Hi all! I’m very excited to be bringing you my first author chat!
After reading ‘The Thieves of Nottica’ (click here for my full review), I had the opportunity to speak with the author, Ash Gray. As I mentioned in the review, Ash touches on a number of diversity-related topics, which I was eager to discuss with her. Just a heads up, there may be some spoilers.
As you can probably tell from the rest of this blog, I’m not really into small-talk, so we jumped right into the heavy questions:
Author Chat: Ash Gray
Literature Lynx: ‘The Thieves of Nottica’ tackles a lot of different prejudices: race, gender, sexuality, etc. Did you start the book intending to cover these topics, or did they just appear as you created the world?
Ash Gray: I didn’t set out to write this with an agenda. I recall saying once that I wanted to write a story with an all-female main cast mostly because I’ve never done that before. But most of what’s in the book now was not there originally. When I originally wrote this story in the distant ancient era of 2011-12ish, I wrote it just for me, with no audience in mind, never dreaming that I would one day share it with anyone. I never even shared it free online (I don’t think) while my other books have been shared publicly years before they were published with kindle.
The original story that I wrote five years ago had themes of social and economic oppression, but it wasn’t something examined at length the way it is now ( i.e. Lisa was not a robot slave originally). I embellished on it as I found myself struggling in our (America’s) crap-economy and starting to get more and more bitter and depressed about the state of it. Eventually, I got so depressed that one day I just sat down and took out the old manuscript and started rewriting it from front to back.
So I mostly wrote it to cheer myself up, basically. I rewrote the book because I was depressed and needed to vent my frustration. And it worked. Because after I wrote the story, I felt better. Oh, the power of expressing oneself.
LL: I really enjoyed the fact that the humans were the antagonists of your story. Can you tell me a little bit about your thought process there?
AG: I’m a sucker for those stories where “humans are the monsters!” Kind of like The Day the Earth Stood Still, where this peaceful alien came to Earth and then all the humans instantly tried to kill him and went nuts. I guess I was just following in that “trope,” one I love dearly.
I think it’s because the hardest thing for a person to do is to look in the mirror and acknowledge their own ugliness, and stories like that are an attempt to do so.
You know, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story? In that story, in order to reach the Oracle, Atreyu has to go through three tests (I think it was three?). One of the tests is for him to look at his true self in the mirror and have to face himself. It’s said that most people can’t get past the test because kind men look in the mirror and discover they are not kind, etc. When I was a child, I didn’t understand why this was so difficult. When I grew up, I watched clearly racist and sexist and homophobic people claiming adamantly that they weren’t racist and sexist and homophobic people. Then I understood.
We can’t acknowledge that we’ve done bad things. We all have a burning desire to be decent people, and yet it still takes a certain kind of bravery to admit that you aren’t perfect and that you’ve made horrible mistakes. So I guess this is why I love stories where humanity is put on trial for all the atrocities we’ve committed. And we have committed them.
And what’s sad is that we can sit here and admit it through science fiction (Planet of the Apes comes to mind) but we can’t admit it in moments that count. Like when we’ve said or done something insensitive to hurt someone else. Our first response is to insist that we meant well or we aren’t racist, sexist, homophobic whatever. Our first instinct is to think about ourselves and instead of acknowledging that we have done great harm to another human being, we’re quick to ignore and dismiss the feelings of the person we hurt.
When all we have to do is say sorry and actually mean it.
LL: In the last few years, the sci/fi fantasy community has seen some notable discrimination and hate: Gamergate and the Hugo awards drama being the most obvious. The (bigoted) argument is that authors who write about diversity are pandering and undermining the genre. I certainly have my own thoughts, but what role do you think social justice issues should play in speculative fiction?
AG: Hmm. This is a hard question to answer. Personally, I try to stay away from all the drama, but I can’t help but know about it, unfortunately.
What’s amusing to me is that science fiction has always criticized society. Always. The most famous science fiction writer possibly of all time — Robert Heinlein – (no, I’m not a fan) had books that tore down, mocked, and criticized various social concepts. But no one is blasting him as preachy, huh? I mean . . . this is a part of the genre. Holding up a mirror to society and lampooning it is what science fiction has always been about.
The people who suddenly can’t handle it are people who feel they are personally under attack. They read a book by queer people and people of color or women who are tired of being two-dimensional stereotypes and they are reminded of terrible things they have said and done. It makes them feel like a bad person, and suddenly, science fiction is no longer “fun” but “preachy” and out to guilt-trip them.
I dunno. If you read my book and it makes you feel guilty or under attack (not, you, Gabby, the general “you”) then the problem is yours, not mine. People who aren’t racist, sexist, and homophobic can enjoy my books without feeling as if the narrative is “attacking” them or “trying to teach them a lesson.”
I mean, there are probably a thousand legitimate reasons to hate The Thieves of Nottica, but if you hate my book because Rigg is brown . . . that’s bigotry.
LL: What changes would you like to see in the publishing world, as a whole?
AG: I live in fear of hoping for change, because I don’t think I can handle anymore disappointment.
I hate to be pessimistic, but I really don’t see myself living to see a real change. I see a bunch of people with good intentions trying to make a change and fumbling to do it but they don’t really know how.
I see a bunch of other people striking back because they feel threatened that – gasp! – other writers are finally acknowledged as having voices worth listening to.
I see literary agents and game developers signing on token brown/queer/female authors – because they only hire one — just so they can buy some peace of mind and not have to feel like bigots when they look in the mirror. It’s a fast and cheap way to pretend like you’re solving an issue that has been steadily building in layers for half a thousand years.
My book Qorth addresses this a little bit. In Qorth, it’s revealed that ancient aliens came to Earth and invaded prehistoric humans. They gunned them down, claiming they were “defending themselves” from “savages” even though the primitive cave people only had, what, rocks and sticks? The aliens found it hard to admit they’d done something atrocious so they tried to justify their mistakes by saying the humans were violent inferiors who deserved it anyway.
Fast forward a couple thousand years, and the aliens are still abducting humans and using them for genetic experiments because they see them as inferior. If the story hadn’t been so short, I would have played with the idea of the aliens actually causing the sea levels to rise so they could take over Earth (they’re amphibious aliens).
Qorth is one of the few aliens trying to break the cycle of racism. He thinks he can make up for the past, but the main character Cameron teaches him that he can not.
The same principle applies to real life. We can not change the past, but we can learn from it. If we look back at what hatred has resulted in, the solution is to teach our children to treat each other with kindness and respect, like human beings, instead of viewing each other as a collection of prejudices (i.e. assuming the black person who just walked in the store is going to steal and that you have to follow them around while they’re shopping. If you understood how dehumanizing that was, you wouldn’t do it). And we aren’t, doing that, are we? Instead, we continue dehumanizing minorities with movies and books and plays and songs, all of which serve to teach our children the same hate mantra, and then we shrug our shoulders and wonder why all these cycles of hatred still go on.
It’s because racism, sexism, and homophobia is taught, and we are still teaching it.
It’s because we’re continuing to teach our children to see other people as costumes and caricatures instead of as human beings.
You know why I pretend to be a dragon? Well, first it’s hella fun to do so. But the second reason? I live in a world where saying I’m a dragon is more believable, more plausible than saying I’m a human being just like you.
I live in a world where I’m treated every single day as less than human. Might as well make a joke out of it and unhealthily cackle myself through the pain.
Many thanks to Ash for taking the time to talk with me!