Sunil Patel is a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. His plays have been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival, and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fireside, Flash Fiction Online, The Book Smugglers, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Asimov’s, and Lightspeed, among others. Plus, he reviews books for Lightspeed and he is Assistant Editor of Mothership Zeta. His favorite things to consume include nachos, milkshakes, and narrative. Find out more at ghostwritingcow.com, where you can watch his plays, or follow him @ghostwritingcow. His Twitter has been described as “engaging,” “exclamatory,” and “crispy, crunchy, peanut buttery.”
Mishell Baker is the author of the Arcadia Project urban fantasy series from Simon & Schuster’s new SF imprint Saga Press, beginning with Borderline, released last month. Her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Redstone Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters, and in her spare time she obsessively studies languages and/or plays video games. She is very chatty as @mishellbaker on Twitter and also present but slightly less chatty on Facebook.
This conversation was conducted via Google Doc on April 6, 2016.
Sunil Patel: Mishell, your debut novel Borderline has gotten incredible reviews and has already gone into a second printing. So my first question for you is: how long is too long for a hug?
Mishell Baker: Do you mean too long for me? No such thing. Too long for the comfort of bystanders and witnesses? I’d estimate about six or seven seconds; that’s usually when people start to squirm and find other things to look at. But let’s find out.
I feel I should clarify that my book did not actually go into a second printing in a month. It had a simultaneous release of trade paperbacks and a few hardcovers; it’s the hardcovers that went into a second printing. Which is great, because they’re gorgeous and everyone should have one! What format do you usually read in, out of curiosity?
SP: I read in a mix of formats, but I think the format of my heart is mass market paperback because they’re so cheap and portable. I also like trade paperbacks, though, and I’ve been reading more and more in ebook as my bookshelves fill up. I used to be a Paper Book Purist until I actually got a Kindle and realized how wonderful it was to have dozens, hundreds of books at my fingertips, whether or not they had that primal tactility. I tend not to buy hardcovers because they’re more expensive, bigger, and bulkier, but they are easier to read when eating. Not as easy to read as ebooks, though.
I’m glad you asked about formats because I was recently thinking about how formats affect our perception of books. You specifically called the hardcover “gorgeous,” and I think hardcovers do have the most aesthetic appeal. Do you ever notice an inherent bias in your reading, such that a hardcover book, because it is clearly prettier than a paperback, must be better?
MB: I definitely have a weird hardcover bias. There was brief time when I thought my book was only going to be released in trade paperback, and that caused me to go into irrational mourning.
For me—probably because of my age—a hardcover reads as a “For-Serious Book,” which is silly because, for example, Ancillary Justice was released only in paperback, and that book knocked me sideways. But I read it in ebook form, which is my usual choice for an author I haven’t tried yet. Then, when I started twirling around in circles raving about the book to everyone who would stand still, I went on Google to see if I could get a hardcover copy as well...and there were none! I was disappointed, but not nearly as crushed as when they released a limited edition hardcover and I only heard about it after they’d sold out. I think I literally wept.
I agree with you 100% about the beauty of having an entire library smuggled in my purse. I use Kobo rather than Kindle, though, because with Kobo I can set my purchases as generating from my indie bookstore of choice (currently Mysterious Galaxy). If I love a book I always seek out a hardcover and aim to get it signed. If there is no hardcover available, I will settle for a trade paperback, but only if it’s a book I absolutely MUST display on my shelf to generate conversation, and I don’t bother to get those signed because paperbacks strike me as less “permanent.”
This stuff is all very subjective, though, and I think my book has probably sold more electronic copies than anything else, just judging from a non-scientific sample of readers I’ve talked to.
So catch me up a little bit on your own work; I’ve read some but not all of your short fiction, and I’m not sure what your latest releases are. Your turn to brag!
SP: So did you hear I have a story in Asimov’s? I have a story in the March Asimov’s. I sold a 985-word kale joke to Asimov’s, and it is called “A Partial List of Lists I Have Lost Over Time.” (You do know this because you were the one person who was actually critical of it when I wanted a beta reader who wouldn’t just tell me everything was perfect, so thanks! You pointed out things I knew weren’t up to snuff and it was good to have that confirmed so I could fix them.)
MB: I did know that it ended up in Asimov’s, and I was jealous! But pleasantly so.
But yeah, I’m notorious for ripping things apart in beta reads. I’m an extremely tough crowd. Which I think makes me valuable as a beta reader, but it does tend to mean that people don’t send their stuff to me twice.
SP: It’s true, I have not...sent you anything since. Heh.
That story has gotten a lot of great responses, a lot of people impressed with my ability to make “list story made up of lists” work. But I think none of my stories have affected people as much as “Girl in Blue Dress (1881),” my 762-word examination of the depiction of women in art and female erasure. It’s already popped up on the Nebula Suggested Reading List, which is incredibly flattering. Then again, I also have “The Man Who Saved Manhattan,” a wacky superhero story that mentions space crabs.
But April is a potentially big release month for me. I’ve published a lot of flash, but in April, my first novelette comes out, “Social Visiting” in Clockwork Phoenix 5. This was the first story I wrote when I started writing again with an aim toward being published, back in 2013. Also in April, finally, I hope, Genius Loci: Tales of the Spirit of Place will come out, and it includes “The Gramadevi’s Lament,” my very first sale, back in 2014. It’s a weird coincidence that these stories are going out into the world at the same time because they are my most Indian stories, where I deliberately drew from my own culture. I’m kind of glad they’re being published after I’ve already established myself in the short fiction scene; if they had come out first, I would have been afraid of being pigeonholed as The Indian Writer Who Writes About Indian Stuff.
MB: “Girl in Blue Dress” is a really interesting story, and Not About Indian Stuff. But it does participate in the ongoing conversation about representation, because it’s about giving voice and agency to someone who has none. It says a lot about the traditional passivity of women in all forms of art. I say “traditional,” but I suppose it depends on the tradition. Anything written before this century certainly has some issues as far as giving women and people of color equal agency, but you come across surprises.
For example I was blown away to discover the way Tolstoy writes about women. You can tell that in 19th century Russia, upper-class women were largely seen as furniture to be moved around advantageously, but Tolstoy doesn’t write them that way. He’s realistic about their circumstances and how confining they were, but so many of the women in his work are alive in a way that even women in modern films and novels don’t seem to be—you can tell they’re not set dressing to Tolstoy himself. They have goals, opinions, complicated thoughts, conflicting emotions, and sharp observations. We tend to think that “women are people” is an idea we discovered in the last few decades, but I’m starting to think we may have lost it somewhere along the way and are only now getting it back. There are certainly enough examples in 19th century European literature of complex, flawed, and self-directed women.
People of color in those books, though? Not so much. And that’s something I feel less qualified to talk about. I suspect, though, that any literature that didn’t appeal to the paradigm of white supremacy got swept under the rug. It’s far too easy to make a book disappear. But somehow, books with strong women in them survived some very misogynistic cultures and time periods, and I’m not sure why. I started to say, “because they were largely written by men,” but Austen and the Brontë sisters have managed to survive and be studied in schools. Meanwhile it’s fiendishly difficult, apparently, for schools to make the effort to bring in more writers of color, and maybe you have more ideas about why that is and how to fix it than I do. Then again, maybe I’m just being that person asking you to Talk About Indian Stuff when you’d maybe rather talk about sexism.
SP: But here’s the funny thing: I am much more qualified to talk about Indian Stuff than I am to talk about sexism! While I love that so many people—especially women—have responded positively to “Girl in Blue Dress (1881),” part of me is uncomfortable being a man making this powerful, emotional statement about something I’ve merely observed, not experienced. Why should I be getting attention for this, surely a woman has said the exact same thing and been ignored or forgotten because sexism! And, sure enough, Christina Rossetti basically covered all the themes of my story in “In an Artist’s Studio” in 1856. I just have a fantasy element and a more empowering ending.
MB: I can’t speak for everyone, but it doesn’t bother me, because while you are using a woman’s POV, you’re still describing things that are observable even from outside the phenomenon, if that makes sense. It’s the difference between a white person writing about a Black Lives Matter protester, describing what’s happening in a way anyone could observe, and a white person writing about the why of the protest with an authoritative tone. If that makes sense. I didn’t feel in “Blue Dress” that you were trying to take possession of what it feels like to be a woman so much as you were describing an awful thing that had happened to a woman and the way it resolved itself. You didn’t claim it as “yours” necessarily.
But I haven’t yet read any of your “Indian Stuff” stories, so it remains to be seen if they have more of a sense of ownership to the struggles involved.
SP: Hell, I’m not even that qualified to talk about Indian Stuff. I wrote “The Gramadevi’s Lament” about a village spirit I didn’t even know existed until I Googled for ideas and started doing research online and in person by asking my grandmother for details. As an Indian-American, I still feel like I’m appropriating my own culture. But I’m very fond of “Social Visiting” because it is based on my own childhood experiences and stories I’m more familiar with. Even then, I fear I’ve gotten things wrong.
MB: Oh, well, we all do, but here’s the difference, as I see it, between Indian-Americans writing about Indian culture they don’t fully understand, versus white Americans writing about Indian culture they don’t fully understand. The Indian-American writer, knowledgeable or not, shares experiences with culture-savvy Indian-Americans. People tend to visually identify any Indian-American as “belonging” to that culture. A white American can be as fascinated as she wants to be with Indian culture, but she’s never going to get treated on sight as though she knows about it or participates in it. So if she writes about her fascination, she is in a sense expecting to get benefit from that knowledge without experiencing the downside of people’s prejudices and assumptions.
This is why I feel I should let people who, at the very least, descend from the cultures in question handle the stories and the discussions of these cultures, because it strikes me as more just. If you have to live your entire life being associated with a culture simply because of the way you look, you may as well get the benefit of being listened to about that culture more than someone who looks like I do. I know some might disagree, even vehemently, but that’s why I stress that we’re talking about my feeling here.
SP: I love what you said about shared experiences between Indian-Americans, and I want to address that portion specifically first, because it gives me another opportunity to plug Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen, a young adult novel steeped in Indian culture and mythology. Do you know how excited I was to see a character ride a water buffalo? I didn’t even know I wanted that. There’s a chapter title that makes reference to the story of Prahlad, and recognizing it filled me with such joy. These things resonated with me, and I did feel a stronger connection because I knew that the author and I shared this cultural experience. While I still get excited about seeing accurate details of my culture in a book by a non-Indian author, it doesn’t give me that same visceral thrill. I agree that it’s more just for those from a culture to be given preference when it comes to telling stories from that culture.
But something rankles about bringing in visual identification and prejudice because it puts me in a headspace where that’s all Indian Stuff entails. I am so sick of the idea that stories about marginalized people, the ones that really gain traction, are expected to be about, to quote Cecily Kane, the Drama Around Being Marginalized.
MB: That was largely just my not getting across well what I was trying to say: not that visual identification/prejudice is the shared experience of Indian-Americans, but that it is a shared experience that I see as one of the main reasons we should leave stories of Indian culture to those of Indian descent. Because an Indian-American doesn’t get to be a “part-time Indian” the way someone who’s simply appropriating the culture gets to be. Does that make any more sense?
SP: I would agree that is a shared experience, though I wouldn’t say all Indian-Americans have experienced the same amount of prejudice. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve been very oppressed, so I don’t have a lot to say about that experience. Which is not to say that I haven’t been made to feel Other occasionally. I just sold a story to Lightspeed inspired by microaggressions I’ve experienced getting my hair cut, and it is the kind of story I never thought I’d write, since it is about the Drama Around Being Marginalized. But I am qualified as hell to write it.
It’s not what I want to write, though. Because the truth is that most of the time I exist in my life, I don’t “feel” particularly Indian. Yes, obviously, I have an Indian name and brown skin, so we’re all aware I’m Indian, but it doesn’t affect me 24/7. And I think that is true of many POC, but what we understand that a white writer would not is those small details, the things as natural to us as the sunrise, and I don’t just mean prejudice. I mean the way family dynamics work. The way you react to certain foods. The way you shuffle cards—did you know for years I thought that the way I shuffled cards was the default way to shuffle cards when, in fact, it is actually called the Hindu Shuffle? That is the default way to shuffle cards...for us, but not in Western countries.
It is entirely possible that none of these aspects of my culture are relevant when writing about someone having a wild spaceship adventure or defeating an evil necromancer, and I might not bring any of it up. Maybe Space Harinder doesn’t “feel” any more Indian than Space Harold would. I know some people aren’t okay with that, but I am. It’s better than making Space Harinder a harmful stereotype in the name of “representation,” which I think is the more compelling argument for allowing marginalized voices to tell their own stories: others have been screwing them up for far too long.
MB: I am endlessly terrified of screwing up. In fact this conversation itself is making me anxious, and the pathology of that anxiety is fascinating. I’m a white woman, but I also have borderline personality disorder, and it’s hard to tell sometimes where white fragility ends and genuine BPD-related dysfunction begins.
I know fear of screwing up is a common complaint by white writers; we wring our hands and moan about how when it comes to writing people of color we’re Damned If We Do, Damned If We Don’t! This shift of focus toward the “pain of being judged” (as opposed to the pain of being erased from or misrepresented in art) is a direct result of the crap that the media has brainwashed us with. All our lives white people get fed, “I and people like me are the main characters in this story” (therefore white pain is what we should focus on) and “People are supposed to like me!” (so if they don’t, something needs to be fixed). People of color know damn well that they’re not guaranteed center stage, and that some people are going to dislike them just because they exist. Meanwhile white people grow up with the idea that we should be seen as the good guy, all the time, and that’s why criticism can shake us and seem Deeply Wrong and Unfair.
Add in my BPD, and it can get catastrophic. Since borderlines don’t have a stable sense of self, we often experience what I think of as involuntary paradigm shifts. When someone says or even implies that I’m a horrible person, it doesn’t necessarily matter who it was or what the context was; If there is enough heat behind those words, I’ll be temporarily convinced. Everything I knew and believed about myself shifts to accommodate this new “revelation,” and the usual conclusion I come to is that I’m wasting perfectly good oxygen. Despite what my brain tells me at these moments, my death would actually harm a great number of people, and so I’ve developed coping mechanisms to avoid getting caught in these thought-tornadoes, one of which is just backing the hell away from heated topics. I can’t have a spirited debate with the opposition, because the minute someone says “people like you are destroying the world” I have to do all my Emergency DBT Distress Tolerance stuff instead of, you know, whatever else I wanted to do with the next two hours of my life.
So part of me wants to steer this conversation away from difficult topics because I fear my own brain and how it responds to them, but at the same time I’m aware how much “let’s not talk about race in case I make someone mad” looks like straight-up white fragility, and I don’t want that. So…I guess we’ll just muddle through and I’ll mop up the damage later, ha.
I’m sorry; before I went off on a tangent you were talking about how there’s a greater danger of writing harmful stereotypes when writing about marginalized experiences not your own? And I think that is valid, and it is a better reason than the one I gave for leaving these kinds of stories to people who live the experiences firsthand.
SP: Being a human being is so complicated! I don’t think you’re a horrible person, for the record, and I’m glad we muddled through those difficult topics, because it does speak to the fact that we come from different backgrounds and that’s shaped how we react to things.
But since you brought up your BPD in a conversation about writing one’s own experiences, I want to talk about Borderline, which is one of my favorite books of the year. You faced all of the challenges we’ve been discussing when writing Borderline. You share Millie’s mental illness but not her physical disability, and I thought you marvelously incorporated these aspects of her into the character and story so that they were not completely incidental but they were also not the focus. And most of the other characters are not white, and they have other mental illnesses, but I think you generally avoided harmful representations, instead portraying them as three-dimensional characters, flaws and all.
MB: I love character. My life experience has (so far) been more “inner” than “outer”—mental illness can limit things like employment and travel opportunities, but it gives you a wonderful opportunity to endlessly navel-gaze about the human mind and emotions. So I’m not going to bring in even a minor character just to be a cardboard cutout. Every person in my stories is there because I want to delve into a new psyche. When you lean on shortcuts like stereotypes I think you rob yourself of the opportunity for some real fun.
But I’m still on a learning curve, obviously. One thing I was sure to do, since I knew how ignorant I was about representation issues especially six years ago when I started, was to tighten up the viewpoint to someone who was as much like me (demographically) as possible. The Black and Latino guys in the story, they interact with Millie, and they have their own struggles and their own stories that don’t have to do with her, but she is largely ignorant of them. I know their backstories in my head, and I hint at them, but mostly Millie’s so wrapped up in her own stuff that we never really get to delve into Teo or Tjuan or Song that deeply. That prevents me from screwing up too badly, which is the selfish advantage, but the more interesting advantage is realism, I think. In a first-person POV, just as in real life, we have no idea why that one guy suddenly walked out of the room in the middle of a conversation. We have to guess. Often we guess wrong. I love the bit where Teo calls Millie racist and she has no idea why. I know why, but she has no clue, and Teo knows better than to try and explain.
SP: I love that bit so much too! I love that you weren’t afraid to make Millie imperfect, and that you didn’t excuse her imperfections—er, casual racism—simply because she was self-aware, or because she had a mental illness. She’s muddling through it all, just like everyone else.
MB: As far as Millie’s physical disabilities, I do worry about that, because it isn’t a lived experience for me. I did the best research I could, and expect it will be easier for me now that I have a book out. No one wants to talk to a “wannabe” novelist. I tried, believe me. I think it’ll be easier now to find beta readers for future books and make sure I represent stuff better. But also, yes, I don’t want to make it “about” that, not only because that’s more realistic—people with disabilities have other stuff going on besides their disabilities—but because it means I’m not Making a Big Statement about an experience I am only imagining. I’ll leave the more deep and nuanced examinations of physical disability to those writers who deal with it personally. Let’s also keep in mind that Millie grew up with able-bodied privilege and her brain is in a lot of ways still wired with the values and priorities of someone without a physical disability. She gets to learn as I learn.
SP: That’s an interesting point about Millie’s mindset: she’s only been disabled for a year, so she has a different perspective from someone who’s lived their whole life with a physical disability.
We talk a lot about diversity in stories, and how that doesn’t just mean race, so I was especially excited to see a little person! I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a little person in fiction before? Definitely not one who’s not simply there for a joke. Gloria is just as much a character as the others, and Millie trips over her interactions with her just as much as she does with Teo. But Gloria is never referred to with any slurs that I recall, and no one mocks her for her stature. Sure, she’s kind of a horrible person, but so is everyone in the book. Where did Gloria come from? Did you do any research to write her so well?
MB: I spent six agonizing years researching pretty blonde southern girls in junior high and high school. Other than that, no.
Gloria is in the book, I’m half embarrassed to admit, because of my love for Peter Dinklage. I adore everything I have ever heard that man say, and 90% of it has not been about his height. So after a while I just kind of started deprioritizing that aspect of him in my brain. Once I said on Twitter, “I have such a huge crush on Peter Dinklage,” and someone responded, “Wow, I had no idea that was your kink,” and I was furious.
It got me thinking, you know? Why does the media only use little people as jokes? A little person could be a snarky, brilliant actor like Dinklage, or a sugary-sweet Southern Belle like Gloria, or literally anything else any other human could be. Being small affects a person’s life, but not in ways that a woman like Gloria would discuss with Millie or let her see. So her height was not relevant to the way I wrote her—only to the way Millie reacted to her. I could tell you some of the ways in which Gloria’s size did affect her life, but those would be spoilers.
Man, so many times during this conversation I’ve wanted to say something, but then had to stop because: spoilers. What are your feelings about spoilers? Are people too sensitive about them? Not sensitive enough? Should I not reveal that Millie is vaporized in the last chapter? (Just kidding.)
SP: Spoiler alert: I have a lot of feelings about spoilers. I am an intolerable spoilerphobe, and although I have never liked spoilers—I was so angry when some random Internet asshole spoiled me for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince because I spent the entire book waiting to see if it was a real spoiler or not—I have decreased my spoiler threshold thanks to moderating Mark Watches and Mark Reads. Mark Oshiro has perhaps the strictest spoiler policy on the Internet, and I’ve grown to appreciate it. Because Mark’s whole thing is that we’ve all read or seen the thing and he hasn’t, so we want to keep his reactions pure. We want him to experience the media as we had: not knowing a goddamn thing about what was going to happen next. So I like knowing as little as possible about things, even minor details like whether a character gets a last name. Because why not keep as many surprises as I can? A story is designed to be experienced from start to finish without your knowing what happens beyond what the text tells you, and I would like to have that experience.
Obviously, if I were to take this to extremes, I would go live in an isolation chamber, but I live in the real world, and by the real world, I mean the Internet. I glance at blurbs but avoid plot details if I already plan to read the book (and I’ve found that some blurbs are criminally spoilery in retrospect). I love movie trailers because they are an art form and I will accept the communal squee and rush of excitement in exchange for the small spoilers they offer. But, look, it was amazing to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and be surprised by the opening text crawl. Because they’d kept the actual plot of the movie on such tight lockdown, we were all watching the story unfold together with no clue where it was going, and, dammit, I like to preserve that experience for other people as well. My reviews tend to contain very few spoilers; hell, you’ll note that I didn’t even mention the HP6 spoiler even though it is a hilarious meme at this point.
Here’s the thing: sure, at some point, spoilers are unavoidable and fair game, and as much as I will continue to shake my fist at Charles Schulz for spoiling Citizen Kane for me, he didn’t know I hadn’t seen it yet. If someone says they haven’t seen or read something, I don’t care how long it’s been out, if you directly spoil them for it, you’re an asshole.
MB: I’ll agree with you that I enjoy books and films best when I know absolutely nothing going in. And sometimes knowing absolutely nothing is the only reason I went in. If someone had described Sideways to me even briefly I’d have said, “Pass.” But I went, and I loved it.
A lot of factors go into how I feel about a given spoiler, but since it’s just about wrap-up time, I’ll just say that on average I’m only moderately spoilerphobic. The more I care about something, the less I want it to be spoiled. Marvel movies and the like, meh. I don’t mind if I know how they end, because I’m just there for the pretty people and the explosions. But if anyone dares to spoil the ending of Ancillary Mercy for me THERE WILL BE A RECKONING (I’m about 10% into it).
SP: So I shouldn’t tell you that it ends with Breq and Anaander Mianaai hugging for, like, six hours?
MB: No. You shouldn’t.
That reminds me, we should probably stop hugging now. I think the readers might be starting to get a little uncomfortable.