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Spec from the Margins: A Chat with Anathema Magazine

Anathema Magazine: Speculative fiction from the margins

Anathema Magazine is a Canadian short-fiction publication that accepts spec-fic stories, artwork and non-fiction work from writers and artists from across the world. Anathema published its first three issues in 2017, which included pieces by the likes of Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng, and Nibetida Sen.

Now they’re running a crowdfunding campaign until early March to continue work on years two and three. Anathema is filling a lovely role within the Canadian spec-fic space, so it’s my pleasure to chat with the editors and share their thoughts. Take a look at what they have to say and don’t forget to check Anathema’s fiction out.

Me: For those who are unfamiliar, what is Anathema Magazine?

Editors: Anathema is a tri-annual speculative fiction magazine for queer POC/Indigenous/Aboriginal writers and artists. The speculative element is very loose: we like a broad range encompassing everything from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror to slipstream, surrealism, absurdism, noir, etc. Mostly we want to see unbounded creativity.

Me: Tell me more about each of the editors. What have you all written/edited before? What makes each of you tick?

Andrew Wilmot: Primarily I make my living doing academic work—dissertation edits, mostly, in the areas of psychology, feminist studies, gender studies, and body dysmorphia/eating disorders. I also edit for a magazine called HOLO, which celebrates the cross-section of science/technology and art, do copy and substantive editing for several independent publishers, and review for subTerrain magazine and Publishers Weekly.

With respect to writing, I go back and forth between short fiction and novel work. I’ve had maybe 20 shorts published so far. One of which—“When I’m Old, When I’m Grey”—won first place in the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest back in 2015. My first novel, The Death Scene Artist, is set for release this fall from Wolsak & Wynn’s Buckrider Books imprint. Most of my work straddles the line between either horror and surrealism, or science fiction and surrealism. Lots of body horror, synaesthesia, and mental health in my work. Such are the things that make me tick, among others.

Michael Matheson: I’m just going to cheat and mostly fall back on my publication bio. Which is to say: I’m a genderfluid writer, editor, anthologist, and occasional poet. I’ve been longlisted for the Sunburst Award, and I’ve had work published in Nightmare, Shimmer, anthologies like Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling, and a host of other venues. I edited The Humanity of Monsters anthology, and I’m a former Managing Editor with ChiZine Publications and former Submissions Editor with Apex Magazine.

A Clarion West (’14) graduate, I’ve been a freelance editor for far more years than I want to admit at this point. That’s entailed working in multiple genres with a lot of indie clients and publishers like Ravenstone, Publishers Weekly, Harlequin, and others. And I’ve done a reasonable bit of ghostwriting over the years in a few different fields, so tracking down publications can end up depending on what I’ve signed an NDA for or not.

Chinelo Onwualu: I was born in Nigeria but now live in Toronto, Canada. I mostly do editorial consulting for international development organizations in West Africa and I am also editor and co-founder of Omenana, a magazine of African speculative fiction. My fiction and essays can be found in a bunch of places, including Strange Horizons, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Jungle Jim, Ideomancer, and the anthologies AfroSF: African Science Fiction by African Writers, Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond, Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa, and Imagine Africa 500. 

I’d say what makes me tick professionally would be a need to put down my stories and those of others in the clearest ways possible. I want people to read work that best expresses what the writer—whether it’s me or someone else I’m editing—is trying to say. I used to be a journalist for newspapers and magazines so I approach my non-fiction editing like a reporter. The goal is to be as clear and concise as possible. Say what you need to say in as few words as possible, while making sure everyone understands exactly what you mean. I try to get writers to think through their ideas because one can’t assume that everyone will get what you mean.

Me: What would you describe as the perfect Anathema story? What makes a story a unique fit for your magazine?

Andrew: I don’t know that we have a story that perfectly represents what we publish or are looking for. We don’t want to set such expectations because the best thing in the world is reading something incredible that you had no idea you were looking for in the first place. That said, I’m happy to rattle off some of my favourite authors, if it helps give people a sense of my personal taste: N.K. Jemisin, Amelie Nothomb, Lauren Beukes, China Miéville, Haruki Murakami, Roxane Gay, Charles Yu, James Ellroy, Amber Dawn, and Suzette Mayr. There’s not a lot of SFF in there, but that’s kind of the point for me: I love seeing genre work and lit crossing streams in unexpected ways.

Michael: It’s true, there’s no one quintessential Anathema story. As editors, we’re drawn to a huge range of styles and approaches partly because, as Andrew rightly noted, we love being surprised by things we didn’t see coming. Editorial taste will always factor into our decisions—we’re all drawn to strong prose work and solid and/or unusual structural choices, for example—but we’re driven more by a desire to find exceptional work and see how it fits together in the confines of an issue.

One of the best parts of shaping a table of contents for any project is how the individual works interact and play off each other. And we’ve had excellent luck with our issues so far, finding themes and topical works that have come together in some absolutely delightful ways. We never know what’s going to happen with the next issue, and therein lies the fun of the thing.

Me: Related to that last question, is there a particular story already published by Anathema Magazine that one (or all) of you think is somehow quintessential?

Andrew: I don’t think I can play favourites with any of our authors or their work. Fact of the matter is, I genuinely love what we’ve published so far. We wouldn’t have published any of it if we didn’t love it. As Michael said, I don’t think we have a “quintessential” story, nor do I think it’s possible for us to have one.

Me: You’re running a fundraising campaign throughout February. What goals are there for the campaign?

Andrew: Our current month-long IndieGoGo campaign ends March 2nd and is seeking $6,000 to pay for two more years of operating costs. We’re also using the campaign to raise our fiction and non-fiction rates to $100 (CAD). We obviously want to improve our reach and our subscriber base in order to become self-sustaining, But ultimately we fundraise because we believe it’s worth paying our content creators—and paying them as well as we can.   Because they’re worth it, and their work is worth it.

Me: How do you work together to run Anathema Magazine? Do you find that you have a particular working style together?

Andrew: It’s pretty symbiotic, really. We were all quite close prior to starting the magazine, and while we all have different ways of operating and different demands on our time, we’re pretty respectful and adaptable (ie: if someone is facing a terrible deadline or is under the weather, the others are able to help pick up what needs to be done).

We also all have our individual strengths and try to play to that as much as possible: Chinelo far outstrips both Michael and I as a non-fiction editor, and is also quite busy with her other magazine, Omenana, so she primarily handles that corner of things while Michael and I do the bulk of the fiction editing. At the end, we all proof each other’s work.

Michael is incredibly skilled at communication, and is knowledgeable about so many more aspects of the speculative side of things than I am (I come mostly from the lit side of the industry), so they handle a lot of the awards submissions and solicitations, as well as managing our Twitter account. I have, on top of editing, some experience with production, so I handle creation of the PDF and ebook versions of each issue, and also manage the Tumblr account. We both manage the Facebook account.

Me: What has your feedback from readers been like so far since the magazine’s launch?

Andrew: Incredibly positive. While we’re still growing our readership and have yet to hit any kind of mainstream awareness, those who have found our content have been universal in their appreciation—for which we could not be happier.

Michael: It’s true, the response to the mag has been incredibly encouraging—especially as there was some early concern that what we were trying to do might be too niche in a variety of ways. Which is not to say we don’t get random asshats on social media calling us racist because we won’t publish white content creators. But, delightfully, those interjections have been few and farther between than we’d expected. Much of what we’ve heard from the communities actually reading Anathema has been people happy to see themselves represented. To see positive queer relationships in the work. And to see a variety of genres represented.

Hell, we’ve had readers enjoy the work enough to have three stories on the 2017 Nebula Reading List, and to have multiple stories from our first year’s issues show up repeatedly in both established and more personal short fiction reviews online. That’s a pretty good start.

How do you feel that Anathema Magazine is in dialogue with the rest of the short fiction field in SF/F?

Andrew: This is a hard question for me because—and this is where I reveal myself to be a terrible person—I don’t read that many SFF magazines. I adore short fiction, both reading and writing, but for the most part I’m an anthology/short story collection sort of person.

For me, Anathema is as much in dialogue with anthologies and collections as it is with online publications, because it’s an answer, in some small part, to a problem that exists within both realms: a startling lack of diverse voices, and an associated pushback against such things from a small but irritating and obnoxiously loud segment of the industry. These are people who think that “diversity” and “identity politics” are ruining their fun, not at all caring about who they hurt in their dismissals and attacks. To which we say: fuck that and fuck them.

Michael: It’s definitely true that Anathema’s in conversation with the wider field—specifically many of the conversations around inclusion in editorial and fictional spaces that picked up in intensity after Fireside’s #BlackSpecFic report came out in 2016. In 2017 a lot of those discussions bore fruit in the form of decolonialist magazines like FIYAH, Arsenika, and Koru.

But the work of decolonizing creative spaces can’t be placed solely on writers and artists of colour. White editors, for all their good intent, gravitate more readily toward fiction they see as accessible, or “recognizable.” And that means they’re going to gravitate to white-authored content, especially where white writers are writing “diverse” work instead of making space for authors of colour.

Anathema, too, treads a difficult line in this, given that two of our three primary editors are white. Hence why our mandate calls for only intersectionally-authored content, making space for marginalized creators. And that’s our contribution to the conversation, and our part in that dialogue: being a platform for amazing voices that are still underrepresented.

And that’s that! You can read the first three issues of Anathema Magazine online or contribute to their crowdfunding campaign until early March.

Welcome to the Archipelago with Charlotte Ashley

Want to read swashbucking stories set on the high seas? Want Lovecraftian creatures to mess that swashbuckling up? Want, above all, to see multiple writers duke it out with feedback from devoted readers like you?

If your answer is “yes”, then what you want is Archipelago.

Archipelago is a historical fantasy serial with multiple new episodes appearing every month written by Charlotte Ashley, Kurt Hunt, and Andrew Leon Hudson. Imagine a blend of Moby Dick, Pirates of the Caribbean, Master & Commander and Game of Thrones — with Lovecraftian monsters lurking beneath the surface!

Archipelago isn’t just about storytelling, though. Readers will have the opportunity to influence events as the adventure develops, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes devastating. To take part, you can support the project through Kickstarter and Patreon.

And today I’ve got a special treat: an interview with Charlotte Ashley, one of Archipelago‘s creators and a noted spec-fic author in her own right, with stories published in F&SF, PodCastle, and more.

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

Me: The biggest thing that struck me about the Archipelago stories is how they’re set during the height of the colonial project between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and how the discovery of this other world parallels the “discovery” of the New World. How is Archipelago hoping to navigate, and potentially subvert, that sort of setting?

Charlotte Ashley: It was definitely my intention to turn Europe’s colonial aspirations outward, into uninhabited territory. We start our story around 1600 which was very early in the colonial process. England, Portugal, Spain, and the Dutch had all started building settlements, but they hadn’t claimed ownership on the large scale they would 200 years later. People in Asia, the Americas, India, and Africa were still fairly autonomous. We wanted to nip that European invasion in the bud, so to speak, so that non-Western people had a chance to participate in the Archipelago as strong, unconquered nations.

I think “discovery” is synonymous with “conquest” in our history, and we’ll explore that, but I also wanted to be able to look at alternatives.

Me: Yes! I really wanted to write down “Age of Conquest” in my first question, but that phrase has so much baggage.

CA: Well, there IS so much baggage there. I don’t want to dodge or deny the historical realities of the colonial period, but I hope we can imagine the power relationships a little differently.

Me: I was really intrigued by the setting of your story in particular. I wasn’t aware of the Ajuran Sultanate as a political entity before this. Aside from the parallel world aspects of the Archipelago itself, is all the other history up to the start of the story played straight?

CA: Not entirely. We did play a little loose with plausible, rather than confirm-able, technologies and ideas — Umur’s prosthetic hands, for example. They are absolutely within the realm of what was achievable by the artisans of the Islamic Golden Age, but I don’t know of any confirmed prosthetics of this kind. [Umur is the main character of the Ajuran Sultanate storyline, which will go live on May 19th at Black Gate.]

Me: Are any of the main characters based on specific historical figures?

CA: In the storylines of Roanoke and the Summer Isles, definitely. My nation is less rooted in historical reality, for two reasons: one is that historical resources about the Ajuran Sultanate in English are few and far between. The other is that I wanted to avoid too badly mangling a history that isn’t mine, so I focus more on the new nation and culture of Al’Tahj, which follows a very different trajectory than real-life Mogadishu did.

Me: There are so many different ways I can see this playing out — like each storyline establishing its own nation state and essentially duking it out in a proxy war. And then there’s the whole Lovecraftian aspect to things. I imagine that whoever is an indigenous inhabitant of the Archipelago is going to have a very different mindset and physiology compared to humans.

CA: The natures of the Archipelago’s major inhabitants are still a mystery. 😉 But, yes. The first settlers of the Archipelago have mindsets which are, we hope, similar to “real” 17th century ones, so they imagine this colonization process will be very similar to the one on Earth — that humans, at the top of the food chain, can move in and strip-mine everything in the name of their kings or gods or whatever. But this isn’t Kansas. They will find that out soon enough!

The first Year’s plot is very much about how the Nations set themselves up in relation to one another, as they would back home. Plots, politics, battles, espionage, and so on. But the world is its own character that will become more pronounced in future Years.

Me: How far out have you planned things?

CA: Pretty far — but with the understanding that everything could change on a dime with reader input and our own inter-Nation conflicts! The big pieces are there, though, the inevitability. How our characters react and live within the bigger picture is much less clear.

Me: One thing I also notice about the setting is that the entry points to the Archipelago are so spread out – the Caribbean, the Atlantic Seaboard, and the Horn of Africa. Supposedly on the other side of the portal, these three points of contact are a lot closer together. How do you see that affecting international relations? Like, if you can hop to Al’Tahj from near Bermuda, that really changes the relevance of sea journeys like sailing past the tip of South Africa.

CA: The Archipelago portals are actually quite far apart, but people are drawn to people! As soon as there’s any kind of a civilization, that’s where we go. We can’t help it. But the Earth-side politics come into play as well. Control over a portal is a huge geopolitical issue.

Me: What pieces of the SF/fantasy canon do you think Archipelago is influenced by? Conversely, are there any that Archipelago is trying to respond to or subvert?

CA: I know Andrew looked to things like Master and Commander, but Kurt’s work has a much creepier feel.

For my part, I have to admit to beginning with a vague sense that I wanted a story that felt like The Pirates of Dark Water [a Hanna-Barbera cartoon] did when I was 11 years old. But I also very badly wanted to respond to the idea that “discovery” always seems to mean trampling all over whoever was there first. In SF/F, we haven’t lost that mindset yet. For my part, I wanted to write something with the over-the-top swashbuckling fun of John Carter of Mars, but with an awareness of the politics of claiming lands, discovering things that have always been there.

Me: I imagine that it’s going to be more complex, though, than a character suddenly having an epiphany that Colonialism Is Wrong And Bad.

CA: Yah, I’m not sure they will ever come to that, necessarily. If I’ve pulled it off (and I hope I have), nobody should be able to see the subtext.

Me: Back to a few questions about the process: Do you foresee other authors and cultures contributing to Archipelago in the future?

CA: Definitely! We intend to bring in guest writers, but it would also be nice to create a rich enough world to retire storylines, nations, or even writers and bring in new ones. The format allows for it — hopefully the readers will stick with us that long!

Me: How do you and the other two contributors coordinate your stories, and how is the reader input aspect going to affect that?

CA: Hm, big question. We write several months in advance and share our stories with each other, to make sure we’re on the same page and not contradicting anyone. We have a Wiki with characters, places, and permissions. We have rules about what we can and can’t use. But, ultimately, we’re committed to writing an agile story. You can’t get too attached to your plan — or even your characters — because something might happen to it that you didn’t count on. I think of it as an ongoing writing prompt. The readers, or the other writers, give me some criteria, and I have to write my episode to fit it. And for me, the more I am given to work in, the better!

I am, personally, so excited about Tuckerizations. I am gonna have so much fun with those.

Me: There’s both a Kickstarter campaign and a Patreon for Archipelago. Can readers support both, or is it better to do one over the other?

CA: They both offer totally separate things, but in a perfect world they support both.  The core of the story will be offered through Patreon. The Kickstarter is more of an opportunity to taste – you get a world guide, some flash stories set in the world, some art, that sort of thing. That’s also where you can get Tuckerizations — but in order to READ the story you’re written into, you’ll need a Patreon subscription.

Me: Are there any final words you’d like to share with readers?

CA: Erm, gosh. Probably not. I talk endlessly! Despite all my blah blah about colonialism, this is some of the most fun I’ve had writing. I want this to be a joy, a ride. And it will be.

And that’s that! Charlotte is awesome, Archipelago sounds awesome, and you can support this project through both Kickstarter and Patreon. The Kickstarter campaign ends on May 31, so you’ve still got some time!

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