Fantasy, The Weird, & the Big Picture

I attended my first World Fantasy Con this weekend, which didn’t stop me from tracking election news and Covid-19 spikes, but gave me some wonderful hours of forgetting to doomscroll as I listened to writers talk about storytelling and publishing. I don’t mean that this was an escapist event or that I forgot the burning world. When you become absorbed in a good poem or story in any genre, you’re still thinking about identity, justice, the past, the future; you’re just pulling back from the minutiae of your surroundings to imagine different perspectives and, sometimes, different scales of meaning. To quote Karen Joy Fowler quoting Samuel Delaney (I’ve probably mangled this): “sf writers come in with a big picture of the world,” their attention potentially encompassing everything from interplanetary politics to small, character-based dramas.

A few fragments from the Con:

  • The “Queering Fantasy” panel was one of the first I attended, and it was generous and empowering. The speakers encouraged writers to learn and take risks toward the goal of building better worlds. It made me look forward to getting my brain back so I can plunge into my own novel again (one day soon, I hope?).
  • I spoke on a panel called “The Weird Side of the Fantastic,” organized and moderated by Anya Martin and also including Brian Everson, Michael Kelly, Craig Laurance Gidney, and Zin E. Rocklyn (teri.zin). I was by FAR the newest to this conversation, so I felt abashed to talk at all, but they were nice to me. The Weird, or so the consensus in this group went, isn’t really a genre or clique of writers so much as a slippery, unpredictable incursion of irresolveable, disturbing, and sometimes empowering strangeness into any kind of tale. I’ve garbled that, but I feel at home in the Weird’s way of challenging what passes for realism, as I think many poets do (poetry is so often trying to close in on some weirdness that can’t be expressed). The panel was also a good corrective to an old association between the Weird and Lovecraft’s powerful but toxic version of horror. As teri.zin said (again, I’m approximating, being too absorbed to take perfect notes), Black life in the U.S. has always involved existential threat that is invisible to many white Americans. Weird fiction can be a good fit for those experiences.
  • A moderated conversation with one of my current favorite authors, Stephen Graham Jones, may have been the peak of the Con for me. It was deeply moving, very funny, and unpretentiously framed by the experience of someone who wasn’t expected to go to college but ended up, by a circuitous path, arriving at acclaim and best-seller lists. Again, it was also generous, making room for everyone in big conversations about craft and ambition.
  • Do you know the experience of feeling more nervous reading for a tiny group than for a big one? I had given a W&L-based Zoom reading to 75 enrolled participants a few days before, and while I was mighty wound up, I felt good about that event. Yet I gave a reading in the “Weird Cluster” event this weekend and felt like I bungled it. It’s okay. Win some, lose some. (It didn’t help that the event started 10:30 pm Eastern; I suspect the last time I stayed up past midnight was around 2005.) As it happened, a significantly larger audience wandered in later and my cohort carried the night brilliantly. All hail Christi Nogle, Anya Martin, Zin E. Rocklyn, and Eugen Bacon! The picture below is one of Eugen’s screenshots.
  • Listening to Karen Joy Fowler talk about Ursula K. Le Guin was lovely. Fowler also talked about how when she’s in literary circles, people react with dismay to learn of her genre connections, but at Cons, people say, “Sf AND The Jane Austen Book Club? YEAH!” Those biases smacked me in the face when I published The Receptionist and Other Tales, an sf poetry collection; it was short-listed for a great sf award, but when I told some poets about the book, they backed away slowly as if fearing genre-cooties. I’ll say it again: snobs of the lit-verse need to cool it. There’s great and awful work in every marketing category; stereotyping a whole slice of the literary world is just ignorant.
  • Also from Fowler, reporting what Le Guin said about getting some writing done as a woman: “One person cannot do two jobs but two people can do three jobs.”
  • One random crazy moment: I watched an audience member fall asleep during a Zoom reading, the whole head-nod-and-neck-snap slow catastrophe. Zoom has facilitated much worse behavior, but jeez.

It wasn’t all amazing. During many panels, including “Queering Fantasy” and “Black Speculative Futures,” panelists called out deep problems with World Fantasy Con, both historical and recent. Apparently the first version of the 2020 program wasn’t diverse and featured panel descriptions full of stereotypes. I haven’t even seen it–it occurred to me very late that I could try this Con, because it was virtual and I no longer had to scrape up funds for Utah–but vestiges of a much narrower vision of fantasy were perceptible in the version I attended, as well as what you’d have to call obtuseness, at best. Some very accomplished white speakers whose writing I adore dismayed me when they said things like, “humanity is terrible but everyone where I live is so nice,” apparently unaware of how whiteness shelters people from even noticing discrimination and violence; also, it’s not cool to mispronounce names and laugh about it, even though we all make mistakes. Generally, though, I steered my viewing away from events that didn’t feature speakers from marginalized groups. That’s best practice at every conference I’ve ever attended, simply to find the interesting conversations.

I don’t know if I have an accurate impression of this Con when I say I perceived tension about who gets to define these interlocking genres and traditions, plus some reluctance, in some people, to address those conflicts forthrightly. I can say, though, that this WFC did make space for some large and exciting discussions. Many Weird and sffh authors (science fiction-fantasy-horror) are deeply thoughtful about whose realities come into play in fiction, and how; they keep expanding these interlocking fields in incredibly exciting ways. It felt like a gift to spend time with them on this of all weekends.

Don’t freak out, but those beautiful earrings were a gift from Hyejung Kook and they have scavenged fox bones in them

The other side of fear

This Friday, I’m moderating the first panel at the Outer Dark Symposium 2020 (virtually): “Weird Metamorphosis or Life Change.” Moderating panels doesn’t especially scare me. It’s basically leading a class discussion, except with very smart people who love to talk. I’m always nervous about Zoom, though; I’m no technological wizard, plus catching all the undercurrents in a virtual conversation is hard. To make things eerier, I have to tune in from my extremely haunted office, because I’d be competing for bandwidth at home. I usually clear out of Payne Hall when darkness falls.

I’m also thinking about fear because it’s an inescapable part of transformation stories in Weird fiction and film. Some of the panelists are especially interested in body horror, which involves violence or violation to the body, as in “The Button Bin” by Mike Allen or “Anatomy Lessens” by Edward Austin Hall. Some, in our pre-panel discussion, expressed fascination with what puts people emotionally onto that uncomfortable-to-terrified continuum. They explore it in awesome ways, thinking about race, gender, sexuality, disability, and their intersections.

I’m involved in this panel because my new novel involves the deeply weird transition of menopause. As I wrote and revised Unbecoming, though, the feeling I focused on was not fear but desire. The uncanny power growing in the main character, Cyn, lies in wishing for change, both through small rescues and major redirections. Desire is key to making characters interesting and complicated, so it’s probably central to all fiction. I had a list taped to my wall as I composed, listing what each major character thought they wanted plus what they REALLY wanted (which is often the opposite of what they thought they wanted), and sometimes what they really, really, really wanted in their secret hearts. The push-and-pull among those impulses can make a character–really a bunch of words–come to life in your imagination. Like magic.

My conscious subjects in the last few years have been ambition (a species of desire) and anger, but as I prep for this panel, I realize how fear is bound up with both emotions. My main character, Cyn, wants to rewind the clock on her rapidly changing life, so that her kids stop growing away, her marriage returns to a happier state, and her body and mind behave in the reliable old ways. She’s also afraid of being stuck in the past, as she simultaneously, paradoxically fears metamorphosis. Her powers excite her and scare her. Fee, the stranger in town, also excites her and scares her. Change tends to come violently, breaking apart the old balance, and it’s sane to dread that pain.

In actual life, this is a year of fearing not only disease but that a racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, polluting, murderous, systematically unjust America will fail to change. I thought about that last night as I watched my own emotions unfold around Biden’s VP pick. I thought it would be Kamala Harris, so first I thought, oh, okay, that works. Harris is to the right of me, but a center-left, Democratic establishment leadership would be a BIG step up from what we’ve got. I’ll be voting for them.

My next reaction, though, was to skip right over the gratification I expected to feel about having a Black woman, a child of immigrants, on the ticket. Instead I went straight to fear. The misogyny of the last election cycle–from lefty friends, moderates, right wingers, the whole spectrum–destroyed me, not least because I was battling harassment at work simultaneously. The season of misogynoir ahead might break me again. I’m also worrying about the math. Will young people and progressives skip voting because a Biden-Harris ticket depresses them? Will all the moderates who don’t know they’re misogynists start using sexist lines like “she just rubs me the wrong way” or “I don’t see her as presidential”?

If you’re thinking, “um, Lesley, if you’re having a fear problem, maybe take a break from the Weird”: I do better with engaging fear and seeking answers on the other side. The narrative I’ve had the hardest time with lately is Mrs. America on Netflix. I can see it’s good–strong acting, important material–but watching that Schlafly character try to monster her way out of a toxic miasma of oppression: THAT is horror. I grew up in that cloud, starving myself to hold off adolescence; directed to smile and avoid upsetting my always-angry father; criticized by family and strangers for not being femme enough; even told by my mother during my first pregnancy that women who work shouldn’t have children. I prefer fictional werewolves any day of the week.

Anyway, here’s to climbing out of what’s bad, toward the better. I had a wonderful time talking to Anya Martin and Ed Hall on the Outer Dark podcast last week, for all of the thunderstorms banging around in the background. We discuss the novel in the first half of the podcast, my new poetry collection in the second half, and the episode concludes with an absolutely amazing seven-minute review by Gordon B. White. The Outer Dark conference should be fun; I’m giving a reading there, too. I close my #TinyBookFair today, in which I gave away 17 signed copies of my books in exchange for donations to Project Horizon, a local organization dedicated to reducing domestic and sexual violence–the total is $385, exceeding my goal. Also today, I have a poem of politic desperation and, I hope, resistance up on Verse Daily (it was originally in 32 Poems and I have to credit editor George David Clark for helping me make the poem stronger–bless the editors!). I’m still looking at that mountain, its gloomy hunch but also its glow.

A smoke of fox escapes

Originally appearing in December, 2016 in Queen of Cups, my poem “House Call” is a crossroads between the novel and the poetry collection I’ll be publishing in 2020. It’s based on a dream–now I realize, one of a series of dreams–of numinous other-than-human figures visiting with some kind of message or advice. After drafting the poem in 2015, I gave a version of this dream to the protagonist of Unbecoming, although it means something different to her than it did to me. Below is the version of the poem that will appear in my book, or very close. Check out the original site, too: it contains a tarot reading that fits the crisis I was then, and a good writing prompt!

House Call

The black fox kept eluding me,
quick among the party shoes,
chrysanthemum scent of twilight
blowing through lamplit rooms.
Its fur was tipped with flame,
brushed by crimson characters.
Out the door, down the steps
to mist-damp grass. Gone, gone
under sharp-leaved rhododendrons.

What did you bring me, kitsune?
Twigs and dead matter Come sleep
Where are you now? Under your nails
your skin flashing through veins

Will I be fortunate? This dream
is your luck this restlessness
You feared warm rain had ceased falling—

that the onion moon had rolled
beyond night’s uneven floor.

Try to read spirit and this
ensues: writing shivers, a trick,
a tease. Creatures shifting shape
can’t pause at the mirror to preen.
Someone wears nine tails;
something prepares to change
by burning all the words.
A smoke of fox escapes.

This uncanny crossing is on my mind because I’m about to read part of the novel aloud to a real live audience for the first time (although it has had plenty of readers so far, and I’m reading big chunks aloud to myself as I edit). Our old college friend Scott Nicolay–now a prize-winning author as well as editor, translator, podcaster, and cave archaeologist–is a co-organizer of the Outer Dark Symposium on The Greater Weird, this year on March 22-23 in Georgia. I’ll only be reading for 10 minutes, but I can get a short, weird novel scene in there, plus a poem or two. And I’ll have poems in the souvenir program, which sounds like a beauty. It occurs to me that as well as learning how to excerpt fiction for different kinds of audiences, I’m going to have to practice toggling between genres during various public soundings. Here goes!

Part Two of the month of March–the sequel to a wonderful visit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and a really nasty cold–involves a lot of travel, so I’m going to have to keep hitting the ginger tea and taking care of myself. Thursday I’m hitting a poetry panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book and seeing a couple of old friends; I’m sad I can’t stay and hear Kyle Dargan, but I have to hit the road south Friday. I’ll be immersed in weirdness all weekend, but my reading is:

10:50 am, Silver Scream FX Lab, 4215 Thurman Rd, Conley, Georgia

I come back to teach Monday-Wednesday (and do some Skype interviewing Tuesday), and then I’m off to Portland, Oregon. Come say hello to me at the Terrain.org table, #9029, in AWP’s bookfair on Thursday, March 28th from 12-1. I’ll be signing my recent chapbook Propagation ($5 and VERY light for your luggage), but I’d be delighted just to chat and give you one of my beautiful new Shenandoah business cards. Shenandoah doesn’t have a table this year–we will next year–but we are hosting a reading at 1:30 Thursday at the Jasmine Pearl Teahouse. Chris and I will be home again Saturday night, earlier than originally planned, but that’s probably good. Not only is the first week of April the last week of winter term, and therefore an academic crunch time, but these are the weeks my eighteen-year-old son hears back from the six colleges he applied to (two acceptances so far!), and he’s holding down the fort at home alone for the first time, while Chris and I conference together.

Lit mags I’m reading–with thanks to BPJ for publishing my poem “Dear Anne Spencer”!

Send us all good vibes, please, and if you spot me at one of these places, please say hello. I’ll report back in this space sometime around the kick-off of National Poetry Month. In the meantime, may March winds blow you some good!