The Advice Checklist

Clippy-Advice

This rant list has been brought to you by a few comments on this blog post, and by observations about the internet in general. Before jumping in to immediately offer advice on all the things, please consider asking yourself the following questions. Thank you.

And yeah, I get the potential irony of giving advice about asking questions before giving advice. I also think there’s a huge difference between sharing my thoughts in a blog post and jumping into other conversations to tell an individual what you think they should do.

Did this person ask for advice?

Hint: Posting about something on the internet is not the same as asking for advice. Requests for advice usually involve phrases like “What do you think I should do?” or “I need advice.”

Do you think your advice is something this person hasn’t already heard?

Hint: I’ve been diabetic for 16 years. If you’re neither diabetic nor a doctor, I probably know more about my disease than you do. I’ve read the books, heard the advice, followed the online discussions, talked to the doctors, and so on. On a similar note, someone who’s overweight has probably already heard your advice to exercise more. Someone with depression has already heard your advice to “just think positive!”

Do you know enough about this person’s situation to give useful advice?

Hint: Telling someone with financial problems to get rid of their credit cards isn’t going to cut it if they’re currently paying legal fees following a divorce, are underwater in their mortgage, and just got laid off from work.

Are you more concerned with helping or with fixing the person so they’ll stop making you uncomfortable?

Hint: People talk about their problems for a range of reasons. To vent, to process their own feelings, to connect with others and know they’re not alone… If you genuinely want to help, great—but in many cases, giving advice isn’t the way to do that.

Are you more concerned with helping or with looking clever? Are you willing to be told your advice is unwanted?

Hint: If the person in question says they’re not interested in your advice and you respond by getting huffy or defensive or going Full Asshole, then this isn’t about the other person. This is about you and your ego. Take your ego out for ice cream, and stop adding to other people’s problems.

Are you sharing what worked for you or telling the person what they should do?

Hint: There’s a difference between “This is something that helped me,” “This is something you might try,” and “This is what you should do.” For me personally, the first option is easier to hear than the second, and the third usually just pisses me off. But also be prepared to hear that the person doesn’t want your advice, no matter how you phrase it.

Do you know what “giving advice” looks like?

Hint: I wouldn’t have thought this one was necessary. Then I got the commenter responding to one of my posts on depression by telling me, “Listen to your inner self and make it your outer self” and insisting he wasn’t giving me advice. He was just “stating an opinion.” Dude, if you’re telling someone what to do, you’re giving advice. If you’re getting huffy about it just being your opinion, you may also be acting like an asshole.

Have you asked whether the person wants your advice?

Hint: If you’re not sure what someone wants, asking is a pretty safe way to go.

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I’m not saying you should never offer advice. A few days ago, I left a comment on someone’s Facebook post where she was questioning whether she should bother trying to get her book published. I offered my experience, disagreed with a writing-related myth she referenced, pointed to several options that had worked for myself or other writers, and acknowledged that my advice might or might not be helpful for her particular situation.

But I have zero patience these days for the useless, knee-jerk advice that comes from a place of ego and cluelessnes.

Aftermath of a Kindle Daily Deal

Earlier this month, Libriomancer [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] was a Kindle Daily Deal, meaning Amazon was selling the e-book for a mere $1.99. This was the first time one of my books had been selected for the KDD program, and I have to say, it was pretty sweet. But how much of an impact does that $1.99 day really have?

I’ll probably never have exact numbers. These sales will show up on my next royalty statement, which covers January – June of this year, but doesn’t break things down by day or week.

Here’s what I do know…

1. Once Amazon drops the price, most other online retailers follow suit. Soon after I posted about the Kindle Daily Deal, I realized the book was also on sale at Barnes & Noble. Then people mentioned Google Play and iBooks. They all seem to monitor and price-match, which means the book was on sale pretty much across the board…at least in the U.S. Alas, Europe and most other non-U.S. ebook sellers didn’t get in on the action.

2. Libriomancer was, at least for one day, outselling Fifty Shades of Grey.

Libriomancer vs. Shades of Grey

3. We probably sold >1000 ebooks on Amazon alone. But wait, didn’t I just say I wouldn’t get numbers until my next royalty statement? Well, yes. But I do have the ability to pull up my Amazon affiliate account and see how many copies sold through that link. About 350 or so people bought Libriomancer through my site and links. My friend Howard Tayler (of Schlock Mercenary fame) was kind enough not only to mention the sale, but also to email me afterward and let me know he’d had close to 400 sales through his post. Given that Amazon was also marketing the book, and other folks were signal-boosting, I think 1000+ is a reasonable guess.

4. Apparently Libriomancer is a Sword & Sorcery book. This was news to me. But who am I to argue with this screencap?

Libriomancer #1

5. I have absolutely wonderful friends and fans. I was blown away by how many people signal-boosted the sale. Thank you all so much for the support and word-of-mouth.

6. I’m still addicted to checking my Amazon rankings. Most days, I’ve gotten to where I don’t need to check in to see if my sales rank has gone up or down, or if anyone’s left a new review, or whatever. But I was clicking Refresh all day to see what kind of impact the sale would have. At one point, Libriomancer was #1 in two different categories, and #16 among all paid Kindle books, which is pretty sweet.

Libriomancer Rank

This also put the book near the top of Amazon’s “Movers and Shakers” for the day:

Movers and Shakers

7. It boosts sales of other books in the series, too. Neither Codex Born nor Unbound saw the same level of sales, but the Amazon rank for both of those books ended up in the four-digit range, meaning sales were above-average for them as well. Probably not a huge number of sales, but definitely better than nothing! Hopefully there will be some longer-term sales too as people finish reading Libriomancer.

8. A few weeks later, I’ve got 24 new Amazon reviews for Libriomancer. I don’t know if those extra reviews will help to sell more books, but it’s nice to see, and it means at least some of the people who picked up the book also read and enjoyed it. Yay!

9. Amazon pushes and markets its KDD books. As one of my fellow authors put it, this is a situation where the author gets the benefits of Amazon’s market and advertising power. They promote their Kindle Daily Deals, and while I don’t know how much that helps, it’s certainly a significant boost.

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Thanks again to everyone who signal-boosted, and to all of the readers who shelled out $2 to try the book. I hope you enjoy it!

I’ll probably check back in later this year once I’ve seen royalty statements, and can compare this six-month window to prior royalty periods. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from other authors who’ve done the KDD thing. How did your experience compare to mine? Any additional insight or information you can share?

Depression

  • Depression lurks in the corner.
  • Depression waits for an opening.
  • Depression is exhausting.
  • Depression has little patience for others, and even less for you.
  • Depression remembers every mistake, real and imagined.
  • Depression is afraid of change.
  • Depression is “fine.”
  • Depression teaches you to lie.
  • Depression is ashamed of you.
  • Depression is forgetful.
  • Depression doesn’t want you to go out tonight.
  • Depression thinks you deserve it.
  • Depression tells you not to talk about it.
  • Depression is abusive.
  • Depression is seductive.
  • Depression disguises itself.
  • Depression is always tired.
  • Depression thinks you’re weak.
  • Depression wants you to read the comments.
  • Depression doesn’t care about the good things that happened yesterday.
  • Depression expects you to fail.
  • Depression doesn’t believe things will get better.
  • Depression is overwhelmed.
  • Depression wants you to think you’re the only one.
  • Depression knows you more intimately than any lover.
  • Depression is a glutton, and depression can’t stand the thought of food.
  • Depression demands perfection.
  • Depression undermines success, and magnifies failure.
  • Depression is comfortable.
  • Depression is a bully.
  • Depression lies.

Alien of Extraordinary Ability? Migration in SFF and in my Life – Bogi Takács

As we get to the last few of these guest blog posts, I’m trying to look ahead to the process of pulling everything together for Invisible 2. Like last year, my plan is to do an electronic anthology, and to donate any profits to a relevant cause (which I’ll be discussing with contributors.) The anthology will probably have the same $2.99 price point. I don’t have a release date yet, but I’ll share more info as things progress.

For today, I’m happy to welcome Bogi Takács to the blog to talk about migration/migrants in SFF, and in eir life. It’s educational and eye-opening, to say the least.


I’m an autistic trans person from a non-Western country where I also belong to an ethnic minority. I could write about many, many intersections, and how my lived experience is or is not represented in SF. Yet for this essay I chose to talk about something people might not consider about me: the experience of being a migrant.

Before we begin, a terminological note: I really do prefer the term “migrants” to “immigrants”. First, “immigrants” assumes that your destination is more important than your origin. (It is, not surprisingly, common in US-centric discourse.) Second, “immigrant” often has a precise legal definition that many migrants are literally not able to claim.

With that in mind, people migrate all the time: they immigrate, from one perspective, they emigrate, from another. I’ve lived in Hungary (where I was born), in Austria, in Norway, and I’ve recently moved to the United States. I have experienced a bewildering range of reactions and treatment, some of which I would not even describe here, because I developed quite an amount of self-censorship in the process.

As a migrant academic, I often find myself in curious legal categories where I can’t even claim the legal protections afforded to people with immigrant status, with many if not most of the downsides. Right now, I cannot earn any money outside campus – I even had to turn down the $10 Jim offered to include this essay in Invisible 2.

On the online SFF scene, I am usually seen as the ethnic, religious, gender, sexual minority person – take your pick! People don’t see me as a migrant, and yet this is possibly what defines my day to day experience the most. I now live in a small liberal town where I can literally go around being draped in a Pride flag and random strangers will cheer me on. (For the record, I tried this. I also tried this in Hungary. DO NOT TRY THIS IN HUNGARY.) People are sometimes perplexed by my gender, but unlike in my country of origin, I haven’t experienced physical violence. Americans also have trouble believing that I have ever been the target of physically violent racism, because they categorize and treat me as white.

Warning: self-exoticization follows!

By contrast, what I experience all the time is being the strange foreigner [sic], being from somewhere else with exotic customs [sic] – and often not being taken at face value when I talk of my experience having lived there. I have a weird accent [sic]. (Actually I have a “weird accent” in any language due to being autistic, but most Americans don’t know this.)

People try to be nice: “I have been to your country as a tourist, it’s such an amazing place!” …Umm, yeah, guess why I’m not there.

To see where migration fits into my experience of SFF in particular, and why I feel invisible as a migrant, we need to start quite far, both in space and in time. As a multiply marginalized person, I discovered thanks to the Vienna Public Library that there was a vast amount of literature beyond the Western literary canon that really resonated with me. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o's work – both fiction and nonfiction – in particular was eye-opening to me, especially Matigari and Decolonising the Mind. I discovered the solidarity of the marginalized that had up till that moment been nothing more than a dated Communist slogan from my childhood.

This was before I got summarily thrown out of the Vienna Public Library and my account cancelled because as a migrant I didn’t have just the right legal document! (Even though I was in Austria perfectly legally.) …My life was changed regardless.

I had been a voracious SFF reader since early childhood – my parents were both agricultural engineers at that time and heavily into SFF. In Hungary this is not a particularly subcultural activity, SFF is much more a part of mainstream literature and a lot of people read SFF who would not be considered part of core fandom in the US. The definitive Hungarian print SFF magazine, Galaktika, has a print circulation similar to the big three print American SFF magazines, while Hungary has a population half the size of the New York City metropolitan area!

As a child I read many, many Soviet and other Eastern bloc SF works where people of different cultures and races worked together – this was a trope of Communist propaganda, the “friendship of the peoples” (népek barátsága in Hungarian, druzhba narodov in Russian). But these works were written by ethnic majority people, and from a position of power – in the case of ethnic Russian authors, even a position of colonizing power.

The friendship of the peoples was, in practice, very limited. It could not include Jews. It could not include Romani or Beás people. It could not include queer people. Trans people could only be aliens – oddly, they could be aliens. Religious people were obviously out – religion was the opiate of the peoples, as Marx had put.

When I started to read in English, what could I obtain in Hungary? Novels from the Asimov-Bradbury-Clarke triumvirate, some William Gibson, and precious little else… basically the same American authors that I could already read in Hungarian translation. While I greatly admired Bradbury, his semi-autobiographic Dandelion Wine was so different from my own childhood experience that I literally cried from frustration. (Gibson was different, but that’s a topic for another time.) I came to understand why Dandelion Wine was never published in Hungary!

So when I discovered online short SFF in English, I was amazed. There were so many people, from all over the world, who were writing from their own perspective, about their own experience, and I could obtain vast amounts of this stuff free of charge! I could actually talk to the authors and they responded! At the risk of sounding trite: this was, in effect, the friendship of the peoples.

Yet almost immediately thereafter I discovered a curious gap: a lot of the American SFF discourse, even very “progressive” and left-wing discourse, seemed to ignore that migrants existed. Again, the friendship of the peoples didn’t seem to extend very far… For instance, I was baffled when Ekaterina Sedia was dismissed by Wiscon organizers who tried to shoehorn the American immigrant experience into, at best, an “ESL workshop”. (Because professionally published writers like her need an ESL workshop – how patronizing is that?)

How to Live on Other PlanetsThe first anthology of immigration-themed SFF, How to Live on Other Planets (ed. Joanne Merriam) is coming out just now, and it’s reprints-only and had a royalties-only payrate. (Not that I can get paid, anyway!) Despite that, the lineup is stellar, because many, many writers are migrants themselves, or the children of migrants, and are eager for their words being heard. It is also striking that a lot of the best migrant writing seems to come from semi-pro SFF or literary fiction markets, not the core pro SFF venues.

Full disclosure: I have a poem in How to Live on Other Planets. It’s about my country of origin, so might be a bit out of place, but it does examine Hungary from the PoV of an outsider – an alien.

I am, right now, literally an alien – probably the most annoying kind, the “non-resident alien”. (This is the actual legal term.) I have to pay taxes, yet I cannot vote.

For further American legal terms to baffle and entertain, I also recommend you look up “alien of extraordinary ability”. I’m not an alien of extraordinary ability. I’m just a quirky and mild-mannered everyday person who sometimes writes poetry. I’m also very loud and paste myself all over the internet, so if I remain invisible, that’s not on me.

Part of my loudness consists of providing story recommendations to every passerby on Twitter who just as much asks an idle question. Therefore, I close this essay with an amount of free, online SFF story recommendations on the theme of migration!


Bogi Takács is a neutrally gendered Hungarian Jewish person who’s recently moved to the US. E works in a lab and writes speculative fiction and poetry in eir spare time. Eir writing has been published in venues like Strange Horizons, Apex, Scigentasy, GigaNotoSaurus and other places. You can follow em on Twitter, where e tweets as @bogiperson, with semi-daily recommendations of #diversestories and #diversepoems that are regularly collected on eir website.

Bogi Takács

Photo by Rose Lemberg

Not Your Mystical Indian – Jessica McDonald

I remember being a child and getting bags full of plastic Cowboys and Indians–similar to green plastic soldiers, but these came in all colors. The Indians all had bows and arrows and feathered headdresses and buckskins. I never thought much about it, but looking back, my sense was that Cowboys and Indians were something out of history. Almost a mythical thing, from hundreds of years ago.

In Boy Scouts, I was a member of the Order of the Arrow. It was an honor to be voted into this group by my troop, and I remember thinking how cool the Native American lore and ceremonies were. I spent several years as a part of our ceremonies team. Eventually, I remember starting to feel uncomfortable, and asking if we weren’t being disrespectful. I was told that our lodge had worked to research historically accurate regalia, and that we’d worked with local tribes to make sure we were being respectful. At the time, I was satisfied. Looking back, I find it interesting that we never actually spoke to or interacted with anyone with native heritage during our time in OA.

My thanks to Jessica McDonald for sharing her story and perspective here. There’s so much here and in the other guest posts that I wish I’d learned as a kid…


In 1889, the US government opened up Indian Territory for white settlers in an event called the Oklahoma Land Rush. Fifty thousand settlers homesteaded on over two million acres of Unassigned Lands. Unassigned, of course, meant appropriated from Native tribes.

A hundred years after the Land Rush, I was a second grader at Carney Elementary School in central Oklahoma. Carney is the kind of town that small doesn’t begin to describe. We didn’t even have a stoplight to brag about. Farms, baseball, and ubiquitous red soil were about the extent of Carney. For the Land Rush celebration, my school did a re-enactment. White kids played settlers, triumphantly surging over the territory line to claim their homestead—a mark of prosperity and hope.

Native kids played dead Indians, lying prone on the ground.

I stood there, unsure of what to do. You see, I’m mixed race—Cherokee and white. I didn’t know where to go. My teacher asked me which side I’d like to be on.

I told her the settlers.

And as an eight-year-old, why wouldn’t I choose the settlers? They were pioneers, exploring and shaping history. Of course I wanted to be part of the victors. Of course I wanted to be white. I knew my family, but when I looked to the culture around me, the media I consumed, all my heroes were white (and male). That was my reference point for greatness.

I’m way past second grade now, but not much as changed. Sci-fi and fantasy—still my favorite genres—seldom offer more than tropes for Native characters. Let’s take a look at James Cameron’s Avatar. Set on a futuristic death planet where everyone is still inexplicably white, the Na’vi are clearly based on indigenous people and presented as the Noble Savage. They are held up as the ideal, “pure”, and quite literally connected to their planet. And yet, it takes a white dreamwalker to save them, because at the end of the day, they are still savages; they do not possess the sophistication to fight the invaders alone.

The weird Western novella Sheep’s Clothing by Elizabeth Einspanier utilizes another trope—the Mystical Indian. Half-Indian character Wolf Cowrie is a gunslinger and half-skinwalker that uses his shamanistic powers to fight vampires. The problem with this is that it reduces Native characters to one (false) aspect: their unequivocal badassed-ness, a nature derived from a history filled with war and mysterious magical abilities.

Westerns used the Drunk Indian and Red Devil tropes, but sci-fi and fantasy utilize stereotypes like the Noble Savage and Mystical Indian in a way that’s arguably worse. These tropes, which simultaneously glorify and erase Native identity, are what’s called positive discrimination, and it’s more insidious precisely because, on its face, it appears flattering. “Look at how honorable and incredible these Natives are! We should strive to be more like them.” Even Star Trek fell into this—in the episode “The Paradise Syndrome,” Kirk, Spock, and McCoy encounter an Earth-like planet… with Native people that are not only blends of completely different tribes, but also primitive and uncivilized, despite living in the twenty-third century. Oh, but these Natives are definitely in harmony with nature, and are romanticized for it.

All this does is add to the chasm of otherness; these tropes don’t seek to understand or accurately portray indigenous people, but only use us as one-dimensional morality points or exciting badasses. Sometimes we get to stretch the limits, and we’re hypersexualized instead (Tiger Lily, Pocahontas, any Indian Princess trope).

The proof is in the costuming. Rarely do we see even “positive” portrayals of Natives in anything other than buckskins, beads, and feathers. We are homogenized to the point that the Plains tribes, with headdresses and horsemanship, are the representatives of all indigenous people. Never mind that Algonquin tribes, who lived in lands dominated by forests, had no use for horses. Never mind that the Salish peoples wore outfits woven from cedar and spruce instead of long, feathered accouterments.

A Cree friend of mine encountered a woman in a critique group who had a Shawnee character that was a horse whisperer. When my friend pushed her on why this character was so connected to horses, the (white) woman responded that it was “in his heritage.” Because being Native clearly means you speak horse.

My brother has been asked if he can ride horses without a saddle and if he smokes peyote. During a particularly asinine line of questioning about whether he lived in “modern” accommodations, he shot back, “Yes, because I live in 2014, not 1865.” His tipi has a mortgage, folks.

I’ve read work by otherwise intelligent, compassionate authors who twist revered Native spirits into European-based demons bent on destruction just to fill a plot point and without any regard for the religious traditions behind those spirits.

I don’t speak to animals. I kill plants just by looking at them, and I don’t feel profoundly connected to the earth. I can’t tell the future and I don’t have some sort of sixth sense about otherworldly things. I sure as hell don’t speak in broken English. Relatable Native characters in sci-fi and fantasy are few in far between. Mostly, I see variations on tropey themes. What’s most painful about this in sci-fi and fantasy is that these are genres about the possible. SF/F is supposed to be the genre where the marginalized are heard. We get worlds where magic is real, where we travel to far-away galaxies, where miracles happen. But not where indigenous peoples can escape their stereotype boxes.

And why not? Sci-fi and fantasy are written by people in today’s world, and what we have today is a major football team using a racial slur as their name. We have white University of North Dakota students proudly proclaiming that they are “Siouxper Drunk”; Injun Joe from Tom Sawyer; Disney’s Pocahontas and Peter Pan; NDNs (played by Italian Americans) crying over pollution.

Chief Man-of-Bats, from DC Comics

Chief Man-of-Bats, from DC Comics

We have NDN heroes that are literally red.

To add insult to injury, even the problematic Native roles in film and TV were largely portrayed by white people. It wasn’t until 1998 with Smoke Signals that we got the first feature-length film by Natives. And yet, in 2013, we still had Johnny Depp playing Tonto and The Lone Ranger winning an Oscar for costuming based on a painting that was itself based on stereotypes. We still have white washing of Tiger Lily.

If you’re thinking, hey, man, it’s just comic books and movies, it’s not like it’s real life—consider the impact this has on young Native and mixed-race kids. Consider why I wanted to be on the white side as a child. I had no reference for modern Natives. I had no role models, no fictional characters to inspire me. All I had were people in revealing buckskins with tomahawks and bows.

Studies show that when Native kids see these harmful stereotypes, their self-esteem suffers, along with their belief in community and their own ability to achieve great things. There’s a danger when you don’t see yourself represented in your culture’s art; there’s an even greater danger when your only representation is fraught with negative messaging and teaches you that you do not belong in this world. You’re a thing of the past, a ghost, a myth.

We’ve got a few reasons to hope the tide is changing. Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series and Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series turn the Mystical Indian trope on its head, with nuanced and dynamic Native heroines. Adam Beach, a Saulteaux actor famous for his roles in Smoke Signals, Flags of Our Fathers, and Windtalkers, refuses parts that perpetuate these stereotypes, and his work offers hope for better representation. Lakota rapper Frank Waln creates music that speaks to growing up Native, and advocates for indigenous voices to be heard. Last year, the Senate confirmed Diane Humetewa as the nation’s first Native American woman federal judge.

This year, we even have two sci-fi films that are breaking out of the Native trope mold. Sixth World, written and directed by Navajo woman Nanobah Becker, is based on the Navajo creation story. Legends of the Sky is written and directed by a white man, but is set in the Navajo Nation and features a mostly Native cast.

It’s not nearly enough, but it’s sure as hell better than playing dead on the ground.


Jessica McDonald lives in Denver and is a writer, technophile, gamer, and all-round geek. She serves as the marketing director for SparkFun Electronics in Boulder. She earned her Master’s degree from the University of Denver and holds undergraduate degrees from The Pennsylvania State University, and has worked for everything from political campaigns to game design companies. She has published original research on online user behavior, and writes about marketing, technology, women in STEM, and diversity in media. Her background in the technology and defense industries makes her an insightful critic of gender representation in fiction, film, video games, and comics. Growing up looking white but with Cherokee heritage, she also advocates for representation of people of color and mixed-race characters. Jessica has presented at SXSW Interactive, Shenzhen Maker Faire, American Public Health Association’s national conference, and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. She is the author of the urban fantasy novel BORN TO BE MAGIC and currently is writing a YA novel based on Navajo mythology. Find her on Twitter or on her website.

Jessica McDonald

Lost in the Margins – Sarah Chorn

Sarah Chorn is the host of the Special Needs in Strange Worlds column at SF Signal, and has become an important voice in the conversation about disability in genre. If you’ve been appreciating these guest blog posts, you should check out her column as well, where she’s hosted a wide range of authors talking about disability.


My brother Rob has a condition called Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum, as well as spina bifida. His life has been one very, very long struggle against himself, the world that doesn’t understand him, and sometimes his own family. Rob functions a lot like a person with Asperger’s. His spina bifida has relegated him to a wheelchair. Currently, due to seizures, he can’t read anymore.

Rob was the person who really got me into the genre. When I was a horrible teenager, it was Rob who got me to read The Wheel of Time, Dragonlance, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and A Song of Ice and Fire. It was Rob who traded books with me, and spent hours talking to me about worlds, plots and characters.

We can all blame my brother for my enthusiasm for this genre.

It was also Rob who taught me that reading is more than just a hobby. For him, it’s a way for others to understand how he lives and interprets the world around him. It is also a way for him to sort of take a vacation from his body, and his problems for a time. Reading wasn’t just fun, but an exercise and an education for him, and for me.

It is important to remember that books aren’t just pretty words strung together in an entertaining fashion. They are windows into souls, and looking glasses into the world around us. These books tell stories about lives and conditions that we might not be able to understand or experience on our own. They educate us, teach us tolerance, aggravate us, anger us, enflame us. Books make us feel.

Special Needs in Strange Worlds, my column on SF Signal highlighting the importance of disabilities in the genre, has just gone to prove to me how important it is for everyone to have a voice, and a spot at the genre table. In so many ways, my column has turned out to be the highlight of my time in the genre. I get to talk to giants each week. I get email from people who humble and profoundly touch me, from the blind woman who uses computer software to keep up with my column, to the gentleman who spends so much time and effort advocating for the disabled and has taught me so much.

The world is full of magnificent people, and I’m beyond fortunate that I get to interact with some of them.

On the other hand, it breaks my heart to realize that in so many ways, the disabled are still a vastly overlooked part of the genre community, with hardly any visibility, and very few people actively working to get disabled voices heard. In matters of diversity in the genre, very rarely do the disabled get mentioned.

There is hope, however. Some authors have been more than willing to openly talk about their own depression, disabilities, or their efforts writing realistic and honest characters that face complicated emotional, physical, and/or mental struggles, and so much more. It’s a small light on a topic that deserves so much more than I’ll ever be able to do for it, but it’s something. The willingness for authors to open up about these sensitive topics has released a flood of readers and other authors who understand, sympathize, and empathize. The conversation is starting. It’s slow, but steady, and largely happening due to the bravery of authors who are willing to open up to the internet about personal matters.

And people are listening.

A few weeks ago I got to be part of my (very first) convention panel, called Disabilities in Genre Fiction. I wasn’t expecting much of a turnout (I have an inferiority complex), and was absolutely astounded when I saw that every seat in the room was full. The panel was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had. It was wonderful to be able to actually talk about the issues and people I have been introduced to in my time working with the special needs community.

It was even more touching to hear the stories that so many shared, from the woman whose daughter has cerebral palsy, to the blind man who talked to me after about how hard it is for him to find books that are accessible to his needs, and the gentleman who came up to me with tears in his eyes, clasped my hands, and said, “don’t ever stop.” It was profoundly moving to realize that this was a room full of strangers all coming together to support something that means so very much to me.

It gave me real, profound hope that the disabled, while currently rather overlooked in the genre community, won’t always remain that way. There are giants all around us, inspirational individuals who are some of the strongest people I have ever met. These individuals show what strength of heart really is, and have taught me how to not just love the books I read, but appreciate the lessons and diversity that can be found in them.

Books aren’t just words on pages. They are lives, lessons, mysteries and passions unfolding before us.

My brother, Rob, told me years ago, “I wish people would realize that someone like me can be a hero, too.” That quote is the single reason why I started my column, and that’s a sentiment I will never forget. Heroes are all around us, often silent, lost in the margins—individuals with souls that shine with fire and willpowers of steel. These are the people who deserve to be in the books we read, and the books we write. They deserve to be part of our diversity discussions, and our fight for equality in the genre.


Sarah Chorn has been a compulsive reader her whole life. She’s a freelance writer and editor, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, three-time cancer survivor, and mom to one rambunctious toddler. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never ending pile of speculative fiction books.

You can find her on SF Signal for her weekly column Special Needs in Strange Worlds, or say hi on Twitter, Facebook, or her website Bookworm Blues.

Sarah Chorn

Text, Subtext, and Pieced-Together Lives – Angelia Sparrow

Angelia Sparrow has done something in this essay I wouldn’t have thought possible — she made me want to go back and rewatch X-Men 3.

As I look ahead to the last batch of guest posts, I’m trying to decide whether to take another break before posting the rest. There’s a lot to process and think about in these things … what do you think?


Once upon a time—all the best stories start that way—once upon a time, there were no gay people on TV, except Billy Crystal on “Soap,” and certainly no lesbians. I joke that lesbians weren’t invented until the 1990s, and for all our pop-culture representation, we might as well not have been.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s, not a great time to be gay to start with. The world was starting to acknowledge we were real, but the plague lay sore upon the land, and “Unclean” was not an atypical reaction. Pastors were preaching against gay people with the same vigor they had recently discovered for abortion after school segregation became a toxic issue with their congregations.

I’m a middle-aged married byke now, with four kids, two of whom are bisexual. I had no clue when I was six why I wanted to be Batgirl, other than the motorcycle and long red hair and librarian and apartment of her own. Lesbians weren’t even mentioned, except Billie Jean King, and I couldn’t be an athlete. Add in a lot of the aforementioned bad religion, and my generation learned to hide.

My daughters got subtext and the occasional relationship, but they still didn’t see much of themselves in media. Willow and Tara on “Buffy” were one of the first lesbian couples on TV, and certainly the first we watched with the kids. Seeing my approval of that relationship helped my oldest daughter, Victoria, come out to me in 2005. But Willow went from “I’m with Oz” straight to “I’m with Tara” gay without even acknowledging the possibility of bisexuality. And that hurt. It felt like a glaring omission, a negation.

Victoria went through the same media I had, twenty years before. And the problem movies and “dead in the third reel” stuff depressed her and bored her. Xena and Gabrielle were the only characters she saw having relationships with both men and women. She wanted to know if she was going to have to die young.

About this time, George Takei came out. Victoria had a huge Sulu crush to start with, and seeing him as an old man, older than her grandfather, and knowing he was gay, reassured her she did not have to die before thirty. We started looking for other, older media figures who were out, and found a few. But again, almost all were gay. Bisexuality was not an obvious thing, and something very few admitted to.

My youngest, Olivia, saw subtext before she could read. She loved Smallville and would lie on my tummy on the couch and watch it. We watched season 3, episode 2, when Lex gives the deed to the Kent farm over. Her eyes got big and she watched Clark and Lex, and then announced, “Clark love him, Mommy!”

In 2006, we saw X-Men 3. The movie gets a lot of scorn, but for us, it was a real turning point. Remember, this was the year after the Summer of Zach. We had joined with the local community to protest Love In Action, a reparative therapy center, because of Zach Stark, a teenager who had been forced into its program and left a list of the rules on his MySpace, exposing it. Our local movie critic called X3′s mutant cure “Love in Action in a syringe.” We had figured out a long time ago that the X-Men franchise wasn’t really about mutants. So we went. Victoria and I came from the movie with different takeaways, but we both saw exactly what was happening in the real world on the screen.

The cure. The ordinary humans fighting us (this was the same year eight states passed anti-marriage amendments). The radicalization of more marginalized factions. It was all there, with more explosions than necessary. We started getting more involved in the community. I volunteered at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Victoria became active in the local youth group. And my fundamentalist husband joined PFLAG.

Now, almost a decade later, we still piece together the existence of bisexuals in the margins of our media. There are gay characters in almost every genre, and they’re no longer limited to minstrelry or villainy. But bisexuals are rarer and almost always female. Irene Adler on the BBC Sherlock is presented as bisexual, Sarah Lance on Arrow. The very pansexual Jack Harkness, Brittany on Glee. They do, however, exist.

There are out media personalities, and some identify as bisexual. And this, too helps. My youngest, now in her teens, dates boys and girls alike. She listens to Lady Gaga, enjoys Misha Collins on Supernatural (the first out poly star), and knows they’re bisexual. Her media world is very different from mine, and hopefully a more welcoming one.


Angelia Sparrow is the queer pagan liberal that Pat Robertson warned you about. She has been writing professionally since 2004, when she sold her first short story, “Prey,” to Torquere Press’ Monsters anthology. Since then she has published a dozen novels, with everyone from Ellora’s Cave to Storm Moon Press, and over eighty short stories. She writes SF/F/H, often with a queer bent. 

Her work can be found at http://brooksandsparrow.com  and she can be found at valarltd on livejournal, Pintrest and Tumblr and Angelia Sparrow on facebook.

Angelia Sparrow

Breaking Mirrors – Diana Pho

I think Diana Pho’s post makes a good follow-up to Isabel Schechter’s post yesterday, though I’m having a little trouble getting the words right to explain why. (Low blood sugar incident last night means a very sleepy and brain-fuzzed Jim today.) Both Pho and Schechter talk about the difficulty they’ve had in finding themselves reflected in SF/F. Schechter described how important it was to finally find a good Puerto Rican character, and her fear and anger that Hollywood might take that away from her. Pho talks about finding herself by pulling different pieces from different stories.

It also ties in to some of what S. L. Huang said about intersectionality. I love the way these individual guest posts overlap and work together to (hopefully) build a deeper understanding…


Junot Diaz—rightly so—gets quoted often in the representation convo. One of his truth bombs stuck with me:

“You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all.”

But here’s another truth valid in my life: when I didn’t see myself in a mirror, I smashed it and saw myself in the pieces.

#

The libraries I frequented growing up sorted their children sections in alphabetical order. Often, I choose new authors based on the jacket cover. Two things on one particular cover caught my eye: a wolf pack and a girl who shared my brown almond-shaped eyes and olive skin. At nine-years old, I fell in love with Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.

Mind you, I’m not Native American. But Julie was the first time I ever saw anyone who even looked remotely like me on a book and she got to befriend wolves. How cool was that?

I wanted Julie to be my friend to bond over specific things. She had two names like me—her American name and her Native one, Miyax (I also had an American name and Vietnamese name). She survived the Arctic tundra (I had New England winters!). She learned how to cook caribou stew that her lupine friends regurgitated for her after their kills (my mom’s curries could be made from caribou meat if I ate with my eyes closed).

Julie of the Wolves led to a lifelong interest in wolves and Native American cultures. But it was through my later studies I learned how George, a white woman, had conflated Yupik and Inupiaq cultures and how she refused to correct her mistakes in later sequels. The book also contains a lot of negative portrayals of Native culture and blatant stereotypes. I understand now how damaging these aspects are to the Inquiaq community, especially since this Newberry Award-winning book is still widely read in schools today.

But back then I pocketed a mirror shard to treasure: it wasn’t weird to live between two cultures. I wasn’t the only one who had to explain aspects of my family life to my white friends or have them make assumptions about who I was because of where my parents came from. I could be Diana and Tâm just as she was Julie and Miyax.

#

A couple years later I picked up a team of new book friends: the Animorphs, which was also my introduction to sci-fi and to fandom.

Aximili-Esgarrouth-IsthillAs scary as being child soldier fighting a secret alien invasion was, I wished to be an Animorph. I knew exactly who I’d be like: Cassie, the black girl whose parents were vets and had a whole barn full of animals. She was the compassionate, sensitive one, the group’s moral compass; I saw my own personality in her. But she was only my second favorite; my first was Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill, the Andalite prince, the outsider from another world stuck on Earth.

Ax’s blatant missteps about American pop culture, his awkwardness, and his loneliness pulled at me viscerally. My first fanfics were about Ax and his honor-bound homeworld. My sister and I even drew a picture of Ax made of flexible wax sticks on our shared bedroom ceiling. Ax stayed there until my parents pulled it down last year when they were preparing to sell the house. At night, trotting among the glow-in-the-dark stars, Ax stood guard as I imagined stories about my alien friend, someone who could understand what it felt like not to fit into the rest of human society, even when he had the Andalite technology to look exactly like them.

Both of us had our human shells, Ax and I.

#

For one golden moment on American TV, I did see a character that surprised even me: Tina Nguyen from the PBS show Ghostwriter. She was the first Vietnamese girl I saw on TV that wasn’t a variety performer from one of my parents’ Paris by Night videocassettes or a barefoot villager running from/shooting at American soldiers in a sweltering jungle.

Her family’s story was not my family’s story. We had different hobbies (hers videography; mine writing and drawing), different home lives (she was from Brooklyn; her family owned a store; mine were suburban, my parents a nurse and an electrical engineer). She had a group of friends who all saw a ghost who traveled through the wires of the Internet and used the written word to communicate. Together, they solved mysteries around Brooklyn.

There were storylines that struck home. In one episode, Tina broke her mother’s favorite flower vase, and her mother was sad because those flowers reminded her of the village she left behind. Tina searched the city and found a branch of living blooms to give her in apology. I saw my own mother’s wistfulness and sadness in hers. But, like from all of the other characters I had corralled as a part of me, I took the pieces I needed. Seeing Tina there finally filled in that gap I knew I had been missing.

That was how I learned to survive; by seeing myself in the pieces I could, even if I didn’t exactly, see me. My list of favs I identified with one way or another grew over time. Demona from Gargoyles. Louis de Pointe du Lac of the Vampire Chronicles. Remus Lupin from Harry Potter. The loners and the outsiders. Bitter or resolute and loyal. Human to the core, despite the differences on the surface.

In the end, what did I do with these pieces? In one sense, I made a funhouse mirror to view myself—distorted, warped, imperfect, but nonetheless mine. On the other hand, funhouse mirrors are whole. A better word, perhaps, would be a mosaic. Or a stained glass window—one I needed that impacted my viewpoint of the world.

A common misconception about diverse representation is that its effects are, at best, liminal. Representation can only fit in the frameworks of “good” or “bad” examples. In reality, representation is more like constructing your fancy glass houses, then letting everyone else smash them apart and pick up bits to take home. Your art can easily cut others deeply, resulting in infection and scars. People may step around the broken fragments to protect themselves, or gather them carefully with padded gloves. And, on occasion, someone may pick out a shard from the dirt because it had sparkled like a jewel in their hand.

I want to see the landscape of science fiction and fantasy to become a city of reflections, blatant and elusive. I want so many examples that we can point to the variety and note the great and the terrible and the in-between without the fear of pointing out the fractures. The marginalized shouldn’t be feel like they are trapped inside the gilded frame of diversity nor should they be denied the ability of tell their own stories. Stories about the marginalized shouldn’t be lifted by the privileged to profit from that exposure, either.

The purpose of representation isn’t only about white, straight, cis folk relating to the “Other”. It is about me, a queer Asian-American woman, relating to you, who is black (and/or Muslim and/or trans and/or deaf and/or, and/or…). Representation should be a network of connections, not a single link between a minority exception and a standardized whole.

So let’s acknowledge what diverse storytelling actually is: building our own little stained-glass-mirrors out of other people’s stained-glass-mirrors. We hold up our respective mirrors between us. In that space glints refracted color and pure transparency and the glow of our faces—that is the impact of representation.


Diana M. Pho is an editor at Tor Books and blogs for Tor.com. She is also a published scholar, activist, performer, and general rabble-rouser. She is best-known for running Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning, US-based blog on multicultural steampunk under the moniker Ay-leen the Peacemaker. For several years, she has traveled the country as a professional convention speaker about social justice issues and fandom. Her most recent publications include the introduction to The Best of Spanish Steampunk, edited by James and Marian Womack and she has a forthcoming article in Like Clockwork, edited by Professors Brian Croxall and Rachel Bowser. You can follow her on Tumblr and Twitter.

Diana Pho

Photo by Rachael Shane