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The cover to "Those Who Make Us", an anthology co-edited by Kelsi Morris

Kelsi Morris on Myths, Monsters, and Fighting Marginalization

Kelsi Morris is a queer and neurodivergent editor who has channeled her passion for books into the Canadian publishing industry, specializing in speculative fiction and comics. She focuses on work that prioritizes and promotes the voices of marginalized communities. Her first co-edited anthology, Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories, published by Exile Editions, was nominated for the 2016 Shirley Jackson Award.

Outside of books, she finds happiness in black coffee, red wine, and dragons.

Kelsi Morris and I chatted earlier about her work on this anthology, how it relates to CanLit, and how she’s working towards making the Canadian SF/F scene more inclusive. Let’s take a look!

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The cover to "Those Who Make Us", an anthology co-edited by Kelsi MorrisMe: So, first question: What was the inspiration behind Those Who Make Us for you and your co-editor [Kaitlin Tremblay]?

Kelsi Morris: One of the earliest foundations of our friendship was our shared loved monsters! We both noticed that we tended to feel more connection to the monsters/kaiju/alien creatures than the human characters in most cases, and it was only through many (MANY) conversations (and bottles of wine) that we realized that this was not actually all that weird.

These characters are the literal embodiment of otherness, and the treatment they receive from the human world will often resonate far more strongly with folks with marginalized identities than the heroics of the protagonists.

Kaitlin and I were both coming at this from the perspective of queer people who struggle with various mental health issues, and we wanted to see more stories that had the same empathy for the outsiders that we did.

I totally see that. I noticed in particular that the opening story in the collection was really emblematic of that focus. The one where the main character, Melanie, chooses to undergo bodymods to turn into a chimera.

Would you say that sense of empathy was one of the most important things you were looking for in the stories you chose?

Absolutely! That story in particular was exciting, because it really touched on the way marginalized folks are treated by society, while keeping the story very much focused on Melanie’s own journey of self-discovery. It wasn’t about her trying to fit in, or save other people from their bigoted ways. This was something she was doing solely for herself.

We wanted this anthology to be a space for marginalized voices to celebrate and/or explore their identities, as well as criticize/highlight the abundance of ways in which they are mistreated or misrepresented by society.

One thing I also noticed is that the anthology is in dialogue with a lot of tropes/notable figures in CanLit and Canadian history. Like, when I think of Helen Marshall’s story, it feels like a story Margaret Atwood could have referred to in Survival. And Dominik Parisien’s story heavily refers to Peterborough and to Catharine Parr Traill.

I’ve spent my entire career working as an editor in Canadian genre fiction, and it is something I am deeply passionate about. A lot of times publishers and/or authors will shy away from publicizing being Canadian in order to appeal to a wider market, and I feel like that is doing everyone a disservice. I am equally passionate about how entirely fucked it is that so many people seem to buy into our national identity of being “a country at peace”, where we no longer accept racism, ableism, queerphobia, or are party to systemic and institutional violence.

Speculative fiction has always been at the forefront of social criticism, and so it was especially important to me that this project both celebrate excellence in Canadian genre fiction, at the same time it acknowledges and calls attention to the fact that many voices are silenced for the sake of this national myth.

Who else do you see challenging that myth in the Canadian SFF scene?

While neither exclusively focuses on Canadian authors, the Toronto-based literary spec fic magazines like Augur Magazine and Anathema Magazine both have mandates that focus on stories from intersectional marginalized communities, and have been doing an amazing job at celebrating the work of queer writers, writers of colour, and writers with disabilities.

These kind of markets only exist because we have to carve out the space for ourselves. The need for this is what proves that acceptance and visibility within the mainstream publishing industry really isn’t there yet.

[Note: You can read my interview with Anathema here.]

I’m going to be having Augur on the blog too!

Good! I’m so excited by the work that they do, and I can’t wait to watch them grow. 🙂

Has it been hard to carve out the space you’re describing?

As an editor, my experience is obviously quite a different one from the unique frustrations that writers have to deal with. I try to use my position to hold space for marginalized voices, and take on the brunt of any tensions that may arise between the writer and the publisher.

It can be challenging, especially for anthologies, to wholeheartedly believe in a project, and have to convince a publisher that a focus on intersectional voices doesn’t immediately make it any less interesting to “the rest of the market”.

Do you have any other anthologies or projects in progress?

Oh, I have several dream projects, and would dearly love to just work on all of them at once!

This is such an exciting time for Canadian SFF. There is so much excellent work being produced, and so many incredible emerging writers and markets. I love this field, and I’m so excited to continue contributing however I can.

And that’s that! You can check out Kelsi Morris online and buy Those Who Make Us on Amazon, Kobo, and in stores.

The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar: A Taste of Poetry

honey_month_cover2Title: The Honey Month
Author: Amal El-Mohtar
Publisher: Cheeky Frawg Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy from Weightless Books

It’s so hard translating a taste into language. Words like “bitter” and “sweet” lack nuance on their own, but our attempts to add that nuance often take a turn towards the cliched and the precious — think of all those labels that describe a wine as having “hints of oak” or an “elegant character.”

The impossibility sharing the experiences of one’s tastebuds is something I face a lot as a tea reviewer. Die-hard tea drinkers will understand what I mean when I say that a black tea is “malty” or “biscuity”, but I don’t have a developed-enough vocabulary to pick out each flavour and organize the taste sensations into an intelligible format.

This is why I find Amal El-Mohtar’s achievement in her anthology The Honey Month so impressive. Once, as a lark by a new friend, she was given 28 different vials of honey to taste and puzzle over. And taste she did, one day after the other for a month. Each flavour was so evocative that she wrote a short story or poem in response. It was only after she finished tasting the entire set that she started to imagine that the whole series of notes could be turned into a publishable collection.

I am so glad that this collection exists, though, because in it, she has found a way to take the flavours of each honey and transform her reactions to them into something impressionistic, yet distinctive and easy to grasp.

(Full disclosure: I’ve met Amal and have had conversations with her. I’ve even taken the rather intimate step of mailing her some tea from my cupboard!)

For example, here are her notes on leatherwood honey, which she tasted on the second-to-last day:

Colour: Chardonnay. I look at its pale yellow-gold and imagine the buttery aftertaste. Beautifully, stickily liquid and clear.

Smell: Candy-sweet with a creaminess to it, white flowers and sugared milk.

Taste: High sweetness; on the register of sweetness this would a top note. A sweetness you taste behind your eyes. Petals and light.

El-Mohtar is not afraid to use her body, her experiences, her memories — or even things that can’t be tasted at all — as points of comparison in her tasting notes. Combined with the loveliness of her fictional accompaniments to each variety of honey, it seems as if she has found a way to embody what she tastes.

Here’s an example; this is part of the vignette she wrote in response to tasting apricot creamed honey on day 24:

The bees come when she lets down her hair.

There is a simple brass stick, two-pronged, with which she binds it up until the moment is precisely right. When she leans over a railing to gaze at the sea; when she bites into an apricot and closes her eyes; when the rain ends and the air drips with the scent of wet leaves, she pulls the stick from her hair, releases it, lets it tumble down in chestnut waves. It smells of honey and ginger, and the bees love it.

When they surround her, she breathes in the vibration of their bodies, exhales music, breathes it in again. They crown and armour her, they hide her while she dissolves into a joy too keen for eyes that come in simple pairs, eyes that could not possibly appreciate the peace, the thrill, the trembling, the way those thousand bodies do. They sing her aching silence out, they chime their wings like champagne flutes, they pat her cheeks and lashes with more love than is commonly thought to be possible. You smell so good, so good, they cry, we love the way you smell. And when the trembling subsides, when their joy ebbs like a wave from the sand, they bestow a final kiss against her hair, her skin, before flying off.

The cascading tumble of hair, the surrounding thrum of the bees, their plaintive cries, the smell of ginger — could there possibly be a more evocative image to describe the juiciness and vitality of the honey in question? I think what strikes me most about The Honey Month is this: El-Mohtar bares herself in these works, is willing to dive deep into various sensations and memories to create new and fantastic images based on what she tastes.

In other words, she’s brave.

And it makes me think: I don’t engage in such flights of fancy when I write my tea reviews. What exactly is it about writing in such a style that scares me? Is it the fact that my wording isn’t as precise? Is it because I’m scared to make the leap towards using unusual but somehow bone-true images to describe what I’m tasting?

I suppose you could say that The Honey Month has given me permission to try a more experimental approach when it comes to tasting and reviewing. I felt a profound sense of “Wait, that’s allowed? You can actually do that?” as I flipped through the pages.

I’m not sure what to make of my own little epiphany just yet. But I do have a jar of linden honey sitting in the cupboard, all thick and crystallized. Maybe, if I’m brave enough, I will send some Amal El-Mohtar’s way.

An Alphabet of Embers, Edited by R.B. Lemberg

alphabet_of_embers_coverTitle: An Alphabet of Embers (An Anthology of Unclassifiables)
Editor: R.B. Lemberg
Publisher: Stone Bird Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I was offered an Advance Reader Copy for review

(Note: The editor of An Alphabet of Embers now goes by R.B. Lemberg. The body of this review has been changed to reflect this, but the URL and the associated image still show the name under which this anthology was originally created.)

I saw the Mad Max movie The Road Warrior for the first time this year. As I watched it I was entranced, because it exhibits an unusual trait: it’s a movie that is very happy to be itself. Whatever its references and antecedents are, it incorporates them so well that it transforms them into something completely unique.

I got the same feeling when I read An Alphabet of Embers, an anthology of short stories edited by R.B. Lemberg that will be launching later on this week at the Nebula Awards conference. Lemberg’s goal with An Alphabet of Embers was to collect a variety of “very short tales and prose poems showcasing evocative and startling language.” Looking over stories contained within, it’s very fair to say they’ve succeeded.

I say this because despite the variety of tones, textures and voices, Embers maintains a consistent and cohesive feel throughout: it stories are literary and poetic, with a fluidity of style and theme that borders on slipstream and the surreal. Reading them, I felt like I was encountering instances of dream logic — even if the stories didn’t make sense on the surface, they contained the kind of truth that exists between sleep and wakefulness.

This sense of fluidity is tangible in both the contributors’ prose and as an overarching theme within the collection itself: many of the stories’ characters inhabit liminal states or move between states. A few examples:

  • The protagonist of Mina Li’s story “Dreaming Keys” gains the ability to hop between different worlds/dimensions if she falls asleep wearing keys on her person.
  • In “Everything Under One Roof” by Zen Cho, the protagonist visits a trendy restaurant that the local food bloggers are going gaga over, only to realize that the restaurant literally has everything in the cosmos under its roof, including unseen mementos from her late father.
  • Both “An Awfully Big Adventure” by Nisi Shawl and “Telomerase” by Ian Muneshwar deal with the ultimate example of crossing a threshold by featuring narrators who are on the verge of death.
  • In “The River’s Children” by Shweta Narayan, a gender-nonconforming prince marries a river goddess who can manifest as both male and female, and their children display similar abilities.

However, the anthology’s focus on short, dreamlike works with vivid prose often results in pieces that seem more like vignettes than stories. Sometimes these vignettes are successful, like “Absinthe Fish” by M. David Blake. However, at other times they result in works that are too fragmentary and experimental for me to successfully grasp, like “Some Silver Wheel” by Kari Sperring and “One Testimony (m. Lao)” by Ching-in Chen.

I appreciated the following stories in particular:

  • “The City Beneath the Sea” by Sara Norja
  • “An Awfully Big Adventure” by Nisi Shawl
  • “Everything Under One Roof” by Zen Cho
  • “Absinthe Fish” by M. David Blake
  • “Dreaming Keys” by Mina Li
  • “The River’s Children” by Shweta Narayan
  • “Telomerase” by Ian Muneshwar
  • “Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar
  • “Rhizomatic Diplomacy” by Vajra Chandrasekera

Most of these stories are clustered in the middle of the anthology, and I found the first and final few stories to be hard going as I acclimated to the overall tone of the collection. However, even with its occasional missteps, An Anthology of Embers is unapologetically itself, and worth a look for its consistency of tone. It feels like a cohesive whole.

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