A Book Club for the SLF

Okay, so here’s an idea I’d like to bounce off y’all. I was listening to Gary Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan’s Coode Street podcast, and they were interviewing Lisa Goldstein. A great interview, but at one point, she mentioned that her work wasn’t getting the attention it used to, and she didn’t really know why. The ‘new’ authors were getting all the attention, and she understood that, but still. (I mean, the woman won the National Book Award for The Red Magician, after all…)

And I realized that while I’ve been a fan of hers for years, and used to eagerly wait for her novels and devour them as they came out, at some point, they just fell off my radar. And this is true of other authors too — I had a similar realization earlier this year about Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s books.

Now, obviously, I can just go catch up with both of those authors’ works, and I am, but it points to a larger question. As indie publishing has exploded the number of books published each year (and not just books — short stories, podcasts, narrative games, etc. and so on), we have a massive filtering problem.

And obviously, lots of people are working on this — there have always been review sites trying to highlight the best work, there are podcasts added to that now, there are awards, a host of techniques that surface texts. But it’s still sort of surprising to me that I had managed to lose track of these excellent authors whose work I loved.

I should never be aimlessly browsing, looking for something worth reading, when there’s another Nina Kiriki Hoffman book I haven’t read.

Maybe this problem will solve itself, as Amazon (and hopefully other booksellers) become better at tracking our preferences, letting us subscribe to authors, making sure that I pre-order the next Ellen Kushner Swordspoint novel as soon as she adds it to their system, so it will just drop into my Kindle on release day with a great trumpeting fanfare. (Your Kindle should have fireworks cascading across the screen when one of your favorite authors comes out with a new book.) (Which reminds me, Stephanie Bailey, we should make sure Amazon is set up to let folks pre-order Vegan Serendib.)

Okay, so that was a lot of preface for my question, sorry. What I was trying to figure out was whether there was anything the SLF or I could do to help with this a little. And I was thinking about the Great Conversation, which was a thing they talked about when I was in college at the U of C, the idea that academia was essentially a conversation among humanity, searching for truth, using the Socratic method to argue with each other in these texts across time and space.

And it made me want…a book club? A periodic thread to our podcast? Something where we would bring together an author like Lisa Goldstein and an author like Benjamin Rosenbaum, and maybe a brand new first novel Jewish spec fiction author and have a conversation about their work, making connections, helping to explicate how they were responding to each other.

And of course, that would all connect really well to building out teaching modules for the Portolan Project — you could sketch out a ‘Jewish fantasy’ module very easily from there, using the podcast conversation as a basis for it.

I was talking to Jed Hartman about it, and he was pointing out that the idea of the SLF doing a ‘book club’ wasn’t really scalable. But it kind of is, if you go about it the right way. Let’s say it has four parts:

1) we record the podcast / video, possibly doing it live like a convention panel, so that we can simultaneously host a Discord conversation with as many people as care to join

2) we put that up, so people who couldn’t attend live can still listen / view (forever!)

3) we find a teacher to build out the accompanying teaching module, putting together a recommended book & short story list, some study questions, and a lesson plan (ideally geared both towards high school and college teaching), and put all that up as part of the Portolan Project

4) the SLF chapters in Chicago and the Bay Area might build out actual book club segments around these (and we will hopefully have a lot more chapters and a lot more book clubs eventually….)

What do you think? I immediately run up against the problem of time — I don’t know that I have the time to really organize this well, especially as an ongoing thing.

It makes me wonder if we need more people to help, and then that runs up against the question of labor should be paid.

But also, academics are paid by their departments and are supposed to do a certain amount of service as part of that, so maybe some would be available even without my spending a lot of time fundraising for this project (which again, time is the problem).

But on the other hand, course development is really a lot of work, and I don’t want to undercut the arguments for paying for that. But maybe putting together a single lesson rather than a full course might be okay?

I’m going to take this to the ICFA (academic SF folks) mailing list, I think, and see what people think there, but I wanted to run through some of it here first. Thoughts? Better ways to do this? Aspects I’m missing?

The Perfect Winter Book

I went to bed reading Naomi Novik’s _Spinning Silver_, and woke up in this new year, staying in bed an extra hour to finish it. It’s a perfect winter book, and I recommend it to you highly.

If you love Patricia McKillip’s fairy tale work, and Robin McKinley’s, you will find much to love here, but with a specifically Jewish — I was going to say ‘inflection,’ but it’s much more than that. Permeation? Vision, perhaps, that infuses so much richness to the story, like the best of Lisa Goldstein’s work. Now I want us to do a podcast with Benjamin Rosenbaum, Lisa, and Naomi talking abut how Jewish culture and religion come out in their writing.

I don’t want to say too much more, or give anything away, so maybe I’ll just ask you to trust me? Go, read it.

Why a Podcast, Mary Anne?

Why pour hours and hours of your life into this project? It started because I always have the most interesting conversations with Benjamin Rosenbaum, and I thought others might enjoy them. But that alone wouldn’t have been enough to sustain the project.

I realized that what is actually important about this podcast has to do with gatekeeping and curation — with who gets to be part of the conversation and who doesn’t, with whose work is highlighted, getting reviews and awards, and whose work is excluded, pushed to the margins.

That’s always been a tension between speculative fiction and mainstream lit. — even writers as brilliant as Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany at times struggled to have their work taken seriously by the literary establishment. When I was going through creative writing grad school — an MFA program, a Ph.D., then teaching — it was clear that for the most part, the academy still didn’t really know what to do with non-realist work.

It could carve out exceptions — Shakespeare is okay, even if he gives us fairies and sorcerers and magical storms and monstrous creatures. Frankenstein is allowed, and King Arthur made it into the canon, not to mention Grendel and the Faerie Queene. Eventually they made room for the magical realists, Marquez and Allende, and even Rushdie, with his time travel and telepathy. But those were still the exceptions that made the rule, and if you look at the literary & critical conversation today, realist work still dominates quite thoroughly.

I wanted to host a conversation that took science fiction and fantasy just as seriously as realist fiction. And then, beyond those genre conventions, I wanted to bring in writers who come from a really wide range of diverse backgrounds.

We’ve interviewed Cadwell Turnbull, for example, a Black writer who writes alien invasion set in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Coming up next, we’re interviewing Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, a lesbian couple who are both brilliant authors in their separate worlds, but also delightful to talk to together. We’ve interviewed authors from different countries (like up-and-coming Yudhanjaya Wijeratne) and different cultures (like Mexican Canadian Silvia Moreno-Garcia). We want to talk to people from diverse class backgrounds too, people who work with disability issues (like my Clarion teacher, Nicola Griffith), really, just as varied a pool of writers and editors and agents, etc. as possible.

And I’m definitely not going to claim that we’re the only podcast doing this kind of diversity work — I’m really pleased that the field has turned more and more towards celebrating and welcoming a host of diverse creators in recent years. I remember when the barriers were a lot higher than they are now, when if I wanted to write a lesbian character, I had my agent at the time asking me, “Do you have to make them a lesbian? We’ll sell a lot more books if you don’t…” It’s gotten better.

But even if it has gotten better, I think it still matters, who hosts these conversations. That’s the gatekeeping part, the curation. F&SF Magazine has had some great editors in the past, but I have to say that I’m super-excited to see Sheree Renée Thomas taking the reins — her work putting together the Dark Matter anthology was ground-breaking. Her vision changed the field, and I can’t wait to see what she does with F&SF.

I hope we can do the same kind of work with this podcast. How often does someone write a truly wonderful book, or story, or poem, and have it disappear, because no one ever heard about it? Podcasts can do an amazing job of bringing those stories to light. I hope we can highlight voices you might not have heard of otherwise, raising them up into view.

We talk about word-of-mouth in publishing a lot, about how it’s the most important factor in a book’s (or author’s) success.

Well, this is word-of-mouth made literal — a podcast is our mouths, offering you some words, about books and writers and ideas and culture, about how we have these conversations, and how we do this better, going forward.

If you want to hear the voices that we think are worth listening to, voices that have often been pushed to the margins in the past, then I hope you’ll consider supporting our podcast.

I’ll leave you with a clip from an interview I did with brilliant academic Farah Mendlesohn in a hotel room, back when we still went to conventions. Sorry the sound is a little soft — this was early on, and we were still learning our craft. The first minute or so is lead-in, then it gets interesting.

In this 4-minute clip, Farah explains to me how she realized that Narnia is in Canada, and what broader implications that held for the literary world. I thought it was fascinating; I hope you do too.

Less than 48 hours (and $500 left to raise) to go: https://www.kickstarter.com/…/slf-podcast-mohanraj-and…

(please like / comment / share for visibility!)

Halfway

Woot! Kickstarter for the podcast I’m doing with Benjamin Rosenbaum has passed the halfway mark — we’re now at $920 out of $1500 goal. If we can get to $1000 by the end of today (Sunday), I will be more confident that we’ll actually make it to $1500 in time — four days left! Eep. Please tell your friends.

Support us here: https://www.kickstarter.com/…/slf-podcast-mohanraj-and…

Almost There

Do you want to hear me and Benjamin Rosenbaum talking to fascinating writers, editors, agents, game designers, librarians, and more?

Every week, our dulcet tones could be filling your ears. We’d be accompanying you on your commute, keeping you company as you do chores, entertaining you while you weed the garden, and helping fill insomniac hours in the middle of the night. If you wear headphones, you can even listen to us while you ‘supervise’ the children’s e-learning…

Part of why I’ve learned to love podcasts in the last few months (basically since the pandemic started — I wasn’t really a podcast person before that), is because I get an extra little productivity boost from them — look, I’m entertained, WHILE I’m working, AND the work goes faster and more pleasantly, AND I’m sometimes even learning something too. It’s just SO SATISFYING.

Also, as an extrovert, the pandemic has me pretty lonely sometimes; it’s nice to have human voices for company, especially voices that are conversational and real, as opposed to the staged entertainment of a TV show (which I also consume a lot these days). I’m lucky enough to live with people, but it’s been a lot of these same three people since March. New voices = good.

We have just 5 days left on our Kickstarter — $650 raised towards our $1500 goal, which will pay for audio and video editing costs on our first season, which we’re hoping to launch in January. That may be the fastest turnaround on a Kickstarter ever. 🙂 In just a few weeks, we could be dropping episodes for your delight and entertainment.

The bulk of Kickstarter funding tends to happen in the last few days (which is kind of nerve-racking for those of us who run Kickstarters, but so it goes) — we’re here now. It’s all or nothing — if we don’t get to $1500, we don’t get any of it.

So if you think you might want to throw a dollar or two (or more, we won’t say no) our way, please check out the Kickstarter for a trailer video and more info — and please, tell your friends. We’d love it if you could like / share / comment on this post for visibility:

https://www.kickstarter.com/…/slf-podcast-mohanraj-and…

And just so you know what you’re getting, I’ve included a little clip below from an author interview — Cadwell Turnbull talks to us about aliens, about the U.S. Virgin Islands, about why the alien invasion always seems to be in New York or D.C., and why a writer might want to do something different. Cadwell is smart and thoughtful and you will enjoy listening to him. (And after that, go pick up his first novel, _The Lesson_, which is beautifully written, rich in characterization, and thought-provoking. Need a holiday gift for yourself or someone else? Recommended!)

Giving Tuesday

Hey, folks, it’s Giving Tuesday. I will try to do a proper SLF-related post soon (we’d love for you to become members!), but for the moment, let me remind you that there’s just 8 days left on our podcast Kickstarter! Eep.

We’ve raised close to $500, but have $1000 left to raise in the next 8 days, and Kickstarter is all-or-nothing funding — if we don’t make the full amount by the deadline, we get nothing.

If you’re at all interested in throwing a dollar or two at a project designed to help provide free creative writing and lit education, WORLDWIDE, please check it out here:

https://www.kickstarter.com/…/slf-podcast-mohanraj-and…

The podcast also offers quite a lot of Ben and me talking about various aspects of culture, society, race, gender, parenting, and more — as an example of that, here’s our first full episode. Or actually, probably 2 or 3 episodes — when Ben and I record, we tend to record for a long, long time. That’s why we need an editor. 🙂

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOK2Fm08seY

At this early point, we were still not quite sure what the podcast would become, and we were recording in May, so still very much shaken by the pandemic and trying to make sense of it all.

As it evolved, we started including more writing craft instruction, lit discussion, editor expertise, author interviews, so there’s all of that plus a lot more coming. Assuming we actually manage to fund this Kickstarter (fingers crossed)!

If it’s easier for you to donate directly through Facebook than Kickstarter, we’d certainly still appreciate the support!

(And if you can like / share / comment on this post to increase visibility (Facebook algorithms, bah), it’d be greatly appreciated!)

The Podcast that Goes On and On

I hope people are interested in two-hour in-depth lit-crit-ish interviews with authors, because we just did our first session with Cadwell Turnbull and we basically couldn’t stop talking to him. (We let him talk some too.).

Mohanraj and Rosenbaum are Humans, the podcast that goes on, and on, and on…

If this sounds good to you, consider supporting our Kickstarter:

https://www.kickstarter.com/…/slf-podcast-mohanraj-and…

Holidays in the Pandemic

Morning, everyone. This past week, Benjamin Rosenbaum and I recorded our podcast again, and with Thanksgiving coming up fast, I wanted to give you a 5-minute piece of it to listen to, because this is where we talk about how the pandemic is affecting our holidays — Thanksgiving and Diwali mostly.

I admit, I got a little teary — in my house, we’re planning on just the four of us, and that’s hard for me. My mom is the oldest of nine, and though I wasn’t always able to be there, to me, family gatherings are about as many of my 30+ cousins being there as possible; it’s such a joy seeing them, learning what’s been going on in their lives, etc.

And when we can’t be there, I’m usually trying to recreate that feeling with 40 or so people at our house in Oak Park for Friendsgiving.

We’re doing a Zoom Thanksgiving for the family this year (and thanks to my aunt Priya Vytheswaran for organizing it), but it’s just not the same as having little kids running around and eating Marina Aunty’s rolls — or even better, staying up late the night before, making short eats together, talking and talking and talking.

I think it’s okay to take a little time to grieve what we’re losing at Thanksgiving this year. If you’re still planning a large gathering, I hope you’ll reconsider — it’s not too late to cancel plans, I swear. If you live near each other, consider Trunksgiving — you drive around and drop off food on each others’ porches and doorsteps, so when you come together on Zoom, you can actually eat each others’ food. Sadly, Marina Aunty is all the way in CT — I’d totally drive an hour to pick up some of her rolls.

Ben has a very different perspective on all this, which I kind of had a hard time hearing when we were in the midst of the episode, but it’s giving me a little comfort now, where he said that his family had mostly done 4-person immediate family holidays, and that he really liked the intimacy of that. I’m thinking about how we can make Thanksgiving special for the four of us, and maybe build a little more immediate family intimacy for part of the day.

I also heard something on the Milk Street podcast that helped me too — they reminded us that virtual Thanksgiving lets us invite more people than maybe we would have been able to feed normally. I’m definitely planning some game night gatherings this week with various friends who are far-flung, who we wouldn’t normally be able to see in person for Thanksgiving.

Looking for the silver linings here, in a big storm of miserable grey clouds.

*****

I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote last year:

kin song

in the village they married
cousin to cousin, old ways
down generations. maybe
that’s why (scattered diaspora
across a planet) we are

fierce girls, kind-hearted boys

weary, tear-stained, and yet
we drag ourselves up again
hurl ourselves into battle
determined to save the world
or fall down trying – and when

it’s all too much, we’re here

for each other, throwing bodies
into dance, sweating it out
on a crowded floor; never mind
who can’t carry a tune, just
sing with us all night, cousin,

laugh and cry with us

I want this for my children too
that they may know brown skin
and quick tongues, chilies burning –
the perfect balance of upu-pulli
salt-tang, sweet-spice; it works

for families as well as food

drag them complaining onto planes
but they’ll learn to anticipate
the laughter and the quick embrace
hello, goodbye, oh, one more hug

it can’t be time to go already

back to the lonesome solitary road

talk late into the night. sleep
will claim us soon, dragging
at our heels and heads, but brief time
together must be stolen and savored;

never quite enough, keep talking

sometimes lying to ourselves
(not as strong as loving
as brave as we desperately
want to be) but we don’t lie
to each other; honest
to the point of pain, or

silent for kindness’ sake

we are not a tall clan
and I, the shortest of all,
but hearts are not measured
in inches. my kin, we beat
for each other, to bursting.

*****

for my sisters and my cousins

(blood or otherwise)

grateful for you all

Mary Anne (Amirthi) Mohanraj

September 2, 2019

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More about the podcast here, including info on how to subscribe: https://www.kickstarter.com/…/slf-podcast-mohanraj-and…

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Why We Started the Podcast

I’m not sure I ever told you folks WHY I decided to do a podcast with

Benjamin Rosenbaum. Ben and I tell one story, about our car ride up to WisCon every year, and the book tour road trip that didn’t happen because of the pandemic, and that’s a true story. But I think that wouldn’t have been enough to push us to podcast, not without the Portolan Project at the SLF.

That project started with the interviews I was doing for the SLF. My original idea was that I’d build out something like Khan Academy, but for creative writing, and I’d start with two kinds of interviews:

a) interviews with master writers, like George R.R. Martin (that was our first one), and those would be short, maybe 15-20 minutes, so it wouldn’t be too onerous for them to do, and so we could create little digestible chunks of writing craft instruction. We’d talk to them about specific things (George, epic fantasy; Paolo Bacigalupi, message fiction; Kate Elliott (world building), etc.

b) more in-depth interviews with up-and-coming writers, often highlighting writers of color, queer writers, women, and other marginalized voices, helping to bring them front and center in the conversation — that why we interviewed Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Vida Cruz, Minal Hajratwala, Nalo Hopkinson, Ajit George and Divya Srinivasan Breed — you can listen to all of those interviews on the SLF site.

But once I started recording, I realized I wanted to talk to other people too.

Scott Woods, for example.

***

Listen or read here: http://speculativeliterature.org/…/interviews/scott-woods/

***

Scott is a writer himself, certainly, a fabulous poet who also commits fiction, and we could have just spoken about that. But he’s also been central to revitalizing Columbus’s art scene, with a focus on making sure Black writers have their voices heard. It’s similar to the work @L.D. Lewis has been doing with FIYAH (and L.D. is a force of nature, having now also taken over as Grants Administrator for us at the SLF), and that Audrey T. Williams and Jasmine H. Wade have been doing with Ancestral Futures Press. (The two of them joined with Becca Gomez Farrell to create the SLF’s Bay Area chapter, and are already humming with activity.)

So none of that fits neatly into ‘interviewing writers,’ though they are all writers, of course. I want to talk to editors too, and agents, and heck, librarians and teachers and everyone involved in this business of cultural literary production, of shaping the world through the stories we tell. We need diverse futures, and inclusive ones. We need these people to help us imagine the possible, so we can get started building it.

I think it’s so important, to get those stories out there. In many ways, that’s become my life’s work. And talking to Ben about all this is a sheer joy — it makes the important work a pleasure and delight.

If you think that’s worthwhile, I hope you’ll contribute to our little Kickstarter. We need $1500 for pay for the first season’s audio and video editing, and we’re almost at $400 now. If you can spare a dollar or two, we’d love your support.

And if you can support us by liking / commenting / sharing, that’s super-valuable too. (Save me from having to pay Facebook ad money to boost these posts! It’s a little counter-productive when you’re running a fundraiser.)

Thanks, folks!

Join us: https://www.kickstarter.com/…/slf-podcast-mohanraj-and…/

SLF Interviews mentioned above: http://speculativeliterature.org/portolan…/interviews/

I Love SF/F, I Swear

Okay, so this is just funny to me. We asked Darius Vinesar to pull some clips from the podcast that we could use to advertise the Kickstarter. Right?

I have to note here, because it’s very relevant, that in addition to being our audio / video editor on the podcast, he’s also a young writer as well, who sometimes commits SF/F, and has studied with me teaching him in college.

So then he pulled this clip, which is me pontificating for 2.5 minutes on why college student sci-fi / fantasy actually often is pretty bad, and it’s no wonder that so many professors don’t allow it in their classrooms. (I know, some of you want to fight me now. Listen to the clip first! I love SF/F, I swear.)

And note that he DIDN’T pull the next bit, which is Benjamin Rosenbaum responding to my contention, even though you can see in the video that Ben has started counting on his fingers in response to my points, so he’ll remember how many things he wants to say in response…

…and I don’t actually remember now what he said, so we’ll have to listen to the podcast, I guess, to find out if he agreed with me or not. Eep.

Assuming we actually launch it! Did we mention, there’s a Kickstarter going? We’re at $399 out of a $1500 goal last month, and if you can throw a couple bucks our way to help pay our audio/video editor, then we can say a lot more things that you might want to argue with? That’s a great pitch, right? 🙂

Join our Kickstarter here! For just $1, you could be one of the cool kids:

https://www.kickstarter.com/…/slf-podcast-mohanraj-and…

(As always, likes / comments / shares greatly appreciated for visibility!)