When diversifying your bookshelf fails
Plus: Lady Koi-Koi: A Free Sample
Hello and welcome, friends new and old! Unlike last month, I do have an essay for you this month, about why diversifying one’s bookshelf doesn’t always work out, and why. This will be a whopping 15-minute read. You may want to put the kettle on.
State of the Self: Spring and summer plans
From the Desk: An early look @ my latest short story, “Lady Koi-Koi: A Book Report”
Essay: When diversifying your bookshelf fails
From the Grapevine: Worldbuilding workshop @ Lolwe
For the Road: Jury Duty and Writing the Boring Stuff
(If you’d like to ask more questions about anything you see in this letter, come by our water cooler AKA our private Discord and do so!)
State of the Self
With the term now finally ended (hundreds of stories workshopped, phew!) and Warrior of the Wind copy edits now off to the production team (cover reveal news soon!), I'm finally freed up to look forward to the summer.
This is my first settled and unblemished summer in a while (2018-2019: grad school; 2020-2021: pandemic, protests; 2022: international move, new kid). I plan to take full advantage. I have two book-length works to finish this year (Nameless Book 3, yay), so I’ll definitely get a head-start on them, but I also intend to take time off here and there.
To begin, I haven’t even seen much of the city I live in, having dived straight into parenting and work as soon as I arrived, and only now just coming up for air. I plan to start with long-planned visits to spots around Ottawa: a brunch date here, a family day at the beach there, etc. Being out with the kid is of most importance, so waterfront visits are major targets. Later in the summer, we’ll be off to spend some time with family in Alberta. I might take the opportunity to schedule a personal writing retreat, probably somewhere secluded like Banff. May also take the opportunity while up there to pop over to Vancouver and possibly drive down to Seattle. If you live in any of these cities and you know lovely places to visit, feel free to shout them at me!
From the Desk: An early look at “Lady Koi-Koi: A Book Report”
Earlier this year, I was approached by Apex Magazine to contribute a story towards their yearly funding drive. I just so happened to be thinking about Nigerian urban legends at the time, and how they didn’t always make their way into our speculative storytelling as I’d like. The few I’d read felt anthropological, retreads of familiar territory with not much offered in the manner of subversion or a bending. So I decided to use this opportunity to go out and tell one.
The result is “Lady Koi-Koi: A Book Report,” a short story based on the West-African urban legend of Madam Koi-Koi, with a few other Nigerian urban legends mixed in (Nigerian oldheads will recognize these). The story is written in the form of a book report by a lonely secondary school student called Derrick, and as much as it’s a bit creepy, it is also quite heartwarming.
The story is forthcoming in Apex Magazine Issue #138 on 20th June, 2023. But for you, my loyal friends and subscribers, I’ve decided to offer the opportunity to read it before it’s published!
As usual, please DO NOT SHARE OR DISTRIBUTE THIS LINK OR DOCUMENT, especially because this story is yet to be released. If you’re particularly excited by this story and you’d like to gush about it after reading, come by our private Discord channel and do so!
Essay: When diversifying your bookshelf fails
As an author, I’ve come upon all kinds of reviews of my work. But recently, I stumbled upon a review that fascinated me because (1) it said more about the reviewer than the story (or the author); and (2) the reviewer may have been acting in good faith, which kinda makes it worse. The review went something like this (I’m paraphrasing):
I do not wish to pile on this review or reviewer, which is why I have paraphrased and left out all identifying info. But I think good-faith responses to literature like these—genuine, yet laden with faulty thinking—are endemic to today’s reading culture, and tend to adversely affect BIPOC and other marginalized authors. So I will attempt to break this review down into the three parts as numbered above, with an eye on what it truly means to diversify one’s reading and bookshelf, and why a misunderstanding of that may be more harmful than good.
1) Why do we read fiction?
Some readers say: I read to escape. I’ve heard others say: I read to learn more about worlds beyond my purview. Others say: I read to think deeper about matters of interest. I read to learn. I read to be thrilled, to be excited. I read to be aroused, to fantasize. Etc, etc. Each reader approaches the page seeking something specific and personal. Whatever those goals are, however, whenever we open a book of fiction, there is one thing you are sure to get: you are going to read about people.
Fiction, as a genre, is not a genre of ideas or place or concepts alone. These things have to be carried by people, i.e. characters. One of the tenets of good characterisation is that the people on the page are a reflection of the people they represent: multilayered, complicated, messy. This means they will always be in conflict with themselves or others, and said kind of conflict—dramatic or quiet or otherwise—is the bread and butter of fiction storytelling.
Which is why, “I enjoyed the magical aspects and the landscape and worldbuilding, but it was overshadowed by the conflicts between the characters,” baffles me.
I do not know if there can be “magical aspects” and “landscapes” and “worldbuilding” in a novel without a story (often one containing conflict between people) to scaffold them. Perhaps we are thinking of a documentary or travelogue? Either way, if this kind of story exists, it is not one I wish to tell. But more concerning, I believe, is that the suggestion that a work of fiction is too people-centric, which goes against the very ethos of fiction itself, which is to unpack the concerns of the human condition.
2) How do we choose what to read, and why?
When we choose to diversify our reading, we make a choice to step beyond the confines of our immediate spheres and worldview. We read works in other genres, in other languages or in translation, from other geographies, centering other experiences, etc. This effort, on its own, is a noble cause. But there remains a trap here: we must always ask ourselves why we are doing this. Because sometimes, we may do it for the wrong reasons. Case in point, statement #2:
“After reading SFF novels by other African authors, my interest in fantasy stories based on African culture has grown, so I knew I had to read this book.”
Based on this review, I wondered what exactly grew this reader’s interest in Africa-inspired fantasy stories. Is it the “exotic-ness” of this “foreign land” that is of interest—the “peculiarities” of culture, fashion, food, flora and fauna, etc? Or is it a deep interest in understanding peoples and concerns beyond those of the reader’s immediate world?
In an ideal world, it’ll be both, hopefully with a weighting toward the latter. But this reader’s rejection of a people-centered narrative leads me to believe it’s a weighting toward the former. In this way, I can see why they would be tripped up by the conflicts between characters—because a deep understanding of these people and their concerns is only of secondary interest here. This reader is primarily here for a vacation in a fantasy land and desires an exciting thrill. They are therefore uncomfortable with “real life” getting in the way. Perhaps they’d prefer to read about not-so-real people who’re not as messy and complicated and uncomfortable and charged. I’m sure there are novels with more filed-off characters out there.
Overall, I think it’s best for a reader to be honest with themselves before venturing into a story, especially a fantasy novel inspired by oft-marginalized spaces: Do you really want a fantasy novel that simulates the real and complicated lived experiences of those who exist in these spaces? Or do you only seek a vacation to a fantasy locale, with the people as a side attraction? Be honest with yourself and take your pick.
3) How do we engage with stories?
As we established in point #1 above, each reader approaches the page seeking something specific and personal. It therefore follows that every reader must assess the book before them and decide if it meets these personal goals. We may do this at inception—read the blurb, reviews, recommendations, hype, etc and make a decision—or we do so after reading a chunk—DNF, slog through it, etc. You don’t pick up Lee Child if you hate journeyman thrillers. Ditto with other authors, genres and subgenres, stories containing certain kinds of characters, certain tropes, certain settings, etc. You assess the book and make a decision: for me or not for me.
We’ll all agree, then, that you don’t say: This book fails because it is not for me.
A book can fail to deliver on a craft level. A book can fail to live up to its hype or promise. A book can fail due to poorly crafted logical, ethical or inclusive presentations. But here’s where a book cannot fail: in its refusal to fit to a reader’s specific desires.
Here’s the third statement from our reader: “The storyline is interesting, though very politically charged and I had a hard time getting through some of it.”
The Nameless Republic trilogy, as a whole, is an epic fantasy story about the fall of an empire. It has never advertised itself otherwise. I would go out on a limb to say that being politically charged is an expectation of such a tale (we didn’t all watch Game of Thrones just for the dragons, did we?). What I understand here is perhaps that the degree of charged is a bit more than this reader expected, but this brings us back to point #2 above: Why would you read a story inspired by ancient, pre-colonial African empires if you do not wish to engage with its politics to a significant degree?
This raises a bigger second question: Is there an ethical way to enjoy stories written about or inspired by these “exotic” locales that do not carry their politics? An African-inspired cozy fantasy that’s politics-lite, perhaps? Perhaps there are such stories out there. But even for those stories, my question would be the same: Why would you want that?
Why would you want an ethical way to enjoy stories that strip these historically erased and currently marginalized spaces of their nuance, the same nuance that they’ve not been allowed to have for a long time? Why would you want a filed-down, flattened representation of fantasy worlds inspired by African locales? And who says that a cozy African-inspired fantasy will not carry its politics along? (Spoiler alert: It will. Have you ever walked in African spaces and listened to how people casually converse? Have you visited beer parlours and motor parks? Have you heard what African families talk about over dinner? Africans are not afraid of politics, the fun, bad and ugly of it all, because it has always been part-and-parcel of our lives, even when—especially when—we didn’t choose it.)
All this to say: a story cannot fail due to its accurate representation of how the people whose stories it is telling think about themselves. But a reader can fail to appreciate that a story is privileging, loving and centering said people and their concerns over an external (and notably, capitalistic) desire for thrills, excitement and cultural voyeurism.
A reader’s desire to diversify their bookshelf can therefore fail because the reader is not, in truth, thinking about diversifying their bookshelf—of story styles and approaches, origins and experiences, focal points and investments—but simply (and erroneously) wants the same stories they’ve always wanted, alongside a literary vacation to a foreign land and the characters painted a different shade than they’re used to. A reader’s quest to diversify their bookshelf will fail if they refuse to accept that said diversification must also be accompanied by a willingness to accept a challenge, to accept discomfort zones (separate from triggering/harmful content), to decenter their investment in specific desires and to embrace the unexpected.
From the Grapevine:
(news from the press & the interwebs)
The application period for the Literary Laddership for Emerging African Authors just ended. Thanks to all who shared and applied—we received a ton of great applications. Winners will be revealed by the end of May. Keep your eyes out for the announcement.
I’m currently teaching my second worldbuilding workshop at Lolwe Classes. It’s going well so far. If you missed this, I don’t know when else I’ll be teaching it again (probably not soon) but I have another online class coming up in June with the Carl Brandon Society. It’s called “How To Author Like a Strategist” and discusses how to write a novel despite the competing priorities of life. Keep an eye out for the announcement as well.
For the Road:
(a miscellaneous column for useful takeaways) | Last month’s takeaway: The Publishing Rodeo
I’ve been watching Jury Duty on freevee (Amazon’s new streaming service) and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while—a fake case, a courtroom & jury made up of actors, all except for one regular guy, Ronald Gladden, who’s not an actor and who thinks it’s all real. It’s real funny and especially heartwarming at the end. See it if you can.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about Brandon Taylor’s essay on the virtues of the boring draft. It articulates well something I find I’m telling my students often: No matter how exciting or “literary” or avant-garde your story is, you still have to tell the boring stuff. So many of us try to escape this and hide under the umbrella of withholding information for special effect—a twist at the end, a bigger reveal, etc. But readers still need to understand stuff, yanno? Or else, what’s the point?
If you’d like to ask a question that’ll be featured in a future letter and answered in an essay, you can drop your question in our private Discord channel. Feel free to share this letter with a friend who may find it useful. See you at the next go-around!