Today on Ujima: Flash Fiction, Autism, Somalia

Today’s show didn’t have a lot of me in it, and may well have been better for it as I was very tired and could have done better. Fortunately the biggest contribution I had was like falling off a log.

I started out by talking about a petition to save The Fleece, a very fine live music venue in Bristol, which is threatened with closure because some offices across the street are being converted into flats. If you are wondering what has gone wrong with Bristol’s planning laws, local MP Kerry McCarthy explains. Even if you don’t live in Bristol, this campaign is well worth supporting because something similar could affect any music venue in the UK.

The first guest was Bristol’s Mr. Flash Fiction, Kevlin Henney. It was fortuitous timing as Kevlin had recently won the Crimefest flash fiction contest, with a story riffing off The Bridge, which he read for us. We talked about all of the things we talked about at the BristolCon Fringe flash event, and Kevlin announced a couple of events that will be happening in Bristol for National Flash Fiction day on June 21st. Further details are available on the Bristol Flash Facebook page. He also read a second story, which was just beautiful.

The music for Kevlin was “Scorpio” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (not my favorite of theirs but I had trouble finding a track that was under 7 minutes and not full of banned words); plus “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix, which is about as short as a rock song gets without invoking Wire.

The second half hour was taken up with Jackie talking to some guests about mental health services in Bristol. I didn’t catch all of it, but it sounded really good. I left Jackie with “Within” by Daft Punk, which seemed appropriate. (Ingrid, Valentine, it is on the album Random Access Memories — glad you liked it.)

You can listen to the first hour here.

Next up we had Judeline talking to Ian and Matt, two fabulous guys who campaign for services for adults on the autism spectrum in Bristol. I had been quite nervous when Judeline suggested this as a topic because I know several autistic people, mainly online, and I know how much crap they get from the NHS and cure peddlers. I’m delighted to say that I was absolutely blown away by our two guests. Ian and Matt are not only devoting their lives to helping autistic people, they also have a huge amount of respect for the people they work with. Matt’s job is in part to go out and talk to businesses around the city, telling them what good employees autistic people make, and how easy it is to adjust your practices to help them fit in. (The rest of his job is less happy, and involves going to places like prisons teaching them how to treat autistic people fairly and respectfully.)

I must admit to feeling a bit frustrated and jealous listening to Ian and Matt talk. At around 1%, the proportion of autistic spectrum people in the general population is about the same as the proportion of gender variant people. Here we had two NHS people talking confidently about how autism is just a natural form of human variation that does not need “curing”, and indeed can’t be cured. Ian also mentioned how improved knowledge is allowing medical practitioners to spot symptoms early on in childhood, resulting in much better lives for autistic spectrum people. In contrast, what treatment there is for gender-variant people still tends to treat us as dangerous freaks who are not really deserving of help. While were are getting much better and spotting symptoms in kids, the national media campaigns actively against providing them with treatment.

Still, I understand that Bristol is well ahead of most of the country in its services for autistic spectrum people. I’m very happy about that. I hope what Ian and Matt do spreads to other parts of the country.

For music I did a bit of research on autism forums looking for songs that autistic people said spoke to them, rather than the more common songs by neurotypical people about autistic folks. The songs I picked were “Pi” by Kate Bush, which is all about a man obsessed with numbers, and “I am a Rock” by Simon & Garfunkel. My apologies if those were inappropriate in some way.

We had originally planned to have Ian & Matt on for an hour. However, we bumped them from the final 15 minutes because tomorrow we have a really high profile guest due in and we wanted to preview that.

Tomorrow at the Silai Centre there will be screenings of Through the Fire, a film about three remarkable women from Somalia. Hawa Abdi and Edna Adan Ismail are both doctors who have done a huge amount to bring good quality medical services and training to the war-torn region. Hawa has been a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, while Edna has received France’s Legion d’honneur. The third woman featured in the film is Ilwad Elman who campaigns to rescue and rehabilitate child soldiers.

The film is currently on tour, and will be in Cardiff on Friday. Edna Ismail is touring with it, and I’m delighted that she’ll be on Ujima tomorrow lunchtime to talk about the film and her work. Today I interviewed Tove Samzelius from The Silai Centre, where the film is being shown. The afternoon screening is apparently sold out, but they are arranging to show it again in the evening.

It is worth noting that Edna Ismail is not only a doctor and peace campaigner, she’s also a high profile politician. She’s a former First Lady of Somalia, and a former Foreign Minister of Somaliland. If that’s confusing, don’t worry, I had no idea either. The region of Africa inhabited primarily by Somali people stretches all around the coast of the Horn of Africa. The southern part, bordering on the Indian Ocean, still calls itself Somalia. It is also the primary venue of the civil war, and where most of the pirates are based. The northern part declared independence 21 years ago, though it has yet to receive international recognition. (Wales is one of the few places to have acknowledged it — there are a lot of Somalis in Cardiff.) That country calls itself Somaliland.

At this point you are probably wondering if there’s a colonial aspect to this, and yes, of course there is. The region that calls itself Somaliland was formerly the British Somaliland Protectorate, while the rest of the region was under Italian control. Almost every mess in Africa can be traced back to colonial powers stirring up trouble.

I know next to nothing about Somali politics (though thanks to Sofia Samatar for patiently talking to me this morning to make sure I didn’t make a total arse of myself), and I’m not going to dabble. The point of the film is not to take sides, but to provide help, support and much-needed medical care to the people caught up in the wars. My sole contribution to the politics was to invoke Mr. Eddy Grant who has some simple words of advice for his brothers in Africa.

Unless you live somewhere with a big Somali population, the film probably won’t get shown anywhere near you. However, you can watch the trailer. Content warning for grief-stricken people.

While I’m not going to say any more about the situation inside Somalia & Somaliland, I did promise Sofia that I’d raise awareness of the plight of Somali refugees in Kenya. Here’s Amnesty International to explain.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

A Few Thoughts On Dialect

The subject of the use of dialect in fiction has been getting a fair amount of airing around the blogosphere of late. I’m very happy with it, as you might guess from my support for Nalo Hopkinson. I also note that one of my favorite SF novels is Iain Banks’ Feersum Endjinn (which is apparently just phonetic spelling, not dialect). Other people, however, seem less happy.

It is worth noting here that in British fiction dialect has often been used to denote class, and as a shorthand for regional stereotypes. If you encounter someone in British fiction who speaks in dialect that’s a good indicator that the character is intended to be seen as working class. The precise dialect used may also indicate aspects of character. Most notoriously there is Mummerset, the faux West Country accent used to indicate an ignorant bumpkin.

In such cases the actual dialect is rarely rendered authentically. Instead the author will slip in the occasional “eee by gum” or “them thar hills” as an indicator of the sort of person we have encountered. To write in full and authentic dialect would suggest that the author had actually spent time with working class people doing the research. Worse still, it would suggest that the reader could understand the dialect, which would be tantamount to accusing the reader of being working class. This would not do.

Thankfully people are far less stuffy these days, especially since the BBC has taken to valuing regional accents when it comes to picking newsreaders. However, British writers do still have trouble. At the Murder Most Magical event on Friday night both Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell (whose books are set in multi-ethnic communities in London) both complained that their editors kept “correcting” dialect in their books, thereby making the characters all sound dreadfully middle class, old chap.

It is a long battle, but I think it is one we are going to win.

SLF Diversity Grants

I’m delighted to see that the Speculative Literature Foundation is introducing two new grants aimed at further promoting diversity in writing. Here are a few salient bits from the press release:

The Diverse Writers Grant is intended to support new and emerging writers from underrepresented and underprivileged groups, including writers of color, women, queer writers, disabled writers, working-class writers, and those whose marginalized identities may present additional obstacles in the writing and/or publishing process.

The Diverse Worlds Grant is intended for work that best presents a diverse world, regardless of the writer’s background.

Writers may apply for either or both grants; however, one’s writing sample does not need to center on identity issues. The Speculative Literature Foundation is looking for writing that offers deep characterization, complex cultural landscapes, and strong literary quality overall – not token characters or roles.

Currently, we are offering one $500 Diverse Writers Grant and one $500 Diverse Worlds grant annually.

Full details, including how to apply, are available from the SLF website.

Writing As a Career Conference in Oxford

While I was in Oxford I had lunch with Juliet McKenna to discuss new book projects at Wizard’s Tower. She gave me a flier for a conference being organized by St. Hilda’s College in May. It is titled Writing As a Career? and may be of interest to many of you. Sadly it clashes with Jo Hall’s book launch in Bristol so I won’t be there, but full details and booking information can be found here.

That Was The Fringe That Was

Well, I survived. 🙂

Public speaking doesn’t bother me, of course. Heck, I host the Fringe events, and that’s way easier than doing live radio. Reading my own fiction, on that other hand, that’s scary, especially when I’m actually quite pleased with what I have written. However, no one laughed (in the wrong place), no one walked out, and no one told me afterwards that what I had read as utter shit, which is definite progress.

More to the point, we had seven other fine stories. I’d like to extend a particular welcome to Pauline “Mazzy” Masurel, who had us all in stitches with her stories of an itinerant comet and a pregnant Brian Cox; and to Louise Gethin who appears to agree with me that garden gnomes are not to be trusted.

The Q&A turned into a discussion of the pros and cons of writing flash, but not before I had managed to lower the tone of the evening with some probing questions. Further to which, those of you who don’t know Talis Kimberley’s song, “Clever Men”, can download it (and read the lyrics) here, or listen to it below.

Audio of the evening will follow when I have had time to edit it.

March Fringe Podcasts

I got the March BristolCon Fringe readings edited over the weekend, and they are now available for listening below.

First up we have Rosie Oliver who treated us to a short story, a fragment from a novel, and a preview of a new story about C.A.T, her robot cat hero. As she had to catch an early train home, we did her Q&A immediately after her reading.

Next at the microphone was Scott Lewis, freshly escaped from his ordeals rescuing farmers from the floods in Somerset. Scott read the first chapter of the aforementioned novel, which I think is called Aetherjack. It involves a gunfight in a brothel and a rickshaw chase. Please note that in the Q&A at the end of the evening Scott makes it clear that Dash is by no means the hero of the novel.

Our third reader was Roz Clarke, who is probably better known here as one of the editors of Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion. Roz also read a chapter from a novel in progress. As we reveal later in the Q&A, it is set in an alternate world version of Bristol. Roz is a Clarion West graduate, and I think you’ll agree that it shows in this reading. In fact if you are an editor or agent looking for a hot new novel to sell I suggest that you give this a listen, and then drop me a line to ask for Roz’s contact details. If the rest of the book is as good as this, I’d love to publish it, but I know that Roz deserves better than what Wizard’s Tower can do for her.

While Rosie had to rush off and catch a train, Scott and Roz stuck around to answer questions. The Q&A turned into a bit of a meditation on novel-writing technique. We talked about the problems of second chapters, and about the pros and cons of outlining. Kevlin Henney shocked everyone by mentioning the F-word: “finish”. As everyone in the business knows, novels are never finished, they are only abandoned.

Kevlin also gives us a preview of the April Fringe event, which he is curating as it is a flash fiction event. It will take place next Monday (April 14th) — somewhat earlier than usual due to the Easter vacation. As the stories are all quite short, there will be eight readers in total. One of them will be local favorite, Gareth L. Powell, who still holds the record for the most downloads of a Fringe podcast. Also reading will be Kevlin himself, and Jonathan Pinnock, both of whom are Fringe veterans. In addition there will be a story that will feature in The Girl at the End of the World, Vol. 2, forthcoming from Fox Spirit later this year, which will be read by me because I wrote it.

Win A Copy of Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion

Today I’ll be in Bristol talking to the amazing CN Lester live on Ujima Radio’s Women’s Outlook show. To keep you amused while I’m offline, here’s news of a contest being run by Pete Sutton, one of the writers with a story in Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion. Pete is running a contest, the prize for which will be a hardcover edition of the book. Details here. Good luck!

Mslexia Short Story Competition

Mslexia, the women’s writing magazine, is now open for submissions for their 2014 short story competition. I mention this because this judge for this year is Clarke Award winner, Jane Rogers. The first prize is £2,000 and there’s a £10 entry fee. Maximum word count 2,200. Deadline 17th of March. Further details here. You do have to be a woman to enter (they don’t say what they mean by that), but the contest is open to all nationalities and countries.

Me Elsewhere: Talking About Frawgs

My good friend Pete Sutton asked me for a guest post for his blog this month. I decided to say a few things about why I love all sorts of books (despite the fact that I publish and sell mainly ebooks). I talk mainly about things done by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, because the combination of Wonderbook and Cheeky Frawg illustrates perfectly why we need both paper and digital. You can read the post in full, and Pete’s thoughts on Wonderbook & Jagannath, here.

Ladies: Destroy Science Fiction Now!

Yes girls, it is time to load up on the cooties and sally forth to terrorize those legions of 50-year-old adolescent boys who cannot bear to see their beloved genre polluted by things feminine. Lightspeed magazine is preparing a girls-only special edition with the title of Women Destroy Science Fiction! Submissions are now open. To learn more about this one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spread terror and tampons through the gleaning chrome halls of boys own fiction, go here and read a special message from guest editor, Christie Yant. Your gender needs you!

Routes to Diversity – Ask Questions

As I said yesterday, diversity in fiction can take many different forms, and happen in many different ways. I want to see more people from a wide variety of backgrounds producing books, but equally I want the people who are currently producing books to include a wide variety of characters, and do so in an informed and respectful way. How are they to do this? Well, a group of YA writers has set up a site called DiversifYA. It is aimed at all YA writers, not just the SF&F community, and it seeks to provide information on a variety of different life experiences. They use the “five questions” format to get structured feedback from people with a range of backgrounds, and that will hopefully help authors better understand the types of characters they want to put into their books. Today they ran an interview with me about growing up trans. You can read it here.

Battles in Fantasy

Stained glass window from Worcester CathedralI’ve just been catching up with the new Michael Wood history series, which focuses on Alfred the Great and his successors. This week’s episode features one of the most successful war leaders of Saxon England: Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia. There have been queens in England since, of course, but none of them have actually been military leaders the way that Aethelflaed was. I suppose if anyone wrote a fantasy novel based on her life a whole bunch of people would complain about how “unrealistic” it was.

The stained glass window is from Worcester Cathedral.

Alfred, of course, is a local hero in these here parts. Somerset was his base during the guerrilla war he fought against the Danes. The defeated Viking leader, Guthrum, was baptised in the small Somerset village of Aller, which is where Kim Newman grew up.

All of which reminds me that I meant to link to this post by Manda Scott on the excellent History Girls blog. In it she talks about how to write battle scenes (in her case in historical novels, but the same applies to fantasy). It is good stuff. If you are writing about battles, it helps to be able to say, “When I fought as part of an Anglo-Saxon battle group…” That’s what I call doing research.

Finncon Day 2 – E-books, Academics & Thor

My other panel at this year’s Finncon was on the subject of ebooks. I got to moderate it (thanks Jukka!), which means that it went pretty much as I hoped. There were no lengthy digressions into technical neepery, and no political rants. We covered a whole lot of interesting issues, and I gave away a bunch of business cards at the end. Hopefully this means a few more sales.

I confess to grabbing lunch rather than going to Peter Watts’ GoH talk, which may have been a mistake as I think he talked about cephalopods. Tentacles are good.

Immediately after lunch there were two fairly serious panels. The first saw a bunch of writers and critics, including Aliette and Stefan, talking about the use of metaphor in SF. Tom Crosshill moderated and kept it all moving smoothly.

This was followed by Merja Polvinen talking about using the techniques of cognitive narratology to analyze The City and The City. Most of you, I suspect, will glaze over at the term “cognitive narratology”, but basically all it means is the study of how the mind processes story. In the case of China’s book, this means looking at the linguistic tricks that he uses to convince the reader of the reality of his twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. This is the sort of thing that all serious writers should take an interest in. You can learn so much.

By this point I was seriously in need of a nap, so I headed back to the hotel. The skies looked a little dark, and shortly after I got to my room Thor put in an appearance. It was very loud, very wet, and thankfully very brief. By the time I had to head back to the con it was dry again.

The last panel of my day was a presentation by some visiting Russian fans, which was very interesting and worth it’s own post. After that I had to judge the masquerade, and again that is worth a post of its own.

Airship Shape Reminder

The submissions deadline for Wizard’s Tower’s latest anthology project, Airship Shape and Bristol Fashion, is this weekend. If you are working on something, do let us know. We have had a number of stories in already, but I know how writers love leaving things to the last minute. And then sometimes life intervenes. The deadline is there to focus your minds, not to give us an excuse to omit good stories. And if you need a reminder of what it is all about, the Call for Submissions is here.

Bath Short Story Award

Yesterday I popped over to Bristol to attend the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow, but today I want to mention something I came across while I was there. I got handed a postcard advertising the Bath Short Story Award.

This appears to be a fairly standard such project. There’s a £500 first prize, and the prizes are financed by a £5 entry fee. The award is backed by the Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, which is essentially a writing training and talent scout organization: you pay then to critique your novel, and if they like what they see they submit your work to agents. I’m always slightly suspicious of such things, but the important bit of the rules looks OK:

By entering, competitors accept that prizewinning stories, with the authors’ names, may be published on the BSSA website or in local media and/or be read out on local radio stations for up to a year from the closing date without extra remuneration. Competitors also accept that Cornerstones Literary Consultancy will be in receipt of entrants’ names and addresses and may contact them. Copyright remains with the author.

The word limit for stories is 2,200, and the deadline for submission is March 30th, so you need to get a move on. The lady who gave me the postcard said they are happy to receive SF&F submissions.

The Finkbeiner Test and Default Status Characters

One of the more interesting things I found online this week was the Finkbeiner Test. Inspired by the Bechdel Test, this is aimed at journalists who cover women scientists. It’s very nice for women to have articles written about their scientific achievements, but all too often such articles spend a few sentences on what they have actually done, and whole paragraphs on how amazing it is that a woman could have done this. So Christie Aschwanden proposes the Finkbeiner Test for stories about women scientists. To pass the test, the story cannot mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

This got me thinking about the way in which minority characters are used in fiction. It is all very well having characters who are representatives of minority groups, but all too often they only get in because their minority status is the focus of their story, if not of the whole story. We’ve all heard tales of how an agent, editor or reviewer has said something along the lines of, “Why does that character have to be female/black/gay/etc., it doesn’t add to the story in any way.” That’s because so often the assumed default of all characters in all stories is straight, cis, able, white male. If a character doesn’t fit that template then it must be remarked upon, in the same way that Chekov’s legendary gun on the mantlepiece has to be fired.

Obviously an equivalent of the Finkbeiner Test for fictional characters would be different for each minority group you can think of. Nor would such a thing be a hard and fast rule. Sometimes the story is about that character’s problems. But I think it is a useful start in trying to catch ways in which a minority character that you have created might be getting used in a tokenistic way.

Introducing Long Hidden

Here’s a Kickstarter project you may well want to back. Crossed Genres is floating Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History, to be edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older. The blurb for the book includes the following:

Most written chronicles of history, and most speculative stories, put rulers, conquerors, and invaders front and center. People with less power, money, or status—enslaved people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, laborers, women, people with disabilities, the very young and very old, and religious minorities, among others—are relegated to the margins.

The stories, then, will feature the marginalized people. They are also intended to be good history, but with a speculative tinge. There is already a superb line-up of authors promising stories, and in addition there will be an open submissions period. Those signed up include Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Nnedi Okorafor and Nisi Shawl. And there are some really good high level rewards and stretch goals too. The Crossed Genres folks really know how to run a Kickstarter campaign (and they are almost a third of their way to the primary goal after just one day).

Also I love the idea of the book. The bad news for the rest of the universe is that I love it so much I’ve come up with a story idea. Of course it will be crap. And I know that Roz Kaveney and Jack Wolf are looking at writing something for it as well, so even if my effort is readable it will be well out-shone. But the thing about stories is that once they are in your head you have to write them. The characters won’t shut up until you do.

Pembroke Lecture on Fantasy Literature in Honour of JRR Tolkien

Pembroke valkyrieAs promised over the Holidays, here are the full details of the lecture that Kij Johnson will be giving in Oxford later this month, and the writing course she is doing the following day. I hope to see some of you there.


(Oxford, January 3, 2012) Pembroke College have invited award-winning author Kij Johnson to deliver the inaugural Pembroke Lecture on Fantasy Literature in Honour of JRR Tolkien. The first annual lecture in the series designed to explore the history and current state of fantasy literature will take place on January 18th at 6 pm, it was jointly announced today by Meghan Campbell, President of the Pembroke College Middle Common Room (MCR), Catherine Beckett, Deputy Development Director, Pembroke College, and Kendall Murphy, Representative of the Pembroke College Annual Fund. Professor Johnson will also offer a fiction masterclass at Pembroke on January 19th from 10 am until noon.

The series is intended to memorialize Tolkien, who was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke for twenty years; he wrote The Hobbit and much of The Lord of the Rings during his time at the college. The lectures are sponsored through a grant from the Pembroke Annual Fund.

‘Fantasy literature informs contemporary society’, said Campbell. ‘Any glance at current cinema offerings — or at a list of the most popular films of all time — demonstrates that fantasy is still the mode in which we tell one another stories. This and our members’ desire to celebrate Professor Tolkien’s connection to Pembroke made the lecture series an obvious choice’.

‘The Development Office is pleased to partner with Pembroke’s MCR and broader student communities in honouring the contribution made by Professor Tolkien to the life of the college and to world literature’, said Beckett. ‘Having Professor Johnson offer the inaugural lecture is a dream come true. Her humane and searing fiction, and her expansive vision of the role and possibilities of genre, will place the series on a proper foundation’.

‘The Pembroke Annual Fund connects our alumni to current students and allows them to work together to make an immediate impact on college life’, said Murphy. ‘The Pembroke Lecture on Fantasy Literature in Honour of JRR Tolkien is precisely the sort of project the Annual Fund was designed to support, thanks to its resonance within and beyond the Pembroke community’.

Kij Johnson’s ‘fiction in the fantasy mode’ has won the Hugo, the Nebula (three times running), the World Fantasy Award, and the Sturgeon Award. She has written two novels set in Heian-era Japan, The Fox Woman and Fudoki, available from Tor Books, and a story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees, available from Small Beer Press. Among other subjects, her writing explores the human-animal interface, ancient and medieval Japanese culture, and narrative form.

She has taught at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and is Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, where she is also Associate Professor of Creative Writing.

Both the lecture and the fiction masterclass are free and open to the public, but online registration is required to reserve a place on the fiction course. Please go to for more information.

New Aussie Podcast

Thanks to Kirstyn and Mondy of The Writer & The Critic I have been altered to a new podcast by prolific Australian blogger, Sean Wright. The podcast is named after his blog, Adventures of a Bookonaut, and Episode 1 is very interesting.

It contains three interviews. The first is with Luke Preston. He’s a thriller writer, but well worth listening to as he has come to novel writing from a screen writing background. Consequently he has some interesting views on how to write (which I suspect are better-suited to his chosen genre than to other types of fiction).

Next up is Joelyn Alexandra from Singapore who introduces us to her own writing, and to several other writers from her part of the world.

Finally there is an interview with Helen Merrick, author of The Secret Feminist Cabal. This is a must-listen for anyone with an interest in feminism and science fiction.

Thanks Sean, I’m looking forward to more episodes.