Magical Realism from the Sudan

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

The Longing of the Dervish-smallIt feels like we’re in a Golden Age for translations of speculative fiction. We’re seeing everything from the rise of Egyptian dystopian novels to Chinese authors making it big in the American market. Of course, some nations and cultures are better known than others. One that is little known to English-language readers is Sudanese fiction. It can be hard to get in the West, and even on my regular visits to the American University in Cairo bookshop I have to hunt to find authors from south of the border.

It’s worth the search. Sudanese literature is rich in history and folklore, and a large measure of what I’ve come across contains speculative elements. One could call it magical realism, although I have not seen any Sudanese author use that term.

My most recent acquisition was Hammour Ziada’s novel The Longing of the Dervish. Set in the nineteenth century during the time of the Mahdi’s brief empire, it follows the adventures of the slave Bakhit and his obsession with the Alexandrine Greek nun Theodora. Poor Theodora spends most of the novel as a ghost while Bakhit sets out to avenge her killing. The historical setting is richly drawn, as are the characters, and one gets the feeling that the phantom Theodora is not the product of Bakhit’s madness. There’s also some interesting scenes of folk magic.

The journal Banipal, which publishes Arabic literature in translation, dedicated their issue 55 to Sudanese writing. A couple of the stories have speculative elements. “Amulet and Feathers” by Leila Aboulela is another tale of revenge that involves a female character who dresses as a man to avenge her father’s killing only to go through a even more radical transformation. “The Jealous Star” is a children’s tale with a star as the main character who convinces all the other stars to move to the daylight. Other stories are set more firmly in reality, including an excellent one by Hammour Ziada about what happens to an isolated village when a Bedouin tribe decides to move in.

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We Don’t Get No Respect

Friday, March 16th, 2018 | Posted by Violette Malan

alatriste barIt’s often struck me that writers get more respect in other countries than they do in North America (I’m thinking specifically Europe here, since that’s the limit of my experience). When I told my (Spanish) mother as a child that I was going to be a writer when I grew up, she asked why was I wasting time talking to her, why wasn’t I getting started?

When a friend told her (Canadian) mother she wanted to be a writer, her mother told her she’d never make a living that way, and that she should go to law school. My mother recognized writing as a profession, and she further recognized that many writers do “other things” in order to live, because the writing doesn’t always pay. She always told people “my daughter is a writer” regardless of what I was doing to pay the bills.

When I tell non-writing strangers in Canada that I’m a writer, they ask me how much money I make; when I tell them I write fantasy, they either say “I don’t read that stuff” or they want to know why my books haven’t been made into a TV series. In Spain people congratulate me when they learn I’m a writer, are impressed when I say I write fantasy, and want to know if my books have been translated into Spanish.

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STRANGE! WEIRD! EERIE! The Odd, Unusual, and Uncanny Biography of Lionel Fanthorpe

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

The Return Lionel Fanthorpe-small The Return Lionel Fanthorpe-back-small

Some writers agonize over every line. Some are prolific like Andre Norton. Others are hyperprolific like Isaac Asimov.

But Lionel Fanthorpe stands alone. He isn’t the most prolific author out there, having written “only” about 200 books, but he had the distinction of having written 168 books in less than a decade. Many he wrote in a week. Some he wrote over a three-day weekend.

This fervid output was the result of his association with Badger Books, a cheap-as-they-come UK publisher that emphasized quantity over quality. The publisher would commission the cover art first (or steal it from some old American paperback), send it to the author, and have them write a 45,000 word novel, usually with a deadline of one week.

Fanthorpe wrote 168 books for Badger between 1961 and 1967, dictating his tales into a reel-to-reel recorder and sending the tapes into the publisher’s typist. Often he’d stay up late into the night, covering his head with a blanket so he could concentrate. The results were overwritten, padded, and compellingly bad.

The only biography of Lionel Fanthorpe, Down the Badger Hole by Debbie Cross, has long been out of print but has now been revised, expanded, and released as a free ebook on the TAFF website.

And what a book it is! Cross gives us generous helpings of Fanthorpe’s prose, including masterful examples of padding through repetition.

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I Need A Vacation – Or Is It A Holiday?

Friday, February 16th, 2018 | Posted by Violette Malan

National LampoonI wonder if there’s still a distinction to be made between holidays and vacations?* Back before “holy day” became “holiday” was there even such a thing as a vacation? Or were holy days really enforced vacations, in the sense that for some of them at least no work was allowed? Would that make the Sabbath a vacation as well as a holy day? Hmmm.

I’m fairly certain that while the two words are now considered synonyms (at least in English) the concept of a vacation as a time of recreational activities is a relatively new one. That is, not just a cessation of work on the part of one’s self, one’s servants and even on occasion one’s animals, but the active pursuing of another activity altogether. Did the Romans go on vacation? Did travelling for a holiday start with the “grand tours” of the 18th century? Or with seaside bathing in the 19th?

Since seaside bathing was considered healthy, as was “taking the waters” in resorts like Bath in England, Lanjeron in Spain, and Baden-Baden in Germany was travel to these places a vacation?

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Write a Short Story a Week Like Ray Bradbury

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


Once many years ago, Ray Bradbury decided the best way to become a good short story writer was to write a whole bunch of them. So he committed to writing a short story every week for a year. He also decided the only way to get published was to submit short stories, so he submitted a story once a week for a year too.

It’s a simple formula many beginning writers just don’t get — you got to put in the effort, and you have to send your stuff out there. As Bradbury explained in this speech, practice will help you, and it is impossible to write 52 bad stories in a row.

So let me introduce you to Write1Sub1, an online group where we encourage each other to write and submit a short story every week. They don’t have to be the same short story, because you probably want to let a story sit for a while before going back and editing it with a fresh set of eyes.

Many of us (including yours truly) are more novelists at heart, so if you don’t think you can face a weekly challenge, you can write and submit once a month. When I did this challenge back in 2014, I tried the weekly challenge. I burned out after four months, but got 16 stories written, more short stories than all previous years combined. Many got published in magazines and anthologies and the rest assembled into a collection I indie published. It really does work!

Check us out on our Facebook page. It costs nothing but your time, commitment, and perhaps your immortal soul. Keep on writing!

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Tell Me A Story

Monday, January 22nd, 2018 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady

Tell Me a Story-smallMy resolution for 2018 was to write more.

(Me and almost every other writer on the planet. If there’s one thing writers fight doing, it is actually getting the words down. I don’t know why that is, although therapists make millions off the question.)

To that ends, our noble and fearless leader has allowed me a tiny corner here to once again regale (or torment, depending on how you feel about such things) you on what’s tickling my brain. In the past we’ve talked ancient myth, and I imagine we will be on the playground a bit.

But currently, I find most of my time these days absorbing different media. I don’t read as much as I would like (although I could read 18 hours a day and I would say the same thing), but the Mom Life means I spend a fair bit of time listening.

I’m not alone in that. The Audio Publishers Association reported last year that they’d seen three years straight of growth in sales above 30%. Audible doesn’t release membership numbers but did report in 2016 that they’d logged over 1.6 BILLION listening hours in the previous year.

It’s the age of the audiobook. Our ubiquitous phones mean that listening is easy and portable, and interfacing between devices means that it is almost seamless. I can pick up my phone, read a book for ten minutes while dinner is cooking, then switch over to the audiobook and let the narrator read the next chapter while I do the dishes, then switch back to the printed format to read in bed. And I’ll never lose my place.

For myself, audiobooks and podcasts fill a valuable function. I spend a lot of time in fairly mindless, rote tasks that are, for lack of a better word, really boring. I manage a household of two elementary kids, a husband with demanding work hours, two cats, and a dog. The laundry alone is a job, and let’s not talk about how many hours I spend in the car.

So I turned to audiobooks at first to confront boredom. Laundry is much more likely to be folded if someone will tell me a story while I do it. But I quickly fell in love with them as a form of art all their own. The performance of an audiobook can make or break a story. Bad readers can butcher even Shakespeare. An excellent reader can take flat, cliched dialogue and make it lively.

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It’s A Tragedy

Friday, January 19th, 2018 | Posted by Violette Malan

AristotleThere was a time when genre in fiction writing wasn’t quite the crowded mishmash of categories and sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories that we’re faced with now, which in any case double in number with the use of the prefix “YA.” There are so many that sometimes it gets difficult to decide which one you’re writing – or reading for that matter.

But there does seem to be a traditional genre that really doesn’t exist anymore: the tragedy. We’ve got most of the others, comedy, satire, the epic, we even have pastoral in the form of the popular song. It’s tragedy that we’re missing.

And I don’t think tragedy has disappeared because it’s really a dramatic genre. We not only still have drama in the traditional sense, but we also have modern versions of same in films and TV. Playwriting is really just an ancient form of scriptwriting.

Is it the definition?

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Results of a Writing Retreat in Cairo

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


Obligatory pyramid shot

Hello, Black Gaters! I’m back after a month’s silence, and my silence on here usually means I’m drunk I’ve gone off somewhere. This time I spent three weeks in Cairo on my second writing retreat of the year.

During my previous Cairo retreat back in February, I started The Case of the Purloined Pyramid, the first in my neo-pulp detective series The Masked Man of Cairo. It’s set in Cairo in 1919, with the hero trying to solve a murder while the city is convulsed with its first major independence demonstrations. That book recently won the Kindle Scout program and is being published by Kindle Press on January 9. This time around I worked on the next in the series, The Case of the Shifting Sarcophagus.

So what does a wandering writer do when he goes to Cairo to write a novel? Try desperately hard not to let his research take too much time away from his writing!

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China’s Silicon Valley, but With More Tea: Derek Visits Hangzhou

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017 | Posted by Derek Kunsken

Derek Visits Hangzhou-small

As a writer, I don’t usually suffer from imposter syndrome, but some wonderful moments can appear from nowhere and blindside me. My latest such moment came via The Future Affairs Administration, a new online Chinese SF magazine (imagine a Chinese Lightspeed or Clarkesworld).

FAA partnered with Ant Financial to fly 9 scifi writers into Hangzhou to learn about Ant Financial’s high-tech financial operations and some of what they’re dreaming about for the future, in the hopes that we writers would each write a scifi story inspired by what we saw. It was pretty cool.

Six of the writers were from the west: Australia’s Samantha Murray, the UK’s Ian MacLeod, USA’s Lawrence M. Schoen, Carolyn Ives Gilman, and Stephany Quiouyi Lu, and me from Canada. Three of the writers were from China: Stanley Chan (whom I met in Chengdu a couple of weeks earlier), Jiang Bo, and Qi Ge.

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There’s No Place Like Home

Friday, December 22nd, 2017 | Posted by Violette Malan

Peake gormen 1We’re always hearing about using setting as a character , and there’s no doubt that some stories simply can’t be told if they were set somewhere other than the place they’re in. Like, say, the wuthering heights in Wuthering Heights. You know, places that aren’t just somewhere for the characters to be (everyone has to be somewhere) but that in some way inform the whole story, and perhaps the characters as well.

I’m not here today to talk about setting in general, however. No Middle Earth, no Barsoom. No landscapes, thank you. At the moment I’m far more interested in human-made structures: people’s homes, public buildings, etc.

I’m tempted to suggest that buildings first gained their literary eminence in the gothic novels of the 18th century.  Works like  Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otronto, and Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho relied so much on their buildings – which gave the novels their sense of place and situation – that we’d have to ask ourselves whether the gothic would even be possible without the dark creaky old house/monastery/castle? Sure, we’ve also got the natural sublime, the mountain crags, the fogs and the mists, but they’re just the background for the titular buildings.

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