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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mental Illness - social impacts

I really enjoyed this hangout. As with many of our discussions, we were taking on a HUGE topic, and were not able to cover everything about it. I began by recommending the book The Midnight Disease by Alice Weaver Flaherty, in which the author, a neurologist herself, describes having a postpartum psychotic break that caused her to become hypergraphic (not able to stop writing). The book examines mental illness and the building blocks of creativity and the genetic links between them.

We made a brief list of some mental illnesses. Clinical depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder (used to be multiple personality disorder) are just a few. The classifications change all the time. Gender dysphoria was recently removed from the list and is no longer classified as a mental illness.

What is and is not a mental illness is a tricky question. Historically, there have been a lot of cases of putting people in mental hospitals against their will for illegitimate reasons like cultural difference or just wanting to control them. The definitions of mental illness are culturally and politically determined. They do NOT include a range of neurological issues such as attention deficit/hyperactiity disorder or autism.

Mental illnesses can co-occur and even cause each other.

Marginalized groups in society who are oppressed also tend to have higher rates of mental illness like anxiety and depression, caused by the oppression. Unwillingness to trust authority makes a degree of sense when authorities can't be trusted - but standing up for yourself has sometimes been classified as "oppositional defiance" disorder.

In the United States, health insurance is a problem. Often the poor are not able to get treatment for mental illness for economic reasons.

There are also instances of people who don't get treatment because they don't want to admit they have a mental illness. Mental illness is stigmatized in many societies.

The question of mental illness is also complicated by phenomena like gaslighting, where someone tries to make someone believe they are "crazy." This abuse tactic can in fact co-occur with real mental illness that has nothing like the same effect.

We spoke for a few minutes about the tangential topic of perception of reality, and consensus reality. Ideology is folded into this in interesting ways.

We asked what one might do to portray mental illness in fiction, and of course the key was RESEARCH. Read a lot, and seek out first-hand journal accounts if you want to portray any particular condition from the inside. I spoke about how I had used the mental illnesses of obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia to change the portrayal of the villain in my novel. One of the keys, though, was making sure he was contrasted with his father, who is also evil and sane.

Don't fall into the trap of equating violence or evil with mental illness. The mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Try to steer away from the stereotypes of the magical or holy mad person or the evil mad person.

I mentioned This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman, which features a planet where everyone has what we would call "mental illness," but their neurological uniqueness is seen as a potential advantage and they are given jobs that play to this uniqueness. They also make up their faces to indicate to others around them what kind of accommodations they might need.

We also spoke about the show Legion. Legion has different personalities related to different X-men style powers. One of the things that got mentioned was how secondary characters in the show have different perceptions of reality based on the kinds of powers they have, which influence their behavior. A character who can temporarily switch minds with someone else just by touching them will be touch-phobic, for example. Powers influence mental states.

Kate said that "society gaslights the mentall ill via a pop culture worldview." The way that pop culture narratives portray mental illness is often inaccurate, particularly since the internal experience of mental illness is so incredibly variable.

People living in society are dependent on each other for all kinds of life functions. Access to those is controlled by others. Cutting people off, exile, etc. harms people. Solitary confinement is a punishment but causes people to lose their mental health (and our societal choices of whom to imprison have a huge influence on who is vunlerable to this).

When you don't fit in, you can be labeled and excluded.

Thank you to everyone who came to participate. This was an interesting discussion. This week we meet on Wednesday, April 26 at 10am Pacific to speak with guest author Megan O'Keefe about books 2 and 3 in her Scorched Continent series. The link to our first discussion with her, about Steal the Sky, is here.


Saturday, April 15, 2017


We had a great discussion of Oceans. This is a huge topic, obviously, and one that can be approached from many directions. Oceans have scientific characteristics. They are often trade routes. Some are believed to have sea monsters. People often depend on the oceans for survival. How dependent are they?

The Vikings living in Greenland had no roads over land, and exclusively used the oceans to travel. They hunted walrus and used their tusks for ivory to trade.

It's important to have respect for the dangers of the ocean. We talked about whether people who fish would have more or less respect for those dangers. Intimate knowledge leads to less fear. Kat told us she lived on a boat for five years. In her experience, coastal people were more antagonistic toward the ocean, while people who live on the water fear it less. If you go out for long voyages, how normalized do you make the ocean versus the land? If you are on water for a long time, your brain adapts to the constant motion. Kat told us that after she had lived on the water for a long time, she thought of it as home, and being on land seemed weird.

There are also historical instances of sailors who don't swim. This came from the idea that you should fear getting off the boat to increase your loyalty to it.

I mentioned how we had visited friends on the island of Ama, 3.5 hours ferry ride north of the island of Honshu in Japan. Our friends' home is right beside the ocean, with no beach but a stone retaining wall separating them from the water. The kids would go out to play and jump into the water very casually.

Depending on the conditions surrounding where you live, you may be able to wade very far out into the water at low tide, or not. The continental shelf is very close to the shore in California, but farther away in Japan. There may be a lot of rip tides in your area, and that can create a greater fear of going into the water.

Land travel is gradual. Sea travel is interrupted. The cultures of the two are very different.

How you anchor a ship differs depending on where you are. Methods are different in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the North Atlantic. The type of anchor differs, as does the number and strength of the boat crew and the amount of cooperation.

The boat Kat lived on in northeast Florida was a 34-foot Ketch sailboat, with 31 feet of room on deck from fore to aft and 14 feet in the beam (across). She once sailed through a tropical storm "with lots of anchors." She says the boat was "seakindly," which means it's really responsive to wind and waves. She nicknamed it "weeble." She saw dolphins swimming around the boat, and developed an awareness of weather that she hadn't had as a resident of southern California.

If you will be using boats in your writing, Do Your Research. This is a topic that has a very long history and varies widely across cultures. There is a lot of specialized language associated with it.

When you personify the sea, what happens? The Norse have male and female sea gods. Is the sea male? Is it female? Is it both? You can apply any set of gender stereotypes to it if you really want to. Kat said that in Japanese folk tales, the sea is typically not gendered. Ocean things are generally associated with the Shinto religion. Susanoo-no-mikoto is the god of storms and the sea.

I mentioned the book Ship of Dreams by Elaine LeClaire, written by our own discussant Lillian Csernica. Because she has a deep interest in ships through her family, she was very exact in her descriptions of the ships, and in fact, she completely and carefully redesigned the pirate ship in the book so that it would fit a captain who was 6'4" (as the romance genre required) and who had a private cabin.

We wondered what it would be like to have a waterborne TARDIS in Doctor Who. You would want to be careful to keep the entryway above the water!

Our discussants recommended Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun, and The Scar by China Mieville.

Kat told us that most watercourses are shallower than they claim to be because of silt. She also said you can rent a boat and navigate the canalways of Europe to the Mediterranean.

There is an enormous body of mythology related to the sea - sea creatures, sirens, kelpies, naiads, etc. We were scarcely able to touch on it in the hour we had for this discussion, and should probably return to the topic soon!

The Netherlands have a National Maritime Museum, the Scheepvaartmuseum.

Aphrodite was born out of the sea, and Heimdall had nine mothers who were all waves of the sea.

There are also sea burials, and Viking burials. Apparently, cruise ships have a small morgue on board in case people die during a cruise (the average is two because of the typical age of cruisegoers), because people expect to get the bodies back. Brian told us that Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson died at the battle of Trafalgar, and his body was brought back in a barrel of brandy with camphor and myrrh, then placed in a lead-lined coffin filled with spirits of wine to travel from Gibraltar to England. Other sea captains might have been preserved in rum, but dead bodies are hard to preserve and space on a ship is at a premium, so bodies of less important people could be tossed overboard.

When Australia was sending convicts to populate its territories, they would not put murderers on the ships because no one wanted murderers to be trapped on a boat for six months. They would usually send burglars and thieves. Brian explained how it was a sort of prison pipeline, deliberately offering disproportionate punishment in the interest of helping Britain keep territory against the Dutch and others. It's always important to ask "who is profiting from this?" Once slavery had been banned, it was an alternative way of forcing people to go and do necessary work in the territory. We compared the way that Sydney was populated with the Mission era in California.

Thanks to everyone who attended! I really hope we can get back to the topic of Oceans soon, because we barely scratched the surface.


Alyx Dellamonica: The Nature of a Pirate

Alyx Dellamonica joined us to talk about her book, The Nature of a Pirate, which came out last December. It's the third book of her Stormwrack portal fantasy trilogy. Part of it takes place in San Francisco, and part in the world of Stormwrack. The main characters are trying to find out whether Stormwrack is an alternate Earth, a future Earth, or another dimension. They believe there will be a scientific explanation, though the character Bran will have to study to find out more. Alyx told us she sometimes pitches the series as "Narnia for environmentalists." The moon of Stormwrack seems identical to ours, but so much land is missing from Earth (most of Asia, for example!). The main character, Sophie, can't figure out where the Himalayas have gone. Alyx told us there is a faint thread of plausibility in the Stormwrack scenario that you can learn by reading the trilogy...

In Stormwrack, curiosity is considered a cultural flaw or defect. Alyx says we forget that the scientific method isn't a "cultural gimme." Some cultures believe that if God gave you something, it's impudent to ask questions about it. Stormwrack has 250 island nations, each with proprietary spells suited to its particular climate, trade, and war. You don't pry, so you don't question others' practices. Interestingly, and problematically within the story world, "others' practices" includes chattel slavery.

A world with 250 nations seems very large and potentially very involving in terms of worldbuilding! Alyx explained that she figured out before writing the books which nations would be featured in each book. She also explored using shorter stories, such as "Losing Heart Among the Tall," which features Gale and Garland parrish, and appeared at She either uses research to construct the nations and their cultures or imaginative explanation from her own personal experience. She says she based the Verdanii on her own experience of the prairie, and grain farmers, growing up. The nation of Erinth is medieval Florentine, with a volcano much like Vesuvius that is contained by magic. Alyx estimates that about 30 nations are mentioned, and seven or eight get play in the books. She says she was disappointed not to be able to go to Verdanii in the books.

She says, "I love worldbuilding." [No wonder I loved having her on the show!]

Alyx told us that she has spent time in San Francisco with a little locus of family, and she has also taken tours to Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, which helped with her research for those regions.

We spoke a bit about language use in Stormwrack. She says the main idea is that the people of Stormwrack speak many languages, but all share "Fleet Standard" which ends up being used in translation in the books. The main character, Sophie, gets magically taught how to speak Fleet, but she must then learn to read and write. She's often a better speaker of Fleet than the locals, for whom Fleet is a second language (since their first is the main language of their island nation). People in Stormwrack "weaponize" their speaking of their native tongues for the purposes of keeping secrets.

The language of Sylvanna had a big influence of Fleet. There's an Italian-like language, and a Russian-like language. The pirate nations draw a bit from French. Alyx says she was very glad to have a bilingual copy-editor for a previous book. We remarked that dictionaries are the last places where you would expect to find official notice of ongoing language change, and are naturally very conservative.

The ships of Stormwrack are biological - one very intriguing aspect of the world! I asked about the magic system, and Alyx told us that magic takes ingredients from local microclimates. People write spells on parchment, turtle shell, or other localized items. The spells are like works of art and must be perfectly worded and lettered, with ink, quills, or other tools. Each unique magical artifact is like a contract with reality. The letters will glow and magic will happen. For example, in Erinth, there is a statue made of volcanic rock with a spell written on it, and it is that artifact which holds back the volcano. The physical destruction of the magical artifact will break the spell.

People in Stormwrack preserve the environment around them to maximize spell opportunities. There are some jurisdiction questions between islands. Invasive species can also be a problem.

Sophie is a diver and videographer in our world, but she is the only scuba diver on Stormwrack, and she is very bothered by this because you are not supposed to dive alone.

We wound back again to the question of the ships. The idea of unique magical spell artifacts is relevant here because the vessels are magical, and have biological characteristics. The Verdanii use whale-based ships, which are mammal on the bottom and forest on top. There is also a type of immolator ship which is designed to burn other ships. Temperance is the name of a big battle ship, which has a spell that allows it to sink any ship if they know its true name. Generic things can't be enchanted; they must be unique.

We spoke briefly about magic systems. Although they generally need restrictions, Alyx told us that she can't stand restrictions on magic that seem artificial. That's why in Indigo Springs she wrote about magic that was almost limitless, but would destroy Earth if used to its full extent.

In Stormwrack, names are very important. It is possible for people to secretly change names.

Alyx told us that there is no political correctness in Stormwrack. There is lots of racism, and no respect for disability culture. Mermaids will woo people in wheelchairs to become mermaids because they believe the person would better off as a mermaid.

The magic of Stormwrack does alter people. If you have an ability created by magic, but you are not visibly altered by it, you are "enhanced." If you have become a mermaid or have any of a particular set of visual and functional alterations, you are a "transform." If you have undergone extreme changes in appearance, you are considered an "oddity."

At the beginning of The Nature of a Pirate, a creature is used to sink a ship. I asked about this. The creature is something of a doppelganger, called a "fright." The skill of fright-making was banned on Stormwrack. Usually the frights are human-like, but sometimes they are animal. The people of Stormwrack thought they had burned all the spells and materials that would allow fright-making, but someone has resumed doing it. Frights are less like transforms or even oddities, and are more like automatons or zombies.

We spoke a bit about racial distinctions on Stormwrack. Alyx told us that skin colors, epicanthic folds and other physical features we associate with racial distinctions are mixed up so that they don't fit our own models. Verdanii have copper skin, straight dark hair, and dark eyes. Her idea was that they had an aboriginal population which was colonized. Stormwrack has a history of constant raiding, so there has been a lot of genetic mixing.

Morgan asked Alyx to give us more details on spells. The spells need to be very controlled rather than natural. Alyx described them as "artisanal." People who do magic are those who are meticulous and have beautiful handwriting. Alyx told us about a quilt she inherited which had perfect stitching (and then got ripped by her kittens, aigh!). Spells in Stormwrack can also be recycled. Because Sophie was enchanted to speak Fleet, her tongue could later be used as a translator. If someone has teeth enchanted to create light, their skull could be used as a lantern. In some sense, this creates a black market for enchanted body parts.

Alyx told us that Fleet, the language, was created to combat pirates. Stormwrack has had 100 years of peace, but it is breaking down due to piracy, population growth and resource pressures.

This is a fascinating world worth exploring. The novels in the series are:

1. Child of a Hidden Sea
2. A Daughter of No Nation
3. The Nature of a Pirate

Thank you so much for joining us, Alyx! Next week, April 19th at 10am Pacific, we'll be discussing Working Animals, and the following week, April 26th at 10am Pacific, guest author Megan O'Keefe will join us to talk about her Scorched Continent trilogy. I hope you can all attend.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Maurice Broaddus and The Voices of Martyrs

It was a real pleasure to have Maurice back on the show! This time we were discussing his new short story collection, which was released a couple of months ago (now) through Rosarium, and features short stories he wrote between 2006 and 2014. He said he hadn't considered putting a collection together until someone suggested it a few years ago. Maurice told me he doesn't think about writing in genre, just writes the piece first and figures it out later. Because some of the early stories in the collection deal unflinchingly with slavery, they were sold as horror pieces. When he was asked to put together a collection, he tried to figure out if there was a theme he could draw on because he's written so much in so many different genres, but he arrived at "considering the African-American diaspora through the lens of history, past, present, and future."

Maurice tells us he loves worldbuilding. He likes to build a world and then go back and revisit it. The first story in the collection, Warrior of the Sunrise, takes place in ancient Africa. He also has stories set in a science fiction world of the future. He really likes returning to a character he loves.

The story "Rite of Passage" is told from the perspective of a white captain on a slave ship, and features some really fascinating self-justification by the captain about why, even though he's obviously in the business, he's not as bad as other members of his crew. The prose is really historical and wonderful, and the captain's language contrasts in really interesting ways with the speech patterns of his first mate, Hawkins, who is much more honest about the business that they are in. One of the other stories has a soldier as a lead character, and another has a lady working on a plantation.

I asked Maurice how he developed the historical voices he uses in these tales, and he said "I read a lot of collected stories of emancipated slaves in that era." He wanted to take in as much of the language as possible so he could learn how to use it in the way they would, to reflect their thoughts.

The story "Family Business" takes place in Jamaica, and language use is very interesting there. Maurice said he was paying attention to his family to learn the language style, where people code-switch (change language or language style) depending on who is in the room. Maurice explained that his mother came from Jamaica, Maurice himself grew up in London, and his siblings grew up in America. "I'd just put a recorder in the middle of the dinner table," he says. Apparently, everyone would be self-conscious for about five minutes but then start speaking normally. Listening to the recordings gave him the opportunity to consider slang, how each person speaks, and how their use of language changes. He said he also recorded his son's slumber party once, and it was great to hear their use of slang, what topics they discussed, and what boys think about. He later asked the boys what they had talked about, and found they didn't remember everything accurately. "They had no idea they'd spent a half an hour discussing farts."

The key is talking with people, capturing conversations, studying rhythm and word choice.

I had to ask Maurice about the story that very obviously references Parliament Funkadelic. He said that "The Electric Spanking of the War Babies" was originally published in the Glitter and Mayhem collection that featured disco and roller-skating. He explained that he co-wrote it with Kyle Johnson after an evening discussing ideas over gummi bear flavored vodka while playing Parliament Funkadelic.

I also asked him about the universe featured in Pimp My Airship. Maurice has written a number of stories in that setting, including Buffalo Soldier, which is at and features the origin of the Starchild (a clone of Haile Selassie) and his guardian. We got to see some book covers (so check out the video if you're curious). Desmond takes the child so that he can live his own life and not be a pawn of politicians, but is being pursued. The child represents technology, but they head into the Nation-state of Texas and territories on the West coast. In this world, the United States uses steampunk technology, but Jamaica and the First Nations have explored technology that is not steampunk.

The origin of the Pimp My Airship universe was Twitter, where Maurice tweeted as a joke that he was going to write a Steampunk story with all black characters and call it "Pimp My Airship," and suddenly editors were very interested! The question he had reading Steampunk was "Where are all the Black people?" A lot of Steampunk erases them.

When he wrote the story "Steppin Razor" he was asking "Where does Jamaica fit in all this?" In this universe, America lost the Revolutionary War and is still a British colony. In this universe, Jamaica kept all its resources, as did the First Nations, so they have their own technology. Steampunk tech is not the "height" of technology.

When Maurice looks at where he stands in a particular genre, he wants to write stories that he could have grown up reading. Tonya suggested he write a story about Nanny and the Maroons, and Maurice said in fact that he was going to write a tale of young Nanny for the Hidden Youth anthology, but the idea hasn't become a completed story yet. When he studied Nanny's character for "Steppin' Razor" he discovered there was a lot there.

I asked Maurice if the process of putting together the collection influenced his overall thoughts about his writing and his career. He told me that he thinks deeply about what he is doing with his stories. When he has a new job in the community, he gets to hear new stories. He mentioned that the results of the election have been weighing heavily on him as he considers what they means for him as a black man in America, for his community, and ofr him as an artist. He strives to control the narrative of his own community, and thinks a lot about what that should look at. He says he's politicizing his art. His latest stories take place in the same community in Indianapolis with magical realism. He's developing interconnected short stories within the community, considering the diversity of what it means to be Black. He's also looking at how Africa is portrayed and trying to get away from the dominant image of starving kids, controlling the narrative to show a variety of voices. Eventually, he says, there will be another collection of stories all in this one community. He also has enough stories he could do a Steampunk collection.

Thank you so much for being there, Maurice! I hope to talk to you again about more of your work. Thanks also to everyone who attended, and let's all look out for the novella Buffalo Soldier, coming out from Tor.