Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Essay: Bigotry, Cognitive Dissonance, and Submission Guidelines

First off, before I start, I wanted to say I didn't want to write this blog entry. Not because it needs to be said, not because it's another controversy in the speculative fiction field, and not because I'm probably the least qualified person to talk about it, but rather because it's another case of a privileged White Anglo-Saxon Male who posts something problematic on the Internet, and marginalized groups get to respond.

So instead of starting off with what's wrong, let me begin with what's right. When talking about diverse anthologies and submission guidelines, here are some books that fit the bill:

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Fox & Daniel Jose Older | Submission Guidelines
Diverse Energies edited by Tobias S. Buckell & Joe Monti

Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall | Submission Guidelines

THE SEA IS OURS: TALES OF STEAMPUNK SOUTHEAST ASIA edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng Submission Guidelines

Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios | Submission Guidelines (disclosure: I work for Twelfth Planet Press)

With that aside, I want to point out two Guest of Honor speeches from the recently-concluded Wiscon 38. One from Hiromi Goto and another from N.K. Jemisin. Here's an excerpt:

"How important, then, that published stories come from diverse sources; from the voices, experiences, subjectivities and realities of many rather than from the imagination of dominant white culture. For even as we’ve been enriched and enlightened by tales from Western tradition, stories are also carriers and vectors for ideologies. And the white literary tradition has a long legacy of silencing, erasing, distorting and misinforming." - Hiromi Goto
"We’ve seen that bigotry directed not just toward black authors but authors of all races other than white; not just along the racial continuum but the axes of gender, sexual orientation, nationality, class, and so on. We’ve seen it aimed by publishers and book buyers and reviewers and con organizers toward readers, in the form of every whitewashed book cover, every “those people don’t matter” statement, and every all-white, mostly-male BookCon presenters’ slate." - N.K. Jemisin
I want to home in on a specific passage from Jemisin's speech:
"A SFWA affiliate member posted a call for civility on his website; in the process he called me “an Omarosa” and a “drama queen”, but of course he didn’t mean those in a racialized or gendered way... And let me emphasize that I am by no means the only woman or person of color who’s been targeted by threats, slurs, and the intentional effort to create a hostile environment in our most public spaces. People notice what happens to me because for better or worse I’ve achieved a high-enough profile to make the attacks more visible. But I suspect every person in this room who isn’t a straight white male has been on the receiving end of something like this — aggressions micro and macro. Concerted campaigns of “you don’t belong here”."
On the very same day Jemisin made her speech, a call for submissions for an anthology titled World Encounters went up (you can find the screenshot from The Radish of the edited submission guidelines as of 2014/05/27), from the same editor who called Jemisin an "Omarosa" and "drama queen" (the original post has been deleted as of 2014/05/28).

Now there are two points I want to tackle: the submission guidelines itself, for the Formalists out there, and the editor. Why does the latter matter? Because as someone whose culture has been marginalized, to quote Hiromi Goto, I don't want to be part of "a long legacy of silencing, erasing, distorting and misinforming." And when you're a writer, your immediate gatekeeper is your editor. You want your editor to be someone informed, someone you can trust. Imagine, for example, if the editor of an LGBT anthology was Orson Scott Card. Wouldn't you, either as a writer or a reader, find that problematic?

Also, to clarify, I don't think there will be a "perfect" editor or anthology. There will always be something that people will complain about, or find problematic. But on the other, that's no excuse for cultural appropriation (especially from people of privilege), and it's easy to screw things up. Case in point, Wil Wheaton's non-apology when using the term "spirit animals," even when it's explained to him why it's wrong.

I. The Submission Guidelines

What if aliens landed on Earth right next door? How would your neighbors react? What about you? What if they landed all over the world? How would people of different cultures respond? What about Earth explorers encountering aliens on their own planets far from home?
The premise is fine. It sounds generic, but nothing problematic yet.

Submissions outside these dates and parameters will be summarily rejected and cannot be resubmitted. I reserve the right to close submissions at any time if the slush pile is too big and I have what I need. No money is promised or contracts offered until the Kickstarter funds. No simultaneous submissions.

Also, people who are living or have lived in NonWestern cultures, especially the ones they write about, will absolutely have a leg up as authenticity is really important to me.

Here, there is an attempt to reach out to marginalized groups, although this would immediately be contradicted by the editor's succeeding paragraph (see below). Also, it assumes that:

  1. The authors will actually write about the culture they've interacted with ("especially the ones they write about") because there's always a possibility that I, a Filipino, might write about Japan, and what do I really know about Japan?
  2. That the authors will automatically be familiar and understand the culture, because the possibility that they are "cultural tourists" couldn't possibly happen, and
  3. As a reader, the authenticity that I care about is what's written on the page, not the author's biography; a knowledgeable person might not necessarily be able to adeptly convey their experiences for example.
Multi-award winner Mike Resnick will be writing a new Africa story for this, and there will be other headliners with reserved slots, including Kay Kenyon and Jack McDevitt, but I will be looking for 10-15 stories from the open call.

Wait, wait, a privileged Western white writer writing about Africa? This hasn't been done before!

And Mike Resnick has written about Africa before. He must get it right, right?

In many ways, the editor's oversight of this fact is part of a larger, arguably unconscious, racism on his part. Take for example his blog entry titled Broadening The Toolbox Through Cross Cultural Encounters: On Resnick, Africa & Opportunity. Instead of talking about writers from the continent of Africa (and it's a large continent, so there's a large pool of writers like Chinua Achebe, Lauren Beukes, and Joan De La Haye), we get Mike Resnick. Nnedi Okorafor gets mentioned but only as an off-hand comment, rather than the focus of the article.

So when talking about an anthology that's diverse and inclusive, neither Mike Resnick, Kay Kenyon, or Jack McDevitt are what I'd consider the examples you should be touting as a contributors. Because to many, it appears that you are favoring the already privileged writers instead of those marginalized.

I won't even comment that an author that was touted in the original version was eventually rescinded in the edited version, after it was brought up to the said author's attention.

The goal is to have stories by a few known and upcoming Western writers but also include some up and coming foreign natives writing from their own cultural view as well to give exposure to SF from outside the Western world as long as it matches the theme. I will be limiting the number of Western writers included to be sure we get those outside voices.
Words matter. Here, we have a contradictory paragraph. On one hand, it claims that it wants to give "foreign natives" a chance. First off, you don't call writers of other cultures foreign natives. It's foreign to you and they are natives to you (when was the last time people referred to themselves as natives?). It already tips the editor's hand that the book is from a Western paradigm. On the other hand, it's also the Western writers that seem prioritized here. I mean that's why we have guaranteed authors like Mike Resnick, Kay Kenyon, and Jack McDevitt (none of which are, ahem, "foreign natives").

Stories can be Past, Future, Present, on Earth or off, let your imagination run. But I don’t want a bunch of alien POV stories.

I’d like varied POV from different cultures, so I want 1 or 2 from alien POV but not half the anthology or a third. I want some set on Earth and some off. Some could be on starships, too. But I don’t want all. So if you are setting them on Earth and if you are using American POV or Alien POV, please let me know so I can encourage balance.

I would accept a really good story longer than 7 k, but contact me and it will be under much more scrutiny. 3-5k is my sweet spot, honestly. 5-7 is okay but, again, not ideal because I have so many great people wanting in and I’d love to have as many stories, authors and cultures represented as possible. Of course I will take the best stories. If it works out at 12 instead of 20, so be it. But I’m just telling you what I’m shooting for.

This is just horrible writing. This can be summed up "I want X, but not too much of X, or too little of X." That's not to say you won't be making these decisions as an editor, but it's usually made after you've received all the submissions, not before.

I want this to reach a broad audience, including education uses, so if you use foul language, humorous setting is going to be easier sell than serious and if you drop more than two F-bombs in a story, you are lessening your chances. Same goes for “goddammits,” “shit,” “asshole,””mf,” and you get the picture. I am not trying to be a prude or force my beliefs on you. I just want to balance an audience because people need to learn about cultures and perspectives and that has educational value. To quote the description at the top: “we’d like this to be a collection parents and kids can read and discuss to learn and encourage interest in SF and other cultures.”

This means I also don’t want political stories. No bashing other people groups, cultures or belief systems/parties. This is not to be divisive but uniting, because my experience has taught me there are a lot of other viewpoints in the world we Westerners can learn from, but hearing them won’t happen if we turn people away.

First, all stories are political. In fact, the paragraph banning "goddammits," "shit," "asshole," etc. is a political decision. When someone says they're not political, what they really mean is that their politics belongs to the status quo, and they don't want to challenge that. One example is Nintendo's recent statement regarding same-sex marriage in a their video game, Tomodachi Life:

“Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of ‘Tomodachi Life,”

What they really mean by "no social commentary" is "we are against homosexual partnerships."

Second, we go back to the dominance of the Western paradigm in the anthology. That's why words like "we Westerners" are used. What is the point of soliciting stories from Non-Western writers, if inevitably, their stories will be Westernized to cater to a a perceived Western audience?

I love action but I’d also like a bit of levity so humor is good. I don’t want all humor. And I don’t want all action but I do need some of both. (How’s that for being specific.) That being said, sex and graphic violence also should be kept out.  Pretty obvious. Enough said. Smatterings of foreign words for flavor are fine, but we should be able to interpret it in context. You can play with (translations in parenthesis too) but too much of that just increases word count and makes it harder to read.
Again, more bad writing (I want X, but not too much...). With the bolded part, the editor betrays their lack of understanding of other cultures and the craft of writing.

First, for great writers, foreign words are included in the text not necessarily because they're flavor, but because they're essential to the story. Second, if an author chooses (or does not choose to) translate a word and place it in parenthesis, there's a reason for it, and it's not due to extending the word count. Third, if it's harder to read, that's because the author doesn't condescend to the reader.

As I am expecting an Africa story from Mike Resnick, seek authenticity.  He’s famous for his Africa stories and I have no doubt whatever he does will be brilliant. After all, he’s got Nebula and Hugo nominations and awards for these stories. Which means, if you write Africa, expect to be compared.
First, writers are only as good as the work they submit. No competent editor would blindly accept a story that hasn't been written yet. Because it could be crap, and that's regardless of your politics.

Second, some would argue Resnick's stories are inauthentic. And it doesn't also mean that another writer, say one hailing from South Africa, will write an inferior South African story.

This editor has been to Africa, Mexico and Brazil and studied the cultures, countries and religions extensively, for example, so please research any culture you choose. Do not write what you think they are. Do not write stereotypes. 
Africa is a continent. Mexico and Brazil are countries. To equate the two is an inability to understand their cultural nuance, especially from someone who proclaims they have studied the culture, countries, and religions extensively.

I am inviting a few Western writers whom I know have traveled and have strong cultural knowledge, sensitivity and passion for places they visited.

Translation: because despite my previous claims that this anthology is for writers outside of the Western world, this is really for my Western writer friends (because we don't have enough of those!).

Not every Mexican is the same, for example, but please have it so your Mexicans are real enough my actual Mexican friends would tell me you got it right. (I do have friends around the world who will read for cultural authenticity before I make final selections, so I want authentic.)

Here we have a contradiction. On one hand, the editor is making a claim that Mexicans are diverse. On the other hand, he also wants a Mexican archetype that will ring true to every Mexican (or at least his friends, because his friends represents Mexico). Which is faulty because you can't please everyone in a culture, because that's the definition of diversity. I can write about my own Filipino experience, and it might ring true to some Filipinos, but will sound faulty for others.

Also, it seems the barometer for cultural expertise is "they are my friends from around the world," which honestly isn't very methodical.

Here's a Bingo card from The Angry Black Woman:

What are the odd little cultural quirks people exhibit which would strike outsiders as odd but insiders as perfectly normal? Use those in your story for humor, confusion, etc.
Yes, because we should pander to our Western audience. And not because cultural quirks are essential to the story.

Must be willing to respect the editor’s editing requests. No assholes allowed. Seriously. Also, if you have slandered my name or resent me for not sharing your views, don’t bother. I guarantee I won’t.
To borrow an image from The Radish:

I guess the editor can slander and resent other people, but not the other way around.

II. The Editor

So Thomas Bryan Schmidt claims that "[he] has not said or done anything racist or sexist in his entire life" (source). Despite in the same blog post, he labels N.K. Jemisin as an Omarosa. Or, you know, his history of name calling, whether it's due to a person's gender or race.

Look, full disclosure. I've said lots of racist and sexist things in my life. I've screwed up, horribly. So I wouldn't make any attempt to claim that I'm not racist or sexist. But I'm willing to tackle, to change, and to correct myself. I don't always succeed.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt isn't that person. He has two main problems:

1. He never blames his own writing for conveying the wrong message. For example: "I should apologize to them that THEY misconstrued and misinterpreted my words?" Or statements like this:

Regardless of your politics, that's just a bad policy for someone whose profession is writing and editing. People don't need to know you. They can only read the words you use.

2. When people try to explain, educate, or address his points, he ignores them. If he hasn't heard of you, you get banned. If he has and you're famous, he'll try to placate you.

Disregard, disregard, disregard, ban.

III. My Experience

As far back as 2012, I witnessed an exchange between Bryan Thomas Schmidt and a friend. The former had an ambiguously-worded tweet that could be interpreted as defending Save the Pearls. Bryan then wrote a blog post condemning my friend. I replied, in private and politely, why I thought his blog post was wrong, and informed him that I would be posting a rebuttal on my blog. He then took down the post, called me a bully, and banned/blocked me.

I told this and showed the transcripts to an author/editor friend of mine, and he told me neither he nor his wife would support bullies. So back in 2012, I shut up.

Maybe posting this account makes me a bully. But by not speaking out back then, it's paving the way for injustice. In 2013, Bryan posted about #SFFCivility. In 2014, it's the Submission Guidelines mentioned above. Because I have no doubt, some people will submit.

And it goes beyond those projects.

I love SF Signal. I was a contributor. I stopped contributing after 2012. It's not because Bryan Thomas Schmidt was also a contributor to the site, but that fact wasn't encouraging either. I don't know how the current members of SF Signal feel about him. [2014/05/30 Edit: He was no longer a contributor to SF Signal since the last quarter of 2013.]

Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing produced interesting podcasts before 2012. After that year? I wouldn't know. I stopped listening by then. Bryan Thomas Schmidt was a sponsor of the show, and guested a few times.

#sffwrtcht is also run by Bryan Thomas Schmidt. It's been consistent and a valuable venue for authors or publishers looking for some publicity. Bryan claims that it's inclusive, but how can it be inclusive when the owner calls people names like rotting meat, deletes tweets/comments/posts, and immediately bans people unless they're famous? So yeah, it's not a venue for me. [2014/05/30 Edit: The hashtag was apparently appropriated by Bryan from a female creative and was never acknowledged.]

I'll just be here, with the rest of #TeamRottenMeat.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Comic Reviews: And Comics by Mr. and Mrs. Yumul, Dirty Laundry 2 and Other Stories by danielle riña, Minkowski Space Opera Chapter One by Aaron Felizmenio

And Comics by Mr. and Mrs. Yumul

Mr. Yumul has gorgeous stylized art; Mrs. Yumul has powerful prose. Unfortunately, comics is about the synthesis between the two, and most of And Comics simply lack synergy. The end of the comic explains the rationale for this--Mrs. Yumul crafting the narrative after Mr. Yumul had drawn the panels--and while it's an interesting creative exercise, it can be a frustrating reading experience for the discerning reader. Occasionally, you end up with profound gems like "The Box" which resonate even once you've put down the comic, but there are a lot more misses than hits. Which is a shame because And Comics is ripe with potential, and if the two creators had coordinated, they could have produced memorable comics.

Dirty Laundry 2 and Other Stories by danielle riña

Dirty Laundry 2 and Other Stories is one of those comics that really comes together: rough stylized art that's appropriate to the creator's narrative, a personal story that's compelling, and a tight theme. Dirty Laundry 2 does feel like danielle riña's dirty laundry, whether on the literal or metaphorical level, and it's peppered with telling details and intimate scenes that tug at your emotions. The only complaint I have is how the lettering could use some improvement, although the fact that it's handwritten also adds to the charm.

Minkowski Space Opera Chapter One by Aaron Felizmenio

I'm still hesitating when it comes to Minkowski Space Opera Chapter One. It has potential, but there's also room for improvement. The weakest element of the comic is the art for while it's passable and has its fair share of stunning panels, there are scenes where the lack of polish detracts from the story. In panels that feature several characters, it's difficult to distinguish who is who. Or in one instance, a character suddenly pops out of nowhere. But the good news is that the story has legs. Aaron Felizmenio is fusing sensibilities of Western fantasy with Filipino myth, and while it's too soon to tell whether the payoff is worth it or whether the combination is handled with finesse, there's enough substance to provide readers with hope.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Comic Review: Sad Comics for Dirty Lovers edited by Rob Cham

Sad Comics for Dirty Lovers is one of those anthologies that's raw, unfiltered, and born from passion. It lacks a certain polish, not in terms of art or design, but in terms of editorial direction that can leave the reader baffled. But one could argue this lack of polish is what gives some of the stories their edge, the courage to experiment and fail if need be.

Thematically, Sad Comics for Dirty Lovers is Rob Cham's breakup anthology. Or at least that's the expectation established by the title, the opening comic, and the epilogue. Where it starts to stray are Cham's collaborations with Petra Magno ("Spooky Tales of the Here and Now") and Auti Nones ("Comics for Millenials"), which are actually quite entertaining and witty, but don't seem to fit with the larger arc that Cham initially pitches to the reader. It might have been an attempt to break the monotony of heartbreak-after-heartbreak, but that's what the single-page strips of Apol Sta. Maria already accomplishes with its insertion before each piece.

The challenge of any anthologist working with a theme is to make sure not every story reads the same. And in many ways, Cham's selections fail in that accord, as what we often end up are literal heartbreak stories juxtaposed with images. At its worst, we have "Untitled" by Carljoe Javier, which simply does not work on several levels: the lack of a title is undeserving, and there's no build up for the narrator we're supposed to feel empathy with. Thankfully, the other contributions make better attempts. "Un-You" by Petra Magno tries to engage with the concept of heartbreak via metaphor, and it barely works. What salvages it are the telling details that convey Magno's personal investment in the narrative. "My Favorite Christmas" by Mihk Vergara plays with two different stories, one told by the text, and the other by the images. They're supposed to converge and be related, but it's an all-too transparent ploy.

What follows suit is either intentional genius on Cham's part or serendipity borne from modesty. In many ways, I think one of the stronger comics in the anthology are Cham's, especially the opening comic "Break Up 2013". It doesn't pretend to be anything else other than Cham's state of mind, sprinkled with the occasional conflict of how he says one thing but feels something else. Then compare that to what should have been Cham's epilogue, "How I Live Now," which provides perfect closure for the comic. It's also interesting how there's a subtle change in the art between "Break Up 2013" and "How I Live Now," showcasing the transition from one state to another. The last story is what everyone should read read read and buy buy buy: "Beehive Heart" by Petra Magno. Magno employs the best tools of metaphor--or even speculative fiction for that matter--to convey the turmoil of experiencing relationships. I spent P250.00 on Sad Comics for Dirty Lovers and "Beehive Heart" makes it a bargain. What makes this the genius part is that if this was intentional, what seems like Rob's story (his character opens and "ends" it after all) is actually giving way for Magno's, which is the superior story. From a structure perspective though, "How I Live Now" provides better closure and should have ended the comic (with "Beehive Heart" somewhere in the middle of the book), but it's the rawness of publications like these that highlight the gems.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Comic Review: Tabi Po Isyu 1 by Mervin Malonzo

Disclosure: The company I work for is the eBook publisher of the English translation of Tabi Po.

If we want to talk about the best that Philippine comics has to offer, then we need to discuss the symbiosis between independent publishers and major publishers (and I use the word "major" loosely because a major publisher in Manila doesn't produce a print run comparable to a major publisher in the US). While there have been some competent and good comics published by mainstream publishers, if we want to discover the stories that are exciting, innovative, or simply excellent, then we need to look for them from independent creators. Sometimes, those with merit never gain acclaim or an additional print run. But occasionally, an indie comic is picked up by a publisher who then introduces it to a wider audience and keeps the title in circulation. That was the case with Carlo Vergara's Zsazsa Zaturnnah and Gerry Alanguilan's Elmer. Success builds upon success. Even this early on, Tabi Po Isyu 1 by Mervin Malonzo feels like one of the most important Filipino comics in the past few years.

The last statement is a pretty bold claim to make, but Tabi Po is a rare work that arrives at an ideal time and makes a commentary on the industry, in addition to its value as a text.

From the perspective of craft, Tabi Po hits all the right beats. Let's take the art for example. It's gorgeous and visceral, evoking primal emotions while still maintaining a unique style that's identifiable. My problem with some art is that it can become too stylistic that it is difficult to distinguish one character from another; that's not the case here. And when we talk about Filipino comic art, a common failing or absence is color: either creators eschew the medium because it's outside the means of Risograph and photocopier production, or its usage is superficial and shallow once it moves beyond covers and pin-ups. Malonzo employs color here to its full potential, not by using the entire palette he has access to, but keeping it thematic and appropriate for the mood--and does so consistently.

Another pitfall of local comic creators is the integration of the Filipino language with their art. The usage of Filipino in comics can be challenging because the language is polysyllabic and can lead to reader exhaustion or take up a lot of physical space. At its worst, you have a title like the first issue of Bayan Knights, where captions and text boxes cover the artwork. On the other hand, if pulled off correctly, you have something that sounds organic and smooth, which is the case with Zsazsa Zaturnnah. Where I've seen it succeed is in Aaron Felizmenio's Gwapoman 2000, which sounds lyrical at times despite the verbosity of the author. Tabi Po feels just right, giving enough room for readers to digest the text, while still showcasing Malonzo's art. And language in Tabi Po matters, having read both the original and translated versions of the comic. Just look at how Malonzo navigates through the etymology of the word aswang and incorporates it into the narrative, creating this dialogue between the comic and the reader.

Then there's the story and lore of Tabi Po. When we talk about mythology, there are typically three kinds of storytellers. There are those that simply retell them, employing tools like characterization to make the story compelling and interesting. Then there are those that adapt it for a modern setting, appropriating what they see fit and infusing it with sensibilities from modern pop culture. If we talk about Filipino artists and myth, the two (well, three) popular creators people will mention will be Arnold Arre (for Mythology Class) and Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo (for Trese). My problem with these two works is that they're divorced from the source material and employed with different aesthetics in mind. Not that it's wrong per se, but there's a significant lack of literature, let alone comics, that deals with Filipino folklore outside of the context of urban fantasy. The Trese series for example simply treats our bestiary as either tools useful for the protagonist, or enemies that are easily dispatched in a panel or two--sensibilities that have more in common with today's Western TV shows where monsters are simply executed instead of being appeased, respected, or competed against. Then there is the third kind, where a creator produces a myth that sounds plausible and real, despite being fictional. And Tabi Po belongs to that category: the story of Malonzo's aswangs sounds like a folk tale we might hear during a visit to the provinces. This is myth building at its finest, employing the most potent of storytelling tools. You have characters that are literally The Other and embracing that concept. You have origin stories that combine not just the modern renditions of the monsters we know, but incorporating elements of our colonial past and making them integral parts of the story. Malonzo doesn't need to explicitly mention when and where the story takes place: readers glimpse it through the art, via the environment, or the language the characters uses.

When it comes to the industry, Tabi Po feels like the future. As previously mentioned, we don't get a lot of colored comics because most comic creators prioritize print publication and for independent creators, that usually means photocopiers. Tabi Po circumvents that limitation by publishing it as a web comic. While Malonzo isn't the first comic creator to be picked up by a print publisher after a successful online run, it's the serial I know that wouldn't otherwise have been possible elsewhere, especially due to the graphic content of the work.

There's a lot to parse when it comes to Tabi Po, whether on the fiction itself, or the cultural level it finds itself interacting with. The asset of Tabi Po Isyu 1 and Mervin Malonzo is that while they reflect and respect what came before, they continue to evolve and innovate.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Comic Review: Abangan: The Best Philippine Komiks 2014 edited by Rob Cham, Adam David, Carljoe Javier, & Elbert Or

How important is context? On one hand, Formalism values independence, self-sufficiency, and personal interpretation. On the other hand, some of the most potent art is its interaction with the zeitgeist, at how it builds on what came before it, and how its contribution causes ripples.

It would be insufficient to gauge Abangan: The Best Philippine Komiks 2014 based on the former; that's not to say it wouldn't pass with flying colors--there are several outstanding, standalone comics in this anthology including the excerpt from Windmills V by Josel Nicolas or Blue Dusk by Mica Agregado--but when we talk about a retrospective anthology, a "best-of" at that, what should be at the heart of the discussion is its dialog with the rest of the field. And at the very least, whether you agree with the editor's choices or not, Abangan creates this standard for talking about local comics. One tragedy of the Philippine comics scene is that often, unless your work is published by a major publisher (in the case of this anthology, Visprint), your work will eventually be forgotten and unarchived. The strongest benefit of Abangan is how it leaves a recorded footprint (and admittedly, in the case of some, getting reprinted results in better print quality compared to the original publication venue, just as some lose out in its transition from full-color to black and white).

Abangan addresses this much-needed gap in Philippine history, and in the context of frequent discussions in the local industry, hopefully puts an end to the thesis that Philippine comics is (un)dead, or that the golden age is past. There's a plethora of work that's been published in 2013, and here's the evidence.

But for anyone who doesn't want to talk about the larger implications, let's borrow the perspective of the Formalist and look at some of the comics in the anthology, much like any of the reviews that came before this. There's lots of impressive comics here, as well as problematic ones. On one end of the spectrum, you have the selected cartoons from Dead Balagtas by Emiliana Kampilan: four-to-five panel strips that hit the humorous beats while tackling issues like colonialism and imperialism. Or a title like excerpts from "Diwata" by Manix Abrera (and to a lesser extent, the excerpts from Wignaut by K.A. Montinola and Martha Maramara), which showcases how effective silent comics can be. On the other end of the spectrum is the excerpt from Filipino Heroes League Volume 2 by Paolo Fabregas, and I'm both impressed and disappointed at the scene selected for this anthology. In the context of the Filipino Heroes League series, it works; here, while I congratulate the editors in selecting a scene that stands on its own, the statement I'm getting from this comic is the subversion of the Edsa Revolution, at how a significant turning point in our history by the masses was retconned to be the machinations of a few, despite the best intentions underneath that gesture. And then you have the works that are somewhere in between--at the very least fun and entertaining and referential--like the excerpt from Darwin's Association of Delicious Evilness by Carlorozy and "Trese: Thirteen Stations" by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo.

That Abangan stands well on its own is deserving of praise and why it's been positively reviewed. But if we dig deeper, the anthology has several shortcomings, and it's perhaps indicative of the biases, whether conscious or unconscious, of its editors that also happens to be representative of the strengths and weaknesses of the local comic industry. To be fair, these are flaws that some readers will not notice, dismiss, or perhaps even afraid to point out. But this is where the value of dialog comes in.

While I'm not looking for objectivity--that is the point of editors after all, to provide a subjective vision or direction for the text--I do look for consistency. One complaint that can be levied against the local publishing scene for example is favoritism, and one example of this is how an anthology was reviewed in a broadsheet without the reviewer disclosing that they were a contributor to the said anthology. While that's not the case in Abangan, there are several instances here which defy standard expectation.

For example, my expectations for Abangan is that it compiles the best comics of 2013. It doesn't bother me that comics published in 2014 were included (the time frame of the anthology could easily be set to Feburary 2013 ~ January 2014), but work that hasn't been published yet does, which is the case with the comics of Manix Abrera, and Noel Pascual and AJ Bernardo. That's not to say that their work isn't deserving, but why is there this kind of exception, or at the very least, is not addressed in the introduction? These are also the first two comics featured in the book, so what kind of message does that convey? Related to this are the submission guidelines (or lack thereof) for the sequel: does it include comics published from April 2014 ~ March 2015, or can comic creators submit original work directly to the editors without needing previous publication? It also begs the question, maybe the comics on Abangan isn't based on previously published work, but based on the comic creators the editors judged to have stood out the most in 2013, which drives the discussion in a different direction.

Then there is the case of the four series editors, and while I can't begrudge having numerous editors working on the same book, this choice affects my other problems with the anthology. When we talk about the series editors in this anthology, namely Rob Cham, Adam David, Carljoe Javier, and Elbert Or, it's not quite clear what their role is. Not that the reader needs to know this, but when discussing the other implications of the book, it starts to matter. Typically, when running a series ala The Best American Series, there are typically series editors guiding and overseeing the work of the guest editors. In this case, do all four series editors take on the duties of the guest editors? If so, here are some points I want to discuss.

First, there's the bias of the local industry towards the interests of the Catholic cis-male based in Metro Manila. The introduction to Abangan admits that, but just because it's admitted doesn't give them a free pass. When you have four editors working on an anthology, you couldn't make the selection of editors more diverse (since a more diverse set of editors can theoretically lead to more diverse selections)? And looking at the anthology, it's not really diverse, whether you're looking at it from a gender parity perspective (and also makes you wonder, whether intentionally or unintentionally, why Martha Maramara is the only contributor to have an omitted bio), or the fact that majority of the reprints were from print-based sources.

Second, the issue of favoritism can be raised. Typically, an editor refrains from selecting their own work as it can be interpreted by some as a conflict of interest. Abangan includes not just one, but two, works from Rob Cham. Now there are several valid reasons for doing so. It could be the editors wanted to showcase the talent of Cham's collaborators. Or it could simply have been chosen by Cham's co-editors, because Cham is a talented comic creator. But having a clear distinction on the editorial process (whether the traditional roles of a series editor or guest editor) could clear up this possible controversy, or at the very least, tackle it head on.

With regards to the editorial, there are also some choices that while it isn't erroneous per se, makes you wonder. The excerpt from the previously-unpublished Crime Fighting Call Center Agents by Noel Pascual and AJ Bernardo interests me because of the language chosen for this strip. While their series has previously been translated into English, Crime Fighting Call Center Agents is usually released in Filipino, and then translated at a later date. That English is the language of choice here defies expectations for their work, and makes you wonder at the choice.

And since this is the de-facto record of comics published in 2013--whether the editors wanted this burden or not--it's important to get the details right. While most of the copyright page is correct, I wish it was more comprehensive in the case of some of the works featured (a "previously published" or "originally published" here notice would work for example). There's also the previously mentioned lack of a biography for Martha Maramara (if the creator declined to have a bio included, it could simply have been stated). One could argue these are just nitpicks, but they go a long way when it comes to the academe or simply recounting our history.

For the most part, Abangan: The Best Philippine Komiks 2014 captures the macrocosm of the Philippine comic industry, including both its praise-worthy aspects and flaws. At certain points, it also captures the chopsuey nature of the industry, but it needs to be worthy of the conceit of its title: it needs to move the field forward as much as it looks back on what came before.

Not A Review: April 2014

Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson by Mark Siegel

Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson is a meaty, plotted graphic novel with a distinct art style and ominous atmosphere. What initially stands out is the art--and I'll admit, I wasn't impressed at first--but it fits the setting and the entire point of the graphic novel was that it was illustrated via charcoal. It takes its time to set the story, and the payoff is worth it. One complaint I was going to levy against this graphic novel is the lack of female characters--and it doesn't really pass the Beschel test--but there's a scene in Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson that tackles the patriarchy of the setting in an interesting manner.

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet, translated by Helge Dascher

If Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson relies on being literal to convey its horror, Beautiful Darkness does so with subtlety and finesse. It utilizes what seems like a simple premise--miniature people living inside a dead girl struggle to survive--but every element in the comic is carefully chosen and serves the overall theme. Reading Beautiful Darkness is a haunting experience, but it's not readily apparent how dark the story can get, mainly because we're shown bits and pieces here, but never enough to jolt us or to make us quit. And that's what impressive with Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet, for as powerful as the explicit scenes, it's what's implicit the carries the reader.

The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams

The title captures the mood for this anthology: fun, fun, fun. While the initial set of stories could be jolting as the authors unaninmously use the word "mad scientist," this feeling eventually goes away as it makes room for less-obvious narratives. Also helpful in the anthology are the introductions by the editor, which provides insight into the story without spoiling it. The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination is a refreshing break from tedium.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

There's a lot to unpack with Mr. Fox, and that's part of the fun reading Helen Oyeyemi's fiction. Suffice to say, the author successfully juggles various elements like elegant language, holistic characters, and an entertaining narrative with the desconstruction of a popular fairy tale, the life of an author, and the mosaic novel.

Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction 2014 edited by Angelo R. Lacuesta & Dean Francis Alfar

Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction 2014
feels like an inverted pyramid, with the lengthier stories frontloaded, yet this setup works. It's actually a rarity in the local publishing scene to find entertaining stories that manage to sustain their momentum past the 2,000-word mark, and several of the stories in the book successfully do so.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Studio Salimbal Comic Writers Panel

Last April 6, 2014, Studio Salimbal held a forum for comic creators at Fully Booked Bonifacio High Street.

Here's the recording of the first panel, which featured various comic writers. |MP3| (35 MB)

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Book Log: Locke & Key by Joe Hlil & Gabriel Rodriguez

Title: Locke & Key
Authors: Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez
Publisher: IDW

I read the first volume of Locke & Key back in 2008, when a friend gave it as a Christmas present. It was a satisfying start to a comic series, but I also knew I did not want to get invested until the series was done. Flash forward to 2013 when IDW released the last issue of the series (and the fifth volume has yet to be compiled) and creators Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez did not disappoint. There's several reasons why the comic works, including a smart and compelling villain, a diverse and multiracial cast (although sadly this does not extend to the main characters), and all-too-human tragedy that rings true.

I've given away the original volume I got as a present, and this isn't the first time I bought copies of the series (I've given away them too). My personal copies were bought from Comixology, but I continue to buy these physical copies since it's the best way to foist them on people (the same goes for Jeff VanderMeer's Wonderbook, which I've given as gifts multiple times).

Here's the Head Key from Skeleton Crew Studio.

Book Log: Wakefield by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Title: Wakefield
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Art: Ana Juan
Spanish Translation: Maria Jose Chulia Garcia
Publisher: Nordica Libros

Wakefield is the first book I managed to read in 2014, although this is really more of a chapbook, with only one story (albeit with a Spanish translation included) in it. I've never heard of the "Wakefield" story before until this particular edition was recommended by Jeffrey Ford. It's a quaint piece, and it's a perfect example of a story that feels like it's speculative fiction without containing fantasy or science fiction elements per se. This particular edition has art by Ana Juan, which accompanies the Spanish text. The original English version is at the end, although it misses out on most of the artwork.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Still Alive... and Picking Up the Pieces

I had plans for 2013...

... but they all went down the drain.

If you're still reading this blog, thanks for staying for the entire year that it's been inactive.

I was planning to "leave" the Internet--away from Livejournal, away from various news websites (the death of Google Reader helped speed this up), away from any controversies (and there's a lot in 2013, just like any other year)--and that worked to a certain extent. And if you "turn off" the Internet, life still goes on.

Unfortunately, I wasn't really able to accomplish any goals I had set. I only managed to read a measly six books in 2013 for example (although they were all fantastic books and could easily have been my top ten). I didn't get any writing done.

But I did get to discover a lot about myself. My weaknesses. My flaws. My desires. And I'm genuinely surprised at everyone who's been supportive, the new friends that I've made, and the people who've stuck around even if I'm undeserving.

So if you're still reading this, thanks.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Not-About-Writing Interview: John Joseph Adams

I've been gone for the past few months, but to tide you over, here's an interview with John Joseph Adams, editor of various magazines and anthologies. The point of this interview though is to not talk about writing! So without further ado...  

Hi John! I know you're a fan of metal, so what music are you currently listening to?

At any given time, I typically have a group of several albums that functions as my "current listening" playlist; usually, these are the last several albums I've acquired, and thus they're all new to me.

Currently, it contains the latest albums by Baroness, Killswitch Engage, Holy Grail, Mutiny Within, Ensiferum, Epica, Firewind, Soilwork, and others. I've also got a singular non-metal entry on the list: Muse's latest. Here's a link to the whole thing:

The latest Baroness album -- the double album Yellow/Green -- is one of my favorite records...I was going to say in recent memory, but given the number of times I've listened to it I would have to say calling it an "all-time favorite" would be more accurate. I just love the hell out of that album. Their first two albums -- The Red Album and Blue Record -- were both amazing too, but it feels to me like they really elevated their game to another level with Yellow/Green. Arguably Yellow/Green isn't even metal. Red and Blue certainly are -- and probably not particularly accessible metal either -- but Yellow/Green is much more mellow, which doesn't at all detract from how awesome it is, even as a metal fan.

Could you elaborate on what's the appeal of In Flames for you? How did you first hear about them and what made you listen to them again recently?

I think I first heard of In Flames courtesy of an MTV2 Headbanger’s Ball compilation CD. I’m pretty sure it was this one. Actually, though, now that I think about it, I may have first heard them on a different compilation -- I know I had bought some metal movie soundtracks around then. Looking at this track list for the soundtrack for Freddy vs. Jason (which I never even saw or had any interest in seeing), I think this must have been where I first heard them. Because before I looked I would have thought that the first In Flames song I heard was either “Trigger” or “Minus.” I’m now pretty sure it was “Trigger,” so I must have discovered them on that Freddy vs. Jason CD. It might have been encountering them subsequently on the Headbanger’s Ball CD that made me decide to check out one of their albums.

Those Headbanger’s Ball CDs (there were a couple compilations) really helped me expand my metal horizons. They were all double albums, with the first one being sort of more familiar metal bands (i.e., more commercially successful ones), and the second disc was full of bands that were more underground types, on smaller labels. I ended up discovering a ton of bands because of those CDs, including several bands that are now among my favorites: Killswitch Engage, Trivium, Lamb of God, Arch Enemy...

Although I usually only have recent additions to my library on my playlist, occasionally I'll rotate older material back into my playlist; for instance, I went to an In Flames concert a couple of months ago -- which was awesome, by the way -- and prior to that I sort of binged on In Flames for the weeks leading up to it, and added their most recent albums to my regular playlist for a while. When I go to see a concert, I like to be really familiar with the band’s material ahead of time. And of course I’ve listened to all of In Flames’s discography a ton, but I hadn’t in a while, so I wanted to make sure they were all fresh in my mind.

As for what I like about In Flames, I’m not really sure how to answer the question, largely because I never did quite figure out how to write or even talk about music. I tried taking a music review class once in an effort to figure it out (since I seem inclined to turn my hobbies and interests into work), but I couldn’t quite get the hang of it. It probably doesn’t help that when I read reviews of music they almost never actually give me much of a sense what the band is like, unless they compare them to some other band I already know. If I were to take a stab at trying to explain, though, I guess I would say that what I like about In Flames--and more generally what I tend to like about the metal that I like--is the blistering guitarwork and the dynamic ebb and flow of the melody and the vocals as they alternate between harsh and mellow. Lyrics are kind of an afterthought for me when it comes to music, which is probably one of the reasons I connect to metal so much since it’s often so hard to understand what they’re saying. I may just be musically or tonally impaired, but I have a terrible time actually understanding the lyrics in MOST songs, even pop songs where they’re just singing, so not being able to understand the shouting and screaming vox in metal isn’t a big deal to me. Sometimes I seek out the lyrics so I can read along as I listen, when I have a band or album that I really like, and it’s cool to discover that the songs I like so much actually have cool lyrical content too. But I’m just as often disappointed to discover that the songs I like are either vapid or just don’t make much sense. So it’s not something I indulge in often. It’s usually better to just think I know what the song’s about  based on the limited amount of the lyrics I can decipher on my own.

And speaking of the Baroness, not a lot of musicians (especially in these post-iTunes era) release double albums. In what situations do you think are they apt, especially when it comes to the packaging, the track sequence, etc.?

I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. In the case of Baroness, I can’t really tell the difference between Yellow and Green stylistically or musically--the songs all sound like they’re part of the same album to me. Actually it’s funny, because I mentioned how Yellow/Green is so mellow it’s barely even metal at this point, so it occurred to me that one use of a double album could be if, as a band, you wanted to experiment with some wildly different direction (say a metal band doing an album that was much less heavy), they could do one part as a regular album and have the other part be the experimental album.

I have another double album, from Dark Tranquillity, that is one part a B-side compilation and one part a live album, so that’s another way to do it. I’m actually really glad they did that as it kind of opened me up to buying live albums more often, as I previously hadn’t liked a whole lot of them. That one, though, is amazing, and I actually prefer listening to those versions of the songs to the studio versions in some cases. (Pantera’s live album is a similar case; that version of “Cemetery Gates” is hands down the definitive version of the song in my mind.)

All this talk of double albums kind of makes me want to do a series of “double anthos.” They could be done up Ace Doubles-style, and one side would be original stories, and the other side would be reprints. Although actually I guess that’s almost what I do in every issue of Lightspeed (minus the double-sided aspect). Whoa. I just blew my own mind.

Speaking of Ace Double-styles, I hear some editors talk about them (never saw them on my end because genre books were scarce here back then). Did you read a lot of them? Were they books your sister passed on to you? Why do you think they're gone now (with the exception of independent publishers who employ that format)?

I actually never encountered them until I started working in the industry. Without cheating and googling to find out, I couldn’t tell you when they stopped doing those, but it must have been before I started seriously reading SF/F. I expect had I identified as a genre reader earlier, I might have encountered them, as I do think they were around in the ‘80s. Though I--and a lot of people--often refer to them as “Ace Doubles” some other publishers did them too; Tor, for instance. And the format actually does have a name: it’s called “dos-a-dos binding” or “tête-bêche.” Wikipedia has an article about the format that explains it all pretty well.

I don’t really know why they’re gone now. I assume it’s just because that format stopped being successful commercially. It seems like it’s such a great idea, though, because it allows authors to write shorter novels and have them still be marketable, and also allows you to pair up a more well-known author and a lesser-known author, to help expose that newer author to a wider audience. I guess there are some issues with shelving such things though; where do you shelve it, and how does anyone looking for the “B Side” know how to find it in the store? That kind of problem would probably be irrelevant with online bookshopping, though, so, who knows? Maybe we’ll see them become popular again some time soon.

You recently moved from New Jersey to California. How is it going for you so far? What's the biggest adjustment you had to make?

It’s going great. I moved to the Central Coast of California because I met and fell in love with the lovely and talented Christie Yant. Location-wise, I guess the biggest adjustment has just been the lack of local culture that I had ready access to when I lived so close to Manhattan. But overall it’s been a definite upgrade; where I live, there’s just basically nice weather all the time; it never snows here, and I really hate snow so that’s a real plus for me.

And we’re not THAT far from culture if I really want it; we live about two and a half hours from Los Angeles by car, and an hour away from Santa Barbara. Plus there’s always conventions to help fill that socialization void, and of course since Christie is also immersed in genre publishing, I can also talk with her whenever I want and so that also basically negates that loss. And earlier this year Christie’s sister Kate moved in with us (after Christie’s eldest, Danni--now an adult--moved up to San Francisco). Like Christie and I, Kate’s also a huge geek and into genre publishing (she’s an aspiring writer). Heck, even the little one, Grace (who is almost eleven), is a big geek, and as I sit here answering this question, she’s working on her Harry Potter fan-fic story. So we basically have a little convention right here in our house whenever we want one

Otherwise, the biggest adjustment has been that I went from being single to having not just a girlfriend but a whole family, since Christie has two kids. So that was kind of a big deal, but it’s all gone really well, largely I think because we’re all awesome people. And then, of course, Christie and I got married--at the same place in Reno where George R. R. Martin got married!--and so now I’m a stepdad, though honestly that transition seemed even easier just because it seemed so natural.

Is there anything you miss from New Jersey? How about something that you really look forward to in California (aside from your new family)?

There’s nothing really I miss from New Jersey specifically, except that my mom still lives there, so I miss her. Otherwise, though, there’s nothing really about New Jersey I miss except its proximity to Manhattan and all its culture.

Here in California, I’m mostly just looking forward to never having to shovel snow again, and maybe a periodic trip or two down to Disneyland and Universal Studios with the family.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Call for Submissions: Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol.9

Editors Andrew Drilon and Charles Tan invite you to submit short fiction for consideration for Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 9.

Philippine Speculative Fiction is a yearly anthology series, which collects a wide range of stories that define, explore, and sometimes blur the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and all things in between. The anthology has been shortlisted for the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award, and multiple stories from each volume have been cited in roundups of the year’s best speculative fiction across the globe.

First-time authors are more than welcome to submit; good stories trump literary credentials any time.

Submissions must be:
1. speculative fiction—i.e., they must contain strong elements and/or sensibilities of science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, alternate history, folklore, superheroes, and/or related ‘nonrealist’ genres and subgenres
2. written in English
3. authored by persons of Philippine ethnicity and/or nationality

Submissions are preferred to be:
1. original and unpublished
2. no shorter than 1,000 words and no longer than 7,500
3. written for an adult audience
4. featuring a strong Filipino element (a character, setting, theme, plot, etcetera.)
In all cases, these preferences can be easily overturned by exceptionally well-written pieces. In the case of previously-published work, if accepted, the author will be expected to secure permission to reprint, if necessary, from the original publishing entity, and to provide relevant publication information.

Submission details:
1. No multiple or simultaneous submissions—i.e., submit only one story, and do not submit that story to any other publishing market until you have received a letter of regret from us. But we don’t mind if you submit to contests.
2. All submissions should be in Rich Text Format (saved under the file extension ‘.rtf’), and emailed to, with the subject line ‘PSF9 submission’.
3. The deadline for submissions is 11 pm, Manila time, October 26, 2013. Letters of acceptance or regret will be sent out no later than one month after the deadline.

Editors’ notes:
1. Please don’t forget to indicate your real name in the submission email! If you want to write under a pseudonym, that’s fine, but this can be discussed upon story acceptance. Initially, we just need to know who we’re talking to.
2. If you’d like to write a cover letter with your brief bio and publishing history (if applicable), do feel free to introduce yourself—but not your story, please. If it needs to be explained, it’s probably not ready to be published.
3. We advise authors to avoid fancy formatting—this will just be a waste of your time and ours, since we will, eventually, standardize fonts and everything else to fit our established house style.

Authors of selected stories will receive Php500 pesos in compensation, as well as digital copies of the book.

Please help spread the word! Feel free to copy this and paste it anywhere you see fit that happens to be legal.

Andrew Drilon and Charles Tan, co-editors

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why I Stopped Choosing with My Heart

You meet someone new. You get along.

Somewhere along the way, you fall in love. You don’t always know what triggers it: a favorite song, a poem they share, a book they like.

You think it’s too good to be true. And it is. They get mad at you, even if you don’t immediately know what caused it.

If you’re lucky, they talk to you again. You get to know them more.

You start seeing the cracks. You have a list of people you’ll never date. You make an exception.

They get angry, again. You’re both too different:

You’re brutally honest, logical, persistent.

They’re sensitive, moody, evasive.

They hurt you, because you care. You hurt them, because your words strike true.

You want to solve the problem. They don’t want to talk about it.

You learn patience, when you yearn for compromise. They learn forgiveness, when they yearn for acceptance.

You cope by crying yourself to sleep, writing letters that never get read, and rereading the scant words they left.

You get more chances than you deserve but you squander it by conveying how much you’ve been hurt.

You realize too late that to save the friendship, you need to shut up, swallow your pride, and sacrifice your heart.