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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

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Today’s guest is author, poet, and scriptwriter Gemma Weekes! Her work includes the coming-of-age novel Love Me and writing for the children’s animated series JoJo & Gran Gran, and her speculative fiction includes the short story “(Dying of) Thirst.” The latter is published in “Glimpse: An Anthology of Black British Speculative Fiction,” described as including “Afrofuturistic, magic realism and transformational stories” that “create a dichotomy between the comfortable and the mysterious, tantalizing in their mystique and refreshing in their insight.” I’m delighted that she is here today to discuss her love of fantasy in “Coming Home to Magic.”

Cover of Glimpse: An Anthology of Black British Speculative Fiction, featuring Gemma Weekes

Coming Home to Magic
By Gemma Weekes

I was always coming home to magic.

As a child I was obsessed with fantasy. Every book was a door. Each story was a passage into wonder; an initiation into the promise of an expanded, heroic self. Books were the beginning of magic: fairies that lived at the bottom of the garden; portals to enchanted forests through a wardrobe; entire kingdoms floating in the clouds. I would wrench the cover open and feel the climate of distant vistas. I would fall beyond the loneliness of childhood afternoons that rattled empty as the biscuit tin. Hours that lasted centuries, sagging between lunch and dinner while the adults went about their daily panic. When reached for, books reached back. Books weren’t frazzled or overworked. They weren’t too tired to answer all the questions. They spoke slowly and with great care, building new worlds one sentence at a time. They softened with re-reading. They smelled like sawdust. They poured gold into time.

Fantasy taught me that I could identify with anyone. I could empathize with elves and weep for talking animals. I learned the habits of a broad mind and curious heart. By reading, I developed the sense that there existed only the thinnest of veils between everyday life and a dimension of limitless, delicious mystery. By writing, I discovered that I too was a door.

As I left behind those interminable childhood afternoons, stories changed with me. I was full of longings I couldn’t name and feelings that made me a mystery to myself. I went out into the world and found it strange, chaotic and unjust. I discovered the literary writers who built doors inward, into the tangle of human motivation and subtler forms of magic such as compassion and love. My writing then consisted of maps that would keep me from being lost in a dangerous and complex world. I was less concerned with flying than digging. I was more concerned with the ocean bottom than the sky.

Nowadays I have my own daily panic. I find myself in the nexus between the past and the future, in the space between inner and outer realms. My elders have lapsed into the loneliness of long afternoons. When they reach for me, I try to reach back. I have a teenage son in the grips of his own love affair with magic. He has discovered that he, too, is a door. The world he inherits is even more dangerous than the one I grew up in: blind to its own illusions, polarized by algorithm. In a culture that fetishizes weakness; the promise of an expanded, heroic self is more important than ever. In a climate that ennobles limited perspectives; a broad mind and curious heart are our only hope.

Through him, my writing has remembered me as a child. I dig through everyday life into wild and diverse magics. I escape through myself into wonder. I am obsessed with play, with the potential of speculative forms to remind us of all the delicious mystery beneath all human doing, how that can make us humble and curious once again; courageous enough to ask all the questions. To speak slowly and carefully in a world that values fast opinion over slow fact. To build bridges one sentence at a time. To fall beyond ourselves into the unseen. To pour gold into wounds. To recognise that above all, we are miraculous dust. And that each of us is a door.

Gemma Weekes is the critically-acclaimed author of Love Me (Chatto & Windus), screenwriter (JoJo and Gran Gran), lecturer, mama, widely-published poet and playwright. Her story (Dying of) Thirst is featured in Glimpse (Peepal Tree, 2022), the first anthology of speculative fiction by Black British writers.

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This week’s first Women in SF&F Month guest is fantasy writer Sienna Frost! She is the author of the dark fantasy short story “Sirens” and the first book in the Obsidian series, Obsidian: Awakening, which is described as being “for lovers of brutal epic fantasy with intense political intrigues, strung together by heartbreaking love stories that will forever stay in your heart.” Her novel is a 2022 Indie Ink Awards finalist in several categories, including but not limited to Best Debut, Best Morally Gray Character, Best Setting, and Best Villain. I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss why she writes and publishes in “A World You Don’t Belong.”

Cover of Obsidian: Awakening by Sienna Frost

A World You Don’t Belong
By Sienna Frost / Kajornwan Chueng

“Why do you write?” is one of the questions every writer finds themselves answering at some point, and the replies often range from “I have to or I’ll go crazy” to “I want to be a New York Times bestselling author,” with most ending up somewhere closer to “I didn’t know it pays less than being a janitor!” My own reasons include many of these things, but at the very heart of it, there’s something else quite disturbing that keeps making me write.

I was born sensitive yet stubborn—a problematic combination that draws in bullies because I’m easily hurt, and when you refuse to bend to the world, what begins as an easy target becomes the target. Going against trends to stand your ground makes you a heretic, and people anywhere will burn heretics when they see one, whatever that word means to them at that point in time.

Stubbornness made my life difficult (it still does), and had I been more willing to bend I would have fit in more easily like everyone else. But I was born with an ability to tap into another world that bends to me and that made me even less willing to adapt. By six I was rushing back from school to fight imaginary creatures with an army behind my back and a kingdom that cheered for me. By ten I hadn’t abandoned my imaginary friends, I had an entire imaginary world running with a cast list bigger than Game of Thrones’ at my beck and call. All I had to do was endure a world I don’t belong when I must, and slip into one where I’m wanted every time I had the opportunity. I didn’t like the real world, so I created another one for me. I hated real humans in my life, so I created fictional ones. Blurring the line between reality and imagination was my superpower. It was how I survived.

By twelve I was gifted my first novel to read. It was a Thai novel, I enjoyed it, but it still didn’t beat the stories in my head. What it gave me was a glimpse of another superpower that could be mine. I found a way to build a physical gate to my imaginary world. All I had to do was record these stories in words, then pick up the book whenever I need to meet my imaginary friends. By fourteen I was writing a novel of my own. By sixteen I finished my first trilogy. I spent the next two decades hopping from one continent to another to find a reality I might fit in, and since I couldn’t find one, I kept on writing. I wrote for my eyes only. I wrote because reality disappointed me. I wrote because it was the only thing that kept me living when I couldn’t find another reason why I should.

I have a family now, a loving husband and two children who gave me a world I want to live in, even though it’s roughly the size of my condo unit. Since then writing has become the equivalent of creating my own TV series to watch. After two decades of writing in the closet, I tried writing fan fiction for the first time to share on the internet. I had fun, it blew up, readers told me to write and publish originals, and so I did. I made myself a published author by popular demand, and with it, I opened a gate to hell.

My world, my private, protected space, my sanctuary is now a tourist attraction, a place anyone can come into anytime to attack and hurt me.

But I’ve also discovered something else: every time a reader enters my world and wants to stay in it, that world now exists in another person’s mind. It’s not just me now. I have a family of people who know my imaginary friends and love them too, and the bigger that family grows, the more real my fictional world becomes, the more comfortable I feel with reality because, look, there are people like me here, and I’m not as alone as I thought I was. Readers are the bridge between reality and a writer’s imagination. I will never need readers to write, but the more readers I have, the less I hate my reality, the bigger my place in the world becomes.

It’s a life-changing journey and why I encourage writers to publish as an indie if they can’t get in the door for traditional publishing. Whether the book takes off or not, you will have experienced this at least once before you die, which is not something everyone can say. But there’s just one problem we all have to face: when you share or publish, your ability to play God gets put to the test, and here’s where you face the horror of getting answers to your worst fear: Are there people like you in the world and how many?

Publishing comes at a heavy cost, especially when you’re an indie, and I’m not talking money. Everyone who’s ever done it are locked in this marketing purgatory with no exit. No matter how well you do, the battle continues as expectations are raised and anxiety increases. You’re never happy, it’s never enough, and the higher you climb, the harder you fall, the deeper and more numerous your scars.

Of all the different categories of indies, I’m among the most unfortunate. I’m Thai, and when you’re trying to write in a foreign language people assume immediately that your standard must be low. I live in Bangkok, and the time difference means my social media interactions and interviews are either done while I’m sleeping or my potential readers are sleeping. My book was published without me being able to touch my paperback for months. I can’t sell in many places, organize a book tour, make an audio book with profit share, sign my paperbacks, or sell direct to readers because I don’t live in the right country. I’m a woman running a full-time business with two children to take care of, which means the only time I have to write is between 5am–9am before I go to work. I published my first book at 44—an age most people say is too old to start. I tick all the wrong marks by birth and factors I have no control over. And to top it off, I chose to write fantasy—a genre dominated by men. I have entered yet another world I don’t belong.

People have asked me how I deal with it, especially being a woman in this industry and a mainland POC to boot. Do I think things are hard? Yes. Have I been discriminated against, underestimated, generalized, and labelled before my book is even sampled? Yes. Am I angry or discouraged about these things? Not at all. Life has never been easy, fair, or kind to me, and I wouldn’t be alive today if I needed it to meet my expectations to survive.

But are they right? Do women write horrible fantasy? I don’t know. I haven’t read every fantasy written by women and men and made a comparison of averages, but I’ve read enough to know being a woman doesn’t imply you write bad fantasy. Do many people think that way despite the popularity of so many female fantasy authors? I don’t know. I haven’t seen a proper survey. I’ve seen fights on Twitter that supported either side between maybe ten followers out of the 12,000 I have while the rest stayed silent. These questions are not easily answered, and if I try I’d be more or less generalizing based on who’s being the loudest or from my personal experience, which, let’s face it, doesn’t represent humanity as a whole. I don’t even represent members of my own house.

My point is, maybe they’re statistically right, or maybe they’re wrong about women being inferior in writing fantasy, the fifty other things they say we can’t do, or where each of us do or don’t belong. If you ask me what I think, I’d say, frankly, I don’t give a damn.

I’ve survived a world I don’t belong by writing for decades. I’ve survived worse things than being a woman writing fantasy in a foreign language. I will probably never fit in anywhere and the world will never accommodate people like me. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t start writing to be validated by the majority. I never have.

If I know a thing or two about humanity, it is that most people, anywhere, in any era, will discriminate against outcasts and minorities until they succeed. I’ve learned, that if we want to change something for the outcasts we identify with, then first we must succeed without changing who we are, by doing what we do, and then they’ll listen.

The world alienates us all from the moment we’re born, and it’s always up to us find our own place in it. Writers and creative artists have the power to connect people and give them that place, however small it may be. That’s a superpower writers often forget in the pursuit of fame and monetary success. That’s another reason to write and keep writing even if you can’t make a cent from it. We are fiction writers, born with the ability to bend reality by creating an imaginary universe and making people believe it exists. We can use that superpower for money and fame, then be disappointed when we find out it pays less per hour than cleaning toilets, or we can use it to bring people like us together. I believe that’s why many indies will still write and publish, never mind what the world says about us, or how many copies we sell: to survive a world we don’t belong.

Photo of Sienna Frost and Cat

Sienna Frost is a pen name of a Thai fantasy author who left home at fourteen, lived on her own in four continents, and has spent more than two decades writing fantasy, tragic love stories, and fan fiction to keep herself company in a world she finds herself unwilling to fit in. While most of her stories have been kept for her eyes only, the few she has shared on the internet have been widely read by fans around the world, some with fan-translations available in French, Spanish, Vietnamese, German, Russian, Polish and Chinese. She lives in Bangkok with her husband, two children, and her growing population of rescued cats. An avid traveler and scuba diver, her travel experience and exposure to cultures around the world has inspired many of her stories. Her debut, Obsidian:Awakening, is a literary fantasy inspired by her time spent with bedouins of Jordan and Mongolian nomads.

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The third week of the twelfth annual Women in SF&F Month starts tomorrow. Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests for a fantastic week of essays!

More guest posts are coming up Monday–Thursday, 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 17: Sienna Frost (Obsidian Awakening, “Sirens“)
April 18: Gemma Weekes (Glimpse: An Anthology of Black British Speculative Fiction, Love Me)
April 19: Lauren J. A. Bear (Medusa’s Sisters)
April 20: Martha Wells (Witch King, The Murderbot Diaries, City of Bones)

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is fantasy and paranormal romance writer Leslye Penelope! She is the author of Song of Blood & Stone, which was selected as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time, and the rest of the books in the Earthsinger Chronicles, as well as Savage City, described as “a dystopian, enemies-to-lovers, portal, shifter fantasy romance.” Her latest novel, The Monsters We Defy, is a heist story described as “historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance,” and it was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2022. In addition to writing, she talks about working as a traditional and self-published author in her weekly podcast, My Imaginary Friends. I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss fantasy writing and computer science in “When Fantasy and STEM Collides.”

Cover of The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope Cover of Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope

When Fantasy and STEM Collide
By Leslye Penelope

I first fell in love with writing the weird and fantastical as a child. Of course, this isn’t particularly unusual. The stories we tell children to help them understand the world around them are filled with monsters and fairies, witches and wizards. Tales of creatures with magic powers who live in impossible worlds are the first stories most of us hear. However, as we grow up, so many of us leave fantasy behind in favor of more realistic fiction and entertainment. The real world encroaches, leaving the fantastical by the wayside.

While I never left it completely behind, I too moved on for a while from reading and writing fantasy. Life sharpened my other interests, eventually leading me to a career in website development. However, I found my way back to my first love and never looked back.

Recently, I was on a panel as part of an event with two other Black women authors, Veronica G. Henry and Nicole Glover. We discovered that all of us work in IT for our day jobs and also write speculative fiction, specifically fantasy. STEM fields are pretty much the epitome of realism. Science, technology, engineering, and math focus heavily on our world and on logic, rationality, and repeatable, predictable results. Also, STEM and fantasy fiction are both male-dominated, at least historically, so what draws women, particularly Black women, to both?

For me, like many others who find themselves in technology-centric jobs, I was always intrigued by science and tech. As a young child, I dreamed of becoming a chemist. I was always doing experiments and putting strange concoctions of ingredients into the freezer or onto the stovetop to see what would happen at different temperatures. Of course, by the time I got to chemistry in the tenth grade and received a hard-fought B instead of an easy A, it occurred to me that perhaps my future did not lie in chemistry. Physics was much the same, to my everlasting chagrin. I loved the idea of science, but the practical application of it lowered my GPA more than I would care to remember.

However, I ended up finding my way into computer science. By the age of eight or so, I had become the de facto technical support resource in my home for our IBM computer. I learned DOS commands and how to fix the dot matrix printer when it refused to print. When we got our first modem, I navigated the world of BBSs (early online chat boards) with relative ease. In school, I studied programming languages like Basic and C++, along with Fortran, which for some reason was part of the curriculum of my minor in computer science decades after it had fallen out of regular use.

My writing practice grew alongside my interest in computers and programming, with the stories I wrote always containing some element of the speculative. Dystopian settings, ghostly doppelgängers, and magical adventures filled the pages. My early influences included Edgar Allan Poe, along with the likes of Virginia Hamilton and Gloria Naylor.

I rejected the common wisdom to write what you know. What I knew was bland suburbia; who wanted to read about that? I wanted to write what I didn’t know, things I could only imagine—the what if’s and what could be’s.

I also wanted to write myself into a world that often felt unwelcoming. In some ways, being a nerdy Black girl in majority White spaces was like being left-handed or seven feet tall—nothing was quite made with you in mind. But in the world I didn’t know, the one that I could only imagine, anything was possible.

On the programming side, writing code is a way to envision an outcome and make it a reality. You can create an algorithm which will do what you tell it to. Your code will also not do what you don’t tell it to, so I learned to be as thorough as possible, which has also served me well in fiction writing. Authors are the gods of our own imagined worlds. We create lives and control the heartbreak and joy of our characters.

In that way, writing speculative fiction can be empowering. I have the ability to write myself into any story I choose, in any role I desire, and program the outcomes. Also, to a certain degree, since writing fiction is about manipulating emotions and outcomes for the reader, I can influence the way another person feels.

Researchers have found that reading fiction increases empathy, and what better way to change the world than to make a reader feel certain emotions about characters they are unfamiliar with or never would have empathized with before?

Those of us who work in STEM often see a direct cause and effect in our work. Scientists might adjust hundreds of variables in order to observe the effects of their studies. They predict the result they’re trying to achieve and then work to make it happen. There are many spiritual traditions which believe that people have a hand in creating our own reality. Writers certainly do it every day, taking readers on journeys emanating purely from our minds. And with recent hype around artificial intelligence-assisted technologies shaking up the publishing industry, and perhaps moving our world ever closer to the dystopias of the Terminator and the Matrix franchises, the programmers and developers responsible for these innovations are, very tangibly, shifting and shaping our actual reality.

Futures predicted in works of speculative fiction or film inspire and change us. The powers of science and art combine to create something new and maybe a little terrifying. However, I’ve always found simpatico between the two main spheres of my world: the creative and the technical. My official biography states that I’m equally left and right-brained and, for me, that feels only natural. Doesn’t that equal an entire brain, after all? I’m grateful that I get to be fully and completely myself in all aspects of my life, using all of my brain and my heart to do the work I enjoy.

Photo of Leslye Penelope
Photo by Valerie Bey
Leslye Penelope has been writing since she could hold a pen and loves getting lost in the worlds in her head. She is an award-winning author of fantasy and paranormal romance. Equally left and right-brained, she studied filmmaking and computer science in college and sometimes dreams in HTML. She hosts the My Imaginary Friends podcast and lives in Maryland with her husband and furry dependents. Visit her online at https://www.lpenelope.com/.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Hannah Kaner! Her debut novel, Godkiller, became a #1 Sunday Times bestseller after its UK release earlier this year and will be published in the US on September 12, 2023. It’s described as being set in “a land where all gods have been banned, and one young woman is paid to kill those who still hide in the shadows,” but she “discovers a god she cannot kill: Skedi, a small god of white lies.” I’m thrilled that the author is here today with “Don’t damsel your fury.”

Cover of Godkiller by Hannah Kaner

Don’t damsel your fury – Hannah Kaner

I remember being a furious child. Small and blonde, bookish and talkative, I hated how often I was “baby”, how often I was “cute”. I wanted to be loud, strong, and powerful. I wanted to fight my brothers and my cousins, strength to strength, arm to arm, bloody noses and bruises.

Worse was when they started getting bigger, taller, stronger. Worse is that being as loud as the lads was ‘annoying’ (them), ‘boisterous and unladylike’ (adults), ‘disruptive’ (teachers). I’m sure I was all of those things, but it was early that I understood that there was one expectation for ‘girls’, one for ‘boys’, and you were expected to fit neatly into one or the other.

“Look at you! You’re a woman, not a man—
your strength is no match for your enemies” (Sophocles, Electra)

The stories I consumed seemed to agree. It was a woman’s place to be rescued, or to be a best friend, a supporting act or a love interest, or just scenery. If they wanted to take action, they were either ‘chosen ones’ or they must lament or work within their gender or the limits of their bodies. Electra must wait for Orestes before she can claim her revenge, Clytemnestra is punished for seeking her own, Lady Macbeth demands “Come you spirits. . . unsex me here” so she can realise her ambition, Scheherazade must entice Shahryar with stories to save her head from rolling in the morning.

“All extremes of feeling are allied with madness.” (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)

It’s wild what we learn when we are young, how quickly survival takes centre stage. How important it is to fit, to entice, to cajole.

I started to think that in order to be respected as an agent rather than a supporting act I had to adopt some trappings of masculinity. I leaned into ‘tomboy’, I rejected the femininity I saw as weakness, in much the same way as N.K. Jemisin describes in her post ‘Don’t Fear the Unicorn’.

“Take care.
Ares, god of warfare, lives in women, too.” (Sophocles, Electra)

As I grew and felt more comfortable in my own body, in enjoying my femininity, I still struggled with its limits. I’ve been in ‘team’ scenarios where I’m advised to lower and deepen my voice to be respected, where I’ve had to consider how I can rebuff advances without being ostracised or inviting attack, to present my case as if it was someone else’s idea, and to be called a ‘bulldog’ when I have the courage to speak out.

“If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry. . . You should be angry. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.” (Maya Angelou, Iconoclast)

I’m not alone. As more women, diverse and powerful, trans and cis, use their voices and gain acclaim, the backlash causes whiplash: too much. Not enough. Too aggressive, too performative, too attention seeking, too girly, too emasculating. Not woman enough. As if ‘woman’ was a fixed and simple box tied to reproductive organs and an ability to be sideways-smart and pettable. Cute.

“Not, let it be said at once, an unaggressive or uncombative human being. I am an aging, angry woman laying mightily about me with my handbag, fighting hoodlums off.” (Ursula Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction)

So, writing Godkiller, I wanted to write a woman who never learned how to be small in a world that didn’t expect it of her. The challenges and limits of gender and expectation, queerness and nuclear families are still important stories to explore, but in Godkiller I threw those challenges to the wind. Kissen is everything Electra or Lady Macbeth, Clytemnestra and Scheherazade may have, in my imagination, desired. She is furious at the world and not afraid to voice it. She doesn’t need permission to be aggressive, bloody-fists forward, stubborn as a donkey and larger than life.

She is everything that I wanted to read when I was young.

“There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” (Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Trickster)

And Kissen isn’t an isolated incident. In SFF right now, in writing right now, there are stories bursting at the seams with incandescent dances with women’s rage, rage of different ilk’s, furies of different fashions, of women’s anger in fierce flight. We are allowed to be monstrous, to be agents and, even better, to make mistakes.

The space that speculative fiction, fantasy and sci fi, gives us isn’t just to allow us to fight against the shape the world puts on us, but asks the question: what if the world was a different shape? What if instead of learning to fit into the world, what if we expect the world to fit us?

Photo of Hannah Kaner Hannah Kaner is the #1 internationally bestselling author of Godkiller. A Northumbian writer living in Scotland, she is inspired by world mythologies, angry women, speculative fiction, and the stories we tell ourselves about being human.