20 Jun

A voice from the Islands: Stephanie Saulter talks about her novel Gemsigns

Gemsigns 12 9 133

Stephanie Saulter‘s first book, Gemsigns, is available in the UK and Commonwealth and in the US from Jo Fletcher Books. It arrived not too long ago on my doorstep, and I asked Stephanie if she’d like to post on this blog because I thought my readers might be interested in her work (see Boing Boing’s excerpt of the novel here).

Stephanie has a Caribbean connection, like me. And has had some very similar experiences visiting the US.

Read on:

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Gemsigns has made it to America, almost thirty years after I did. I’ve been contemplating that fact a lot lately. Although it’s been well received everywhere, I’ve observed with interest the way reactions to the book differ between the United Kingdom, where I’ve lived for over a decade now and where the story is set, and the United States, where I went to university and lived and worked for many years. Above all it’s been a revelation to discover just how much of what I ended up embedding in the novel can be traced in a straight line back to what was embedded into me, when I came to America all those years ago.

One of the things that every incoming freshman in 1988 received was a work of fiction: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to be precise (it wasn’t my year but I somehow ended up with a copy anyway). It was part of a program to try to encourage a broader range of interests, and in particular an appreciation for the arts and humanities, amongst a resolutely nerdy student body who tended to focus exclusively on their core math, science and engineering subjects. The initiative aimed to develop social and political awareness, alongside scientific and technological expertise. There were concerns about what I remember being called ‘the arrogance of intellect’ – the sense that exceptional academic ability confers a kind of entitlement to do whatever you like, to follow the threads of your curiosity and ambition wherever they may take you, regardless of the impact on others; indeed, the feeling that consequences are for other people.

The university’s response? A recognition of fiction’s ability to provoke the imagination; to unsettle and challenge; to ask difficult questions about the consequences of wealth, and arrogance, and entitlement. To engage instead of harangue, persuade instead of criticise. To speak truth to power.

It was one of the most potent lessons I learned as a college student. It’s stayed with me.

Another lesson soon learned was about race, and appearance, and expectation. I’m from Jamaica, and one of the most common refrains I heard back then (and to this day) was, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there were white Jamaicans!’ – Uttered always by some white person, regarding me as though I were a pleasingly exotic discovery.
‘There are, but I’m not one,’ I would (and still do) reply. ‘My family is mixed race. I just happen to be on the vanilla end.’ This would be greeted, more often than not, by a stunned silence. I had no idea why anyone found it so shocking, until an African-American friend explained things to me.

‘You could pass,’ she said bluntly (and then had to explain what ‘passing’ meant). ‘No one would know if you didn’t tell them. In this country, having even the smallest amount of black ancestry means you are black. Period. You’re choosing that.’

Given that the majority of people reading this post will likely be Americans, I don’t imagine I have to explain the significance of that apparent choice. What was a simple matter of fact for me – like having brown eyes not green – was in the minds of others a hugely impactful decision to reject privilege. It gave me a strangely honorary status. It opened my eyes. Although Jamaica is also a country of great and grave inequalities, it was in America that I really learnt about the politics of race.

That lesson’s stayed with me too.

So, on to the ®Evolution. When I set out to write the story that would end up being Gemsigns, I knew that every aspect of the plot would turn on how people dealt with difference. In my near-future, post-apocalyptic scenario, genetically modified humans – ‘gems’ – have only recently been emancipated from a system euphemistically referred to as indenture but in truth little different from slavery; they’d been the property of the biotech corporations that created them. These pillars of industry have now, essentially, been asset-stripped. The gems have received their liberty, but little else. The norm population is facing an influx of people into their communities whom they’ve mostly only dealt with at arms length, if at all, and have been brought up to think of as other, alien, inferior, and often dangerous.

The result is massive social and economic upheaval, public unrest, and general uncertainty. Emancipation is all well and good, but what form should freedom take? What’s the best course for the gems – to assimilate, slip into the norm population and hide the truth of their origins? For some, whose visible differences amount to no more than their glowing, jewel-coloured hair, this may be possible – though not necessarily agreeable. For others, whose anatomy has been more radically altered or whose minds have been too terribly damaged, it isn’t an option. And what about the norm majority? Public sentiment may have turned against the indenture system, but that doesn’t mean there’s any kind of consensus about what should replace it. Should gems continue to live and work separately? Should integration be encouraged? What about the threat from gems harbouring deep resentments, and possibly even deeper psychosis? Might norm fears not be justified?

It sounds like I must have mapped it out, doesn’t it? Drawn up a chart of the politics and prejudices of the real world, and then ticked them off as I created equivalent scenarios in my invented one. I swear to you I did not do that. It wasn’t until quite late on in the editing process that it even began to dawn on me just how much this tale of a possible future drew on the realities of the present, and the past. And in fact I’ve heard from many readers who’ve enjoyed the book without noticing any parallels with the history of the Caribbean or the American South; or who, if they relate the gem/norm dynamic to contemporary events at all, see connections with local controversies around European immigration or economic inequality.

Of course those parallels are just as accurate as any other, but I suspect it was what bled into my awareness back in the 1980s that led, a generation later, to my imagined tale of the 22nd century. Because what I learned then, and what I know now, is this: We tell stories in order to understand the world. Stories are where we replay past events, and test future possibilities. They give us a way to examine our prejudices, our fears, our hopes and our dreams. They are how we map uncharted territory to the terrain we know, and thereby find a safer path. They’re where we can tell each other, and ourselves, the truths that are sometimes too hard to speak. They are the sleeper agents of the unconscious.

Hello, America. I’m back. I wrote a story. I hope you like it.

§

AUTHOR BIO

Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she earned her degree at MIT and spent fifteen years in the USA before moving to the UK in 2003. Her first novel, Gemsigns, was published there in 2013 and released in the US in 2014. The second, Binary, is already out in the UK and will be released in the US next spring. Gemsigns and Binary are the first two books of the ®Evolution trilogy, and are set in a near future London, in the aftermath of a pandemic which required human genetic modification in order to prevent extinction. The novels take a look at the conflicts, compromises and relationships between the different types of human that result.

05 Jun

A voice from the Islands: R.S.A Garcia talks about how she came to write her science fiction novel Lex Talionis

I recently asked R.S.A Garcia if she wanted to take over my blog for a day to talk about her latest novel, LEX TALIONIS. I did it because I was getting ready to give it a shout out, then thought ‘why not let her tell you all about the book?’ Publishers Weekly recently called it a ‘stunning debut’ and gave the book a star. She’s gotten props from Tor.com and SF Crowsnest, and hopefully those are the first of many reviews.

Now, this is something I don’t do too often, but I thought that if you read about her story, some of my readers might find some overlap with what I’ve been up to as well, as R.S.A Garcia hails from the south Caribbean (Trinidad).

Seriously, read on:

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Thanks, Tobias, for giving me this opportunity to talk about my book, LEX TALIONIS, a space opera mystery that just launched from the small press, Dragonwell Publishing.

THE STORY

On one of Earth’s planetary outposts, a young woman dies–and is brought back to life by a mysterious alien.

Inside a military starship, a wounded soldier is stalked by an unseen enemy.

When Lex reawakens in a clinic, she doesn’t remember who she is, or who killed her. All she remembers is a phrase she does not understand. Lex Talionis. The law of revenge. Stripped of her past, Lex focuses on the only thing she can. Retribution. She will find the people who murdered her and she will make them pay.

What Lex doesn’t know is that she’s being hunted. The alien who saved her and the soldier fighting for survival are the keys to her past…and her future. She must discover what they know before the hunter finds her. Every clue brings her closer to powerful enemies. Everything she learns draws her nearer to the person who almost destroyed her.

The only man she has ever loved.

IF YOU WANT TO HELP A STARVING ARTIST

‘Lex Talionis’ is available on Kobo, Barnes and Noble and Dragonwell Publishing.

COVER  2

THE LONG, WINDING ROAD TO HERE

As a child I was a terrible bookworm. I preferred reading over sleeping, which frustrated my mother no end at bedtime. While my many cousins were out climbing mango trees, or plum trees, or guava trees (depending on the season), I would remain inside, devouring the latest Enid Blyton book, or Nancy Drew novel, or Hardy Boys mystery. When I did go outside, it wasn’t long before I wanted to go back in again, which made my cousins laugh at me and deride me as strange and weird.

I didn’t care. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t love books as much as I did. I thought they were the weird ones. I started writing stories at 8, and finished my first collection at 10. One of my stories was about a soap dish. Ground-breaking stuff, I tell you. Despite all this, I didn’t actually realise I wanted to be a writer until I was 14 and a school friend asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. As soon as I said it, my heart sank because I knew it was true, and I knew how impossible it was that a girl from a tiny West Indian island would ever publish the kind of stories I liked to read. I had no hope of ever leaving my island to go form ties with the right people in other countries, and no possibility of being discovered while at university in the UK or the USA. But I decided in that moment to do it anyway. I would become a writer, and I would be published.

Publication in the West Indies was all about post-colonial fiction. Our close ties to the Commonwealth and England had given a voice to many revered and talented authors who wrote contemporary literature, but no one wrote modern commercial fiction. That was the down and dirty stuff. The common stuff. Everyone wanted to be Derek Walcott and win a Nobel Prize.

I was different. I wanted to write stories. Absorbing stories. Heart-stopping stories. Stories that people actually bought from bookstores. Not the stories they read because it was on the school curriculum or because it was all the rage in certain circles.

And it wasn’t because I didn’t like the other kinds of stories. Are you kidding? You’ll never begin to understand the meaning of Carnival to Trinbagonian society until you read the amazing and poetic The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace. You haven’t been scared until you’ve read My Bones And My Flute by Edgar Mittelholzer. You haven’t laughed until you’ve read Samuel Selvon.

But the truth was, none of these writers made me save money for months to buy their stuff. No one lined up in bookstores to get their books. In my country, that honour was reserved for people like Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Alex Haley and VC Andrews.

And for people like me, the books that moved me were even less popular because they were about something West Indians somehow didn’t seem to think they were part of.

The future.

I spent my formative years in the library reading stories by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Katherine Kerr, Anne McCaffrey, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, L. Ron Hubbard, Margaret Weis and Ursula K. Le Guin. And don’t get me started on my fantasy list, or my mystery list, or my horror list, or any of the other genres I was into. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a lover of genre fiction. Even more importantly, I was in love with speculative fiction before I knew what it was.

My library was outdated, of course, so I didn’t even discover writers like Octavia Butler until I was an adult, after the Internet opened up the world to my corner of it. No, before the internet, I was eating a steady diet of people from other countries and other societies, and there weren’t that many women in those stories that were more than just the girl the hero gets.

I started thinking about that. Really thinking about it. Because a little known fact of the West Indies is that women rule here. We hold the family unit together. Grandmothers often babysit so mothers can go to work. Grandmother’s word is often the law, whether there is a grandfather or not. Strong women are the norm here, a holdover from the centuries of slavery and the splitting of the family unit that came with it. The children stayed with the women. So it was then and even now, it’s often the same. Wisdom is the old women in the neighbourhood. Families emphasize to girls that they have to get an education if they want to get up and out.

At the same time I started noticing how important the women in my family were to the family as a whole, I fell in love with space opera. Star Wars and Star Trek changed my world. Dr. Who was wildly popular in my school. Any story that featured multiple aliens and cultures had my attention. Was that because I was growing up in a society that was more cosmopolitan than most in the West Indies? Perhaps. Trinidad and Tobago is no Canada, certainly not in size, but it has a diverse population and I grew up with best friends who were East Indian, Chinese, American, Creole, Spanish and so many more. I am a black woman, but I am also East Indian, Chinese and Spanish, and that’s just what I know of up to my great-grandparents. The rest of my large family’s past is clouded by the centuries.

All I knew for sure was that I loved this. I loved thinking about the what ifs, and the future and the big ideas. I didn’t have much access to science articles or the latest advancements, but along came the internet and everything changed. Suddenly, my library wasn’t so outdated. And if it was, a simple search at my workplace after hours could change that. The stories I’d been writing had always had bits of my Trinbagonian heritage and mythology in it. Now I could branch out into the future too.

LEX TALIONIS was partially born of this. I wanted to write about a strong woman. I wanted her to be part of those space adventures that only men got to have in the books and movies I grew up with. I wanted to write a story about how it feels to be a small cog in a big machine, a tiny island in a big world. A story that came at the future from a slightly different angle–what if humanity was a tiny, unimportant world in a universe of strange and powerful races? What if we were discovered by the aliens and they didn’t want to blow up our seats of government, or take our planet–they wanted to trade? What if we spread out amongst these huge galaxies and almost no one knew that we carried within a singular bloodline the most important part of the universe’s future?

Yes, I cheated a little. Yes, I made humanity simultaneously important and not. But that reflects what I believe–that even the smallest amongst us has a purpose and can be important in the vast scheme of things, whatever their history. I think I’ve told a story about a strong woman, with an unusual background who overcomes her past and takes hold of her future.

It’s something the West Indies has done and is still struggling to do. We are struggling to find our place in the world and the discussion of power going on now. As a region, we are trying to make our voices heard over the more ‘important’ ones. To chart a course in a vast, unfamiliar world that touches ours more and more intimately every day. And I think, whether we are successful or not, we deserve a chance to talk about this journey, in our own words.

In the end, I hope that’s what LEX TALIONIS is. Part of a discussion on power and morals and so much else that society makes decisions on every day. A personal journey that looks into the dark side of humanity and tries to pin down what the light side is and isn’t–and how much that might matter to our future.

A BIT ABOUT ME

R.S.A. Garcia lives and works on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean with a large family and too many dogs.

Her debut novel, LEX TALIONIS, a science fiction mystery, is out now and has received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and advanced praise from award-winning author, Elizabeth Bear.

You can find out more about the author at her website, rsagarcia.com. She’s also usually hanging out on:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lextalionisrsagarcia
Twitter: @rsagarcia
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21806455-lex-talionis
Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/rsagarcia/

20 Sep

Caribbean and Diaspora Writers at the Brooklyn Book Festival, September 16 – 22

If you’re in the NYC area and interested in Caribbean writers, this is the place to be from now until the 22nd. Wish I were there:

“For those of us in the Mid-Atlantic who hail from the tropics, the fall equinox – with its cooler temperatures, shorter days and waning light  – often brings a particular kind of melancholy. But not to worry, again this year as it has done since 2006, Brooklyn offers an opportunity for a literary bacchanal. Book enthusiasts everywhere are invited to Borough Hall on Sunday, September 22 as outgoing Borough President Marty Markowitz and the Brooklyn Literary Council present one of the biggest celebrations of the year, the annual Brooklyn Book Festival.  There is also rich set of bookend events leading into the festival; these will run from September 16 – 21.”

(Via Caribbean and Diaspora Writers to Contribute to Brooklyn Book Festival, September 16 – 22, 2013 | written by Lavern McDonald | Repeating Islands.)

12 Jul

Add another Caribbean novelist in SF/F to your list: Gemsigns

A lot of people ask me about other Caribbean novelists writing novels. I always cite Nalo Hopkinson and Karen Lord in addition to myself. I recently linked to Robert Sandiford’s superhero novel. Now you can add Stephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns to the book. It’s released via Jo Fletcher/Quercus in the UK. Hopefully we’ll see it in the US soon as well.

I have not had a chance to read it, just ordered a copy from overseas.

“For years the human race was under attack from a deadly Syndrome, but when a cure was found – in the form of genetically engineered human beings, Gems – the line between survival and ethics was radically altered.

Now the Gems are fighting for their freedom, from the oppression of the companies that created them, and against the Norms who see them as slaves. And a conference at which Dr Eli Walker has been commissioned to present his findings on the Gems is the key to that freedom.

But with the Gemtech companies fighting to keep the Gems enslaved, and the horrifying godgangs determined to rid the earth of these ‘unholy’ creations, the Gems are up against forces that may just be too powerful to oppose.”

(Via Gemsigns | Jo Fletcher Books.)

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20 Mar

Good stuff: yesterday I saw Junot Diaz speak at OSU

Last night I went to see Junot Diaz speak at Ohio State University, and briefly hang out with C.C. Finlay and Rae Carson afterwards. A lot of resonance for me when he talked about the nature of diasporic writing. I mentioned to Charlie that although I read a lot when I was in the Caribbean, although my identity is bound up in being someone who thinks of himself as Caribbean and who now lives in another country, I didn’t read many diasporic writers growing up. Limited library access, my interest in genre and limited funds, and teachers who chose western canonical works, meant that I didn’t have access to a good library system until college.

By then I was beginning to break in and write my own stuff.

So to hear other writers thinking about identification and diaspora is thirsty man in the desert stuff for me.

I was also enjoying how familiar and practiced Junot was in front of a large audience. Since 2008 I’ve not been in front of audiences as much, because I can’t afford to front for my own travel. I enjoy Q&A, interaction, and reading. Less so prepared comments. Junot built that into this major presentation, and I’ve been trying to move toward that sort of environment for readings. Seeing someone do it well heartens me. I will be trying to weight readings/appearances in that natural direction in the future. Some very short readings with punch, a little bit of exposition about the nature of what’s being read, and lots of interaction with audience. It felt genuine, warm, and the time passed all too soon.