Interview with Jennifer Marie Brissett, author of Elysium

Elysium

This is an Interview with Jennifer Marie Brissett, author of Elysium, which was the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award Special Citation, placed on the James Tiptree Jr. Award Honor List, and shortlisted for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her short story, “Nasmina’s Black Box,” first published by The Future Fire in 2009, will be featured in the upcoming 10th Anniversary Anthology of the Future Fire Magazine.

My own short story, “Je me souviens,” will also appear in the same anthology.

Su J. Sokol: I first became familiar with your work through your short story “Secrets of the Sea,” finalist for the storySouth Millions Writers Award. “Secrets of the Sea” came out in 2012 in the same edition of The Future Fire in which my own story and first publication, “Je me souviens,” appeared. How about you? Had you had many stories published at the time that “Nasmina’s Black Box” was published by The Future Fire in 2009?

Jennifer Marie Brissett: I remember reading your story and being struck by how refreshing it was, how exciting. 2009 was the year I first had any of my work published. My story “The Executioner” was published that year as well. I also started grad school that year, so it did feel like my career was finally moving in the right direction.

SJS: How did you learn about The Future Fire? Why did you choose to submit your story there?

JMB: I was a devout user of the submission engine Duotrope at that time. I liked The Future Fire for its tag line: “Social Political & Speculative Cyber-Fiction.” Not many magazines make the point of saying that they are about political stories. In fact, I find the SF&F field in general is quite cowardly in this respect. People are actually fighting—right now—to stay mute on issues and be all about the laser gun “pew-pew.” I mean, what’s wrong with people? Haven’t they read H. G. Wells? And if they read him, did they understand? Like, at all??? How in the world do you talk about the future and not deal with the ramifications of what we are doing today? Your brain and soul have to be turned off to do that. I appreciate that The Future Fire is a magazine that refuses to be that way. They constantly select stories with passion and vision. It makes them a unique and very special place in a field where so many lack of those qualities.

SJS: I have read your two TFF stories and loved them both, but I am going to focus right now on “Secrets of the Sea,” so no chance of spoilers for the anniversary anthology. 😉 One of the things that most impressed me about that story was the combination of simplicity and depth, like looking down over the side of a boat into a clear body of water and suddenly realizing that it’s huge and vast and that there’s a whole world down there. Which is pretty much what, in a way, literally happens in that story. How did you first come up with your story idea?

JMB: I had just seen the film short That Which Once Was. I was touched by the relationship in that film between the boy and the artist, and its depiction of some of the environmental effects of global warming on people of color. Somehow I found myself thinking about Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and then the story began taking shape in my mind.

SJS: “Secrets of the Sea” at first seems like a simple tale, but the reader soon sees that there is more to this story than initially meets the eye, including elements of surrealism and time travel/alternative world-hopping. In an almost aesthetic way, it reminds me a bit of your fabulous novel, Elysium. Were you already working on that novel at the time you wrote “Secrets of the Sea”?

JMB: I had already finished Elysium by the time I wrote “Secrets of the Sea.” I didn’t think that they had a relationship at all. Well, other than that I wrote them. Maybe that’s just where my headspace was. I read the anthology Feeling Very Strange around that time (and was shocked that soon after reading it one of the co-editors, James Patrick Kelly, was to become my grad school mentor!) and I really liked the slipstream nature of reading a story and having it give you “the feels,” like you’re not reading a story, the story is happening to you.

SJS: It is certainly true that both stories are very immersive. Another thing I would say about your writing is that it is strikingly original. Despite that, it is hard to resist the urge to think about other writers who might have influenced another writer’s work. For instance, while reading “Nasmina’s Black Box,” I thought of Canada’s own Nalo Hopkinson. Elysium made me think about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a book I loved though I didn’t enjoy the movie at all. What authors, if any, have influenced you? Can you name some authors whom you admire?

JMB: There are so many, Toni Morrison being one of the biggest because it was through her work that I realized that literature can exist with a black person at its center. I didn’t realize that until I read Song of Solomon. I didn’t even realize people like me were missing until there they were staring back at me on the pages of her novels. Other writers that have influenced my work are Gloria Naylor, James Baldwin, Jeffrey Ford, Sherman Alexie, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Octavia E. Butler. There are many others, but these are the ones that always come to mind first.

SJS: Yes, Song of Solomon is so awesome! I read it ages and hundreds and hundreds of books ago and I still think about it sometimes. Like you, I have also been very affected by the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler, among other writers of speculative fiction. Why do you choose to write (or read) speculative fiction? What is it about the genre that draws you? What do you think of the genre/literary binary?

JMB: I’ve always read widely and I don’t always write speculative stories. I mostly do, though. I love the freedom of being able to cross all the boundaries. I love the idea of exploring places that never were and digging deep to find meaning there. I really don’t think there is a genre/literary binary. There’s a good/bad writing binary.

SJS: Well said! I have also always enjoyed reading widely, and good is good, whatever the genre that’s been assigned to the story. At the same time, I also have a special love of fiction with speculative elements. As a woman of color writing SFF, what do you think about the way this genre is or is not evolving? What are your thoughts about your place in that world, or the place of other racialized, genderized or otherwise marginalized groups?

JMB: It’s been weird and not what I expected. Writing as a woman of color for me is a very solid place to be, since I have so many other women of color to look to who have done amazing work both in genre and mainstream literature. I feel like it’s an honor and a privilege to do this work. I can’t always tell when my work is rejected if it was because a woman of color wrote it. It’s most likely that they just don’t like my work, but there are times in the back of my mind I wonder…

Also beyond being a woman of color, I am an artist. I feel a responsibility to be true to my own vision. Sometimes that vision upsets some people. There are a lot of know-it-all know-nothings running around out there and I’m struggling to tune most of them out. I’ve been called a promoter of the “homosexual agenda,” a bigot, a “transhomophobe,” etc. I suppose I should accept this as a mark that I did something right because I seem to have made a range of people mad. That’s what art does. Art makes those asleep jolt awake. Either you dig deep and try to understand what the art is saying, or you shut down with your own preconceived notions. It can also make some project their own stuff onto the work. So I think my burden is to not take on the burdens of others. With that, I don’t read stuff about my work on the internet that much anymore. Sometimes I slip and I always regret it later. I will simply continue to write and try my best to ignore the rest.

SJS: Please do keep the writing coming. I am a big fan! What role, if any, do you feel publications like The Future Fire have to play in the SFF literary world? Or in the world in general?

JMB: On the personal side, TFF has been critical to my career. It was the first magazine to publish my work. In this field where the reading can be shallow, it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s a place where literature and meaning are married. There needs to be more magazines like it. More places with vision and guts to print the not-easy stories.

SJS: I feel the same way. Have you read any of the excellent anthologies that The Future Fire has published (Outlaw Bodies, We See a Different Frontier, Accessing the Future)? Are you excited about being in the 10th Anniversary Anthology?

JMB: They are all on my tablet waiting to be read. (I recently moved and am so behind on my reading!) And I am OVER THE MOON to be in the 10th Anniversary Anthology!!

SJS: Is there anything else that you would like to share with readers?

JMB: Read The Future Fire and buy/support the Tenth Anniversary Anthology!! You’ll be glad you did.TFFX

Readers can connect with Jennifer Marie Brissett or learn more about her work as follows:
http://www.jennbrissett.com

Book Readings + Social Activism

This past September 11th, a date of political significance for a number of different reasons, I participated in the first of what I hope will be a series of events combining readings from my novel with discussions of social activism. The event was at a local cooperative called Coop la Maison Verte and the theme was cycling as a responsible form of urban transportation and a key ingredient to making our cities more green, healthy and sustainable.

Participants in the event included activists and spokespeople from cycling and pedestrian associations, organizations promoting environmental justice and sustainable urban living environments, and concerned community people.

Once, on a radio interview, I was asked whether I thought that artists have a special responsibility to create art of social and political significance, or whether it is better for art and politics to remain separate. What I believe is that it is not possible to separate art from politics. If you are communicating something, it is going to have some kind of political content. It’s only that people will notice this less if the politics being expressed are mainstream or status quo. Of course, art can be overtly political or more subtly political, but for me, being devoid of any political meaning is almost impossible.

In the case of speculative fiction, it is even more obviously the case that social and political issues will slip into the work. SFF usually involve some amount of world building, and how you build that world says a lot about what you think of current social and political realities, and this is true whether it is a future world, a parallel universe, or alternative history.

In the case of Cycling to Asylum, I play with dystopian and utopian themes. As all writers of those genres, I do  this to sound an alarm for trends that seem frightening, while at the same time emphasizing ideas might help us build a better, more just world. For me, having political ideas and content in my novel was a given. For this reason, it is both a pleasure and a relief to be embracing this fact through the types of events that I doing, starting with September 11th at Coop la Maison Verte.

Upcoming Events:

Handlebar eventLike my event at Coop la Maison Verte in Montréal, on September 23rd, I will be combining readings from my novel with a discussion of urban cycling, only this time in Toronto. The event will be hosted by Kensington Market’s HandleBar, a venue that is oriented towards cyclists. Joining me will be cycling activist Derek Chadbourne who will moderate a discussion on what a cycling utopia in Toronto might look like.  On the eve of a mayoral election, I hope that activists and community members will come together and share views on this important ingredient to a safe, healthy and sustainable city.

On the weekend of October 3rd, Ottawa will be hosting the CAN-CON, or Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature. I will be reading from Cycling to Asylum and will also beLin-Lin_Mao-Cover1-2 participating in three panels. One of these panels is about social and political science fiction. Another is on whether the superhero trope devalues the need for collective action. (Hint: My short story, “Je me souviens” was about superheroes in the context of a collective student movement.)

 

Finally, I am in the midst of trying to organize an event about immigration rights with a representative of Solidarity Across Borders. This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, and it is arguably the most important theme of Cycling to Asylum. Stay tuned for more news of this and other events!

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Review of “The Finite Canvas” by Brit Mandelo

“The Finite Canvas” by Brit Mandelo

This is a well-crafted story that is grittily realistic and moving. The author manages to build a world with a few well-drawn strokes. Likewise, the reader is provided with enough well-chosen details to easily imagine each scene but not so much as to interfere with the spare style that works so well with the mood and setting.

It’s a familiar set-up — a story within a story, with the inner tale earned by the protagonist’s actions or promised service. Through this device, we get to know both the protagonist and the storyteller. The relationship between the two of them, strained at first, becomes closer as understanding grows. The reader feels mixed about this. We’re satisfied to see the triumph of empathy between two so different characters, but we sense already that the storyteller is doomed.

The ending comes as no surprise, but this does not detract. There are enough original ideas to make the story fresh, and the predictable ending is partially a factor of how all the pieces of the story fit together. There is a circularity to the beginning and end of the tale which is very satisfying. Even the title is exactly right and adds to the story’s depth.

I generally don’t like sad endings but the sadness was offset by the warmth I felt from the demonstration that love still has a power that can’t be extinguished even in the most desperate of situations. This added an element of hope and triumph to what is otherwise a very dark tale. All in all,  “The Finite Canvas” is a powerful and well-executed piece that uses just the right amount of space and colour.

You can read the story here: http://www.tor.com/stories/2012/12/the-finite-canvas