The Empress of Ice Scream
Words By Carolyn Gray, Art By Artie_Navarre
They’ve been called the best publisher in the business. And their business is the weird. In the heart of chilly Canada, the small, independent, and creepy-fabulous ChiZine Publications embraces the odd. “Actually, the challenge we constantly face,” says co-founder and author Sandra Kasturi, “is being called a horror publisher—we absolutely are, but we’re a science fiction publisher, too. And a fantasy publisher. And a graphic novel publisher. And a poetry publisher. And a noir publisher. Getting pigeonholed and judged is always a challenge for anyone.”
Kasturi would know about being pigeonholed. She is an Estonian-Canadian woman working—and succeeding—in independent genre writing and publishing.
“The climate for horror writers has changed to some degree. But I wish the climate would change so much that there would be no need for Women in Horror Month. Which sounds so pie-in-the-sky that I’m practically rolling my eyes at myself . . . But it’s good to hope. It’s good to believe the future can be different. ‘Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee’ as Hopkins said.”
ChiZine books are notable for their smart, beautiful packaging, and the exquisite quality of the stories they publish. Witness one of their recent offerings, The Bone Mother by David Demchuk, nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, The Toronto Book Award, and winner of the Sunburst Award. A series of strange, interconnected vignettes inspired by accompanying vintage photographs, it is a horror novel with haunting resonances of war. The Bone Mother encompasses what ChiZine is about: great writers and manuscripts that contribute to genre fiction in fresh, exciting ways.
I found ChiZine when I was programming writing workshops in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Hoping for some fresh, exciting twist, I scanned the online events page of our local beloved McNally Robinson Booksellers to get some ideas. Someone I’d never heard of, Michael Rowe, was coming from Toronto to launch a book, Wild Fell. My heart leapt! Horror fiction! When I’ve admitted to loving horror before, people tend to react with pity rather than interest. Literary fiction is the only intelligent fiction. Right? I emailed Rowe via his website, and he responded warmly. I took a chance and set up a horror panel based around his appearance. He was so smart and engaging, I attended his launch that night and bought his book. I am discerning and expect a lot from horror writing. Wild Fell, published by ChiZine, was intelligent, and un-put-downable. I learned ChiZine was co-led by a woman. For a genre that needs a Woman in Horror Month to promote and celebrate the contributions of women in an often misogynistic, male-dominated field, Sandra Kasturi struck me as remarkable.
And it is truly astonishing how she has embraced her love of the odd. Together with ChiZine intern Helen Marshall (award-winning author of Hair Side, Flesh Side, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, and The Migration), she founded the Toronto SpecFic Colloquium. From there sprang the Chiaroscuro Reading Series, which features writers of fiction and poetry in science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, folklore, and fairy tale. The series now has grown its presence from Toronto to Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Windsor, Peterborough, Vancouver, and Guelph. It has become clear to me that you don’t need to downplay love for a certain genre. Our people are out there. Says Kasturi: “Ah, horror! Ever the redheaded stepchild, even in the genre world. The ‘literary’ world sneers at genre fiction. Genre fiction sneers at horror. So that’s a battle we’re always fighting. Our credo is: good writing is good writing.”
Sandra Kasturi co-founded ChiZine.com in 1997 with her business partner and husband, Brett Savory. They expanded to print books in 2008. She credits their success to hard work and their refusal to accept defeat.
“We wanted books that made people think, as well as books we ourselves wanted to read. Sometimes we’ve published books that were so batshit insane, we felt we had to do it, because who else would? If nothing else, it’s sure been interesting! And weird. And fun. ‘Embrace the odd’ is our motto for a reason.”
A busy publisher with a wildly growing to-do list, Kasturi keeps up her own fiction and poetry practice by engaging with her writing group, “The Bellefire Club,” a group of ferociously clever authors based out of Toronto. “I think any time you can find a way to have some space for yourself (literal or figurative), something that is YOURS and yours alone, it leaves you with more energy for other things.”