Expanding Worlds (and Minds)

In a roundtable discussion, three alumnae working in speculative fiction talk about how the genre has grown to encompass creators and fans from all walks of life.

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Illustrations by Angelica Navarro ’21

Over the past few decades, popular culture has embraced science fiction and fantasy in ways it never has before. What was once considered niche—after all, the first Star Trek television series was cancelled after three seasons—now leads the zeitgeist; every year, a different movie based on a comic book seems to take the top spot at the box office. (Last year’s record holder was Avengers: Endgame.) With such explosive growth in the genre, it would seem to follow that more opportunities would be available for all kinds of content creators—though results have been mixed.

Three alumnae who work in the space—Alex Brown ’05, Stephanie Der ’13, and Sarah Kuhn ’99—recently chatted with Mills Quarterly about their experiences navigating what can be a tricky landscape.

Sarah Kuhn ’99 is a third-generation Japanese American and an author. Her Heroine Complex novels feature Asian American superheroines, and she has ventured into Young Adult novels with I Love You So Mochi as well a graphic novels with Shadow of the Batgirl, which was published earlier this year. Among other awards, she has been a finalist for two prestigious honors: the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment’s New Writers Award, and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

Quarterly: What piece of media did you see or read in your childhood that inspired you to pursue your interest in genre fiction?

Sarah Kuhn: I grew up in a really small, really white town, and sci-fi and fantasy showed me the potential for a bigger world out there. I grew up obsessed with all the big tentpoles—I loved Star Wars, I loved Star Trek; Deep Space Nine is my jam. I loved the X-Men in part because they were the superheroes that spend as much time arguing about their feelings and interpersonal dramas as they do fighting evil.

When I was younger, being into those things was not cool. Our library had one wall with all the sci-fi and fantasy books, so I would find a series and read everything obsessively, and I would try to find ways to sneak it into conversation even though no one knew what I was talking about. Some of the series I loved when I was younger were Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern and everything Ursula K. Le Guin.

Of course, a lot of those things were still pretty white, not super diverse. I remember it was a huge deal when Deep Space Nine came out because a black man was in charge of the space station, and that was definitely a meaningful moment. But it has taken these franchises a long time to progress toward the kind of diversity that we think of as the future.

Alex Brown: As a kid, I really loved Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were basically my entire life as a teenager. This was back in the days of landlines, so my friends and I would run to the phone and call each other during the commercials. Then, in 2008, a friend of mine sent me a clip of Spike (James Marsters from Buffy) making out with another man in a scene from Torchwood! I found out Torchwood was a spinoff of Doctor Who, so of course I had to watch that too. I became madly obsessed, and it reignited the love of science fiction and fantasy that I had as a kid. And my obsession with Doctor Who led to my job on Tor.com because I was writing massive essay-long comments about episodes of the show, and they were like, “Do you want to just get paid to write?”

I’m not a huge science fiction person—once characters start talking about hyperdrives and how a spaceship works, my eyes glaze over. But I liked Star Wars because it’s basically magic in space—they’re just pretending it’s science fiction. The more I read of it, the more I got into fantasy, and I like reading light sci-fi. Science fiction/fantasy in particular does things that standard literature doesn’t do, and it reignites that love of reading for me. It hasn’t been a continuous love, but I love it now.

In recent years, [what’s really interested me has] been the explosion of diversity in young adult fiction (YA). There’s so much in YA that you don’t get in regular (particularly genre) fiction for adults.

Stephanie Der: I started out by reading a lot of Greek and Roman mythology, and once I aged up, fantasy seemed the logical next step. I joined a teen book club that was predominantly science fiction and fantasy. That really cemented my love of the genre, and that’s pretty much exclusively what I read until college.

When I picked up N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms at Mills, that marked my turn from reading a lot of white authors in science fiction and fantasy to more works by and about women of color. I also grew up watching Hayao Miyazaki, so before I knew what fantasy was, I was watching Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro, and there was something really endearing and magical about those movies, so that’s also where my love comes from.

Sarah: It’s funny, Alex, that you mentioned Buffy. That show started airing when I was in college, so it was a huge part of my Mills experience. Back then, if you had a TV in your room, it was low-tech and had rabbit ears. My friends and I got so obsessed with Buffy that it’s one of those things I can’t decouple from my whole Mills experience. This group of us was so obsessed with the show that we would watch all the episodes in one person’s dorm room. It was almost like things came full circle: I had grown up bringing up all these things I was obsessed with in conversations with people who did not care, and with something like Buffy and having this fandom explode around me, with this group at Mills, it was really special.

Alex Brown ’05, who majored in anthropology and sociology at Mills, also holds a master’s of
library and information science and a master’s in US history. She works as a teen services librarian for the Sonoma County Library system, but she explores her love of science fiction and fantasy books, comics, and pop culture after hours on Tor.com and her website, BookJockeyAlex.com. Alex is also the author of the book Hidden History of Napa Valley, which came out in 2019.

Alex: The last few seasons of Buffy were airing when I was in college, and I had a little TV with a VCR attached to it, so we taped the shows and on the weekends we’d get together in one person’s dorm room and watch. But I studied abroad my junior year and I couldn’t get American TV, so my friends taped the entire season of Angel. When I came home for winter break they gave me a stack of 10 VHS tapes so I could catch up, and we would email back and forth about the show. Vampires bringing people together!

Quarterly: Along those lines, how did your time at Mills play into your interests?

Stephanie: Ajuan Mance’s Survey of African American Literature introduced me to Octavia Butler. The class required Kindred. I had to take a bus to Kaiser and I binge-read it on the bus, and I was like, “Whoa, this is great, I’m enjoying reading a required book!” And then I proceeded to read her catalog of work over winter break, beginning with Fledgling. I was fortunate that in my last year at Mills, the English department offered a science fiction course, and Darshan Elena Campos was an ethnic studies guest lecturer on campus in the spring and taught a science fiction course as well, so I was lucky to take two classes on the subject. That made it easy to lobby my professors to let me write my theses on science fiction and fantasy.

Sarah: There were several things at Mills that influenced my work and reflect what I’m doing now. I ended up with an ethnic studies minor in part because a professor I loved, Vivian Chin, taught what were basically Asian American literature courses. That really opened my eyes to the long history of Asian American women writing about their experiences. It was in that class that I got introduced to writers like Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who had written about growing up Japanese American in Hawaii and everything that entailed. She specifically had a book chapter about a young girl having dinner at a white friend’s house, and she was so blown away that they put butter on their rice! And I remember having that experience as a kid, and I had never read that in a book before—something that was so specific and so Asian.

It’s a thing a lot of women of color go through—we don’t see ourselves as protagonists. That’s changing now, but it’s sometimes hard to believe that you can be a protagonist in your own life. Vivian really pushed me, and that is something I’ve carried to this day. I’m so grateful that Vivian made me feel like I could write about fictional characters that look like me, that have some of my experiences, and that could still be important enough to be a main character. If it weren’t for Vivian, I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing now.

Alex: For me, the biggest thing was just being at Mills. There were, like, four black people in my graduating class in high school. So being at Mills and around black people in Oakland for the first time—it was the first time in my life I felt genuinely black—so just being there was hugely influential in developing my sense of identity. But specifically, I took a sociology class where we read a lot of Jennifer Finney Boylan and talked about all of these sexual identities, and ways of being queer. Seeing those identities at Mills helped when, a decade and a half later, I was like, “Oh, I’m actually not straight. There’s this other world out there.”

Quarterly: As people involved with the industry, does it seem like genre fiction is widening to allow for more voices?

Alex: I think it depends on the aspect of science fiction/fantasy you’re examining. If you’re looking at the big corporate entities like the Marvel or Star Wars movies, then I’d say probably not. But then you look at comic books and see something entirely different: Doctor Aphra is one of the best Star Wars comics—it’s great, it’s awesome, and it’s begging for an adaptation.

Again, talking about YA: most of the books I read in 2019 are fantasy, and most of those are YA. I ended up reading more by marginalized authors—queer people, people of color, any intersection they’re in—than I did by cisgender, heterosexual, white authors. I didn’t necessarily do that intentionally; I just chose the books I wanted to read, and there are so many out there. So yes and no: I think we obviously have a long way to go, but it’s definitely better than when I was a teenager.

Sarah: I think yes and no is the best way to put it, honestly. On one hand, yes, it is much better than when we were growing up, and I have been very encouraged to see women of color just being really excellent in both adult and YA genre fiction. Finally, some of us are breaking through, and our ideas are not considered “niche” anymore.

What’s interesting, of course, is what happens whenever you see a few people starting to get some shine. One example is N.K. Jemisin winning best novel at the Hugo Awards for the third year in a row. It was amazing watching that. I felt like I was watching the tide turn in real time. But of course, when anything like that happens, there’s pushback from the people who want to send things back to the Dark Ages. Even those who are very aware and progressive will say that it’s all about diversity and no one will buy a white protagonist. There’s no problem with white people being published! But when marginalized people start breaking out, suddenly everyone’s saying, “Oh, now it’s all about that.” It’s really not.

I remember when the new (female) Doctor Who got announced, I saw a lot of this “OK, we’re done now!” attitude. Yes, it’s amazing, but it’s by no means the end of the representation road. There are still a lot of people who have not seen themselves in that role, so we need to keep pushing forward. It’s wonderful that there are high-profile successes and women of color who are getting their books published, but that doesn’t mean that the majority of books are not still written by white authors.

Quarterly: Does the scale of the production or the publisher make a difference?

Alex: For me, it comes down to intentionality. Disney made an intentional choice for the only gay representation in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to be a .02-second kiss in the background that you only see if you know it’s coming. That’s a choice that they made. When it comes to big corporate properties, the example I always like to use is The CW television network. Something like two-thirds of its directors are people of color or women. And it’s true—I’m always surprised when I watch the credits on a CW show because there’s a whole range of people. And DC’s Legends of Tomorrow in particular is such a diverse show. Yes, the main character is a white woman, but she’s a bisexual white woman whose queer relationship is a main part of the show. There was intentionality, and you can tell there’s some diversity in the writing. The show is part of a big property with DC Comics at the top, but the show-runners make choices to ensure they are as representative and respectful as they can be.

I mean, even Watchmen on HBO… [show-runner] Damon Lindelof is not necessarily the person I would turn to if I wanted diversity, but he took a step back and hired a super diverse writers room. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some really problematic stuff happening with the Vietnamese storyline—there was!—but they made intentional choices to diversify not just cast but crew, writers, and production staff. And with something like Star Wars, you can tell that there weren’t any black people involved in writing. So, it’s a yes and no thing again. It’s the choices.

Stephanie Der ’13 has championed representation in genre fiction for years, including with a series of workshops on advancing social justice through science fiction and fantasy with former Mills visiting professor Darshan Elena Campos. The duo presented at a number of conferences, including the Empowering Women of Color Conference in 2015 and 2016, and the Friends of the Genre Conference in A voracious reader, she works at a public library and helped start the Napa Women’s Circle Feminist Book Club.

Stephanie: Speaking of Watchmen, there’s a scene where the Regina King and Hong Chau characters are speaking Vietnamese, and that was the first time I actually saw people on television talking in their language so that white people wouldn’t understand them. Like, my family does that all the
time! Sometimes they do that so I don’t understand what they’re saying! I was like, “Wow, I’m living to finally see something that’s relevant to my family on television.”

Sarah: We still have a long way to go. I still want [Star Wars characters] Finn and Poe to kiss at some point! A lot of it goes back to what Alex
said about diversity in the people who are making the choices and doing the creating. When I started writing the first Heroine Complex book, I had a lot of built-in self-rejection. In conceiving the characters, I thought that having the lead character be an Asian American woman meant that I couldn’t make her love interest a person of color, because no one would buy it. That’s what they’d make me change. All of these things we’ve been told and have internalized. By the third book, I realized that this kind of thinking is toxic to me as a creator. And if someone’s not telling me that, it’s just myself telling me that—it might not actually be true!

But I hope that the powers behind these franchises see that if you do make something more diverse, it’s truer to life. It also looks more like the future, and it’s something younger audiences are very hungry for. Young viewers and consumers of entertainment don’t necessarily have the biases we grew up with. One example is this show Pair of Kings. It’s basically about these twin brothers who are secretly the rulers of a fantasy kingdom, and one of them is a pale white kid, and the other is black. My friend has two young boys who were watching the show, and as an adult viewer, she asked them, “How does that work?” They were like, “Oh, they’re brothers, no further questions, we accept this unconditionally.” I don’t know what will happen, but I hope the gatekeepers now are seeing that young audiences really like it when something is reflective of their experience and the much more diverse world that they’re growing up in.

Stephanie: Piggybacking off of Sarah, I had noticed in my own writing—at least with fandom—that I had been writing a lot about white men. I was like, “Wait a minute, I think I want to change this!” That’s how I fell out of being active in that particular fandom and moving my work toward writing about communities of color and queer people of color—that was a moment of “wait a minute, something’s kind of wonky here…” In my own writing, that’s what I’ve been trying to do, both in my original works and fanfic.

Quarterly: For those of you who work with libraries, how do you bring those sensibilities to kids in those spaces?

Stephanie: I did workshops in the past about utilizing science fiction and fantasy storytelling for social change. Darshan Elena Campos, who I met when she was a Mills professor, and I collaborated on making work stations, like prime directive: What are your goals for interacting with other people of different cultures? Or, if you’re at a remote space station on Saturn, what kind of self-care package would you want for yourself to make the time in deep space tolerable?

Alex: In terms of teen librarianship, there’s a lot of strong opinions and I’m constantly getting into arguments. Many librarians do not share my opinions! For me, diversity for teens—and the term “diversity” is so unspecific anyway—is more about promoting marginalized voices. When I was working at a high school, something like 80% of the books that I purchased were #OwnVoices YA [the movement of marginalized authors writing about their own experiences]. My first year there, the No. 1 checked-out title was The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, and it was checked out most by white boys. Teenagers want to read interesting books; nobody just wants to read about the same kind of person over and over again.

I also have the opportunity to open the door to authors who may have a harder time getting in front of kids. I can hand them Dhonielle Clayton’s book, and they’re like “The Belles is great—my dad and I both read it!” and they wouldn’t necessarily have gotten that unless I handed it to them. It’s my job to get as many people through that door as possible; whenever I compile book lists, I try to skew it about 70% marginalized voices and a variety of identities.

Kids need to see experiences that are not just their own. They need to see people of a variety of identities living a variety of experiences, because otherwise you cannot understand the world—you only see your tiny little sliver—and that does not make us good people.

Quarterly: What goals do you have for your career, but also for the industry as a whole?

Sarah: I want everybody to be able to see themselves as someone who is worthy of being a protagonist, as a hero, and as a main character. I spent a lot of my life considering myself a sidekick not just in fiction but in my life, and that’s messed up. One of the most exciting things with Heroine Complex, my first book, was that it has two Asian American women on the cover who look different from each other because they’re from different backgrounds.
We have a great cover artist for the series, Jason Chan, and he always makes [characters] look how they are supposed to look. I was showing the cover to a few friends, including one whose 9- or 10-year-old daughter was there, and she’s also a mixed race Asian American girl. She saw the book and her eyes got so big—and she was trying to grab it out of my friend’s hand! I really want every kid and every person to be able to have that experience where they see something on a cover that maybe they haven’t seen before, and they’re immediately like, “I need this, this is mine, this is a piece of genre fandom that belongs to me, that represents me.”

But also, there should be multiples of that, because whatever background you’re from, you don’t have the same experience as every other person who’s of that background. So different stories and characters will resonate with you. In sci-fi and fantasy especially, we’re dealing with these larger-than-life heroes in fantastical situations, and so I think it’s cool if everyone can believe that “I can be that superhero, I can be a Jedi, and I can be the captain of the starship.”

Quarterly: What are you specifically working on at the moment?

Stephanie: FIYAH literary magazine hosted a November writing challenge, so I’ve drafted a short story about ghosts in Tulocay Cemetery in Napa coming for reparations for their descendants: What do you do when your queer people of color love story happens when PG&E has knocked out your power in the cemetery?

For my writing, I really want to write stories that provide comfort, affirmation, and joy to readers, just as I’ve found in a lot of the genre fiction I’ve read. I had a long dry spell where I wasn’t writing, but I’m falling back in love with it and recently discovered I’m capable of writing novel-length works, which is really exciting.

Sarah: I’m working on a bunch of projects that all fit under what I think of as my theme: “Asian girls having fun.” Showing women of color experiencing joy feels so revolutionary, and I want to keep doing that. I’m revising my fourth Heroine novel, Haunted Heroine, which actually has a setting inspired by Mills, a haunted women’s college in the Bay Area! And I just released Shadow of the Batgirl, a graphic novel for DC Comics with artist Nicole Goux, which is all about Cassandra Cain, the Asian Batgirl. I want kids of color to be able see themselves taking on these really iconic mantles. It all goes back to everyone being able to see themselves as a hero.

Angelica Navarro ’21 is a studio art major from South Pasadena, California, who has also worked as a graphic design assistant for The Campanil. While she’s exploring oil painting through her art classes at Mills, her passion is drawing digitally in Photoshop. She has been making art for about 10 years, concentrating on the macabre and horror genre—a way in which she explores her mental health through her art. See more of her work at instagram.com/cabezadealteza.

Alex: On the library side, all I basically do is throw authors of color and queer authors at people—I don’t necessarily tell them that, but I’m like, “You need to read Reverie right now,” On Thursdays, there’s this hashtag on Twitter called #AskALibrarian, and I always make an effort to respond with as many authors of color and marginalized authors as humanly possible. My second nonfiction book comes out in April—on food and food history in Napa—but it’s really another way to write about people of color. It’s like, “Look, I’m gonna talk about food! But what I’m actually going to talk about are immigrants! About Mexican people in Napa! Let’s talk about what it was like to be Chinese!” So again, it’s another book about marginalized people in Napa, but food is the fancy cover. People always talk about Napa in particular: “Oh, it’s so white, the wine industry…” And I’m like, “Look, you don’t have Napa today without all the people of color who built the wineries and cooked in the houses and built the houses and cleaned them.” That’s true in a lot of things—you can’t look at anything contemporary without all of the labor from the people of color from the last 400 years. And I think that’s really important to bring it down to the local level and see how we’re doing it in our day-to-day lives, to not keep it so big and theoretical and on the national level. I’d also like to write some more fiction with nothing but queer people of color.

Stephanie: Napa Women’s Circle came to me and asked, “What would you recommend for a feminist book club?” And I said, “I want to put in some romance and sci-fi.” I knew the go-to for a lot of women’s groups has been The Handmaid’s Tale, and I was like, “Let’s read Parable of the Sower; I guarantee it’s great and just as relevant as The Handmaid’s Tale.” I do my best to recommend people come into the fold—we’re great, you’ll learn something, it’ll all be fine.

Quarterly: Sarah, what was your experience like when you were going through the process of trying to find a publisher? Did you feel supported?

Sarah: A lot of things that I had built up in my mind as things I’d be asked to change…when I found the right agent and the right publisher—DAW, which is Penguin Random House, publishes the Heroine books—they didn’t have any issues. There was no request to consider making a character white, or to consider that not all of my characters had to be Asian. It was a beautiful match from the beginning. I had a phone call scheduled with my editor, who is a white woman, and I was preparing myself. As I’ve said before, any “brand” I might have is Asian girls having fun—that’s just what I want to write stories about. Their daily lives would obviously include how they deal with racism and microaggressions, but I didn’t want the books to be about struggling. I wanted them to be books about girls who have superpowered adventures and amazing romance and singing bad karaoke and doing all the fun things you do in your 20s.

I had also built up this fear that if someone acquired these books, they’d want to make them all about racism or the identity struggle of being Asian—although those narratives are still important. But when I had the phone call with my editor, she just had two notes for me and neither of them had anything to do with that! It was this moment when I had been so prepared for the “why are these characters Asian?” conversation. When a character is not what people think of as the default white straight male, sometimes a question comes up: “Why is this character this different demographic, and what’s the reason for that?” But she didn’t say any of those things I had been told to expect from big publishing. [The publisher] also gave me such beautiful covers with Asian American women in powerful positions who actually look how they’re described in the book.

All of that has been really wonderful, and while we certainly still see plenty of systemic racism in publishing, it made me think again about divesting yourself of these things you’ve internalized. There are plenty of people working in all sectors of publishing who want to change the way things are.

Quarterly: Does anyone have anything else to add?

Stephanie: I love the speculative fiction genre for its ability to imagine different sorts of futures, and by extension, our present. So we’re always working to end the struggle, to end violence and oppression, but what are we working towards? What do we want those futures to look like? Speculative fiction is a great genre to think about those types of questions and broaden your imagination, because if you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it.

I also have to give two shoutouts. The first is to Vivian Chin—I’m a die-hard fan as well—who was so formative in my Mills career, and my writing has vastly improved for their harsh but demanding and rewarding standards in my writing. And I did want to mention fellow Mills alum Aidan Thomas (’10, MFA ’15), who has a debut novel coming out this year in YA titled Cemetery Boys.

Sarah: The Heroine Complex book that’s coming out this year is actually set at a haunted women’s college in the Bay Area. It has a different name, but I set a lot of it in Ethel Moore because that’s the dorm I lived in! It was fun because I actually drew on a lot of the Mills ghost-lore, which was really fun because it felt like coming home in a way—like I finally got to draw on my Mills experiences. I finally got to bring some of that genre love to Mills, or a thinly disguised version of Mills.

Recommended Reading

Looking for a list of new reads? Here are some recommended titles from our alumnae authors/enthusiasts.

She’s Not There by Jennifer Boylan
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Reverie by Ryan La Sala
Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia