Monday, December 29, 2014

The 2014 story of the year: Immigration

In 2014, for a Latino news media organization — and particularly one in the Philadelphia area — there could be no more significant news story, or collective of stories, than immigration.

In January of 2014, President Obama’s new secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, took over the department which had long incurred the wrath of immigration reform advocates and activists thanks to an unprecedented deportation rate that split up families and disproportionally impacted longtime residents with no criminal backgrounds. Early in March Johnson was charged with reviewing the administration’s deportation policies.

Also in March, after an uncomfortable White House meeting between immigration advocates and the President, in which Obama famously “chided” advocates for their criticism of his administration’s policies, the venerable National Council of la Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, followed the lead of more activist organizations and publicly named President Barack Obama the "deporter in chief.” Obama and some organizations with strong ties to the Democratic party tried to push back by redirecting that “title” to Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, but they were largely unsuccessful in diverting the mounting frustration directed specifically at the administration.

In April, in Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order saying that local police would no longer cooperate with ICE in holding those suspected of being undocumented immigrants without a warrant to do so....

Read the rest of this editorial here, at AL DÍA News, which you should be reading regularly anyway ;)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The #Nebula eligibility cumbia

I've written already about the SFF short stories and novelettes written by others that I think are fantastic and deserve to be nominated for Nebulas, Hugos, any other awards you can think of ... if you missed that post, read it here. When I wrote it, I couldn't remember the title of a wonderful story by Kai Ashante Wilson, "The Devil in America," but it definitely belongs on my list.

As it happens, three of my own short stories were published this year and are eligible for Nebulas/Hugos/what-have-yous. If you've read them, and liked them, please consider including them on your list of nominations:

• "The Dance of the White Demons," in the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History

• "The Bar at the End of the World," in the anthology The Many Tortures of Anthony Cardno

• "Skin in the Game," which was just published last Wednesday at

No matter what ends up on the ballot, having a long list of good stories to read is a victory for all of us, and worth a celebratory dance.

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: