The last few months have seen the emergence of new SFF zines, with a focus on a wide-ranging and diverse set of themes. This is a roundtable with the editors of Rikka Zine, khōréō magazine, and Constelación. The roundtable was conducted over a collaborative Google Document in the month of February 2021.
Gautam Bhatia: Hello, and welcome to this Strange Horizons roundtable with the editorial collectives of Rikka Zine, khōréō magazine, and Constelación. I want to start by asking you to tell us a little but about your zines, your founding mission, and what was the gap in SFF short fiction (and non-fiction) that you perceived, and envision these zines as filling.
Rikka Zine: Rikka Zine is a bilingual (Japanese and English) e-zine. This is my (Japanese SF reviewer/critic Terrie Hashimoto’s) personal interview project and basically free for everyone. It’s a space for something we couldn't see much in traditional publishing avenues. I wanted to interview not only with authors, but also with translators and researchers. I basically focus on people from non-English speaking countries or multicultural backgrounds.
Here in Japan, some literary magazines and culture magazines have started to publish science fiction short stories. But there aren’t science fiction and/or fantasy magazines. So I have been planning to publish SFF stories in my zine.
khōréō mag: khōréō is focused on publishing short stories, essays, and art by immigrant and diaspora authors and artists. We started this magazine as a response to the diversity problem in speculative fiction. While it’s gotten better in recent years, there’s still a long way to go, and we want to be a part of changing that. We look specifically for work that has themes or elements of migration in it, though we’re really broad in how we think about this and include metaphorical concepts of migration in that purview. Ultimately, we want immigrant and diaspora readers to see themselves in the bylines and within the stories that we publish.
Constelación: Constelación is a bilingual speculative fiction magazine, publishing all content in both Spanish and English. We were trying to address the gap that exists in the genre community between the US and all of Latin America and the Caribbean. The cultures of the Americas are so rich, and we wanted to bring some of that richness to US audiences of speculative fiction, while at the same time increasing accessibility to Spanish language readers in Latin America and elsewhere in the world.
GB: Each of your zines, in one way or another, aims to centre perspectives that SFF has not yet centred: whether it is a focus on migration, on bilingualism, or Japanese SFF. What are your thoughts about how perspectives that have been historically on the margins can speak back to the centre?
khōréō mag: Speaking back to the center is kind of unavoidable when you frame the conversation using those terms, but we aren’t really interested in focusing on, or defining ourselves in relation to, a center that is itself defined by whiteness and colonialism and cisheteropatriarchy. We're a publication run by these marginalized voices, featuring these marginalized voices, for an audience of these marginalized voices; all of our leadership and the vast majority of our team identify personally as an immigrant or member of a diaspora. Our priority is on ensuring that authors don’t have to think about catering their stories to general sensibilities—some have really strong “if you know, you know” elements that are a key part of the magic of the piece. We hope that, at their core, our stories will resonate with those who have lived these experiences in some way or another, since there are many similarities among immigrant and diaspora experiences, even though we’re most definitely not a monolith. Wider recognition of our stories would be fantastic, but we just don’t want to meet the center where it is, or even halfway. It’s not on us to do the work.
Rikka Zine: I know what khōréō magazine means. Also, I think that some SFF readers are full of curiosity and always want something they’ve never seen. If only I could “toss a ball,” it would reach someone who could share my interest one day. I’m just so tired of opportunity loss that I decided to uncover hidden gems and spread the latest information.
Specifically, Japanese SFF is known for anime, but Japanese SFF in written format is less known probably because of the thick language barrier. A lot of SFF books originally written in English are available in Japanese translation, but most of them are award-winnings works or bestselling works. At one time, there were quite a number of Japanese SF translators and critics and they introduced and translated some titles just by their tastes. However, such people who work full-time in SFF jobs have been decreasing. Well, isn’t it a time to fight back against extinction?
Constelación: In total agreement with what khōréō said at the top of this question, which is that we're not really interested in speaking back to the center, per se. I think we all went into this knowing that every story we're going to see and want to share isn't going to be for everyone. What's most important for us is to share those stories and make sure they can be seen in the first place. Right now for Spanish language speculative fiction to be seen by the majority of the spec-fic reading public in the US, an editor would have to either hear about a story and go try to acquire it, and then source some translation, or they would be approached by a translator who had solicited the author to translate the story and put it on offer. We wanted to close that gap and let the authors come directly to us with their stories that they wanted to share, and share them with the English language readers in the US.
khōréō mag: Also, jumping in off of what Rikka said about being tired of opportunity loss: there’s one story in our first issue, “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” by Maria Dong, that we knew was absolutely perfect for us from the moment we saw it. And then, during editing, Maria told us that it kept getting rejected for being "too wandering" or not "having a central plot" or being "too hard to follow." It felt like the people who had been reading it before had missed something so fundamental about the story that just clicked with us immediately. We’re so happy that she stuck to her guns and didn’t change it to appeal to this “broader readership” because the world would have lost such a beautiful story.
GB: What was it like, starting a new zine in the middle of a pandemic? What broader points would you want to make about the infrastructure of support that needs to be in place to ensure that zines like yours can become sustainable?
Rikka Zine: I launched my zine two years ago. Attending some zine festivals got me motivated and I missed face-to-face interviews with tea and cakes. But even before the pandemic, I mostly communicated by email or SNS. Nothing changed much for me. The most serious problem was that my day job kept me busy especially when I needed to support everyone to shift to working from home.
By the way, I have got an original domain and am trying to move my zine there, because I know that readability plays an important part in a website's accessibility. And we will have more variety of content, like podcasts and videos.
khōréō mag: Like Rikka Zine, almost all of our communication is digital, and that won’t change because we have volunteers and writers and readers from all over the world. Honestly, we’re not sure how much would have changed in general without the pandemic going on, but we’ve been so lucky to have a ton of support and excitement about our work so far even in these times of turmoil. In general, though, we’ve always operated with backup plans for our backup plans for our backup plans. What if this board member doesn’t want to join? What if we don’t get volunteers? What if we don’t hit our goals? We’ve picked a few things that are non-negotiable (like paying pro rates from the start and having an almost entirely immigrant/diaspora team) and taken it from there.
Probably the most important thing to our success so far has been our team, which is diverse and dedicated and amazing; we support each other, but also make sure that everyone’s voices are heard if something doesn’t feel right. To that end, we’ve focused on open communication and extending grace wherever possible, both with our teams, our writers, and our audience; while it feels especially necessary in a time of a global pandemic and social upheaval, that’s a core value of ours that’s not going to go away when this is all behind us.
Constelación: Yup, we're primarily digital as well. We do the majority of our work through email or messaging apps. We do meet up occasionally for Zoom calls, but much more so at the start when we were trying to figure out what we were doing than now. We're not planning on changing any of that, although there have been murmurs of an in-person meeting of the editorial staff somewhere fun once the pandemic is behind us. That will probably happen at some point though when is largely out of our hands.
I think the infrastructure concern is an important one going forward. I'd like to see organizations that preside over SFF in a more general manner do more outreach to try to bring in people from other parts of the world. I think that's much more possible now that we all understand the avenues of communication that are possible with video calls and teleconferences. I'd really like to see some of the big conventions try to go with more of a hybrid model going forward that allows people who can't travel easily to the US or Europe to have access.
GB: Could you tell us a little bit about your editorial journeys so far? How did your editorial collectives come together and find each other, and a little bit about yourselves as editors.
Rikka Zine: Currently I manage my zine just by myself. So I'll tell you about how I find my collaborators and interviewees instead. I’ve been wandering around the internet, making a secret list of interesting people and activities. I check what’s going on regularly. For years, I was just a watcher. Recently, I have started to write emails and say "hi." Some people nearly jumped out of their skin (lol) but they all are kind and cooperative. Because we share some interests after all.
khōréō mag: khōréō had an open call for editors, which was a bit scary at the start because we had no idea who would apply and if things would work out. Thankfully, they absolutely have. We just finished up our second submission cycle, and we’ve really found our stride as a trio. We all come from different backgrounds and have different specializations, but we’re also avid readers with a genuine love of both craft and the genre, which means we can easily fill each others’ gaps in knowledge, or focus, or particular interest. We come to each story with an inherent trust of, and focus on, authorial intent; our goal isn’t to serve The Readers as some amorphous blob with general desires, but to help the author tell the story they want to tell to the readers they most want to reach.
Constelación: Eliana and I found each other through the miracle of two virtual conventions last year. We met first at Flights of Foundry and spoke for an hour or so in one of the chat rooms there, but it wasn't until we met again later at the Nebulas that we spent a significant amount of time together. That was also where the conversation happened that planted the seed of an idea in my head and about two weeks later I reached out to Eliana on Twitter about setting up a meeting to talk about maybe doing a magazine type thing. Libia and Cristina were both pointed in our direction by the lovely John Picacio and they have both been invaluable to us getting the magazine going.
I had been on the fence about starting my own magazine for a while and had been volunteering at a few genre magazines in different capacities to get a feel for what I should do, but I never had a concept that I wanted with my whole heart enough to actually get motivated, until Constelación came along.
GB: Despite recent improvements, the geographical centre of SFF publishing (in terms of infrastructure, money, Cons etc.) remains the US, and to an extent, the UK. In different ways, each of your zines aims at leveling up this geographical disparity, where SFF writers who live outside of these countries often tend to find themselves locked out of the conversation. Do you have thoughts or ideas about how SFF zines in particular, but also the SFF community more broadly, can work to address this issue?
Rikka Zine: I want to create a place where people can read and know more about the same themes. It's nice to feature specific countries or regions to deepen our knowledge (as SH always does very well!). But I guess that we need to know not only otherness, but also how similar we are. You know, while reading SFF books, we encounter someone who has the same feeling even though it was written in another country, in another language, in another era. I think that’s the key to unite and be inclusive. SFF readers share common interests; we grew up reading or watching the same masterpieces in this age of globalization and now can enjoy the same content more timely. Also, every modern society has more or less universal problems. So let's be free from the dualism of “my own culture / other” and sometimes see things from a different perspective. I believe that some anthologies already make it; one theme, many perspectives.
What I can do right now is very little, but I always want to find new voices.
khōréō mag: Also, echoing Constelación’s earlier answer on collaboration, there has never been any good reason to not make full use of technology to render physical distance moot, but especially not now that it’s become so seamlessly integrated into how we do business and socialize in the wake of the pandemic. While there are some communities with access problems, in many cases, publishers need to just go an extra millimeter to give people who traditionally haven’t had their voices heard a seat at the table. The bonus is that technology increases accessibility for all kinds of underrepresented writers & creators, including trans people, disabled people, incarcerated people, etc.
The leadership in publications also needs to change. It doesn’t matter if a magazine’s first readers are super diverse in all aspects if the editors calling the shots are all the same. We’ve been extremely deliberate in ensuring that all of our leadership and most of our first readers identify as immigrants or members of a diaspora, and we hope to keep improving the representation of many different identities—beyond just geographies—among our ranks. Regardless of who the editor is and how they identify, they need to trust their authors’ stories and experiences. That means reading broadly, across traditions and structures and tropes; that means coming at the work from the perspective of learning and understanding, not “I’m the editor and I know best.” We don’t know best; the author does. We’re just here to help them tell their story in the best way possible.
Constelación: I think you're seeing quite a few zines make those first steps already, whether that's bringing in guest editors to do themed issues like Strange Horizons just did, or dedicating more resources to bringing in translations. The problem, like everywhere else in the publishing world is one of inertia. People have been doing the same thing so long it's hard to try to break outside the box and do something new and scary, but I think the success of some of the crowdfunding for new and different projects we've seen this year proves there is a market for trying to bring in those voices.
The other problem is one of access, and even we struggle with that. It's hard to find those voices sometimes, because we don't have the infrastructure in place to reach out to say Guatemala necessarily and find writers. We're trying to build those bridges now, and we hope that one of the lasting things we will accomplish is bringing some of those writers and artists to the attention of readers everywhere.
GB: Along with fiction and non-fiction, your zines have a strong focus on art and artwork. What role do you see art playing in your magazines, going forward, and what is the kind of art that you’d like to see?
Rikka Zine: I have no background in design but always love art appreciation, painting, and modeling. Good art enables us to get new readers. Good UI design is essential not to lose the readers. I’d like to discover new artists and introduce them in my zine in the future. But unfortunately it's going to take some time before I can do it. I need to focus on UI design right now. (By the way, Uncanny Magazine is my recent favorite. They always have gorgeous art in every issue!)
khōréō mag: Like with our stories and essays, we look for work created by immigrant/diaspora artists that speaks to their own experiences and resonates with others’. We would love to include even more art; we didn’t quite meet our last Kickstarter stretch goal, which would have funded a special illustrated issue, though we’re hoping to find that money somehow!
In terms of the art that we’d like to see, we don’t have an Art Director (though we’re looking for one!), so it’s been our Editor-in-Chief who’s been running that show for now. The best précis she’s managed is to ask for “New Yorker but make it spec fic”, since New Yorker covers showcase a wide variety of illustration styles and often manage to capture this “slice of life” feeling that’s really entrancing when you’re thinking about home and belonging.
Constelación: Art was honestly one of the first things we'd talked about. Eliana has a very strong personal aesthetic and she loves discovering new artists. Many of the genre zines now either don't prioritize art or only buy reprints and that's a valid cost-saving strategy but we wanted to go a different way. That decision was also in no small part due to talking with John early on in the process who is a champion for artists in the industry.
We'd really like to see more artists from the Caribbean and South and Central America showing up in our inboxes. We have one on deck for Issue #2, Samuel Araya, but we haven't picked anyone for subsequent issues because we'd really like to feature those artists when we can.