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Today’s guest is fantasy and science fiction writer Moniquill Blackgoose! Her fantasy novel To Shape a Dragon’s Breath, the first book in a new series that will be released on May 9, is described as following “a young Indigenous woman [who] enters a colonizer-run dragon academy—and quickly finds herself at odds with the ‘approved’ way of doing things.” I’m excited she’s here today to discuss media representation, writing, and creativity!

Cover of To Shape a Dragons Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose

Let me tell you a story about media representation and how it informs creativity.

I was born into a nerdy family. I attended renfaires while still in diapers, and got The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia as bedtime stories. I read Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, and Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, and Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. I adored The Last Unicorn and The Neverending Story and Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and Willow.

There were no indigenous people in these fantasy worlds, though.

The first time I experienced an indigenous person in an SF/F/H setting was Disney’s Peter Pan — and anyone familiar will know there are….problems with that representation. I was about six years old.

Dances With Wolves came out when I was seven years old.

The second time I experienced an indigenous person in an SF/F/H setting was in Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker series — and anyone familiar will know there are….problems with that representation. I was ten or eleven years old.

Disney’s Pocahontas came out when I was twelve.

These were the media influences that acknowledged that indigenous North American people existed at all. Most simply didn’t.

When I was a kid, I wrote a sci-fi story about space exploration and first contact. It had a huge ensemble cast — a hugely diverse cast too, with tons of POC. I even had characters with disabilities and non-binary genders. This was mostly because my ideas about what sci-fi was and what characters could be in it were largely informed, at the time, by Star Trek and the Star Wars prequels and Independence Day and The Fifth Element and Men in Black and The Matrix. They were stories with POC in them, characters with disabilities, characters who were from disparate cultures and had disparate identities and ways of being.

My story didn’t have any indigenous people in it, though. Because indigenous people never existed in future narratives.

When I was a kid, I also wrote a fantasy story about a plucky young woman uncovering her secret past and learning to do magic. There was not a single person of color in it. There were groups facing oppression — but they were represented by light-skinned or animal-featured nonhumans. This was mostly because my ideas about what fantasy was and what characters could be in it were largely informed, at the time, by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, by Disney and Don Bleuth and Jim Henson. Stories with no POC in them, where everyone was able-bodied and white and usually thin and pretty (extra points for ‘pretty’ being described as ‘fair’) unless they were EVIL.

I was a young Seaconke Wampanoag woman. None of my characters ever, EVER, were. Because people like me didn’t exist in stories like that. My artistic vision and my creative process were hugely affected by the stories I’d been told my entire life. I did not imagine POC characters in fantasy stories, but I did imagine them in sci-fi stories. Because I’d been told by the stories I’d been fed from early childhood that POC could exist in the future, but not in fantasy; fantasy was generally set in mythical whitelandia not really resembling Europe, and if POC were even mentioned they were from exotic foreign lands to the south and the east (and they were seldom characters, certainly never core characters).

Indigenous North American people simply didn’t exist at all.

Every story I’m able to tell is informed by every story I’ve ever been told.

I didn’t start writing SF/F/H stories with indigenous protagonists until I was in college.

We’re currently in the middle of an indigenous author renaissance — Darcie Littlebadger’s Elatsoe and A Snake Falls to Earth. Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves and Hunting by Stars. Katherena Vermette’s A Girl Called Echo series. Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction edited by Joshua Whitehead and Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-fi Anthology edited by Hope Nicholson. I love seeing these works, and I love being part of this new literary movement, telling the story of a young woman (who is unapologetically indigenous) who bonds with a dragon and must go among her colonizers to prove herself worthy of such an honor.

I want better representation for young indigenous readers than what I got.

I want to help tell those stories.

Photo of Moniquill Blackgoose Moniquill Blackgoose began writing science fiction and fantasy when she was twelve and hasn’t stopped writing since. She is an enrolled member of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe, and a lineal descendant of Ousamequin Massasoit. She is an avid costumer, and an active member of the steampunk community. She has blogged, essayed, and discussed extensively across many platforms the depictions of Indigenous and Indigenous-coded characters in sci-fi and fantasy. Her works often explore themes of inequality in social and political power, consent, agency, and social revolution.

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Today’s guest is science fiction author Kemi Ashing-Giwa! Her novel coming out July 11, The Splinter in the Sky, is described as “a diverse, exciting debut space opera about a young tea expert who is taken as a political prisoner and recruited to spy on government officials—a role that may empower her to win back her nation’s independence.” I’m excited she’s here today to tell us more about it and the role of family!

Cover of The Splinter in the Sky by Kemi Ashing-Giwa

The Splinter in the Sky is a space opera spy thriller about a tea specialist-turned-assassin who embarks on a mission to save her sibling and avenge her fallen lover. It’s a story that examines the far-reaching effects of imperialism and colonialism, as well as the simultaneous commodification, absorption, and erasure of culture. It explores how systems of oppression—and the beliefs sustaining them—rise and fall. But most importantly, The Splinter in the Sky is a story about family.

I am a child of immigrants. My mother is from Trinidad, my father is from Nigeria. My mother’s mother moved from Grenada, and her father sailed to the Carribbean from China. (The “Ashing” in my surname comes from Hua Ching, which British officials found too difficult to pronounce.) My extended family is collectively fluent in five or six languages. (Not I, though. My first language was actually Spanish, but I lost all fluency because everyone spoke English to me after I was about five. Alas and alack!) At home, wooden statues stand between porcelain vases in glass cabinets; carved masks hang above inlaid folding screens. Despite living in a veritable melting pot, being multiethnic in America is certainly an experience. (For example: for most of my life, demographics forms allowed for the selection of only a single race.)

When I was querying my debut, I didn’t quite know how to explain that while I certainly drew from Western African influences while weaving a far-future world, I pulled from East Asian ones as well. My story isn’t exactly Afro- or Africanfuturistic, and it’s not silkpunk either. (On that note, there’s a lengthy conversation to be had about the literary propensity to lump every single science fiction or fantasy book written by African- and Asian-descended people into these categories.)

Many authors who write about their own cultures, or whose secondary worlds are inspired by their own cultures, feel a great deal of pressure to be completely “authentic.” To be “correct” in their representation. And it’s exhausting. A hard lesson to learn as a writer is that you simply cannot please everyone. All you can really do is try to please yourself. I gave up trying to write the Perfect Multiethnic Space Opera a few pages into the first draft and instead did what I actually wanted to do, which was to toss in bits and pieces of my own melange of an upbringing whenever and wherever I pleased.

I’m sure some will find that odd. But The Splinter in the Sky truly feels like it’s mine, in every sense of the word. It feels like it’s my family’s. And if I’ve failed at everything else with this book, at least I’ve succeeded in being authentic to myself.

Photo of Kemi Ashing-Giwa Kemi Ashing-Giwa was born and raised in sunny Southern California, where she grew up on a steady diet of sci-fi and fantasy. She enjoys learning about the real universe as much as she likes making ones up. A recent graduate of Harvard University, where she studied integrative biology and astrophysics, she is now pursuing a PhD in the Earth & Planetary Sciences department at Stanford University. Her debut novel, The Splinter in the Sky, will be published by Saga Press/Simon & Schuster in summer 2023. Her debut novella, This World Is Not Yours, will be published by Tor Nightfire/Macmillan Publishers in 2024.

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Today’s guest is N. E. Davenport, aka Nia Davenport! She’s the author of The Blood Gift Duology, which starts with The Blood Trials. The first book in this science fantasy series is described as a “fast-paced, action-packed debut [that] kicks off a duology of loyalty and rebellion, in which a young Black woman must survive deadly trials in a racist and misogynistic society to become an elite warrior.” The concluding volume, The Blood Gift, was just released last week. I’m delighted the author is here today with “Why I Write Confident Heroines.”

Cover of The Blood Trials by N. E. Davenport Cover of The Blood Gift by N. E. Davenport

Why I Write Confident Heroines
by N.E. Davenport

It’s interesting that male characters and female characters are often held to different standards. A reader might approach a story that features an arrogant male protagonist and adore the character trait. The hero is praised as enthralling and charismatic simply for being audacious. When the same character traits of brazenness and extreme confidence get assigned to a protagonist who identifies as a woman or young girl, some readers immediately perceive the heroine as too arrogant and critique the character for not being humble enough. This isn’t merely a trend observed with books, it happens with TV shows, movies, and even in real life arenas where education and the workplace are concerned.

I imagine that for a portion of society, it’s a thinking rooted in antiquated ideas, stereotypes, and sexism that must be interrogated, subverted, and dismantled. I purposefully write my heroines, as well as most of my secondary female characters, to possess extreme confidence in themselves, their abilities, their value, their strengths, and their physical appearances. In fact, most of my female characters may even skew toward being a tad bit vain, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Often, young girls and women are made to feel like we need to shrink ourselves and not shine as bright, so others feel better about themselves. Young girls are too often overtly or covertly taught not to be vocal about their strengths and achievements because it’s “improper” and a reflection of “poor etiquette.” I don’t ascribe to any of this. Younger girls and women should be able to be unapologetically and unabashedly proud of their achievements and joyfully vocal about them without criticism.

This may be a constant struggle for some of us in the real world, but that’s the beauty of science-fiction/fantasy. I can make my worlds, their rules, and how they operate be entirely what I want; I can make them part escapism, even when they’re interrogating or subverting prejudices. In my SFF worlds, women are proud, confident, bold, arrogant, and very vocal about their strengths and achievements. They’re extraordinary, they are aware that they’re extraordinary, and they let the world around them know they’re extraordinary. Yes, they brag a lot. Because why not? If nobody could beat me in a fight, or if I was the ruler of a powerful realm, or the fiercest dragon rider, or an infamous pirate captain—I’d endlessly brag about those feats too!

In my debut science fantasy, THE BLOOD TRIALS, and its sequel, THE BLOOD GIFT, I created a heroine that I’m super proud of and admire the heck out of. I created a young woman, Ikenna, who has achieved at nineteen years of age what it took me a bit longer to accomplish. She knows her worth, recognizes her value, adores herself, understands her strengths, and is her own greatest champion. And she’s boastful. Without an ounce of embarrassment, shame, or misplaced guilt, Ikenna does not hesitate to proclaim to the world that she’s extraordinary—and she ensures those who’d belittle her to place themselves on a pedestal of false superiority never forget it.

I spent a good amount of my own youth yearning to be the type of person who projects an effortless confidence in themselves. That younger version of me didn’t quite know how to achieve this until my mid twenties. I’ve overcome this personal challenge in the present day. In many ways I’m a lot like the heroines I write and I’ve never experienced more joy. There’s something profoundly fulfilling in being sure of yourself and knowing you’re spectacular—even while living in a world that tries to tell you daily that you should be more humble and that you aren’t good enough. I didn’t focus much on my race or ethnicity while drafting this guest post, but I am a Black woman and existing as a Black woman within a world where anti-Blackness pervades the globe is one factor that carried my greatest challenges regarding learning to be confident and sure of myself when I was a young girl. They’ve been hard won achievements, and I celebrate them now (while lessening old stings) through writing heroines that have the fortune and joyful experience of recognizing how truly amazing they are from day one and making the world recognize it too.

Photo of N. E. Davenport Nia “N.E.” Davenport is the Science Fiction/Fantasy author of The Blood Gift duology (Harper Voyager), Out of Body (Balzer+Bray), and Love Spells Trouble (Bloomsbury). She’s also a member of the Hugo-nominated FIYAHCON team, in which she helps organize the SFF convention’s programming. She attended the University of Southern California and studied Biological Sciences and Theatre. She has an M.A. in Secondary Education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys vacationing with her family, skiing, and being a huge foodie. She’s an advocate for diverse perspectives and protagonists in literature. You can find her online at www.nedavenport.com, on Twitter @nia_davenport, or on Instagram @nia.davenport, where she talks about binge-worthy TV, fun movies, and killer books. She lives in Texas with her husband and kids.

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This week of Women in SF&F Month starts with a guest post by A. Y. Chao! Her upcoming fantasy book set in 1930s China, Shanghai Immortal, is described as “a stunningly rich novel with a snarky, irreverent main character struggling to reconcile her mixed heritage—it’s not easy being half vampire and half hulijing fox spirit—whilst solving a mystery concerning the King’s Dragon Pearl and accidentally falling in love.” The UK edition of her novel will be released on June 1, and it will also be published in the US and Canada on October 31. I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss erasure and identity in “Mirrors and Doorways.”

Cover of Shanghai Immortal by A. Y. Chao

Mirrors and Doorways

“[W]hen I didn’t see myself in a mirror, I smashed it and saw myself in the pieces.” Diana Pho, “Breaking Mirrors”, jimchines.com

Erasure is an insidious thing. Identity—from the individual to an entire culture—is treated as if it doesn’t exist. It says: You don’t matter. You’re not wanted. You don’t belong.

But enough of that. We’re here to talk about me.[1]

I was born in the foothills of Alberta, Canada—a transition zone, or as I like to think of it, a melding space between the prairies and the Rocky Mountains. Neither completely one nor the other, but something which embraced both. My Chinese Canadian diaspora identity is much the same—created in a melding space where the traditions and cultural values my immigrant parents brought with them were woven together with local traditions and social mores.

We celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving with Butterball turkeys from Safeway roasted with 臘肉糯米飯[2] stuffing. Christmas came with stars atop decorated trees and 紅包[3] galore. We celebrated Lunar New Year with dancing lions, and to the delight of children and singletons, even more 紅包[4].

My identity however was entirely absent in popular culture and literature. I was a teen who laughed raucously at Saturday Night Live’s “Church Lady.” I listened to New Order, a-ha, and Jacky Cheung. I was respectful to my elders. I didn’t roll my eyes at my grandmother (even though I wanted to) when she insisted I go to church because otherwise, not only would I burn in Hell but also how would I ever meet a husband?

My parents, like many Chinese parents, showed their love through acts of service and sacrifice. They also skied, played golf and mahjong, watched ballet, and liked to dance. But in Western media, I never saw parents like mine, or kids like me. The collective mirror of popular culture erased us. When they did give us space in the mirror, what peered back was ugly and distorted: a sidekick, an object of mockery stripped of dignity; Mickey Rooney in yellowface, Long Duck Dong.

How was it that I swooned over Sixteen Candles, sighed wistfully at Audrey Hepburn’s gamine fragility in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite the dreadful rep and enjoyed the countless books, films and TV shows set in worlds where I simply didn’t exist? I lacked the vocabulary to pin-point the dissonance and discomfort I felt. I lacked the understanding that I was not alone in those feelings. (That epiphany would come much, much later.) I did not lack, however, the ability—learned by necessity—to smash the mirror, turning a carefully blind eye to the edges that would draw blood, and pick out only those shards where I might see myself.

“That was how I learned to survive; by seeing myself in the pieces I could, even if I didn’t exactly, see me.” Diana Pho, ibid.

In 1989, I read Amy Tan’s blockbuster hit The Joy Luck Club. It was the first book where I didn’t have to shatter the story into tiny bits to find myself. The 1993 movie that followed with a full-on Chinese cast of gorgeous, glamourous women blew. my. mind. It was the first time I’d seen my community portrayed by Hollywood in a way that didn’t denigrate. Sure, it wasn’t exactly the community I grew up with, because Amy Tan’s writing is informed by her lived experience, not mine. There are a billion Chinese people and its diaspora is huge[5] and varied, hence why not a monolith deserves to be a truth universally acknowledged.

It wasn’t until the recent windfall of books with Chinese casts (naming only a handful of many: Fonda Lee’s Jade City, Cindy Pon’s Want, R F Kuang’s The Poppy War, Sue Lynn Tan’s Daughter of the Moon Goddess, Andrea Stewart’s Bone Shard Daughter, Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, and Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow) that I felt seen and understood how bereft I had been. In these stories, I no longer have to scrabble in the dirt for shards of mirror.

“We are all products of our context. We are all descendants of something and someone.” Daniel Kwan, 2023 Oscars “Everything Everywhere All at Once” Best Director acceptance speech

My own writing is fuelled by my lived experience—the sour hot mixture of defiance and guilt when faced with parental disappointment (yes, even as an adult!), the visceral rejection of the ‘only boys do that’ scoldings, the joy and comfort in that quiet love language typical of older generation Chinese, my somewhat dark, somewhat arch, often in the toilet, Canadian sense of humour. I wanted to see myself in my writing and offer my mirror to others, in the hopes they can find themselves in the story without needing to sift through broken shards.

While this article is ostensibly about me, in truth, it is about all the women who came before me: my mother’s indefatigable spirit and support, who taught me to love my dual heritage; the authors who paved the way by writing their truths; the readers who opened their hearts and embraced our stories; the editors who fought to open publishing’s doors, who bought and published our stories, especially the ones who never said, oh we already have one of those; and the entrepreneurs who created a space and demand for diverse voices[6] and their stories. I see you. I am here because of you.

Together, we’re creating a kaleidoscope of representation and wedging the door wide open. Come on in.

You matter. You’re wanted. You belong.

[1] Because self-representation and context matter.

[2] Pork belly and sticky rice (larou nuomifan).

[3] Red envelopes (hong bao) also known as laisee, are festive gifts filled with cold hard cash. When you greet your elders with 恭喜發財 (gong xi fa cai) Happy New Year! during Lunar New Year, children and singletons receive a hong bao. A somewhat cheeky rhyme I never dared use with my elders but would exchange with my cousins went 恭喜發財 紅包拿來 (gong xi fa cai, hong bao na lai) which means Happy New Year! Bring me hong bao! which has definite Show me the money! vibes.

[4] As Ronny Chieng would say, “Hope you get rich.”

[5] 60 million if you count descendants.

[6] I’ve written mostly about Chinese diaspora representation, but the growth of nuanced representation goes hand in hand with overall diversity in publishing. Shout out to Illumicrate and FairyLoot, UK SFF subscription book boxes founded by, respectively, Daphne Tong and Anissa de Gomery, two incredible women who have created space for diverse voices and a healthy demand for diverse stories.

Photo of A. Y. Chao A. Y. Chao is the author of Shanghai Immortal (Hodderscape, 2023). This fantasy novel stars the gloriously snarky Lady Jing, an outcast noble in the court of the king of Shanghai’s nether realm, who sets out to uncover a conspiracy to steal the Dragon Pearl, and finds her own identity—and a little love—in the process.

Born in Canada, A. Y. Chao lives in the UK with her husband and daughter. She is a recovering lawyer with a xiaolongbao habit and a predilection for knitting.

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It’s the last week of the twelfth annual Women in SF&F Month. Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests for the wonderful essays!

There will be more guest posts this week, but before announcing the schedule, here are last week’s pieces in case you missed any of them.

All of the guest posts from April 2023 can be found here, and last week’s guest posts were:

And there are most guest posts coming up, starting tomorrow! This week’s essays are by:

Women in SF&F Month 2023 Schedule Graphic

April 24: A. Y. Chao (Shanghai Immortal)
April 25: Nia / N. E. Davenport (The Blood Trials, The Blood Gift)
April 26: Kemi Ashing-Giwa (The Splinter in the Sky)
April 27: Moniquill Blackgoose (To Shape a Dragon’s Breath)

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Today’s guest is Martha Wells, who is joining us for Women in SF&F Month once again! (She discussed her Books of the Raksura during the very first event in 2012.) Her work includes the fantasy novels The Element of Fire and The Death of the Necromancer, collected in the upcoming edition The Book of Ile-Rien (2024), and City of Bones, which is being rereleased on September 5, 2023. She has also written books set in the Star Wars and Stargate Atlantis universes, and she is the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling science fiction books in The Murderbot Diaries, winner of the Hugo Award for Best Series. Her next novel, the fantasy book Witch King, is described as “a remarkable story of power and friendship, of trust and betrayal, and of the families we choose.” It’s coming out on May 30, but in the meantime, you can learn more about it (as well as a few other books) in her guest post, “Deconstructing Epics.”

Cover of Witch King by Martha Wells

Deconstructing Epics
by Martha Wells

The typical image of an epic is a set of thick multi-volume novels. But the secret is, you can write epic fantasy and science fiction at any length, using any structure you want.

When I started writing Witch King, I thought I was writing a story set in the aftermath of a multi-volume epic fantasy. What happens after the evil empire is defeated. I’ve always liked stories that start after the classic happily-ever-after. Like The Cloud Roads, where Moon finds his people and the home he’s always been searching for, but that’s just the start of his problems.

In the past of Witch King, a conquering genocidal empire has invaded a group of civilizations who had been living together in peace. The main characters are immortals with a deeply personal stake in their world, and even though the war is over, they find themselves in a deadly political battle to keep the alliance that defeated that empire from turning into an empire of its own. But to tell that story effectively, I realized I needed to show at least part of that past. Then I realized the past and the present storylines were intertwined and equally important, to tell a story about found family and betrayal and fighting to preserve the world you fought so hard for.

I know I couldn’t have written this book ten years ago and I know it certainly wouldn’t have found a publisher. One of the things I love about the last decade or so in science fiction and fantasy is the way it has broken out of restrictive categories and storytelling conventions. The influx of new writers and new voices and established writers employing a greater range of storytelling styles and subjects has generated a lot of brilliant and original work. And I’ve been heavily influenced in the last several years by writers writing epics, but at shorter lengths or using structures that aren’t typical for epic fantasy in western fiction.

For me, probably one of the best examples of epic storytelling at a shorter length is The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo. It’s a brilliant short novella that tells an epic story of revenge and the fall of empire, as a historian and cleric interviews the one remaining witness who was in the room where it happened. This is an intensely personal story of a woman who masterminds the fall of the emperor who imprisoned her and the people who gave up everything to help her cause. This is an epic compressed down to bite-size length, but for me it makes for an even greater impact.

For a science fiction example, Karen Lord’s upcoming novel The Blue, Beautiful World is set in the same universe as her novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. Though the new novel follows some of the same characters and continues their storylines, it also tells most of the story — the culmination of  a tense long-ranging effort to stop the exploitation and takeover of Earth by aliens — from outsider perspectives, that of the people who are being taught to help save themselves.

The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera is not a short novel, and it’s the first part of a trilogy, but it’s also a gripping epic fantasy in one volume, telling a generational story of Imperial and cultural and personal conflict and a war against encroaching demons. All through the focused lens of an intense first person account of a lifelong friendship and romance between the two women main characters.

Fantasy and science fiction has been called a genre of tropes, but the secret is that you can do anything you want with it, and tell your story in the way that works for you. The element that makes each story special is the person writing it, and the more of yourself you put into it, the better.

Photo of Martha Wells Martha Wells has been an SF/F writer since her first fantasy novel was published in 1993, and her work includes The Books of the Raksura series, The Death of the Necromancer, the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, The Murderbot Diaries series, media tie-in fiction for Star WarsStargate: Atlantis, and Magic: the Gathering, as well as short fiction, YA novels, and non-fiction. She has won Nebula Awards, Hugo Awards, and Locus Awards, and her work has appeared on the Philip K. Dick Award ballot, the BSFA Award ballot, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. She is a member of the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and her books have been published in twenty-five languages.