Brit Mandelo’s Beyond Binary Interview

beyond binary

Over at Omnivoracious.com you’ll find my feature on the excellent anthology Beyond Binary, including quotes from an interview I conducted with editor Brit Mandelo. Go check it out and recommend it to your friends! And below you’ll find Mandelo’s full answers to a couple of the questions; I couldn’t include everything due to length considerations.

What do you think makes SF/F ideal for exploring ideas and issues related to gender and sexual identity?

I think that the astounding range of possibilities speculative fiction offers for asking vital questions, reinterpreting or discarding contemporary mores, and breaking boundaries is what makes it ideal for exploring issues of gender and sexuality. SFF not only allows us to ask “what if?,” it also allows us to make real whatever we can imagine—the very nature of the form, as a literature of extrapolation and invention, opens up a field of discourse where everything has potential and anything is possible. This nearly unlimited ability to explore, expand, and explode definitions makes speculative fiction the only form that can effectively transcend and truly embody an equally vast multitude of potential gender and sexual identities.

In the same vein, Joanna Russ’s argument for speculative fiction is one that resonates with me, too, and I tend to quote it when asked a question like this. She said, “science fiction […] provides myths for dealing with the kind of experiences we are actually having now, instead of the literary myths we have inherited, which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we ought to be having.” In SFF, we can deal authentically with issues of identity and self in a way that is often effaced or barred from traditional literary forms; being able to twist and restructure reality in narrative is a powerful tool for social criticism. In fact, I’d say that the tools for social criticism are natural to and almost inseparable from the same narrative machinery that drives speculative fiction to begin with—that willingness to ask questions, to imagine, and to invent worlds that are not quite like our own. Speculative fiction, then, offers a golden opportunity for folks whose stories are often silenced to encompass their narratives, their identities, in a form that is—in a lot of ways, though this is a whole different argument—itself a sort of outsider literature.

I’m curious as to what kinds of effects stripping out gender referents has on fiction, in your opinion?

When done well, it can destabilize narrative assumptions about gender—and, even more so, reader assumptions. When we begin reading a story, we make assumptions based on hints and clues from the narrative, yes, but also based on our own implicit worldview. I’m as guilty of this as anyone; it’s just a way that we make meaning during the reading process. But, when a story manages to sidestep gender referents and craft a narrative not mediated by explicit gender, that’s something special: it forces the reader to step back and check their own assumptions about character gender, and destabilizes the assumption that everyone presents a specific gender. The thematic force of a narrative that rests on an agendered, neutrois or un-gendered person can also be pretty stellar, challenging mythologies of gender performance and the binary of male/female that the English language so commonly subscribes to. (And, on a craft level, writing without gendering a character is a pretty thrilling display of technical mastery. It’s hard to overstate the control and precision required to write, and write well, without pronouns or gendered language.)

The Art of the Literary Fake–Now Online

My essay “The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin)” is now online at the New Haven Review’s website. At over 9,000 words it’s my longest essay since I wrote about Angela Carter almost 20 years ago. I’m appreciative of the opportunity, courtesy of Brian Slattery, and I hope you enjoy the results. The essay references everything from mad penguin researchers to capybaras, bizarre crayfish dictionaries to Nabokov.

Excerpt:

“Play isn’t academically rigorous, can’t be easily quantified, and suggests a border that criticism cannot cross. The Quintus Erectus that lies peacefully in the morgue, awaiting dissection, suddenly slips through our fingers when we produce the scalpel, and then reappears, grinning at us mysteriously from a chair across the room. It’s as if a mischievous but highly intelligent ghost haunts the text. To speak of a ghost directly, and especially an unpredictable ghost, is to be seen as childish or superstitious, even though we are all childish and superstitious.”

Notable New Books: Beyond Binary, Lauriat, The Moment of Change, and Yesterday’s Hero


(The cool cover art for Lauriat)

I’m a little behind on blogging about some interesting books that’ve come my way. So here are thumbnails on four of them, all of which you should consider picking up…

Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Charles Tan. “Filipinos and Chinese have a rich, vibrant literature when it comes to speculative fiction. But what about the fiction of the Filipino-Chinese, who draw their roots from both cultures? This is what this anthology attempts to answer. Featuring stories that deal with voyeur ghosts, taboo lovers, a town that cannot sleep, the Chinese zodiac, and an exile that finally comes home, Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology covers a diverse selection of narratives from fresh, Southeast Asian voices.” Written up in Publishers Weekly and on io9.com. I’m still delving into it and finding it very entertaining.

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Summer Road Trip Book Haul: More Than You Might Think…

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(An anthology of Bruno Schulz-inspired fiction ffrom Ex Occidente and the latest from Wendy Walker–check out Wendy Walker’s back catalogue.)

I never intend to buy books on trips, and I especially didn’t intend to on this latest one, where from July 10 through August 5, I went from the Stonecoast MFA program to ReaderCon to the Shared Worlds teen SF/F camp. But, as usual, no matter what I plan, books accrete to me without conscious thought…So here’s the run-down on what I acquired, or was gifted to me.

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Carlos Fuentes Vlad Review in the NYTBR

The New York Times Book Review has published my review of Carlos Fuentes’ Vlad.

“When rodents are being shoved down your pants, you know things aren’t going to end well.”

Essay in the New Haven Review: The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin)

The New Haven Review’s issue #10 (summer) is now out, and it includes my 9,000-word essay “The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin),” which is an exploration of literary fakes. It focuses on a book entitled An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin but also explores strange facts, an odd book of crayfish names, an eccentric penguin researcher tome, and much more. Here’s the opening of the essay, which is the longest piece of nonfiction I’ve written since my essay on Angela Carter back about 20 years ago. Other contributors to this issue include Nick Mamatas. You can order the journal here. Thanks to Brian Slattery for commissioning the piece.

***

This sentence is a fake.
This sentence is the original.
This sentence is an animal, not a series of words.

Michal Ajvaz’s short story “Quintus Erectus” provides an instructional metaphor with regard to literary fakes, a form with which readers and reviewers have a long yet uneasy history. “Quintus Erectus” describes a capybara-like South American mammal that, when it stands on its hindquarters, “presses its hands closely to the body, turns its head to the attacker and remains motionless…two vertical strips of dark hair…evoke an impression of human hands with fingers,” while coloration on the head “depicts the human face.” At a distance of three meters “we can easily mistake the animal for a man; from a distance of five meters the animal is indistinguishable from a man.” In the story, this unsettling illusion creates a feeling of wrongness and nausea in many observers. Are they seeing an animal or a human being? Is the text itself really a story or is it a disturbing something other, pretending to be a story?

The story of Quintus Erectus in some ways mimics the reaction in certain quarters to the literary fake—a piece of fiction that pretends in some way to be true. Is it fact or fiction? Is it good fun or something more disturbing? By operating under the auspices of traditionally nonfictional modes to tell its story, the literary fake chooses to bring the reader to suspension of disbelief through means that include extreme guile—and, in cases where the reader recognizes the trick, continues to amuse, entertain, and say something interesting about the human condition regardless. As such, it destabilizes our view of reality, which can be uncomfortable, sometimes unforgiveable, especially if we think someone is laughing at us. We don’t always appreciate things that look like other things, even if there’s a purpose to the mimicry; perhaps this is a vestige of an ancient evolutionary trait that allowed us to discern between the harmless and the harmful.

Nor do some readers, apparently, like to think they are being made to believe something false against their will. Fakes are especially divisive at two essential moments in time: when they successfully slip past the reader’s defenses and when the reader discovers the deception. Whether this latter point occurs soon after picking up the book or halfway through it, a literary fake eventually forces the reader to decide whether to be sympathetic or hostile toward the fakery.

Fakes may also be viewed with suspicion as artificial constructs, identified as stories in which the skeleton appears to exist on the outside of the body. Fiction is meant to be an uninterrupted dream or movie for the reader, we are often told, and those struts and supporting walls should always be inside the house of the narrative; only in nonfiction do we expect to see the architecture.

The irony of this view of fakes as an unnatural form is that most examples are forged by that most liberated state of mind: ecstatic imaginative play, poured into the constraint and thus given shape and structure. However, and here irony piles up upon irony, imaginative play (and, in some cases, results that exist purely as an offering on the altar of Play) creates another issue. Play isn’t academically rigorous, can’t be easily quantified, and suggests a border that criticism cannot cross. The Quintus Erectus that lies peacefully in the morgue, awaiting dissection, suddenly slips through our fingers when we produce the scalpel, and then reappears, grinning at us mysteriously from a chair across the room. It’s as if a mischievous but highly intelligent ghost haunts the text. To speak of a ghost directly, and especially an unpredictable ghost, is to be seen as childish or superstitious, even though we are all childish and superstitious.

Recently Reviewed in The Guardian and Los Angeles Times: Graham Joyce and Kim Stanley Robinson

Just a quick note that you can find reviews of mine online this week at the Guardian and the LA Times.

I read Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale for The Guardian, and it was a bit of a mixed bag. I really enjoyed parts of it, but for once Joyce’s agility at craft seemed exposed—a few too many wires and gears showing.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, on the other hand, I thought was wonderful—and featured one of the great love stories in science fiction.

I’ll have reviews of, among others, Carlos Fuentes appearing soon in other major newspapers.

Thirty Years of the Mississippi Review

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This 850-page rock thumped down on the doorstep yesterday with an emphatic “you’d best take me seriously” look in its eye.

Thirty years of the Mississippi Review, including fiction and poetry by Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Samuel R. Delany, John Barth, Rick Bass, Robert Olen Butler, Raymond Carver, Rita Dove, Miranda July, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, Wells Tower, and, well, about 200 other contributors, it looks like.

All taken from Frederick Barthelme’s long reign as the editor. I kinda think you can’t miss this one.

Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin

The “bolt out of the blue” for me in 2011 was reading Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin,which, along with Michael Cisco’s The Great Lover, will no doubt influence me for some time to come.

Europa Editions published the English-language edition of Nothomb’s first novel in 2010; it was originally published in France in 1992. It concerns a Nobel Prize-winning misanthrope of a novelist named Pretextat Tach. Not only does Tach spout foul racist things, he also has a low opinion of women—his most bombastic and ridiculous statements concern them. At the same time, he has a sharp and penetrating mind, and as a conversationalist is a witty and disturbing match for almost anyone. When he’d diagnosed with cancer, he for the first time allows the press to visit to his home. One by one these interviewers succumb to Tach’s verbal traps and leave in disgust, horror, or tears. That is, until a female reporter visits who has done more than the usual homework on her subject. The battle of wills becomes an entire war, involving Tach’s creative output and the terrible facts of his past. Indeed, at the core of the novel is a vile act and an associated act that breaks conventions and taboos. Well, okay, so much of Decadent literature reached toward such things, but in a more modern idiom, there’s a fresh shock of the transgressive. However, the novel is also intensely, darkly funny—at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The observations about book culture and writers are, as they say, priceless.

What struck me about Hygiene and the Assassin is just simply that it takes on difficult and taboo subject matter and challenges the reader to pass moral judgment, perhaps even to toss the book across the room, and it also makes the reader uncomfortable even while you’re laughing…and then later, challenges in a much bleaker way.

It’s also a kind of demarcation point for those modern readers who, I think in part conditioned by the seeming “action” imbued by facebook and social media, which is actually not action so much as just more words…equate the actions in a book, the characters in the book, with actual real-world actions and people. Readers who think that the author is always endorsing the actions of the characters no matter what won’t like this book. Readers who think that crimes on a page are somehow roughly e-equivalent to meat-world crimes won’t like this book.

But I liked this book precisely because it was written without regard for what anyone might think. It isn’t prettied up. It isn’t given a nice wrap-up at the end to help the reader out. It just is what it is, telling the story it needs to tell. It’s sharp, incisive, mean-spirited, and often speaks the truth. You get to choose how you feel about what happens. When so many books seem so eager to please the reader, and to reaffirm what the reader already knows, Hygiene and the Assassin was refreshing. It felt like something without all the edges sanded off. Now, certainly, some might say it’s just sensationalistic, and perhaps they’d have a point. But at the moment I encountered it, the novel was an important reminder that writers need to turn their internal censors entirely off when writing to produce the best possible fiction. Nice is often just another word for mediocre.

Osama by Lavie Tidhar, from PS Publishing

I’ve been meaning to do a post about Lavie Tidhar’s fascinating and hypnotic Osama, from PS Publishing, and all kinds of things have gotten in the way, from dental surgery to sickness to deadlines. But with the holidays fast upon us, I’m blogging it now in brief at least—although it deserves better—so if you’ve missed it, you can consider buying it for yourself or for others.

Below the cut I’ve posted the publisher’s description of the novel, which is slipstreamy and sly and affecting. One thing not mentioned in reviews is how effective Tidhar handles the short chapters that comprise Osama. They’re not punchy or underwritten—they’re just right and with few words wasted. He’s also quite good in his characterization of Joe, the main character. The writing is beautiful without being fussy, cluttered, or overly lyrical.

You can buy Osama in physical or Kindle form on Amazon, or straight from the publisher. Rather think it needs a North American trade publisher.

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