The Best I Ever Had

Oh, Romance, you are the best I’ve ever had.

It started as these things usually do, I guess. A Susan Johnson paperback left out at the home where I was babysitting. A friend’s mother with a subscription to Harlequin Temptations that she kept in the top left hand section of her book shelf. She noticed my fixation, the way I couldn’t walk past that shelf without slowing down to a crawl. She loaned me one and that one led to…this.

My bookshelf was under my bed. (It still is.) And at that time, with my McNaught’s and Garwood’s I also had the Stephen King starter kit: Salem’s Lot, Pet Cemetery and It; the first three books in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and a tear-stained copy of Ordinary People.

What I’m trying to say is I wasn’t genre-specifc.

And then my sophomore year of high school, my best friend’s boyfriend committed suicide. My world fell apart. In every possible way. And I couldn’t fix anything. Nothing made sense. Except those romance novels under my bed. I dove deep into those Happily Ever Afters. The heavy, wild and hard emotions that all got tied up at the end gave me some closure at a time I could not find any of my own. They gave me a safe place to experience my grief and my guilt and fear.

I dove deep into those Happily Ever Afters. The heavy, wild, and hard emotions that all got tied up at the end gave me some closure at a time I could not find any of my own. They gave me a safe place to experience my grief and my guilt and fear.

When I went on to college my box of books came with me and slipped under the bed in my first dorm room and then again in my first apartment off campus. My sophomore year of college (honestly, what is with sophomore years) a friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver. And again, I dove deep. Thank you, Elizabeth Lowell, for getting me through that time.

Romance would have my undying devotion for getting me through those two years alone.

I would look back at it fondly, if I’d somehow left it behind. But I didn’t. Romance has grown up with me. College graduation, my year abroad, negotiating a long distance relationship and then a marriage that we can’t say WASN’T begun for immigration purposes. My parents. My brother. Unemployment, first jobs. Pregnancy. Babies. Toddlers. Musical beds. Sleepless nights. Bullying. Etc… etc… etc…

There was always and without fail a romance novel illuminating something powerful about the experience I was in. Even if it was just hope for an easier tomorrow.

Romance has grown up with me. College graduation, my year abroad, negotiating a long distance relationship and then a marriage that we can’t say WASN’T begun for immigration purposes. My parents. My brother. Unemployment, first jobs. Pregnancy. Babies. Toddlers. Musical beds. Sleepless nights. Bullying. Etc.

Romance has comforted me and excited me. It has eased my boredom (which let’s not pretend that’s not a HUGE deal in those days at home with a baby) and kept me up nights with its drama. It’s walked me through thorny parenthood problems and made me a better friend. A better wife.

And I could make some winky joke about sex, here. But that’s far too easy. And romance deserves so much better.

The romance authors I love are like deep-sea explorers, sending their submersibles down into the murky deep only to return with their hands full of language for things that are all too often considered unimportant. Or trivial. They show me – over and over again, how important nuance and specificity are to describing how we feel so we can understand what what we feel.

The romance authors I love are like deep-sea explorers, sending their submersibles down into the murky deep only to return with their hands full of language for things that are all too often considered unimportant.

(If you don’t think that is a big deal I would argue that maybe you’ve never suffered from anxiety or post-partum depression or even something as mundane as shame. Or fear.)

And, perhaps the real gift is that those romance novels have shown me that we are all deserving of love. And happily-ever-afters. And forgiveness. And orgasms.

Guilt is a very big word. And so is love. And fear. And desire. And my favorite authors show me time and time again the far reaches of all those emotions, where everything overlaps. And we’re all just humans trying our best and sometimes screwing it up. And, perhaps the real gift is that those romance novels have shown me that we are all deserving of love. And happily-ever-afters. And forgiveness. And orgasms.

I don’t know what I would do without romance novels. And if you’re curious… these are the best I’ve ever had:

Elizabeth Lowell: Only You, Only Mine, Only Him, Only LoveJudith McNaught: Something Wonderful, Once and AlwaysLaura Kinsale: Everything she wrote, ever.Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Dream a Little DreamJR Ward: The Black Dagger Brotherhood SeriesMegan Hart: Broken

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To Genre with Love

As I sit and consider my favourite book genre, I think of how I never really understood what genres meant when I first started choosing what I wanted to read, and how liberating that was.

I’ve always loved reading, and with parents who propagated reading as the ultimate learning tool, I often found myself from a very young age in a bookshop or library, given free rein to choose whatever I wanted to read. My parents did not have English as their first language, and thus did not really care what I read, as long as I read. Lacking guidance in school (growing up in Malaysia) and supervision at home, I never explored literature through its canons. Rather, it was whatever the bookshops and libraries around me stocked. And as a child, my only criteria then were that the books were of my reading ability (or a little harder), had a nice cover, interesting title, and a premise/plot that was new to me. Outside that, anything goes.

The two books that propelled me into exploring literature more rabidly as a child are Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile and Susan Hill’s I’m The King Of The Castle. Though both are mainstream children’s books, they proved to be special to me, as they introduced me to what I would realise later to be the types of books that I like – books that push my boundaries of imagination, knowledge, and understanding of humanity.

The tricksy characteristics of the Enormous Crocodile, or how the elephant, Trunksy spun Crocodile on its tail and propelled it into the sun was mind-boggling for my eight-year-old self. Though I had read fantasy stories before (Enid Blyton and fairytales), this mixture of reality and fictional imagination acted as a catalyst for my love of science fiction and fantasy later in life.

The boys’ relationships in I’m The King Of The Castle were a brilliant introduction to psychological thrillers and horror that would come to be my love during my formative years. It was here that I learnt about human behaviour, social triggers, and the many faces of humanity that are reflective of real life. My understanding of the world comes from fiction, and I am still constantly looking at fiction for new stories that would allow me to learn more about the world.

They introduced me to what I would realise later to be the types of books that I like – books that push my boundaries of imagination, knowledge, and understanding of humanity.

So from these two books, I journeyed into different realms; soaked up romance novels, fought through crime thrillers, was kept awake by horror, as I made my way through the genres to science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. Science fiction (or hard science fiction) still remains my true love today. I don’t think I’m anywhere near a science fiction specialist, but I’m definitely a massive science fiction fan at heart, with Frank Herbert’s Dune firmly in its centre.

My understanding of the world comes from fiction and I am still constantly looking at fiction for new stories that would allow me to learn more about the world.

I’ve read it countless times, and yet it still entertains, teaches, and opens up new understandings of humanity to me. The far-fetched worlds that are grounded in our own world’s sciences are precisely what I feel is the perfect form of escapism. It is in these surreal worlds that we can scrutinise humanity and its actions without judgement, but with acceptance.

The best I’ve ever had? Well, it’s got to be science fiction as the ‘imaginative extrapolation from the possible’.[1] After all, ‘cutting edge sci-fi is sci-fi that dares you to think differently’.[2]

The far-fetched worlds that are grounded in our own world’s sciences are precisely what I feel is the perfect form of escapism. It is in these surreal worlds that we can scrutinise humanity and its actions without judgement, but with acceptance.

[1] Quote taken from Michael Segal (reader)’s comment on my novel Sun: Queens Of Earth.[2] Why Cutting Edge Sci-Fi Is Often Penned By Marginalized Writers, www.theestablishment.co

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How Fantasy Ignited My Reality

I fell in love with fantasy when I started reading the Harry Potter series as a kid.

A fourth-grade classmate brought Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fireto school for our teacher to read aloud. She only read one or two chapters, but it interested me enough that I got my mother to buy me Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Chamber of Secrets was a wonderful reading experience. My mind became filled with flying cars and broomsticks, Hogwarts castle, and mythical creatures. Sparks flew from the wands of Rowling’s witches and wizards flew into my imagination, where they bounced around and created a craving for more fantasy fiction.

Still, when it came to fantasy fiction, I didn’t think characters of color could exist. I had been taught through reading itself that the realm of fantasy was only for white men and women, and I’d never thought to look for anything else.

While waiting for the next Harry Potter book, I wanted to read stories of epic adventures, gods and mortals, with well-written female protagonists like Hermione Granger. I consumed novels from the Dragonlance series, books on mythology, and female-lead books like the Song of The Lioness series. However, I read very little fantasy fiction with people of color in it.

In fact, I can remember only one moment when the existence of people of color in fantasy didn’t feel strange to me. I was reading Lirael by Garth Nix, a book that is part of a trilogy. I saw a description of the book’s protagonist, Lirael, that said her white skin “burnt” when outside and that she had long, straight hair. I looked at the cover and thought that she looked a little like my mother, who is Vietnamese. Even though she seemed racially ambiguous, I thought she could have been Asian.

Still, when it came to fantasy fiction, I didn’t think characters of color could exist. I had been taught through reading itself that the realm of fantasy was only for white men and women, and I’d never thought to look for anything else.

Once, I bought a fantasy trilogy with characters of color without realizing it. The Farsala Trilogy by Hilari Bell featured a setting and characters that were inspired by Persian folklore—but years of reading fantasy with white characters had taught me to read them as white.

By the time I found a fantasy with a protagonist of color whom I was able to recognize as such, I was in college. I was browsing the adult section of my local library at random when I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin. I decided to check out the book when I turned it over and saw the author was a black woman. It had never occurred to me that a black woman could write fantasy novels with characters who looked like black people.

This book blew my mind just as much as reading the Harry Potter series had. Instead of seeing a white cast of characters, I saw more brown than white. Not only was there a brown woman of color protagonist with curly hair, but also a fantastic mythology involving two brown-skinned gods and one white one. The plot involving these characters and more added even more color. I imagined the gods dressed in silver, yellow, and black and their universe as a limitless rainbow of planets and stars.

While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was part of a trilogy, I didn’t read the other books until much later. I believed that fantasy authors of color were a rarity… I gradually forgot about the book.

Not only was there a brown woman of color protagonist with curly hair, but also a fantastic mythology involving two brown-skinned gods and one white one. The plot involving these characters and more added even more color. I imagined the gods dressed in silver, yellow, and black and their universe as a limitless rainbow of planets and stars.

It took me getting tired of seeing the same old faces and plots in fantasy to start searching for alternatives. I did online searches and gradually found fantasy books with black and Asian characters and authors.

It occurred to me that there were probably other people who, like me, didn’t know these books existed. Since I had a personal blog where I was already reviewing books, I started reviewing books with authors and characters of color. Soon, I was focusing on black speculative fiction, especially after I discovered independent black authors on the web. These authors would show me that not only was it possible for people of color to exist in fantasy fiction, but also they didn’t need society’s permission to do so.

A few years after I discovered black indie fantasy authors, I learned that this same lesson applied to black indie comic creators and artists. The first fantasy webcomic I read by a black creator was Agents of the Realmby Mildred Louis. Agents of the Realm sparked an appreciation for comic artists and creators of color that I hadn’t felt since I read Japanese manga.

After I discovered more fantasy webcomics with people of color characters and creators, I became fully immersed in comics, both mainstream and indie. The titles that made the most impact were Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and The Legend of Bold Riley by Leia Weathington. These comics made me see American comics in a new light by showing me how diverse creators can create diverse stories and characters that appeal to me. They also inspired me to spread the word about comics as a freelance writer—and they helped me understand what the fantasy genre meant to me.

These authors would show me that not only was it possible for people of color to exist in fantasy fiction, but also they didn’t need society’s permission to do so.

Fantasy gave me a wild imagination, entertainment, and a sharper mind. It showed me that magic could exist in this world, another world, and in myself.

Fantasy gave me a wild imagination, entertainment, and a sharper mind.

I fight for diversity in the fantasy genre because I didn’t know I could exist in a fantasy world or make my own until I was an adult.

Even though their sparks seem small, marginalized readers and authors have as much magic as everyone else. The more magic we acknowledge, the more fantasy will ignite reality.

Top photo by Vinicius Henrique on Unsplash

In Memory of Screenwriter Daniel Gerson

Meet the Robinsons is an obscure film by Disney standards, but it’s one I’ve made a habit of rewatching because of my personal connection to its narrative. The last time I saw it was a few months ago, on the first Friday of February. I remember it clearly because screenwriter Daniel Gerson  passed away the following day.

Gerson has been credited for the story-writing process in several Disney films, including Meet the Robinsons and another film I thoroughly adore, Big Hero 6. (He made a voice cameo as the officer Hiro speaks to following the first Microbots encounter.) The loss of Daniel Gerson put me in a state of reflection, as the narratives of these two films speak to a part of me that has otherwise gone silenced.

Lewis’s as-yet-unrealized potential as an inventor is constantly being challenged: he meets with resistance for using his mind in unconventional ways. The first major catalyst in his character development comes due to his enthusiasm over an untested contraption that, in the end, results in a failed adoption interview — his 124th. Prior to the eruption, though, the role of these prospective parents (as seen when they ask about his favourite sport) is to establish that Lewis is on a different creative plane: he has his own way of seeing the world and finding his place in it.

It’s a mark of good storytelling that despite the fact that I am not an orphan like protagonist Lewis, I still feel connected to Meet the Robinsons.

It’s often been the case that my eagerness for such subjects has turned people off. Like Lewis, I know what it is like to have ideas that feel like messages into the ether. I’m cognizant that the merit of certain ideas is colored by the context (and medium) in which they’re applied. And it’s been customary for me to have blips that need further spark, yet struggle to translate on paper what I see inside my head.

I’d describe the younger me in similar terms: an oddball, a curious thinker, into things others don’t normally find fascinating — like words. It’s often been the case that my eagerness for such subjects has turned people off. Like Lewis, I know what it is like to have ideas that feel like messages into the ether. I’m cognizant that the merit of certain ideas is colored by the context (and medium) in which they’re applied. And it’s been customary for me to have blips that need further spark, yet struggle to translate on paper what I see inside my head.

That need for direction — or a “brain printer,” to imitate Lewis’s invention — has left me frustrated by my inability to fully see my ideas through. Lewis has visions of changing the world, but those visions originate from a place of imagination and personal situation rather than a desire to serve, a style of self-expression that calls for a self-motivated disposition.

The response to failure wasn’t lambasting, but instead, encouragement for applied learning; and where competence was defined by a process, not the success or failure of a single action.

Still, when faced with stifling influences, he needed a reason to persist. The Robinson family provided that reason: an environment where the response to failure wasn’t lambasting, but instead, encouragement for applied learning; and where competence was defined by a process, not the success or failure of a single action.

Living in the process has become something of a motto for me as well, for taking an unrestrained approach to brainstorming as a way of easing me into later phases.

For Lewis’s imaginative solutions — and for Lewis himself — to be accepted where previously he’d found dismissal, it brought him a new awareness. What he really needed was for someone to believe in him so that he could, in turn, believe in himself.

This underlying message comes with an overlapping realization: it’s too late to direct my younger self the way Lewis is directed by the Robinsons, or to teach myself everything I would have benefited from knowing. For that reason, the film’s resolution is difficult to watch, as it forces me to mourn his — my — death.

A similar confrontation of self occurred when I watched Big Hero 6 for the first time. It’s a superhero film where suppressed revenge motivations masquerade as displaced Frankenstein-like hopes of seeing a creation excel. But it’s also a story about achievement through failure and breaking imposed boxes. The film’s climactic scenes are not what impact me most; it’s the build-up and expositional scenes that shape Hiro’s character path.

In the “nerd lab,” everyone seems to have a place. Yet there isn’t a strict enforcement of roles, which allows the students to freely pursue projects that feed into their personal interests. For Tadashi, this was medical science, and he slaved away on a project he truly believed in. The same can be said of his companions with their respective fields of study. Witnessing such a welcoming environment in action, Tadashi’s younger brother, Hiro, formed a clear picture in his mind of where he could fit, and he was thus inspired to dream and work at this dream with persistence.

With my peculiar fascinations and love for process, my younger self struggled with not knowing where I fit, and my pattern of siding with error over trial only exacerbated my discomfort. It’s a burden to recognize where your strengths lie but not know how to apply yourself in a way that fits a set mold.

In some ways, I envy Hiro. With my peculiar fascinations and love for process, my younger self struggled with not knowing where I fit, and my pattern of siding with error over trial only exacerbated my discomfort. It’s a burden to recognize where your strengths lie but not know how to apply yourself in a way that fits a set mold. Hiro was able to find a way to direct his creative energies — through bot fighting. But from the mature outside perspective offered by Tadashi, this path wasn’t getting him to where he should be. That is, until his brother gave him the direction he didn’t know he needed, and the picture of his future started to come together.

Serving as the backdrop for these early scenes is my favorite highlight from the musical score, “Nerd School.” The stringed arrangement concedes to softer tones with chimes and the like as Hiro makes his way inside the lab and individual character themes are introduced. When the song resurfaces with montages of Hiro applying himself feverishly from concept to execution, there’s a forceful peak that perfectly conveys how that initial spark translates to action full of unbounded promise. It’s a wonderful composition and a big reason why I’m moved by these early scenes.

Both Meet the Robinsons and Big Hero 6 speak to the young inventor in me, who died along with his confused web of misdirected ideas. They are evocative stories that prompt personal reflection, reminding me that whatever echoes of imagination have escaped burial can still live on.

Similar to Lewis in Meet the Robinsons, these prospects are shattered not long after they are revealed, but again, it’s this spark that sets Hiro on a course of his choosing. Although there are setbacks, Hiro is successful in letting his aspirations propel him forward. He doesn’t get there without help, though — Baymax clings to him with physical embraces, like a good friend saying they’ll be there should you fall. Moreover, Hiro essentially creates his own environment where his ideas can thrive, particularly when he tells his newfound friends they can be so much more than what they believe themselves to be.

Both Meet the Robinsons and Big Hero 6 speak to the young inventor in me, who died along with his confused web of misdirected ideas. They are evocative stories that prompt personal reflection, reminding me that whatever echoes of imagination have escaped burial can still live on. And it’s through these and other artful stories that Daniel Gerson’s own voice will continue speaking.

top photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

What I Want to Read When I Grow Up

I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. At the moment, I’m a graduate student in the sciences. And yet, I never was a big reader of science fiction when I was still a speck of a grade-schooler.

I was convinced from the age of eight, when I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, that what I wanted to read when I grew up (and for the rest of my life) was fantasy fiction. Just as I knew, at age ten, that I was Going. To Be. A Veterinarian.

I always loved Star Wars, but if my passion for a Galaxy Far Far Away didn’t burn as brightly as that for Middle-Earth, then that was OK. Spaceships and lightsabers — cool! But nothing similar in book form ever caught my interest. In high school, I picked up the first (chronological) entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, which she’s been writing since the ’80s. The book was Shards of Honor, and someone recommended it on the basis that I would enjoy the planetary space opera and the amazing female protagonist, Captain Cordelia Naismith. It didn’t take. Huh. I set it aside, convinced I’d obliterated my spec fic reader’s credit like a nerve disruptor to the head.

Then one July day, years later, I sat in an air-conditioned theater watching Guardians of the Galaxy romp across the screen. I was having fun! Watching this sci-fi epic lite!

I thought, “I need this in book form.”

So I went back to Bujold. I trusted Bujold, because her fantasy novels were and are incredible little slices of magic and humanity (read The Curse of Chalion for one award-winning example). I picked up the third Vorkosigan book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, the one that starts the story of Miles Vorkosigan, Cordelia’s son, from his perspective.

And it was so much fun.

I couldn’t believe what I had been missing for twenty-two years. Could I get that time back? The universe said no, but I would make up for it. I closed The Warrior’s Apprentice on the last page and immediately went back to read the two Cordelia books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. Those two books have been in publication longer than I have been alive, and I had missed them. I devoured those books. I think I managed to read all of the published books, fifteen at the time, in less than three weeks. Someone probably should have fired me from my job (I made up for it during the other forty-nine weeks of the year, promise).

It was more than fun. It was about politics and military antics, of course, but also about biology. Genetic engineering. Reproduction. Living with our disadvantages—physical, biological, social. Feminism, sexuality and gender, polyamory, what constitutes a family unit.

This was amazing space opera. It was more than fun. It was about politics and military antics, of course, but also about biology. Genetic engineering. Reproduction. Living with our disadvantages—physical, biological, social. Feminism, sexuality and gender, polyamory, what constitutes a family unit. It’s about Barrayar, this weird “sword and spaceship” planet that looks like what eighteenth-century Russia might have if it met wormhole travel and Cordelia Vorkosigan née Naismith.

It’s about Barrayar, the book. I can understand now that I would never have gotten this book as a teenager, because now I can see that Bujold is writing just this most loving portrayal of motherhood, albeit wrapped in awesome space opera trappings. The Vorkosigan books came to me at the perfect time in my life. Like Cordelia in Barrayar, I was alone in a strange new place. I hadn’t really started to speak the language yet— the real language or the social, cultural one. College and the familiar trappings of home and the people I’d known there were behind me. I was re-evaluating everything I knew about the world so far. What adult friendship looks like. What an adult’s long view looks like. What love looks like.

The universe that Bujold creates is very much what I will now dub “biological sf.” Cordelia herself is a scientist—which might be part of the reason why I empathize with her so strongly. She introduces the uterine replicator, a sort-of artificial womb, to her adopted planet of Barrayar. That critical human need to reproduce underlies the whole series: it’s there in the Barrayarans’ somewhat-antiquated obsession with patrilineage and in Cordelia’s own maternal urges. The uterine replicator is poised to change Barrayaran society, but it has no effect on what’s embedded in Cordelia’s own DNA: her desire to protect her unborn son, a conflict that drives the major action in Barrayar.

At the end of the day, I want to read a tale where astrodynamics and quantum mechanics are cool aspects of worldbuilding, but still just the window dressing. As one of Bujold’s characters says (in one of my favorite Vorkosigan saga quotes of all time), “All true wealth is biological,” and so are all great stories.

Looking back at my own younger forays into the sci-fi genre, I see that the elements that piqued my interest were not the physical mechanics of a fictional world. Not faster-than-light travel; not all the warping of relativity required to make such a thing possible, despite the fact that my own interests as a scientist have always been much closer to physics than to biology. At the end of the day, I want to read a tale where astrodynamics and quantum mechanics are cool aspects of worldbuilding, but still just the window dressing. As one of Bujold’s characters says (in one of my favorite Vorkosigan saga quotes of all time), “All true wealth is biological,” and so are all great stories.

For me, space opera is all about people pushed to the frontiers of their experience by technology, space, and circumstance.

Bujold’s latest book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (which came out earlier this year), brings Cordelia’s story more-or-less full circle. Cordelia has lived on Barrayar for over thirty years at this point in the series’ chronology. She has watched her son grow, has seen Barrayar change due to her actions in championing the uterine replicator (which has imploded the Barrayaran woman’s traditional role as baby-maker), and has gained power in her own right as the appointed ruler of one of Barrayar’s colonies. But Cordelia’s home planet is and always will be Beta Colony, a sexually liberal and technologically advanced society. Straddling two worlds, Cordelia lets us explore not just reproduction through her story, but also sex, sexuality (a fluid concept on Beta), and how both are linked to or divorced from reproduction because of technological progress.

I also think it’s because of authors like her, even coming sideways at these issues in the 1980s, that a new generation of writers can discuss sex, sexuality, gender, and feminism with heightened levels of rawness and complexity.

Things that were only hinted at or lightly touched in Bujold’s earliest books— the bisexuality and polyamorous relationships of a major character included— are truths baldly discussed by Cordelia and her fellow characters in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. It’s tricky to say if this is because the earlier novels were more action-packed space opera adventures, while this is an introspective look at middle adult life in a sci-fi future. I think the goalposts certainly have moved since Bujold started writing these books thirty years ago. I also think it’s because of authors like her, even coming sideways at these issues in the 1980s, that a new generation of writers can discuss sex, sexuality, gender, and feminism with heightened levels of rawness and complexity.

And I’m happy to be one of those young writers ready to pick up the torch (albeit with unworthy hands). I came to it late, but I’m so glad I did, and at the time that I did. And I’m excited to watch the world grow, too—is the uterine replicator really that much of an outlandish notion for our own (near) future?

In speculative fiction, in sci-fi fiction, we can press the limits of biology and evolution. And that’s where we can get those little pearls of wisdom, at those extreme ends of our conceptions, about what the human condition looks like.

These books opened a whole new window into writing and reading science fiction for me. Bujold still does it best, in my opinion (and she has the Hugos to prove it). In speculative fiction, in sci-fi fiction, we can press the limits of biology and evolution. And that’s where we can get those little pearls of wisdom, at those extreme ends of our conceptions, about what the human condition looks like.

top photo by Michael Schiffer on Unsplash

Sociohistorical Fiction; or Morrison in My Life

The best I continue to have, to enjoy, and to love is Toni Morrison. But I don’t read her: she reads to me.

The power in her narrative, the pain she digs out of your insides, the metaphorical genius that cuts through the literal mind and forces you to search for her meaning, the unmatched concision of her speech—with not one misplaced thought or misdirected angle, not a single sentence overrun or a phrase understated.

She is the reason I write. She is the reason I embrace my own pain and attempt to transcribe it into words.

My relationship with Morrison began in my freshman year of high school, over a decade ago, when I was required to read The Bluest Eye. I had never read anything so figuratively convincing before. I had never read something that addressed the most intensely personal situations and deep-rooted conflict from the eyes and mind of an eleven-year-old girl.

Upon reaching the conclusion of Bluest Eye, I remember having a tiff with a classmate about whether the color of Pecola’s eyes changed. My argument was that the color of Pecola’s eyes changed because she believed it, and no further explanation was required. A “what is real to me versus what is actually real” debate commenced ,and it was fantastic. Morrison’s style is so poetic, symbolic, and majestic that she eliminates the distinction between the two, and as a result, what is real to me is actually real.

Morrison transformed my way of looking at the world. She changed the lens with which I viewed my surroundings, and this transformation felt incredibly emancipating.

Morrison transformed my way of looking at the world. She changed the lens with which I viewed my surroundings, and this transformation felt incredibly emancipating.

I began to delve past the façade of pasted-on facial expressions and rehearsed laughter for that deeper meaning behind closed eyes and mute tongues. I am that person who wants to hear your story from beginning to end: I gasp, ooh and aah, I tear up, I become angry when you become angry, I smile when you pour your heart out, I feel the love you declare.

I always enjoyed listening to people’s stories, especially those of the elderly and the traveled. Morrison taught me to find the pain and struggle in the untold parts of their stories, to piece together the meaning of their incredible journeys, and, finally, to tie it all back to the unbelievable strength of the individual.

When learning about the sequence of events that led up to major conflict across borders, involving key political figures and nations, I wanted to travel back in time to ask the people of that time and place how they felt. I wasn’t solely interested in the decision-making process: I wanted to have a lengthy conversation with a layperson and his or her family.

I am a bit of a history buff. Even now, my DVR is overrun with History Channel pieces. This interest in history led to my discovery of sociohistorical fiction. When learning about the sequence of events that led up to major conflict across borders, involving key political figures and nations, I wanted to travel back in time to ask the people of that time and place how they felt. I wasn’t solely interested in the decision-making process: I wanted to have a lengthy conversation with a layperson and his or her family. Sociohistorical fiction allows an inside view of the social impact history had on families, kids, lovers, and leaders. Although some literature and personal reflections have been preserved, we don’t have social media, blogs, and limitless creative expression from people of other time periods. Without these sources, it is nearly impossible to fathom the feelings and sensations of a people through uprising, turmoil, political upheaval, famine, disease, and loss. These unknowns spark such an interest in me. I want to do the research and be the historian. I want to be able to feel, somehow, or get even the slightest glimpse into those minds.

She presents perfected characters with their socially labeled “imperfections,” an underlying civil issue sets the tone, and she brings in perspectives from the old and young, the brave and the forgotten, the now and the then.

Although I read some historical fiction prior to Morrison, her style was unlike any HF I had encountered to that point. What is magnificent about her way of writing is her ability to tell a story within a story. This is where metaphor meets sociohistory. The exploitation and dehumanization of blacks throughout history, and still to this day, is the backdrop of her novels. She presents perfected characters with their socially labeled “imperfections,” an underlying civil issue sets the tone, and she brings in perspectives from the old and young, the brave and the forgotten, the now and the then. It is literary brilliance the way she agilely impels the reader to come face to face with the grueling catastrophes of black history, from slavery to torture to rape to liberation, seclusion, domination, and debasement.

I’ve cried many times during a good read, but this was the first time I actually had to close the book about halfway through and put it away. I was solemn for days and could not get myself to pick it up again and finish. Never before had words stabbed at my soul so deep.

For me, the literary agony in Beloved was unbearable. I’ve cried many times during a good read, but this was the first time I actually had to close the book about halfway through and put it away. I was solemn for days and could not get myself to pick it up again and finish. Never before had words stabbed at my soul so deep. I tried finishing it later that year, yes, I tried many times that year. Peeking at the next page, skimming it over to see if the bad was gone and some good was on its way. I read a few lines but felt the wounds reopening. I had to close it yet again and reshelve it until I was at a different, more mature stage in my life, about eight years later—at a point when I had seen and experienced a little too much, but enough to solidify my spine.

My familiar tears resumed, my heart stiffened and clenched through to the very last word. It almost felt like I was holding my breath through the remainder of the book. Upon concluding this masterpiece, when I could breathe again, I was ready to write.

It’s extremely difficult to put into words exactly what Morrison did for me. She awoke a silent, creative part of me. She encouraged me to unscramble a not-quite-perfect sentence to make it right. She pushed me, in a complex, tenderly firm manner—she pushed me outside my comfortable boundaries and stood me up to face, internalize, and express. She navigated me to the darkest corners of my inner self and helped me find peace with everything hiding there.

Most importantly, she has taught me to embrace all that is good and all that is me.

top photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash