On liminal identities, exclusion, and othering

The general writerly wisdom is that one should never respond to a bad critique. Yet I want to use this one, which is not a critique of my work, to highlight casual othering and exclusion in our communities.

Amal El-Mohtar, who is known to some of you as the editor of Goblin Fruit, Rhysling Award winner, Nebula nominee, and the author of the Honey Month, sometimes volunteers to read for PodCastle. I have a lot of respect for PodCastle, even though I am not much of an audiobook person due to aural processing difficulties. I read for pleasure, but listening to stories is work. So what I am about to say is not a critique of PodCastle.

Enough disclaimers.

Amal has recently recorded Daniel Abraham’s “A Hunter in Arin-Qin” for PodCastle. At the PodCastle forums discussion thread for this story,  one of the comments read: “I’m not a fan of feigned ‘accents’ and this just felt so forced.”

The problem is, of course, that this is Amal’s real accent. Amal is Lebanese-Canadian living in the UK. Her accent is composite. This is how she speaks all the time.

This is, of course, of direct relevance to me: I am yet another person whose accent is composite; people have trouble placing me. It is also of direct relevance to Shweta Narayan, and to a number of other people here.

So yes, all you people with identifiable accents, please think about those of us with those composite, hyphenated identities, those who moved around, absorbed things, maybe lost their language(s) along the way to better fit into a world hostile to liminalities – please think about how it makes us feel to hear our accents – the very voices with which we speak – are feigned, are forced. Are not genuine. Are fake.

Are not real.

Our voices are not real enough, not recognizable enough to be ratified as real. Our voices do not exist. We do not exist.

You think I am taking this to far? Unfortunately I am not, as this not the only example of othering in this thread.

In the very next comment Amal comes in and says, “I’m sorry my reading didn’t hold your attention, but I’m not feigning an accent. That is how I speak.” At this moment, Amal is officially in the thread, present in the conversation.

Yet, a few comments below, she is referred to in the third person. Please peruse the conversation data yourself and see. One of the commenters says, “She is “A Canadian-born child of the Mediterranean….”” (emphasis mine, RL)

Referring to a person who is present in the conversation by the third person (especially the third person pronoun) during any conflict discourse is an exclusionary tactic. I have even written about this in my academic capacity. What it is doing, in sociolinguistic terms, is marking the person (in this case, Amal) as not a ratified participant in the conversation.

Amal herself calls the speakers out on this: “To everyone speculating about my accent — please, guys, stop. I’m right here! It’s weird to read about you trying to figure out my accent’s origins based on my bio as if I’m not participating in this conversation.”

Why does Amal even need to call people out on this? Why must a person’s native, composite accent be accused of falseness, fakery, forcedness? After the speaker comes in and corrects the accuser, why must the exact nature of her accent be questioned and discussed – between the ratified participants, as if Amal herself is not even here?

If you think this is the only occurrence of this, please think again. I have been on the receiving end of such questioning numerous times.  I have been on the receiving end of harassment because of my accent, in this community. We are not the only ones.

We are people. Just like you. Please think about this.

Stone Telling 8: Together, Apart

Together, Apart is an issue that we are especially proud of. It comes out at a personally difficult time for both of us, and it comes after three very focused themed issues. Frankly, I was apprehensive about having an open-themed issue follow these, but we feel that it works powerfully, building upon and elaborating on themes that are at the core of Stone Telling. I hope you enjoy this issue!




Special thanks, as always, go to our tireless assistant editor Jennifer Smith, and our indomitable interviewer Julia Rios, whom we also congratulate on her new role as a Strange Horizons fiction co-editor.

Poetry, and Sofia Samatar

My Birdverse poem, “I will show you a single treasure from the treasures of Shah Niyaz,” will appear in the Summer 2013 issue of Goblin Fruit.

In other news, “The Moment of Change has been reviewed by Belle DiMonté at Cabinet des Fées: “This anthology is, quite simply, beautiful and transcendent in every sense.” Hurray for us!

A highlight of four pieces by Sofia Samatar: Burnt Lyric, at Goblin Fruit; Honey Bear at Clarkesworld; A Brief History of Nonduality Studies at Expanded Horizons; and The Hunchback’s Mother, at inkscrawl 4. Sofia has also revealed the wonderful cover of her forthcoming book, A Stranger in Olondria, at her blog; to say that I am waiting for it is an understatement.

Poetry sale, +

My longish poem about real and fantastical immigrations, appropriately titled “The Three Immigrations,” will appear in Strange Horizons.

In other news, Weird Fiction Review reviewed The Moment of Change:

This is a stunning collection of poetry, of deeply felt, painstakingly crafted expressions of doubt, hope, fear, courage, transformation, transgression, and other emotions and experiences that beg to be given form. More than that, though, it’s also a strong, undeniable collection of voices, all of which make their own individual cases to be heard. As such, this isn’t the kind of collection a reader should try to rush through in the span of a day or two. They need to take their time to listen to those voices and understand why they need to listen to what they say.


In yet other news, the Clockwork Phoenix Kickstarter is now close to paying pro rates. I am promoting this project because I believe there should be more weird, daring, unclassifiable fiction in the world, and I know Mike Allen will deliver. I loved Mythic 1 and 2, and the Clockwork Phoenix series.

On Bardugo’s Tsarpunk, Worldbuilding, and Historical Linguistics

Reflecting on Leigh Bardugo’s use of Russian in Shadow and Bone, I have made some comments to friends who asked to hear more. For context: this is the book (link goes to Goodreads); this is a positive review of the book that raised the questions that prompted this entry; this is a trustworthy negative review. Context about myself for those who do not know me: born in Ukraine, native speaker of Russian, a Jew, immigrant living in the US, linguist.

Specific languages arise and are developed through unique historical, and historical linguistic processes. This sounds trivial, but let me elaborate for a second – because it is CRUCIAL to understand some of this if you want to make a good job of incorporating existing world languages into your secondary-world fiction. Sarah Monette gives a good background to the issue in The Moss-Troll problem – how do we construct secondary worlds that are internally consistent?

“the problem … [is] one that a writer of secondary-world fiction encounters frequently. … You can’t, for instance, say something is as basic as the missionary position in a world without missionaries. What about saying something is as swift and sharp as a guillotine’s blade? Well, did Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin exist in this world?”

Drawing on real-world languages in a secondary world raises the same issues. If you want thoughtful worldbuilding rather than just grabbing stuff for garnish and exoticization, you should ask yourself, “This is a secondary world. How did languages I am describing here arise, and how do I account for them sounding just like planet Earth’s language X?” It is a crucial question to ask because specific languages arise and are developed through unique historical, and historical linguistic processes. 

Let me start with a fairly simple and straightforward example. The word tsar (царь) comes from Caesar, and was adopted into Russian through Gothic; Goths in turn borrowed it from Latin. [1] Grisha is a diminutive of Grigorii, a Christian name of Greek origin (Γρηγόριος ‘wakeful’) ; Christian names in Russian originate from Byzantium. Unless you are writing an alternative history incorporating old Julius, Rome, Germanic tribes interacting with Rome, Byzantium and early Christianity [2], the word tsar and the name Grisha should NOT appear in your secondary world fantasy. [3] Those who are going to tell me “but it’s just fantasy!!” are wrong. It’s that simple. Within your secondary world, unless you are writing satire, things should make internal sense. If there is no Caesar, there is no tsar. That word could not arize independently of its context.

Onwards. When it comes to sound changes, some languages and language families are more conservative, while others are more innovative (those words are not value judgments – they are terms pertaining to phonetics and phonology). For example, the Semitic language family and the Indo-European language family are similar in age, but the Semitic root tends to be significantly more stable (due to the placement of the vowels in the root and some other factors) than the Indo-European root. Different branches of Indo-European are differently innovative when it comes to the sound system. Some of it has to do with geographical spread, e.g isoglosses such as the kentum/satem isogloss, some with the different reflexes of laryngeals, etc, etc.

Within the Indo-European language family, the Slavic language family underwent changes that are in themselves quite striking. Some of those changes are common to the whole Slavic family before it split, others are specific to the North vs South divide, yet others to East, West, South divide, and yet others to individual languages within these groups.

Common Slavic, a language we postulate was spoken by the Slavs around 4-6 centuries CE, underwent a number of important innovations that differentiate it from its closest relative, Baltic. [4] (DO NOT look this up in Wikipedia, it presents incorrect or incomplete information on Slavic historical phonetics and phonology.)

One of the first innovations introduced was the so-called law of rising sonority, which basically meant that syllables were reformed to always end on a sound of higher sonority. Thus, syllables that were consonant-vowel-consonant very roughly wanted to become consonant-vowel.  They did it for example by dropping the last consonant in each syllable (so things like Common Slav. sūnus ‘son’ became synǔ), and by other, more convoluted processes. This was a phonetic catastrophe of major proportions that dragged other changes – monophtongization of diphtongs, palatalizations, etc, etc, etc. To show you exactly how many chronologically ordered phenomena could be involved in a generation of simple words, let’s look at poor tsar again.

Step 1. Julis Caesar exists and is a significant historical personage – also in your secondary world (somehow). It’s his name, after all.

Step 2. The Latin is borrowed into Gothic. You have to have Goths or at least some kind of Germanic-speaking peoples there for the sake of your sound system’s consistency. Gothic form is kaisar.

Step 3.  Goths come in contact with the Slavs and the word kaisar is borrowed.

Step 4a. Slavs experience the law of rising sonority. The vowel a is higher in sonority than i, so a syllable kai is no longer permitted to exist.
Step 4b. Oh no! Because of 4a, the Slavs experience Monophtongization of Diphtongs!!! ai > ĕ, thus kaisar > kĕsar’.

Step 5. Second (regressive) palatalization occurs for velars followed by the new vowel ĕ, which is to say k mutates to ts and  thus kĕsar’ > tsesar’

Step 6. tsesar’ gets shortened to ts’sar’ and from there to tsar’.

So… if all this did not happen in your world and your language(s), what is tsar (and tsaritsa) doing there?

After Common Slavic split into groups and then individual  languages, each Slavic language continued to innovate in the sound system. Many Slavic languages are mutually intelligible, and even introduced similar innovations after the split (continuing the changes started by the law of rising sonority, for example) – but despite their striking closeness, each Slavic language developed differently.
Without lecturing you on – for example – the fall of the jers, and other things that go into the serious study of Slavic and Russian historical phonetics and phonology, let me assure you that odinakovost‘ could not have arisen as a word in any language but Russian. It is inconceivable. (But I can explain exactly how, over hundreds of years of historical linguistic developments, a word with that shape could develop in Russian).

There is no way a non-Russian Slavic language would develop independently and  be identical to Russian in phonetics/phonology and word formation.

 Hence, “This is not Russia, this is Ravka” is completely fallacious. If a word like odinakovost’ exists there, it is Russia, with linguistic processes lifted intact. There is no way this derivation could have happened independently in a secondary world.  If you are doing this, you have not done good worldbuilding; you appropriated for garnish without stopping to think. What you constructed makes no sense within the context of your own secondary world.

So, say, you have in your secondary world a Slavic-inspired country with the following parameters: the culture has never come in contact with Goths, Vikings, and Balts; the culture never underwent Christianization, and has not come in contact with the Holy Roman Empire, either Western or Eastern. There are no  Jews whatsoever, either of Byzantine origin (no Byzantium), or of Ashkenazi origin, because if Christianity did not exist and persecute Jews, Ashkenazi  Jews would have no reason to flee Western Europe and seek refuge in the Slavic lands. So what is, according to me (bag of salt! bag of salt!) an acceptable thing to do in this situation, language-wise?

Well, I think most importantly you should realize that this kind of complexity is involved, in the first place.

In other words, you should do your research, especially if you are not a native speaker and are taking things from a culture and language not your own, for your own fun and profit. [5]

Next, probably look at Common Slavic, which had no or limited contact with Christianity – and use Common Slavic forms. Consult an etymological dictionary to exclude words of Germanic, Baltic, Greek, Latin, and other undesirable origins. Perhaps if you have the training to do so, derive a sibling Slavic language from the reconstructed Common Slavic. Or perhaps even use Old Russian forms, but for the sake of old Julius and the Emperor Constantine, DON’T incorporate Latin and Greek words that have nothing to do with the world you built, because there is no way they could have landed there, because specific languages arise and are developed through unique historical, and historical linguistic processes.

[1] – According to Vasmer. Another theory is that it was borrowed from Greek kaisar, but the Latin > Gothic > Slavic route is the most likely.

[2] Bardugo does not seem to have Christianity in her book, but she has saints complete with a Latin-looking designation for them (Sankt) which makes little sense to me.

[3] Similarly, names like Alexei (Christian, Greek) and Mikhael (Biblical, Hebrew through Greek) could not exist in Slavic without Byzantium and Christianity (the name Mikhael also could not have existed without Hebrew and Jews).

[4] – I am not going to go into the Proto-Balto-Slavic continuum debate due to lack of time and space; and I am not going to discuss Indo-European either, because we’ll be here forever, but I can speak about this in person sometime if there is interest).

[5] – I am not going to get into the question of “who owns the language”, and whether native speakers and heritage speakers get more leeway when using their OWN languages to write in English. It is definitely a different situation than what we have with Bardugo’s, and opinions vary here. For myself and myself only, a multilingual immigrant writing in Slavic- and Semitic- inspired secondary world settings, I do not feel that I get more leeway as a native speaker; but this is a more complex issue than I can get into, within the scope of this entry.

[Warning: if you are feeling compelled to ask “who the heck cares?” and/or tell me I am taking this way too seriously, the answers are: I care, and indeed I am taking this seriously. This is my space. If you feel the urgent need to troll, be advised that you should do so elsewhere, or be subjected to the Firebird Flamethrower.]

It’s three years later, it’s time to close comments on this piece. The entry stays up, but any discussion should happen in your own spaces.Thank you!

Between the Mountain and the Moon

My queer mythic poem in three acts and a coda, “Between the Mountain and the Moon,” is up at Strange Horizons!

It was written for Izlinda Hani Jamaluddin as a part of the Magick4Terri auction.

It contains one of my favorite-ever lines, ” Every girl […]
followed by suitors springing everywhere like moths from larvae”

Also relevant: “The Making of Between the Mountain and the Moon.”

Two New Reviews – HWC and MoC

A wonderful, thoughtful review of Here, We Cross by Brit Mandelo (Tor.com):

As a whole, I find Here, We Cross to be a vital book—thriving and full of life, putting to words intense emotion as well as the internal workings of identity and self. The focus on genderqueer and genderfluid poetry is a particular joy for me as a reader; these are voices still underrepresented in the larger literary conversation, but in this book they are a force, a majority, that must be considered and acknowledged. There’s also a real pleasure to be had in reading a book, cover-to-cover, that is filled with explicitly queer, trans*, neutrois, and asexual voices, all telling pieces of their stories and bringing to vivid life what it means to be them—and therefore, what it means for them to be, what steps must be taken to forge and protect a sense of identity.

Many poems are analyzed in depth, including Mary Alexandra Agner’s “Tertiary,” Nancy Sheng’s “Inner Workings”, Amal El-Mohtar’s “Asteres Planetai,” and Shira Lipkin’s “The Changeling’s Lament.”

Here, We Cross is available for purchase at Amazon.

A great review of the Moment of Change, by Francesca Forrest (Versification):

A champion of diversity, Lemberg has chosen poems that represent the unruly, ungeneralizable expanse of human female experience. There’s no one agenda here: there are angry poems, but also joyful ones; there are poems of childhood and old age, poems of hope and despair. There are poems in which gender is central and others in which it is peripheral. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s the importance of finding one’s voice and then using it.

Francesca praises my ordering of the poems, but accolades here are due to other members of Team Stone Telling, Shweta Narayan and Jennifer Smith, who helped me figure out the sequencing!

Moment is available from Aqueduct and from Amazon.

The Moment of Change reviewed at Tor.com

Brit Mandelo has reviewed the Moment of Change at Tor.com. I cannot but admire this review, and not because it is so positive.  I have long admired Brit’s ability to write lucidly and powerfully about speculative fiction (as can be evidenced in her series of Tor.com essays on Queering SFF and Reading Joanna Russ, as well as her recent Aqueduct book We Wuz Pushed: Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling). In this review, Brit Mandelo beautifully articulates and analyzes my vision for the anthology:

First, I will say that there is a great deal of anguish in this book: the anguish of silenced voices, of the belittled and ignored, the anguish of suffering as well as the anguish of circumscribed success. However, there is also a sort of wild, free-wheeling determination bound up in and spurred on by that anguish—a desire for freedom, a desire for recognition, a desire for the moment in which the poem transcends mere text and speaks truths. This tonal resonance—the conflict between themes of anguish/containment and freedom/wildness—is struck by the opening poem, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Werewomen,” and continues to resound throughout the entire collection, scaling up and down in intensity but always somehow present as a shapely concern within the poems and their organization.


Another thing that sets the tone for the text is the fact that the book opens with, and is titled from, an Adrienne Rich poem about the nature of poetry: the poet, poem, and the moment of change in which the poem exists are all tangled up together as one object, as one thing. This tri-natured sense of poetry informs and guides The Moment of Change, where poems are the poets writing them and vice versa, where the consciousness of feminism and intersectional identity blends with the written form to capture a moment of shifting—a moment of change. As such, most of these poems have a sense of movement; they are not simply lovely snapshots with an argument made via resonance, but have narrative, emotional pressure, and a sense of development or epiphany.

I am tempted to quote the whole review, but you should, if you are so inclined, head over to Tor.com and read it there instead.

Locus Podcast, and Review

Emily Jiang and I talk about speculative poetry, diversity, multilingualism, and music in the Locus Poetry podcast.

And Erik Amundsen reviews the seventh issue of Stone Telling at Versification.

Small sale, and Wiscon!

1. I wrote a small poem about bees yesterday, and sold it also yesterday to Mitchell Hart’s new magazine, Through the Gate. Through the Gate will launch in August. The poem has no title and probably does not need one; it will be known by its first line, “if all of her would turn into bees.”


-“Here, We Cross,” the first publication of Stone Bird Press, is in my grabby hands. It is beautiful. I do not say this lightly, for if you know me, you know that I am perfectionist and hard to please when it comes to my own work. It is a gorgeous book. It contains 94 pages full of powerful and beautiful LGBTQIA poetry from Stone Telling, issues 1-7. You will be able to buy it from me at Wiscon, and one copy of Here, We Cross will be given away during the Outer Alliance party on Friday.

The Moment of Change. People, this is, like, amazing. Ok? Ok. I do not lie. Get the book at Wiscon from the Aqueduct Press in the Dealers’ room, and the Room of One’s Own, as well as at the Moment of Change reading, which will happen on Friday, from 9:00–10:15 pm (though may last longer) at Michelangelo’s. There will be COOKIES and also BROWNIES and ICE TEA for free. In addition, one copy of the Moment of Change will be given away during the Outer Alliance party on Friday.

The Sign-out.  I will be signing both HWC and MoC during the Sign-out on Monday.

3. If you are a MoC contributor, and are at Wiscon, please come SIGN MY COPY, which will be auctioned during the Con or Bust auction next year.


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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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