Empathy and hope: an essay on Birdverse

I have been honored and moved to read Sessily Watt’s latest (and last) Facing the Raven’s Eye column at Bookslut, titled In Hope, which focuses on my Birdverse work.

But when literature includes moments of empathy — of growing the world, fictional or otherwise — it offers hope in the midst of pain. In this sense, Rose Lemberg is among the most hopeful authors currently writing.

Sessily says many insightful and beautiful things about my worldbuilding, including some things that other reviewers did not yet discuss. Here are some excerpts:

In the Birdverse, a magic loosely based in geometry is a source of craftsmanship, art, protection, and healing. Multiple cultures and countries engage in trade relationships and political alliances. Cultures make use of magic according to their own traditions and rules, and worship the deity Bird, in whichever feathered form Bird takes. And within these countries and cultures, individuals hurt and are hurt, heal and are healed.

One of the often-used tools in the Birdverse box of empathy is the perspective of a trader, who shifts between their own culture and the culture of another, trading not only physical objects but traditions and ideas, too.


The intricate geometry of the magic system — its arrangements of polysyllabic “deepnames” — seems to be mirrored in the relationships of the characters… Both the characters’ relationships and the magic system emphasize coexistence and support, often involving a mix of what is considered strong and what is considered weak. And every story holds a deep and painful honesty about the harm we cause each other through fear, the “vessels of brokenness” we become under our own actions and the actions of others, and the warmth and wholeness that can be found through acceptance of one another.

Sessily also offers an in-depth look at two stories, “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar,” and “Geometries of Belonging.” The whole column is here. Check out the other Into the Raven’s Eye columns by Sessily Watt here.

I am really, really moved by this. Thank you.

Glassmaker and Jeweler reviewed

A new review of my Birdverse story “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar” (Uncanny), by Kate Lechler at Fantasy Literature:

What I absolutely loved about this story was how rooted in natural landscapes it was. Maru tells Vadrai about the desert, full of wind and the “striated bones of forgotten beasts.” Vadrai in turn shares images of their home in the Northern forest, “the small, snow–hopping birds and the children running outside, running even though clothed in such enormous garments” and a wonder which Maru has never witnessed: trees.

I also loved the idea that two creativities, even of different natures, enhance each other.

(read the full review at the Short Fiction Monday column)

Thank you very much. It really helped to read this review today.

Nebula Awards Weekend 2016

Due to the constraints of finances, childcare, health, and neurotype, I have not been much of a con-goer. The last convention I attended was Readercon in 2013. I am attending a con this year, and I am looking forward with pleasure and trepidation. The con is the Nebula Conference, and I am one of the Nebula Award nominees this year. And, unexpectedly but very happily, Bogi Takács will be able to come with me to the convention!

I am looking forward to meeting many excellent people face-to-face. I will also be on programming. My items are:

Friday, May 13


Historical Research from the Margins with Michael Livingston • Alyx Dellamonica • Eileen Gunn • Rose Lemberg • Ada Palmer • Helene Wecker

Language as Rebellion with Daniel José Older • Rose Lemberg • Kelly Robson • Tamara Vardomskaya

8:00pm – 9:30pm
Mass Autographing

For the autographing, I will be bringing copies of Marginalia to Stone Bird and, almost certainly, An Alphabet of Embers.

Will I see you there? 🙂

P.S. If you’re planning to come and would like to hang out and/or talk to me, it would be great if you could let me know beforehand – a comment or a twitter DM work best.

P.P.S. I feel good about my accessibility needs during the con, especially since Bogi is coming, but just as a hands up, I do tend to get drained/overwhelmed/dizzy and I have mobility issues which can flare up.

Birdverse poem sale

Mitchell Hart will be publishing my Birdverse poem “Mirrored Mappings” in Through the Gate.

This poem was an experiment in that I initially posted it unlocked on my Birdverse Patreon last year. I do not think that anyone except patrons read it. I love this piece and wanted more readers to see it, and so I asked Mitchell whether he would consider it as a reprint for Through the Gate. He did. I sent him an updated version, and now I am looking forward to be sharing it with you soon.

Tiptree Award Longlist

The Tiptree Award lists came out, and I am very pleased to report that “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” is on the Tiptree Longlist. It’s the first time my work appears on the Tiptree lists.

The lists this year are excellent. Glad to see work by A. Merc Rustad, Nino Cipri, Zen Cho, Yoon Ha Lee, Caren Gussoff, Nalo Hopkinson, Carmen Maria Machado, B.R. Sanders, and many fabulous others.

I am also a contributor to two anthologies on the Tiptree Longlist: Letters to Tiptree, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein; and Queers Destroy Horror, edited by Wendy N. Wagner, Megan Arkenberg, and Robyn Lupo.


Hugo and Nebula deadlines

The deadline to vote in the Nebulas and to nominate work for the Hugo is March 31st – just around the corner.

My Birdverse story “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” is on the Nebula ballot this year. It is Hugo eligible in the novelette category. I hope you will give this story a try.

To everyone who has considered, discussed, and promoted this story so far: thank you. Thank you so much.

If you’re curious, there are some entries about this story and responses to it under the Birdverse tag.

A new and excellent essay by Ada Hoffmann, “Worldbuilding about, through, and with autism” at Disability in Kidlit hgihlights both “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” and “Geometries of Belonging” among other great works.

Happy voting and nominating!

Lightspeed Magazine review of Marginalia

Amal El-Mohtar reviews my debut poetry collection, Marginalia to Stone Bird, at Lightspeed Magazine’s March review column titled “Language, Roads, Intersection”:

Rose Lemberg’s first collection is a beautifully curated jewel of a book full of colour, longing, and heat. Divided into three sections—Finding Voice, Changing Shape, and Making Journeys—and containing nine poems original to the collection, Marginalia to Stone Bird constantly shifts between tactility and evanescence: embroidered cloth and starlight, food and fire, letters and music. […]

…ultimately, to discuss the collection’s contents is to muse on droplets on a windowpane during a lightning storm. The wholeness of it, the movement from voice to shape to journey, is heart-breaking; poems that address immigration, gender, love, language, are of a kind to crack a reader open before offering consolation.

Read the whole of Amal’s beautiful review here; the column also covers Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories, and The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria by Carlos Hernandez – I’m very much looking forward to reading both of these books!

One Trans Response to “Cloth…”

I recently blogged my notes on trans themes in my Nebula-nominated “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds.” Shortly after that, Corey Alexander/Xan West posted an essay titled “One Trans Response to “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds”. It is a powerful, hard-hitting entry. I am very honored to have this perspective and this reaction to my work. I hope you give it a read (but note the content warnings).

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of Corey’s entry:

About content: this post speaks openly (and in some detail) about trans oppression in queer communities (with a focus on the ways trans men are targeted), gender border wars, purging, and gender-based coercion and abuse in relationships. Most of that discussion is in the first section, so if you want to avoid it, skip to the section titled My Response to Grandmother-nei-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds.

My Own Context for Reading Rose Lemberg’s Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds

I remember the hardness of the chairs in the auditorium. I remember the buzz of the fluorescent lights. I remember trembling in my seat, my stomach in knots. I remember the energy in the room feeling dangerous to me, like if I moved I might get noticed, get hit by the violent storm.

I don’t remember what exactly people said at that queer town hall meeting. I have tried, today, as I write this, to recall those kinds of details. But I can’t access them. I don’t know how I ended up in that room. I don’t know who I came with.

It was 1996, probably. I think. Twenty years ago. And it was the first time I heard queer cis women speaking openly about the reality that some of their partners, some folks in queer women’s community, were transitioning.

[read more]

Two Bits of Poetry News

1. Publishers Weeekly (!!!!) reviews my debut poetry collection, Marginalia to Stone Bird:

In their debut collection, Lemberg summons elements of speculative fiction to capture a world in which everything is in motion, yet remains guided by language […] A book this dense with poems about passing between states—migrants in transit between countries, spirits negotiating between the living and the unliving, celestial bodies that walk the earth in human form—might lose its way if it did not thrive joyfully in its own collective liminality.

2. Strange Horizons will publish my poem “The Ash Manifesto.” I am very pleased.

Notes on trans themes in “Cloth…”

Grandmother-na-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” is a Nebula nominee. As such, it is getting a lot of attention.

I usually let my stories stand on their own. When this story came out, I had written brief story notes focusing on Kimi’s autism in the context of the Khana culture. Even that felt too much for me. I want readers to get what they need from my work, without my external authorial influence.

But as this story is getting more attention, I’d like to write some notes about the trans aspects of this story.

[TWs: general mentions of homophobia, transphobia, and intolerance in the family. Spoiler warnings: discusses gender(s) in the story, but not plot points.]

I think it makes a crucial difference in this case to know that it is a trans story, with multiple trans characters, written by a trans person about trans lives.

This in itself cannot guarantee freedom from fail. But it does set up a specific framework, a framework of an #ownvoices narrative.

I am a non-binary trans person. I am AFAB and bigender. I strongly identify with both binary genders. I use the pronoun “they” as well as “she,” though I am phasing out “she” right now.

I am an immigrant from Russia and Ukraine. As as a queer, trans child and adolescent, I have been strongly othered by my environment. I talk about it in an essay I wrote 5 years ago, shortly after coming out as queer and genderqueer, “No Coming Out Narrative, or Growing up queer in the Soviet Union.” After I left the Soviet Union and moved to less homophobic environments, I continued to be strongly othered, shamed, and pressured – both by my environment and by my family – to remain closeted. My immigrant parents hoped for and pressured me for a trajectory that centered normativity in both professional and personal life. At no point in my life so far have I not struggled with this burden, with this aspirational normativity which has been drilled into me by society, by variably violent bullies, and by family.

Many of us are pressured by families. Especially trans people. Especially trans people (and queer people) who are from non-white and/or non-Anglo-Western cultural backgrounds, and/or who are immigrants. Many trans people I know have strained relationships with their families, and many had to cut ties with their families or were disowned.

This story came from that place, a place of deep hurt in me, and in many of my trans friends. It came from a place of wanting to imagine healing.

It also came from a place of wanting to center a trans character who comes out later in life. For many trans and queer people, coming out later in life is very fraught. Coming out is always fraught. Coming out later in life, when one’s identity is supposed to be firmly established, is terrifyingly difficult. This is my perspective. I am in my late thirties. There’s not enough trans representation in SFF; there’s never enough representation of queer and trans elders specifically. I write queer and trans elders and older people a lot.

The last piece of this is Kimi. As an Aspie and a member of a neurodiverse family of three, I know how many of us struggle with understanding, much less conforming to, the binary gender system which is imposed on us. I wanted to center the personhood of a non-binary autistic person who grows up in a binarist environment and who is also non-verbal or minimally verbal.

The viewpoint of Aviya was difficult for me. It is a viewpoint that begins from a place of both love and at the same time rejection of our truest selves, which is so familiar and so incredibly hurtful for many of us with cis and/or straight family members. When I am writing a viewpoint of a cisgender family member who is loving, but only conditionally accepting I am both writing the other, and writing from a perspective which is excruciatingly and deeply familiar to me. Like many trans people, I have been pressured to learn this perspective, to internalize it, to center it before my own.

It was also deeply healing for me to write this viewpoint. It allowed me to put on a cis person’s viewpoint of us, to see her struggle with who we are, and together with her to look for ways – very imperfect and marked as such in the story – to shift the nature of her gaze, from the societally imposed expectations of gender, family structure, age, and disability, and to come to a place of love which is grounded in acceptance, if not yet in perfect understanding.

Language, and the way different languages code for grammatical gender plays an important role in the story. I am a sociolinguist and a multilingual person, and am often grappling with issues of gender being encoded in different ways in my different languages. These tensions are important in my work.

As always, I am very grateful that this story resonated with so many people. I am especially grateful to my partner Bogi Takács, and to Corey Alexander (Xan West), for their insightful commentary and engagement with this story and this world.

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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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