Thursday, April 26, 2012

Brit Mandelo interview, part 2 (of 3)

[This is Part 2 of my long, conversational interview with Brit Mandelo, editor of Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and sexually fluid speculative fiction (Lethe Press, April 2012). See yesterday's post for Part 1 and the next for Part 3.]

In your introduction you say that you know we've got a way to go, that you feel "the lack of alternative pronouns and the lack of intersex folks as tellers and protagonists of their own stories." How should we encourage writers to fill this gap?

Having more venues that are willing to publish these kinds of stories, or are not only willing to publish them but actively seeking them out, would go a long way, I think. That would be one definite positive behind doing another book like Beyond Binary, but with original stories—the opportunity to seek out the kinds of stories that are missing, and the voices that don't get enough recognition. It is very difficult to speak if no one is listening; it is also difficult to speak in a cultural context that is constantly trying to erase you from existence, as language structured around a gender-binary can do.

There are magazines doing this kind of work—Strange Horizons, for one, and also Expanded Horizons and poetry publications like Stone Telling. But, I think we need more, and we need more vocal, public encouragement for writers from these subject positions to feel as if they are welcome and that their stories are valued.

I also think that a more easily traversable connection between the queer and speculative publishing communities would help—many queer writers who are dealing with these issues don't publish in the speculative field because they haven't felt welcome; many speculative writers don't read or publish in specifically queer venues. Reading for Beyond Binary sort of put a point on this division, seeing what names only appeared on what side of the proverbial fence, and noticing the few that came up on both. I think a greater dialogue between writers and publications across both fields would help encourage greater diversity in material and open up a more fluid space for storytelling.

Really, I suppose it boils down to: be welcoming. Be open. Say "we want to hear what you have to tell us," and listen to the stories. And for writers who want to deal with these topics but are not themselves genderqueer or intersex, research—tons upon tons of sensitive research—is the key, along with an understanding that these topics are fraught, real-life things for plenty of people, not exotic story-fodder. Exoticism is worse than nothing at all, in many ways. (I'd refer readers to the excellent TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, "The Danger of a Single Story," as to why I think that nuanced stories and stories told from subject positions that are normally effaced from the cultural dialogue are important. Writing the Other, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, has a lot to say on these topics, too.)

I know an editor can't admit to favourites. But I'm not bound by such constraints so I'd like to talk about the two pieces in the book I think really fulfill the promise of the title.

First, "The Metamorphosis Bud," by Liu Wen Zhuang (pen name of Cynthia Liu). It's wonderful; it captures the pure curiosity evident in so many people who live a long life and find themselves essentially happy (it reminds me a little of some of Le Guin's short work). It's an outrageous premise made utterly believable by the simplicity of its language.

Second, "Eye of the Storm," by Kelley Eskridge. Obviously I'm biased (Kelley is my partner) but it's beautifully written, hard and clear as a bone. And it hits many of the notes you call out in your introduction:

The people in these stories do not accept the prescribed gendering of their bodies... They refuse to choose "one or the other" in their gender, sexuality or relationships. They redefine what the term "man" and "woman" can mean, how "he" and "she" may be used. And--most importantly--they embrace their own selves, their own definitions, and their own needs, physical and emotional... To that end, there are stories in which the protagonist is never once gendered by other characters oro the author...and stories in which sex is defined and enjoyed a little differently than mainstream expectations. There are a variety of relationship-structures, too; no limiting things to couples, here.

And it does so with subtlety and grace--so much, in fact, that most readers don't even notice that Mars has no assigned gender, and doesn't claim one, either, without it being an issue for anyone.

Where and when did you encounter each, and why did you think it would work for Beyond Binary?

I'm glad you liked them!

These were both stories that I first encountered during my serious reading period for the anthology, when I was sifting through folks' story suggestions, stacks of older collections, back issues of magazines, et cetera.

I read "The Metamorphosis Bud" in Cecelia Tan's mid-nineties anthology Genderflex, published by Circlet Press. I had sought out as many gender-related anthologies as I could find to look for potential stories, and Tan's book had this gem in it. I also have her to thank for putting me in contact with the author, Liu Wen Zhuang (Cynthia Liu), to solicit the story.  The thing that struck me most about this piece was its mix of whimsy and realism; the protagonist is so very matter-of-fact about her new body part, how it does and doesn't affect her identity. In that way, this story also touches on issues of body identification and intersex identities, though implicitly. The sense of community in the story between the elderly protagonist and her young, queer friends is great, too.  Overall, it was a very positive, pleasant story that dealt in a down to earth way with the gendering of body parts and the fluidity of gender identities. Had to have it!

"Eye of the Storm" (originally published in Ellen Datlow's Sirens and Other Daemon Lovers) was suggested by Sonya Taaffe, another contributor to the book, in a comment on my call for submissions—and as soon as I read it, I knew it was absolutely perfect for Beyond Binary, for all of the reasons you've just discussed. It took me until about the third page of the story before I realized with shock and delight that there were no pronouns given or used for Mars; from there, I only loved it more for the awesome nontraditional relationship of the quartet, the different sorts of sexuality involved, and the rich, evocative prose that tied it all together. The coming-of-age adventure elements were spot-on engaging reading, too. 

Did you agonise over the order of the stories? Did you consider writing introductions?

Putting the stories in order kept me up nights! I felt like I was putting together an impossible jigsaw puzzle where I could never quite find the right edge pieces or how to line up the middle. I was especially sensitive about the story order because that's one of the things that, in my role as a critic and reviewer, I'm constantly nattering on about—how an anthology flows from one piece to the next, the effects the juxtapositions create, all of that stuff. Turns out it's extremely difficult, hah. For the most part I was trying to create interesting juxtapositions, with stories that were similar in some tangential way—theme, setting, tone—leading one into another. Obviously, this didn't always work perfectly, but it seemed better than simply lining them up in alphabetical order, or something like that.

I did think about writing introductions, but in the end decided against it. Many of these stories are doing several things with their themes and commentary; if I were to write introductions on how I felt about each, I was afraid that would privilege or foreground my interpretation too much. Instead, I wrote a larger introduction to the book itself, and let things stand there.

Let's move on to publishing and marketing. Why did you choose Lethe Press and how has that experience been?

Lethe Press publishes quite a lot of quality queer speculative fiction, and they're one of the few presses that's actively bridging that aforementioned divide between queer and speculative publishing. I consistently look forward to their books. And, to be truthful, it was more that Steve Berman of Lethe sought me out—I had been making comments about genderqueer stories and sexually fluid stories in my columns for a long while, and regularly wishing that there were books like Beyond Binary. When I was laid off from my job managing a bookshop (oh, Borders, how I miss thee), Steve asked me why I didn't just edit the book that I wanted to exist so badly, and offered me a contract for it. It hadn't occurred to me that I had the skill set to bring this project to fruition, but Steve thought I did, and I'm glad he took that chance.

The experience has been good; because they're a small press, they offer a lot of one-to-one, hands-on support and advice—and because they've had a strong publishing record, they also have good relationships with indie stores, distributors, and the major review publications. So, best of both worlds! Plus, on a less frank-business-model level, Steve's enthusiasm for the project was indispensable, and Lethe's designer, Alex Jeffers, did a great job with the book—far and above the call of duty. I loved his idea to embed the page numbers in a string of binary code, for example. They're also supportive in marketing: great about sending books out for review, for contests, and the larger scale stuff. But, as with any small press, the majority of the grass-roots marketing is my responsibility—seeking out blurbs, interviews, contacting indie bookstores about ordering, organizing a book release party, all of those kinds of things. I've learned a lot about publishing and marketing in the process.

How did you decide who to solicit for blurbs? What kind of response did you get? How would you do it differently next time?

It was not what you would call a scientific or well-planned approach. I sat down in front of my bookshelves and made a list of folks who had written, edited, or curated stories at all like those in Beyond Binary. The way that I think about blurbs is that they're a sort of "word of mouth" that gets printed in the text; so, to narrow that list, I thought of who I would want to recommend me a QUILTBAG book of stories, and then asked those folks if they'd like to read the book.

I did get positive responses about the book across the board, but not all of the people in question could make the rather short deadline we had between printing/mailing ARCs and the date we would need the blurbs by. That narrowed the field quite a bit. Writers and editors are busy people, and I know I would have trouble cramming a whole new book to read into my reviews-and-other-reading schedule on short notice, so it didn't surprise me that other folks couldn't, either. So, next time, I think what I would like to do is have ARCs much further in advance and give potential blurb-ers more time to read and respond.

I put a lot of thought into the blurb I wrote for the book. I wanted to do everything in power to help this book reach its audience. But I'm not terribly convinced that blurbs make much difference--and they cost a lot, sometimes, in terms of owing favours. What do you think?

Thank you for that wonderful blurb, by the way – it meant a lot to me!

To be honest, I'm pretty ambivalent about blurbs. While I do think of them as a form of word-of-mouth recommendation, which is pretty damn great, I often suspect that only people working in publishing care about them, based on years of working as a bookseller. Rarely, if ever, did I overhear a customer saying, "hey, so and so blurbed this, I should get it!" Rather, it was "I read a review about this in x," or "my friend says I would love this," or in the case of anthologies, seeing a familiar author's name on the table of contents. But on the third hand, I have bought a book based on seeing a favorite author's recommendation printed on the cover—however, I'd also usually already seen them mentioning it on a more personal level, on Twitter, their blog, etc. So, was it the actual blurb I was responding to, or the element of word-of-mouth it represented? Complicated. At the very least, they can't hurt.

I did find the process of asking weird and uncomfortable, though. There's something a bit squidgy about approaching friends and colleagues to ask them to read your book and then say something concise and interesting about it. A definite presumption on their time, for one thing. I did it, and I would do it again—your blurb was great, and Charlie Jane Anders at io9 ended up writing a whole review, which was also totally amazing—but there's certainly an ambivalence in me regarding the whole thing.
[More tomorrow...]
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