Conference Report: ICFA 39

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books from ICFA conferenceThe International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA) is both my favorite scholarly conference and my favorite SF/F convention, and I was very glad to make it to Orlando last week to meet up with friends, hear authors read, and learn something new.

My late friend Michael Levy had been the President of ICFA for several years, and everyone was missing him very much. I tried my best to be stoic, but I did get teary-eyed more than once. Last year, I’d registered for the 2017 conference but canceled at the last minute when I decided I needed to fly to Wisconsin to visit Mike instead, which was absolutely the right thing to do, as he passed away the day after I returned home. This year at ICFA, I spent a lot of time with Mike’s wife Sandy, who shared a room with me and presented a paper on Nnedi Okorafor. I also hung out with my friends Jeanne Griggs and Joan Slonczewski, swam in the hotel pool, presented a paper on golems, and ate a lot of cake.

What else happened at the conference? I chatted about religious narratives with Geoff Ryman and Ann Leckie and discussed golems with David Levine. My friend Simone Carotti gave a brilliant paper on modern Prometheus stories. Author Kij Johnson and I have the same illustrator–the fabulous Kathleen Jennings–and we shared our thoughts about working with Kathleen. Kij gave a brilliant reading as well, in which she described animals as “the only aliens we can see.”

Shveta Thakrar and Kij Johnson

There were T-shirts and tote bags, and lots and lots of books. [I’m particularly excited to read John Kessel’s mash-up of Austen and Shelley, Pride and Prometheus.] In the fancy swag department, I scored a “Thank You, Ursula” button honoring the late, great Ursula Le Guin, and I happily achieved recognition as a Sorcerer as well.

As it had been awhile since I’d written an academic paper, when I found out that ICFA39 would be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, I decided to dust off my academic prose and join in the fun. There are some who argue that Mary Shelley may have been influenced by stories about golems, and certainly, modern golem stories owe a great debt to Frankenstein, so my paper explored the ways in which the golem is deployed in modern fantasy literature, focusing on works by Michael Chabon, Naomi Kritzer, David Almond, and Helene Wecker. David Almond was my friend Mike’s favorite author, and presenting on Almond’s work felt like a small way that I could honor Mike’s influence on me as a writer and as a scholar.

Prior to the conference, I flew to Houston to spend time with my nieces, who talked me into a grisaille pre-convention haircut. [I told them I would agree to anything but a pixie.]


While my coiffure looked very nice at the salon, we all forgot that I have adhesive capsulitis, a painful shoulder injury that prevents me from raising my left arm. Fast forward to the banquet at ICFA: up until that point, I had not realized how nearly impossible it is to use a curling iron with only one functional arm. As a result, my uncurled conference hair created a very different look. Oh, well.

Next year’s ICFA convention will be our 40th anniversary, with G. Willow Wilson acting as our guest of honor. I’ll see you there, everyone!

2017: A Year in Review

Let’s look back at 2017 and celebrate some of our accomplishments (including the fact that we somehow made it through the year).

2017 started out with the Women’s March, and I’m not going to lie: it was absolutely thrilling to knit a bunch of pink hats and carry signs and march in support of women. Did our march or our pink pussy hats change the world? It’s still too soon to tell. But thousands of knitters working together with a million miles of pink yarn made a difference. We sent a visible message of support to women all over the world, showing them that their voices matter. We also worked to create a welcoming environment for people who’d never participated in politics before, and that’s not a small thing.

pussy hat plansBy making our own signs and hats when we marched, we also realized that we don’t have to be part of a corporate consumption model. Crafters can create change with their own skills. (That’s actually one of the themes of my new novel, in which a knitter miraculously saves the day, using sticks and string and her bare hands.)

On a personal note, I should add that the 2017 Women’s March was the subject of the last email I received from my friend Mike Levy before he went into hospice. I’d written to let him know that I was thinking of him, and that I would be marching with the special two-dollar bill he gave me in my wallet, and he wrote back to say he loved me.

So the Women’s March was uplifting and deeply meaningful, and memories of our nation’s collective resolve helped me remain hopeful during a difficult year.
fierce kittyUnfortunately, this year’s March was derailed by the flu virus that came into our household by way of Brazil, and I’m going to blame a bunch of engineers in Sao Paulo for the fact that my fierce kitty sign [shown above] went unused last weekend.

2017 was a year of making things and sending them out into the world. On the quilting front, I created “Sol Invictus,” which is currently on display in the “How New Is Modern?” exhibit at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.

Sol Invictus

Sol Invictus. Photo credit: S. Skumanich

Here’s my artist’s statement for the quilt.

Sol Invictus was created to honor Solveig Haugland (1967-2015), an exuberant textile artist and cherished friend. I took as my starting point the stacked columns, irregular piecing, and luxurious fabrics of Victorian crazy quilts and the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum’s Red Velvet Carriage Robe.

Scraps of silk from Solveig’s stash, glass beadwork, and rustic embroidery supply this quilt with saturated color and tangible texture. Floating blocks of needle-turn appliqué are both fluid and boxy. Vibrant yet fragile, this jewel-toned quilt is enhanced by glittering embellishments, but also punctuated by visible mending. The name Solveig suggests the sun’s path, a radiant image in tension with the linear, grid-like quality that typifies a Chinese Coin quilt. Joyous and unconstrained, Solveig illuminated my world. I miss her still.

Since I’m by no means an expert quilter, it was a great honor for me to have my work hanging in the “How New is Modern?” exhibit, and I’m grateful to my guild and the museum for the opportunity.

Another thing I created: Arcanos Unraveled! If you’ve ever wanted to read a comic fantasy novel about scheming academics at a magical university, with knitters &  coders & punch cards & werewolves & enchanted sheep, then this is the book for you. Dulcinea certainly enjoyed it.

Dulcie Unraveled2017 involved a fair amount of travel, and in early summer Steve and I enjoyed a belated honeymoon in Iceland, which was utterly magical, filled with mountains and glaciers and ponies and yarn and enchanted sheep. Honeymoon: Achievement Unlocked!

Enchanted SheepI made a strong effort to improve myself in 2017, reading over 70 books, becoming involved in several charities, and learning some new skills, such as screen-printing…
screenprinting…and spinning!
spinning lesson[That’s Spinzilla champion Jaime Jennings next to the fireplace, literally showing me the ropes.]

2018 is going to be a hectic, crazy year, but I hope I’ll learn something new every day. I also hope I’ll remember what my priorities are. Most of all, I want to spend time with loved ones and do meaningful work. Let’s get started.

Romjul

Dulcinea reads Arcanos UnraveledThe Norwegians have a word for the last week of the year: Romjul, which gives us a space to breathe between the frenzy of Yule celebrations and the obligations of the New Year. Romjul is a time to get cozy, to gather one’s thoughts.

Somehow most of us got through 2017, which (on many fronts) was an annus horribilis, a truly horrible year. So I think we need all the coziness we can get. Speaking personally, I intend to celebrate Romjul until Epiphany.

I’ve spent the last few days basking in the publication of my new novel Arcanos Unraveled, which came out in December. I’ve also been eating Theobroma chocolates and reading fluffy interior design books. The decorating books will actually come in handy fairly soon, since Steve and I have bought land in New Mexico and are breaking ground on a new house this spring. [More about New Mexico and house design in a future post.]

My novel is already finding an appreciative audience, which is unexpectedly bittersweet, since I dedicated it to my friend and mentor Michael Levy, and I still can’t believe he’s gone from this world, and we’ll never sit together and talk about life and books again. Mike had the biggest heart imaginable, and I miss him every day.

I’m writing this on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and in March my friend Sandy and I are going to the IAFA conference to celebrate Shelley’s legacy. Mike was the president of the IAFA for several years, and he and Sandy helped make the organization more open and inclusive. That’s just a small part of Mike’s legacy. I’ll just be giving a talk on golems, but Sandy will read her poetry and present a conference paper on Nnedi Okorafor. I’m hoping she’ll read one of her beautiful new poems about Mike.

Here’s to 2018, everyone. Let’s create art and do good work in the coming year, and may we always cherish memories of being loved.

Cover Art for Arcanos Unraveled

Is there anything more delightful than a new book with a beautiful cover? How about a new book with two beautiful covers? I’m thrilled to reveal the cover art for my novel Arcanos Unraveled. The book design is by Stewart Williams, and the whimsical scissor-cut silhouettes are by Australian illustrator Kathleen Jennings, a three-time nominee for the World Fantasy Award.

What’s this novel about? Knitters and coders, a magical university, and scheming academics. Also: ley lines, punch cards, Scottish castles, and werewolves.

Crafting a Response

Arne and Carlos

With Arne & Carlos at Fancy Tiger Crafts

I’ll be honest: I’ve been discouraged lately. We all know why. When the world is literally on fire, it’s easy to feel that our actions don’t matter. But our actions do matter, and the best antidote to hopelessness is to create art, to support others, and to give what we can.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago when I met Norwegian textile designers Arne and Carlos [shown above], who really are the rock stars of the knitting world.  Arne and Carlos are incredibly warm and generous and kind, and they taught me how to knit Continental style, which not even my dear friend Solveig was able to do. They also shared their design strategies for their new book, and they told me they recently raised over $2,000 for the Nordic Heritage Museum simply by auctioning themselves as dinner dates. (Being earnest and humble men, they were rather puzzled as to why anyone would spend $2,000 just to have dinner with them, but they agreed with me when I pointed out that the donor probably wanted to support the museum anyway.)

Obviously, no one is going to spend $2,000 just to have dinner with me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make myself useful. I’ve recently become involved with a charity called Days for Girls, which provides sustainable feminine hygiene kits to girls in developing countries, helping them stay in school. (This is one of those things that we might not think about: without adequate sanitary protection, many girls miss several days of school a month. Days For Girls helps them get those days back.)

Days For Girls has a goal of helping a million girls by the end of this year, and they need monetary donations as well as textile help. So I donated money for supplies and spent an afternoon at Fabricate in Boulder, where I met a bunch of committed women from all over the Denver area, who were helping to make waterproof hygiene kits with flannel liners. [A friend of mine asked: “Are you talking about reusable sanitary napkins?” Yes, I said, not caring if she felt awkward. That’s what I’m talking about.]

Days For Girls CraftUnfortunately, there’s no shortage of charities in need of our help. When Hurricane Harvey blew in, many families in my sister’s community were affected. Steve and I donated to the US Hurricane Relief fund at All Hands Volunteers, but I wanted to do something more personal as well, so when my friend Amy Wade started a drive to make quilts for those affected by the hurricanes, I donated a small quilt. [I just realized the blue fabric in that quilt matches my hair.]

Hurricane Charity QuiltSometimes we want to help, but we’re pressed for time, and we don’t have much money to spare. If we’re artists, we can raise awareness and funds for a worthy cause while sharing our work with the world. For example, textile designer Maritza Soto has raised funds for Puerto Rico relief by selling PDF copies of her award-winning pattern “Go North,” shown here on the cover of Modern Quilts.

Modern QuiltsIf you’re a writer or designer and you want to help out, consider giving a portion of your eBook royalties to a vetted charity. Then you’ll be helping others with every book you sell. Like PDF patterns, eBooks are ideal products for charity fundraisers because the donors receive something of value, yet the planet isn’t harmed by the production of a potentially unnecessary prize.

Speaking of an unnecessary (but highly desirable) prize, last week a prize package arrived from Stephen and Penelope in Amsterdam, containing two skeins of hand-dyed Dutch yarn, several enamel pins, a tote bag, and other goodies. I literally jumped up and down when I opened the package. I never win anything, but last month I won first prize in Pom Pom Magazine’s Shetland Journey contest, and now I have a gorgeous skein of yarn that looks like a freshly varnished violin.

Pom Pom KALI won the Pom Pom prize by knitting up an Eshaness Hat from their Shetland Journey book and entering my hat into a contest. Shetland Journey is published by Pom Pom Press, and I would like to see more books by that press. Most of us have limited funds, and we need to make decisions every day about how to spend our money. Since I feel it’s important to support the kind of art and journalism I want to see in the world, I subscribe to The Atlantic and The Washington Post and various other sane publications, I buy Pom Pom and Taproot magazines, and I buy books and eBooks from small presses that publish exceptional work.

So that’s another thing we can do when the world seems to be spiraling the drain: we can support writers and artists whose work we love. Recently, I bought a copy of Kij Johnson’s novel The River Bank, published by the visionaries at Small Beer Press. It’s a gently feminist sequel to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, featuring pitch-perfect illustrations by Kathleen Jennings. The River Bank is endearingly written and beautifully illustrated, and I’m just so glad it’s come into the world. Publishing is a risky endeavor, and if they’re going to publish books like The River Bank, small presses need our support.
The River BankWhen we donate to charities or give our support to authors and artists and designers, we’re not changing the world, but we are crafting a meaningful response to a world that needs beauty and compassion.

There’s an endless number of things we can do to make the world a better place, but here’s one more thing that’s important: we can use our voices. If you don’t have the funds to buy a book, you can still check it out of the library and tell others about it, or write a review. That’s a great way to help a writer whose work you value. If your budget is tight and you can’t afford to give to charity, you can still call your representatives at 202-224-3121 and advocate for a worthy cause. And if you feel like you’d rather have your eyes gouged out than speak to your Senator, then make a game of it: reward yourself with a piece of chocolate (or a tall glass of sparkling water) for every call you make. Chocolate is always a good idea.

Sabbatical

The Wanderer

Seven years ago, I was a solitary professor living in Wisconsin with my three cats. Last month, Steve and I headed up into the mountains with our doggy to celebrate our seventh anniversary. Seven is a magical number, often referenced in fairy tales, and seven years is enough time to see into the heart of the matter. So here’s the truth as I see it: these past seven years have been improbable and miraculous, the very best years of my life. Certainly, we’ve experienced grief and illness and loss–much like any protagonist in Andersen or Grimm–but we’ve also felt more joy than we ever expected, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m grateful every single day.

“Happily ever after” sometimes involves a bit of work, and we did work hard on our anniversary, hiking up to the iconic Crystal Mill and encountering a real-life avalanche on our way. But we also loafed about in the town of Marble (famed for its stunning white Yule marble), and had lunch beneath the towering peaks of the Maroon Bells.

Meanwhile, back at Avalanche Ranch, we played a politically relevant game of Scrabble, toasted marshmallows while singing “Seven Bridges Road,” splashed around in the hot springs, evicted a bat from our tiny cabin, and fed the local sheep. We took the long way home, driving over the Kebler Pass to Crested Butte, where there were scones in the coffee shop and wildflowers on the slopes. We’ve now returned to everyday life, but we’ll remember this sabbatical, and we’ll remember how miraculous and improbable it is that we found each other.

Maroon Bells

Marble 6

Marble 3

Scrabble 2

Avalanche Ranch 2

Avalanche Ranch 3

Crystal Mill 3