres – or at least their English-language versions – lack diversity, with the major problem being that white male authors and straight, white, predominantly male characters are favoured.

Reading through the hashtag gives a good overall idea of who and what is underrepresented: anyone who is POC, female, gay, transgendered; settings and cultures that aren’t North American or European; non-western folklore and mythology. Saladin Ahmed raised the issue of class (“I want fewer kings and starship captains, more coach drivers and space waitresses.”). There’s also the issue of world sf – most published works in English come from American and British authors or favour those settings.

As several tweeters pointed out, the problem isn’t just with authors and the fiction they produce; the issue is systemic. It exists at the level of publishing – the people hired in the industry, the works they choose to publish, the changes they sometimes require (like removing gay or POC characters), the cover art they produce (objectifying women, whitewashing POCs).

Of course, authors and publishers are influence by readers, so the problem also exists at the level of readers and reviewers. I wanted to talk about this specifically because it’s where I fit in and last night’s discussion had me thinking about my choices as a reader and reviewer. Here are some of my favourite tweets on the subject:

Reading widely is in itself a solution. The paradox of sff is that it can take you to other worlds but still be horribly provincial. A case in point was an indie novel I reviewed this year:  Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle. In the story, a human colony settled on another planet, alongside the indigenous aliens, but their lives were little different from suburban America and most of the humans never speak to the aliens or get over their xenopobia. An excellent counterpoint to that novel is the short story: “The Children of Main Street” by A.C. Wise. In Wise’s story, human colonists also replicate suburban America on another planet, except for their children, who have somehow all gained the ability to change sex whenever they feel like it. Many of the parents are disturbed by this, but one mother becomes increasingly disappointed by the adults’ the aversion to difference and their refusal to change. Why travel to other worlds and build new societies only replicate the one you came from?

A lot of sff does that for their readers, transporting us to other worlds that look less like exciting new landscapes and more like small corners of the world we already live in, with lots of people, lifestyles and cultures kept out of view. Vampires in western cities and suburbs, elves and dwarves in some version of medieval Europe, spaceships crewed by straight Americans – these things often aren’t as adventurous or fantastical as they purport to be. Promoting diversity in sff means reading more diversely. And what readers choose to read influences what publishers choose and what authors are encouraged to write; it’s a knock-on  effect.

One of the major lessons I got from the #DiversityInSFF discussion is that this diverse reading really has to be a conscious effort on your part. Because sff suffers from so many biases, simply sticking to preferred subgenres or ignoring the gender, race etc. of the authors you choose means that you’re going to end up reading mostly white male authors who write white male protagonists simply because they are in the vast majority.

I’m pleased to say that, fortunately, my tastes naturally lean towards a measure of inclusivity. I like books that offer me something unusual, and in sff genres, “unusual” often coincides with diversity: POC protagonists, gay and transgendered protagonists, settings that aren’t European or North American, non-European folklore and mythology etc. It also includes female protagonists; they’re easy to find in genres like YA fantasy or paranormal romance but can be harder to find in other sff subgenres.

As a reader and reviewer from South Africa, I’ve also been encouraged to look for ‘world’ sff, simply because the local sff scene is blossoming. What this emphasises is that those genres don’t belong to the American and British authors who dominate the market, and when local authors promote South African and other African speculative fiction, I’m encouraged to look further as well. So when I hear about Nnedi Okorafor’s short story anthology Kabu Kabu for example, or a novel based on the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki, my interest is immediately peaked and I request a review copy.

But on the downside I’m not actively seeking to make my reading more diverse. While I do look out for more interesting protagonists and settings, I’m one of those people who doesn’t normally take much notice of the author when looking for books to read and review. Also, I primarily use NetGalley to get review copies and I mostly request books from publishers I trust. What this means, in part, is that I’m basically just waiting to stumble across non-standard fiction, and in the meantime I getting a big dose of the norm. I still come across many female authors and characters this way, but finding POC authors and characters, non-US/European sff, gay protagonists and transgendered protagonists is far more unlikely. Looking over my reading for the year, I’m pleased to see an good gender balance, several Japanese novels and a few books that explore non-traditional sexuality, but it’s hardly as diverse as it could be. I’m not planning to avoid books I really want to read just because their authors and protagonists are white men; I think that’s silly and I’d miss out on some great fiction if I did so. What I’m talking about is finding more varied books to read as well.

Obviously what I read dictates what I review, and reviewing involves discussing and promoting those works, making them more visibile to readers. And visibility is the second major issue that grabbed me last night. The most obvious aspect of this is talking about diverse works of fiction on my blog.

The aspect I hadn’t really thought about much before was making diversity clear within a work of fiction.

Those tweets are directed at authors, particularly because many readers (of any race, gender or sexual orientation) will assume characters are white, straight and male unless told otherwise, and stopping them from doing so is important. Thus, I’d say the idea also replies to reviewers, since describing plots, characters and settings is part of what we do. So, should reviewers make an effort to point out the diversity (or lack thereof) in a work? Should we take care to mention, for example, that the main character is dark-skinned, bisexual and Muslim?

When these factors are central to the plot or whatever is discussed in the review, the answer is an obvious YES. What interests me more, are the cases where that information isn’t needed, when it’s an extra piece of information that doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere.

My instinct thus far has been to leave it out. After all, I don’t provide full character descriptions based on every related scrap of information in novel; I stick to what’s relevant or notable. Skin colour might be as irrelevant as hair colour, and if the story doesn’t include a sexual relationship then it might not be worth mentioning a character’s sexual orientation. Also, I don’t go around pointing out that, by the way, this character is white or straight, so in the spirit of equality I don’t do it for POC or gay characters either unless it’s a major issue. I don’t want to be a twat howling “Look! The main character is a black female scientist! You have to see this!” potentially objectifying them as some kind of exotic artefact on display, instead of viewing them as a (fictional) person. And I kind of feel like I’m doing exactly that if I write something like “Jane is a black scientist on Mars” when Jane’s race isn’t an important plot point. After all, I wouldn’t write “Jane is a white scientist on Mars”.

Then again, there wouldn’t be any need for this discussion if things were equal. These characters are underrepresented. Often when they are present their difference is emphasised, with the fiction making the point of exactly how ‘Other’ they are. While those stories are also necessary to relate individual experiences or the experience of being othered, what we also need are stories that where being POC, gay or transgendered is normalised, where those characters can just get on with the plot without having to explain themselves or function as a representative of a minority. Those are the books for which I wouldn’t need to mention he particulars of the characters diversity, but at the same time that’s the ideal we should be striving for; is it wise to keep silent about it?

Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find a smooth approach to this, like integrating it into a character discussion eg. “John can never commit to anything; he keeps changing jobs, boyfriends and the colour of his hair”. Alternatively, I might punt the book as breaking away from the norm, eg. “It’s not often that I get to read a story from the POV of a gay teenager with a disability”. And if all else fails, maybe I should be stating openly that “Jane is a black scientist on Mars” as a way of telling readers that hey, this book has a POC protagonist. It feels a bit weird, but then again this whole issue has the awkwardness of masses of people saying “Excuse me, but why the fuck do you keep ignoring me?” The solutions aren’t easy, but we shouldn’t shy away from them. So for starters, I’m going to take a closer look at my review pile and see what I can change about it.

Readers, bloggers and other reviewers, what do you think? Do you feel the need to assess your tbr piles and maybe make some changes? How do you address diversity in your reviews?

Rapture by Kameron Hurley

Rapture by Kameron HurleyTitle: Rapture
Series: Bel Dame Apocrypha
Author: 
Kameron Hurley
Publisher: 
Night Shade Books
Published: 
1 November 2012
Genre: 
science fiction
Source:
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 8/10

It’s seven years after the events of Infidel, and for once Nyx is living a peaceful life in exile. She even has a girlfriend. But Nyx isn’t Nyx unless she’s hunting and killing people, so when she’s  pardoned and offered a job by the bel dames, she takes it. The centuries-long war between Chenja and Nasheen is ending, but the ceasefire is creating civil conflict, largely because of the large numbers of men and boys returning from the front. For centuries, most Nasheenian men have been little more than cannon fodder. Now unemployed and unemployable, they have little social value in a country where they’ve always been treated as second-class citizens.

This led to formation of the Broederbond – a men’s advocacy movement headed by one of Nyx’s old enemies. But this man has disappeared, and Fatima, head of the bel dame council, wants Nyx to bring him back alive. If he dies he could become a revolution-inspiring martyr. Fatima doesn’t seem opposed to gender equality; rather, the fear is that the men could form a “new, repressive government that puts bel dames and all other women back under some archaic law they carve out of the Kitab”. A more progressive government needs to be formed, and of course the bel dames want to have some of that power too.

Nyx accepts the job, and puts together a new team of mercenaries for a journey to some of the most remote and bizarre regions of Umayma.

Like God’s War and Infidel, the plot is based on a sociopolitical conspiracy that I find a bit difficult to follow. It’s full of twists and betrayals, most of the information comes in two large info dumps at the beginning and the end, and for most of the book it was all a bit vague. I tended to focus on the the more immediate goals of the plot, without always being clear on how they fit into the whole. At any rate, Nyx’s journey is so arduous and the characters have to try so hard to simply stay alive that the Nasheenian politics they’re suffering for seems abstract and remote. In other words, it didn’t matter too much to me that I couldn’t keep track of the politics because there was so much more going on. Rapture has some the best world-building I’ve read in a while, great characters, loads of action, and of course the kind of fluid sexuality and gendering that is one of the best things about the Bel Dame Apocrypha.

The world-building is what really made this is great book for me. The planet Umayma always a bit different, with its bug-tech, shape-shifters, magicians who are nothing like regular magicians, and Nasheen, an Islamic city where women are in charge. It’s a very alien, very dangerous world that, thousands of years ago, was forced into the image of another world (Earth?).

In Rapture, we travel far beyond the relatively tame cities and get a striking idea of exactly how vast and alien Umayma is. Desert monsters, weird organic tech, structures made out of flesh, pyromancers, sand that eats you alive, dead bodies reanimated by bugs… it’s totally outlandish and quite fucking awesome. Most of the action (of which there is no shortage) is entwined with the world building too. One of the most intriguing characters is a mysterious ‘conjuror’ with badass powers that tap into the fabric of the world, and a lot of knowledge about Umayma’s history. Inaya also returns, and we learn a bit about her incredible shifter powers and what she can do with them.

She’s now one of my favourite characters, and I’m glad that she has her own parallel plot in Rapture. Inaya did little more than weep in book one, was revealed to have incredible powers as a shifter in book two, and is now secretly leading a shifter rebellion in Ras Tieg. Of all the the character arcs, hers is the most triumphant, and the most spectacular. Seeing Inaya in action is always a thrill, and the strength of her character is formidable.

Rhys has a much more pathetic story. He never found his feet after the bel dames ruined his life, and ends up stranded in the desert, then virtually enslaved to a man who saves him. His story seemed random until it reunited him with Nyx. Their love-hate relationship is still an interesting one, although far less hopeful. Rhys is bitter after having lost so much, and Nyx is too callous a person to rebuild broken bridges. With each book my feelings about them changed a bit, and this time I favoured Nyx.

Previously, my sympathies often fell with Rhys as the more gentle character, despite his many misogynistic religious beliefs. I like Nyx more, but she’s a brute, and in Infidel Rhys suffers a great deal because of her.

This time I found him a more unlikeable character. He has a tough life, but the way he treats his wife Elahyiah left me with little sympathy for him. Rhys was always in a position where he was either unable to exercise his beliefs about women (in Nasheen or as part of Nyx’s team) or where those beliefs were benign (living an affluent lifestyle with a similarly pious wife). Now hardship reveals the more sinister side of his character, as he exercises dominance over his wife with little regard for her feelings.

Admittedly, Nyx acts like a stone cold bitch most of the time, but she often seems to be hiding the fact that she actually cares about the people around her. With Rhys, it’s more like his gentle nature hides the fact that he can be a complete asshole to women.

As a result, I was pleased that Rhys didn’t have a big role in this book, which has more interesting people on the page. Eshe is back, the raven-boy who Nyx ‘adopted’ in Infidel. He starts out with Inaya and her rebellion but returns to Nyx, still looking up to her when almost everyone else hates or fears her. Other members of Nyx’s team include a beautiful boy fresh from the front, a petite spider-like girl with impeccable sniping skills, a mad magician, and another bel dame. Each has their own story, personality, and culture clashes with other team members, adding to the world-building and making this is the most memorable of Nyx’s teams.

As usual, Hurley makes most of her characters suffer greatly. Nyx looks thoroughly battered at this point (she’s lived about ten-years longer than almost any bel dame or bounty hunter), and of course there’s only going to be more fighting, more scars. She and her team also endure a prolonged slog through the desert that seems impossible to survive. This went on for too long, but the pace picks up once it’s over and we get to the really weird parts of Umayma.

Rapture is definitely my favourite of the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, and despite being the last book it’s the one that made me hunger most for stories set on Umayma. In fact, it made me like the world so much that I felt a bit sad when I reached the end of the novel. I was satisfied with the conclusion to Nyx’s story, but I didn’t want to leave Umayma behind. So I asked Hurley about it on Twitter and luckily, she’s got another three books planned:

So, yay 🙂 Hurley’s sf is the kind of thing I want to see more of in the genre, so I’m curious to see what series she come out with next, and what else she’s got planned for Umayma.