Saturday, December 6, 2014

Zombie City: A story about writing, publishing and real life (#SFWApro)

La Boca del Diablo, a.k.a. the entrance to Zombie City

On Dec. 3, my story Skin in the Game was published at Editor Carl Engle-Laird summarizes it like this:
Three kinds of people live in Zombie City-La Boca Del Diablo: the zombies, los vivos, and the ghosts. Officer Jimena Villagrán, not truly at home with any of these groups, patrols the barrio for stalking monsters. Magic con men and discarded needles make this beat hazardous enough, but the latest rash of murders threatens to up the ante by outing the horrors of Jimena’s personal history.
Under the Richmond bridge
While all of the happenings in my story are fantastical, Zombie City is a real place and one that was named long before I knew about it. 

The real

Almost a full year before my story appeared at Tor, I had assigned one of the AL DÍA News freelancers (Emma Restrepo) to do a story about Zombie City (in Philadelphia) and had walked the railbed strewn with spent needles with photographer David Cruz — who had been there years before, when a tent-city of homeless residents had shared the area with the drug-addicted "zombies." I saw and talked to some of the "zombies" shooting up, and later faced down five irate men (including a state legislator whose district includes Zombie City) who were furious when the investigative piece was published in the paper. 

There are those who dislike Fantasty/Sci Fi/Speculative fiction set in the real world. I am not one of them. Although I have written SFF stories set in different universes and alternate, high fantasy worlds, there is no getting around the fact that what I love best is to read (and write) about the magical, the horrific, the dystopic and fantastical amid the trappings of here and now ... or a few days, a few years from now. 

Walking along the railbed in Zombie City
Blame it on the fact that when a story makes itself known to me, I'm alway both a journalist and a fiction writer. (It's not a rare combination — SFF writer Michael Janairo was long a journo as well, and SFF publisher Brian White is in the news biz.) 

The real is often horrifically fantastical and needs no more than a small nudge over the line into SFF (see my novel of immigration dystopia, Ink).

The real is also, too frequently, hidden from and neglected by journalism. There are a number of reasons for this: the gutting of newsrooms; the resolutely monolingual composition of most media organizations; the fact that some communities are rarely or poorly covered. 

But the stories ... the seed of investigative or speculative ... are there anyway. 


There are two sizable Latino communities in Philadelphia — the (primarily) Mexican immigrant community in South Philly and the (primarily) Puerto Rican (and secondarily, Dominican) community in Northeast Philly. The communities are united by a common dominant language (Spanish) and a newspaper that serves them both (AL DÍA), but the gulf between them is perhaps best illustrated by the fact they are served by completely different subway lines, and they throw separate (and huge) street festivals and Masses on patronal saint feast days with little overlap. 

Decrying deportations in South Philly
Neither community has reason to love the police — the one because the police have collaborated with ICE in warrantless searches that break down doors in middle of the night and too often result in detention and deportation of family or friends; the other because police impunity and targeted harassment have a history almost as long as the history of the Puerto Rican community in the city. 

And yet, as is often case, becoming a police officer is, for Latin@s in Philly, a way to try to make policing more sensitive to the community policed, as well as step up to the middle class.

So the protagonist in Skin in the Game, Jimena Villagrán, is a cop ... daughter of a South Philly immigrant Mexican ... policing a precinct in the near Northeast that she's tied to by language and Latino culture writ big, set apart from it by the differences between Latino cultures writ small, and surrounded by a larger culture that doesn't know what to do with either.

Protesting Judge Dugan's ruling on Lt. Jonathan Josey punching Aida Guzman 
Latin@s are no monolith, though we are often portrayed by the pop media as such. But, it is also true that when we see each other beset and besieged we frequently step up and react as one community. Puerto Ricans are immigration reform advocates though they are citizens and the issue doesn't affect them personally; Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants stood with Puerto Ricans decrying a Philly judge's exoneration of a police officer caught on tape punching a woman in the face — because the barrio, the judge opined publicly, was full of drugged-out, out-of-control Puerto Ricans.

Because I write both fiction and non-fiction, I believe in the magic of community, writ small and large. Because I write both fiction and non-fiction I notice when the magic fails.

Conjuring the truth

I'll gloss-over the magic that got my story accepted for publication at, but without doubt it, too, was contingent on community —the SFF one this time — and my inclusion in the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and the readings that took place during the book's launch in Brooklyn.

Months passed between acceptance and publication, and my anticipation escalated as I saw the illustration Wesley Allsbrook created for my story. 

And a week before publication, the Ferguson decision came down.

The wounds that the decision exculpating a police officer in the shooting death of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown created were tremendous, undeniable, heartrending. 

It was, and is, a raw and ugly wound that will take many years, many amplified and prioritized Black voices, requiring many real — oh, so real — changes to be enacted before healing can even begin.

I was hyperaware that my story dealt with police who were literal monsters, and that the fictional violence and predation written into the story might further wound African-American readers. Carl (the Tor editor who acquired the piece) worried that too:
Just a week after the Ferguson grand jury decision, this is a particularly poignant time for such a story to come out. But while we could never have planned for "Skin in the Game" to coincide with such a nationally-recognized public tragedy, the sick reality is that it might not be possible to publish such a story on a week in which no hideous injustice had been inflicted by the police on an innocent young person of color. 
I imposed on two friends — writer Lisa Bolekaja whose very fine short story "Medu" also appeared in Long Hidden, and Dr. Kim Butler who is the chair of Africana Studies at Rutgers University — to read the story just days before publication. They both responded with grace and a big-heartedness that I will seek to emulate should anyone ask me to do what I asked them.

I just didn't want to, unintentionally, do harm. And stories — even speculative ones — live in the real world.

In my journalism, in my social media prattle, in my fiction, I've long held a stanza from a poet Adrienne Rich as touchstone:
We move but our words stand
become responsible
for more than we intended
and this is verbal privilege
Having my work published at Tor is indeed a privilege. As I track responses to Skin in the Game (because, yes, I'm a newish SFF writer and this is my first story published at Tor and I squee at every retweeted link to my story and openly do everything that would make more widely published writers grimace in embarrassment) I am acutely aware that the respectful reception to my words is a privilege not accorded to every writer. And even less frequently accorded to those people out "in the real" who cannot don my same armor — SFF writer, journo, college-educated light-skinned Latina — when they seek to be heard and understood.

Despite the thrill of seeing my words on a publisher web site I frequent and admire, it is not my own words that are ringing in my ears at this precise moment in American history.

Words stand:






  1. Wonderful article! Cant wait to read the story. No harm; it will be gratifying to ME to read a story that speaks the truth of our community. ...with some sci fi throen in.

    Thanks for the tip and the lede.

    1. Interesting take to think of it as a pro-cop piece. I wouldn't say that's the usual reading at all, since the monsters in the piece are all cops and what brutality there is in the piece is all perpetrated by cops.

      The publisher's and my concern was more along the lines that the story reflects, fantastically, a reality that is all too common — of predators within a group that has authority over the people — and that in the real world that manifests in impunity such as in the cases in Ferguson and Staten Island.

      This is not the standard police procedural at all. ;)

    2. I don't think Mr. Sedano read "Skin in the Game." Or if he did, he can't have been paying attention. WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

      There was no glorification in "Skin." There was a community preyed upon by police (who happened to be privileged monsters). Then the community saved itself from the police by fighting back and winning. The main character (who happened to be a woman, a member of the community, and another monster cop) is saved and embraced by the community. Not the other way around.

      And "Skin" wasn't only a bad example of the point Mr. Sedano tried to make. It also clashes with the historical reference he cited...


Comment on this post: