Welcome to Smugglivus 2017! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2017, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2018, and more.
On the top of a mountain outside Denver, Colorado, a room full of women and non-binary readers sat around tables in their pajamas, holding steaming mugs of hot cocoa. In front of them, reading into a microphone, sat Victoria Schwab in her own pair of pajamas. Having just relieved N.K. Jemisin of the podium, she shared a story about Death, who lived at the base of the well. Waiting for her to finish was Zoraida Cordova, who would end the bedtime reading with an excerpt from the not-yet-released sequel to her YA fantasy Labyrinth Lost.
It was warm, and it was cozy, and it, somehow, was not just the daydream of a fantasy fan.
It was Sirens.
I could talk about a lot of things for Smugglivus. It’s been a year of things that fascinate and excite me in strange and new ways. There’s the bad: the entire American political system and how Republicans keep voting to take away my healthcare and my money. There’s the good: WWE’s first-ever women’s wrestling competition, the Mae Young Classic, which featured female wrestlers from a dozen different countries around the world. There’s the strange: my foray into the Shopkins universe alongside my bookstore coworkers, and our struggle to figure out whether it’s all a metaphor for slavery to capitalism disguised as a children’s show.
Oh, I could write a whole essay on the unanswered questions of the Shopkins universe.
But where my mind kept drifting back to as I looked at the infuriating blank computer screen in front of me was the last week of October and my time at Sirens.
You might not know about Sirens. It’s not a large conference, but it is the one nearest and dearest to my heart. Often misconstrued as a writer’s conference due the number of authors that talk about attending, Sirens is “part scholarly conference, part enthusiastic convention, part networking weekend, and part personal retreat.” It’s a place where people across the gender spectrum – but primarily women – gather to discuss women and non-binary voices in speculative fiction.
I took a social media break at the end of September, frustrated by watching conversation after conversation about books fall victim to social media’s inability to discuss things – be it writing style, book marketing, or representation – with nuance. But even while I retreated from the world to focus on my own projects and education, I stayed excited about Sirens.
I first attended in 2016 at the instance and funding of Katherine Locke (the author of The Girl in the Red Balloon, out now!); Katie couldn’t attend because of scheduling after agreeing to be on a panel and asked me to go in her place. The panel, on asexual representation in SFF, was already something I’d never seen before, and having only heard good things about Sirens from my few friends who had attended, I knew I had to go.
From the moment I showed up, I knew it was going to be a different kind of conference environment than any I’d been to previously. The airport lost my bags, and within minutes of arriving at the conference, somebody I didn’t know sized me up and offered to share clothes for as long as I needed. My discussion on asexuality discussed representation across the spectrum; it was a joy to sit next to folks like Robyn Bennis and Jacqueline Koyanagi and talk about what we loved and what we didn’t and have the audience respond in turn. I learned about Octavia Butler from black women who loved her; I learned about love stories from around the world from people from those cultures; I learned how to use sex in worldbuilding from BR Sanders and volunteered for Amy Boggs to use me as a test dummy in her weapons class.
It was inclusive and fun and educational. I needed to go back.
It’s hard, when the world is on fire, to remember just how much books matter.
This year, my anxiety flared up and kept me from half the panels I wanted to attend. Even so, I never stopped learning. There was a panel on how beauty was used in fantasy books, and the social conventions linked to power; there was a panel on romance tropes and what works and what doesn’t; there were panels on publishing, on tropes, on favorite authors, on evil women. I talked to readers about the things they love, to authors about their writing and the things they want to learn, to editors and librarians and booksellers about what they’re reading and loving.
And loving books, especially right now, is one of the most important things you can do.
It seems silly, sometimes, to invest so much energy and time into something that’s just a story. It’s words on a page. It’s paper bound together. It is a product that is marketed and packaged and sold. It doesn’t matter, not really, compared to the tax bill and the Tweets and the oil spills and the wildfires and the world falling apart as we watch.
It’s dangerous to think that books don’t matter. That stories can’t shape the world.
Because Sirens is inherently about women and non-binary people in science fiction and fantasy, it is an inherently political conference. It isn’t that everybody who comes to the conference believes in the same political ideas, but because of Siren’s focus on issues surrounding women and its devotion to diversity, it becomes a space where the women’s issues – and queer issues – and racial issues – and disability issues – are human issues. They’re issues that are dissected in the stories that we read.
They’re issues that are dissected in the stories that inspire us.
Sirens inspires me. The women and non-binary authors of science fiction and fantasy inspire me. But most importantly, stories inspire me. The stories that remind us to keep fighting, keep hoping, keep pushing despite the odds are becoming increasingly important, and so I am holding them closer and closer to my heart.
And Sirens helps me find them. And I love them for it.
Shameless promotion: While I cannot attend Sirens 2018 due to financial constraints, they’ve already announced their guests of honor: Zen Cho, Kameron Hurley, Anna-Marie McLemore, and Leigh Bardugo. Sirens sold out for the first time this past year, which means that if you want to go, you should buy your ticket now. And trust me: you want to go.