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Fantastic History #34: An Interview with J. Kathleen Cheney

Cath: Your body of work is a dream for historical fantasy readers! There’s so much of it, and in so many richly researched historical periods. What draws you to writing historical fantasy?

J: I think there’s a two-fold draw here. When I consider a time period/place, I am often entranced by the external look of that setting—the clothes, the technology, the culture. The second part happens once I start researching a place or time and discover it’s far more interesting than I’d imagined. I’ll run across an interesting tidbit here or there, and I’m off on another tangent that might be a completely different story.

Cath: Can we talk about the world of Hawk’s Folly in Iron Shoes? What’s the premise of the story? How do you continue the story in the sequel? Were there any challenges in negotiating the time frame change between the two books?

J: The initial premise of the story came to me—honestly—in a dream. I woke up and recalled it all, but immediately thought I would never be able to sell it because it’s a version of the ‘widow saves the farm’ trope. However, I loved the idea of purchasing a horse only to discover it wasn’t a horse at all, so I wrote the story anyway—Imogen Hawkes must win the big race at Saratoga Springs (1905) in order to keep her farm out of the hands of an unscrupulous neighbor. She has a plan, but things go awry, and she ends up relying on magic—which her mother always told her was bad—to help her win the day.

There have been two sequel novellas (Snow Comes to Hawk’s Folly—1908—and Snowfall—1909) and I’m working on a novel now (Snow Haven—1933). Although most things about farming and horses stay the same, the town/city of Saratoga Springs changes fairly profoundly between 1905 and 1933. Many of those changes concern horse-racing and gambling, including periods where betting wasn’t allowed at the tracks and gambling was forbidden in the town’s hotels. Those rules changed even between 1908 and 1909.

Whenever my own research failed I could contact the Public Library in Saratoga Springs, and the research librarian in the history room always helped me out. I stumped her only once—on that question of gambling rooms in the hotels, but later found the answer in a column in the New York Times. Turns out the town council of Saratoga Springs outlawed gambling completely in 1909, even in private homes!

Cath: I am a fan of the Golden City series, and I love books that reflect generations of family. I know the first novel came from a short story which appeared in Apex and Abyss. How did you build a novel from that short story?

J: Well, in true-to-myself fashion, I wrote the sequel before trying to convert the novella to a novel. I pitched that second novel (The Seat of Magic) to my eventual agent, but she could tell it was a sequel to something. However, I had already started fleshing out the novella “Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy”, intending to make it a novel. That process allowed me to start the story in the novel a couple of days earlier and expand more on the backgrounds of the main characters. Later in the process, my editor asked me to make a couple of additional changes that took it farther from the original novella, but overall I’m happy with the final product.

Cath: The Golden City has selkies and sereia in an alternative Portugal. How did you adapt these stories to the historical and specific culture of Portugal?

J: The sereia were the easier in that sirens are actually mentioned in Os Lusíadas, the 1572 epic poem by Luís Vaz de Camões about Vasco da Gama’s trip to India and back. On their return journey to Portugal, the Portuguese sailors are ‘rewarded’ by Venus when they land on an island, chase the local nymphs (ninfas), have sex with them, and then are treated to a great feast where a sereia (siren) sings their praises.

In my works, that first interaction with Portuguese sailors colors the sereia’s relationship with Portugal. The sereia have their own epic poem called The Rape of Amado, rape being both literal and figurative. Their interactions with their neighbors (I placed their islands not too far from the Azores) are tense, even given that many of them bear Portuguese blood (via either rape or through the handful of sailors who stayed), use their language, and in some places follow their religion (thanks to Catholic missionaries). The Venus-incited betrayal also broke their ties to the Greek gods, leaving a mostly-agnostic populace behind.

The selkies were another matter. I only knew I needed after I began writing. (OOPS!) Therefore I had to research seals in the Atlantic. There are few seals on the northern coasts of Portugal, so my selkies are more closely related to the Caribbean Monk Seal (now extinct). They don’t interact with humans as much save in their human form, so having a selkie slip in and out of ports (as Erdano does) isn’t problematic. Because they generally don’t live among humans, the only adaptation they make is learning the local language… if they feel like it. They’re a race that is easy to transport from one culture to another.

Cath: Can we talk about the sereia matriarchy? How did that come about? Why is there such a shortage of male sirens?

J: Mumble, mumble, mumble… Okay, I worked that out when I started these stories, but that was almost a decade ago! And I didn’t write it down. I’m sure there was something in there about sex-linked traits, x-y sex determination, and recessive and dominant genes, but essentially, they simply don’t birth as many males. Fish are more likely to have a disparate gender dichotomy as well, so I didn’t feel too bad about that. (Fish have very interesting and changeable gender genetics.)

Cath: Where did you decide to make the important deviations in the story to create the alternative history of the Golden City series?

J: I looked at important points in the history of Portugal and asked myself how might magic have changed this. The two best examples of this are the disappearance of King Sebastião and the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon.
King Sebastião disappeared on a battlefield in Morocco, fighting a crusade. I would like to think that if there were seers among the Jesuits who helped raise young Sebastião, that one of them would have warned him to not go to Morocco. So… I changed that and kept the same royal family, the Hose of Aviz, instead of the newer one, the House of Braganza, which required inventing a totally new line of succession.

The earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, though, could not have been stopped by any form of magic. Seers might have given warnings and saved lives, but the city itself couldn’t be saved from the earthquake, tsunami, or the subsequent fires, so that series of events still happened in the world of the Golden City.

I mean, we honestly can’t grasp how much the world would change, but we have to try, right?

Cath: Can you talk a little bit about witchcraft in the books? It seems to be both accepted and not at the same time.

J: In this series we have two types of magic: magic that’s natural or inborn (witches) and magic that’s artificial or acquired (witchcraft). (Magical creatures such as sereia, selkies, and fairies are generally regarded with suspicion, but lumped in with the first group, since their abilities are inborn.) Each country decides how much it’s willing to accept the first group, but everyone frowns on the second because you have to sacrifice to acquire that power. Devices, tokens, and charms are a gray area because sometimes they’re created by witches and sometimes by sacrifice or demons.

Given all that, I actually try to keep all the historicals linked together. So the rules in The Dragon’s Child stories are the same as the rules in the Golden City and Saratoga Springs. It’s the level of acceptance that changes, given the culture and the church.

Cath: Perhaps my favorite character in the book is Gaspar. Trying to avoid spoilers, what can you tell us about how you conceived of the Meter, and his many lives?

J: I’m so glad that you like him!

When I started the Golden City series, I considered the group of Gaspar, the Lady, Anjos, and Vladimirova my competency porn. They were extreme experts who worked in the background, a combination of Leverage and Torchwood.

Gaspar was the one who would know everything about the witches and non-humans, but to have acquired that knowledge would take lifetimes, so he has lived over and over again, along with a partner who has been one kind of witch after another. (For example, the Lady was a healer in her most-recent previous life, giving him an intimate familiarity with that gift.) But for him the lines between his senses, between the past and present and here and there are all a bit blurred, as if worn thin by overuse, so he’s constantly living with input that normal people don’t get.

Cath: Miss Nadezhda Vladimirova is another character who comes from an interesting background. Am I right that you’ve written about her before these books? Can you talk a little bit about your research into Russian culture to come up with this character?

J: Although I haven’t written about Nadezhda Vladimirova herself, I’ve written about her ancestors. She is a direct descendent of the characters in The Dragon’s Child, and shares abilities passed down through them.
Russian culture is interesting to research because very little was recorded before the arrival of the Orthodox Church and writing. After that point, most writing was done from the perspective of the Church, so it’s slanted, and most research written in Russian is not translated into English, making it inaccessible. However, I originally did a lot of research to set up the Russian aspects of the world of The Dragon’s Child, and my three favorite books to use then were Dr. Eve Levin’s Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs: 900–1700, The Domostroi, and The Englishwoman in Russia. (I also read a lot of journals and biographies to get more of a feel for daily life.)

That all served as a distant backdrop for Nadezhda Vladimirova (and indeed, my other novella set in 1815 Russia, The Sparrow in Hiding.) I also spent a great deal of time looking into Russian folklore—like the rusalki. Russian lore seems charmingly inconsistent at times, but that allowed me more room to mold the characters to my will. Rusalki share their tendencies to call and influence humans with many other mystical races, along with their aquatic tendencies, and I ended up putting both of those skills to a more practical crime-solving use in this case.

Cath: You have written many rich fantasy novels as well as these historical ones. Do any particular periods of history influence your fantasies?

J: Honestly, I love that time period between 1860 and 1910 the best. Due to widespread industrialization, the technology level was changing quickly, so it’s an age of new inventions. Trains! Motorcars! There’s an increasing awareness of the rights of men (and more slowly, women), and a shift in influence from the state and the Church to the common man. There’s a rise in literacy and improvements in medicine. So many changes happening so fast make it a wonderful time-setting.

At the same time, it’s long enough ago that we can look back and spot some things that didn’t work out so well—like eugenics and the miasma theory of disease—and avoid those things. We get to create our idea of what a world like that would be like. (I always leave out the mosquitos.)

Cath: What is your next project, and what research are you doing for that project?

J: I’m one of those weird writers who have a lot in progress at the same time, but the main historical project that I’m working on is the story set in 1933 Saratoga Springs. I’ve planned to write this one for quite a while and knew I would need totally different research for 1933. In November of 2015, when World Fantasy Con was held in Saratoga Springs again, I took an extra day of vacation there and met with the research librarian at the Public Library. I did a great deal of my research for this project then but have been sitting on it ever since!

Most of that research involves how the town had changed (for example, when were the cast iron lions removed from the steps in front of the city hall?) and how the fortunes of the city suffered under the depression. So at this time, I’m working on integrating some of that into my plot. (Gangsters! who want magic!) So this will be an interesting stretch for me.

***

When your research drags you into foreign places…

When I chose the setting for my Golden City series (way back in 2009), I did so without a great deal of consideration. For the most part, that was because I was writing a single novelette. I was supposed to do 15,000 words and get out. Instead, I was still there, almost a decade later, regularly researching stuff on the Iberian Peninsula, Brazil, and Cape Verde.

One thing I didn’t realize at the time, though, was that Portugal, despite being England’s oldest military ally, does not end up with much of its literature/writings translated into English. I don’t know why.

Now, when I was working on a single novelette, that was acceptable. I could use Google Translate to work around some of the sections of various webpages and use my workmanlike Spanish to hack my way through other bits, but when I started working on novel-length fiction set there…I knew I was in trouble.

Big trouble.

Why Do It, Then?

I get asked this question regularly: Why did you choose to set this in Portugal? Above I noted that I did so without a lot of consideration. I saw that Portugal had tons of coastline, and that was what I needed.

But along the way, I also learned there are some advantages to working in a culture people haven’t often seen before.
1) It’s fresh for readers.
2) It leaves lots of room for mistakes.

WHAT? Number 2 was an unplanned benefit. What I’ve learned from my decade of writing for American readers about Portugal is that they know very little about Portugal.

Basically, the more commonly used a setting is, the more ‘experts’ there are on that topic. If you set a book in NYC, in London, in Paris…a gazillion readers will point out every little thing you get wrong. If you set a story during WW1 of WW2, during the American Civil War, during the Napoleonic Wars…enough readers will know that era to spot any glitch.

1901 in Porto? An unintended benefit of this was that I had very few readers who knew enough about that setting to argue with me about…anything.

But also, I simply came to love the setting. I dove into researching the history (although I changed a lot of it) and found a rich culture, a fascinating past, and centuries of relationships with other cultures, often very fraught (and often deservedly so.) And I think that all the effort I’ve had to put in has been worth it.

So how do I tackle researching in a foreign language?
In the course of the first three novels, I did a ton of research online, often using sites that were in Portuguese. Or Spanish. Or Catalan. In fact, I used sites with two difference dialects of Catalan. Am I an expert in any of those languages? No. I started with mild familiarity with Spanish and worked from there.

Here are some of the steps I took:

1) Use machine translation: A good example of this is Google Translate, where you can simply paste a paragraph into a box and it will give you a -passable- translation. There are major flaws in this, but if you’re looking at something simple, that’s the fastest way to read it. Also, some browsers (I use Chrome) have a popup or toggle that offers to translate entire pages for you into your regular browsing language. This has proven incredibly helpful, especially when I don’t know whether I want to try to read the whole page. HOWEVER, machine translation is not entirely reliable, so I strongly suggest having other sources…

2) Get a language buddy: When I hit a real snag with something I absolutely had to get correct, I turned to some of my friends. Christopher Kastensmidt (author of The Elephant and Macaw Banner series) lives in Brazil and is a fluent Portuguese speaker, so when I had a complex question, I went to him for help and he got me the answers I needed. I hit up Sue Burke (author of Semiosis), who lived in Madrid at the time, for questions in Spanish. I even had someone I could contact for Galician, although I ended up not using them. So use your writer buddies to your advantage. Ask around and find out who can help you.

3) Ask your writers group: I’m a member of a large online group, and when I needed something specific, I could always post the question there, and someone would know the answer. (This is a subset of #2).

4) Learn the language: Now, some of you will be saying, “This should have been point #1”, but I disagree. I know we would all love to be diligent researchers, but that takes time–time we won’t spend writing. We need to research efficiently. Therefore, this step came along later in my process, when I realized I was doing far more than just one story. I got a set of Portuguese learning CDs (I used Pimsleur), popped them in my car, and listened to them everywhere I went. To this day, I am NOT fluent in the language, although I managed to get around in Portugal well enough. What the lessons provided instead was an understanding of the framework of the language. That helped me to grasp all the things that the machine translations were doing wrong, so that I could use the machine translation better.*

5) Use Wikipedia as a portal: I’ve done this a gazillion times now. I go into the English Wikipedia to look at something about a city in Portugal, discover that the English version has almost no data, and switch over to Portuguese Wikipedia, which not-surprisingly seems to care more about Portugal than the English version does. I’ve written about this a lot online, so I’ll just insert a link to that information here Once you’ve got a handle on machine translation and its foibles, this can be incredibly valuable.

6) Use social media: Take this one with a grain of salt. If your desperate for a quick translation or have a simple question about the language, ask on social media. I’ve used Facebook this way and have had some great results. Just be warned that you will get a lot of dross along with that bit of gold. Don’t assume the first answer is the correct one.

Admittedly, some languages are more different than others. I’ve recently started work in Finnish, and it’s absolutely unlike any language I’ve studied before (but in my first Finnish lesson, I quickly learned why speakers of that language often sound ‘depressed’ to outsiders.) I have studied Russian, which helped with my work set in Russia, but I have never tackled any other Asian language. I admit, I’m a bit lazy for that. As much as we enjoy researching, we’re writers instead of anthropologists for a reason. Most of us want to concentrate on the writing.

But if you find yourself lost in a different culture, don’t back away. There are a lot of things that you can try to help you wade through the unfamiliar. It’s worth trying.

*Machine translation often struggles with things that a language does differently than English. For example, Portuguese and Spanish are null-subject languages, which means that their sentences do not have to have a subject. She is an astronaut simply becomes Is an astronaut. Because the machine translation wants to put in a subject, it sticks in HE most of the time—He is an astronaut–creating confusion when you’re researching a woman. In addition, formal names are often baffling to the machines and end up being translated into nouns. (The name of the city, Porto, was constantly being changed to the port.) Learning a bit of the language helped me know which issues to watch out for in the translation process, and I could glance back at the original language sentence to see what should have happened instead of the gobbledygook that came out the other end!

***

J. Kathleen Cheney taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). Dreaming Death (Feb 2016) is the first in a new world, with the books of The Horn coming out in 2017, and the books of The King’s Daughter and sequels to Dreaming Death in 2018/2019

Fantastic History #33: Setting Fiction in the Long 18th Century by Kate Heartfield

Historians of British history talk about the “long eighteenth century.” It’s a phrase that comes to my mind often when I write fiction set in 18th century Europe. I have found that the key to writing in this period is somewhat paradoxical: you have to understand your setting as part of a vast context that covers a century and a half and several continents, but you must expect dramatic differences from year to year within that period, and even from month to month.

My next novel, The Humours of Grub Street, is set in London in 1703. I found pretty quickly that you can’t really understand the events of that setting without understanding the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and even the Great Fire in 1666 and the plague year that just preceded it. At the other end of the period, my Alice Payne time-travel novellas are set mainly in Hampshire in 1788 and 1799. Even though (some of) the characters don’t yet know how the French Revolution will unfold, or about the Napoleonic wars, it’s impossible to write well about that period without understanding the forces that were moving in Europe. The future for those characters has to inform the way we write; so does their past. We can’t understand the internal European political situation of the 18th century without having some sense of the impact of the peace of Westphalia back in 1648.

It’s also impossible to write well about the 18th century in Europe without understanding that the European powers were engaged in a massive campaign of imperialism, slavery and genocide throughout the rest of the world. It’s a century of trade and travel and migration. No country can be taken in isolation. One cannot understand any European country at the end of the 18th century without understanding the American and Haitian revolutions, and their causes.

All of those forces had a dramatic effect on the arts, science, literature, manners, food, and fashion. Let’s take fashion as an example.

Dressing one’s characters in the 18th century requires great care. Again, it’s all about context: If you’re writing a European woman in a “grand habit” or court dress in 1775, you need to understand that its heritage is a design decreed by Louis XIV about a century before, which was itself a deliberate homage to the gowns of his youth in the 1640s. Much depends on which country the woman is in, of course, and her class and even her political opinions.

As in any period, the fashions of the 18th century were always changing, from the lengths of stomachers and sleeves to the design of petticoats and stays. If you want to dress a woman in the 18th century, the first question to ask is: How many pieces does her dress come in?

This is also, for many cultural and economic reasons, a century of extreme and even ridiculous fashions, which are catnip for writers: the real world was stranger than fiction in many ways. You could write a woman with mouse-fur eyebrows, or ridiculous panniers jutting out from her hips. You could write a man with a crescent-moon beauty mark or a high powdered wig. But all of these things were particular to certain classes and certain places, and in many cases, the extremes of the fashions only lasted a few years. Put a woman in a ridiculous pannier in 1785, and you’ve made her an outlier. You’re saying something about her, whether you intended to or not. By 1795, the anachronism would be glaring.

Not only do you have to dress your characters in a way that would make sense to them, but you have to communicate all this to a modern reader, who might read a different connotation into an apron, or be thrown for a loop by someone handing someone else a pocket.

This can be a daunting setting to write, but it’s also a rich and interesting one, and the research is a great way to guard against ever writing a static, homogeneous culture, in any world.

*

Kate Heartfield is the author of the novel Armed in Her Fashion (ChiZine 2018) and the two Alice Payne novellas (Tor.com Publishing). She was nominated for a 2018 Nebula Award in the novella category for Alice Payne Arrives, and in game writing for The Road to Canterbury, published by Choice of Games. Armed in Her Fashion was a finalist for the 2018 Crawford Award, and the 2018 Aurora Award. Her novella “The Course of True Love” was published by Abaddon Books in 2016. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, Escape Pod and elsewhere. A former newspaper journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Fantastic History #32: The Coming of the Black Hound by Cesar Alcazar

annrach, ànrach
wanderer, stranger; either from *ann-reth-ach, root reth, run, or from *an-rath-ach, “unfortunate”, root rath, luck, q.v.

annrath
distress, Irish anrath; an-rath; See rath, luck.

MacBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language

It all began in the mid 90’s when I became obsessed with the music of an Irish blues-rocker called Rory Gallagher. Back then, discovering a rock musician out of the USA/England circle was something different for me. Being a history buff and an avid researcher, I tried to find out everything I could about Gallagher’s background and fell in love with Ireland and its culture in the process.

Gallagher’s music planted the seeds of many of my future personal interests in art. It even affected my taste in literature, introducing me to crime writer Dashiell Hammett, but that’s another story. A few years later, the history and mythology of Ireland would occupy a central spot in my life.

Anrath, the 11th Century Irish mercenary known as The Black Hound of Clontarf, was created in 2009 when I read the stories from Robert E. Howard’s “Celtic phase” (like The Grey God Passes and The Dark Man, among others). Howard was already a favorite of mine, having been responsible for my desire to write fantasy. During his short lifetime, Howard produced a huge amount of work, but it was those few Celtic tales that had the biggest impact on me. Around the same time, I also read the short story The Mirror and the Mask by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Both Howard and Borges wrote about The Battle of Clontarf, a notorious combat between Gales and Norsemen that took place in April, 1014 near Dublin. The fact that these two authors who were so unlike could fall in love with the same themes fascinated me.

That’s how the idea of creating my own warrior anti-hero from medieval Erin was born. Anrath, The Black Hound, is a haunted man. Born a Gael, he was taken by Viking raiders and grew up among them. When the Battle of Clontarf came, he fought by the losing side of his Viking comrades against the victorious Irishmen led by legendary High King Brian Boru. After the battle, fate made him an outcast condemned to wander between two cultures without belonging to either.

Wandering Ireland as a mercenary, Anrath is constantly tormented by his past. His struggles against Vikings, fellow Irishmen and horrors beyond time and space originated a series of short stories, novelettes and one novella that came to be known in Brazil as The Tales of the Black Hound.

The Tales of the Black Hound are much in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s fantasy-filled historical and Sword and Sorcery adventures. But more than that, the stories focus on the conflicts of a man who is trapped in a life of violence from which he cannot escape. The protagonist, Anrath, has some of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai: lonely and melancholic, he is not always on the side of the winners. He is a more vulnerable hero than the usual in Fantasy.

The first Black Hound novelette to be published was Lágrimas do Anjo da Morte (Death Angel’s Tears). It appeared in the anthology Sagas Vol. 1 – Espada e Magia (Argonautas, 2010). Other stories followed and two of them ended being published in English by Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (A Lonely Grave on the Hill) and Swords and Sorcery Magazine (Wolves). Finally, the novella A Fúria do Cão Negro (Fury of the Black Hound) came out in 2014 (released by Arte & Letra).

Although all these stories were published by small venues, they attracted considerable attention. Soon it became clear that the Black Hound was destined to venture farther. In 2015 a mutual friend introduced me to artist Fred Rubim. A publicity illustrator and 2D animator, Rubim was eager to draw comics, especially one with Vikings in it. We started working on the adaptation of my novelette O Coração do Cão Negro (Black Hound Heart) shortly afterwards. Slaine, created by Pat Mills (wich is a great introduction to Irish Mythology) and Thorgal, by Van Hamme and Rosi?ski, were a big influence in the development of the comic book version of Anrath’s stories. Published at first as a serialized webcomic, Black Hound Heart caught the attention of AVEC Editora, a publishing house devoted to comics and speculative fiction.

AVEC released the complete comic as an album in 2016 to a great reception. It even inspired a song by Bando Celta, a Brazilian musical group specialized in medieval folk. The second album, A Canção do Cão Negro (Song of the Black Hound) came out in the following year. Rubim and I are currently working on the third installment of the series.

2019 marks the 10th anniversary of the Black Hound, but I feel that his story has just begun.

The Black Hound of Clontarf Bibliography in English:
A Lonely Grave on the Hill – Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #18, 2013.
Wolves – Swords and Sorcery Magazine #27, 2014.

The song:
Bando Celta – O Coração do Cão Negro

***
Cesar Alcazar is a Sword & Sorcery and Adventure writer from Brazil. He is the author of “Bazar Pulp – Historias de Fantasia, Aventura e Horror” and many anthologized short stories. He also edited the anthology “Cronicas de Espada e Magia”, and translated to Portuguese stories from authors Karl Edward Wagner, Robert E. Howard and George R. R. Martin. His first English language short story, “A Lonely Grave on the Hill”, was published by Heroic Fantasy Quarterly in November, 2013.

Fantastic History #31: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Train Travel by Wendy Nikel

From the first wooden-railed, horse-drawn tramroads built in England in 1594 to the futuristic bullet trains that speed past at over 160 miles per hour, train travel has played an important role in transportation throughout modern history.

While writing THE CASSANDRA COMPLEX, the third novella in my Place in Time series, I positioned my main character, Cass, on a train headed west, and I knew I’d have to do quite a bit of research into the train travel of the early 20th century in order to get those scenes right.

Fortunately, I live in a place where history was built on trains.

In 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met up at Promontory Summit, Utah, which today is a National Historic Park near where I live. The same year, a train station was built in Ogden, Utah, which is now the Utah State Railroad Museum. These two sites served well as starting points for my research into the history of train travel.

The Golden Spike National Historic Park, where the two pieces of the transcontinental railroad met, gives visitors a glimpse into the building of these railroad lines. In an era before the invention of heavy machinery that could lay hundreds of rails a day, each tie and rail had to be placed by hand and each spike manually hammered into place. During the construction of this railroad, a new record was set: 10 miles of track laid in one day. The vast, desolate landscape near Promontory really emphasizes what a huge effort it was to lay track after track across all the empty and undeveloped places of the late 19th century West.

Although my characters would be traveling to California by a different route nearly fifty years later, they’d still be passing through a lot of undeveloped wilderness on rails built, piece-by-piece, by human hands.

At the Utah State Railroad Museum, I was able to see up-close some of the train engines like those steam and diesel ones which would have pulled the California Limited, which was featured in my story. In 1914, this luxury train ran between Chicago and California, crossing Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona on the way to Los Angeles before traveling northward to San Francisco. It had luxury accommodations, including deluxe sleeping cars, drawing rooms, a smoking room, and a dining car run by the Fred Harvey Company, who had been serving train passengers in their roadhouses since 1876.

In addition to checking out these historical sites and museums, I was also fortunate enough to find a copy of the California Limited’s 1913-1914 brochure in the public domain, digitized by Google. Through this, I was able to not only see the setup and descriptions of the train cars but also the schedule of its route.

With specific details like this, along with what I’d observed myself at the museums and historical sites, I felt like I was traveling back to that time and place – a time when trains were not only the fastest, but also the most fashionable mode of transportation.

Fantastic History #30: When Fantasy Fiction is Run Over by Reality by Samir Machado de Machado

It is my belief that when the reality in which we live is becoming exponentially surreal, realistic literature reaches its limits. When that occurs, it is up to the literature of imagination to give us the metaphors and parallels that will enable us to interpret and understand what the f— is happening in the world today. I cannot fail to notice that since the last presidential election in my country, books like George Orwell’s 1984 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale have reappeared on the bestseller list.

And when I say my country, I’m not talking about the US.

In 2013, I published my first novel, Quatro Soldados (“Four Soldiers”), a historical adventure that bordered the fantasy frontier, inspired by Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. The story was set in the 18th century, a period that fascinates me for its parallels with today’s world. The news reaching Europe about the Guaranitic War tell about the clash between two superpowers against native peoples, led by religious leaders seen as fanatical — in this case, the Jesuit missionaries — whom the Illuminist world accused of wanting to create a Jesuit State in South America. But the real battle, of course, was for America’s valuable natural resources — in this case gold and silver. Any resemblance to the current world is mere historical looping.

So my idea was this: the Portuguese colonial mentality was so behind its time that while Europe lived the Enlightenment, Colonial Brazil was still in the Middle Ages. During the 18th century, book production was banned in Brazil, and its importation was highly regulated. Fantasy had already disappeared from Europe, but here persisted tales of fantastic creatures, such as the headless-mule, the anhangüera (a phantasmagorical white deer who stalks forest hunters), or de boitatá (a gigantic, phosphorescent snake which is attracted by the brightness of the eyes). During the Enlightenment, they would be seen from the viewpoint of cryptozoology.

Quatro Soldado’s reception was positive, and a month after its launch, I began to work on a reverse idea: a more realistic swashbuckler adventure, where a Brazilian soldier was sent to Europe to investigate, precisely, a scheme to smuggle books to Colonial Brazil. Going from semi-medieval Brazilian reality straight to British liberalism, he dazzles with modernity: in England, he discovers that the streets have sidewalks, and that shops have their names written on the plates (not just the drawing of a fish for the fishmonger, or bread for the bakery) – he was thus in a land of readers.

I decided that my concept would be a cross between James Bond and Barry Lyndon, but with one small difference: Érico Borges, my protagonist, would be gay. As I say, if adventure stories are about ordinary characters drawn from their everyday lives and placed in extraordinary situations, nothing seems more common than a gay character as the protagonist – I am one myself, every day of my life. Eric would be the hero who would unravel a conspiracy, defeat the villain and save the day, but romance the buff baker instead of the lady, who in turn would have to take care of herself. It would also be an opportunity to explore a setting that fascinated me, the vibrant London gay community of 1761, with its “molly houses” and elegant macaronnis – the predecessors of dandies.
But a good plot of adventure and spies needs a good villain, preferably, one that has an absurd and megalomaniac plan, which will only be revealed to the hero when he is captured in a deadly trap. As my hero is gay, it seemed natural to me that the villain would be homophobic, with a name that, at the moment the Brazilian reader read it, would identify the character as the antagonist. Thus was born the Count of Bolsonaro.

To put this into context, the book was written between 2013 and 2015. At that time, the real-world politician who shares his name with my antagonist was only a mediocre ex-military figure, notorious for his bigoted statements, and for having chosen gays, black activists and feminists as targets for his hate speech. In an interview with comedian Stephen Fry, and another with actress Ellen Page, he made it very clear that he was proud to be a bigot. So it seemed like a natural choice for the villain in my story: an evil count who seeks to destroy Brazil by sending it the pornography that will “corrupt its morals and attract divine wrath”.
Little did I know what was to come…

The philosophers of the Enlightenment wanted to move society away from religious obscurantism and into the Age of Reason. For this the Encyclopaedia promised to gather all the knowledge of the world into a single series of books. But the French Revolution turned to The Terror, literature sought Romanticism, and politics found nationalism. Likewise, the Internet has promised to democratize knowledge, but it has become prey to false news propagated by demagogues who, faced with their own lies, offer their Alternative Truths and accuse reality of being fake news. Despite historical comparisons with other former military men brought to leadership based on hate speech, Bolsonaro never had the gift of oratory, which is why he has fled all public debates, and has been a cause for ridicule for his apparent inability to read a teleprompter. Of course, he made the dubious decision to release a pornographic video on the presidency’s official twitter account, but hey, I wrote something like that three years earlier.

My book was called Homens Elegantes (“Elegant Men”) and was released in 2016, the year I felt that something was changing for the worse. Trump’s election strengthened the so-called “alternative right,” the neologism with which neo-Nazism uses to normalize itself, and which gave the signal for hate speech to become state policy. This can be felt in Brazil, where the far-right, which has the unsustainable American consumer culture as its ideal, embraces the national flag with the same fury with which it attacks the popular culture of the same country that this flag should represent. I asked myself: What kind of society do these people want to create? Then came the idea of what would be my next book, a mixture of 80’s adventure, techno-thriller and what I call a self-contained dystopia. Thus was born Tupinilândia (“Tupiniland”).

However, the problem of writing dystopias nowadays is that if you take too long to write them, when you finish your book they have already come true.

The American writer Benjamin Moser once said that in its anxieties for the future, the essential difference between the US and Brazil is that in the US, there is a fear of the arrival of an inevitable fall, the fear of the decay of an empire. In Brazil, which had already been called “the country of the future”, the anxiety is precisely due to the arrival of this future, always so close but never to come. The idea of Tupinilândia was to deal with this anxiety, with our eternal emulation of a US-based consumer society, but bound to the limitations imposed by our inability to deal with our own history.

If in the US the 1980’s were marked by economic boom, in Brazil it was the opposite. The ironically literary year of 1984 in Brazil was the last year of a US-sponsored military dictatorship, marked by torture and disappearances, which lasted for twenty years, ruined the economy and imposed a socially conservative agenda that, to this day, seems to hold back our social discussions with a delay of twenty years. Thus, Tupinilândia is a gigantic amusement park, built secretly during the 80’s inside the Amazon rain forest. Inspired by the way Disneyland synthesizes American culture, Tupinilândia would valorize the Brazilian national culture. With the political opening, its inauguration would be the symbol of a new era, marked by democratic elections.
However, on the day of its inauguration, one of the far-right military groups, historically opposed to political openness to such an extent that they accused their own generals of being “communist infiltrators,” attempts to hold the park’s guests and staff hostage.

I’m not being subtle here: as the epigraph taken from Crichton’s Jurassic Park indicates, military hard-liners take the place of dinosaurs here. At least, this allowed me to use my best references to the movies by Spielberg and Lucas, and the action films of the 80’s, like Die Hard. However, the first part of the story ends unfinished, and with a jump in time of 30 years, arrives at the fateful year of 2016, when the ruins of the park are explored by a group of academics. There they discover an isolated community that, living in the ruins of the park’s shopping mall, is still trapped by the binary mentality of the 1980’s. They do not know that the Cold War – and the dictatorship in Brazil – is over, and they think the invaders are Communists in disguise. From there, I allow myself to play with what I have always wanted: a lost city story, with all its clichés, from execution rituals to popular revolts. And of course, monsters of the past who were supposed to have been extinct.

Little did I know that… two years later, we would all live in Tupinilândia after an election won by anti-communist paranoia and delusional fake news – one of them, for example, claimed that “the left wants to distribute penis-shaped bottles to babies” – being considered as true. Now we have a Trump of the Tropics. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

So, I am relieved that my next book will have no political parallel, nor will it attempt to make any predictions of the future. Pirates à Vista! (“Pirates Ahoy!”) will be a young adult historical adventure, about the French pirate Jean DuClerc’s invasion of Brazil in 1710. But even so, a certain change of perspective ends up being necessary. For if stories of pirates are, in essence, stories of men searching for treasure, when it is seen from a Brazilian perspective, it is from us that the treasure will always be stolen. It is recorded in the history books that when 800 pirates marched to assault Rio de Janeiro, an incompetent governor sent the army to the wrong side. The city ended up defended, and in turn the pirates were defeated, by the adolescents who studied in the Jesuit college. Incompetent politicians, rampant thugs and hope falling into the hands of the younger generation.
Any resemblance to reality will be mere coincidence.

***

Samir Machado de Machado was born in Brazil, in 1981. He is a writer, translator and graphic designer, author of the historical novels Quatro Soldados (2013) and Homens Elegantes (2016), whose film rights were bought by RT Features, and the action-adventure Tupinilândia (2018). He is currently a Master’s Degree student in Creative Writing at PUCRS.

April and May, 2019

This month has been really about research. I’ve been reading up on Martinique and Dante’s Inferno. I’ve also been doing a lot of noodling around of plot. All this is to say I think I’m making progress if not in actual words.

So, really, what I have to tell you about this month is this review of The Pawn of Isis in Little Village. Beth Hudson was kind enough to write this review. I am really appreciative especially of the following quote: “Humans are shown as complicated and fallible, capable of doing terrible things, but also capable of heroic actions.” Nice.

Wiscon is coming May 24-27.

My schedule?

Reading: Four Codexians in Search of a Theme with Aimee Ogden, Bennett North, and Cislyn Smith from 10-11:15 am at Michelangelo’s Coffee Shop on Saturday, May 25th

Panel: I will be moderating the Found Family panel from 2:30-3:45 pm Saturday, May 25th in the Assembly Room

Signing: As so many writers will be, I’ll be signing books at the Signout Monday, May 27th from 11:30 am -12:45 pm in the Capitol/Wisconsin Rooms

I’ll be running around doing all sorts of other things as well. If you’re there, come and say hello.

Fantastic History #29: Dasa Mahavidya–The Ten Great Wisdoms by Rati Mehrotra

I’m often asked about the inspiration behind my books Markswoman and Mahimata. The answer varies, because there are so many things that come to mind: the science fantasies I read as a teen; Star Trek, which aired weekly on our lone television channel and which the entire family watched, along with assorted friends and neighbors; the comics I borrowed from the local bookstore (they had a lending scheme, much more affordable than buying books.)

But the bedrock of my world building for the Asiana duology was Hindu mythology. I grew up listening to stories from the epics and the Puranas. And the stories that most fascinated me were those of the Mother Goddess in all her terrible, beautiful forms, ranging from the fearsome warrior Kali to the lovely Tripura Sundari. So today, I want to tell you about the Dasa Mahavidya, or the Ten Great Wisdoms: ten forms of Adishakti, as manifested by Sati, the wife of God Shiva.

The story goes that Shiva wanted to prevent Sati from attending a ritual sacrifice conducted by her father Daksha, the world-king and son of God Brahma. Daksha had invited all the gods and goddesses except them; in fact, his whole purpose was to insult Shiva, because he hated Shiva, and Sati had married him against his wishes. Shiva knew that nothing good would come of Sati going to her father’s palace. In fact, being Trikaldarshi (knowing all three aspects of time), Shiva knew exactly what would happen, but it appears that knowing fate does not allow even Gods to change what lies ahead.

When Shiva forbade Sati from going, she became enraged. She manifested ten forms of the Mother Goddess, one for each cardinal direction (N, S, W, E, NE, SE, SW, NW, skyward and downward). They surrounded Shiva, preventing him from escaping. These ten forms are known as the Dasa Mahavidya. Eventually, Shiva had to agree to let Sati go to her father’s ritual – with rather terrible consequences, I might add. Daksha insulted Sati and she immolated herself, bringing the wrath of Shiva down on Daksha and his army. In his grief and rage, Shiva invoked his Veerbhadra avatar who decapitated Daksha. But that’s a story for another day.

Each Mahavidya has her own unique name, appearance, mantras, and powers. Here are the first five of them.

Kali, The Supreme Reality

Painting by Raja Ravi Varma – Public Domain

Kali is the first among the Mahavidyas, because she comes before time, and before light itself. Black-skinned and four-armed, she wears a garland of fifty-two skulls, representing the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, and also the mortality of her human children. In one of her hands she holds the sword of enlightenment, and from another hand dangles a severed human head, representing the ego.

My favorite story of Goddess Kali is how she destroyed the demon Raktabija. He had a boon that every drop of his blood that fell to the ground would duplicate his entire form. Kali lopped off his head and stretched her long tongue to drink all his blood before it could fall. After vanquishing the demons, Kali began a wild victory dance. The gods begged Shiva to stop her before she destroyed the world. Shiva lay down on her path, and she stepped on him by mistake. When she noticed her husband below her feet, she calmed down. That is why she is often depicted like this, with her foot on Shiva.

Tara, The Compassionate

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Similar in appearance to Kali, Tara is the maternal, peaceful aspect of the Goddess, who helps her devotees cross the turbulent seas of deceit to the shore of enlightenment. She is sometimes depicted as breastfeeding Shiva, and the reason for that is a very interesting episode from the Puranas called Samudra Manthan, or the churning of the ocean. The gods formed an alliance with the asuras (demons, for lack of a better word, but they are practically cousins to the gods and there is often little to choose between the two) to churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality which they would then share amongst themselves (the gods were lying – they had no intention of sharing). The churning released a number of things from the ocean, including a terrible poison that could destroy all three worlds. Shiva drank the poison to save all of creation, but fell unconscious from its effects. Goddess Tara appeared, put him in her lap, and suckled him. The healing power of her milk brought him back to life.

Tripura Sundari, The Beautiful

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The third Mahavidya is named Tripura Sundari. Tri means three, pura can refer to city or citadel or world, and Sundari means beautiful. So her name literally means she who is beautiful in all three worlds: the material, the astral, and the causal. A less literal, but more meaningful interpretation is that she represents the beauty of pure perception, the supreme consciousness above everything else. She is most often represented as seated on Shiva who is lying on a throne. The legs of the throne are formed by the gods Brahma, Vishnu and various forms of Shiva. This shows her supremacy to all the other gods. Her origin story is fairly complicated; suffice it to say that it involves the killing of a powerful demon, the meddling of various gods, the death of Kamadeva, the god of love, by an angered Shiva, and his subsequent reincarnation.

Bhuvaneshvari, The World Mother

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Bhuvana means universe and isvari means sovereign. The fourth Mahividya is the ruler of the entire cosmos. The universe begins and ends in her. Just as Kali represents Time, so Bhuvaneshvari represents Space. These two Mahavidya thus represent the two main aspects of the Mother Goddess: the infinite, and the eternal. Bhuvaneshvari also represents maya, or illusion, which veils ultimate reality. My favorite story about her goes like this: once, the Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were arguing over who among them was most important and powerful in the universe. The Goddess Bhuvaneshvari intervened and enlightened them that she was the creator of the universe, and also of themselves. Then she gave them her shakti, or energy, in the form of the Goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati to help them create, preserve and manage the world – until its ultimate destruction, when the cycle will start anew.

Bhairavi The Fierce

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Bhairavi is the fierce manifestation of the Goddess, quite close to Kali herself. She hates and punishes evil-doers. Her consort is Bhairava, the equally fierce manifestation of God Shiva.

One of Bhairavi’s forms is Chandi, a ferocious goddess who helps Kali destroy the demon Raktabija, he of the boon regarding spilled blood. Chandi is also famous for destroying the demons Chanda and Munda. She is fearless, and inspires fearlessness in her devotees as well.

She is often depicted seated on her loyal donkey, her mouth stained with demon blood, another hand holding a blood-stained sword. But she is not only a warrior goddess. Bhairavi is also the Goddess of Speech, with the potential to destroy all opposition to spiritual growth. She is thus the remover of all obstacles, physical and mental, on the path of spiritual evolution.

The remaining Mahavidya are Chhinnamasta, who decapitated herself to feed her disciples, Dhumavati the widow, who swallowed her own husband Shiva, Bagalamukhi, who has great supernatural power over her enemies, Matangi, Goddess of all outcastes, who represents the divine self which is left over when all else perishes, and lastly the graceful Kamala, none other than Laxmi herself, Goddess of wealth, and wife of Vishnu.

The names and forms of the Goddess are many, yet the ultimate truth is one, which is a basic tenet of many traditions of Hinduism. I didn’t see it that way when I was a child, of course. Then, stories were just stories. But the most powerful stories are those that stay with us, that we think more about as we get older, that have layers we can peel one by one, discovering something new each time. This is how Indian mythology feels like to me – a vast, rich treasure house of stories with multiple versions that never fail to delight, entertain, and illuminate.

***

Rati Mehrotra lives in Toronto, Canada. Her first book Markswoman was published in January, 2018 and the sequel Mahimata in March, 2019. She also enjoys reading and writing short stories.

Fantastic History #28: Because I Live in a Small Town by Catherine Schaff-Stump

A project I began about 10 years ago, currently on the back burner is the story of three teenage trolls who live in Decorah, Iowa, the premiere vanguard of Norwegian immigrants in the state. As a small town Iowan myself, I can extrapolate what life might be like living in Decorah, but for the details I needed, I needed field work. One thing I admire about really good urban fantasy is the setting becomes a character in the story, and in this novel I am striving for this. Decorah is a unique place where I could interpret traditional Norwegian folklore in a new setting. In order to make sure the story had the feel I wanted, I needed to know more about this place. Happily, I only live a couple of hours from Decorah, and I could get a feel for the town by visiting often.

Here are some things I did which helped me get a sense of the setting.

1. Websites: The websites I visited seem pretty pedestrian on the surface, but I learned about interestingly mundane details such as what schools were in the area, neighborhoods, town policies, and attractions. Municipal websites will highlight historical sites and attractions, like the Vesterheim museum, or Norwegian Ship, Decorah’s version of UPS. While not a substitute for visiting the town, nevertheless the local color and details can be found, which help add a sense of character to the town.

2. Visit the town: Proximity helps here. For the novel, I did also visit Norway to get a sense of where the trolls came from, and I had to make that trip count, because it was likely to be one trip. Going to Decorah, however, was something I could do periodically when I needed more details. I visited the Vesterheim, parks and landmarks I wanted to use in the novel, local places I wanted to have my characters frequent, and sites for places I would make up. I also know a writer in Decorah. He and his wife went to college there, and have lived there for many years, so they could give me insider knowledge. I have visited Decorah maybe around 10 times, and I’m due to go back before I finish this project.

3. Stay for longer than a visit: Another way to get a sense of the local is to live there. I stayed at a B&B so I could be in the town at night. I went to the small theater, toured the college, just ran around, ate at the co-op, lots of things you can do if you don’t have a visiting agenda. With the exception of lodging, I’ve gone to Decorah to stay for a few overnight trips with no agenda to get the experience of living in the town.

4. Attend the town festival: One of the most awesome things about Decorah’s Norwegian heritage is that each year they have a great festival. Lots of people come from far and wide to see the town and tour historical sites. Norwegians visit as a way to come to a friendly spot in the US. My favorite part of the festival is the chance to try Norwegian food, available on every street corner and in church basements, or to watch traditional dances mixed with a very Iowa small town parade. This is the unique blend of old world and new world at its best.

While I am far from an expert regarding Decorah, I feel like I know it well enough now to characterize it. By the time I get back to this project, though, my information may be a little out of date. I can set the novel in the time I visited, or I can update myself. Either way, I’ve got to get back there and eat some more rommegrot.

April, 2016

How could I have guessed that putting out three books in rapid sequence would have left me drained creatively?

Honestly, I think I could have guessed, having completed large, long term projects before. This, ladies and gentlemen, is perhaps the biggest reason I could never be a personal author mill. With my day job, I can usually put out a book a year. Last year, I drafted two, but it was a good year. This is a gentle reminder to write on your own terms, and to not hold yourself to someone else’s standards. If I wrote all day, it could be different. I don’t, and I like my job. So there you go.

Lest you think that is a prelude for a conversation about not completing work, you will be disappointed. I have begun The Wisdom of Thoth. I have joined a horror writing group and I’m sending them drips and drops. There are words happening, albeit at my pace.

What interesting things have I been doing with my time? Well…I guess traveling, going to author shows, hanging out with friends and getting more and more fit. I enjoyed the Northern Iowa Book Bash in Clear Lake immensely. I had heard good things, but this was an exceptional show with an eager clientele. If I am invited back, I will return.

I think I will show you a picture of the most interesting thing going on at my house right now, with the caveat that the only way in which I am involved with this will be the wearing of it. This recreation is the work entirely of my very talented spouse, who clearly has not squandered his winter.

Onto May, then. School will be over mid-month, and Wiscon is on the horizon. I have a lot of gaming to plot and plan as well. See you then.

Fantastic History #27: Cultural Sensitivity Beyond the Novel Itself–The Devil is in the Details by K. Bird Lincoln

A plethora of good definitions for cultural appropriation, primers for those wanting an understandable framework, a time when a big author pulled a project due to sensitivity issues, and lists of ways to avoid cultural appropriation in the context of fantasy and science fiction can be found with a quick Google.

Let me be transparent about my bias before we get started. I’m a white, middle-class woman from the USA who has spent significant time on the West Coast and in Japan.

I’m also a writer who often uses Japanese and Chinese myths and culture in her historical and urban fantasy. I like to think I mostly portray myths and legends with complex characters who do not perpetuate stereotypes and present East Asian cultural motifs within an atmosphere of respect.

It’s an ongoing struggle not to fall into the trap of willy-nilly plucking katana, ninja, or hari-kari from Japanese culture as if it were a buffet and it didn’t matter what I shoved into my story. Not that I’m at risk for white savior faux pas like shoehorning Tom Cruise into a samurai movie, but all those cute kitsune in manga and anime sometimes tempt me towards the dark side of stereotypes.

Fantasy writers have a license to be imaginative and creative, but need to temper creativity with sensitivity when writing the fantastic based on real life cultures that are not our own voice. Whether that borrowing be obvious roots to Edo period Japan in Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor or the fantastical parade of Chinese mythical creatures in M.H. Boroson’s Girl with the Ghost Eyes, or the subtle changes in WWII history resulting in Japanese supremacy in Beth Cato’s Breath of Earth—the trick is to twist it far enough for the fantastic without losing nuance.

Writing whole books provides a large canvas on which to present nuanced and sensitive portrayals. Recently a couple of potential issues related to other author activities—especially indie published authors—have come to my attention.

I am in an author Facebook group where a long discussion about a cover for a historical fantasy set in Hong Kong revolved around the model’s face: too white. There is a lack of good stock photography of a variety of types of East Asian and mixed East Asian ancestry to use on book covers. My cover for Dream Eater, where the heroine is bicultural Japanese-Caucasian, had this problem. Use a Caucasian model and risk white-washing her? Use a full on East Asian looking model that doesn’t signal to the reader the complicated truth of the cultural area my heroine occupies? This gets harder when going for historical models. No wonder so many fantasy authors spring for original artwork, like JC Kang’s Master of Deception or Nicolette Andrews’ Dragon Saga. Where are the resources?

The second issue is author names. I’ll admit, I approach books like Jade City by Fonda Lee differently than I approach Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein. Both books base themselves in thoroughly researched East Asian history. But what if, as a yet unpublished author I came across recently, someone decides to use a pseudonym that confuses the reader’s ability to judge whether this is an #ownvoice or not? The author in question used a pseudonym with a Japanese-sounding first name and an English-sounding last name. His argument was that not only was this first name a nickname he’d used for most of his adult life because he lived in Japan, but that he felt strongly it shouldn’t matter if readers picked up his book without knowing first what background he came from. Those arguments unsettled my stomach—not because I think only Asians can write Asian fantasy, but because as a rabid reader myself, I want authors to be up front about the lens through which they view the world. I have the right to consume stories based on true knowledge of the author’s background. Taking the stance that it’s okay to present yourself as possibly Asian when you’re not seems oddly stubborn. Authors and readers should be able to trust each other.
Finally, we come to yet another touchy issue: reviews. Last year I read and reviewed 115 books. Whether authors should review other authors is a whole basket of thorny issues for another time. Let’s say, though, that you’re reading along in a historical fantasy and suddenly you come across descriptions of the alpha hero where his skin color is compared to a food item. There is an acknowledged understanding out there that not only is this cliché, but can also be fetishizing. But it’s historical! And it’s fantasy! As a reviewer, do you call out the author on her World War II Hong Kong heroine gazing at her own almond eyes in the mirror if that was an oft-used phrase from that time period? What if it’s in an alternate fantasy world? How do you balance warning other readers about problematic themes without crossing the line into politically correct police territory?

Outside the actual book itself, writing the other can bring up a lot of other issues. Staying sensitive to other points of view and presenting your own self in as transparent a way possible might keep authors from massive blunders—but it still doesn’t fix the dearth of good stock photo models!

Someone could make good money from that niche.

***

The stunning conclusion to K. Bird Lincoln’s Urban Fantasy Portland Hafu trilogy drops March 19th! Check out the first in her series, Dream Eater or pre-order the conclusion, Last Dream of Her Mortal Soul. K. Bird Lincoln is an ESL professional and writer living on the windswept Minnesota Prairie with family and a huge addiction to frou-frou coffee. Also dark chocolate– without which, the world is a howling void. Originally from Cleveland, she has spent more years living on the edges of the Pacific Ocean than in the Midwest. Her medieval Japanese fantasy series, Tiger Lily, is available from Amazon. She also writes tasty speculative fiction reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Check her out on Facebook, join her newsletter for chocolate and free stories, or stalk her online.