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Today’s guest is author Lauren J. A. Bear! Her debut novel coming out August 8, Medusa’s Sisters, is a reimagining of the story of the titular characters described as follows: “Monsters, but not monstrous, Stheno and Euryale will step into the light for the first time to tell the story of how all three sisters lived and were changed by each other, as they struggle against the inherent conflict between sisterhood and individuality, myth and truth, vengeance and peace.” I’m excited she’s here today to share how female fantasy authors and characters helped her in “Finding Fantasy, My Postpartum Power.”

Cover of Medusa's Sisters by Lauren J. A. Bear

Lauren J. A. Bear

I begin with a radical admission: I have never read The Lord of the Rings. For though I am a voracious reader, my speculative fiction journey was stunted. As a kid, I had the potential to be a proper SFF fan. I loved Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons series, trading Marvel Series 4 cards on the playground, pretending to be Xena or Princess Leia in my backyard. But as I got older, the books in class changed. This was “literature,” my teachers said, and these were the novels that mattered. Goodbye, warrior princess. So long, mutant powers. I was nothing if not a good student, and I tucked away my battered copy of Redwall, never to look back. At UCLA, I took my English major very seriously, restricting myself to serious works only. Give me the esoteric, the painful, the plotless. The less digestible the better. Because I reveled in my seriousness.

In 2016, I became pregnant with my second child, my first daughter. It was an exhausting, uncomfortable pregnancy, further exacerbated by a one-year-old at home and my teaching load. My middle school Humanities class focused on American history and literature, and I struggled to process these lessons while becoming increasingly obsessed with the news cycle. I absorbed the polls and cruel sound bites, holding my belly tight, consumed with apprehension. My little girl was born in 2017, into the chaos of #metoo and hurricanes, mass shootings and the Syrian refugee crisis. A time where the violence against women and children seemed to be at an all-time high, haunting me from all angles, every screen.

It seemed like my daughter was entering a society at its worst, and these dark thoughts sunk me into a deep pit of postpartum anxiety. I felt I was treading in a quicksand of sadness—monotonous and insurmountable, humiliating, and lonely. What can I do? Is she going to be ok? Simple, devastating questions. My sweet husband, desperate to help, urged me to read more. But the types of novels I preferred no longer offered solace. Literary fiction and its gritty stories of broken women, abused children, and failed families were a mirror of the reality I sought to escape, only intensifying my despair.

I was stressed, sinking, and so very alone.

But then, thanks to a book review online, I learned about a different kind of story: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. “A YA fantasy?!” my inner Honors student scoffed, “how old are you?”

Still young enough to learn a new trick, apparently—and thankfully.

For in Ember, I found strong women—with swords—who fought for their families in righteous battles as I longed to do. Magic, I realized, fed my soul and I devoured it all: Masks and Dregs, Red Queens then Sun Summoners, wyverns to rukhs. In each new landscape, the female characters showed remarkable agency, and despite their dire circumstances, never lost a sense of optimism—a hope I desperately needed. Move over Harry, these were The Girls Who Lived.

Saying YA fantasy is just for teenage girls implies that there’s something wrong with teenage girls. But what of Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai? Anne Frank? Joan of Arc? The extraordinarily interesting and fierce young women I’ve taught over the years? I understood—with much shame—that I disparaged all of them with this line of thought. At what point in my formative years did I internalize this misogyny, this genre prejudice? I mean, we would all be lucky to have daughters like Katniss Everdeen.

As I’ve told my students time and time again, reading begets reading. I discovered adult SFF writers R.F. Kuang and N.K. Jemisin, women writing deeply cool stories with astute social commentary. And I saw so clearly how SFF writers offer their readers a unique catharsis, an invitation to enter a world (that may look different, but feels familiar), and then kick ass. I dove deep into the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, who even remarks on the limits of realism, arguing in her defense of genre fiction that “realism is quite incapable of describing the complexity of contemporary experience.” It is fantasy, she argues, that best reflects reality.

Fantasy, folklore, and the mythological canon offered me connection. I felt a part of a rich history of protagonists navigating the big bad. I felt seen. Better. Stronger. When the intrusive thoughts came—of my daughter hurt or lost—I had something else to think about. A balm and a distraction, yes, but also a maybe, a what if? Sometimes all you need is just that sense of possibility. These stories alone did not cure my postpartum depression, but they did empower me when I struggled to understand the current world and my place in it. They allowed me to access the inner heroism I needed to save myself.

C.S. Lewis says, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” And maybe I’m finally mature enough to pick up the works of his old buddy Mr. Tolkien.

Better yet, maybe I’ll read them with my daughter.

Photo of Lauren J. A. Bear by Heidi Leonard
Photo by Heidi Leonard
LAUREN J. A. BEAR was born in Boston and raised in Long Beach. After studying English at UCLA and education at LMU, she taught middle-school humanities for over a decade—and survived! She is a teaching fellow for the Holocaust Center for Humanity and lives in Seattle with her husband and three young children. She likes crossword puzzles and being on or near the water without getting wet. Learn more at www.laurenjabear.com or follow Bear on social media:

Twitter: @laurenjabear
Instagram: @laurenjabear