Problem Daughters Interview with Rivqa Rafael

Problem Daughters, the new anthology from The Future Fire, 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 Publishing and is currently being crowdfunded. I spoke to Rivqa about the project.

Cheryl: Hopefully we all agree on the need for better representation of marginalised women in SF&F, but what does this project mean for you personally?

Rivqa: If I had to summarise it in a word, I’d say “listening”. Although I exist in some intersections, I don’t consider myself marginalised overall, but nonetheless I have had frustrating experiences where things I’ve said about my existence have been ignored (from “no, I’m not interested in hearing about Jesus” to “no, just because you’ve decided I’m being oppressed by men, doesn’t make it true”). It’s exhausting enough as an occasional experience, let alone as the constant one I see women of colour living through just on Twitter (for example).

So I think making more spaces for those voice to be heard, and listened to, is the crux of what we’re aiming to do, and I hope we can succeed in that.

Cheryl: One of the problems of introducing specific types of person into a story is avoiding objectifying them by focusing on what makes them different. Do you have any advice for writers as to how to avoid this?

Rivqa: Exoticisation is definitely something that can happen accidentally, as well as maliciously. It’s always valuable to remember that we’re adding to a body of work, that the tropes we’re using (even if we’re subverting them) don’t occur in isolation. Research and sensitivity readers can be really helpful. In my own reading, I’ve found that writers who are marginalised tend to write “the other” more sensitively than those who are not, but it’s not a given.

I’m reminded of Nalo Hopkinson’s words in her WisCon 2016 Guest of Honour speech: “It’s no crime if your first thought is a deeply problematic one. It’s possible to gaze calmly upon that thought, recognize it for what it is, let it waft on by, and follow it up with a different thought, or a positive action.” Maybe in a first draft, we reach for the easiest, most convenient backstory for a character or solution to a problem. That’s just the starting point. Editing is hard, but in most cases it’s what makes a story great, and it’s crucial in this respect.

Cheryl: Even though we are seeing an increasing number of people of colour writing SF&F, the settings of stories still tend to feel very Western in many cases because so many of the standard tropes were developed by Western writers. Do you hope to combat this?

Rivqa: Definitely. I think that the anthology as a medium is ideal for this. There’s a lot more latitude in a short story to play with structure and still be satisfying to a reader who’s new to non-Western narratives. I hope that for some, it’ll serve as a gateway into works that might be more challenging to their sensibilities! We’re putting our call for submissions out as far and wide as we possibly can, and I hope we’ve made it clear that we don’t expect a particular “type” of story. We don’t have rules about how many acts a story needs, whether there should be conflict, or… well, anything structural, really. We are also accepting poetry, which can, of course, tell a story in completely different ways again.

Cheryl: One of the excuses used for not including marginalised people in stories is that their very marginalisation makes it hard for them to have adventures. To me that sounds like there is a need to imagine how society can be different. Will you be encouraging that sort of work?

Rivqa: Yes, absolutely. There’s a common perception that utopias are boring, but a setting can be wildly different to our reality (or realities, really) while still presenting challenges to characters. That said, I’m not sure how valid that excuse is, and I for one am also interested in stories that challenge that very limited definition of adventure. Conflict (if it’s even needed in a story; see above) can be on any stage or scale. The only limitations here are those self-imposed by writers, and I hope we’ve made a welcoming space where they feel comfortable shedding some of those.

Cheryl: It is great that The Future Fire is doing this book, but I see a lot of people on social media, particularly younger people, complaining about how poor diversity in SF&F is. I suspect this is because they only see books that get into chain stores. How can we effectively promote the fine work being done by small presses and/or get more diversity into mainstream publishers’ output?

Rivqa: I’m not a marketing expert, and publishing as a whole isn’t in the best place. Mainstream publishers don’t seem to want to take risks, and they often view marginalised writers as a risk. I don’t think there’s going to be any revolution in this respect, but I’m hopeful that positive changes will happen over time. In the past couple of years I’ve watched the diverse book blogging community grow, and Patreon is gaining traction. I think a lot of people still see diverse books as a fad, but I hope we’ll reach a tipping point where they’re just normal, because they should be.

In terms of small press, I think building community is the most important thing. A few years ago I had no idea that book-focused spec fic conventions existed, and I had nothing to do with book Twitter (or any other social media) even though I was getting back into writing. Small presses are never going to have a huge advertising budget, so word of mouth is the key to getting people in — or at least, it was for me. Sharing our love for books that reflect our reality (even through the lens of spaceships and magic), requesting books from libraries… all of that kind of thing helps build us all up. It’s always lovely to see small press publishers and authors recommending others’ works; I can only hope that this synergy will gain momentum.

Rivqa Rafael 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. When she’s not working, she’s most likely child-wrangling, playing video games, or practising her Brazilian Jiujitsu moves. She can be found at and on Twitter as @enoughsnark.