‘I made my protagonist bi because I wanted to add a bit of flavor’

Another day, another Powerful Ally lost to the fire of criticism from the minorities they profess to champion. As one does, I came across a straight man who was complaining that he feared that, having made the protagonist of his nonexistent fantasy novel bisexual, the fact would ‘bite him in the ass’.

Hmm, interesting. I proceeded to ask him if he was queer. What happened next will shock you!

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WINTERGLASS cover reveal!

winterglass_cover

The art is by Anna Dittman, the design by Mikio Murakami. I’m way beyond chuffed. 

(New to the book? Here’s what it’s about.)

The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.

At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.

To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.

If the splinter of glass in Nuawa’s heart doesn’t destroy her first.

One of the most important things for me was that the cover absolutely must feature an East Asian woman, which makes the process… tricky. Most art of East Asian women is a fetishistic nightmare, racist caricatures, or stereotypical (dragons, kimonos or what have you). The state of representing East Asian women is rather specific, and specifically awful. The majority of fantasy art of East Asian women is also, inevitably, in traditional getups (kimonos, hanfu, etc) which don’t at all suit Winterglass (it is, after all, not set in the fantasy equivalent of either China or Japan). That’s when it’s not women in skimpy ‘Chinese-inspired’ outfits with boob windows ala Jade Empire.

Looking for ‘inspiration’ or ‘mood board’ images I came across these promotion shots of the Chinese fantasy drama (incredibly named) Ice Fantasy.

Cool, but not quite what I’m looking for. The girl in the first is, well, too soft for lack of a better word. I wanted something icier, more aloof. Still, they looked nice and I set them aside in the ‘this is the sort of thing I’m looking for’ folder.

I’ve always liked Anna Dittman’s work: her East Asian women are beautifully painted and dignified. These two were favorites, Bauhinia and Lantana. The piece we used for the cover of Winterglass is just the right kind of icy and aloof, I felt, and perfect for the mood I want to convey. Mikio Murakami’s work on the title graphic pulls the entire cover together, I think, and it’s basically flawless.

title

The book should be up for pre-order soon and is slated for December release.

‘No Pearls as Blue as These’ up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

When she comes we scatter coins before her, every disc polished, some so new they are still warm from the making. She walks bare-footed but does not seem hurt or troubled by this gleaming path. I catch her smiling from the corner of her mouth as she treads on these symbols of wealth, the luster and hard glint of Tarangkaya’s prosperity.

She is robed tightly, cerise brocade and propolis sash. Her scalp, shaven in the fashion of her country, is painted in red ink with the calligraphy—again her country’s—signaling luck, fertility, a hundred children.

I am similarly patterned, from the back of my head to my brow, my bare shoulders and my arms, as my skin makes for good canvas. In retrospect perhaps I should not have been there, a foreign and startling sight to the foreign and startling bride. But the household’s bulwark must preside, like a pillar or statue. I even gleam like one, mostly celadon and the odd tracery in umber and old ivory, the shades of my skin back when I was still mostly skin.

 ‘No Pearls as Blue as These’ is a story that I cheerfully, and very intentionally, advertise as ‘What if Attack on Titan, but lesbians‘ (and without the weird glorification of fascists). Also, of course with characters of color rather than a mostly-white cast.

I’m very resentful about what happens to Ymir, by the way. You know what I mean. We always know what it means when a lesbian couple is bound for tragedy, and we’re given a little bit of hope, a bone thrown here and there. But then the inevitable happens and tragedy strikes anyway. Sometimes it’s done tastefully, more or less, but most often (when written by men in particular) it’s just nasty. Predictable, but nasty.

Before season two, I’d heard before that Attack on Titan has a lot of uncomfortable overtones, in particular with regards to its militaristic glorification and something that flirts uncomfortably with fascism, and not exactly as a critique of it. The first season of the show didn’t seem to lean on that too much, so I didn’t think too long on it; season two is somewhat more overt, and it became oddly… uncomfortable to watch. After learning what happens to the one and only lesbian couple in Attack on Titan, it’s just about soured the series completely for me. Which is a shame, and it’s also a shame that we’re so desperate for any sort of lesbian representation that we eagerly chase scraps. That comes to why I will always center queer women in my work, and why for me writing what I want to read is an especially charged thing.

Charles at Quick Sip Reviews reviewed the story here.

The emotional beats are strong and I love the food elements, the way that poison is used, the way that sex and sensuality are used. It’s a great story and you should definitely check it out!

Bridget at SF Bluestocking also has a kind word!

The major draw for me in #232 was a new story by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. “No Pearls as Blue as These” is a gorgeously clever queer romance with a great setting, a fascinating protagonist and a nicely hopeful message that makes it pretty much exactly the sort of thing I want to read these days.

Also, a couple readers livetweeted reading this story from reading the BCS issue before the story went up for free. Hella cool, and I always appreciate this.

Marginalized editors and sensitivity readers list

I don’t usually need editorial services myself, but there are frequently calls for sensitivity reading and editorial services, and while databases/lists of such already exist I wanted to compile another one so I can point people to when I see tweets cross my timeline that ask for sensitivity readers and freelance marginalized editors. I believe that, whenever possible, your money should go to marginalized people. Rates are usually in USD.

To be added to this list, ask me on twitter! I’m @benjanun_s. Please tell me what areas of marginalization you’re willing to read for and state, if possible, your rates.

My suggestion is that you state your rates per word–how much you want to be paid per word (or per 100/500/1000 words)–or per hour, that’s up to you. For prospective clients, that’s the easiest way to count since different novels have different lengths, as do short stories. I’ll link your twitter, your website if any, and include your rates. If you want any of this modified or updated, just let me know (again, on twitter).

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Machine Girls: Accord

I’m still inordinately obsessed with NieR: Automata and I’ll probably write a lot about it, but I want to jot down a tinfoil hat theory about a certain recurring Drakengard/Nier character. I also want to complain about a particular endgame antagonist, so be aware that this is full of spoilers for Routes C, D, and E.

If you’re familiar with Drakengard 3, you may recall a certain android named Accord

She appears in Drakengard 3, claiming to have been sent from a distant future to observe events of the past, particularly those centered around Zero, a woman who bears a parasitic flower (itself an entity intent on destroying the planet). For the most part Accord doesn’t interfere; the one time she does interfere is to ensure Zero fulfills her mission of wiping out her sisters One, Two, Three, Four, Five and then to finally commit suicide and destroy the flower. Accord is confirmed to have existed across timelines, and to also exist within the world of NieR: Automata, though never onscreen.

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On manga styles or, yes, actually that’s a racialized stigma

A while ago artist @skimlines retweeted a thread from another Asian-American artist. In that thread, the artist described that when they were growing up, they gravitated toward a manga style. Their art teacher (quite abusively, I think) told them to quit that style; it’s part of a larger stigmatizing of a Japanese medium. We all know the stereotype of course, and we make fun of weeaboos (a term that originally meant over-enthusiastic, ridiculous white anime fans but which has gained broader definition: over-enthusiastic anime fans of any color), especially the ones who want to go to Japan and become a manga artist. But when applied to an artist of color, especially an Asian one, there’s a racist overtone: Rian Singh was made to feel ashamed and turned to looking for French and British cartoonists to emulate, because this–according to the art teacher–was legitimate; Japanese styles are not.

The implication doesn’t need belaboring.

There’s the obvious. Dismissing an entire medium that’s culturally tied to an Asian country (however, relatively speaking, powerful a country) while elevating all (usually white) European and American styles as automatically legitimate is nasty. Manga is not a pan-Asian cultural artifact, but as an industry anime and manga has commanded a cultural penetration in much of Asia that superhero comics from the west still do not match today, despite the regrettable saturation of superhero cinema. I don’t think it is of any surprise that Asian-American artists, even those without ties to Japan, are drawn to it. (Manga does not center the white gaze, as a rule, and that helps.)

But when I read that thread I was also surprised–not really surprised, because the teacher’s xenophobia and racism are predictable, but surprised on an aesthetic level. As someone who grew up on Japanese media, when I first came across American comics (Vertigo titles of old, mostly) my immediate and visceral reaction was that they were absolutely, disturbingly ugly.

So let’s hear me out and really think about why that art teacher so badly wanted to stunt an Asian-American artist’s development.


Some panels from the original Sandman comics. One of the tendencies I noticed right away was that the text was very dense, with the script frequently written like narration in a novel. So much text that then had to be squeezed into a lot of text boxes.

Something newer, from a very different imprint and genre, and it suffers from the same issue. Speech bubbles are absolutely everywhere, absolutely littering the panels; what passes for sophistication in American comics seems to be ‘stuffing 500 words in per speech bubble’. What’s odd is the bolded words for emphasis: this is a visual medium. We can tell if someone’s angry or emphatic, on account of being able to see their expressions and body language. It reminds me of a different comic where, essentially, the text box takes pain to describe the sky as blue in a panel where we can clearly see the sky (it is clearly blue). Very little is left to the imagination or the implication, and it almost feels like comic writers don’t trust the visual part of the comic to do the telling (or showing, as it were).

Let’s look at some manga.

Textless. The linework is crisp and clean. This is a page from Fate/Strange fakepretty text-heavy for a manga, but the text never overwhelms the art. There aren’t a hundred text boxes per page, fifty speech bubbles per panel.

How about this iconic page from Otoyomegatari? It’s beautiful, the detail is tremendous–the patterns and jewelry on Amir’s clothes are incredible. But! None of this becomes visual clutter. It’s precise and elegant.


Backtracking to superhero comics.

What’s going on here? I have no idea. Superhero comics are as subtle as their cinematic counterpart, which is to say it mostly involves a hundred (superheroic) people screaming in unison. Lots of sound, lots of fury, and somehow people are holding full conversations while smashing cars or what have you. It’s absolutely busy. A hundred characters are crammed into every page, and all of them can’t shut up for a minute (nearly every single one endowed with fantastical amounts of latex muscles). There is no space for breathing room, communication through things implied and unsaid, there’s only room for a very American love for sound, fury, all-caps SCREAMING, HULK SMASH.


Here’s Claymore, a fighty, gory manga where people get dismembered at considerable frequency and body horror is just another Wednesday for Claire and friends. But even in speed line-heavy, blitzy panels everything is delineated clearly, you can tell characters apart (and usually there aren’t a hundred of them on the page at once), and more importantly you can easily tell–at a glance–what is going on.

Then there’s all the negative space. Negative space is a wonderful tool, and good manga makes use of it. It can go a long way to emphasize a moment, enhance emotional flashbacks with heft.

And then there’s… those. Some of it is meant to be emotive, I think. Possibly. Look, the expressions are hilarious. Why is Superman grabbing his own face like… uh, whatever he’s doing. Even setting that aside (but what a big aside) there is no sense of emotional relevance, for lack of better words, no sense of pause. It’s a lot of talking and for all I know they could’ve been discussing stock options. While Superman makes incomprehensible faces in the background. There is, again, the sheer amount of speech bubbles, all of them filled with superfluous, inefficient script. It’s bad art accommodating even worse writing. But these are the conventions of American comics: lots of text, lots of bizarre contorted expressions, lots of muscles and an endless amount of noise.

Is manga perfect? It’s a medium, and like any medium it’s diverse (yes, in style too; if you can’t distinguish Cesare from Vinland Saga then nobody can help you. Yes, ‘all of it looks the same’ absolutely stems from the same branch of racism that goes ‘all Asians look the same’–a dismissal of Asian creativity as inherently nonexistent, conformist, robotic) and it has its flaws. But the immediate tarring that the style receives is inevitably racialized due to who does it the most, and who it is done to.

Maybe I’m reviewing a book, maybe not

I’m reading a book that doesn’t have much to recommend it. But what I’ve been unable to get over really is the setting and the effort at diversity. The setting is semi-realist in that it’s not a secondary world, though it might well be, and revolves around a very specific American subculture, a set of very white American religious beliefs. It’s economically, sociologically nonsensical and makes me think of when I did a twitter thread on how the white American writer can afford to be lazy, as they can rely on  cultural saturation–and cultural imperialism–for their references, cultural milieus, even religions to be easily and universally understood. These training wheels never come off; they remove the drive to excel, the need to think.

The result (here as elsewhere) is a product of an atrophied imagination. There’s some speculative world-building going on but, as said, none of it makes any kind of sense and again rests on particular unexamined assumptions. Because it’s written by a white American progressive, there’s some cultural ‘diversity’ thrown in that reminds me of the Ryders of Mass Effect: Andromeda. (It also turns out I’m not alone in feeling this disconnect.) Here’s another piece that goes into this surface ‘diversity’:

Bendis writes Miles being unaware of what it means to be the “Black Spider-Man” when people of color in public spheres talk constantly about how they strive to provide representation to children like them who grew up without seeing themselves in movies or shows.

In his books Miles is adrift, removed from Blackness and his Puerto-Rican-ness due to being orphaned [1] and leaving his universe. He doesn’t interact with or exhibit Blackness in any meaningful way besides being dark skinned. Miles exists in whiteness that’s nearly unbroken except for his friendship with Ganke and occasional hangouts with Nick Fury.

Remember what I linked to about “digital brown paper dolls” in the Dragon Age fandom?

The faces of color in this book, much like the faces of color in ME:A and so many other works of fiction by ‘well-meaning’ white people, inhabit a cultural vacuum. They’re disconnected entirely from their cultures and abide absolutely and only by white mores, white society, white friendships. It’s easy to see where this came from: white people are frequently advised to ‘just write people!’ with the result that they write white people and then paint on a bit of brown or yellow (and referring to pale Asians as ‘yellow’ is, incidentally, of necessity white-centric terminology). This is not diversity: it’s assimilation into whiteness touted as the ultimate good. (ScarJo and Yellowface in the Shell (2017), anyone?)

There’s a book by a white American writer whose faux-Chinese characters somehow count gargoyles among their (otherwise stereotypically East Asian) supernatural creatures: the white author doesn’t seem to get that gargoyles don’t exist in China. They are not Chinese characters. They’re white figments done in yellowface, born of a mind that doesn’t have to try and so happily wallows in its own mediocrity.

(The book’s characters also talk and behave like Yellow Peril cartoons. They speak some phonetic gibberish that has no meaning to anyone except, perhaps, equally racist white readers. The author doesn’t speak a single word of Chinese, any kind of Chinese; I would be surprised if the author speaks any language other than English.)

As far as white authors understand, race is skin-deep and literally cosmetic. Terrible writing forums and ‘mentors’ tell them that people aren’t defined by race and ‘you might offend them if you write stereotypes’ (failing to distinguish between cultural connection and white perspective of what constitutes culture), insisting that dry ‘research’ (or knowing people of color, however distantly) doubles as intimate expertise. Whiteness itself doubles as supreme expertise, sort of like a universal PhD: if you’re white then you’re a doctor of anthropology, biology, sociology, political science, and whatever else. You watched Mulan, now you’re an expert on all things China. You watched anime, now you’re an expert on all things Japan. You loved Avatar: The Last Airbender (a show created by a couple white men), now you’re an expert on all things pan-Asia.

Applaud yourself by screaming something about melting pots and how much you love taco trucks.