On Problem Daughters: Interviewing the Editors

Inspiration image for Problem Daughters anthology, a silhouette of a woman against a starchart background in browns, oranges, and topaz coloursProblem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, focusing on the lives and experiences of marginalized women, such as those who are of color, QUILTBAG, disabled, sex workers, and all intersections of these. Edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael and Djibril al-Ayad, the anthology will be published by Futurefire.net Publishing and is currently being crowdfunded.

What initially prompted this anthology?

Nicci: It started from a Twitter chat about defining feminism; how do we define a work as feminist, and what presuppositions is that definition based on, etc. We talked a lot about the absurdity of using the Bechdel-Wallace test as sort of litmus test of whether individual works are “feminist enough.” That got us talking about the exclusionary nature of certain models of feminism, and how that exclusionism informs literature that calls itself feminist. How do dominant models of Western middle-class feminism influence our ideas of what is, and more importantly what isn’t a feminist story? At that time, I was still feeling hot-headed over the way that dozens of avowed feminists in Hollywood reacted to the idea of decriminalizing sex work for the safety of sex workers (in a shockingly ignorant, tone-deaf letter to Amnesty International) and so, on a personal level, I guess I just felt ready to put a challenge out there. Do you think you already know what a feminist looks like? Can you call it Feminism if you elect to ignore all the women in this great, big world who don’t share your values? Anyway, I think Rivqa and Djibril must have been feeling something similar, and probably have their own catalysts.

Djibril: Yes, on the one hand it was easy enough agreeing on what an inclusive definition should look like, because we were all on the same page, but formulating that in writing was another story. We knew what we meant, and when speaking to and for ourselves we could say vague things like “and everyone else.” Once we had started to iron out a better definition, highlighting the inadequacy of exclusive feminisms and the importance of boosting the voices of marginalized women and recognizing the intersections of misogyny and other bigotries, we started to feel like we had a text we could do something with. At some point we realized we had the germ of a call for submissions for an anthology or themed issue… and we thought, why don’t we actually run with that?

Rivqa: As we refined our message and purpose, what started as a throwaway comment felt more and more important… and here we are.  

Has that motivation shifted or changed given global events over the past year?

Rivqa: When we first started talking about this idea, a year and a half ago, it already felt crucially important. Not that others aren’t doing similar work, but that we need more, so much more, to balance out the voices that have dominated our genre for so long. But the US election this year really galvanised me. Although it meant we had to delay our crowdfunding campaign, it deepened my sense of purpose. In my journal that day, one thing I wrote was “activist purpose in everything I do”, and to me Problem Daughters is an embodiment of that. We want to make an entertaining and beautiful book, but if it changes even one person’s life for the better in a miniscule way, I’ll feel my aims have been achieved.

Djibril: I second all of that, but I’d also add that the anthology has grown, in our minds. As we said just now, we started off thinking about it as a themed issue of the online magazine, but then given the variety and the mix and the genres/media we wanted to see in it, that just wasn’t big enough. We also wanted to pay better than the ’zine does, because that’s especially important when focussing on under-represented voices (otherwise you’re effectively asking already marginalized people in particular to work for free, which is unfair bordering on exploitative). We know that the authors who write the stories and poems are going to put wonderful work into this anthology; we want to make sure that we also do everything we can to contribute to that.

Nicci: As a minor addition to this, I think we liked the symbolism of launching with the new year. However anyone personally feels about 2016, I think we can agree that it was not a great year for women. But we can’t change 2016, so we wanted to, in whatever small way we could, set the tone for the new year. Not in opposition to anything (not even our newly-minted US tyrant), but for women. We are fighting back, but I’d like to think we’re fighting for understanding, rather than against those who don’t yet understand.

What has been the biggest challenge in putting together this anthology?

Nicci: Fundraising has presented quite a number of challenges, but I would say our greatest challenge lies ahead of us, with the stories themselves. I suspect and hope editing this anthology is going to be a bit like being in a roomful of brilliant, expressive people who all have something important to say. Our impossible task will be to pick just a few voices out of the crowd and hope they can adequately represent those who were not chosen. But that’s always the challenge of trying to put together a diverse, vibrant, truly intersectional anthology. It should feel kind of impossible. If it doesn’t, we’re doing it wrong.

Rivqa: I think refining our message was a bit of a challenge. We went through a few different ideas and while all (or at least most) were interesting, some of them were overly restrictive. I hope we’ve struck a balance of being broad enough that thinking of what to write isn’t an onerous challenge, but specific enough to be welcoming to the type of authors we’re hoping to attract.

Djibril: We’re also taking seriously the challenge of getting the word out to as many and as varied writers as possible, including authors in genre and those from other literary traditions; including established short story writers and poets and essayists and campaigners, but also those who have lived experience that they’re not used to making fiction out of; including both those who will see our Call For Submissions in writers’ groups and resources, and those who would miss it if all we did was put it up in the dozen most popular venues and listings. We want this CFS to be seen by “own voices” authors, by people whose writing is infused with the beauty and the scars of a million lived marginalizations, among them of course those who write different intersections than those they identify as their own. This will require serious outreach, and also help from many different communities and networks, and we’re reaching out to these all the time. We haven’t done enough yet.

What does intersectional mean to you all, especially in relation to producing an anthology like this?

Nicci: For an anthology like Problem Daughters, I think it’s about recognizing that there are many, many feminist movements, each with their own set of vastly different concerns. That the term “women’s issues” does not refer to a fixed set of priorities put forth by an oligarchy of great female minds. Because it is not actually possible to separate the experience of one’s gender from the experience of one’s class or race or level of ability or orientation, we’ve got to accept that not every woman is going to have the same priorities as those dictated by culturally dominant feminist movements. But her concerns are part of a lived reality, and excluding her voice from the feminist conversation does not make that reality go away. For us, I think it means deliberately choosing stories from those underrepresented feminisms.

Rivqa: Yes, all of this. I’d add that to me, intersectionality might sound like a mathematical concept, but it’s far more complex than that. We’re not merely the sum of our advantages and disadvantages, and people with the same broad intersections might have wildly different experiences for any number of reasons. Life is complicated and messy and nuanced! So we’re hoping to be representative, not exhaustive.

What other books or anthologies would you recommend for people trying to increase the diversity in what they are reading?

Djibril: If I may start by cheekily mentioning the previous Futurefire.net anthologies, Outlaw Bodies, We See a Different Frontier, Accessing the Future and Fae Visions of the Mediterranean, which all cover diverse topics (body politics, colonialism, disability and polyglot culture respectively) as well as feature a range of authors and materials. Other recent anthologies that have caught my eye include Kaleidoscope (edited by Alisa Krasnostein & Julia Rios); African Monsters (Margrét Helgadóttir & Jo Thomas) and Asian Monsters (Helgadóttir) from Fox Spirit Books; both Long Hidden (Rose Fox & Daniel José Older) and Hidden Youth (Mikki Kendall & Chesya Burke) from Crossed Genres; the Apex Book of World SF series (edited first by Lavie Tidhar, now by Mahvesh Murad); Beyond Binary (Brit Mandelo); Octavia’s Brood (Nisi Shawl); Mothership (Bill Campbell & Edward Hall). There’s a lot out there, if you’re really looking for it. (If only it didn’t need to be collected like this, but were actually the majority of all SF published!)

Rivqa: In recent years, I think there are more publishers that have made a commitment to diversity in interesting ways, and seeking these out is an easy way to diversify one’s reading. Here in Australia, Twelfth Planet Press does consistently impressive work (disclosure: I’ve been published by them twice and will be working with them in the future, but I had nothing to do with their choice of focus). All the presses Djibril’s already mentioned are likewise impressive; Aqueduct in the US is another. Then there are the magazines: Glittership, Capricious, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed’s “Destroy” issues, and, of course, The Future Fire. There’s a lot out there, and a lot of free content as well.

Can you tell me about three things you’ve read and enjoyed in the past year, (anthologies/shorts/novels/series/other media)?

Rivqa: I absolutely loved Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor. Although my culture is very different from that of the titular protagonist’s, the tension between tradition and broader knowledge — and home and the wider  universe — is one I could relate to all too well. Plus, structurally, it’s one of the best novellas I’ve ever read. The pacing and writing are just perfect.

Djibril: I really enjoyed reading L.S. Johnson’s collection of previously published short stories, Vacui Magia. As I wrote in my review at the time, this is a masterfully dark collection that explores gender alongside all sorts of other marginalizations, and grief, power, exploitation, violence, revenge, the divine. This leaps to my mind over dozens of stories and novels I’ve read since, so it really did have staying power.

Nicci: I finally got around to reading Kij Johnson’s novel The Fox Woman, which has one of the most delicate, sad, joyful, historically sensitive portraits of a marriage I have ever read in speculative fiction. I’m also currently enthralled by Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories, a story with four very different female protagonists.

What books or other media are you excited about for the coming year?

Rivqa: Makes sense to say Binti: Home, right? There are a lot of books I’m looking forward to. Plus, I’m taking a break from Aurealis Award judging, so when I’m not reading slush, I can actually read more novels. I’m aiming to read more marginalised authors, including but not exclusively Own Voices writers, but I haven’t set specific targets because doing so stresses me out a little. I’ll see how it goes,anyway.

Nicci: Is it too much of a dodge to say I am really looking forward to being buried under a mountain of stories by authors we’ve not yet heard from? Because the thing carrying me through this (as Rivqa pointed out) year and a half marathon journey is the knowledge that soon I won’t have time for anything but the slush pile, and if our outreach is at all successful, I can’t tell you what that would look like.

Djibril: Because you included media, I’m going to say that I’m really impatient to see Hidden Figures (maybe not scifi, but it is about space travel!) which isn’t out here in the UK until late February. I may also take the opportunity this year to catch up on a couple of more diverse TV shows that I’ve not got into yet, like Dark Matter, 3% and The Expanse. I guess there’s the second season of Cleverman coming up soon, too.


Close up image of an eye with a vertical slit pupil, furred around the outside. Djibril al-Ayad,

Djibril is a historian and futurist, co-edited the anthologies Outlaw Bodies, We See a Different Frontier, Accessing the Future, TFF-X, Fae Visions of the Mediterranean and has edited The Future Fire magazine since 2005.

A smiling blue-haired woman in a colourful top looks downwards away from the camera, the background is an outdoor setting maybe a playgroundNicolette Barischoff

Nicolette was born with spastic cerebral palsy, which has only made her more awesome. Her fiction has appeared in Long Hidden, Accessing the Future, The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Podcastle, and Angels of the Meanwhile. She regularly writes about disability, feminism, sex- and body-positivity, and how all these fit together. She’s been on the front page of CBS New York, where they called her activism public pornography and suggested her face was a Public Order Crime.

A woman with glasses faces the camera, it is a close up and she is smiling. There are bookshelves filled with books in the background. Rivqa Rafael

Rivqa is a queer Jewish writer and editor based in Sydney. She started writing speculative fiction well before earning degrees in science and writing, although they have probably helped. Her previous gig as subeditor and reviews editor for Cosmos magazine likewise fueled her imagination. Her short stories have appeared in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), The Never Never Land (CSFG Publishing), and Defying Doomsday (Twelfth Planet Press). In 2016, she won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. She can be found at rivqa.net and on Twitter as @enoughsnark.

The Elephants Always Hunt In Packs

This may seem like a funny title for a blog post, since elephants don’t really hunt and they live in herds and not packs. But real elephants aside, today we’re talking about metaphorical elephants. The metaphor in in question expands on the common phrase ‘the elephant in the room’ which usually refers to something almost obvious, but is often overlooked either deliberately or through lack of awareness of the situation.

So, there’s a metaphorical room, with metaphorical elephants. With me so far? The elephants represent those issues and aspects of culture at play that can be obvious to some people and invisible to others. When I say that the elephants hunt in packs, I mean that there’s never just one issue at play, there’s a number of complex dynamics and they all intermingle and influence one another.

I find it’s a useful metaphor because it points to the way in which things become embedded in our everyday consciousness; in other words they become invisible. If one elephant becomes visible, you can be sure that several others are lurking. When you look at an issue, any kind of issue it won’t be hanging around on it’s lonesome, you can be sure that some friends will be hanging about.

What I find most useful about this whole thing is that often looking at the interrelated conditions means that the original issues make more sense. You can see how the effects impact on other surrounding things and take that into account if there are actions you want to take. Nothing that is said or done happens in isolation. 

Much of what I’m saying here borders on (if not is wholly contained within) the realm of the obvious… but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth saying and revisiting. 

The invisible elephants in the room always hunt in packs, and even if you can see a whole bunch of elephants, it’s always possible that others are hiding – that’s worth keeping in mind too.  `