Readercon 31 will take place online August 13-15, 2021
Guests of Honor Jeffrey Ford and Ursula Vernon will take the stage along with other authors, editors, critics, and luminaries from around the world. You will see panels on both the heart of reading and the art of writing, authors reading from their work, a variety of talks and performances, award ceremonies for the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award and the Shirley Jackson Awards, and a virtual version of the convention’s Bookshop selling new and used books from a variety of small press and independent booksellers.
Dull and even miserable affect and emotion have been hallmarks of the dystopia genre since 1984 and Brave New World, with joy depicted as fleeting and pleasure considered hollow or fake. But in the real world, emotional responses to hardship vary from person to person and from culture to culture. Panelists will probe and challenge the cultural and aesthetic basis for the supposed authenticity of unmitigated bleakness in dystopia and consider other emotional tones that dystopian stories might explore.
Sunday, August 15 at 6:30 p.m.
Join me for a reading from my urban dark fantasy/horror novella, Plena Cucuy.
Cat is a young mestiza Mexican-American designer at a news organization, the only citizen in a family of mixed documentation status, and an acute observer of the city she inhabits — including its inexplicable happenings. Like an advertising placard at the train station that changes content between one glance at it and the next. Or the disappearance of her brother Edgar and other undocumented folks from one of the train station’s platforms. Or the creepy but compelling man — who might be a monster from childhood tales — she is unexpectedly pitted against. Add to that her complicated relationship with the family she lives with, the Black Boricua musician she’s falling for, and the intra-Latinx tensions of the neighborhood itself… Plena Cucuy is a dark urban fantasy/horror with teeth, music and magic.
The story is a celebration of food and resistance, and as fellow speculative fiction writer A.C. Wise noted, a love letter to Philadelphia’s immigrant communities.
It’s hungry work
As you might have guessed from the title, there is a lot of food in this story. Primarily tamales of all sorts, but also Caribbean icys and oxtails, Indonesian nasi goreng, Puerto Rican pernil … reading this will make you hungry.
Andrea Johnson interviewed me about Las Girlfriends for Apex, and asked about why I made food the magical conveyance in this story. The interview goes live on the site on March 11, so you can read my full response there. But, really, at the heart of it is that I’m a foodie and every aspect — from growing to cooking to ingesting — is imbued with ceremony and ritual and incredible power.
Las Girlfriends is one of a number of stories of mine in which Philadelphia — magical and mundane (but never ordinary) — is as important a character as any of the human ones.
Johnson also asked me about this in the interview (go read it, when it goes live!) and the truth I just think Philadelphia is amazing. And, yes, I do think magic truly happens in the city.
Las Girlfriends themselves — a trio of more-than-middle-aged Latinas who sell magical tamales (tamágicos) from their food truck — have been secondary characters in two earlier, related Philadelphia stories:
Published at Tor.com and edited by Carl Engle-Laird, Skin in the Game follows Officer Jimena Villagrán (daughter of Las Girlfriend’s Rosa Marta) as she deals with monsters, magical con men, discarded needles and a rash of murders in the Zombie City-La Boca del Diablo encampment in Philadelphia’s Kensington/Fairhill neighborhood.
My other “Magical Philadelphia” stories (so far) include El Cantar of Rising Sun at Uncanny Magazine and St. Simon at 9th and Oblivion (historical speculative!) forthcoming in the Speculative Fiction for Dreamers anthology. While neither of these stories involve Las Girlfriends’ coterie, if you get to the end of the tour of eateries in Las Girlfriends — the “When food is home” entry — the photo header shows a a mural “in memory of Loco” — who is Alonso’s and Amor’s father in El Cantar. (Yes, I love easter eggs 😉.)
Q: We’ve all encountered characters in stories and novels that we’ve felt a real connection to, and would love to chat with more. Maybe buy them a drink. What characters have you encountered in Fantasy and SF that you’d like to buy a pint for?
In 2014 Paul Weimer, editing the Mind Meld column for SF Signal, posed that question to a number of SFF writers, me included. I loved the question, and was reminded of my answer recently when renowned writer/editor Terri Windlingtweeted one of the real-life artworks that inspired the fictional art of one of the characters in her novel, The Wood Wife.
So, some six years after the fact, I reread what I had written and realized that I would still welcome this imagined conviviality (maybe even more so after all these months of pandemic-induced social bubble and Zoom-limited interactions), a tribute, undoubtedly, to the character-building genius of the the writers involved.
So here is my response — in 2014, and in 2020 — to the question that tops this post.
What an interesting question. I’m fond of a lot of characters in speculative fiction actually, and I really had to think long and hard to narrow this down to two. Which two made the final cut completely surprised me for a number of reasons — including the fact that they are ancillary characters, and one of them never gets to speak.
Anna Naverra from Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife. Okay, she dies before the book opens. Also, she doesn’t speak — she’s described (and ascribed motive) in dreams, in the investigation of the mystery of who she was and became, in the poetry of her more recently deceased Anglo poet husband. But Anna is a Mexican surrealist painter — conjuring associations that are part Remedios Varo, part Frida Kahlo, part Ana Mendieta — who grew up in the same Mexico as my mother (also an artist), and crossed similar boundaries. I don’t think Windling deals entirely fairly with her (she resolves the paradox about Anna in much too pat a manner) but she gives her fantastic, compelling art which stands in for whatever else might be missing in her characterization.
Anna is unusual in SFF in a number of ways: she’s Latina and she’s not young. While I applaud those who include kickass Latinas in the mold of Zoe Saldana (in Colombiana) or Michelle Rodriguez (in just about every movie she’s ever made) in their SFF works, I get tired of those being the only representations I see. Anna is engagingly complex; physical in a most ordinary way; her painting are dark and rich, and her relationship with the Mexico of her younger and latter years is significant.
I’d buy her a tequila with a sangrita chaser and talk with her about the Mexico of Elena Poniatowska and José Luis Cuevas; of Diego Rivera and Octavio Paz; of Zapatistas and palos voladores and a creative tradition so innate that it has taken corn smut and turned it into an astonishing culinary delicacy (huitlacoche). I’d ask her, in other words, to tell me what made her who she was and what made my mother what she was — formidable artists forged in that particular crucible.
The other character is from a book almost 20 years older than Windling’s and, I believe, commonly thought as a very minor work in its author’s impressive body of work. But I’m actually quite fond of Peter Beagle’s Folk of the Air, and of its secondary character Athanasia Sioris, or Sia, as she is known throughout.
She, too, is older than the norm in SFF. In fact, Beagle describes her like this: “the broad, blunt-featured face was no older than sixty, the dark-honey skin almost without lines and the gray eyes quick and clear and imperiously sad. But her body was lumpy as a charwoman’s — waistless, short-legged, wide-hipped, bellied like the moon — though she carried it with all the vivid rigor of a circus wire walker.”
Throughout the book, Sia is both more powerful and weaker than anticipated, a goddess and a woman, and a character of such complex history that Beagle can only give us glimpses of it. Like Anna, she is formidable, though an entirely different expression of it.
I guess, from her name, that with her I’d have to sit down to a Plomari-style ouzo cut with water to make it moonstone cloudy. I hope it would be at a taverna on the waterfront in Mytilene, with fresh octopus pulled from the waters in front of us and the wind scouring all the layers of disguise and prohibition right off us. We would talk about the elements and what is elemental, and the ways of women aging in a world that cannot see us for what we really are.
We’d also talk about belief. How in every mythos, in every work of transformative art, in every character that resonates years after the reading, belief is the heart. I want to imagine, at the end, that Anna would join us, and after good food, good drink and good conversation, the three of us would pull out our ancient frame drums (materializing from thin air, of course) and dance a circle that, though mortal, never ends.
What about you? Which fictional character would you most want to sit down with and share a drink and a chat? Let me know in the comments below!
(Photo at the top of the post: Konstantinos Papadopoulos for Unsplash.com)
Who knew back in 2012 when I started going to Readercon that I’d come to think of it as my home convention — even when going home, in this instance, means traveling 3+ hours from Philadelphia to the Boston-adjacent town of Quincy where this most literary of speculative fiction conventions takes place.
But it really does feel like a homecoming every time I go, and I even have a super eclectic playlist I listen to as I settle into the café car of the Amtrak Northeast Regional.
This year Readercon takes place July 11 through July 15, and the Guests of Honor are Tananarive Due and Stephen Graham Jones, so if you’ve never attended, it’d be a great year to go. Register here.
I am scheduled to be on the following panels at Readercon and, if you are there, I’d love to see/meet you:
Latinx Authors Tear Down the Wall
Lisa Bradley (mod), Carlos Hernandez, José Pablo Iriarte, Julia Rios, Sabrina Vourvoulias
Fri 2:00 PM, Salon 4
Isolationist governments portray immigrants (and citizens perceived as foreigners) as vectors for disease, crime, and terrorism. Currently, the U.S. administration is demonizing Latinx immigrants in this fashion, and oppressing asylum-seekers from Central America. How can authors dismantle anti-immigrant myths while portraying immigrants in all their human complexity? Led by Lisa M. Bradley, Latinx writers will discuss their work regarding borders and immigration, providing historical context and exploring possibilities for future stories.
Why Does Space Get the Opera and Cyber the Punk?
Liz Gorinsky, Austin Grossman, Catherynne M. Valente, Sabrina Vourvoulias, T.X. Watson (mod)
Fri 4:00 PM, Salon 3
For Arisia’s 50 Panels in 75 Minutes panel in 2018, Cecilia Tan suggested “Why Does Space Get the Opera and Cyber the Punk?”, which was universally acclaimed as too good for 1.5 minutes. Our panelists will give this exploration of speculative and musical genres the full hour it deserves. (And where is the spacepunk and cyber opera?)
Reading: Sabrina Vourvoulias
Fri 9:00 PM, Salon C
Incorporating the Media into Fantasy Worlds
Zig Zag Claybourne, Randee Dawn, L. Penelope (mod), Sabrina Vourvoulias, Paul Weimer
Sat 11:00 AM, Salon B
From the 24-hour news cycle to online journalism, the media plays an enormous role in our society, but it tends to make less of an appearance in fantasy works. L. Penelope will lead a discussion on how authors incorporate the media into their fantasy writing, as well as the challenges and benefits of doing so.
I Don’t Know Why I’m on This Panel
Jeffrey Ford, Elizabeth Hand, Arkady Martine, Cecilia Tan (mod), Sabrina Vourvoulias
Sat 2:00 PM, Salon 4
This phrase is often spoken during panelist introductions at conventions. In this case it’s literally true: the panelists have no idea why the program staff have put them on a panel together or what they’re supposed to discuss. They may try to figure it out, or they may have a totally unstructured chat for an hour. Either way, it’s sure to be entertaining.
Food at the Corner of Fiction and Community
N.S. Dolkart, Andrea Martinez Corbin (mod), Greer Gilman, Michael Swanwick, Sabrina Vourvoulias
Sat 9:00 PM, Salon A
Food plays a central role in many cultures and accordingly takes center stage in the work of many speculative fiction writers. How does cuisine help define, or build, a community? How can food be used to communicate important information about a people to the reader? What are some particularly noteworthy examples of the way food can be used to set, or subvert, expectations?
Mónica Zorrilla, one of Philly’s rising young Latinx journos, wrote about Ink’s rerelease and the launch party at Amalgam Comics tonight.
When Sabrina Vourvoulias first released her novel Ink, in 2012, the dystopic magical realism drama about oppressive prejudice and violence against immigrants in the U.S. was considered by many to be “far-fetched.”
“Because the events that transpire in Ink are set in an America of the near future,” the Philadelphia-based author told Billy Penn, “I think some readers were uncomfortable with this immediate vision of the country committing human rights violations against immigrants…”
The book launch party takes place from 5 to 8 p.m at Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse, 2578 Frankford Ave. in Philly. There will be a short reading around 6 p.m., and remarks and shout-outs to Philadelphia immigration advocates and local journalists, since both immigration and journalism are key concerns of the novel. Spinning the party is DJ Awesomous Prime, and food will be available for purchase from Amalgam.
Looking forward to attending Readercon July 12-15 in Quincy, Mass. If you are there, and you see me around, stop and say hello!
These are the panels I’m scheduled to be part of:
❧ Writers who edit, editors who write – Thursday, 8 p.m.
Those who edit as a full-time job rarely do much writing on the side, but many full-time writers bolster their incomes through editing. Why does this equation seem to function better in one direction than the other? How do writers who edit avoid the pitfalls experienced by editors who write? What can be done to address an ever-widening taste gap, and the tendency to self-edit into the ground?
Panelists: Julia Rios, Mimi Mondal, John Edward Lawson, Mike Allen, Scott Edelman and me.
❧ La Sagrada Chingonez: The sacred badassery of Latinx speculative fiction – Friday, 3 p.m.
David Bowles once dubbed me one of a number of “sacerdotisas de la sagrada chingonez” (priestesses of the sacred badassery). The term implies a religion of dogged persistence, of speaking up and out, of fucking with the status quo/system/hegemony, of acknowledging the vastness of Latinx badassery and reveling in it. This panel will bring together some of the practitioners of la sagrada chingonez to talk about what 2018 holds for Latinx writers and readers of speculative works.
Panelists: Julia Rios, José Pablo Iriarte, Malka Older, Pablo Defendini and me.
❧ Radical Elders – Friday, 9 p.m.
On the page, as in GOH Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, and in real life, as in the careers of authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, elders are speaking their minds and upsetting the status quo. How can age intersect with radicalism and pioneering thought? How is the cognitive estrangement of aging relevant to speculative fiction and fannish communities, and what’s the best way of acknowledging that relevance?
Panelists: Barbara Krasnoff, Elizabeth Hand, James Patrick Kelly, Rosemary Kirstein and me.
❧ Reading – Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
I’ll be reading “The Life and Times of Johnny the Fox,” a short story that will appear in Outland Publication’s Knaves anthology in November. Johnny the Fox is a character readers first met in my story “Skin in the Game” published in 2014 at Tor.com. You can read that here.
Take a look at all of Readercon’s programming here.
There is a particular smell to corn that has been soaked in wood ash lye, then washed and hulled and ground into a fine meal.
It is the aroma of freshly made tortillas, of tamales as they steam, of my mother’s huipiles.
Really. No matter how freshly laundered, no matter how many cedar balls or lavender sachets have been thrown in the drawer to keep the moths away, the distinctive hand-woven Guatemalan blouses my mother wore retain the smell of a grain turned more aromatic, more flavorful, more nutritious by the nixtamalation process.
Yared Portillo, a Philadelphia community activist, has four of them: One she built from scratch; two others were secured from renowned artisans; the final one — received broken and in pieces from a friend — she carefully repaired and made whole again.
The repaired instrument isn’t a bad metaphor for the role the jarana has played in the US immigration protest movement for the past two decades. It’s a small, eight-string instrument from Veracruz, Mexico, patterned after a 16th century baroque Spanish guitar that is often confused with a ukulele.
In the hands of Chicanos or recent Mexican immigrants, the jarana — as well as the son jarocho musical form with which it is inextricably associated — energizes rallies and undergirds the chants of those who want to repair not only a broken immigration system, but the increasingly broken relationship between two nations sharing both borders and histories.
So apparently Facebook has something against one of the most established and important Chicano, Xicana & Latinx blogs on the internet and will not let it be shared via FB. Beyond the ridiculousness (is that a word?) of the ban, it is a huge loss for Latinx lit — many of us have discovered great poetry and fiction through Em Sedano’s reviews and Rudy Ch. Garcia’s lists; we’ve delighted in Melinda Palacio’s poetry and life posts, and let SFF writer Ernest Hogan take us on the wild ride of his Chicanonautica. Not being able to share La Bloga, in part or in whole with friends and colleagues, on Facebook is a very real loss.
So, until Facebook changes its wrongheaded ban, I’ll be linking many of La Bloga’s posts here, and posting this to my Facebook page — a kind of underground La Bloga until the venerable site can emerge from the shadows …