Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Tonya Liburd - Through Dreams She Moves

Author Tonya Liburd came on the show to tell us about the worlds she explores in her many short stories. She was very excited because she has just heard that the Book Smugglers will publish her story, "A Question of Faith," this coming July.

Tonya began by telling us a bit about her personal background. She's a Canadian raised in Trinidad, and, she says, "When I get angry my accent comes out." This background influences her writing. She says she loves to read postcolonial fiction, and lists V.S. Naipaul, Michael Anthony, and Merle Hodge's "Crick Crack Monkey" among her influences. She says she discovered fantasy fiction when she was 20 years old, via a Dragonlance book, and dived right in, but that Romance is not her genre. She also mentioned that Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was important to her.

"I use language a lot," she says. She explained that the language of the English Caribbean is called "Patois" while the language of the Spanish and French Caribbean is called "Creole," and that these are distinct dialects. The Virgin Islands have their own dialect with distinct names for food, etc. A story of hers called "The Ace of Knives" appeared in Postscripts to Darkness involved code-switching, and she was honored when Nisi Shawl used it in a workshop.  She also had a story called "Shoe Man" at Expanded Horizons, and Akashic Books published a story called "Home Again Home Again Jiggety Jig." "Through Dreams She Moves" appears in the Uncommon Minds anthology.

Tonya doesn't give up on her stories. She described a story that she had put away for years, after it was rejected, but that she found a new theme for and now wants to find home for. She told us about discovering a book called The World is Sound in a New Age bookstore, and how the book gave us ideas about commonalities between Indian music and jazz, such as the concept of a mentor teacher. She also says she wanted to write about ancient Egypt, so she brought that in. Her mother had given her a book on ancient Egypt when she was very small, and she has loved it ever since.

I asked Tonya about poetry, since she doesn't just write prose, and poetry is evident in her short stories. "I don't really think of myself as a poet, but poetry comes out of me anyway," she says. She's had success with it, as when she took 4th place in a writing competition about the perceptions of mental illness. She explored dealing with family who want to tell you how to live but won't do research on your condition. She says poetry intersects with her short fiction because writing is lyrical, and music is her thing. She wanted to be a singer/songwriter.

Tonya has several stories in set an alternate Toronto in which every person develops a special "gift" at puberty. These gifts ary widely, and societal systems are in place to help people with their gifts, such as if they need to leave their homes, etc. One guy's gift allows him to charm them with words, and so he becomes a politician. One woman doesn't have a gift, and that makes her a freak ("Superfreak"), and also causes her to be a target for harassment and abuse. Mental health and abuse occur often in Tonya's work, in part because of abusive elements in her own family background. She's very passionate about talking about these topics.

Tonya told us that her story, "Through Dreams She Moves" was inspired by "On Being Undone by a Light Breeze" by Vajra Chandrasekera. It inspired her to try using a combination of first- and second-person narration. Her story was longlisted for an award but she's had a hard time finding a home for it. One of the other features of Tonya's story is that each scene starts with a poetic envoi of three lines. I asked her what the appeal of this world with its people and its "gifts" was, and she said "it lends itself to plot." She told us about another forthcoming story in which a person goes to a hostel and breaks down, with all of their belongings in garbage bags. Each story allows her to explore different elements of this same world, such as homelessness, trauma, cultural isolation, code-switching, self-harm, etc.

"Through Dreams She Moves" arose from asking how people who are sick in this world get healed.
"A Charmed Life" arose from asking what it would be like to be in a position of leadership in this world. Sometimes the gifts can intersection.

"Shoe Man," she says, came from an idea she had when Tade Thomson shared a picture on social media of a shoe with teeth. It turned into a vignette that needed to be expanded, looking at homeless and mental illness.

"Superfreak" features a woman with no gift at all. Tonya apparently felt her way into the story before deciding what the protagonist's gift was, and only quite late realized she didn't have one. That reversal makes her a freak, and Tonya asks, "How would you survive?"

Tonya told us the abuse and mental health themes have been part of her own life for a while. A story of hers called "The Sweater" appeared in the Malahat Review (a Canadian literary magazine); she said "that was the first time I put my life on paper." She told us that she asked people "Should I put this out there?" but got some excellent advice that yes, she should.

Our discussant Wendy Delmater joined us because she is a huge fan of Tonya's work (and editor at Abyss and Apex). She urged Tonya to tell us about her upcoming novel. Tonya started by telling us that the Caribbean is a bona fide Afro-Centric society. "We eat roti the way everyone else eats pizzas." She suggested we go to Trinidad if we wanted to see a real melting pot. They have a distinct language (several, in fact) and distinct folklore including vampiric creatures called soucouyant. They can go through keyholes. To become a soucouyant, a woman makes a deal with the devil, hides her skin, and flies off in a ball of flame. She looks for babies to suck their blood, or in her story, sometimes animals. If you surround your bed with salt, she gets stuck having to count every grain.

The protagonist in the novel is a soucouyant. She meets an East Indian woman who was turned into a Western-style vampire. They live together and cause trouble, but the soucouyant develops a conscience and forms a grief counseling group to help the victims of the vampire, who went on a killing spree. One of the characters is a rape victim who wants to have her memories erased, but this is not as simple a question as it sounds. The soucouyant gets mixed up with more powerful supernaturals who want her to step into line.

It sounds like Tonya has got some super-exciting things coming up, and I urge you to look for her stories (some of which are linked in this post).

Tonya, thank you so much for joining us at short notice! It was a pleasure to talk with you about your work. Our next hangout will be today at 10am Pacific, and we will be discussing Colorism. We have quite a number of discussants lined up for this, but if you can't get in, you can always watch our YouTube live stream. I hope you can make it!




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Friday, February 3, 2017

Fonda Lee and Exo (Out now!)

We had a terrific group for this discussion! Fonda lee joined us to talk about her new book, Exo. She said it was born out of random thoughts during shower/dish time about how there aren't enough aliens in YA. And she wasn't talking about friendly or sexy aliens, or not-so-friendly aliens!

Essentially, Exo is an alien story without either first contact or invasion in it.

The story starts when aliens are already here, and they govern us. Humans and aliens coexist in many contexts, but there is still violence. Some people have bought into the coexisting system, and others don't. Fonda said she really wanted to make sure that nothing was black and white, but that moral issues were subtly shaded.

Her main character is intended to turn tropes on their heads. Donovan is a young human soldier whose job it is to fight human insurgents. Fonda says she wants to see if she can make you root for a character on the "wrong side."

Culturally, the book sounds fascinating. Fonda told me that part of this was deliberate and part unconscious. Her editor apparently came to her and said how great the main character was as a metaphor for a second-generation child with mixed identity. This was something of a surprise, but it was definitely there, and she had an opportunity to strengthen that aspect of the story while working with the editor (so, awesome!).

Donovan is an EXO, a human who has been modified so he has body armor. Because of this he's considered alien to humans, but human to aliens. It's a major identity conflict, and some of Fonda's resources for portraying him no doubt came from her experience as a child of immigrants.

She wanted to make Donovan's experience personal. Writing is personal, she says - even when you are working on pot structure. The personal is what sustains interest and drive.

The setting of the book is Earth after it has been "reformed" by aliens among us. She asked a question I've never seen asked before: Why would aliens show up in a major city, i.e. a place so "infested" with the local inhabitants? Her alien cities are therefore in areas like Patagonia, Mongolia, and the border between Wyoming and Nebraska. Humans then migrate to those areas to interact with the aliens, which means suddenly you have a metropolis in the middle of grassland. North America is split into west and east.

I asked Fonda about her research. She said she picked a few locations to research, using the criterion of high altitude - the kind of spot that makes for a good observatory - because she thought aliens would want to have enhanced ability to communicate with home. These places also had to be sparsely populated and have access to water. She used population maps and looked up the locations of actual deep space antennas. She said she related to the location she used for the main city because she grew up in Alberta, and is familiar with cold prairie land. She also attended the Launchpad Workshop, which is a crash course in astronomy for science fiction and fantasy writers hosted by the University of Wyoming.

Fonda told us, "I discovered I really love designing aliens." Most important to her was that she didn't want them to look like us, since she didn't have to have them portrayed by actors on TV. However, they also needed to be capable of living alongside us, and for that she wanted them to be land-dwelling, and to have a vocal language.

The aliens are the Zri, who are called "shrooms" by the humans. They have domed bodies with six legs and six eyes. Their limbs have fingers. They have musical speech. The languages are incompatible in that humans can't produce alien language, and the aliens can't produce human language, but they are mutually comprehensible.

Fonda mentioned that one of the challenges of space travel she dealt with was radiation. The space-traveling aliens have body armor that allows them to resist this radiation, and so do the humans who are altered to have body armor.

One of the worldbuilding details she told us she liked was how the two groups can understand each other, but not perfectly. They have translation machines to help with the process, but the machines translate the alien language as a deep male human voice.

I asked her about the gender of the aliens, and she said they are hermaphroditic, but "they have male voices." Apparently the aliens deliberately chose to render their voices as those of human males in order to prey on human patriarchal expectations. Fonda notes that humans will also do that, as when female CEOs will deepen their voices.

Fonda likes to ask, "What's the logic behind that?" when she is worldbuilding. She also asks, "What from this world is relevant?" The aliens couldn't be sentient plants or light particles. All alien stories, she says, are human stories. We use the lens of Other to examine ourselves and ask, "What is human?" It's very important to look at humans interacting with the strange and unknown.

She told us about the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron, who says we are wired for stories because we are testing ourselves in preparation for actual scenarios.

Fonda says using aliens is a relatively safe way to portray the Other because it doesn't involve projecting Other onto other humans.

Donovan, the main character in Exo, is a member of the Global Security Forces. He gets abducted by a terrorist militia, an anti-alien human group. Because Donovan is the son of a political leader, he is perceived as a bargaining chip. However, things go wrong. Donovan understands the stance of the militia but at the same time is loyal to his father. Fonda says this is "not a good guys versus bad guys" story, but happens in a moral gray zone. We love the rebel versus the evil empire, Katniss, etc. but in many places, America is the evil empire. She wanted to ask "What is a terrorist?" "What is the justification that opposing sides use in conflict?"

Fonda also says that teens have a better sense of the world's complexity than we think. They can handle nuance in a story. She told us about a high school visit when she learned that teens are still reading "classics" which were written as adult works. We noted that YA is a new genre. Fonda says she's comfortable there because she loves the transition phase. We can still be coming of age until age 40, she says.

Sarah asked whether Fonda had done much digging into different Earth cultures. There is not so much of that in Exo, but it does nod to other areas of the world and how the alien occupation played differently there.

Khaalidah asked about Fonda's writing process. Fonda said that every book is different. Her first novel, Zeroboxer, took 6-8 weeks of research and a year for the first draft and revisions. Exo, she says, started as a "trainwreck NaNoWriMo."She tried to "pants it," or just write it without planning, and stalled out after 30,000 words, so had to delete it and try again. The second time she re-envisioned it, and rewrote it more. Exo has more layers to it, and needed more drafts to bring it into focus. Fonda says there will be a second book to follow Exo, too. An idea can marinate for months or years, but she estimates two months for research and outlining, five months for the first draft, a break, and then two and a half months or so for revision. When she uses an outline, it hits major plot points, and notes on character arcs. She sold the sequel to Exo on proposal with an outline and three chapters. Having an outline, she notes, doesn't necessarily mean anything once you start writing. She quotes Lin-Manuel Miranda saying some "ideas are Moses," in that they lead you somewhere important even if they don't make it into the final book.

Lastly, we asked about the gender of the main character. Fonda says that she's written young men so far because that's "the character that pops into my head." She's had people say "you like to write teenage boys," but she says she likes to write others, too.

Fonda, thank you so much for coming and telling us about this exciting book - it's out now, so go read it! Thank you also to everyone who attended and make the discussion so fascinating.

Next week, 2/8/17 at 10am Pacific, we'll be speaking with guest author Alec Nevala-Lee about his story, "The Proving Ground." We also have a discussion of Colorism scheduled for February 15th at 10am Pacific, so please let me know if you would like to participate.




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