Bound by Blood: A Review of When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey

Published March 3, 2020 by Simon Pulse

Blood. Viscera. Exploding genitals. A prom night gone horribly wrong. From the very beginning, Sarah Gailey’s YA debut When We Were Magic had me asking: What have I gotten myself into? Gailey doesn’t pull any punches––Josh Harper is dead. Alexis killed him, but she doesn’t know how. All she knows is that she lied so she could sleep with Josh. And then, some ugly part of her magic reared up inside her and killed him dead. It’s up to Alexis and her girl gang of witches to either hide the body . . . or try to bring him back.

Being a fan of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, I was super excited for When We Were Magic. The first chapter promises a lot: blood magic, urban fantasy, body horror, and a kickass coven.  Unfortunately, the novel grows cold as quickly as the dead boy’s body. The rest of the book is about disposing of each necromantic body part. Alex feels a responsibility to oversee each sacrifice, while holding out a vague hope that the witches’ volatile magic will bring the boy back when all the parts have been destroyed. The stakes seem high at first, but once magic easily vanishes all the bloody evidence and no one’s parents notice the duffel bags full of limbs and livers, it becomes too easy and very repetitive. Alex’s friends are confused and worried, but ultimately don’t hesitate to be accomplices. Alexis, of course, is disturbed by her magic acting out and causing injuries to others, but none of them are as literally explosiveas Josh’s death––just a nosebleed here and there.

It isn’t until nearly two hundred pages in that Gailey gives us actual consequences for Josh’s murder, although they come gloriously. As each of Alex’s friends uses their magic to destroy the body parts, each of them loses something in return. Paulie loses memories of her dead brother. Marcelina cannot forget anything. Iris can no longer see the threads of her own magic. These losses are the burdens these young witches must bear for the death of a human boy. This was the most fascinating part of the book––the most fascinating exploration of how Gailey’s magic system works. More importantly, these losses gave me so much insight into the rather large cast of supporting characters; they know that they will lose what’s closest to them, and yet they move forward anyway on the tissue-paper hope that they can bring a stranger back to life. It’s a shame that it took two-thirds of the story to see these character dynamics.

The need to resolve the murder motivated me: What is this blood magic? Will it consume Alexis and everyone she loves? Will they get caught? Will Josh stay dead? While the plot itself plodded along, these questions kept me reading at a furious pace. I had to know! Which is why I was so, so disappointed that by the end, nothing felt resolved. Once again, it felt too easy. Suddenly, Alexis knows how to control the blood magic. The ending of the book felt almost trivial compared to the circumstances that began this story. Did a boy really die because of a jealous crush she’d been holding onto? Why was the ending so convenient? I can understand that as a whole, the book was never really about a body (except it was); it was about strong female friendship. But friendship isn’t enough to pave over plot holes and inconsistent characterization.

When We Were Magic didn’t live up to my expectations. It had flaws that were difficult to ignore. I don’t regret reading the book; in fact, I still think about it––a sure sign that it made an impact. Gailey’s descriptions were lovely and I adored the supporting characters and their friendships. The aesthetic was gory, witchy, and perfect for fall. And as I’ve come to expect from Sarah Gailey, these characters are diverse and not afraid to address systemic inequality. Don your witch’s hat if you want to be entertained, but don’t expect a flawless narrative.

4 Truly Memorable Antagonists in Fiction (& How Their Complexity Makes Them Work)

Suppose there once was an awfully vile evildoer who plotted generic devilry, made a half-hearted attempt to monologue, but was effortlessly defeated by the protagonist.

Villainous? No doubt.

But is there really any value in a villain that can’t put up a challenge?

We want to see antagonists that have depth. We want them to believe that they are good and thematically mirror their conventionally heroic rivals. They show us what our protagonists could become, ultimately serving as empathetic cautionary tales.

To give you some idea of how truly distinct complex villains can be, I’m going to take you through a selection of four of my personal favorites. Let’s get started.

(Warning: Spoilers for Fables, Watchmen, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and The Magicians ahead!)

Geppetto (Fables)

One of the great things about literature is that characters can be borrowed and reimagined. That’s exactly what Bill Willingham set out to do through his Fables series, only he didn’t adapt rich stories. Instead, he took from our simplest morality plays. His plan was to reinvent one-note characters from fables and nursery rhymes as complex people. Paste Magazine had a great interview with the creators leading up to the finale, and series artist Mark Buckingham made this astute observation: “Bill has always had a very specific way of capturing nuance and breathing new life into perhaps familiar characters.

The protagonist of the series is Bigby Wolf, a hard-nosed Sheriff who also happens to be the big bad wolf from Red Riding Hood. Despite the darker elements of his nature, he means well and fights to protect his community and the people he loves. He runs up against a mysterious so-named “adversity” responsible for relentlessly conquering worlds, slaughtering many fables, and driving others to desperately search for asylum.

But when we reach the reveal, we discover that Geppetto, that seemingly harmless old man we know as the kindly creator of Pinocchio, was responsible all along. His desire for family led him to create more children, only without the rebellious spirit that drove Pinocchio to leave him—but that emptiness meant that no number would ever fulfill him and drove him to take control of everything.

Geppetto’s journey leaves me uncertain about whether there’s something fundamentally rotten in his nature. Was he heartbroken because Pinocchio left, or because he was perceived as a secondary character? The fable is about Pinocchio, after all, even though it’s the story of Geppetto’s actions.

If I saw a child leave, and had the power to create more, might I do it? And when that life didn’t fill the hole in my heart, might I keep trying, hoping that I’d eventually recapture that initial magic? It’s possible. Then imagine that I found myself with the power to affect true change—to radically overhaul the systems of the world. Could I resist it? I truly don’t know.

Do you?

Ozymandias (Watchmen)

Watchmen is one of the most highly regarded graphic novels ever made, achieving both enduring popularity and critical acclaim (and paving the way for mainstream acceptance of the format). Its tone has much to do with this: contemplative and dark, it studies the gray area between good and evil, and Ozymandias—the primary antagonist of the piece—perfectly highlights the conflict between cold utilitarianism and comforting rule-based morality.

Born as Adrian Veidt, the man who assumes the hero name of Ozymandias is a great proponent of self-mastery. Despite inheriting riches, he gives them to charity and makes his own fortune through his remarkable intellect and drive—and even with everything he needs to live a life of luxury, he still decides to become a costumed vigilante and fight crime very responsibly, even avoiding violence wherever possible.

What we learn relatively late in the story is that Veidt had grander ambitions than simply taking a few thugs off the street. He wanted to change the world, to end the Cold War, and bring about lasting peace—through any means necessary.

Using technology based on Doctor Manhattan, the one true superhero of the universe, he fabricates an otherworldly threat in the form of a bio-engineered creature capable of mass destruction. Teleporting it to New York, he sees it kill millions of innocents and terrify the world. Recognizing the scale of the threat they face, the world’s superpowers lay down their arms and join together.

Veidt kills millions to save billions. He knows that he’ll be seen as evil, but he’s willing to take action regardless. In his view, he’s the true protagonist: the savior of humanity. And the brilliance of the story is that he isn’t wrong. On the whole, his gambit probably has the potential to save far more people that it kills—so when the morally inflexible character Rorschach plans to expose his scheme, practicality demands that he be removed from the equation.

I’m unsure about where my path would diverge from Geppetto’s, but I know with certainty that I wouldn’t do what Veidt does. Would you have the stomach for it? Perhaps most readers could imagine killing on instinct in life-or-death situations, but his act is calm, calculated, and staggering in the scale and magnitude of its devastation. Yet he might be logically justified.

If you subscribe to Veidt’s moral philosophy of rigid utilitarian pragmatism, then good and evil come down to calculations. Lives saved versus lives lost. Happiness versus pain. Veidt looks upon the classic thought experiments of moral philosophy and views reluctance as weakness. Is it empathetic to struggle with the trolley problem, or is it cowardly?

In another story, Veidt might have been foiled at the last second and turned into a cackling fiend, or even talked out of his plan and narratively forced to express regret. But the reader doesn’t get that simple solution. He delivers on his plan, stands defiant as a noble monster, and dares you to dig deeply into his justification—where do you draw the line?

Count Olaf (A Series of Unfortunate Events)

It was the 2017 Netflix adaptation of this series that drew me into this tale, but it was the books themselves that sold me on the universe and solidified the absurd Count Olaf as one of my most cherished villains.

The tale of Violet and Klaus is dark and whimsical. When their parents die in a mysterious fire, they’re taken in by a figure who’s ostensibly a family friend—a repugnant fellow by the name of Count Olaf. Once he reveals his plan to marry Violet and steal their inheritance, they manage to escape.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the end of their encounters with Count Olaf. He assumes a variety of disguises in pursuing them wherever they go, always scheming to find new ways to leech off their fortune. It’s a series for children, so it never gets too graphic, but there’s no shortage of murder, violence, and other despicable activity.

Wacky adventures, silly costumes, and mustache-twirling skullduggery: it’s a good recipe for a memorable antagonist, but it isn’t what makes Count Olaf truly memorable. He could have been a one-note joke of a character, but he was built into so much more—per Jericho Writers on how to write a book, “it’s the subtleties that make characters seem human,” and the Count’s story is furnished with subtle but significant allusions to his background, his life, and his drives. He’s simultaneously abhorrent and empathetic.

Not only did his mother die in a fire, but his father was killed, and it’s implied that the Baudelaires’ mother was involved in the incident. What’s more, he was once involved with a good woman, and the fallout of his father’s death played a major role in the dissolution of any chance they had at a relationship.

Count Olaf is a delusional man with little regard for life—but he’s also broken from past traumas that sent him down a terrible path. He expresses some hesitation towards the end of the series, but he sees himself as too far gone. Even so, his dying act is to help the woman he never stopped loving, and the Baudelaires are left conflicted about who he really was.

Olaf particularly resonates because of the questions he raises about personal responsibility. He loved a good woman, and was ostensibly good before he lost his father: Might he have been redeemed had he not been written off so early as distasteful and immoral? Despicable, comical, frightening, theatrical, and deeply wounded, Olaf is a character destined to be revisited time and time again.

Martin Chatwin (The Magicians)

Lev Grossman’s trilogy of books about magicians in a world much like our own isn’t revolutionary in its concepts, but it is spectacularly well-written, stuffed with interesting characters and exploration of what makes life worth living. After reading, it immediately earned a spot near the top of my list, inspiring me as a person even as it disheartened me as a writer (how could I ever write anything a tenth as good?).

The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, grew up reading a series of books about a group of siblings exploring an alternate reality called Fillory (based on the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis). Coldwater doesn’t only discover that magic is real, and that he has magical talent; he also finds out that Fillory is real, and the stories he adores are based on truth. Of course, things can’t be that simple, and he soon learns that the adventures of the Chatwin family weren’t as innocent as he’d been led to believe.

Early on in his time studying magic at Brakebills University, he and his classmates are attacked by a being known as The Beast: an immensely powerful magician who disguises his identity for unknown reasons. Eventually, the truth is revealed: The Beast is actually Martin Chatwin, one of the Chatwin siblings featured in the Fillory books.

But the story of Martin Chatwin isn’t just about the corrupting influence of power, as was the case for Edmund Pevensie in the Narnia books (well, turkish delight also played a part). It was much more tragic. Unknown to most, Martin was repeatedly molested as a child by Christopher Plover, amateur magician and author of the Fillory books.

Martin’s loss of innocence led to him being barred from entering Fillory (its gods no longer considered him entertaining), which made his life even more miserable. One day, Martin finds a way to sneak back into Fillory, and he sacrifices his humanity to gain the ability to stay in Fillory forever. From there, he gains power, coming to rule Fillory before he’s eventually defeated.

I already used the world tragic, and I think it’s perfectly appropriate here. Martin Chatwin was a kind and well-meaning child who lost everything because his father figure abused him. He became a monster to reclaim control: to have the power to stay in that world, no matter what others thought, and destroy anyone who opposed him, ensuring that he could never be abused again.

Martin Chatwin captivates me so much because he’s a dark parallel of the protagonist. He too loved Fillory dearly and saw it as a means to escape from a world in which he didn’t have a place. When it rejected him, though, he made it his obsession, fighting to keep it for eternity.

Quentin lacks the history of abuse, but he does suffer deeply from depression, and he also uses Fillory as a crutch—just as a story at first. When it finally becomes real to him, he gets to make it his home for a while, only to be kicked out much like Martin was. In the end, he must accept that there are no fairytale solutions to his problems.

For both Martin and Quentin, power is of limited use. Martin wins Fillory for a time, but he seems to take no enjoyment from it. Quentin becomes a powerful magician after an adolescence spent dreaming about magic, but it doesn’t fix him. Quentin’s hopeful resolution comes from a place of personal growth, buoyed by the friends that kept him from truly losing his way.

When I go through dark times, I like to associate with Quentin: deeply flawed, broken, and unhappy, but still holding on to a moral code, and still hoping for better. And I can only hope that circumstances never push me to identify more with Martin.

Each antagonist listed here is richer than your standard evildoer—more complex, more consistent, and simply more compelling—and sets an excellent example for anyone who wants to pit their protagonist against a great challenge.

Modern Art

The Ramblings of a Young Curmudgeon

I was raised to give universal respect to those who were farther in age than me. I was to presume that more time spent on earth meant possessing greater wisdom, dignity, and compassion. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve come to realize that’s bullshit. Snow atop one’s head doesn’t earn a flawed human anymore grace. I’m 32 years old. Grey hairs are starting to sprout, and I feel no wiser. In fact, I feel less belonging to this postmodern period than my geriatric constituents.

The digital age is here. I’m a millennial, so I’m expected to embrace the 21st century, to be hooked on my phone like a desperate junkie. It would be quite fashionable to let those stupid wireless earpieces dangle like overpriced jewelry from my lobes, giving off the impression that I’m too important to use my own hands. Who needs hands anymore? They only exist to hold our devices while our necks hang downwards, probably causing early arthritic pain that will eventually be cured by a new advancement yet to be invented. Of course, it won’t be covered by health insurance. God bless those measly co-pays. 

Face down, head in phone—that’s how older generations judge me for my presumed ignorance, self-absorption, and fragility. They don’t realize I care more about their generation’s culture than they do, and even generations before them. For I’m a nostalgist. A lover of bygone eras. An old soul, so I’m told. The more I explore books, records, movies, fashions, and artifacts from yesteryear, the more melancholy I feel about a past I was never part of. 

Long gone is the old world; it exists now only in my imagination. It was torn down and traded in for shinier new structures, objects, and interests. The dirt, the filth, the grime, the beauty in imperfection—all gone. The future is sleek, clean, sparkly, and manufactured; easily replaced, just like our interpretation of history. Our legacies are replaceable. The marks we leave will dissipate. We’ll all fit into 90-minute documentary someday. Viewers will wonder who we were, then they’ll move on with their day.

Whenever my face isn’t glued to a screen, I walk around the streets of my city and look for remnants of its history. These neighborhoods and their buildings look very little like they did in the old movies. The steel forest I once witnessed from a distance, hoping to someday inhabit, has been colonized by developers and removed of its ecosystem. Blighted, it’s been sterilized of all traces of personality and spirit, its storefronts filled with hollow, faceless occupants. They see no reason for community; they just want your money. They’re here to sell you on the idea of individualism. They live to make you feel special. They’ll even lure you with “nostalgia” as a marketing strategy. Did you know Wendy’s was established in 1969? Well, now everyone does because they’ve plastered it onto their logo. 

Ah, yes, 1969. An effective year. A transformative year. An emotional trigger for some Americans. A longing for brighter days, even if it’s a false reimagining. Don’t you just want a damn burger and fries already? 

The new residents moving in are no deeper than the dip in the curb that carries the soles of their sockless shoes. The yuppies could care less about the origin of the quarters they now occupy and the cultures who once existed before them. They ignore the few old folks crawling down the sidewalks, confused with the ever-changing world around them. Those damn left-behinds, too stubborn to call it quits and migrate down south. Their apartments, gutted of any trace of their former existence. No traces of life, no lingering souls remain. Their remnants now sit in antique stores along the highways of rural America, where resentful traditionalists spout old fashioned rhetoric like “It’s not the same anymore…” and “In my day…” or “It’s all gone to hell…”. 

I agree with those old soreheads but they don’t care what I have to say. Youth is their enemy. I’m my own worst enemy. “I care too,” I long to tell them. They won’t care that I care. I don’t belong to their cranky generation. I belong to my own flock of whiners. Why is there so much whining? Aren’t modern conveniences supposed to enhance our lives? We have toilets to dispose of our waste. We have bounties of food without ever having to forage. We have shelter. We have technology that continues to conduct our lives for us. Why are we still miserable? I thought we’ve perfected the art of living? No? Damn. I guess I’ll crawl back into my hole, with my old movies and my books and my records. I’ll daydream of the good ol’ days, where we polished the ugliness and envisioned a world of tomorrow. 

Virginia Woolf Study in Classics

A Study in Classics: Virginia Woolf, Gender, and the Greatest Lesbian Love Letter Ever Written

Who was Virginia Woolf and why do queer women love her?

Virginia Woolf is one of the most loved English authors of all time. She is also probably the most hated, especially if you were forced to read Mrs. Dalloway in a high school English class and had no idea how to read her. It’s true that sometimes it seems like Virginia Woolf’s writing is in another language. I swear that in To The Lighthouse, there are sentences that span multiple pages.

It took me a while to open up to her, but once I did, I fell in love, and I’m not the only one. Virginia Woolf has a cult following among queer women. I found that her work spoke to me even more after I came out as nonbinary, specifically her novel Orlando. Virginia Woolf is one of the only authors whose work seems to see me and all of my identities. This might be because, in terms of our queerness, she and I have something in common. I love Virginia Woolf because of who she loved and the way she loved her.

Virginia Woolf met Vita Sackville-West in late 1922. Vita was already a gifted and successful writer in her own right a few years before Virginia published her first major success, Mrs. Dalloway. They were both married, though both marriages were trusting, open, and queer.

According to her letters, Vita was quite taken with Virginia, and the two began an intellectual correspondence that eventually became intimate and romantic. They wrote to each other constantly, often in awe (and sometimes jealous) of the other’s writing. One of my favorite things to do on a sad, rainy day is cheer myself up by reading excerpts of their letters on this clever Twitter bot. The affection is so warming; they really, really loved each other.

However, as this witty reimagining suggests, the dynamic between the two women was interesting. Virginia venerated Vita, and she wrote an entire novel to prove it. And while Vita loved her in return, she was also much more sexually and emotionally open. Virginia felt, as the older woman in the relationship, that she had become unattractive and “dowdy” to Vita as the other woman began to slip away from her. Today, we’d call it ghosting—but their relationship did not end; it evolved. They became even closer as lifelong friends, though not before Virginia proved the magnitude of her love. When Virginia felt Vita slipping away from her for good, she decided to pull out all the stops. She decided to write Vita (another) love letter, but this time it would be bigger, more extravagant. She set out to write Vita’s biography.

The result, Orlando, became one of Virginia Woolf’s greatest commercial successes, and to me remains one of the most romantic love letters ever written.

It isn’t a typical biography; Woolf took four thousand years of Sackville-West ancestry and combined them into one character, whose life in the novel spans centuries. The plot is complicated; Orlando switches genders about halfway through the novel, though this gives the character little pause. Queer identities didn’t mean in Woolf’s day what they do now, and they certainly didn’t in the eras Orlando takes place in. For instance, I like to say that Shakespeare was bisexual, but the truth is that Elizabethans never would have considered their sexual identities in those terms. Sex was sex and they loved who they loved; what to us seems queer, to them might have been nothing to write home about. But it’s all situational, which is why I prefer to refer to Orlando with they/them pronouns—because rarely have I seen a character who captures gender’s fluidity the way Orlando does.

Orlando begins the novel as a young man who has caught the eye of Queen Elizabeth I. They are everything a man ought to be—brilliant and cocky, wealthy and well-read, a gifted yet self-conscious writer, and quite the playboy. A woman scorns them in love, and after cursing women and running off to the Middle East to find themself for a couple of centuries (as one does), Orlando awakes as a woman.

Upon their return to England, reveling in their new woman-body, Orlando (as they often do) becomes lost in their thoughts, taking time to think of the pros and cons of being man or woman:

“And here it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each.”

“She seemed to vacillate.” To me, it is clear—in our twenty-first century terms, Orlando is genderfluid. Some days they are one, some days they are the other; some days they are neither; some days they are both.

Why did Virginia make this choice? If this novel was really supposed to be a love letter to Vita, if Orlando is supposed to be Vita, why write Orlando as someone who vacillates between genders?

It definitely could have been that Virginia was thinking about gender theory before the field had even been incorporated into liberal arts course schedules, but it was probably because Vita herself was quite the gender rebel. Virginia likely took inspiration from Vita’s masculine attitudes in the thirties and forties. Vita was, simply put, a heartbreaker. She went from person to person, taking and leaving, which at the time was definitely a privilege granted only to men.

Maybe Virginia thought her love for Vita transcended gender. Maybe she thought nothing of it, and was having fun with her funky, magical novel. All I know is that when I read Orlando for the first time, I had just come out of the closet as nonbinary. I felt seen in way I rarely had, and not just because I saw a character who sat so comfortably between genders as I did. I also felt seen because Virginia’s love of Vita comes through so clearly, so intensely in her writing.

When we first see Orlando, Virginia goes on and on about how stunning he is—“happy the mother who bears, happier still the biographer who records the life of such a one!” His red cheeks were “covered with peach down; the down on his lips was only a little thicker than the down on his cheeks. The lips themselves were short and slightly drawn back over teeth of an exquisite and almond whiteness.” And, true to form, she goes on for an entire page. She never wastes a chance to tell us how beautiful Orlando is. When I remember who Orlando is modeled after, it makes me giddy.

Virginia’s love letter to Vita is one of the most romantic stories I’ve ever read. It reminds me of the beauty of queer love. It reminds me that there is a legacy of queer women writers who loved one another, who wrote about that love, and whose love has since become immortal.

Jane Austen A Study in Classics

A Study in Classics: Dating Tips from Jane Austen

In the age of online dating, it seems like finding the perfect partner should be a breeze. All we have to do is swipe right, right? In reality, dating is still just as difficult as it was before Tinder. Even though a million new obstacles are in our way, dating advice remains the same. Any episode of Sex and the City will tell you if he leaves the seat up at your house, put your guard up. If they leave toenail clippings all over the floor, if their mother calls three times during your first date, beware! 

My favorite dating tips, however, come not from Sex and the City but from a certain feminist author born in 1775.

Jane Austen has been teaching us how to navigate love for centuries, and her lessons remain relatable. While it’s true that certain social developments have made it a lot easier for us to find and choose our partners, the dating scene hasn’t changed all that much since Jane Austen made her living writing about it. I like to think of her as the Edwardian Carrie Bradshaw, only she’s writing less about sex and more about gender inequality and sexist property inheritance laws. 

Here are some dating tips gleaned from Jane Austen’s prophetic romance novels:

First impressions are not everything.

When Mr. Darcy first proposed to Elizabeth, he thought it would be romantic to list all of the things he hated about her. And while it might not have gone the way he planned, eventually he and Elizabeth realized that they were wrong about each other. Foot in mouth syndrome is real. So, if on your first date you blather on about how much you hate hair metal and then realize your date has been wearing a Motley Crüe t-shirt the whole time, don’t despair. True love overcomes! 

Never settle for less than you deserve. 

In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne says, “The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!” 

Marianne almost falls for Willoughby’s tricks, but realizes in the end that she would never have been happy with someone so selfish. She knows what she is worth, and it isn’t a money-hungry jerk. 

Know your worth! If you leave a date feeling worse about yourself than you felt going into it, it might be time to delete their number. You don’t have to settle for someone who puts you down. What do you require? Will you settle for less than that?

“What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Don’t put all of your self-worth into each date you have. You’re more than a sucky Tinder date. When you lose your faith, follow Jane Austen’s advice: go for a walk, a hike, a year-long backpacking excursion in the desert. Or, if you’re a little less dramatic than the rest of us, curl up with some tea and watch David Attenborough documentaries. It’s what Jane Austen would have done. 

“Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.” 

This advice from Northanger Abbey might be the best dating advice Jane Austen ever gave us. If you’re ever feeling scorned in love, you’re not alone—so don’t go through it alone! Call your friends. Show up at their doorstep with takeout Chinese food and cry in their arms. That’s what friends are for. In the morning, you might realize that friendship is the finest balm for heartbreak. And don’t worry if you feel like you’re imposing on your friends—someday, you’ll return the favor. 

There is a reason readers have loved Jane Austen for so many centuries. She understands love better than anyone. She understands heartbreak. She understands how to deal with rude relatives (I’m looking at you, Lady Catherine). 

Jane Austen was the first Cosmopolitan Magazine. Her words ring truer and truer every day. So, if I can offer my own snippet of dating advice—if you’re heartbroken, read Jane Austen. If you’re in love, read Jane Austen. If you’re somewhere in the middle, you should probably read Jane Austen. You can thank me later.

Oscar Wilde Study in Classics

A Study in Classics: Oscar Wilde and Camp

If you had a Twitter in April of 2019, you probably remember this year’s Met Gala, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual gala to celebrate the year’s newest fashion exhibit, hosted by Vogue editor, Anna Wintour. For weeks, it was all anyone could talk about—the biggest fashion event of the year. As always, it was themed. This year’s was “Notes On Camp.”

Now, if you aren’t a gender studies major, you may have been a tad confused when the theme was revealed. Some Twitter users wondered if the Kardashians would walk the red carpet in camouflage with a grill in tow. But camp, in the Met Gala’s context, was based on Susan Sontag’s essay, “Notes on Camp.

Camp, stripped down to its bare bones, is an evolved type of aestheticism. Whereas aestheticism values artistic, material, and physical beauty, camp takes it all much, much farther. In fact, Sontag wrote that “the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.”

Camp does not simply value the beauty and perfection in things, but the outrageousness of them, the absurdity. Camp is supposed to make you double-take. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable, aroused, excited, emotional. “Camp,” she wrote, “sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”

It is for these reasons that Susan Sontag dedicated her essay to Oscar Wilde—the King of Camp.

Oscar Wilde was born on October 16, 1854. He came of age at the height of the Victorian era and, while an undergraduate student at Oxford, began to gain some popularity as a poet and scholar. He married in 1884 and, in the years following his marriage and the births of his two children, created a magnificent outpour of prose.

The homoerotic themes in his work were considered immoral, highly contested by Victorian critics and readers—and would play a large part in his imprisonment years later. However, any publicity is good publicity. His next three works—each of them plays, including The Importance of Being Earnest—achieved monumental success. Wilde had solidified himself in the canon of English literature and established a career as a popular playwright.

 Around this time, too, he met Lord Alfred Douglass, the man who would become the love of his life. The two were inseparable for four years, before Douglass’s father accused Wilde of homosexuality and Wilde was arrested in 1895. He spent two years in prison, and the last three years of his life in exile. He died on November 30, 1900.

While there is sadness in his story, there is also an everlasting legacy. Oscar Wilde’s literature is painfully clever, sometimes outright hilarious. And, often, it is campy.

In his day, “camp” was aestheticism, which is “the elevation of taste and the pursuit of beauty as chief principles in art and in life.” Oscar Wilde knew, perhaps more than anyone, the importance of appearance. He venerated physical beauty, valued it above everything. To Wilde, art was the most important thing—and the least important. Anything of value had to have artistic beauty—otherwise, what was the point? The preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray explains Wilde’s feelings pretty well:

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This, of course, makes Oscar Wilde sound extremely shallow. He may have been. But what set Wilde apart from other shallow, conceited, wealthy aristocrats was that his idea of beauty was far from conventional. He was a dandy! He dressed flamboyantly, in outrageous colors and fabrics that made Victorian propriety blush and shudder. Hell—he wrote an entire novel about the corruptive powers of vanity. Dorian Gray’s conventional beauty is, in the end, his downfall.

Nowadays, when we think of camp, we think of drag. Trixie Mattel, one of the most popular drag queens of our age, describes herself as a camp queen, because of her over-the-top makeup looks and outrageous humor. Sontag wrote that camp “is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” This applies to drag pretty well, since one of the principle ideas of drag is to turn conventional beauty standards on their head, and to turn the everyday into something absurd. That, in fact, is the entire premise of The Importance of Being Earnest. The plot line is as convoluted as a Shakespeare comedy, but I think this trailer sums it up pretty well.

This video information is available as a Text Transcript with Description of Visuals.

Their costumes! The exaggerated “…fooouuund? In a…handbaaaaag?” This is camp. Wilde’s satirical dialogue lends itself entirely to an over-the-top performance, and audiences have been obsessed for decades.

Camp has evolved since Wilde’s day. When he was gallivanting around England as a dandy, the world thought he was mad. Now, all of the things he loved, the absurdity of Victorian values, bright green suits adorned with carnations, and greatly exaggerated beauty—there is a community that celebrates this kind of outlandish style. Drag is one of the best examples of camp in practice today, and Oscar Wilde would have loved it.

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance,” Sontag wrote. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Some attendees simply wore skimpy outfits and doused their hair in oil, calling it camp. Some men wore earrings and were praised for subverting the gender binary. But camp is about the spectacle. Lizzo, in a pink Marc Jacobs cloak with feathers trailing behind her, appeared to be the only one who got it right.

A Waltz of Shadows: A Review of The Job of the Wasp  by Colin Winnette

“…wonderfully creepy and peculiar, a sort of gothic rendition of Lord of the Flies,” are the words Patrick Dewitt uses to describe Colin Winnette’s book, The Job of the Wasp. The influence of Lord of the Flies is certainly apparent as the young narrator tries to make his way through the feral games and power hungry behaviors that surround him at a school for orphaned boys. The disappearance of every semblance of adult authority and the island-esque seclusion of the school gives these boys the opportunity to create their own rules and their own attempt at order. However, unlike Lord of the Flies, these boys aren’t just thrown into their new, self-made society.  Instead, they are eased terrifyingly into it, one murder at a time.

The murder mystery adds to the Gothic setting that Winnette has created, allowing a sense of hazy ambiguity to creep into the plot.  Mysterious voices are heard outside the windows of this school that has no name.  We follow a narrator whom we know little about and who knows nothing about the real reason for the murders. Boys who nobody knows appear only in the dark; ghost stories haunt the halls; questions remain unanswered. You’ll find yourself questioning the reality of this story.  Do ghosts really exist here, or is all of this just a convoluted plan cooked up by some sadistic genius?

The narrator’s voice is very unique for the given circumstances: a young boy of questionable age ranging anywhere from six to possibly fifteen, who lives in an orphanage with violently aggressive boys where a series of murders and disappearances is occurring. One would expect this character to be overly emotional, to believe in any story (fact or fiction) that he’s told, and to be just as aggressive as the other boys. However, Winnette creates a voice that is highly mature, and is desperate to hold onto what is reasonable and rational.  Not only does this voice constantly make me question the narrator’s age, but what he must have gone through to remain so calm in such a crisis situation. This builds a palpable sense of suspicious intrigue in the narrator, yet I can’t help but be compelled to trust him. I believe what he says to be true because he tries very hard to be unbiased. He states that “these are the facts as I know them, though others may know something else”.

This book sucks you in with its questions and its hauntings, but you stay because of the narrator’s peculiar believability. It’s a fantastic waltz of shadows and understanding. Though most of the time there is great confusion, you never feel so lost that you become frustrated. This is a classic medium of the Gothic genre; sowing confusion and darkness, yet never pushing the reader to the point of anger. Instead, what the reader doesn’t know blossoms into something beyond curiosity: a genuine desire to know a truth that may never come.

Colin Winnette has shown great skill in handling this very odd and dark genre.  And what a better place to house such uncertainty than the trademark secluded island, so to speak, of Lord of the Flies? Far from prying eyes of society, where rules become mere guidelines, and boys run amuck; how will these wild children fare in such an environment? I suggest you read The Job of the Wasp and find out for yourself.

October Literary Horoscopes


The Ram / Courageous, Adventurous, Independent / Domineering, Selfish, Arrogant

Guess what, Aries? It’s time to bust out your favorite candies and light those candles (bonus points if they’re spooky). This month will be all about fun and frivolity, which has to be a welcome change after that doozy of a summer. Embrace the season as early as you want, you Halloween junkie you.

Before you work on your pumpkin-carving technique, start with this platter of mini-horror treats.

  • Teaser: “He plunged his cleaver into the pages of the novel. Blood spurted from the binding. The words on the pages screamed and writhed. The writer stared in horror. ‘Now it’s ready to be published,’ the editor said.”


The Bull / Loyal, Friendly, Resourceful / Self-Indulgent, Possessive, Greedy

Toward the beginning of the month, your pad will be empty for a few days, but don’t let those four walls keep you caged (unless you want to be—hey, I don’t judge). If last month was all about solitude, then October is your time to shine in the friend department. Chat up a few coworkers and hit one or five Halloween parties.

Check out your ghoulish story pick first, though.

  • The Monster on Her Cheek, by Rebecca Roland: Vivid, enthralling, and unique, this story gently peels back layers of the horror genre to reveal a surprisingly soulful core.
  • Teaser: The monster’s presence made Wendy’s stomach curdle. But it was tied to Jane through shared blood, a shared nervous system. It wasn’t her, but it was part of her, and Wendy had ignored it this whole time, ignoring part of her daughter.”


The Twins / Intelligent, Adaptable, Creative / Moody, Opportunistic, Inconsistent

This month, some oh-so-fun stress mountains will hit you like a ton of bricks. Stay the course and you’ll climb them in no time. Just don’t watch movies like 127 Hours for inspiration. You could try to adopt a Zen attitude, but then again, I hear bitchiness is good for the complexion.

Maybe this delightful read can help. Set down those hiking gloves and check it out.

  • Zombie Widows, by Natalie Graham: Zombies, napalm, and widows, oh my! This one takes your classic zombie story and turns it on its head. The ending is a surprise, and it’s perfect (no spoilers).
  • Teaser: “I didn’t know why it was only men who returned as zombies. Neither did anyone else. Scientists who studied the phenomenon (and weren’t squeezed to death by zombies) were puzzled.”


The Crab / Honest, Generous, Faithful / Insecure, Needy, Crabby

In the middle of October, you’ll need to leave your nest for some spontaneity. C’mon, I know it’s painful, but you’ll be rewarded for good behavior. That cutie you’ve awkwardly been making eye contact with, you know, before you dart away? They’ll be receptive to some down n’ dirty flirting around All Hallows’ Eve.

Remember to celebrate with some good ol’ howling at the moon. Tis the season, after all! Speaking of…

  • The Greyhound, by Dafydd McKimm: This simple yet spellbinding premise makes for a fascinating read, and the non-linear format only adds to the suspense. Dip your toes into the water—you won’t regret it.
  • Teaser: “On the Greyhound, everyone’s interested in each other’s secrets. You don’t get this sort of thing on a regular commuter bus—or so I hear from my sisters who spend more time on land than I do.”


The Lion / Cheery, Noble, Imaginative / Demanding, Boastful, Melodramatic

Don’t give into the soap opera that is your life just yet. I know the spotlight is tempting, but good things come to those who wait. Dive into the drama after the middle of the month and you’ll score two of your three desires. Don’t pout—you’ll only get one measly wish if you leap in now.

Since I can read your fortune, I should tell you that your October story pick is downright killer. Heh.

  • The Eleventh Floor Ghost, by Megan Giddings: This flash fiction piece is utter perfection. At first, it’ll make you want to find a retro hotel, and assemble a monster girl gang. By the end, you’ll raise a silent toast to the Eleventh Floor Ghost.
  • Teaser: “Enthusiastic guests try to request floors based on hauntings. Seventh Floor Ghost specializes in animals. She starts each evening by controlling cockroaches; forcing them to skitter across the carpets, move up and down the walls.”


The Maiden / Practical, Diligent, Kind / Obsessive, Self-Righteous, Compulsive

October might be topsy-curvy for you, Virgo. You’ll be a rock star when it comes to the three f’s: friends, family, and fun. Work is a whole other story, though. Your practical nature will demand that you fix this—and you should—but let that gorgeous hair down, too. Oh, and sharpen your nails around the 25th.   

First thing’s first: Embrace the theme of transformation with this startling, vibrant read.

  •  The Fire Eaters, by Philippa Bowe: The story will take you to some unexpected places. It invites and frightens in equal measure, and it’ll make you want to shed your pesky skin.
  • Teaser: “Then they appear. Extravagant leotards, jewel-coloured carapaces like exotic beetles, enclosing three women. Gleaming muscles, disorderly hair. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
the cupid rules us all by narghee-la is licensed under CC BY 2.0


The Scales / Compassionate, Trustworthy, Peacemaker / Disorganized, Materialistic, Indecisive

You might have felt like a zombie these past few months, but October is all about you! So buy your favorite chocolate, pop in a movie, and pull on your comfiest Grandma sweater. Keep doing you till your favorite holiday rolls around. After all, the dead won’t raise themselves.

The demons in your story pick have a similar problem, but they turn those lemons into some fine lemonade.

  • Pocketful of Souls, by Jennifer Lee Rossman: A well written and delightfully creepy read, this one will put you in a Halloween mood, but leave you with a smile on your face.
  • Teaser: “Amy put the soul in her basket and started up time again. She liked to make the souls look like chocolates; sometimes, when the Darkness wasn’t looking, she would nibble on them a bit.”


The Scorpion / Purposeful, Charismatic, Cunning / Aggressive, Manipulative, Possessive

October will be an irksome month of indecision for you. Try to ride it out and let your brain hang out in the slow lane (hey, we all need a break sometimes). Around the 20th, you can remedy this by communing with nature or throwing yourself into a creative project. If all fails, try some Beetlejuice therapy.  

And read your story pick, of course.

  • The Arms, by Jennifer Lynn Krohn: This thriller starts off with a jaw-dropping first line (kindly included below). It will grab you and not let go—I’m talking hook, line, and sinker.
  • Teaser: “The father threw his daughter’s arms into the trash heap, but the next morning—the armless girl long gone—the two arms lay on the table as though the girl was still connected to them. The fingers on the right hand drummed out a beat.” 


The Archer / Straightforward, Optimistic, Adventurous / Careless, Impatient, Hotheaded

The middle of fall will greet you like an old shirt-stealing, food-eating, lovable friend. Archers of your caliber thrive in winter, but you’ll still enjoy the crisp air and orange leaves of apple-bobbing season. Go with the flow—which you’re good at—and dig down deep to access that well of patience (I know it’s in there, somewhere).

Maybe this monthly read will help.

  • Buckshot, by Alex Terrell: Told in a rhythmic, captivating style, this story pulses with life and curiosity. It’ll make a part of you want to get lost in the woods . . . but bring a flashlight, okay.
  • Teaser: “Like the hands of a clock, they made revolutions around one another and ate in silence. And I watched them load their guns. They disappeared into the woods just before daybreak.”


The Mountain Sea-Goat / Traditional, Responsible, Ambitious / Unforgiving, Blunt, Pessimistic

Strut your stuff in October and ignore the haters. They’re just jealous of your sparkly to do lists and milky-gel pens (who isn’t, honestly). Take the time to feed professional and personal gremlins this month. Don’t forget to indulge a little, too—it’s pumpkin-spice season.

Speaking of indulgences, I handpicked this story just for you.

  • Three Rules for Befriending Ghosts, by Benjamin Thomas: Your rule-loving mind is sure to adore this piece. It’s funny, insightful, and sweet. Plus, who doesn’t love a good ghost story?
  • Teaser: “Yes. Even a ten-year old will pound her small spectral fists on the table when you put a hotel on Boardwalk.  Flippin’ Monopoly, man.”


The Water-Bearer / Intellectual, Open-Minded, Outgoing / Unpredictable, Self-Conscious, Chaotic

Old relationships will rise from the grave this month (see what I did there). You might be tempted to give them the boot, but a few may warrant some stale Halloween candy and a conversation over spiked cider. You’ll be rewarded with another great hair day, not to mention a second date with your favorite barista.

While you’re busting out the cotton spider webs and dangly skeletons, I have a gorgeously penned story waiting in your queue.

  • The Dead Are Not Hungry, by Justin Lawrence Daugherty: In this stunner, you will take a close look at one family’s heartbreak. The story is haunting and eerie and builds with purpose. Truly unlike any zombie tale you’ve read before.
  • Teaser: “He watches her go and does not go after her. She doesn’t know him, and he wishes he could be unburdened with his knowing.”


The Fish / Charitable, Intuitive, Artistic / Timid, Impractical, Indolent

Obstacles will melt away like butter in your professional life. You’ll also hit some fitness goals this month, so keep breaking out the lime-green spandex! There might be a little doom n’ gloom on the horizon, but no need to worry about that yet. Much.

Anyway! Save this flash fiction piece for a well-deserved treat.

  • A Warning from the Wood, by Madeleine Ebacher: Deep, dark, and ethereal, this one is an utter feast for the senses. It progresses nicely, and finishes neatly. You will want more, of course, but it doesn’t pay to be greedy.
  • Teaser: “He didn’t know the damage already done. His eyes gone milky. He’d already been changed. The dirt, the bark was in him. He might have left the woods, but the woods had not left him.” 

Re-Reading Avengers #1-10 from a Contemporary Perspective

In the early 1960s, thanks to Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, Marvel Comics created characters with realistic problems. The Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm argued and fist-fought like brothers. While Batman was rich, high school student Peter Parker struggled to financially support himself and his aunt after his uncle’s death. The Hulk was, in some respects, Bruce Banner’s repressed self-loathing and rage given really big green muscles. Shunned by humans because of their genetic mutations, the X-Men’s adventures are generally considered an exploration of American bigotry. Even super-rich genius Tony Stark battled a life-threatening heart condition and, later, alcoholism. Thor, a literal god, existed for years with a physically challenged human alter ego.

Lee, who co-created these characters and wrote their early storylines, also paid much more careful attention to  narrative continuity than his competitors, thus updating serialized storytelling for a new generation.

But how well have these comics aged? Marvel Masterworks: Avengers #1-10 collects the titular issues in a relatively affordable package, so I recently re-read them for the first time in years.

As adventure stories for an audience of mostly young boys, they hold up pretty well. As artifacts of our culture, they sometimes fail to transcend the problems of their time.

For those who don’t know, the original Avengers—Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man (Hank Pym), the Wasp (Janet Van Dyne), and the Hulk—are accidentally brought together by Loki, when a plan to trap Thor goes awry. In the first ten issues, the Avengers also battle the Space Phantom, Baron Zemo and his Master of Evil, the Sub-Mariner, Kang the Conqueror, Immortus, and the Lava Men. Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man; Captain America joins the team when the Sub-Mariner unknowingly releases Cap from suspended animation; the Hulk leaves; and Iron Man’s armor evolves.

Through it all, the action seldom lapses, and the Avengers’ occasional bickering reminds us that even colorful adventurers can be impatient, even petty.

However, from a storytelling perspective, these issues, which many of us (myself included) often regard as sacred, suffer from problems more mature readers might notice.

For instance, the near-constant action leaves little space for character development. The bulk of these heroes’ growth happens in their individual series. Sometimes, one storyline concludes only for the next one to begin immediately. During lulls, the team separates, leaving no time for the dynamic to deepen or evolve. Though this begins to change in issue #16, when the team’s lineup shuffles, The Avengers initially feels more like a series of set-pieces than an ongoing story.

Lee also eschewed realism in many cases. To call pre-70s comic books “soft-science fiction” would, in most cases, be generous. Wild, sometimes goofy “rays” are responsible for much of the villains’ weaponry, perhaps giving rise to the joke about rays in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Iron Man’s armor is powered by transistors, and if you don’t remember that, the dialogue will remind you, a lot. Thor’s hammer can do pretty much whatever the plot calls for, whether it makes sense or not. We might also wonder how Attila the Hun speaks perfect English and where in history Immortus found Paul Bunyan.

It’s all fun, but much like that action movie you loved when you were ten, you might revisit these issues and notice a lot more cracks than you did before.

Still, they’re adventure stories for kids, right?

Sure, but the Wasp is characterized as flighty (no pun intended) and man-hungry. Avengers #1 waits all the way until page 5, panel seven—the first time we see Ant-Man and the Wasp—for things to get sexist. When Janet insists on accompanying Hank, he says, “I thought you weren’t coming, Jan. I can’t see why you have to stop and powder your nose every time we have a mission.” Because of course she does, right?

In the next panel, Janet accuses Hank of “sound[ing] like a stuffy old bachelor again,” to which he replies, “And I intend to remain that way. Now see if you can’t be quiet long enough for me to activate the double catapult.” So Janet talks too much and wants to trap Hank in marriage. Yet she also drools over “that dreamy Thor” and pretty much any muscular, traditionally handsome man who wanders into view.

You also get the feeling that the Wasp isn’t really considered a full member. If Rick Jones is Captain America’s sidekick, it seems like the Wasp is Giant-Man’s, tolerated at the big table because she can shrink, fly, and fill out a costume. When she speaks, it’s usually to flirt or talk about her makeup or hint that she’d really, really, really like to marry Hank.

In 2019, we know a lot more about how these sorts of images can negatively affect people. But given the advent of second-wave feminism, it’s hard to imagine that Marvel didn’t have some idea that they could do better.

Lee’s early Marvel Comics were often politically progressive—see Spider-Man’s representations of empathy and other-directed action, or environmentalist undertones in stories involving the Sub-Mariner. The Avengers would eventually delve into social problems—Hank Pym’s verbal and physical abuse of the Wasp, federal oversight of private organizations, and so forth. But we don’t see much of that in the first year of the series.

In these issues of The Avengers, some of the best, most human moments involve Captain America. The part about his having been in suspended animation is pure comic-book plotting, but the stories interrogate what such a person would really face—the loss of family and friends, the trauma of feeling out of place, the difficulty in restarting one’s life when you have nothing.

In Cap’s case, he must also face his deep-seeded guilt in having failed to protect Bucky Barnes. Throughout issues #4-10, he wrestles with his conscience in quieter moments and spends much of his time trying to bring Baron Zemo, Bucky’s killer, to justice. Cap cannot help but draw parallels between Bucky and Rick, which leaves him both desperate for connection and petrified of losing another friend.

These sorts of moments are, for a Marvel book, surprisingly sparse in the series’ first ten issues. But when they appear, they are welcome and, for the era and medium, poignant. 1964’s Issue #9, for instance, introduces Wonder Man, a disgraced industrialist blackmailed by Zemo into infiltrating and betraying the Avengers. His eventual change of heart and self-sacrifice mark him as a hero, but it also seems connected to John F. Kennedy’s contemporaneous call for Americans to think less selfishly. As much as I love Avengers #1-10, they aren’t the best representation of the series or of Marvel’s crucial and critical examinations of the kinds of real-world problems readers encounter, in some form, every day. Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, with his romantic entanglements, his inability to make ends meet, his self-made costume and equipment, and his futile attempts to balance his work as a hero with his private life, is much more relatable than the Batman of the Sixties. Working class blind man Matt Murdock seemed much more human than Superman, who was just too godlike and perfect. In these early issues, The Avengers often sacrifices relatability for sheer kineticism. Nevertheless, they remain fun to read and, for the longtime comics nerd, essential.

Resistance Writers: An Interview with Kalamu ya Salaam

Thomas Chisholm (TC)

How did you get involved with the Octavia’s Brood project? How did the editors, Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, discover your work?

Kalamu ya Salaam (KS)

I don’t remember the specifics but I was invited to participate. I’m not sure how the editors found out about my work in general. “Manhunters” is previously unpublished.


What was your inspiration for “Manhunters?” Was it a piece you were already developing or did it come about once you were asked to participate in the Octavia’s Brood anthology?


Feminism has long been one of my major areas of interest. “Manhunters” is from a major fiction work that was written years ago but which I never completed.  


What kind of impact have you seen Octavia’s Brood make since its publication in 2015? What role do you think politically motivated fiction can play in today’s climate?


From time to time I see references to Octavia’s Brood. My impression is that the book is generally acknowledged as one of the major early works of the “afro-futurism” movement.

All fiction is politically motivated in the sense that the author is either re-writing or re-interpreting history or contemporary conditions, or the writer is projecting a “what-if” view of the future. Every piece of fiction either supports or challenges the past, the present, or attempts to predict the future. In most cases the writer, either consciously or unconsciously, is attempting to grapple with, understand, or critique what once existed, currently exists, or could possibly come into existence.

Video is the dominant form of written expression (smart phones, computers, television) and in combination with the widespread use of digital technology, literacy is near universal within our country in the 21st century. The combined forces of technically accessible video and the universality of literacy means that the majority of our thoughts and aspirations are informed or influenced by fiction, i.e. interpretations rather than strict representations of material and social reality. Moreover, the culture we live within is consumed as an afterthought rather than in the moment of its creation. In 99% of the cases, no one reads the work while it is being written but rather years and sometimes decades after it was composed.

There are only three possibilities: 1. Maintain what exists. 2. Bring back or re-create what previously existed. 3. Bring something new into existence. Most modern “writers” are trying to create something new, create work that previously did not exist. Just by being something new, work is most often a critique of the present or past rather than an extension of the present or past. Indeed, the very label fiction, implies that which is not the current reality, that which does not or did not exist. However, in order to create something truly new we must be deeply familiar with both the past and the present. The “truly new” is something beyond what is merely new to the author but rather is something that is new to both the artist and the audience.

Indeed, the very definition of being “modern” is to be new within the context of what is. So-called “politically motivated” artwork is artwork that consciously aims not only to be new (i.e. novel) but also insists on either critiquing or promoting the past, present, and future. Fiction generally is therefore subversive in that rather than focus on and/or encourage acceptance of what is, fiction projects and encourages what isn’t. To the degree that fiction advocates something that is beyond the control of the dominant forces of society, to that same degree such fiction is dangerous.


In the current climate the United States is in, I see a lot of people (myself included) criticizing the powers that be, while taking little action. How did you find your voice, and your place within activist circles/movements? How have those experiences shaped your writing? What guidance might you give to aspiring artists/activists? 


I found my voice as a writer under the tutelage of middle school teachers who introduced me to black literature and fostered my interest in reading. In the late fifties when I grew up, I was not interested in racialized literature. While in school I read books about the life cycles of animals such as wolves and badgers. After being introduced to Langston Hughes, I read the writers he introduced to me, which means that I read all of the writers of the so-called Harlem Renaissance, writers whom I now identify as part of the Marcus Garvey era. This included Caribbean and African writers because Hughes produced anthologies that literally led me to Africa and all around the world.

I was active in both the civil rights and the black power movements. I never thought of my writing as separate from my social concerns, nor did I think of art as distinct from activism. Black music shaped my writing. I wanted to create work that was as forceful and as relevant as was our music.

My advice is know yourself, study the world. Knowing the self requires us to be deeply self-critical. Studying the world requires us to travel, to move beyond the familiar and to become comfortable with what is different from where and how we were born and grew up.


What kinds of fiction or what particular authors have shaped your thinking? When writing fiction, what comes first: the concepts and ideals you want to explore, or the characters? Do you write with a political goal in mind?


I do not and have not read much fiction. Early on in the sixties, my dominant influence in fiction was A Wreath For Udomo by Peter Abrahams. In terms of a body of work, I’ve read and enjoyed Milan Kundera.

Most of my work is concept/ideal driven. However, my major piece of fiction is “Walking Blues, A Meditation On The Life And Legend Of Robert Johnson.” “Walking Blues” is unpublished but excerpts have been published in anthologies and literary magazines.

Sometimes I feel like a nut, sometimes I don’t. Generally, I do not have a specific political starting point or goal. However, I have done work for specific purposes including writing advertising and publicity assignments.


Throughout your life you’ve done a lot of work educating young people. What’s something they have taught you?


Working with young people has helped me to keep my work accessible to my contemporary audience.


What are you currently working on, politically and/or creatively?


I am mainly organizing my work from over the years in a variety of genres: poetry, fiction, essays, drama, and screenplays. My latest non-fiction book is Be About Beauty, which includes a recent essay focusing on care-giving.

Resistance Writers: An Interview with Morrigan Phillips

Thomas Chisholm (TC)

How did you get involved with the Octavia’s Brood project? How did the editors, Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, discover your work?

Morrigan Phillips (MP)

Walidah and I had worked together as editors at Left Turn Magazine. That’s how we first met. It was on an issue about visionary fiction and its role in social movements. Walidah was at the time a guest editor (she later joined as a permanent editor). That issue meant so much to me. I had always been making connections between politics and the science fiction and fantasy stories I read, watched, listened to and created. But until then I didn’t have many people to talk to about it. That issue really cracked it open. It was the only issue of Left Turn to sell out completely, a testament to how deeply the discussion resonated with people. After that Walidah and I did some workshops together at the US Social Forum in Detroit on visionary fiction writing and storytelling and social change work.

I like to say that adrienne and I have a friendship that transcends space and time because I’m not sure when or even how we met. But we did and it feels ageless. Was it at a US Social Forum? At a training? An Allied Media Conference? Who knows! But we’ve known each other a while and experienced many overlaps in our work and enjoy many friends in common. As it is in this world we just comfortably got nested together in the same networks.

One evening I got an email from Walidah and adrienne about this new project, Octavia’s Brood. It was already in the works but they were feeling a lack of more fantasy-based stories. Knowing that fantasy is my preferred realm of thought and existence Walidah reached out and that was that.


What was your inspiration for “The Long Memory?” Was it pieces you were already developing or did it come about once you were asked to participate in the Octavia’s Brood anthology?


At the time Walidah and adrienne reached out to me the largest hunger strike by prisoners in Guantanamo Bay was underway. As I read in excruciating detail how they were force-feeding the prisoners on strike I was struck by how little the practice of force-feeding people on hunger strike has changed over the centuries. The descriptions were almost the same in all details to that of suffragettes who were force-fed during hunger strikes. In my own history, coming from an Irish family I knew the story of how the suffragettes’ hunger strikes were modeled after an Irish practice of refusing to eat until the person who wronged you agreed to eat with you to discuss restoration. That was the tradition that Bobby Sands and the other Hunger Strikers invoked when they gave their lives to the cause of Irish freedom.

All of this memory was mixing in my head. Blending the present and past. Bobby Sands, the suffragettes, the prisoners in Guantanamo, their action pulled on the same threads from the past and that had power in each case.  I had started to think of the ability to hold onto memory as a superpower—feared by some and revered by others. And the Long Memory is feared most of all.

The Long Memory is an idea my father taught me through his work as a storyteller and folk singer. The past never goes anywhere, he would say. It has a power that only grows with time, so long as we remember. Memory is always traveling through our actions, tying our past and present and future together. It is not just our memories but also the memories of the world that come to us in the form of stories, songs, images, poems and so on. These are our present guides as we tie the past and future together. I had started to place the news of Guantanamo Bay into a larger fantasy tale of the power of memory and the tragedy felt by all when the Long Memory is lost.


What kind of impact have you seen Octavia’s Brood make since its publication in 2015? What role do you think politically motivated fiction can play in today’s climate?


Making connections between sci-fi and fantasy and the politics of the time is not new. Writers and creators have been at it for ages. But one of the things I saw OB do was help spread those conversations about visionary fiction in social change work to more and more spaces. Especially organizing spaces but also in political writing and reporting. I think that Walidah and adrienne were there with others in recognizing a moment to capture a burst of energy around these ideas and gave them a place to congregate so they could expand.

Which is really important at this moment because, not to sound dramatic, but the world is kind of ending. Many works of visionary fiction can act as guides for survival in dramatically bad times. Sadly I don’t think we’ll see a rise of dragons to speak the language of creation that will restore balance or find an all-powerful magical spell book to undo all the damage. But we will need to form more fellowships and go on more quests and tap into the magic of nature and relationships more. Whether overtly political or not, fiction of the fantastical and visionary kind can be instructive. It can also be a sandbox to play around in, expanding ideas and building plans.

I think now is a wonderful time to be moving discourse into the world of visionary fiction. Its instructive but also flexes our imaginations, getting them working and in good shape. We are not going to weather these hard times without our imaginations. We’re going to have to imagine our way out of this and into the future we desire. We have to imagine new ways of being in the world together. Imagine new constructs, new methods, new configurations. Our imaginations are going to need to be busy building the new world and that often starts in stories. And to be most useful we can’t make those stories devoid of politics. After all, for many of us, our bodies and lives are political.


You’re a “direct action trainer,” how do you define that role? What does it take for a person to commit their self to direct action?


Yeah, I’ve been doing direct action trainings for a long time through multiple movements. I came up in the Anti-globalization movement and have moved through the years on the ebbs and flows of movements responding to social injustice. I wasn’t always a trainer but I was trained by incredible people early in my engagement in movement work. As I grew in the work I recognized that this training was invaluable to me. I began to see a way that we make movements sustainable is to make training more available and meaningful. I’d also gone through some rough actions that left me on the edge of burnout. Shifting my energies to training I think also saved me from that fate.

Something I feel strongly about is that Direct Action is a part of movement work. People take spontaneous action to address wrongs and call out bullshit. But Direct Action is something specific that if you look into its depths encompasses a myriad of tactics and processes build upon over ages. When we commit to Direct Action we commit to learning these histories, the names of people and failings and triumphs of Direct Action over time. It is once again the idea of the Long Memory. We commit to making a ruckus but we also commit to being grounded in the past, present in the current moment and taking action as if each action is building our future because it is.


In the current climate the United States is in, I see a lot of people (myself included) criticizing the powers that be, while taking little action. How did you find your voice, and your place within activist circles/movements? How have those experiences shaped your writing? What guidance might you give to aspiring artists/activists?


adrienne often talks about the idea that the process we are in is like pulling back layers of a veil exposing the deepness of the pain and harm. The process hurts. We’re hurting. In our hurt, it is often a challenge to find ways to take action that feel satisfying. I rarely fault anyone for speaking but not taking action. What action looks like and how to take it has gotten… complicated. I’m not sure of the right phrasing, but I feel it all the time.

In the early 2000s, in the midst of the Anti-Globalization movement, taking action felt exciting and inevitable. Avenues for engaging in action felt so accessible to go down. There were these marches and rallies and trainings and big coordinated actions. We were even winning sometimes. The optimism was palpable. But that optimism feels depleted and turning fear, hurt and anger into action feels like a heavier lift than before. So we realign and dig in. For me, that has been working closely with my nearest and dearest to be ready to respond and be prepared.

In movement work, I’ve felt myself shift from a hand in many pots to having both my hands in just one or two pots. Seeking emersion. I’ve been going back to The Long Haul, the autobiography of Myles Horton, one of the founders of the Highlander School. I’ve been reminding myself that now more than ever we’re in it for the duration and I need to be pulling forward the memories of those who did this before and under other circumstances, to help me imagine what I’ll do now.


What kinds of fiction or what particular authors have shaped your thinking? When writing fiction, what comes first: the concepts and ideals you want to explore, or the characters? Do you write with a political goal in mind?


Ursula K. LeGuin is dear to me. In particular the Wizard of Earthsea books. The ideas in those books about how stories, memories, and words hold power have intensely impacted me. I probably think about The Farthest Shore and The Other Wind twice a week, at least. I know I drew on the ideas those stories fostered within me when writing “The Long Memory.” I took the idea of a central group of people holding onto a precious resource to protect it. But in doing so actually causing great harm. In my story it was memory. In Earthsea it was language, names, and even death. In both cases, it is the story of the far-reaching consequences of taking from the world those things that are shared and hoarding them among just a few.

Most of my stories start with a character. That character often becomes the person who struggles with an idea or concept that’s on my mind. As that evolves and I find a place for the character to be and others to be around and a world they all live in. I don’t think I come to writing with a political goal. More an ambition to write stories that create opportunities to see characters navigate political and social movements that help us reflect on our own movement through the world. For example, right now I’m working on a short story that takes place in a world long engaged in struggle. The characters have for generations been engaged in resistance work and at the time of my story, some of them are starting to feel doubts born of exhaustion while others are feeling a reckless frustration, also born from exhaustion. I’m interested in playing out a story that figures out how people realign their work after so many years of fighting in one specific way. For me, that resonates with the times as we are struggling with how to respond to and understand the rise of fascism while also contending with a climate crisis. We’ve got a lot to contend with and it’s going to take a mighty shift in how we do things.


What are you currently working on, politically and/or creatively?


One of the ways I’ve shifted my alignment is to figure out how my day-to-day paid work is movement work. For ages those were separate. Go to work all day, hit up meetings at night. But that kind of separation isn’t going to serve the long haul. I’m a social worker at a community center that serves people living with HIV/AIDS. The work I do with the community I serve is at the interchange of so many issues—incarceration, housing, mental health, substance use, food access, health care, and even transportation. The work I do is interconnected to movement work and that needs to be reflected in my conversations with people, co-workers, management, and community partners. It needs to be reflected in our programming, our groups, and our public messaging.

Creatively, I am a cosplayer. I do a lot of costumes from cartoons and books. But currently, I’m deep into creating complicated costumes from Star Wars. When you get into the study of Star Wars costuming you find that there is an immense amount of storytelling happening in the costumes. From textures and fabrics to types of stitches and patterns, colors and materials, there are things that tie together stories and characters across the franchise. It’s a wonderful process of figuring out each piece and uncovering details. There are so many details! Plus the world needs some more rebel pilots, troopers, and Jedi.

Alex London’s Black Wings Beating

Young adult novels require a spark of creativity to stand out in an ever-expanding market. Alex London’s novel, Black Wings Beating, has just that; it reaches out for originality and grabs it. Though the novel’s central coming-of-age story is familiar, twins Brysen and Kylee embark on their journey in a fantastic world full of political drama, religious strangeness, and culture that flies on the wings of falcons.

London invites his readers into Six Villages, a community at the center of his world’s bustling falcon trade. Birds of prey are not only economic bartering chips; they are status symbols as well as religious figures. It’s within this culture that Brysen and Kylee must collaborate in order to pay off debts left to them by people both loved and notdebts that can only be paid by capturing the mythical ghost eagle. This eagle dwarfs other birds of prey and has the ability to see into the hearts of those who would clip its wings and turn their secret hates into powerful weapons. Brysen, in love and desperate to prove himself, sets out to capture this eagle first, but his only hope of achieving the task lies with his sister. Kylee has no desire to work in falconry, but she has been fate-touched—gifted with the ability to speak the Hollow Tongue, making her one of the only people in Six Villages who can save Brysen’s lover, not to mention Brysen himself. Kylee’s ability, though, is much coveted, not only by some of the wealthier residents of Six Villages but also by the leader of the Kartami, a religious organization razing the land in order to “free” communities like Six Villages from their infatuation with raptors and flight.

For a young adult novel, Black Wings Beating manages to avoid a number of potential clichés. It is a coming-of-age story, yes, but the quest which Brysen and Kylee have to undertake does not establish one as more important than the other—even though Kylee is painted as the more logical of the two as well as the most gifted when it comes to falconry. Further, there isn’t a single mentor figure in the novel who isn’t subverted in some way. In fact, Brysen and Kylee both come to have unstable and mistrusting relationships with those people who would require them to sacrifice their relationship with one another in order to improve themselves individually. This loyalty to family does not come at the expense of a realistic sibling relationship, either. Brysen and Kylee snipe at one another throughout the novel, with Brysen always trying to prove himself and Kylee feeling as though she must constantly clean up the messes he leaves behind.

The novel ends in a surprising manner that I won’t spoil here, but it’s clear that, in establishing his Skybound series, Alex London intends to challenge his readers’ understanding of the traditional “journey” story line. That isn’t to say that Black Wings Beating is free of the standard quest narrative trademarks—initial conflict, compromise, and the Odyssian struggle with pride all appear in some manner. The political implications of the twins’ quest, though, draw the reader away from the traditionally singular focus of quest stories. It’s clear from the start of the novel that Brysen and Kylee’s actions have consequences that impact not only Six Villages but the whole of the world in which they live—and who they aid may vary, as intentions remain muddled and political alliances are ever-shifting. It will be interesting to see how London continues to unravel his readers’ expectations. On a less rhetorical note, it is also a delight that London early on establishes not only the dark skin of his protagonists, but also Brysen’s acceptable interest in the other boys of Six Village.

It is a wonder, though, that a book with such deep political undertones is styled as a young adult novel. This is not to say that the book’s audience wouldn’t be able to keep up with the switching sides, but it does make me wonder how London intends to develop his antagonists, protagonists, and everyone in between. How will the Skybound series elaborate on this gray morality and on the impact of war on those individuals who aren’t fate touched? Will this complexity fall short and evolve for mere shock value? Or will London be able to balance the development of his main characters with the ongoing evolution of the world he’s built? Black Wings Beating does a fine job of showing its readers that “bad guys” aren’t always incapable of empathy and that “good guys” aren’t always as morally upright as one might think. I look forward to seeing how this trend continues in the series’ upcoming additions. For the moment, though, Black Wings Beating stands as a fun and subtly complex read that will challenge its readers as much as it entertains them.