Simone Heller

astray in worlds and words.

New short story: Forever the Forest

My new story “Forever the Forest” is out in Life Beyond Us, an anthology edited by Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law, and Susan Forest, published in cooperation with the European Astrobiology Institute. Every one of its 27 stories is paired with an essay diving deeper into the science behind the fiction.

I was immediately hooked by the idea! I grew up with Carl Sagan’s books, so being in this science outreach project means a lot to me. I also wanted to write my very own take on trees in space inspired by Silent Running (another thing I grew up with) and tap into my love for anything tree-ish, and here was my chance: I mixed up what I had read about NASA’s “Moon Trees” (1) and indigenous forest stewardship, namely “Helping forests walk” (2), and then I simply needed to tell it from the perspective of the trees.

Did I say “simply”? It was like wrestling with an Ent for every single word. Of course I’m not the first one to up take this challenge (I specifically like The Leaves of October by Don Sakers and the tree shapechanging sequence in The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip). It still felt like I needed to learn writing anew, because I wasn’t able to fall back on my senses of vision and hearing, my sense of time, and my perception of my body and its limits. But in the end, does it really matter if it’s another language or another mind I’m trying to relate to, with a whole different sensorium? Deep at my core, I’m a translator, and I try my best to translate different modes of inhabiting the world into a shared language, even if it feels like bouncing an image back and forth between funhouse mirrors. Sure, it’s bound to fail. But I aim to fail in a meaningful way.

So I kept asking: what is it like to be a forest? I used theories about mycorrhizal networks (3) to create a collective perception and wondered if the astronaut and the forest stood any chance of having some shared concepts to start a conversation. This is also where the wonderful companion piece “Astra Narrans” by Connor Martini begins its exploration and extrapolation of the core themes of the story in a way that transcends my humble attempts at establishing an understanding between the protagonists. If you want to learn how we can possibly communicate with any being that is not us, this essay is a splendid place to start.

Life Beyond Us cover

This whole project has been a delight to be part of from beginning to publication and beyond. Big thanks to Julie Nováková for having me in the first place & her tireless work to make this anthology shine in any possible way, and to Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law at Laksa Media for working out the kinks of the story and making the whole book look incredibly good, and to Connor Martini for his thoughtful, knowledgeable and entertaining essay about semiotics! (Plus a big thank you to the beta readers who always have my back: Sonia Focke, Jennifer Hudak, Elena Kotsiliti, and Ella Voss.)

You’ll find materials and where to buy the book here, and it will not only enable you to roam through my alien woodlands, but also a wide selection of other adventures set in our solar system and far beyond. If you are intrigued by “Forever the Forest”, I bet you’d also enjoy “Defective” by Peter Watts, “Heavy Lies” by Rich Larson, and “Cyclic Amplification, Meaning Family” by Bogi Takács. I’d love for you to listen in on all those Conversations!

1 see: Moon Trees Stand as Living Testaments to First Voyages to Moon & Moon Tree
2 see: Assisted migration of forests in North America
3 read about the current state of this research here: Do Trees Really Support Each Other through a Network of Fungi?

Entry #4: Speaking the Truth with Oghenechovwe Ekpeki

The fourth installment of this interview series looks into the intricacies of writing from a complex multilingual background for a global audience. Multi-award nominated writer and editor Oghenechovwe Ekpeki from Lagos, Nigeria, was generous enough to talk to me. His stories like “O2 Arena” visit a futuristic Nigeria, and his anthologies highlight the work African and African diaspora writers.

SH: Please tell me about your multilingual background. How did you end up writing for the anglophone world?

OE: The very way in which I think about multilingualism is different from how it’s normally meant, in cases where someone speaks the language they are born with and learns others. I speak two languages, none of which I can really call my own. My native language is Urhobo, as a member of the Urhobo tribe. Nigeria was colonized long before I was born and its culture altered in ways that made it impossible for things to return to the way they were before. The Urhobo tribe is one of several hundreds in the country, with about five hundred languages spoken. English is thus the official language of the “unified” tribes. In a country of a couple hundred million people, broken into a couple hundred fractions of languages and dialects. The only way we communicate in the official settings that require interaction with the diverse groups is in English, the language of the colonizer which we were forced to speak. So while I was born an Urhobo speaker, I was not allowed to speak it by a culture and situation of colonialism we found ourselves in. Barely 3 million people speak the Urhobo language and spread out in Africa’s most populous nation. So it was impossible to claim or hone my skills in a language I had to stop speaking everytime I left the home.

English on the other hand, while the official language and taught in schools and institutions, is not as deeply rooted as you would think. Being the poverty capital of the world for the last three years, and generally impoverished before and after that, few people can afford formal education, so fall to a default of pidgin English and their native language. So there’s also a lack of fluent English speakers in the way you would find in a nation that had English as their language without being colonized to it.

This is what I meant when I said that none of the languages I claim are really my own. I had formal education up to university level and obtained a Law degree, have won awards and been published in 3 continents, have had my works translated to other languages. Still, I have found readers complain about my language. Something I suspect is due to a disconnect that happens when people consume work in a language they speak, but written by someone from a culture that’s unfamiliar to them. Ultimately, your culture, your identity is in your language. Your clime, experiences, colour your tongue, give it a myriad flavourings beyond the typical red. So invariably you could term what I and other writers here even observing the norms of English grammar are speaking, as Nigerian English. Between all these, my native language, Urhobo, pidgin English, and Nigerian English, I sometimes wonder if I qualify as multilingual or just not really any lingual. Lol.

The way you are located between and among those languages, what exactly is going on when you write? Are words and phrases from all your languages popping up in your mind?

I generally consider scenerios as they are in my culture, as they happen to me and simultaneously as they will be recieved by my readers. What it means to someone in my immediate cultural space, someone further removed, being in the same country but a different tribe or cultural space and then people ultimately removed from the Nigerian and African culture and setting altogether. I am trying to center all these groups and communicate in a way that speaks to them all but is yet true to myself and the story I want to tell. A balance that can be elusive.

That sounds like a lot of mental work but also language work to keep a story on that thin line. Do you have an example or a general process how you accommodate to a removed audience, but still grasp something that is at its heart true for the time and place your story inhabits?

It’s a process that happens in daily communication, and not just in fiction. But in fiction also. I handle it the same way. Ironically, Twitter and short fiction writing have helped with this. Twitter which restricts the number of words you can use per post. It subconsciously conditions you towards brevity, saying the most with the least. In other words to be understood, you learn to provide enough context, within the limit of word usage allowed. Short fiction is that way too. Conditions you to tell your stories in the least amount of words you can. You learn when keeping to these that small words, a line here, a phrase there, a reference or the other can convey a lot of meaning. Sometimes it involves finding cultural touchstones that don’t totally alter the meaning of what you are conveying. And then sometimes you have to just put your foot down and trust the reader to do the work of piecing or figuring things out.

Your stories are usually set in a (futuristic) Nigeria. Do you include bits and pieces or even chunks from the languages surrounding you? And if so, is it accepted by international editors and readers?

Well, there’s a bit of truth telling to my writing. Chunks of my reality mixed in with it. Set in Nigeria as you observed, my themes usually touch on issues that are relevant here, and this is also reflected in my language. The dialogue of my characters shifts between pidgin English and regular English as a speaker in my position would. The subject matter, humour, delivery of the conversation also aims to reflect the way we communicate. It’s as I said, your culture and identity are reflected in your language. So it does come across as unfamiliar or odd to Western or other readers removed from that culture and identity. It’s definitely created a difficulty in publishing sometimes, it’s led to odd and overediting requests and an inability to connect or be properly appreciated by readers and reviewers who are not open to these diverse tongues and see everything different as inferior. But I suppose that is the price for speaking my truth with the tongue in my mouth in a world that sees the other as inferior. So yea.

How do you handle language as an editor when you work with other writers with a comparable background?

I have a very loose editing style. I tend to allow the writers I work with to flow in the style that’s most comfortable to them. It requires a lot of trust to do that. But understanding the nuances and intricacies of language, esp in the context of African colonialism, has helped me take a stance that doesn’t chip away at the beauty of their own individual forms of expression. The effects have been interesting.

You talked about a possible disconnect when readers are consuming works from unfamiliar cultures. Does it go deeper than language? Do you feel you’re able to tell the stories you’re interested in writing, regarding narrative structures and trajectories?

In a way it’s deeper than language. But in a way it’s not. You see, language is a vehicle for all these other things. Culture, setting, beliefs, all these little bits that make up a person, your language is littered with them. When the reader has no desire to or is lazy about consuming or imbibing all those bits of you scattered around your work, that’s where there’s a disconnect. Like I said, it creates limitations sometimes. But we keep trying and there is some success. But all this is part of why decolonization on a literary level has to be vocal. We cannot untether our language in silence.

I love the notion of untethering language, leaving behind what holds it back and giving it room to exist, especially on an international stage. If you take an optimist stance and assume a lot of readers engage with works removed further from them and get over the disconnect – what do you think an untethered language would mean for the stories we are yet so see?

Were readers to do the work that they needed and writers didn’t have to do a lot more shimmying away from their cultural and native expressions, the readers would get the true shape of the stories with all the richness and meaning those stories are meant to convey, without a layer or level of the stories shaved off as invariably happens. The reading experience would be all the richer for it.

When you decided to publish on the international/US market, were there obstacles? I know that actually getting paid can be a devastating issue, and maybe the biggest one. Or are there additional barriers you had or have to face?

There have been a lot of barriers. Language barriers, currency barriers, payment systems, racist policies, racist people and trolls, review bombings and troll farms, inaccessible publishing platforms. You name it. That’s its own story, which is covered some here. It’s definitely been a vicious battle to get my words out there.

Is there a piece of wisdom you’d like to share with writers who are considering writing for the international market?

I’d ask them to pay attention to the world, the industry. And see it for what it is, not the one they want it to be or imagine that it should be.

Is there a favorite word (or concept) in Urhobo or Nigerian English you’d like to use more in your stories?

Just pidgin. Nigerian pidgin English. I’d wish more people were familiar with it. Cuz it renders things in the most amusing and interesting ways sometimes.

Do you have a story readers could pick up to see it in action and experience it in a way you enjoyed to write or read?

I’d recommend the Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology, a finalist in the 2022 Locus award and in the Hugo award with me, for best editor, short form. It has a myriad stories by Black and African writers on it and a lot of those stories are richly flavoured in the cultural and linguistic identities of the writers. It’s currently free to download in all formats here.

If you like non-fiction, you can check out my anthology, Bridging Worlds: Global Conversations On Creating Pan-African Speculative Fiction In A Pandemic. It’s a 2022 anthology I edited and published in Jembefola Press. It’s also free to read and download here.

For singular works you can see my Hugo, Nebula, BSFA & Nommo shortlisted novelette “O2 Arena”. And my short story “Destiny Delayed” in the May/June issue of Asimov’s.

Thank you so much for talking to me about the flavors of language and the possible rewards for readers who choose to trust in stories that tell the truth!

You can find Oghenechovwe on Twitter and look for publications and news of Jembefola Press on their web page.

Look for the next entry in The Ever-Shifting Lexicon in 2 weeks! Or subscribe now via newsletter:

Entry #3: Stories That Feel Like Home with Fatima Taqvi

For this third entry we’re looking into a new set of chances and challenges of multilingual writing with the wonderful Fatima Taqvi, author of meticulously crafted stories deeply rooted in history and lore like “Secrets of the Kath” and “The Third Feather”. Fatima is from Karachi and currently lives in London.

SH: Please tell me a little bit about your multilingual background. Which language do you write in, and what led to that decision?

FT: I’m from Pakistan, which is home to many languages. For conversational purposes Urdu and English are what was spoken in my home, with Arabic and Farsi playing fleeting roles when poetry and religion came up. As I grew older, everything but English was largely pushed aside as the alarming business of focussing on school-approved subjects began, with sciences and art all being taught through an English lens.

Much of the hierarchy in language politics in Pakistan is still dictated by the legacy of British colonial language policies. On top of that, I’ve traveled between Pakistan and the UK, so English is something I’m used to proving my worth in.

After many years of not using my brain for more than conversational Urdu, creating fiction in my mother tongue does not come easily. I do find myself composing stories in Urdu for my child, and I have a hankering for seeing a revival of Dastangoi, which is the name of the centuries old but now largely neglected verbal art of storytelling. I do think for the foreseeable future it will be in English that I author what I do.

As you are using Urdu in (oral) storytelling, is some of it still echoing in your thoughts when you write in English? What’s going on when this happens?

I’ve noticed that for my writing in English, because my settings are often places where English isn’t being spoken, the inner voices of my characters present themselves in Urdu. Especially when I write dialogue. And that really works for me! I love when Urdu sayings and metaphors try to sneak their way everywhere. This is a great asset for my stories set in Pakistan because it is the voice my characters are using in any case. What remains then is to write them in English with a gentle hand.

A lot depends on activating triggers. Certain places, times of year, religious holidays, do have a flavor that pulls my mind towards parsing my first thoughts in Urdu. There is never a time when I visit Pakistan where I don’t resolve to write a novel set there completely and utterly drenched in the culture of my city of Karachi.

But these states of mind are not constants. I can also find myself being clumsy in Urdu as I shift from English being in the driving seat to becoming a passenger again.

Is there a need to “translate” stuff sometimes, even while feeling most proficient with English as a writer? Things you’d like to express but English doesn’t provide easily?

There have been times while reading something in Urdu when I feel this cannot be crossed over into English without losing something. However I haven’t experienced this myself in my own writing yet. Anything I want to take from Urdu into my stories I have been able to convey albeit with a slightly inelegant excess of words. Perhaps more than words I find the social mores something that I have to explain, which used to put me in danger of over-explaining. I find it funny now, this feeling I had as a newer writer of needing to over-explain my writing, and how it was reflective of my own need to justify my presence and who I was to the wider world. Growing older helps! And I cannot over-emphasise the importance to me of reading and absorbing literature by authors with more grace and expertise who lead the way for people like myself.

We are learning words by context and repetition; they can sink into us, take root, and grow their own reality. How much non-English vocabulary (if any) do you feel you’re able to include to make stories set in your part of the world ring true?

This is such an important question because it relies on readers, editors, and publishers being inclusive to these ideas.

Starting out I wasn’t very confident including Urdu vocabulary in my work. I attended some online SFF writing classes held by award winning SFF author Usman Malik for South Asian writers, and I remember one of the first things he said was to not diminish our languages when including them in our stories. To not other them by italicizing them, and that the best stories make the readers work a little.

My first two short pieces “Secrets of the Kath” and “The Samundar Can Be Any Color” that I sold to promarkets both include non-English words not just in their substance but also in their titles. (Big thank you to Vajra Chandrasekera, Rasha Abdulhadi, and the Strange Horizons team, as well as to Wendy Nikel and the Flash Fiction Online team!)

Those Urdu words, in the middle of English as their supporting cast, feel like little magical paper boats set free, bobbing along into further and further seas, always intact and never overcome by the water.

You were talking about the way colonial policies are still dictating the use of language. Thinking of more than language, extending the scope to narrative structures and theme, how do you navigate between these influences? And is the English language (and its narrative baggage) pliable enough to fit your story purposes?

I navigate between these by being mindful. I critique how I feel about characters. I seek out other opinions and perspectives.

I wouldn’t call myself successful yet at incorporating narrative structures that aren’t popular and aren’t considered saleable in my work. As a newer writer, I have spent so much time absorbing and learning story structures touted by modern English literature. This has its own satisfaction when executed well, of course, but I would like to be more multidimensional in my work eventually

Themes, though. I believe I couldn’t tell (or try to tell) the stories I’m truly passionate about had I not been fluent in more than one language. The mainstream publishing world has cultivated an appetite for stories that perpetuate structural exclusion. Coming at storytelling after being marinated (as it were) in a different cultural context, I have navigated issues from multiple perspectives. That really helps catapult me into a torrent of “what ifs.”

The English language is pliable. Mainstream sensibilities, curated as they are by stakeholders who have historically smoothed over atrocities and have been discouraged from the discomfort of self-reflection, are less so. I see there is still a long way to go until a wide range of stories that feel like home to me are given a home. And yes, that affects my starting point when approaching my own writing. Paradigms currently reign as default positions that can feel like a cop-out even when diverse characters are given space. This is reflected in the language for sure, and I’m interested here in the absences and empty spaces where I would expect a character’s core to be. The end result is not representative in an impactful way to my mind, despite the occasional stray samosa, mangled linguistic reference, or exoticised surface trope. I do understand that stories with these can still be enjoyable to many! My point is as an author I’m hoping for more from my work.

But is there also a flipside, an expectation to see certain tropes in a certain way, making it harder to transform the material? Or preventing you from telling stories where these influences aren’t visible at first glance (or at all)?

It’s something to think about — what would a story look like if these influences weren’t visible. I feel the influences, even when ostensibly quiet, dominate the writing nonetheless. When writing in English there are certain expectations that can be fused into surface story when the setting is a typically “othered” culture. It’s not necessarily every storyteller’s job to work in opposition to these, but how they are addressed and engaged with I think indicates the skill of a master storyteller.

I would like to write from a position where I don’t feel constrained in the telling of stories with certain features just because people will assign them their own associations that I do not intend to direct them towards. I feel this is very unfair. It means I may have to work harder towards having fully fleshed out stories – the worlds within losing time wrestling to be something beyond the supposedly colonised parameters the English written worded analysis has historically put them in. This story then has to spend time proving or disproving certain notions in relation to these assumptions. I don’t mean to say it’s never fun to lean into surface stories and the assumptions they bring, or that these assumptions are never true. Just that something meaningful to me in terms of culture and religion may not carry the same associations for English readers as they do to me.

Circling back to the layer of language: is there a favorite word (or concept) in Urdu you wish you could transfer to English?

I would have to be a lot better at Urdu, I think, to identify the best answer to this question! If I had to pick something, I like the grammatical construct borrowed by Urdu from Persian called “izaafat”(اضافت). This mainly pertains to poetry and poetic prose.

In which one word is placed first, its descriptor second, and the two are connected with the vowel sound “e.” Instead of a descriptor, the second word can also be a word possessed by the first with the “e” in between the two.

For example, “roz-e-naakaam” would mean day-of-unsuccess. Which could read as an unsuccessful day, or the day of the failures. “Chashm-e-nam” would mean eyes-teary. Or teary eyed.

Used effectively izaafat can result in a tumult of sensory immersion in a couplet given as asides that add to the progression of understanding melding into the main idea.

Additionally, izaafat contributes to the work of the couplet which has been described by the poet Ghalib (who was himself an unparalleled expert) as the creation of meaning (“maa’nii-aafriinii”). In fact, in a truly great poem izaafat facilitates a multivalent sentence structure, opening the way to a multiplicity of meanings and readings. For example, “sabaq-e-shauq” used in one of Ghalib’s verses would mean lesson-of-zeal, or zeal’s lesson. But is it a lesson for zeal? Or a lesson taught by zeal? It’s a grammatical construct that frees sentences, and perhaps thereby our own thoughts, from a narrow horizon.

Thank you so much for your observations about the impact of culture and history on narratives, and for evoking the images of stray samosas and paper boats made of words!

Look for Fatima’s forthcoming story in Fantasy Magazine, and listen to more of her thoughts on speculative fiction in her podcast Saying the Unsayable. She (and her podcast) can be found on Twitter, or on her web page.

Look for the next entry in The Ever-Shifting Lexicon in 2 weeks! Or subscribe now via newsletter:

Entry #2: The Building Materials of Stories with Renan Bernardo

For the second entry, we’re looking to Brazil! Renan Bernardo, living and writing in Rio de Janeiro, was generous enough to talk to me. Renan is the author of powerful and thought-provoking stories like “Look to the Sky, My Love” and “Soil of Our Home, Storm of Our Lives”, often using solarpunk aesthetics and touching on ecological topics even in his fantasy tales.

SH: Tell me about your multilingual background. Do you write in more than one language? And how did you end up doing so?

RB: Yes, I write in Portuguese and English. My first language is Portuguese, but a significant part of my fiction is now in English. Since I was a young boy I always had a close relationship with English. With English and US content soaking almost every inch of the globe, I grew up with games, books, TV shows and movies in English.

For a long time, I actively searched for content only available in English. Ten years ago, there was a lot of fiction written and published in English that wasn’t translated into Portuguese, so I ended up buying books in English. It only became easier with ebooks. That is all to say that content in English (mainly fiction written in English) was always part of my life.

As to writing in English, it started as the conjunction of three factors: 1) I like the language. I was always fond of other languages, and since English is the only one I’m comfortable writing in besides Portuguese, I started venturing myself in it around 2016 (with some frustrated attempts in 2014, actually); 2) The anglophone SFF market is much more robust than the Brazilian one. Though the Brazilian market has been growing quickly, the anglophone one is still where most opportunities reside; 3), Like it or not, English is not the language of the English or US people anymore. It’s a global language understood in many countries, so writing in English is also an opportunity to broaden your readership.

What’s going on when you write? How are you navigating between your languages?

At this point, I feel mostly at ease when writing in English. Of course, not as much as writing in Portuguese, but enough to make me doubt less what I am writing. Deep down, on an “internal” level, I know there are microtranslations and associations my brain does all the time, which doesn’t happen in Portuguese.

One thing I notice (and that my friend Fabio Fernandes told me years ago) is that your brain is rewired every time you shift from one language to another. It happens with me. I sense that there’s a kind of adaptation you need to go through when you’re writing in English then switch to Portuguese (and vice-versa). It’s like your mind needs rest to readapt. With time, this becomes easier, of course, and it certainly varies with different people.

Another interesting aspect of navigating between languages, at least for me, is that I notice my voice writing in English is essentially different from the Portuguese one. And it is even more evident when I translate a story myself. Doesn’t matter that it’s the same story. The voices are different. I think this is a crucial part of navigating between languages because sometimes you feel the story needs more than a translation—perhaps some tweaks here and there, a different paragraph, a new line of dialogue that wouldn’t work in the other language. It’s pretty cool, actually.

How do you think your first language affects the way you write in your second language? Does it feel like dead weight, or is it enriching what you do?

I think it enriches the experience. When you’re starting, you’re still too rooted in your first language and the rewiring I mentioned before is more difficult to do, more prone to errors, and more exhaustive. But with time, it’s like your mind is working in the second language, but your first language is always there in the background to help and enrich your text with details and expressions you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Does it go deeper, maybe to narrative structures or themes?

Yes! There are a lot of things that I think are not only a consequence of the first language, but a range of cultural aspects including it. What we often learn when we’re writing in English (in workshops, books, videos, etc) is that we need to have an active protagonist, avoid the passive voice, and respect some “ground rules”. These are useful as guides for beginners trying to find their way into writing, but they’re definitely not rules. In Brazil and many Latin American countries, we have different ways of telling stories and many of them have the passive voice or an inactive protagonist as important elements of the narrative. Vida Cruz has excellent presentations and texts about this issue.

It affects both theme and structure. For instance, the three-act structure is something we take from the English-speaking world. It works, but there are a lot of different ways to tell a story that doesn’t rely on it. And though I’m no expert on the reasons for that, I’m sure the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis plays a part in it, meaning that the way people tell stories is essentially different because language influences it. And we can go deeper: countries with languages and writing systems dating back thousands of years (like China); countries with oral traditions (like Brazil before the Europeans arrived); countries with a history of being exploited (like Brazil again). All those things certainly influence the way we tell stories, create structure, and which themes are most important.

My story “The Norms From Up Here”, first released in Portuguese and upcoming in English (translated by myself), is a good example. I know where I wanted to go with it in my home language, but when I translated it into English many things didn’t work and I had to rewrite several parts because it relied heavily on how Portuguese works and how it is perceived (the story itself is about language). The outcome is the same, the story is the same, but it’s like the Portuguese version was built with a certain kind of material and the English version was built with a different kind of material.

You said English is a global language, accessible to a large audience. Do you feel English is the lingua franca of sff, bringing us together? Or a hegemony that comes with a cost?

It is unintentionally the lingua franca of SFF. But it comes with high costs. To write in English we need to partially adapt to it. We also “change” it based on our experiences, but first we must adapt to it. And it comes with a price. We know we’re shaping our stories to what is expected from us in many senses. It’s very hard not to adapt and still be published, though it’s slowly changing with many good initiatives from several SFF magazines. When editors accept works that they think are deeply grounded in their author’s cultural backgrounds and experiences, they can be sure it was adapted (at least in part) to conform to the English-speaking market expectations.

English is an imperial language. So when we’re writing in English, you can think of it as the native peoples of North America having to learn it centuries ago, or people across the globe being forced by their jobs to learn it so they have more opportunities. Empires concentrate power and bend everything they touch to their whims. That’s a lot of what happens (and happened) with the British literal empire and the US cultural (and sometimes quite literal) empire. My point is: we turn to English in our writing because it has power, and power concentrates opportunities, people, money, visibility, and so on. Not only that, but this imperial force also absorbs the power of other nations, weakening other languages in the process. An example: Brazilian readers consume a lot more fiction written by American/English authors than they consume Brazilian authors. For a new writer, it’s not unusual to mimic the styles and voices imposed by the English language.

That’s the bad and inevitable side of writing in an imperial language. The good side is that it really brings a lot of people together, from different backgrounds, all over the world. And it makes us all see each other a little better. It helps develop empathy and compassion for the other.

Did you encounter obstacles to writing in your second language? Do you feel welcome in the anglophone publishing/writing world as a multilingual writer?

A lot. And I still do. I’ve posted a few of them on Twitter over the last few years. They include people questioning why would I use São Paulo as a setting or people saying that non-English names take them out of the story. And those were the most polite. I’ve heard worse. And though they seem like nuisances (and sometimes they are), they affect you. You’re already writing in a language that’s not your first. It’s not nice hearing those things. It makes you search doubly for validation and recognition, even if in small chunks.

And of course there are always the technical obstacles. You can never get all of your phrasing and word choices right, no matter how you try it. Over time, you learn how to deal better with it, but sometimes you can’t be sure if a line of dialogue would be something a person would say in real life, for example. If you live in an English-speaking country, it might be easier, but if you don’t, you keep questioning yourself (and asking for native speaker friends to read your stories). Of course movies, TV shows, and reading dialogue helps in that sense.

That said, I feel quite welcome in the anglophone-speaking world. There are lots of “sub-communities” inside the SFF world and they’re all united and always helping each other. When you’re starting, it’s all scary and you’ll bump into bad people (it’ll happen anyway, anywhere) that might scare you off, but I’d never replace the good things that came to fruition for being a part of a few different small SFF communities (all online in my case).

What’s the biggest difference between publishing in your home country and internationally?

The size. Brazil is an enormous country, but our SFF community is tiny compared to the anglophone one. We have less than 10 relevant magazines right now, most of them struggling to remain alive—though the market has been growing fast. Meanwhile, The Submission Grinder lists hundreds of open markets right now, all of them having a lot of varied focuses and priorities. So “size” is really a world that encompasses many things: the size of the readership, the amount of opportunities, the amount of money paid to a writer, how long you’re able to survive.

Is there a piece of advice or some resource you’d like to share with writers who are considering writing in another language?

One advice is: get in contact with people who write in your second language. That helps a lot and you’ll make good friends on the way.

As for resources, if you’re writing in English having Portuguese as a first language, this section of my website might help a bit: Escrita em inglês

In general, I would recommend being part of a workshop that works for you (so you can get in contact with native English speaking writers and could have your work read by them). Another piece of advice I have is accepting that there will be mistakes because you’re not using your first language (no matter if you’re starting now or a seasoned writer). They’re part of the process and they’ll bother you. Accept that. But they won’t stop you from being published.

What’s a favorite word (or concept) in your first language you wish you could transfer to the language you write in?

Diminutives. English takes all the power out of them, sadly. “Cadeirinha” means “little chair”, but every Brazilian person knows it can be so much more. “Amorzinho” is something like “sweetie” (or, more literally, “my small love”), but there’s no way you can convey it in English in the same way. And it goes for almost every word in diminutive form (“Mãezinha”, “Cafezinho”, “Pouquinho”, etc). The fun thing is they’re not always used to refer to small things and one word might have a wide spectrum of different meanings.

Thank you, Renan, for scrutinizing ground rules and boldly claiming English for everyone!

Don’t miss Renan’s essay The Exophonic Writer’s Journey on the SWFA blog and his latest story “The Whittler” in Translunar Travelers Lounge. Find him on Twitter or visit his web page.

Look for the next entry in The Ever-Shifting Lexicon in 2 weeks! Or subscribe now via newsletter:

Entry #1: The Musicality of Language with Eugenia Triantafyllou

For the inaugural entry in the Ever-Shifting Lexicon, I had the honor of talking to Eugenia Triantafyllou from Athens, Greece, author of fabulously weird stories like “The Giants of the Violet Sea” and “My Country is a Ghost”. Eugenia’s fiction has been nominated for the Ignyte, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.

SH: Tell me about your multilingual background. How did you end up writing in your third language?

ET: I was born and raised in Greece. Greek is my first language. But because my mother had been an immigrant in Belgium for almost two decades before she had me, she insisted that I learn French as soon as possible in case we needed to move back. She ended up teaching toddler me with pictures from magazines since I couldn’t yet read or write in any language. Then at school we were taught English and French, and that would make English my third language chronologically, but currently the one I am speaking with the best proficiency, besides Greek.

As an adult I moved to Sweden to be with my partner (Not Belgium! Who knew?) and I was taught Swedish at the school for adults, which helps immigrants learn basic Swedish to be able to work and study as fast as possible. I got all the way to a graduate level with Swedish. The fact that I lived in Sweden helped a lot of course. That would make Swedish my fourth language. My college degree is in Tourism and Hospitality, which meant we had courses with Italian, German, Russian and Turkish (of which I remember almost nothing). That is more or less my history of multilingualism.

I ended up writing in English because things in Greece seemed quite bleak as far as getting published was concerned, whether it was short stories or novels. The market is generally small but the genre market is even smaller. Greek writers are usually not compensated for their short or longer fiction unless they are established. In recent years, we’ve had a lot of vanity presses appear which did not help on the monetary compensation side of things, but it did produce more genre novels and collections than ever before. Still, publishing in English helps me get paid for my work and puts my stories in front of a wider audience.

What’s going on when you write? How are you navigating between your languages?

When I write in English I try not to think of any other language and what the equivalent of my abstract thoughts would be in that other language. I try to convey my thoughts directly into English sounds as much as possible. I say sounds because sometimes that’s what comes to my mind. The sound of the word instead of the word itself.

Many times I happen to have the right sound but the wrong word, and I have to do some research to find the right word that goes with that sound. It’s because if I cannot remember the word, at least I have the imprint of its sound from a sentence I read a while back and try to use it in a story. Of course, you can’t avoid a dictionary or a translation engine completely. And sometimes synonyms don’t mean the exact same thing, so I have to be careful which ones to choose. But I think I have the hang of it now more than ever before. For me writing in another language is more about the musicality of the language than the words, it’s more about the rhythm. I am not good at using elaborate prose, so rhythm, musicality and voice is what I rely on to make my prose unique and interesting in a second language. Simple but rhythmic, descriptive but interesting with strong images.

How do you think your first language affects the way you write in English? Does it feel like dead weight, or is it enriching what you do?

As I said I try to write directly in English as soon as the thought/concept comes to my mind. But still I don’t think I escape thinking as a Greek when I write. I might manage to avoid thinking in Greek but I still think like a Greek. That means that sometimes the rhythm and the way I phrase things, or the syntax and the similes I use are not the same ones an English-speaking writer would use (or perhaps someone with another first language).

Furthermore I have noticed I feel more and more comfortable with using Greek names for my characters, and when I don’t use them, I don’t know how to approach them anymore. I think this is another example of how sounds/language can affect us subconsciously and make the stories we write more intimate and familiar to us or not.

How do you feel about English as a lingua franca of sff? What’s the cost?

English as a lingua franca carries its own historical weight and colonialist legacy, along with many other European languages. In Greece when I was a child, French was considered more broadly used and essential, but growing up, that changed. Who knows what the lingua franca of the future will look like? English itself changes in time like every other language.

But putting all of this aside, for me the question is why not have more translations? If it were easier for Greek novels to be translated into English and other languages and find a similar—even if not exactly the same—audience, it would open the path to so many interesting new voices of sff writers from Greece and from practically every country in the world. English acts as a gatekeeping language only because there aren’t more translations happening. If there were, English would be the path through which different cultures and experiences would be known to the western audience and in turn to the rest of the world, like a domino effect.

For now, there are some of us, international writers, who write directly in English, and this is a push for diversity in a way. I see sff magazines being more open to marginalized voices in general and I hope this trend continues and perhaps opens a small window for translations. Not every writer whose first language is different than English can transition into writing literature in English. It’s definitely not the same as just speaking the language. It needs more. And frankly they shouldn’t have to. I feel that translations might help the scale tip balance more and open up opportunities both for writers and readers.

Did you encounter obstacles to writing in English?

This is a difficult question because I feel like the obstacles I encountered existed before I started writing in English rather than while I did. There were of course the usual obstacles like trying to ease myself into the new language like a suit that sort of fits, but you have to make some adjustments to your body type. I spoke and understood English before with good proficiency, but writing literature in another language is a different beast. It requires of you to find your voice there too. And the voice might be quite different even if it shares some common elements. At first trying to write literature in English made me tired quite fast and my stories were more summarized. But as I settled and found my voice — by reading and copying by hand other people’s fiction and expanding my vocabulary — it became easier to delve into the nuances of each story, plot, and character.

But the first obstacle was believing I could actually write literature in English. In Greece there was a mentality that a person who is Greek cannot write competently in another language. At least that was the prevalent belief in the sff circles when I was thinking about writing in English — that still might be the case although some things have progressed. There was in fact a translator who told me that I could not possibly write in English because I had not lived in an English-speaking country in my life, even for a year. Therefore, according to him, I could not really understand and conquer the language like a native speaker. The answer is of course that I didn’t want to write like a native speaker but as myself, but I didn’t know the answer back then, and for a little while it did fill me with doubt. Thankfully lately, seeing that some Greek writers are getting recognition abroad, more and more people are translating their stories into English, or write them directly in English. Even those who didn’t think it was possible. And those who don’t try it themselves, they hire translators. This is a step forward that makes me feel positive about the future of Greek sff.

Of course there will be obstacles when you are approaching a foreign audience that is not used to contemporary Greek writers and still carries the images of Greek mythology through many retellings. Then there is the eternal dilemma about how many Greek words I can use in my text and keep the level of clarity I want. Or the question of whether a foreign audience can connect with deeply Greek settings/stories. All of these and more are obstacles. But I still believe that my personal obstacle of whether I’d be able to write in English and have a voice or not, was the greatest one I overcame.

Is there a piece of advice or some resource you’d like to share with writers who are considering writing in another language?

I love doing mentor writing texts. That is studying another writer’s text/story and then writing it longhand. For me the obstacle is not only learning better the prose, but also internalizing the meaning of certain words in the text and how to use them more creatively but not too creatively to make their meaning obscure. That balance is a real challenge in a language that is not your first.
Practicing with the mentor texts really helped me delve into the meaning of the words (some of them I already knew and some unknown) and how they can be combined in English in unexpected ways to create a uniqueness in the prose. And of course, to expand the vocabulary. I used mostly short stories from contemporary authors whose work I had read and admired, and I wanted my voice to have something of their own. It will never actually echo the mentor’s voice/prose as much as someone would think because you are sill the one writing your story. But delving into another’s story like you are its writer helps a lot with the voice and the flow of the language in your own.

Are you planning to be published in Greek, too?

I started writing fiction in Greek at the age of twenty-six. A year after that I switched to writing in English. Seeing as I said before that the Greek market is not very welcoming or easy to navigate if you are a new writer, I almost immediately turned my attention abroad. I do have a small hope that some day I will be able to publish something in Greek, but it is not something that’s on the forefront of my plans at the moment.

What’s a favorite word (or concept) in Greek you wish you could transfer to the language you write in?

I think there are many concepts that cannot be translated one hundred percent but if I could choose one, I think I would go with philotimo. The word itself is a combination of the words philo (φιλώ) which means to love and timi (τιμή) which means honor. So a translation would be “the love of honor” but the real meaning has a lot of deeper social, cultural and emotional implications.

This word appears both in Plato’s Republic and in the letters written by Apostle Paul and its meaning has obtained many layers over the many, many years it has been around.

In a contemporary Greek setting though, it has a specific interpretation. It’s when you go above and beyond to help someone just because you can and you think it is the right thing to do, even at your expense sometimes (time, money or otherwise). But not doing so would not dishonor you because you didn’t have any obligation to help in the first place. You just do it out of philotimo. In a country like Greece that has a lot of structural shortcomings, sometimes it feels that things still work because of people’s philotimo. It’s when people take the extra step and put effort into something they believe. You could just say it is doing good, doing the right thing.

Philotimo is also used to describe the unconditional love and respect a child might have to a parent. As a child I used to hear that I had philotimo when I was offering to help my mother with chores, or an elder person who might have needed something but could not help themselves. In a way it is a moral compass for children that shows they understand from an early age what doing good means.

Thank you so much for talking to me about the rhythm of language and learning from other voices!

Eugenia’s latest story “Tomatoes” can be read in khōréō magazine. Find her on Twitter or visit her web page!

Look out for the next entry in The Ever-Shifting Lexicon in 2 weeks! Or subscribe now via newsletter:

R.I.P. Terry K. Amthor

I learned only yesterday that the world of pen & paper role-playing, or rather the world of speculative fiction, has recently lost Terry K. Amthor. He has been one of my favorite creators and a strong influence. His work made me gaze upon science fiction with a fantasy mindset and vice versa, and opened my eyes to the wild possibilities the genre has to offer.

There are better places to read up on Terry’s long and significant history in rpgs, mostly with Iron Crown Enterprises (for example this interview). I’m not too much of a regular role-player myself, but of all the places I’ve adventured in, Shadow World is the one I keep coming back to. It’s a world of darkness, but also a rainbow of colors, a realm of high fantasy in the best sense, where everything is possible, or at least was possible once and left its imprint. And most of all it opens up room for the imagination to soar, and provides a lot of breathing space for the audience’s minds to work their own magic.

Detail-obsessed worldbuilding can be one of the duller aspects of speculative fiction, but while Terry was a true and dedicated worldbuilder, his creation always offered a fresh perspective. He worked on MERP earlier and was deeply immersed in Middle-earth, so the Tolkien influence is strongly visible on Shadow World, in its languages, in its myths bleeding into the present age, in the hierarchy of all things living. It transcended these roots, adding lots of powerful women, queer culture, and people of color not only in some “exotic” background settings. Many varied cultures exist in parallel, interweaving at points, and many forces shape this world. It started out distinctly 80s-flavored, but Some older Shadow World source bookshas always been more diverse in ways high fantasy (rpgs) at this time simply weren’t. And it has been developed to be ever more so, because Terry stayed, uncovering bits and pieces, telling the story, the multitude of histories and seeds and glimpses that made his world come alive.

Shadow World has constantly opened up my perception of what fantasy could be, has razed so many of the limits I once might have seen, and has never, ever failed to show me something wonderful. That’s why I felt I had to toast Randæ and Andraax yesterday, but I guess my favorite Loremaster of them all is Terry after all.

Life Beyond Us anthology

There are only few days left to crowdfund the Life Beyond Us anthology, organized by the European Astrobiology Institute and Canadian publisher Laksa Media. The anthology will not only feature 22 original science fiction stories, but also accompanying essays by scientists matched to them. And I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to contributing one of these stories and having the support of a scientist for research!

I’m already working on the concepts and themes of my story and can’t wait to start writing it. It’s still just blurry shapes in the mist (maybe quite literally!), but it might have an alien point of view character (surprise), show alienation by meeting humans, and debate our sense of curiosity and our interest in meeting others vs. the cost of our meddling. So let’s see how much of this will survive my awful writing process …

The Kickstarter updates are full of additional resources, including short interviews with many of the contributors. You can find mine here! Editor & organizer Julie Novakova did stellar work to prepare the campaign.

The icing on the cake, though, would be reaching the stretch goals. The anthology is already international, but the first stretch goals would unlock translated stories, with contributions from Lisa Jenny Krieg, Liu Yang, Jana Bianchi, and Renan Bernardo. I’d love to see all of these translated, because we need more sf in translation, and because from what I know we don’t want to miss these stories. I greatly enjoyed Jana Bianchi’s “Death is for Those Who Die” in Clarkesworld and want more, and I already love the not-yet-expanded version of “Ranya’s Crash” by Lisa Jenny Krieg (if you read German, you can find it here as “Ranya stürzt ab”). If there’s even further funding, there will be open slots for submitting stories to the anthology!
Life Beyond Us cover
So, if you’re interested in strange forms of life, exploring other planets (or a fresh angle on our own), AND the science behind it all, this might be a project for you! And whether you choose to back it, spread the word, or are simply excited about this book — thank you!

Reading with Vital authors

I’ve been under the spell of converging deadlines, again. It happens regularly with my main client (mostly due to licencing issues). Imagine I spent the last weeks under a massive Lego brick; that’s very close to the truth. One of the few occasions I crawled out of my translation zombie state was when I was asked to join a reading with three authors of the Vital anthology, Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu, Sally Wiener Grotta, and Eric Schwitzgebel, and our shared editor RM Ambrose.

Plush reptile stand-in audience at online reading

The audience was fabulous!

So I found myself preparing for my first ever online reading, actually my first reading since sixth grade. It was a fun evening (noon break for others), perfectly organized by the wonderful Inlandia Institute, and I can’t wait to read everyone’s stories in the anthology. I really hope a lot of these online formats are here to stay – it’s an easy way for people all around the globe to participate in panels and readings!

I think I’m going to spend the weekend staring at a wall and internalising the translate-sleep-translate-cycle is over for now. But if you want to listen to me read from “Keloid Dreams”, the event is up on Youtube:

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New short story: Keloid Dreams

My new story “Keloid Dreams” is out in Future SF #8, a medical-themed issue published in September 2020. Read on if you’re interested in process and trivia, but beware, here be spoilers!

If you’d like to experience Carebot’s sensor input first and see to the patient’s wellbeing, please come along. And don’t forget to take a look at the other stories in this issue – I’m totally awed by the big ideas and scientific details my TOC mates came up with!

Future SF #8 coverFirst of all, phew! All my writing attempts since 2018 got shelved during first draft, and while people kept congratulating me on my last story, I plunged into a pitch-black hole. Then along came this healthcare prompt to yank me out of my comfort zone, with a tight deadline on top. And here we are, finished story! “Keloid Dreams” originated in thoughts about healthcare getting under your skin via implanted sensors, combined with the idea of robots caring for people. How would they become accepted, what would their humanizing features have to be so that you’d trust them with your parents?

I was planning to write about dementia first, about a patient losing himself, and a robot finding a personality, but the emotion-learning robot voice didn’t work for me. The refurbished warbot idea had been lurking from the beginning, and I truly hit my stride when I imagined the two veterans on a last mission together, despite the fallout of going to war.

Then it was a question of digging deeper. I connected bits and pieces to family history: my Dad, who was excluded from taking part in my life when I was ten. My Grandfather, who turned his back to fighting, but the whole story was obscured by the way German families don’t talk about their WWII past. On a lighter note, Overwatch inspired some details of the story, and if you played the game, you may find teeny-tiny easter-eggs and guess who my favorite character is. When I considered what Callas would do as a hobby, I settled on bird-feeding, partially because bird-feeding has gotten me through the worst of this pandemic. This decision made me pull one of my favorite graphic novels from the shelf, Enemy Ace: War Idyll by George Pratt, providing further inspiration.

My thanks go out to Ella Voss and Elena Kotsiliti who were lightning quick with their insights on very short notice, and Jennifer Hudak, who helped me make the story so much sleeker and more powerful. To firefighter/paramedic Meo, who was awesome at explaining complex physiological processes and effects (any bugger-ups are on the author’s side). And to my editor, RM Ambrose, who really got to the core of the story and helped me polish it. If you like his work for Future SF and feel the need to imagine the future of healthcare differently, consider backing his anthology Vital on Kickstarter, bringing you more stories soon!

Writing this piece of post-military SF has unlocked an achievement: true short story! I almost made it down to 5,000 words – and I’m in deep awe of people who truly master this and even shorter lengths!

Achievements remaining unlocked:
– write something that’s not 1st person
– write a story without reptiles (They’re invisible this time. Improved much?)
– write a story from the POV of an actual human.

Next time, maybe. Or maybe not. I have a roster of a dozen partially told stories, some mostly dead, some quite fresh, and some same old in a shiny new skin. Onwards!

For He Can Creep (Siobhan Carroll)

Now that there is a 2020 Eugie Award winner, I absolutely have to remedy the mistake of not urging you enough to read her story: “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll is told from the point of view of a cat. And not just any cat, but distinguished, treat-loving, fierce-clawed Jeoffry, the feline visitor to a 19th century London asylum fighting the demons torturing the place.

“For He Can Creep” is a classic outsmart-the-devil story, but it is so much more: its protagonist’s cattiness is captured in every hiss and every purr, and he has to give his best performance to defend his incarcerated poet against the nastiest of foes. If you love non-human POVs, this one is for you.

And the best thing is: “For He Can Creep is”, title and all, based on a real poem! I had to look this one up, and I was delighted to find that there was a story behind the story.

For He Can Creep, free to read at, has also been a Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award finalist, and is nominated for a World Fantasy Award.

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