New review of “A City on its Tentacles”

Editor Ranylt Richildis alerted me to a new review of the first issue of Lackington’s #1 by Vanessa Fogg, who highlights my story “A City on its Tentacles” for an in-depth and very positive writeup.

Luba is both a mother and storyteller. She dreams wonderful tales and grows within herself a magic pearl. But her daughter suffers from a mysterious illness, and the only way for Luba to save her is to periodically enter the Undersea and give up her pearl and all the storytelling/dreaming power which is tied to that pearl. She doesn’t give it up completely; the pearl will grow back, and while Luba’s storytelling powers return her daughter again declines, until Luba has to return to the Undersea and give up the new pearl for her daughter’s health, again and again. […] Charlotte Ashley in her positive review read this story as a narrative about addiction. My interpretation is more literal: I take at face-value the sacrifice that Luba has to make.

I am thrilled to have this reading, and such a detailed and positive review, alongside Charlotte Ashley’s also very positive, but very different reading. When I was shopping/showing this story around, there’d been some commentary on how editors and readers needed to know “what the story really is about.” Is it about a drug addiction? Is the magical setting real? Is it about poverty? Is it about what happens to women when men leave them? (ok, this last one was a bit baffling).

All I can say is this: not all stories need to have a One True Reading. This one doesn’t. It’s amenable to many readings, it is unreliable, malleable, shifting – like the octopus at the heart of the Undersea, like stories we tell ourselves, those stories we take at face value at one moment and disbelieve the next, those less-than-straightforward tales that circumnavigate and shape our painful magical lives. In her editorial, Ranylt Richildis talked much about language versus plot, but from where I stand, Ranylt’s editorial process was not about accepting a plotless story  (“City” most definitely has a plot), but about taking a chance on a story that has many readings.

It is a feature, not a bug.


Commenting policy posted

I have posted a page with my commenting policy. Section II specifically deals with the question of closed comments.

Comments are open here for now, but I am in the middle of a bad tendonitis flare; responses may be slow.


Narrative, objectivity, and viewpoint

What follows is a post-format storify of my tweets, which are in themselves a follow-up to my previous post on “merit”. The real storify of these tweets is here– with many thanks to Serena @activehearts.

I do not have spoons to elaborate on these tweets, or to cite references. If you want to read good scholarly discussions of this stuff, I recommend “Narrating the Self” by Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps, and Eve Sweetser and Barbara Dancygier’s works on narrative and cognition, such as their latest Viewpoint in Language.


No storytelling, or its consumption, can be divorced from viewpoint. Viewpoint is an inherent part of human narrative activity.

Narrative theorists argue that narratives more complex than a sentence tend to happen on two planes – that of action & that of consciousness. Viewpoint is cognitively embedded in our narrative activity, both as storytellers and as listeners/readers. If you think you are reading “objectively”, it is highly likely that you are reading from a hegemonic viewpoint, where there is no dissonance between your viewpoint – your plane of consciousness – and that of hegemonic storylines. It is likely that you did not have to question the validity of your viewpoint, and saw it reflected continuously in mainstream narratives. To put it bluntly, if you think you’re objective abt a narrative, your viewpoint is very likely aligned with hegemonic view of what is right – of what constitutes the “right” narrative form and arc, the “right” kind of protagonist, the “right” kind of resolution.

There is no such thing as a viewpoint-less reading of a narrative. But we can be oblivious to our own viewpoints under certain conditions. Those conditions under which you may remain unaware of your own subjectivity are usually conditions of privilege – of hegemonic positioning.

From where I stand, the concept of “objectivity” is not worth bargaining for. It does not give us strong tools to build or analyze narratives. From where I stand, a much better bargain is a better understanding of viewpoint: its psychology, its sociology, its history. Its multiplicity.

A better narrative is a narrative that acknowledges the multiplicity of viewpoints – of cognitive and social positions from which we – narrators of stories, readers, as well as our protagonists – come at our varied and complex understandings of the world, and of relationships. In acknowledging and fronting the multiplicity of viewpoints within accomplished and complex narratives, we do the same in life. Acknowledgment and appreciation of diversity comes from this understanding. It is complex, intricate, and worth working for.

I am leaving comments open for now, but will reevaluate in the morning. Spoons are low to nonexistent. Thank you for understanding.

On the pitfalls of “merit”

As I see it, there is currently a split in the fandom. I tentatively think of it as a split between Golden Age fans and Diversity Age fans. This is not about age, as I’ve written before, but about storylines: who gets to write stories, who gets to be a protagonist of stories, who gets to consume stories and express their opinions as authoritative. There is a certain correlation between demographic variables, and the Golden Age vs Diversity Age split in fandom, but it is far from absolute, and this imperfect mapping often creates dissonance in the way we speak about fandom, the works within it, and personalities who generate and consume these works.

It is not surprising that there is a demographic correlation wrt these fandoms, as many people like to see protagonists who are like themselves. It is also no big secret that Golden Age works often tend to other, exclude, and dismiss Diversity Age Fans. Nevertheless, there is an overlap between these fandoms. Perhaps instead of talking about a binary split, we can talk about a continuum between these two axes; a continuum of values and interests that maps loosely but not precisely onto demographics. Some people can hold positions that overlap with both axes. A white, cisgendered, heterosexual man can certainly be a Diversity Age fan.

However, the position of a white, cisgendered, heterosexual man is a demographic position of privilege and power both in fandom and without it. Within the Golden Age umbrella, this demographic has been the one primarily fronted through narratives, power structures, promotion through mainstream presses, and other venues of power. This demographic position of power is not automatically dismantled or disappears within Diversity Age fandom – on the contrary, we see a flow of social capital from fans, in form of sales, praise, and support, towards such powerful fans who side with Diversity Age positions.

Such powerful fans are, not surprisingly, in a position to powerfully promote Diversity Age voices, which are, in many cases, still building their influence and earning social power and fanbase. While speaking out, up and coming diverse writers and fans often become targets of ridicule and scorn due to their demographic and social positioning – when they get any attention at all. In that way, white, cisgendered, heterosexual men (and often women, though there is a notable social and power difference) who are power brokers in our communities can – and get- to do a lot of good for Diversity Age fandom.

However, the temptation is strong to use this power not just to do ally work, but to self-build through the struggle of marginalized Diversity Age writers and fans – through campaining for Diversity positions which incurs increased social capital, as well as increased financial capital. Few are the voices that rise to openly criticize such powerful fans if their work happens to be less than clueful, because they are in power positions to grant and withdraw favors, as well as grant and withdraw considerable social capital in our communities. It is exactly the risk that I am taking here.

Now I will speak about conciliatory voices. Some of the people on Hugo ballot this year – regardless of how they got there – spoke openly and vociferously against personhood and agency of Diversity Age authors and fans, to an extent that many Diversity Age authors and fans felt and continue to feel threatened emotionally and at times physically. At the same time, certain conciliatory voices of prominent fandom people have been raised to ask fandom to judge Hugo-nominated works on their literary merit.

The suggestion that we read solely for “merit” fronts the idea of “objectivity,” i.e. that a view which considers a given work in a vacuum, without social context in whcih the work has been created and disseminated, is somehow desirable and superior to other ways of reading. Fronting “objectivity” has a long and problematic history within academia and beyond. The fallacy is that what gets to be objective gets to be again defined by power brokers, thus effectively silencing and disenfranchising the marginalized.

This suggestion also carries within it a value judgment: “objectivity good, anger bad” – which slides yet again into the old and tired tone argument.

It is my opinion that such conciliatory voices from prominent personae who are 1) power brokers in our communities and 2) considerably less marginalized than the diverse fans and authors they are championing – are not helping the cause of marginalized and othered Diversity Age authors and fans. In these statements there is often an embedded tone argument, an entreaty to Diversity Age fans to play nice with people who explicitly or implicitly dehumanize and more yet, threaten violence against them. Such conciliatory language from power brokers suggests story lines for the whole community to align with – storylines whose buzzwords are “reason,” “respectability,” and “merit.”

But these “voices of reason” may not speak fully for Diversity Age fans, because the very notion of such reason and its objectivity is a Western ideal (and by extent white, male, and historically entrenched ideal within the power structures of the West) which we are thereby encouraged to adopt. The ideal of objective merit might seem desirable at first glance, because we are socialized to desire it. In fact, the adoption of this ideal is dangerous: it suppresses non-Western, non-cisgendered-male modes of thinking and communicating, and imposes a mainstream, power paradigm upon the marginalized – it often has, in short, a silencing effect.

Also, conciliatory statements often have the effect of diverting the attention yet again (along with the accompanying social praise and support) from the marginalized voices to the power brokers, thus increasing the social capital of those who already have it, while marginalized voices go unpromoted and unsupported – unsupported often in context of vicious attacks from those who deny Diversity Age fans their personhood.

This is not about Golden Age vs Diversity Age split, but about lending one’s ear to white supremacists and their allies. For many of us, who are well-versed in surviving violence of various kinds, knowing the context is crucial for survival. This is why we cannot divorce the work from its author, or from the social context within which these authors operate. A context in which a given author is actively dangerous – emotionally, physically – is crucial.

It is within this context that many of us will judge such works, and many of us may feel angry, uncomfortable, disenfranchised, dismissed, and silenced when the paradigm of “merit” is suggested by power brokers – even when they are powerful allies in other contexts.

Special thanks to Saira Ali, Amal El-Mohtar, SL Huang, and Alex Dally MacFarlane for their critical reading, suggestions, and support.

I am closing comments because I have no spoons for trolls in this space. Please feel free to discuss this in your own spaces. If you’d like a discussion with me specifically, please find me through @roselemberg on twitter. I will do my best to engage, though I will not be engaging with trolls.

Poem sale, and Hugo shoutouts

My poem “Peregrinations in Change and Fear,” which some of you have read in drafts as “untitled,” will be published in Poems for the Queer Revolution edited by Jude Sandelewski.

I have made two other sales which I cannot announce yet, but hopefully soon.

Hugo shoutouts:

Major congratulations to Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice), Catherynne M. Valente (“Six-Gun Snow White”), Aliette de Bodard (“The Waiting Stars”), Sofia Samatar (“Selkie Stories are for Losers”), and John Chu (“The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”) for their nominations in various fiction categories.

Congratulations to Sigrid Ellis and Michael Damian Thomas (Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It), Justin Landon and Jared Shurin (Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary), and Jeff Vandermeer (Wonderbook) for their nominations in Best Related Work category.

Kudos to Ellen Datlow, Neil Clarke, and Liz Gorinsky for their Best Editor nominations, and to Galen Dara for Best Professional Artist (really, HURRAY!).

Congratulations to the editorial teams of Apex, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies – all beloved markets who also published my work, some repeatedly.

Major props to Liz Bourke and Foz Meadows, who were nominated in the Best Fan Writer category. It’s a great Fan Writer list this year.

Finally, in the Campbell Award for Best New Writer category, I am especially pleased to see Sofia Samatar, Wesley Chu, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

In 2013, my work has appeared in the following nominated markets: Apex (“Where the Ocean Falls into Itself“), Strange Horizons (“Teffeu: A Book from the Library at Ta’arona“), and Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary (“Feminist SF/F: On Feminist Characters“). Cool.

Bogi Takács’s “Three Partitions,” and the rabbinical approaches to nonbinary gender

Caveat: I am a close friend of the author, and so this is not an objective review (if such is even possible), but rather a combination of dialogue, musings, and disputation.

Bogi Takács’s “Three Partitions” is story is important for me to discuss, my friendship with Bogi aside, because it combines two elements much on my mind these days: nonbinary gender, and traditional communities’ power to norm and exclude.

The story is set on an unnamed planet colonized by Orthodox Jews from Mars, who are clearly Hassidic, and have a Rebbe – one assumes a requisite wonder-working Rebbe, or at least one telepathically proficient – on Mars. In order to be able to live on the planet, the Jews must establish a kind of symbiosis with the planetmind. This is to be achieved by allowing one member of the congregation, Adira, to undergo something akin to blending with the planetmind, and become the bridge between it and the community of humans.

There’s only one problem: after the blending, Adira becomes bigender, a shape-shifter who can be both male and female.

[spoilers below]

The SFnal Orthodox Jewish community is not equipped to deal with that. But deal with it they must – because the community must help Adira maintain her shape through their expectations. Instead, they exclude – overtly, through constructing an additional partition just for Adira (in addition to the one that separates men from women), and covertly – through silences, disapproving glances, and many other acts of exclusion that ring absolutely true to me as a genderqueer person who used to be on the fringes of a number of Orthodox communities. The women still allow Adira and her friend Chani, the narrator, into their spaces, but this is done coldly and grudgingly. Still, they used to be female-assigned, they appear female-assigned, at least one of them identifies as a woman, and both Adira and Chani use the pronoun “she” (there are no non-binary pronouns in Hebrew), and therefore appearances at least can in principle be maintained (mar’it ayin, appearance, is of primary importance to many Orthodox communities. Something must be not just halachically permissible, but also appear to be so – thus, in the early days of veggie burgers, there were many issues and some rulings to not eat veggie burgers with cheese – not because it’s not kosher – no milk and meat blending was involved – but because it could appear to not be kosher). However, it is not clear to me whether Adira the shapechanger would be even grudgingly admitted without the koshere bsule (‘a kosher virgin’) Chani to chaperone her.

Chani is worried about her friend. She is worried about all the standard things one worries about in such a community. How will Adira be able to marry? Childbirth does not come up, but it should have, because marriage and children are at the cornerstone of one’s identity in an Orthodox community. Halachically though, an androgynos – i.e. a person who is intersex, one of the two Talmudic non-binary genders – is not allowed to marry. Though Jewish Law recognizes non-binary people, it does not seem to allow normalcy of communal and family life to nonbinary people.

Exclusion and cold, grudging acceptance are not enough to maintain Adira’s shape. Chani plans a dangerous trick to show the community how much they stand to lose by rejecting Adira – hoping to fear-trip them in to acceptance. The events unfold in such a way that another nonbinary person joins Adira – Shai, previously male-assigned and now a shapechanger who is bigender, or perhaps Talmudically an androgynos. The story ends optimistically : the community is open to a greater acceptance of these nonbinary people, perhaps because there is a distinct possibility that more and more people will undergo blending with the planetmind. And the addition of Shai solves (at least in Chani’s mind) the problem of marriage – the two nonbinary people can now marry each other, and ascribe to normalcy as historically male and female; perhaps it is one of the ways in which the society maintains their shape through their expectations.

As nonbinary people and readers familiar and sympathetic with nonbinary issues, we might perhaps wish for an acceptance of nonbinary people as normal, but I judge this to be entirely true to form: we are to be shaped by expectations into specific cishet gender and sexual identities even if we do not embody them, and perhaps especially if we do not embody them. Nonbinary options exist and are acknowledged, but the shape to be maintained is a binary one.If I have qualms with this story, it’s that I’d like these tensions to be a tad more explicit. I’d like perhaps to have known what language these Jews speak, with perhaps more play with nonbinary pronouns in that daily language versus the binary gender of Hebrew. It is also possible that, unlike most Hassidic people, they speak Hebrew in daily life as well as during study and prayer – the story is ambiguous on that score, but if they do, there would not be a nonbinary option for them, as the whole grammatical system of Hebrew is binary-gendered, not just the pronouns.

Bogi’s story is not an indictment of the Orthodox way of life – it is written warmly, sometimes even tenderly, with an insider’s knowledge. The ending is optimistic. However, the author – a nonbinary person emself – ended up leaving Orthodoxy shortly after writing this piece, mostly over gender-related tensions. When I asked Bogi for an inspiration for this story, e told me that e’s read of an intersex person who received a rabbinical ruling about a separate partition. When the person inquired whether there were actually any communities with such a tripartite division, the rabbi confessed that such people usually end up not coming to shul at all. This, too, is true to form.

I want to trust the hopeful ending of the story, but I do not. The community only becomes more open to the possibility of nonbinary people when a male-assigned person undergoes a blending. This, too, is true to form, showing a hierarchy of genders within the binary. There is a relaxing of gendered restrictions – everybody is invited to study Gemara together – but, eh, I do not trust it. It is at least equally likely that the community would pack their bags indignantly and depart for Mars, where such unseemely blendings would not be required.

Poem sale, and a future kickstarter

My poem “Baba Yaga Tries to Donate Money” has been accepted for publication at Apex. I am very happy about this! This is a humorous (of sorts) poem about the perils of fundraising.

Speaking of fundraising, this June I am planning to kickstart for an anthology of short, weird, surrealist pieces of up to 1200 words long. The anthology is going to be called An Alphabet of Embers, it will have a cover illustrated by the amazing Galen Dara, and it will be published through Stone Bird Press. Watch this space for more updates!

Tidbits from around the web

Charlotte Ashley’s review column, Clavis Aurea, has migrated from Chizine to Apex. In her first Apex column, Charlotte writes about my story A City on Its Tentacles:

Rose Lemberg paints another ambiguous setting in her stunning story “A City on Its Tentacles” (Lackington’s #1). The City is Luba’s city, a wondrous place on the Undersea where poor people live in carved caves of limestone and the rich in towers of bright red coral. It is a world of sun and salt, music and mystery, and it is entirely a creation of Luba’s dreams, which she must give up in order to heal her daughter, Maya.

It is a very favorable review. It also highlights a certain reading of the story; and while there is no “correct” way to read the story, there are other possible readings. I am very thrilled to have this story reviewed. Many thanks to Charlotte Ashley, and to Ranylt Richildis for giving it a home 🙂

Goblin Fruit has a new issue. I have no work in it. It’s beautiful! I hope you read it.

Alex Dally Macfarlane has a column today, “Post-Binary Gender in SF: Poetry’s Potential for Voice,” a part of her post-binary SF series. She highlights two poems from Stone Telling – Bogi Takács’s The Handcrafted Motions of Flight from Stone Telling 7, and Tori Truslow’s Terrunform (Stone Telling 6) – as well as Shweta Narayan’s Sheshnaag from Goblin Fruit. More Stone Telling poems are listed as Other Recommendations, along with Here, We Cross (a collection of queer and genderfluid poetry from Stone Telling), which I edited. I might be slightly biased here. But, you know what, these are very good poems, the column offers an insightful analysis of these poems and so much more; and as for Here, We Cross, I am still very proud of it, and of the poets whose works are collected in it. I hope you take a look.

An audio reprint and a review

“Giant,” my magic realist flash piece about Alan Dundes, will be podcast at Toasted Cake. I love Tina Connoly’s podcast work, and am looking forward to hearing the story in that format.

Sofia Samatar has a lovely review of the first issue of Lackington’s magazine. She has this to say about my story:

A City on Its Tentacles, by Rose Lemberg

There is an octopus in the heart of the Undersea; its every tentacle carries a street, a city, and at night when its people light their reading lamps the octopus shimmers.” The story you tell might save someone. A Rose Lemberg story might save you.

Thank you, Sofia!

Replacing “old” with “hegemonic”

This is an expanded summary of what I said on Twitter (see under @roselemberg). 

Regarding various ongoing conversations in the SFF field, I see, from all sides, multiple references to the speakers’ ages (‘the Young’, ‘children’, the ‘Old’, ‘the Old Guard’, ‘they will die off’) that make me uncomfortable. I am convinced that these labels are unhelpful in both describing and understanding the processes of change in which we participate and which we are witnessing.

I’d like to replace the word “old” with  the word “hegemonic”. What we are seeing is not the “old” versus the”young”, but power brokers reluctant to share that power with those who, for various reasons (age not being one) have not been in hegemonic positions. Nobody is asking the power brokers to give up the power – just to share it. I believe that’s what the backlash is about.

Using “old” or “young” to describe the various sides of this debate is not just inaccurate, it is hurtful. It hurts because it misrepresents that people of various ages are on both sides of this. Young people can and do align with the hegemonic positions; people in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and beyond are working for greater diversity and more equal power-sharing in the field. Moreover, those positions are often not binary. There is great intersectionality in both power and its lack.

A very large issue I have with the label “olds” is that it overlooks that we – the non-hegemonic people of various stripes – also have elders. I do not want to ignore our roots, our trailblazers. What we are seeing is not a generational shift but the cumulative work of generations gaining momentum in the now. This momentum brings with it a shift towards greater acceptance of diversity and sharing of power. While generational trends are certainly there, that’s not what it is about at the core, as I see it.

I am also, to put it mildly, not keen on the “die-off” sentiment. I wish the power brokers would get it and share freely. It is not impossible. It has happened, and will continue happening.

On the other hand, power hierarchies tend to self-perpetuate. Which is why waiting for the current power brokers to “die off” is useless. Expecting for any power hierarchy to not self-perpetuate after the expected “die-off” is as futile as politely asking for the power.

Rethinking, reframing, and remaking the power structures; expanding discourse; having painful conversations and learning from them; forming alliances; empowering diverse voices through opportunities, including publishing opportunities (the more lucrative, the better); establishing venues; creating and maintaining our spaces; fighting for safety in our spaces; and of course, creating works of art and disseminating them – while upholding others – is how I see this change happening.

At its core, the change I hope for empowers and expands our field, enriches everyone who participates in it regardless of age and other variables. This change is already well underway.

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Rose Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, Tiptree, Elgin, Rhysling, and Crawford awards.

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