Writing the Margins from the Centre and Other Moral Geometries

unicorn_finalThis blog post is written in fulfilment of a Kickstarter reward claimed during Uncanny Magazine‘s Year One Kickstarter (with apologies for the delay, as the Year Two Kickstarter is presently underway, about which more later!)

I was asked to write about the following:

How can writers represent people on the margins in their stories? How do writers know when they are being allies and when they are talking over people who could be speaking for themselves? How can I tell, as a writer, when I’m telling a story that isn’t mine to tell?

There are short and long answers to these questions. Here are the slightly discouraging short answers, in order:

a) carefully;
b) mostly by making mistakes and learning from them;
c) with difficulty.

Here are the longer answers.

How can writers represent people on the margins in their stories?

There’s been so much written on this subject, from so many perspectives, that part of me just wants to link to a lot of people who’ve said things better than I could. In this Racefail-era post, for instance, Nora Jemisin talks about how writers of colour, including herself, worry about representing race all the time; in this post, Cat Valente talks about how we’re all going to screw up at some point; in this post, Max Gladstone talks about how he, as an Apex Privilegedor, approaches writing people of different backgrounds with reference to getting chased by bees. And years ago in the heady days of now-locked LJ I wrote the following in a moment of helpless introspection:

I am wondering about stories and how to tell them.

I am a creature colonized by three languages, and the geopolitics of my inward self are complex. I have internalised certain societal structures, and am informed by my experiences within a family within a society that is itself shaped and coloured by its relationship with other societies. Even my questioning of those structures must necessarily be informed by them, to some degree. When I open my mouth or set pen to paper or hover my fingers over a keyboard, there’s a great deal of jostling over what will come out. And on the one hand everyone’s perspective is unique and no matter what you’re trying to say — be it a story about dragons or trees or dragon-trees or tree-dragons or music or race or bodies or talking narwhals — there is value to you saying it because we are all of us snowflakes and stories may contain the same elements without being the same.

But if you are aware of your limits, and your failings, and your inadequacies, do you strive to go beyond them all the same in order to break new ground, no matter how inexpertly, no matter how fumbling the result will be — or do you take your limits, and your failings, and your inadequacies, and try to build something out of them with the awareness of what they are?

In the original post I didn’t really arrive at an answer beyond “just try your best and learn from your mistakes.” I still think that’s a worthwhile answer. Because ultimately the “how” of the first question has to involve an attitude of approach rather than a sheet of instructions: accept that your work’s reception will have nothing to do with your intentions, swallow your pride and hurt feelings, and examine that reception for how to improve.

The thing is, that’s exactly the same attitude one should have to any critique. If I turn a story in to a workshop I fully expect that the responses I receive will range from “hated it for reasons that have nothing to do with the story” to “loved it for reasons that are unhelpful to my craft” with a lot of useful stuff in between. It’s my responsibility to not be hurt by the hatred and not be over-buoyed by the praise and to find the things that will help me grow as a writer, whether that’s accepting that Botany Doesn’t Work That Way or Let Me Tell You What a Stroke Feels Like or This is How to Pet an Owl.

It’s just that our sense of self, of our own goodness and morality, tends to be less bound up in how accurate our science is than in our portrayals of other human beings. It’s easier to come to terms with being bad at science than with being racist, but it’s a million times more important to confront the latter in ourselves as well as in others.

So, ultimately, my instruction here is less How Not to Screw Up Writing Marginalised People, but How to Accept That You’ll Screw It Up But Do Keep Doing It Anyway. But for more solid references I also recommend these resources: pick up Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward (it’s on sale!), or, if it’s within your means, consider attending a workshop-retreat on the subject. There are also LOADS of blog posts on the matter; Lisa Bradley wrote a series of posts on writing Latin@ characters, Jim Hines gave his blog over to guest posts and collected them into this anthology, with all proceeds going to the Carl Brandon Society and Con or Bust. A little googling goes a long way. Which brings me to the answer for the next question.

How do writers know when they are being allies and when they are talking over people who could be speaking for themselves?

By listening. Seriously. Just listen and be quiet and think about your words and actions. A lot of the time people will tell you when you’re overstepping bounds. That said, accept that a lot of people won’t. If you accidentally step on someone’s foot, some people will shout at you in pain and others will quietly try to extract their foot from beneath your weight and decide to keep their distance from you, and in neither case does either owe you anything

But in terms of just governing your own behaviour, a good rule of thumb is to do two key things:

  1. Amplify the voices of marginalized people
  2. Take on the 101-level work of addressing other people privileged in the same ways you are.

Again, listening and cultivating patience in the face of frustration at having your unexamined beliefs challenged is deeply important — which brings me to the last question.

How can I tell, as a writer, when I’m telling a story that isn’t mine to tell?

I actually have a hard time answering this — my first, totally unhelpful response is that when I don’t feel a story is mine to tell I literally can’t write it. If I can’t find my way into a character’s head because the experience I’m trying to convey is too inaccessible to me after copious research, I just … Can’t write it, and ask myself the hard questions of why I’m seeking to do so, what it is I’m trying to say. It’s the sort of thing that really needs to dwell in specifics to be answered.

I guess one thing I could do is say: don’t think a story isn’t yours to tell only because it’s been experienced by a person different from you. To paraphrase something Nalo Hopkinson once said on a Readercon panel, we mostly all know what it’s like to bite into a piece of fruit, regardless of language, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality. To say we have a lot in common is not to say that we’re all the same — but, still, we have a lot in common. Finding our way into different stories through those commonalities is crucial, necessary work.

This is a superb essay by Kamila Shamsie that I can’t stop re-reading and thinking about, because my engagement with it is thorny and complicated, but necessary. In it, she examines in great depth the American reluctance to engage with the cultures of other countries, saying, among other immensely quotable things, “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.” She wants the white novelists to come.

I do too — but not if they come with the same sense of entitlement, attitude, and standard-bearing as the soldiers. Not if they come as tourists or ex-pats, for the sun, the food, the cheaper cost of living. Not if they come to exploit.

How different would it be if the novelists came as immigrants: bearing the burdened expectation of learning new languages, adapting to different customs, integrating. Imagine white novelists, singers, poets, approaching other people’s cultures and languages with the same gratitude and humility their own societies expect from immigrants*.

So, finally, to recap —

Write carefully. Accept you’ll make mistakes, and that those mistakes will hurt your pride, and that you’ll have to figure out how to go on. Try your best anyway and know that this isn’t an easy thing, and that you might fail.

But if you’re doing this work for the right reasons — to improve your craft, to lessen the harm in the world, to strengthen your relationship with it through your art — failing better is its own reward.

*My analogy’s imperfect because expecting gratitude and humility from immigrants makes me abjectly furious, especially when they’ve been displaced from their homes by the machinations of the countries into which they’re immigrating. The asymmetry’s horrible, I’ve read Veracini, this is not that post, but I just wanted to make my disgust with that attitude clear even as I’m trying to use that attitude to make a different point.


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Down and Safe: Episode 7 – The One With the Gorn

It’s a Down and Safe week! Woo!

In the seventh episode of Down and Safe, Michael, Liz, Scott, and Amal discuss “Duel,” the seventh episode of Blake’s 7, and manage to get through at least fifteen seconds before they mention “Arena,” that Star Trek episode with the same plot. This same epic restraint to avoid cheap jokes is, of course, shown in the rest of the episode too.

Everything is ramping up lately — rhetoric around Worldcon, inconceivable busy-ness ahead of my getting married that same weekend — so it was a much-needed delight for me to just settle into an hour’s worth of laughter and conversation with friends.

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Down and Safe: Episode 6 – Bad Oregon Trail Players

Yesterday saw the release of a new episode of Down and Safe, the podcast where Liz Myles, Scott Lynch, Michael Thomas and I talk about each episode of Blake’s 7. This week we look at “Mission to Destiny.”

In the sixth episode of Down and Safe, Michael, Liz, Scott, and Amal discuss Mission to Destiny, the seventh episode of Blake’s 7, and manage to keep the recording to under an hour! They blame Terry Nation. Poor Terry Nation, and his dull, dull Mission to Destiny characters. Not even the prospect of Planet Mushroom could really save it.

We’re up to Episode 7 of the show and Episode 6 of the podcast, and you can follow along by watching the show on the Tube of You.

I can totally hear the scratch in my post-Readercon voice this episode.

In other news, it is the last day of the month. Little gasps of terror keep hitching my heart at the prospect of tomorrow beginning August, during which All of the Things occur faster and more furiously than they’ve been doing all year.

Here goes.

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“The Truth About Owls” Translated to Arabic

Art by Jackie Morris

To my surprise and delight, a kind fellow named Salman Zaid wrote to me asking for permission to share his Arabic translation of “The Truth About Owls.” I’m bowled over and honoured to grant that permission.

My father, Oussama El-Mohtar — who has a history of translating my work — also looked the translation over and, in consultation with me, made a number of suggestions and revisions which Salman then graciously incorporated. This makes the whole feel all the more special to me.

I’m just so floored by the thought that this story in particular might now find a new audience among Arabic-speakers. I’m so grateful.


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Reviews and Reprints: FOULSHAM and IMAGINARIUM 4

Some bits and bobs as I try to catch up on all the things.

First, my review of Edward Carey’s Foulsham — the second book in his Iremonger Trilogy, following the brilliant Heap House — went up at NPR Books last week, and I had this to say about it:

The pace of Foulsham is much faster than that of Heap House, so a number of important things come up amidst flurries of action; this is very exciting, but sometimes makes revelations and plot shenanigans seem arbitrary, where Heap House had a slower, more organic build. But just like Heap House, the character voices, new and old, are varied and wonderful, the situations terrifying and exhilarating, and the concept and execution so desk-thumpingly good that I resented having to spend time away from reading it. I love this series’ structure, beginning from a single house and expanding outward into a borough and then a city, widening the scope of its action even as it widens the circle of its concept’s implications.

As I say in the review, Heap House was one of my top two books last year (the other being The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine), so I can’t recommend the reading of it enough, and then I suspect reading Foulsham will just happen as a matter of course.

Next, I’m delighted to announce that “The Lonely Sea in the Sky” — my story from Lightspeed‘s WOMEN DESTROY SCIENCE FICTION issue last year — will be reprinted in Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writingin among a smorgasbord of luminaries. Introduction by Margaret Atwood! What! Amaze. So I’m really looking forward to that, too.

In other news, I’ve spent a very hot day looking at flowers and thinking about weddings and have just about enough brain power left to sip a Dark & Stormy and hope it works some sympathetic magic on the weather.


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Nijmi – 1999-2015


Last night I said goodbye to Nijmi, the cat who’s been with me for 16 years, just over half my life.

Noumi1She was, objectively speaking, the best of all possible cats. She was the softest, the sweetest, the kindest. She purred if you so much as looked at her. She loved cuddles. She hated having her nails trimmed. She would, when it was time for her to eat, jump up on the arm of whatever chair I was sitting in and gently paw at me.

My mother and I picked her and her sister out of a litter together. My mother was drawn to a tiny calico, but I was enchanted by her darker sister, her black so black, her white so white, and all in between this shining silver tracery. She was luminous. Nijmi means Star. We took both of them, matched as day and night, and funnily enough until we lost her sister (named Shauna — I think we’d tried for Shams, the word for Sun, but it wasn’t quite right and suggested fakery in English, so we kept the Shh sound and went with it), Nijmi was more my mother’s cat and Shauna was more mine. But Shauna went out one night and didn’t come back, and after that I belonged to Nijmi more than anyone, as the rest of the family went to the UAE and my sister and I moved to the city.

Nijmi sleepingIn her prime and even in her more venerable years she was a fierce and brilliant mouser. She scared raccoons from the fire escape in the flat my sister and I shared in Ottawa. She moved with me from my childhood home in Aylmer, to Luskville, to Ottawa, to Luskville, to Aylmer, and finally back to Luskville again. The only move she didn’t make with me was overseas. Whenever I’d skype with my parents, they’d tell me that she’d come trotting into the room at the sound of my voice.
nijmisinkShe had a fascination with sinks. She was very much a faucet-cat, loved to have me stand by the tap running it for her drinking convenience. Bathrooms, water — she would stand outside the shower door waiting for me to emerge so that she could be the first to rub her cheeks and teeth and scent on me after I’d so inconsiderately washed them off.

She loved music, too — or, at least, she loved instruments. She would paw at the strings of my harp, or the soundboard, whenever it was accessible to her; she would sit next to my youngest brother while he played piano, just sleeping on the bench. She never seemed to sit anywhere else if he was playing, and always sat in a particular way, as if letting it wash over her.

Stu and NijmiShe lived through the loss of her sister and the arrival of a new cat, Fara, and through Fara’s subsequent re-homing last year. She lived through seeing a house bustling with six people reduced to two, then increasing, then dwindling, increasing again. She met my fiancé when he was only just recently become my boyfriend, and he gave proof of his worth by falling in love with her instantly (though she, wisely, as evident here, was determined to reserve judgement. She came around).
She was a wonderfully companionable cat. My laptop screen was always just the right size for her to curl up behind, such that I wrote essays, poems, stories, to the sound of her purr. She made beds of discarded envelopes, frequently sat on papers I had to grade, which I’m sure was her way of looking after me if I began to look overwrought.

IMG_3172She never got sick, never got upset with us in spite of all the upheaval that can and did take place in 16 years, was never anything but loving, gracious, comforting. She was a gift, and and I hope she knew it.

Then, in early May, she became indifferent to food and began to lose weight very quickly; a first vet visiting was astonished by how good were her teeth, joints, organs for her age, but found she had a fever, so prescribed a broad spectrum antibiotic that helped for a bit. But a week or so after the antibiotics had run their course she was still looking poorly, so I took her to a clinic in the nearest town, where they found a cancerous mass in her intestines that had metastasized into her lungs. From there on it was palliative care, until yesterday.

She stopped eating on Sunday, was barely drinking, and had shifted from sleeping on soft surfaces to hard; she had some trouble with a hind leg and moving around as her body consumed itself. She gradually stopped walking more than a few steps away from where she slept, and it hurt to watch her even shift position. I looked at her and saw her just waiting to go, trying to sleep herself away. I’ve never had to put a pet down before, and I’ve been taking it very hard. I made the call to a vet who’d do home euthanasia, to spare her a hated final car journey, and in the end it was my mother and me holding on to her and crying as she slipped away.

The wind was blowing something fierce, yesterday, but there was no storm; it helped to think of the wind shaking her loose from a dying body while the sun set. The wind died when she did. Today, it’s been grey and rainy while I wrote this, and I’m grateful.

I hope she knew how completely we loved her. I hope we made her feel how much she brightened our days and nights just with the look of her, sleeping, purring, patting my face for attention. We gave her the best we could, and I miss her so much.

Goodnight, my Noumi-cat.

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Down and Safe: Episode 5 – Buzzy the Robot That Tried

Thursday came and went without me announcing that a new episode of Down and Safe is live! It’s our fifth episode, in which we look at S1E6 of Blake’s 7: “Seek-Locate-Destroy.” I swoon over Servalan and brood disapprovingly over Travis. Also listening back I honest-to-goodness SPLUTTERED at one point over something Servalan-related.

Oh, Servalan.
bernardshyA refresher: Down and Safe is a fortnightly podcast where Liz Myles, Michael D Thomas, Scott Lynch and I watch all the episodes of iconic 70s British SF show Blake’s 7 and discuss them with loving exasperation and the occasional several rather a lot of  some dirty jokes. I’m the only one who hasn’t seen the show before, so occasionally we have a segment called Consulting Orac where I’m teleported out of the room so the others can have a more spoilery discussion about how a given episode relates to future stuff.

I am having truly ludicrous amounts of fun doing this. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or subscribe to us on iTunes or via old school RSS.

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NPR Review: LAGOON by Nnedi Okorafor

My review of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon went up this morning. Here’s a bit of it:

Lagoon absolutely teems with characters, perspectives, and Englishes. Everything about it is diverse and varied: In structure it feels part oral tradition, part theater, part screenplay, part memoir; in content it bubbles over with characters from different species, ethnicities, classes, genders, sexualities, religions. If ever a book set out to mirror the vibrant, brimming city for which it was almost titled, Lagoon has certainly done it. But, consequently — and perhaps appropriately — it’s as choppy a read as the ocean on a stormy day.

I was given the UK edition last year (by a kind stranger who has yet to take credit for it! Thank you kind stranger!), and the cover is utterly different, and I’m thinking about the ways covers might change our experience of reading a book even when we know what to expect. I’m still trying to figure the dynamics of it out.

Lagoon imageBriefly, the UK cover gives a much better sense of the book’s contents — the quality of teeming, the diversity, the centering of a woman, the transformation, the rising of water to meet city and all the denizens therein. It’s messy and vibrant, the words themselves shaped in negative space by the bodies of the sea creatures.

The US cover looks tilted to appeal to a non-genre market; it’s glossy, a beautiful photograph of air moving through water (that looks slightly like a brain?), and one can read thematic significance into that after the fact — but it’s so sleek and clean, it says “oceans = space” and “aliens” to me much more than “Lagos,” ultimately, and it’s an interesting shift in emphasis.

Covers, man. How do they work!

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Reviews: NPR, LA Times, CSZ

Readercon was a whirlwind! After a day on the road car-conning back to Ottawa, I’m home-ish, catching up on correspondence and things that need announcing before I can even begin to process what an incredible, beautiful, excellent weekend it was.

So! Reviews!

First, Stina Leicht’s Cold Iron comes out today, and my review of it dropped this weekend.

In the acknowledgements for Cold Iron, Stina Leicht writes that one of the questions at the core of her new Malorum Gates series is, “if Tolkien had been American, what would fantasy look like?” It’s a fascinating question — and I don’t intend to sound cynical or glib when I say that, according to Cold Iron, the answer is, at least partly, “more full of guns.” Cold Iron is very attentive to the nuances of early modern warfare, on both land and sea. It explores the clash between competing technologies and philosophies as magic-wielding Kainen (elves) and musket-firing Acrasians (humans) wage war on each other.

watchmaker of filigree streetSecond, my first review for the Los Angeles Times went up! I read Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street: 

Reading this book was like watching light slowly flooding a dismal room. The difference in Thaniel’s outlook, habits and happiness before and after meeting Mori moved me to tears. The tenderness, the small kindnesses given by lonely men to each other in the absence of words — sweetening a mug of hot water and lemon with honey, buying sheet music, baking sweets — was deeply beautiful. I would have happily read a whole novel shorn of any incident but their growing love for and trust of each other.

But there’s a great deal more than that here: humor, wit, mystery and danger are threaded through the book in musical measure. It dances between genres and makes partners of several: one could call it steampunk for its Victoriana and etheric experimentation, science fiction for its musings on determinism, historical fantasy for the ways in which those elements are seamlessly blended with late 19th century London.

This is kind of a huge deal to me. A few friends told me they encountered my name in their for-real actual print newspapers, or their parents did, and it was an unlooked for surprise.

It’s sort of amazing, thinking about it now, how in spite of the perhaps more global reach of a post on the LA Times’ website, there’s something more Real and Serious about a review appearing in my friends’ hands, staining their fingers with ink. It bears thinking on. At any rate, the book is beautiful and I’m so happy I could review it.

Last but most certainly not least, I interviewed Celeste Rita Baker — whose story “Name Calling” prompted me to write this essay on reading dialect last year — for the current issue of Cascadia Subduction Zone. We discussed her new collection, Back, Belly, & Side: True Lies & False Taleswhether writing in between genres is comparable to writing in between languages and dialects, and much more. This interview isn’t available online, but I highly recommend subscribing to CSZ or buying a copy, as this issue in particular also contains poems by Alicia Cole, Bogi Takács and Sonya Taaffe.

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Uncanny Magazine Issue 5

I’m very happy to see Uncanny Magazine‘s Issue #5 arrive today, bringing with it exceptional essays, stories and poems. Thus far I’ve only read Sofia Samatar’s “Writing Queerly: Three Snapshots” and Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Midnight Hour” but both are utterly wonderful.

I read “The Midnight Hour” for the podcast, and was challenged (read a beautiful/heart-breaking sex scene out loud for hundreds of strangers in a way that doesn’t play it for laughs, whaaaat) and moved by it. It’s really, really great: a beautiful mix of consent, sacrifice, and the ethics of “rescue.” I love how much of Kowal’s fiction involves married couples shouldering burdens together and fighting side by side.

Sofia’s essay is just, you know. Sofia Samatar. What do we even do with the fact that there is such a person writing such things in the world. Her fiction devastates me, her poetry wracks me, her non-fiction’s always lighting my brain on fire. Small wonder I’m always longing to devour hers!

Skeleton key not included.

Anyway those are only two small parts of an amazing-looking issue! If you like what Uncanny does and would like to support them, please consider doing so through their Patreon or through a subscription. The Patreon has options where you receive eventual swag… Judging by what came to me in the post yesterday, it’s definitely going to be shiny!


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