From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Justine Larbalestier & Ekaterina Sedia

Over the past several years I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know two amazingly wonderful fantasy authors: Justine Larbalestier and Ekaterina Sedia. Whenever I got into a conversation with one I always found myself wishing that the other was in the room. Not because they both write fantasy or were both born outside of the US (Sydney for Justine, Moscow for Ekaterina), but because they often had very similar reactions to American reactions to them. I couldn’t get them together at the last World Fantasy Convention, so I opted for a chat room, instead.

In case you’re not fully aware of these two authors and their accomplishments, let me enlighten you.

Ekaterina Sedia‘s short fiction has appeared in Analog, Baen’s Universe, and our very own Fantasy Magazine. Her first novel, The Secret History of Moscow, attracted praise like a flock of ravens to shiny objects. Not only did Locus call it a “truly remarkable performance” but Neil Gaiman headed the chorus by calling it “Deep, dark, remarkable stuff.” Her next book, The Alchemy of Stone (June 2008), promises to be just as amazing and beautiful as Secret History.

Justine Larbalestier‘s Magic or Madness trilogy is some of the most enjoyable YA I’ve ever read, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. The final volume, Magic’s Child, “brings the series to a really satisfying, complex conclusion that’s both brave and thought-provoking,” or so Cory Doctorow would have us believe. She’s also the author of The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, which was her PhD thesis. Both her fiction and non-fiction reveal her as one of the smartest and most creative authors writing today.

Magic's Child Secret History

K. Tempest Bradford: How much influence has being international jet-setters had on you in terms of what you choose to write?

Justine Larbalestier: My spending time in other countries has made me see my country more clearly and enabled me to write about it.

Ekaterina Sedia: I write a lot about being displaced. I’m homesick a lot.

Justine: Me too. (Especially when it’s so cold!)

Ekaterina: I do see my family as often as I can — usually 1 month a year. But there’s this separation from a place which is changing without me, and I only see snapshots.

Tempest: That has to be hard.

Ekaterina: Well, that’s to be expected.

Justine: It happens so fast too. You can be away for just six months and go back and there’s all this stuff you’ve missed. I really hate feeling like a foreignor at home. But there’s this–I find it very hard to describe–feeling of home amongst other Sydneysiders and other Australians that you get. The relief of majority Aussie accents, not having to explain yourself. I imagine that’s even more intense when it’s a whole other language.

Ekaterina: Absolutely. And just being with people who watched the same cartoons when you were a kid.

Justine: Yes!

Ekaterina: This is what cultural reference frameworks are all about–cartoons.

Justine: But then, I’ve found more people like me in the US than back home.

Ekaterina: Me, too.

Justine: So on the one hand there are more people like us in the US, and on the other hand, as you say, the cultural framework.

Ekaterina: It’s a balance.

Justine: It’s why I subscribe to a lot of Aussie newsletters and only read them when I’m away. I also listen to heaps of Radion National podcasts. (like of like NPR—only better!) I need to hear those voices, you know? I have days when all the USian accents around me just sound wrong.

Ekaterina: English feels wrong to me sometimes. I mean, with a different language I have very close friends in the US with whom I will never ever be able to share the poetry I love.

Justine: Do you try to keep up with literature back home?

Ekaterina: Not really.

Justine: How come? To hard to keep up with?

Ekaterina: I do usually pick up a few interesting-looking books when I’m in Moscow, and my parents bring me stuff they think I’d like. But I can’t get Russian literature here. Russian books aren’t on Amazon.

Justine: Yeah, I tend to pick up Oz books and DVDs and stuff when I’m home. Immerse myself in all the stuff it’s harder to keep up with when I’m in the States.

Tempest: I think the US readership would benefit from more access to books in translation.

Justine: Absolutely. It was very frustrating when we were at the Bologna Book fair hearing about all these amazing books. None of which had any prospect of being translated.

Tempest: One of the reasons I like both of your books is that glimpse into a non-US culture. I think it’s really annoying that more readers aren’t given the chance to look at another culture or way of living. Ekaterina’s Moscow struck me as very unfamiliar, the way a secondary world might be. Which was a pleasant feeling.

Justine: I tried to make NYC seem like a secondary world cause that’s how it often feels to me. Living in a country that you didn’t grow up is often very through the looking glass.

Tempest: That comes across.

Ekaterina: In the book I’m writing now, I’m making the Jersey shore into a magical and sinister land–which it is.

The US seems very open about certain kinds of books about foreign places.

Justine: US YA is very open to Anglophonic books. Lots of Canadian, Australian, English books are published here. But sadly only a few German, etc. Though Japan’s manga invasion is out of control and a lot of that is YA and consumed in vast mountains by teenagers. The manga thing, and now manhwa as they start translating the Korean stuff as well, is really exciting.

Ekaterina: But many writers/critics seem to think that the US public is not ready for or not willing to engage in a truly unfamiliar experience.

Justine: It’s interesting to me that usually a publisher will have a huge hit with a translated book like The Neverending Story or Cornelia Funke but it doesn’t send them racing off for other amazing German books.

Ekaterina: I can say the same about the Night Watch series.

Justine: After I read the Night Watch trilogy I was searching for other Russian fantasy and came up pretty much blank. It was huge, though! Surely there must be other stuff like that in Russia? Stuff that will make the publisher’s money.

Tempest: I wonder why that is? You’d think they’d chase it down like every other trend.

Ekaterina: Because translating is hard. There are not that many good translators. And the reasoning seems to be that they can find something as good in English.

Justine: And yet more manga and manhwa is being translated every single day.

Ekaterina: Interestingly, I saw a few people on the internet commenting on the ‘translation’ of my book or expressing the desire to read the original text. Even though it is clearly printed for the first time in the US

Justine: You’re kidding!

Ekaterina: I shit you not.

Justine: Send them the first draft!

Tempest: They assume because you’re Russian your book was written in Russian?

Ekaterina: Of course. I was hoping for a massive lit hoax involving the long-lost manuscript.

Justine: Did any of your reviewers make that mistake?

Ekaterina: Thankfully, not the reviewers.

Justine: Did you feel that some of the reception of your book was affected by your Russianness? I got more critical responses at home than in the US.

Ekaterina: Of course it was. But my book is, of course, not available in Russia, so no critical responses there. A few readers here blamed stuff they didn’t like on translation, for some weird reason.

Justine: Would you ever translate it yourself?

Ekaterina: I can’t translate. It’s a skill I don’t possess.

Justine: Me either. It’s too hard.

Ekaterina: I can’t even write books in Russian.

Tempest: Is that because you caught the writing bug after you came to the US?

Ekaterina: Partially.

Justine, do you find it easier to write about Sydney than NYC?

Justine: I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in Sydney so I know it really well. It’s home. It’s heaps easier than NYC. How about you and Moscow?

Ekaterina: Moscow is easy to write about; however, since I haven’t been living there for a while, I write about Moscow that doesn’t quite exist anymore. I’m starting to find it easier to write about South Jersey. But still, speech patterns, etc. are a lot of work.

Justine: Yup! And I get people writing me telling me I’ve gotten stuff wrong. “Americans don’t say ‘on line'” or whatever. When I happen to know that’s exactly what New Yorkers say.

Ekaterina: If people know that you’re foreign, everything is perceived through this lens.

Justine: Don’t you think though that that’s true whenever you write about a place? Even if you’re living there that your version is different to everyone else’s anyway?

Ekaterina: This is true about places. In my case, every non-standard word/grammar choice is questioned, like I shouldn’t be writing anything but declarative sentences.

Justine: Hah! I’ve had USians tell me that my spelling is wrong and my grammar and that certain words I use don’t exist or are stupid.

Ekaterina: They are aware that you are a native speaker though, right?

Justine: Not always. Sometimes I get complimented on my English. I think they mix up Australia and Austria.

Ekaterina: It really very much depends on where you are from, too.

Justine: I imagine you don’t have the phenomenon of USians forgetting that you’re a foreigner. I’ve had them boggling that I don’t know certain trivia/history etc things about the States. Australia’s more obscure than Russia.

Ekaterina: Obscurity is preferable to a giant edifice of misconceptions.

Justine: Such as?

Ekaterina: For one, there is not a single US-made movie in the past 15 years that features Russians as anything but gangsters and prostitutes. People think it is really cold there. People think my husband bought me on the internet.

Tempest: EW!

Justine: That’s like being from the Philippines in Australia—mail-order brides.

Ekaterina: Seriously, if I hear one more mail-order bride joke, I will hurt someone. The biggest misconception is the impression of the whole democracy thing, and the socialism vs. capitalism thing.

Justine: I just get kangaroo jokes. And Crocodile Hunter ones. Which is hilarious since we are the most urbanised country in the world.

Ekaterina: Foreign places tend to merge into a conglomerate of stereotypes and half-truths, while local differences get exaggerated to a ridiculous extent. If you mistake a Ukrainian for a Russian, they might get offended.

Justine: Exactly! Back home there’s this supposed rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne when you could not find two more similar cities. To be fair, there are plenty of misconceptions about the USA back home, too.

Ekaterina: Of course.

Tempest: Well yes. Like that we all have guns.

Justine: Yeah, that you’re all right-wing, gun-toting evangelicals who are ignorant and think you’re the centre of the universe.

Tempest: Well, that last bit is often true.

Justine: Except there are ways in which the US is a world-wide centre. Almost everyone in the world is following your election because the result affects most of the world. Elections in Australia, not so much.

Ekaterina: Yes, US is very influential.

Justine: And when you grow up in the centre of the universe it’s understandable to have blinders on. One of the wonderful things for me on spending time here was discovering how many USians don’t have blinders on.

Ekaterina: Very true. This diversity is a great gift. You’re practically guaranteed to find like-minded individuals in any place in the US.

Justine: Absolutely!

Tempest: A few weeks ago in a conversation about People of Color in fantasy, one of the panelists said:

“But there are so many other white cultures that could be tapped without accusations of appropriation, and I don’t see many people touching those either. Russia and Eastern Europe, for example.”

I think some people would consider Australia fair game as well. And I know that statement raised Kat’s eyebrow. It seems to me that cultures that are coded as “white” are perceived as being the same or very similar.

Both of you would be considered “white” by many, but your backgrounds, cultures, and geographies are completely different.

Justine: That’s because “black” and “white” are such crude markers. I’m always weirded out when I get referred to as “European” as a synonym for white. I’m so NOT European.

Ekaterina: Race of course has different meaning in different places. In the US, it’s a reasonable way to draw the lines. At home, black means American and therefore privileged.

Justine: Yup. At home “black” means you’re indigenous.

Ekaterina: Thirty years ago, there were quite a few African students in Moscow. Now, we mostly see African-Americans.

Justine: Who are mostly well off?

Ekaterina: Correct–Americans are well off, regardless of color. Compared to the natives, at least.

Justine: There’s still only a tiny proportion of Australians who are of African descent. At home African-American is largely synonymous with cool and sexy.

Ekaterina: If you go by color then Russian culture is a perfectly reasonable thing to appropriate by an American writer. If you go by power differentials between nations, then not so much.

Justine: But any particular Native American culture isn’t regarded as something you can appropriate as opposed to “white” Russia?

Ekaterina: Yes. With all recent cultural appropriation debate, Native American culture was mentioned as something that should be approached with at the very least great care, as opposed to a generic Indian dispensing vague but mystical advice.

Justine: Absolutely.

Tempest: I’m sure there are plenty of people who wouldn’t see it necessary to approach “white” cultures with care even though it’s just as easy to fall into the inappropriate appropriation trap.

Ekaterina: Again, if you go against a power differential — most of Eastern Europe being poor and only recently being invaded by the western market. The thing about power is that how we are perceived affects how we are treated. If you’re in the G8, it doesn’t make much of a difference in economic terms.

Tempest: Exactly.

Justine: Ditto.

Justine: As a writer I think everything is up for grabs. But every time I read a book set in Australia or with Australian characters written by someone who’s not Australian I read with trepidation. And usually with good reason. When I see myself represented badly it shits me. But I am in a position to represent myself and Australians in a way that doesn’t shit me.

Ekaterina: I sort of felt the same way about Moscow. Just, you know, look, we are people too.

Justine: We Muscovites?

Ekaterina: Yes, and we Russians. As I said, US media is lacking in anything but the most stereotypical representations. Like [the film] Eastern Promises everyone is so happy about — this is just more gangsters and prostitutes.

Tempest: But then when you present readers with something that isn’t that stereotype, you get accused of alienating them.

Justine: I think the representation thing works out like this: I get pissy when Australians are depicted in stereotypical stupid ways. But it doesn’t affect how I am treated day to day in the world. It’s more like when I see writers badly represented. It’s a matter of crappy research. It’s the class thing too.

Ekaterina: I agree. But the way Russians are represented, it leads to people making assumptions about my personal life. Cops love searching my car if I ever get pulled over (which I don’t often, cause I’m white).

Justine: Exactly. It’s when there are bad effects in the real world.

Ekaterina: And also how many representations there are of any given culture. I hate Borat because it effectively hijacked popular perception of Kazakhstan. Ask an American to name one Kazakh… anything, really.

Tempest: Well, I’m not entirely sure most people who watched that movie even know Kazakhstan is real.

Ekaterina: Yes, there’s that.

Justine: I hadn’t thought of that. You mean they thought it was a made-up country?

Tempest: Yeah. I know several people who thought that. Anything sort of Middle Eastern sounding with -stan on the end could be real, or it could be made up. But you’re right, for those who know it’s a real place, now the perception of it is tainted.

Ekaterina: I know people who know it’s real.

Justine: I’m sure there were lots of Australians who thought that too.

Tempest: Do you think, though, that such misrepresentations wouldn’t be as big a problem if there was more education about “other” places?

Ekaterina: Yes, along with accurate representations of other places.

Tempest: If all you ever see of Russia is what’s on the news (which is crap) and what’s in movies or books, what else are you going to think?

Justine: Not very accurate of Australia . . . mutter, mutter. I get quite a few USians who are thrilled by my accent and have never met an Australian before. They find me terribly exotic. Some even used that word.

Ekaterina: Gah.

Justine: No one ever thinks I’m an illegal immigrant. Well except Immigration when I go through airports. (Should hasten to add that I’m not an illegal immigrant!) I am clearly not one of the ones Mitt Romney wants to keep out. I have never been asked about my status in this country. A Mexican friend of mine here gets it all the time. She has a green card.

Ekaterina: My legality is questioned occasionally.

Tempest: Desirables vs. Undesirables. Australians are just like British people (so the misperception goes), and we like the British. But Russians are troublemakers. And brown people are criminals.

Ekaterina: American writers often seem taken aback when Australians say that they don’t feel right using aboriginal folklore in their writing. As in any place, these issues are complex.

Justine: Yeah, it’s very complex.

Tempest: But you have an Aboriginal character in your book, Justine.

Justine: Yeah, I do. And I’ll admit I was nervous.

Ekaterina: I think there’s a difference between writing a character of a given background vs. just taking their folklore and using it. Just cutting out the owner, so to speak.

Justine: True. I wasn’t nervous about writing it but about the reception. I think there’s a way in which, if you’re writing about someone with a very diff background from you, then you can never get it right. (Whatever that means.)

I worried I would get in trouble for the opening of the second book of the trilogy which is a flashback to Reason at one of the settlements she visited more than once as a child. It’s taken directly from my own childhood. But writing a proximity of Kriol troubled me. I didn’t want it to seem patronising.

Ekaterina: Amalgam of experiences, like what you did with Reason, seems a very good way of writing someone different yet relating to them through some shared experiences.

Justine: Exactly–isn’t that kind of what we do with most of our characters?

Ekaterina: Yes, but the connection can be more or less tenuous.

Justine: I’ve yet to write anyone just like me, you know? One of the things I love best about writing is inhabiting other people’s heads. Getting to be someone other than me!

Ekaterina: Yes, it’s such a thrill. I like writing first person men as an exercise.

Justine: I’m always irritated when people tell me I’m just like one of my characters. Which happens rarely (fortunately) for the people who say it ’cause I usually hit them. Even though violence is wrong.

Ekaterina: I think a lot of times people can’t imagine what it’s like to make shit up wholecloth.

Justine: Yes! They really think it must have come from somewhere. They’re convinced someone’s based on your friend or lover or mother or something. No, my mother didn’t not go insane and my grandmother wasn’t a witch.

Ekaterina: No, my sister never turned into a bird. No, I do not have an ovipositor.

Tempest: But there was a lot of your experience of Moscow in Secret History (which was amazing).

Justine: I really liked the stuff on who’s a real Muscovite.

Tempest: I also found that really intriguing. I had no idea there was such an “us and them” attitude around people born or not born in Moscow.

Ekaterina: You’re considered a real Muscovite after your family’s lived there for seven generations.

Justine: Hah! I’m not even sure there’s been seven generations of Australia. Not unless you’re indigenous.

Most of the stuff you mine from your own life is much more nebulous.

Ekaterina: And a lot less obvious.

Justine: I did an appearance where I was asked about my relationship with my grandmother and the way the question was asked made me realise that, in fact, I had had a difficult relationship with her and that it had kind of leaked into the book. I hadn’t thought about it till that second. It’s a bit embarrassing realising something like that in front of two hundred high school students.

Tempest: I can imagine. But, at the same time, makes a good story. Especially for people who think that you always put yourself in your characters. It shows it’s much more complex than that.

Justine: Absolutely, Tempest! Still, I blame all those first time novelists who write about writing a novel in a coffee shop. It’s all their fault.

Ekaterina: Let’s go on a rampage across coffee shops and wear stompy boots.

Tempest: Not in my coffee shop! I need to write my novel there.


Visit Ekaterina’s and Justine‘s websites for more info and to keep up with their blogs, books, and other things that begin with B.

Though K. Tempest Bradford is writing a novel in a coffee shop, she isn’t writing one about writing a novel in a coffee shop, which makes it okay.

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