Sunday, January 27, 2013

The unbearable whiteness of being: Jo Walton's 'Among Others'

Fair warning: this blog post contains spoilers.

One of the last things to happen at Arisia Science Fiction and Fantasy convention in Boston before I left on Monday was Kiini Ibura Salaam (author of Ancient, Ancient) turning to me in the Crossed Genres Publications booth and asking me if I had read Jo Walton's "Among Others" (2010, Tor) and if not, whether I wanted her copy of it.

I had heard of the Nebula- and Hugo-award-winning novel but only really remembered one thing: that it was considered a love letter to the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre.

"Did you like it?" I asked.

Kiini never did give me a yes or no answer.

I took the book anyway.

From the first, I had a hard time connecting with the main character. But I'm nothing if not stubborn, which means I rarely set aside a book. I kept soldiering through, hoping for that moment when I'd be caught up by the language, the characters or plot —something to which I could point and say "This. This is why the book has won its accolades." Don't get me wrong, I wasn't finding "Among Others" awful, just pedestrian.

I regret to say that the disappointment and disconnect persisted, right through the end. But worse, after the final confrontation of the book, I realized the feeling had become something stronger. Distaste. Enough to make me want to write this post.

A little context is perhaps in order. I had just come off four days of panels at Arisia, most of them dealing with issues of diversity and representation in SF/F, when I started the book. I always note the dearth of characters of color in the genre novels as I read, but the discussions about destructive tropes and monochromatic world-building had honed my attention even further. Perhaps if I had picked up "Among Others" at a different time I wouldn't have felt so acutely its white-only rendition of the world. Perhaps I wouldn't have noticed how the only schoolmate of color is nothing more than a stick figure with an exotic name. Perhaps I would have been more forgiving of the almost total lack of names of SF/F writers of color among the main character's collection of books.


Morwenna, the 15-year-old protagonist of "Among Others," is defined and moored by her love of speculative fiction. At first blush she seems like a protagonist most of us would have no problem  connecting with: a smart outsider living in the aftermath of tragedy.  Mor's newly moved to England from Wales because her mother has had a hand in permanently injuring her and killing her twin sister.

Mor is afraid her mother will come after her at boarding school (where she's been enrolled by a father she hardly knows) so she engages in protective spellcasting and consults with faeries, whose cryptic utterances she interprets as guidance.

But most of all Mor reads. A lot. References to SF/F books fly fast and furious through the novel. In a seamless juncture of formal and material, we understand from the first that Mor wouldn't exist if SF/F literature didn't exist.

I should like this part, right? Especially since I am a writer of SF/F and the conceit that writing is central to survival is something every writer would like to believe. Except that the SF/F references in "Among Others" feel more like syllabus than celebration of the genre to me, and all I wanted to do as I read was shake the heavy weight of canon off my back. I can't help but contrast this to the exuberant way SF/F and comic book references manifest in Junot Díaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Mor talks about SF/F, Oscar revels in it.

Mor disdains pop music, reads the Greeks, and completes writing assignments for her more dim-witted schoolmates. The SF/F she loves is a litmus test by which she measures the worth of others. It also provides the pass to a club wherein intellectualism is recognized and treasured. Walton gives the book club meetings a lot of real estate in the book. They are reflexive, of course, and probably the key to why this novel has been hailed as a love letter to SF/F —a genre that is often impugned as anti-intellectual and which carries, collectively, a huge chip on its shoulder about that characterization.

The ironic part is that if the intent of the book club sessions really was to accord intellectual weight and heft to the way we talk about speculative fiction, it was completely counterproductive in my case. I found the book discussion scenes lazy and facile; one-note (or cliff-note) facsimiles, slighter than the paper they were printed on. This is particularly annoying given that spec fic really has done self-reflexive intellectual discourse about literature well — take a look at Borges' stories if you don't believe me. 

In any case, Walton is at pains to let us understand through these book club meetings that although Mor is an outsider, she is really better described as an insider's outsider.

The narrative arc of the book allows us to witness Mor's first inklings of love and sexual interest; we explore the crucible of family with her, and trace landscapes — both remembered and current — which shape her. We meet ghosts in her company, and ruminate on the nature of magic. It is an intimately focused narrative, quiet and evenly paced. 

Mor's small ambit is filled with people just like her. Some are better at maths, or have less money, or have made mistakes in their past, but they are essentially uniform, interchangeable pieces lined up neatly on the white side of the author's chessboard.

During the endgame, Walton slides the black queen across the board. 

Mor's mother, who we haven't seen but understand is probably insane and certainly responsible for great suffering, shows up for a long anticipated showdown at the conclusion of the book. She is described this way: "She looks like a witch. She has long greasy black hair, darkish skin, a hooked nose and a mole on her cheek. You couldn't typecast someone more like a witch."

And then, just to make sure we don't miss the tiresome, dark-evil-white-good trope she's exploiting, Walton gives us this about the other witches in the book (the ones who are no threat to Mor): "Of course the Sisters are witches too, and they're impeccably blond."

O-o-okay. For a book that takes itself seriously — and purports to take genre fiction seriously — the unexamined use of this trope is pretty remarkable. And not in a good way.

There is an unintentionally amusing moment toward the end of "Among Others." As Mor and her mother are locked in magical battle, the mother (Liz) starts ripping pages out of her edition of the Lord of the Rings, and turning them into flaming spears she throws at her daughter. I started laughing and found myself cheering Liz on.

Now, Tolkien is one of those weighty old farts we all carry on our backs if we chose to write SF/F. Many of us were introduced to SF/F through Tolkien, and LoTR is practically holy scripture to a good number of genre readers and writers. The destruction of this book, in particular, seems as close as Walton can get to showing the desecration of something important.

And I laughed and cheered. Why?

Despite its other meritorious attributes, the Lord of the Rings set the bar for the dark-evil-white-good trope in SF/F. It is a particularly ugly example of it, in fact, wherein every character described as dark or swarthy is in league with evil. Every one. This canon of canon has an unabashedly racist worldview that is undeniable, though those who love it will, and do, try to defend it vigorously. (In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit a deep and abiding love for Tolkien's highly problematic opus.)

So it was a kind of brilliant, poetic justice that the only real, dark character in "Among Others" (Liz) threw the pages of LoTR in the face of a guardian of the SF/F canon of whiteness (Mor). Weapon for weapon; damage for damage; wound for wound. I wish I believed Walton had done this intentionally, it would make the book more satisfyingly complicated, and less cloyingly self-congratulatory and complacent.

Walton's money line from the "Among Others" is this: "If you love books enough, books will love you back." It is a lovely line, and one that will delight many SF/F readers and writers. It would probably make a good motto silkscreened onto library totes, too.

But, in view of Walton's shabby treatment of her few "dark" characters, it is nicely worded lie. The real line should be: "If books love you enough, you will love them back."

Now there's a real discussion topic for Mor's SF/F book club. Too bad Walton didn't write it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Nuestras Voces, Our Voices: Emerging Latina writers talk about their work - Jessica Olivarez-Mazone

This is the first in what I hope to be a semi-regular series of guest blog posts wherein emerging Latina writers talk about their work, their process and what inspires them.

I decided to start this "Nuestras Voces, Our Voices" series because if it is hard for Latinos to be heard among the voices of mainstream writers, it is doubly hard for Latinas. You might be tempted to think we are mute.

Part of it has to do with our upbringing. which more often than not tells us we should be self-effacing and modest. So we swallow our stories.

Sometimes we choose to go silent because our Latino hermanos take up all the air in the room. "At least they're getting heard," is what we say to ourselves then. "After them, it'll be our turn."

But it never seems to be.

Our stories —and those of our mothers and grandmothers — have mostly been heard in the company of other women: around the kitchen table, as we are making tortillas or tamales together, or when we are sharing a tequilazo or a cerveza on a night out with our comadres. Or whispered from ear to ear, mother to daughter and friend to friend.

And it turns out we have an astonishing set of voices. Voices resonant with joy, shadowed by harrowing experience, mysterious like a flare of light over unknown features. Proud, amazing, Latina writer voices.

I know, I've heard those whispers.

So I'm flexing my prerogative as an older Latina writer — you know the type, bossy and loudly insistent —to help as many people as I can reach hear the beautiful voices of my younger hermanas.

Think of the "Nuestras Voces, Our Voices" series as an incantation from the smoky depths of the cocina or cantina. You haven't heard these words before, and what they call up ... well, it's our magic.

Nuestras Voces, Our Voices: Emerging Latina writers

Jessica Olivarez-Mazone

 Jessica Olivarez-Mazone is a South Texas emerging writer, mom, former teacher and grad student, who is raising two bicultural children, embarking on a real food journey, and crafting. She blogs at Tejana made (; follow her on Twitter @tejana_made. 

La Lechusa: Why I blend folklore with contemporary fiction

I found a book among the dusty shelves of my rural school, a relatively obscure book titled Stories that must not Die by Juan Sauvgea. Inside those pages was a cultural legacy that held all the different leyendas and cuentos that had been around South Texas communities for decades.

I embarked on a literary journey soon after reading that one book. I became obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe and his poem, “The Raven.” That one poem with the devious raven scoffing at Poe was reminiscent, to me at least, of the whisperings of the oral legend, “Lechusa”

Even that one word “Lechusa” sounds just as ominous as “Nevermore”

Lechusas somehow gained the ability to shapeshift from human women to giant owls. Everywhere across South Texas, oral stories were spun about these huge birds. Each variation discussed how they tormented but never how they gained the ability to shapeshift.

Every time I found a “scary story” book about the leyendas of my youth it was always just a retelling. It was the same thing, a generic one-sided look at these amazing characters.

I began to experiment with re-writing these oral legends and creating an environment for them that was modern. I rewrote them all: the Llorona, the Cucuy, El Guapo Extranjero, Bailando con un Fantasma. But the one that struck a chord with me was always the Lechusa.

The Lechusa , a powerful female entity, was only trying to keep her own sense of balance while actively finding ways to strike fear in the very culture who cast her aside. It was more than just a witch who could shapeshift: she was often just as cruel as the owl inside her.

I wanted very much for my main character and the Lechusa to have that deep protagonist and antagonist arc.

What would cause the Lechusa to steal children and harass others?

Could she be summoned?

I wanted to know the why behind the tales. I also didn’t just want to make it modern but I wanted to create an entirely different world filled with people that had powers (curanderas) fighting against the Lechusa.

It became an obsession really, creating these two characters, one a young girl and the other the Lechusa. I always knew that whenever I wrote about my characters I would set them in the only place that I knew.

South Texas.

Texas is full of towns isolated from each other. I wanted to bring that sense of isolation to these stories. It is still a place where the dark haunts us. These stories are whispered even after all these years, manifesting the dark we hold within ourselves.

Sometimes, I feel it is the essence of a culture dying.

It isn’t enough to just tell the story but to reinvent it. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Philadelphia Deferred Action Network upcoming informational sessions

DACA information and screening session hosted by the Korean Community Development Services Center on Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013  from 6-8pm. Located at Free Library of Philadelphia, Greater Olney Branch, 5501 N. 5th Street (5th and Tabor) Philadelphia, PA. Registration is necessary.  For more information, or to register, contact Stephanie at 267-331-9091 or stephanie(at)northfifth(dot)org.  The information and services provided at this clinic will be in Korean, Spanish and Haitian Creole.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

My schedule at Arisia Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention in Boston Jan. 18 - 21

I'm less than a week and a couple of train rides away from landing in Boston for my first experience of Arisia, a Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention that appears to have something of interest for just about everyone — from otaku to costumer.

I'm delighted that I'll be participating in a number of panels with some absolutely amazing people:

Friday at 8:30 p.m. I'm the moderator for Species as a Metaphor for Race (Avatar, District 9, and even Star Trek are among relatively recent SF films that have offered us aliens who are arguably standing in for real races or ethnic groups. How does SF film handle racial issues? Is it a way of avoiding painful topics or a way of addressing them by other means?) Panelists include James Zavaglia, Catt Kingsgrave-Ernstein, Eric Zuckerman, and Andrea Hairston.

Friday at 10 p.m. I'm on the panel for Papi Chulo to Papi Cthulu - Latinos/as in SFF  (An examination of the limits —and limited — depictions of Latino and Latina people in SF/F. We'll look at roles and characters in movies, TV shows, and books with a special — hopeful or critical — emphasis on Latino/as as written and directed by Latino/as in SF/F) moderated by Daniel José Older, whose book Salsa Nocturna (from Crossed Genres Publications) has gotten fantastic reviews since its publication in July 2012. My co-panelists are Jaime Garmendia and Julia Rios.

Saturday at 11:30 a.m. I'm on the panel for Sex, SF/F, & Racial Stereotypes (A discussion of the ways in which people of color are depicted in SF/F, and the sexual stereotypes that are often included in those characters. Is it really diversity when all you've included is a token character rife with harmful stereotypes? We will also discuss the roots of these tropes and why they're so popular) moderated by Mikki Kendall, with co-panelists Brandon Easton, Andrea Hairston and Tananarive Due.

Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Booksigning along with Adrianne Brennan and JoSelle Vanderhooft.

Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Reading. Robert V.S. Redick, Forest Handford and I will be reading from our work. Don't know yet what order, or what anyone else is reading. I'm reading from INK, of course. ;)

Sunday at 10 a.m. I'm on the panel for Contemporary Fantasy outside the City Limits (There's epic, or secondary-world, fantasy, and then there's urban fantasy, right? Well, what about contemporary fantasy outside the city? There's a growing strain of excellent rural fantasy, but has fantasy touched suburbs or small towns? Come discuss the best contemporary fantasy outside the city limits!) moderated by Vikki Ciaffone, with co-panelists Inanna Arthen, Trisha Wooldridge and Gail Z. Martin.

Sunday at 5:30 p.m. I'm on the panel for Avoiding Culturefail (How can writers best avoid creating simplistic or hurtful imaginary cultures? How can you portray real world cultures — and fictional cultures derived from them — without resorting to stereotypes? Is doing research enough? Where do you start?) moderated by Woodrow "asim" Hill, with co-panelists Daniel José Older and Vylar Kaftan.

Sunday at 7 p.m.  I'm on the panel for Race and Identity in SF/F (Does genre literature have tools and tropes uniquely suited to complex discussions about race and identity? How can authors create racially diverse characters while avoiding tokenism and stereotypes? Is a "multicultural" future enough? Is the very notion of a post-racial society hopelessly naive?) moderated by Kiini Ibura Salaam, with co-panelists Brandon Easton, Daniel José Older and Dash.

Monday at 10 a.m. I'll be moderating the panel for Caught in the Slipstream: Fiction between Genres (An increasing number of works don't seem to fit comfortably within genre boundaries—stories that use science fiction, fantasy, or horror tropes in combination or as an unusual aspect to otherwise non-speculative fiction. This is a discussion of crossover and interstitial fiction that points out the best of what's out there, why each piece succeeds, and how it expands the horizons of readers) Panelists include Daniel José Older, David Sklar, David Shaw and Daniel Rabuzzi.

In between I plan to be at more panels and the launch of Crossed Genres' anthology Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction which includes my short story "Ember." I suspect I'll be physically exhausted but intellectually energized when I get back to Philadelphia Monday night.

* * *
Two stray, INK related notes:'s Angela Lang wrote a lovely piece about me titled "Keyword Hope: Author, Blogger and Immigration Advocate Sabrina Vourvoulias." You can read it by clicking here.

In its sixth year of promoting diverse, compelling Latina and Latino authors, the national organization Las Comadres Para Las Americas has released the first three selections of the 2013 Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club. The first Books of the Month and events are:
January 28 teleconference for Have You Seen Marie?, Sandra Cisneros (Random House/Knopf) and conversation with Maria Antonietta Berriozabal, Maria, Daughter of Immigrants (Wings Press)
February: 8 Ways to Say “I Love My Life,” edited by Sylvia Mendoza (Arte Publico) and conversation with Annie Mary Perez, Clay Hills and Mud Pies (Floricanto Press)
March: Ink, Sabrina Vourvoulias (Crossed Genres Publications) and Manuel Gonzales, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories (Penguin/Riverhead)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Ink and La Gorda and the City of Silver are eligible for Hugo, Nebula awards

People in the SFF world are starting to talk about Hugos and Nebulas - the big awards where speculative fiction is concerned. As it happens, I'm not eligible to nominate or vote in either (having just made my first pro rate sale recently) but I do have two works that are eligible to be voted in and on.

If you are a SFWA or WorldCon eligible voter please consider voting for my novel INK (published by Crossed Genres Publications in October 2012)  in the best novel category, and for my short story "La Gorda and the City of Silver" (which appeared in the anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land in February 2012) in the best short story category.

Neither of them is available to read online beyond Ink's "Look inside" feature on Amazon, but the Los Angeles Review of Books reviewed it on Dec. 27 (click here to read); as for "La Gorda and the City of Silver," if you'd like a copy of the short story to read before you cast your vote, email me at svourvoulias (at) yahoo (dot) com and let me know so I can send you one.

Yes, I absolutely know there is only the remotest of chances my work will be looked at seriously in these categories given the amount of competition out there, but that Latina hope-and-stubborness mix is kicking in, so here you have it.

If you can, please vote.

Link to Hugo awards:
Link to Nebula awards: