Books Interviews

London Shah feels compelled to tell stories: an interview with the author of Journey to the Heart of the Abyss

London Shah has been dreaming about a submerged world for years.

The British Muslim author, who is of Pashtun ethnicity, said in an email interview that she specifically dreamed of a submerged Britain. Not that she wants the current world to be flooded; just that it’s an image that has hovered near her for much of her life.

And now London’s sophomore novel, Journey to the Heart of the Abyss, the second in a duology about a 16-year-old submersible racer named Leyla who goes on an epic adventure to save her father and discover the secrets the government is hiding, is about to release. It’s set, fittingly, in an underwater version of Great Britain.

“The setting came first, long before any characters,” Shah said. “I cannot recall a time when I did not fantasize about our world carrying on beneath the surface of the seas. I imagined a submerged world as aesthetically close to our current one as possible, and nothing too hard sci-fi.”

Shah was mesmerized by the idea of a realistic underwater world, not one populated by mermaids but one where humans could watch present-day sea creatures — a huge whale, maybe an octopus — living their lives right outside our spheres of existence.

The first book in the duology, The Light at the Bottom of the World, was published in 2019 and the closing book publishes on Nov. 16, 2021. 

“Every feeling and thought I had ever held about what life might be like living deep underwater, I have explored in these books,” Shah said. “All the wonder and magic, all the constant, suffocating perils, and of course all the endless possibilities! I explore them all. I have lived with this fantasy forever, and I am excited beyond words to finally share it with everyone.”

Shah said that growing up she loved studying English, writing fiction for assignments and telling stories, but that she never considered that “author” could be a viable career option. 

“As a South Asian Muslim, back then I never believed writing was even an option for people like me,” Shah explained. “I have always loved creating with words but was never exposed to the idea of doing anything with that passion. Nobody I knew was a writer, and I knew exactly nothing about the publishing industry.”

Despite this, Shah said she is filled with ideas, which compel her to write. She has a vivid imagination and has been envisioning different worlds and stories since at least kindergarten. As much as creating new worlds to play in can be difficult, Shah said she loves doing it.

Worldbuilding is intoxicating,” she said. “It is a lot of hard work, but watching your very own creation come to life—this whole other reality!—makes all the challenges worthwhile. It is exhilarating.”

She is motivated to write as well to tell the stories of characters of color. As a woman of color herself, Shah said she loves to fill her stories with main characters whose backgrounds and ethnicities reflect real-world people who do not often get to see themselves in the pages of their favorite books.

“To provide representation for those who have rarely seen themselves in the pages of a book, rarely experienced those like themselves going off on epic adventures and leading amazing quests, is the best motivator,” Shah said.

And in fact, because she writes for teens, Shah indicated that their reactions also propel her forward and motivate her. Her first book was a Battle of the Books selection and she’s been blown away by the reception among teens and students.

Another demographic who’ve embraced her book? German readers.

The book has been translated to German and published by Loewe Verlag, and Shah said she has loved seeing the book’s reception in that country.

“Its reception has been heartening and affirmative, and readers in Germany have been so enthusiastic and positive and lovely,” she said.

In order to write Journey to the Heart of the Abyss, Shah said she planned the book out scene-by-scene. Famously among writers, the second book in anyone’s career is notorious for how difficult it can be to write. Shah said she worked to overcome this slump by planning the whole book and by focusing on her craft, including by reading.

In fact, Shah believes so much in the power of reading to a writer’s craft that it’s what she recommends to aspiring writers.

“Expose yourselves to the art of storytelling whenever and however you can,” she said. “Recognize the things you feel most passionate about and that way if you are ever stuck for ideas, you will already have a rich source of details to pick from. Using and exploring what we feel an intense connection with ensures the story remains exciting to us, and has plenty of heart.”

In addition to Journey to the Heart of the Abyss, which is an anticipated conclusion to a fantastical debut, Shah recommended several other books she’s loved.

Currently, Shah is reading The Silver Tracks, which is book four in the Mirrorworld series by Cornelia Funke. She described it as, “remarkable.” In addition, she recommended Ciannon Smart’s summer debut Witches Steeped in Gold, saying, “It is different and fierce, and I loved it. Smart’s worldbuilding is to die for; it is rich and original, and you completely lose yourself in its ferocious heart,” and adding that book is a “thrilling, unpredictable read.”

Finally, Shah recommended the entire Bone Season series by Samantha Shannon. “Despite the heavy themes throughout, there is a tenderness to the narrative I have rarely encountered elsewhere in fiction,” Shah said. “The result is an enthralling experience. I barely took any breaks between the books, hardly breathed for fear of being rudely dragged out of that mesmerizing world. The next instalment in the series is my most anticipated book.”

Shah can be found online or on Instagram, and Journey to the Heart of the Abyss releases on Nov. 16, 2021.

History Historical Badasses

Gertrude Stein, the queer feminist at the centre of the art movement

I first encountered Gertrude Stein through her avant-garde poetry in Tender Buttons, an evocative series of short poems that forced writing to its breaking point with sentences like: “Dirty is yellow. A sign of more is not mentioned.” I met her blindly, only through her words, yet I already fell for her eccentricity. I knew there was something wonderful behind the mind that put down on paper the bold tongue-in-cheek yet unbelievably serious statement, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. I just had to explore her art further. So I began scouring old journals and artist profiles to learn more about her. 

Little did I know that the radical art Stein created could almost be rivaled by the art that she nurtured in the artists around her. I found multiple sources that called her the ‘mother’ of modernism, but after getting to know more about her, I am sure that she would scoff at such a title. After all, she left the United States in 1903 to flee the pressures of gender norms. She was also bored with medical school and seeking an outlet to express her eccentric point of view, she settled down in Paris, where she intended to pursue a life free from heteronormativity. She opened a salon in her home for the world’s creative mind, including some of the world-renowned names such as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. She was the voice of this ‘Lost Generation, the group of American expatriates flocking to Paris– and even coined the term.

The way I see it, she brought together these esteemed artists and in many ways, elevated them through her no-nonsense critique of their work. I had always internalized that a woman inspiring other artists (typically male artists) was a muse. That term is loaded, as there were often sexualized or romanticized elements typically tied to a muse. Instead, what I admired about Stein was that she was a mentor to the ‘greats’. I see her as a woman that had an undeniable presence in her time, respected by those around her. 

Nothing about her was conventional and she embraced her own strangeness, something that drew me to her further. Stein deserves the title of a trailblazer of the modernist period and of queer identity at the time. Stein’s essay Miss Furr and Miss Skeene were among the first story to be published about homosexual revelation, containing the first noted use of the word “gay” in published works to refer to same-sex relationships. She also hosted one of the first avant-garde exhibitions in the United States, funding it with the money she collected from her art dealerships. I have no doubt that every piece of art in the period has her fingerprint.

And she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her accomplishments either. Stein didn’t believe that women must be modest, proudly proclaiming “I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” She never sold herself short, a habit I found myself doing as I presented my own poetry or other writing. I was still working with my own feelings of inferiority, belittling my stories as ‘just’ relevant to female-identifying communities. While she wrote about women and her partner, she didn’t restrict herself to writing women’s stories. I found it so refreshing to see her unabashed pride, as it reminded me to take hold of my own achievements and to be confident. No matter how unconventionally and ‘weirdly’ I experimented with my creativity, I learned that I could (and should) still demand to be taken seriously. 

Regardless of all this, I don’t think she should be idolized. I often like to give powerful women in difficult situations the benefit of the doubt, as do most of the historians and writers that grapple with creating a retrospective of Stein’s life. I witnessed a trend in the way that they wrote about her, that she was ensuring her safety as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France by making these questionable alliances with Nazi figures. As much as I respect her as a feminist and as the backbone of the Lost Generation of artists, I cannot excuse her political affiliations and ironic, confusing pro-Nazi expressions. 

At the end of it all, Stein didn’t strive to be accepted or allow herself to be molded by the society around her. She carved her own place into history and I believe it is important to commemorate it, lest she is lost in the shadows of her male counterparts. As a woman in the art world, looking at Stein as an example liberates me and allows me to embrace subversive expressions of creativity. 

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History Poetry Forgotten History Lost in History

You probably don’t know about Hettie Jones, a crusading Beat poet

You’ve heard of a Jack Kerouac, but have you ever heard of a Hettie Jones?

The Beat Literary Movement of the 1950s is coined for its explicit subject matter and bohemian lifestyle. Americans in the 1950’s lived in largely suburban towns and felt threatened by things like communism. Men went to work in suits and women stayed home to cook, clean, and tend to the children.

The rebel, beatnik, group of authors that made up the Beat Generation were iconoclastic. Much of their work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-war era. They experimented with form and structure while writing about sex, drugs, and religion. Traditional literary houses rejected them and looked down on them as a group as being defiant, untalented, and unprofessional. 

I think that their being unconventional was the whole point, though.

They were the antithesis of mainstream American life.

They wanted to publish anything that was deemed inappropriate by society. These people were tired of the routine, and frankly, felt beaten down by the conservative lifestyle that they were stuck in. They were highly controversial in that they were the antithesis of mainstream American life and writing. Many of their works of poetry and prose focused on shifts of consciousness and escaping “squareness.” The stereotype around the Beats is that they were not in favor of what they considered to be straight jobs. Instead, they lived together, packed into small and dirty apartments, sold drugs, had sex with each other, and committed crimes. They are also known for exploring homosexuality, which was a highly taboo topic in 1950’s America.

Though they set many precedents together, the Beats still succumbed to the blatant sexism of the time. Most, if not all, of the women involved in the Beat literary movement were overshadowed by their male counterparts for no particular reason other than gender. These women were just as intelligent and qualified to question society as the beatnik men who have become well-known poets and activists.

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One of the most iconic, and downplayed, female poets of that time who deserves righted acknowledgment is Hettie Jones. 

Hettie Jones published 23 books- and yet, we forgot her

Hettie Jones is most known for her marriage to the famous Beat Poet Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). Few people know that Hettie helped run Totem Press, one of the more important beat publishers, along with her husband. She went on to publish about 23 books, one being a memoir of her time spent with Amiri and the rest of the Beats titled, How I Became Hettie Jones (1990). She has also written for many prestigious journals, lectured writing across America, and began the literary magazine “Yugen.”

Hettie is one of my favorite poets, so I think that her writing deserved to be at the forefront of the Beat movement, right there with the boys who got so much praise for their work. 

Hettie’s writing is rooted in practical idealism. She left her family home in Long Island to go to college and to fully discover herself. When she graduated in 1955, she never turned back, and moved to New York City. She met Amiri while working at The Record Changer, a jazz magazine. He was a young, black poet with just as much intelligence and intensity as Hettie. They quickly fell in love and moved in together. They would go to poetry readings at cafes and bohemian bars, where they met many of the other Beat poets.

Hettie deserved to be at the forefront of the Beat movement.

When the pair founded their own magazine, they published the writings of many of the iconic beat players who could not find a home for their writing in the traditional sphere. Hettie was in charge of editing the works that were to be published in the magazine. It was here that she honed her craft and found power in the refined writing that makes her work stand out from the rest. 

By 1960, Hettie and Amiri had two children, were married, and lived in New York City. Being a biracial family, though, countless bigoted remarks were directed towards them regardless of the Beat scene. Hettie was on the receiving end of most of these cold stares and was able to see the world through the eyes of her husband and children. This affected her incredibly and eventually became a recurring theme in her writing.  

When Amiri became tightly involved with the Black Power movement, he was criticized for having a white wife. They divorced in 1968. Hettie thrived on her own though and made a living with her children while teaching and editing. Her separation from her husband also gave Hettie an outlet to speak up and finally publish works of her own. She has been quoted to say, “Without a him in the house, there was more space/time for her, and I tried to redefine the way a woman might use it.” 

To this day, Hettie’s writing is compassionate. She writes about her own experiences in a compelling manner while weaving in the issues that she cares about. Currently, Hettie lives in New York City, and is a writer and lecturer. In addition, she runs a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women where she recently published a volume of writing by incarcerated women.

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USA Editor's Picks 2020 Elections Media Watch Politics The World

The media has the power to paint a narrative—even with a sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden

The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom. 

Only some media outlets and respective principled journalists dare to publish the stories that others would spike or hang low on. It has become more and more apparent to me that the news is an industry. Like any other business, news organizations cannot stay afloat without stable finances or ties to people with a great deal of power. This has become increasingly more clear in recent weeks. Alexandra Tara Reade is a former staffer from Joe Biden’s senate office who alleges that Biden sexually assaulted her at work in 1993. On March 24, 2020, The Intercept bravely published Reade’s story, stating that she had been vocal about her allegations months prior and had even lodged a complaint back in 1993. She has also mentioned that there were witnesses who can confirm her allegations. At the time, Reade felt she had no choice but to go quiet after intense pushback and pressure – much of Reade’s private life and finances have been scrutinized through the years. While Biden’s presidential campaign continued, she began to reconsider her silence, calling it her civic responsibility to share her story. 

Two days after the initial article was published, another journalist posted an hour long podcast interview with Tara Reade, where she discussed the event in its entirety. Since these were made public, mainstream media organizations have been remarkably slow on acknowledging her allegations. The New York Times finally broke its silence on April 12th, nearly 19 days after the story first entered the news cycle, and only at that point did other major news organizations follow suit. The paper claimed that they had been conducting in-depth reporting on the topic during that time interval. 

It is as if there is a vested political interest, or maybe some sort of internal strife, on the surface that is keeping the media far away from this story. While smaller, independent, publications have covered Reade’s story extensively since it first broke, none of the reportage around this story has mirrored that of the explosion of coverage around other prominent sexual assault allegations against political figures.

The article written by the The New York Times was particularly striking to me. The headline reads, “Examining Tara Reade’s Sexual Assault Allegation Against Joe Biden.”  Immediately, this insinuates some sort of skepticism. Most organizations appear to be hesitant to believe this particular survivor. 

There is no ethical standard for a newsroom to follow when covering stories like this, since every allegation is different and therefore is determined on a case by case basis, but I do believe that timing and verbiage is important. The press plays a huge role in enabling certain things to blow up while keeping others at bay, or within a certain lens, which holds true in this case, based off of the rhetoric used.

The day that the The New York Times published its article, April 12th, 2020, the paper also posted an accompanying thread of tweets on twitter that have since been deleted. One, that I found to be particularly telling, read, “No other allegation about sexual assault surfaced in the course of our reporting, nor did any former Biden staff corroborate Reade’s allegation. We found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Biden, beyond hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.” 

Other woman have been vocal about alleged inappropriate, sexual, interactions with Joe Biden. Most of their statements discuss unwanted kisses, hair smelling, and hand placement. They also talk about them feeling embarrassed, stating that his behavior towards them was just another example of that which makes many women feel uncomfortable and unequal in the workplace. Their names are Lucy Flores, Amy Lappos, D.J. Hill, Caitlyn Caruso, Ally Coll, Sofie Karasek, and Vail Kohnert-Yount. In April of 2019, Biden posted the below video on twitter in response to some of those allegations. To date, Biden’s campaign manager and communications director, Kate Bedingfield, has denied Tara Reade’s allegation saying, “he firmly believes that women have a right to be heard—and heard respectfully. Such claims should also be diligently reviewed by an independent press. What is clear about this claim: it is untrue. This absolutely did not happen.”

The New York Times forgot to mention in its article that those aforementioned instances of “hugs, kisses, and touching” that made women uncomfortable ARE patterns of sexual misconduct by Joe Biden. It is quite obvious that those kinds of acts are not ones of endearment, but rather they are assertions of power. Perhaps, during those 19 days that the paper spent conducting such intensive interviews, it could have spoken with some sort of trauma or women’s specialist. This person could have also provided the context necessary to establish why Tara would have been so hesitant to come forward with her allegations, especially with regard to the stigma that existed around such topics in 1993 and all that a person might endure when speaking up. More of the paper’s reluctance is shown through the quotations that have been selected for print. This includes the fact that the sources used to corroborate Reade’s allegation are people who have a clear loyalty or interest in Biden not only as an acquaintance, but also as a nominee.

It is not surprising that a newspaper like The New York Times would go to such lengths to attempt to ensure that Trump would not return to the presidency after 2020. Each individual newsroom is subject to its own collective judgement and decision making. But in all of the hodgepodge that goes into political reporting, and the walls that it brushes up against, one might actually be letting go of the morals that got them there in the first place. For me, it is a little disheartening that any newspaper—not just The New York Times—known for its worldview would be hesitant with coverage around a woman with a story like this one, regardless of the politics that they might be engulfed in. Reporters should avoid political activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or that may damage credibility, which includes this kind of apparent unbalanced coverage. If an equal platform is not given to survivors of sexual assault in the media, especially when the accused is a political figure who has substantial power over the public, news organizations are not serving the public the way they intend. 

It is no secret that some news organizations lean left and others lean right, but should that direct its reporting when the story is about sexual assault allegations? I don’t think so. 


Here’s why unpaid internships are such a problem

“So do you have like, uh, a major?” interrupted the illustrator. That morning when he had walked into the office, he veered straight for his computer. No interest in the unfamiliar young body in the office. Just an intern.

I decided I wanted to try my own hand at a career I could possibly more-than-stand (if you haven’t heard, we do live under capitalism) when my undergraduate tenure was already at its end. Whatever ‘in’ there may have been at university, into the carefully gatekept and strangling media industry, had already passed for me.

I was—and still am—luckier than most. I could go home with my degree (to New Jersey, which is only or inconveniently a train ride into New York City). I can live in my parents’ house and eat my parents’ food, make money irregularly and watch my savings shrink, all the while blindly applying to hundreds of jobs and internships and fellowships I likely will not get, all in hopes of breaking into an industry that appears every day to be at capacity.

“If you’re really serious, the only way is [DEBT, DEBT, DEBT]” was the flat advice from the director of NYT fellowships and internships, whose Twitterfeed is riddled with excitement, promotions, and advice for new journalists, or the 13 young people who have already managed to snag a possible livelihood.

“There are no jobs in journalism!” joke high-profile staff writers to their high-profile writer friends everyday on Twitter. “Go away if you know what’s good for you!” Oops.

So when I was offered an internship with an independent, ‘leftist’ publisher, after receiving more and more proof that there truly are no writing jobs [for me], I accepted eagerly. At the end of the interview, an editor mentioned casually the position was unpaid before describing a Christmas party four months away.

When it comes to internships, not all of them are unpaid. In a Fall 2017 issue of CUTE Magazine, Amélie Poirier and Camille Tremblay-Fournier describe the gendered nature of labor that is deemed valuable enough to pay for. Certainly, internships in engineering or computer science are “almost always paid.” Perhaps, the issue is industry money. After all, new declarations of journalism’s approaching demise are announced daily. Presumably, independent book publishers sacrifice the potential financial security of corporate collaboration.

And yet, Poirier and Tremblay-Fournier argue that who exactly gets paid for their work is no coincidence. As of 2010, in the US 77% of unpaid interns are women. As my supervisor introduced me to the editors, publicists, and accountants in our small office, he quickly came upon Christina, a young woman about my age. Another intern, I was told, though one who had interned throughout the summer as well. An hour later, in our first staff meeting, our publisher re-introduced Christina to me. “She’s, uh, sort of an intern, but now paid as a part-time freelancer. Like a paid intern.”

I looked around to see if anyone else, in this supposedly leftist publishing house, might wince at Christina and I existing at the table side-by-side. No one batted an eye. Of course interns need to earn payment, and Christina has proved herself.

I don’t think this is a question of money. Perhaps this is publishing culture, but new and old books are shipped out all day—gratís—on a moment’s notice, to whomever may desire a copy. My internship program is not new, in fact my publishing house relies on the seasonal fresh-faces of “college students or recent graduates.” This semester, there has been a struggle to reproduce their youthful cohort, and apologetic expressions form on the faces of full-time staff unloading their clerical duties onto the current three (one paid and two…not) interns. It seems to me that, if the issue were money, a truly independent company would not encourage free labor. It seems to me that, if the issue were money, a company would not hire staff they could not afford to pay.

Rather, the office presumption seems to be that we interns are their occasional students who are conveniently around all day to mail press orders, answer phones, arrange travel, research potential reviewers, walk around the street corner to the book basement, proofread e-blasts, type up hard copies (only sometimes…this is a special task), and bind manuscripts. I get $120 dollars a month for travel apparently—at the end of month, which I have yet to receive to pay my train tab (just kidding, there are no train tabs).

An actual student, contend Poirier and Tremblay-Fournier, is producing value. They are reproducing the workforce, along with giving professors someone to teach and colleges a reason to exist. Perhaps a small amount of editorial knowledge is trickling down into my equally small, young brain, but I do not think it is the most radical thing in the world to desire payment and recognition for building the foundation of this cute little bookstore. If payment were radical…do you think a leftist company might go for it?

I can afford to swallow compensation for 25 hours of work a week, and the actual self-investments sobbing for me to come back. My GRE whispers to me all day, I’m sure you’ll do fine. My graduate school applications sink further into my Chrome tabs, you’re coming back when you can focus. Canceled shifts and paid jobs smugly move on without me. Most and many others, the people that would transform an industry that is overwhelmingly white and suckish, cannot bear the dependency on an not-paying employer, and cannot eat or pay rent or have a baby or get ill with hopes of future payment. 

All of this might just seem an unfortunate experience, one I have certainly and stupidly volunteered myself for, but the constant implication that people at their place of work are “resisting,” are doing The Good Work of Good People simply by turning a profit, is grinding. Congratulations are offered around the table, to staff for having done the good work of advocating for justice at the last book fair. Were I written into a book, I would be more real.

The World

I won’t be able to attend another Book Expo with the same level of comfort ever again

In January, the School Library Journal published an article that shed light on the sexual harassment that exists in the children’s publishing industry. The unnamed writer, narrated the story of how she was harassed by illustrator David Diaz, at the 2012 SCWBI ( Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference. An aspiring writer at that time, it took her some years to speak out about her experience, following Diaz’ resignation from the SCWBI’s board in 2017 December.

A lot of things happened in the wake of this article. The readers have been horrified, disturbed and alarmed at the offenses that have been going on the industry all this time. The writer publicly announced herself as Ishta Mercurio, and she gave the courage for many more victims in the community and the industry to speak up. YA author Ally Condie ( Matched Trilogy ) posted a thread pointing out the instances she had felt harassed by male peers in the industry. Author Anne Ursu followed up with a Medium article that revealed more truths. “When you believe you are a professional and someone informs you they see you as a sex object, it can shatter your sense of self and your sense of safety,” she wrote, breaking the silence on the gross and scary side of the publishing industry. Her article included narratives of authors and conference attendees, whose experiences will definitely send shivers down your spine, at least it did to me.

As days passed, we got to hear names. And the revelation of the true face of such beloved writers and respected professionals in the industry has given way to a tough yet powerful couple of days as victims came clean about their experiences and accusers. The list of abusers looks like this.

  • Jay Asher, YA author (13 Reasons Why)
  • James Dashner, YA author (Maze Runner series)
  • Sherman Alexie, YA author (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian)
  • Matt de la Pena, YA author (Last Stop on Market Street)
  • Stephan Pastis, Comic Artist (Pearls Before Swine, Timmy Failure )
  • Richard Paul Evans, YA Author ( Michael Vey, The Walk)
  • Tristina Wright, YA author (27 Hours)
  • Chris Howard, YA author ( Rootless) – second hand account
  • Tim Wynne Jones, YA author (Blink and Caution)
  • Tessa Gratton, YA author (The Blood Journals) – second hand account
  • Tiffany Rosenthal Hofmann, freelance editor/acquisition editor for Filles Vertes Publishing
  • Tim Ferdele, YA author ( The Great American Whatever)
  • James A.Owen, YA author ( The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica Series) – second hand account
  • Michael Neff, Director of the New York Pitch Conference
  • Stefane Marsan, Editor
  • Mark Gottlieb, Agent – Second hand account
  • Steven Salpeter, Agent – Second hand account
  • Mo Willems, Picture book author ( Pigeon series)

(All of these names were compiled from the information gathered from Anne Ursu’s survey and the comments under the School Library Journal article. Ethically and personally, I believe all these victims, but I know I can’t accuse anyone officially. )

Aspiring authors have been harassed by industry veterans. People from the higher ranks have used their privilege to their advantage. Authors have exploited their fans’ hero worship and respect. How many of these authors’ books have we all read and loved? How many of these people have we been friends of, personally and admired greatly?

I am a book blogger and have been involved in this community for years. I have attended book conferences, flying all the way to the USA from my country (Sri Lanka), all alone, based on the trust and sense of security I have always felt within the community. Today that belief is shaken, and the rude awakening has made me want to see everything in a new light.

How many times have I shrugged off incidents that might have happened to me? How many offenses have I failed to see despite it happening right next to me? And how many times have made someone uncomfortable, however unintentional it might have been?

I know one of the accused up on that list personally. She has been a person I admire, we’ve been Twitter mutuals, and I’ve been so excited to see her at a convention. I’ve hugged her, fangirled over her, and when I see a victim who was more or less a reader like me accuse her, I felt shattered. The knee-jerk and selfish reaction was denial, but then I caught myself soon. When I believe all the victims, how can I not believe one, just because the accused is someone I know?

The particular author I mentioned above has claimed she’s innocent. She mentioned that she’s been assaulted herself, and she would never do something like that. Like I said before, part of me really wants to believe it, but that part of me is the worst kind of hypocrite. And as author Courtney Milan put it, “Victims of assault can still assault.”

Author Jay Asher responded to the allegations, however, if you are waiting for an apology, you’ll be mistaken. The author opened up to Buzzfeed that he left SCWBI on his own account, and that he was the person who was being harassed.

It’s a tough discussion, but I am glad we’re doing this. However, there’s no point in the conversation alone, unless it sparks some action. Because everyone can tweet their support or write an article about how they sympathize with the victims. Even hypocrites can, as YA author Sandhya Menon revealed, “Men who’ve harassed me are parading around Twitter as supporters and allies right now, pledging to take a stand against the very same harassment they’ve perpetrated.”  And author Heidi Heilig exclaims, “the thing that strikes me hardest about all this is: sure, not everyone knows. BUT A LOT OF POWERFUL PEOPLE DO KNOW, AND THEY DO NOTHING.”

It’s time for everyone in the YA publishing industry to step up and do what’s right. Author Gwenda Bond invited everyone to sign an anti-harassment pledge. Author Adam Gitwitz initiated a Facebook group for the men of the industry “to be part of a conversation” that would “help fight sexual harassment and assault” in the field. Author Kosoko Jackson started a LGBTQIA whisper, and author Alexandra Duncan has put together a spreadsheet of anti harassment resources at Cons and Festivals.

We are in a dire need to make this community a safe place. Publishers, people of higher rank in the industry, authors, editors, agents – it’s time to step up and confront the abusers and make sure that there’s less of a chance for it to happen again. I would never be able to go to another Book Expo with the same level of comfort, but we really need to do what we can, so that it doesn’t become worse.


Sensitivity readers are not censoring authors and if you think so, you’re a part of the problem

They say that writers only write what they know, which to me, is the worst thing an author can do.

Say an author grew up in a very sheltered environment with limited exposure to diverse cultures or religions. Their only understanding of different people would come from television shows and other media or literature that can be riddled with inaccurate stereotypes, which in turn, may be reflected in that particular writer’s works.

Now come sensitivity readers, who come in and edit stories to help depict characters correctly by giving the author insight to communities that he or she may not be a part of. These sensitivity readers hold authors accountable for their knowledge and ensure that they’re doing their homework when they decide to write about others.

The NY Times released an article about sensitivity readers, questioning if this type of editing was some form of censorship, which is a problematic rhetoric. The article questions if we would still have amazing literary works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Confessions of Nat Turner if sensitivity readers were there to “hijack authors’ visions.” But asking someone to take responsibility for their actions and to understand the impact they will have based how they paint others isn’t censorship, it’s integrity.

To put it simply, some people’s visions are bigoted and need to be checked.

You can call it “hyperactive” or “overly sensitive” if you want, but it’s simply not right to stand by and let authors feed audiences baseless biases, inaccurate information and more magical Negro spirituals who help move the story along without cultural consideration. Sensitivity readers are a form of editing that holds authors accountable and only broaden what could have previously been narrow ideas or mindsets. It’s time for authors take action to prevent more sexist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic narratives from reaching publication. Readers deserve to see themselves depicted accurately in the books they read, because representation, no matter how small, means all the world.

Authors from within diverse and marginalized communities often can’t get their books published or circulated as widely, so authors that can should do their best to utilize the effective checking system that exists with sensitivity readers. 

The idea that demanding authors to care about their readers and the impact that they will have is being “overly sensitive” is damaging. Even in the title “sensitivity readers” reinforces the idea that this kind of careful consideration for diversity is but an afterthought. That authors should just write with carelessness and then rely on sensitivity readers to correct them. Instead, authors should treat these editors as accountability readers, because it is not their job to teach writers or do the homework for them. They exist to hold authors accountable for their actions and remind them of the readers they are influencing when they write.

Sensitivity readers are important, but it should also be a top priority for authors to research and work with the communities they want to depict so that our literature can progress with society. A Huffington Post piece states it quite simply:

“We exist too, and we ought to exist on our terms.”

Race Policy Inequality

Why do white authors like Ellen Hopkins think they can profit off of black pain?

Recently, Publishers Weekly announced that favored young adult author Ellen Hopkins is set to release a new novel in 2019 titled Sanctuary Highway.

It’s said to be a futuristic story of the Underground Railroad with a contemporary spin, featuring an America that is an even darker version then the one we know now.

Many readers read this pitch and instantly took to Twitter demanding answers and further clarification from Hopkins, especially black readers.

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In the past year, there’s been a lot of talk surrounding stories and media that take historically horrific events and turn them into digestible dystopia.

It started with Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, a show depicting a world post World War II if the Nazis had won.

A similar concept was penned by HBO, in which they hoped to greenlight a production that would depict an antebellum America if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. The issue with shows like these and Hopkins’ new novel is the fact that these stories make light of events that have lasting effects on the people who suffered, when they change the narrative in any way.

Whether intentional or not, these new narratives often give empathetic insight into the “villains” of the real world and trigger those who have to read and see their pain replayed over and over.

Black authors and readers alike were very concerned with this happening and spoke out against this new novel, expressing how stories like these profit off of black pain and romanticize dark moments in history.

The history of the Underground Railroad and slavery is already dark and unbearable in its own way. African Americans are still dealing with the effects today. Enough time has not passed for these events to be fictionalized, especially as many schools across America steadily censor and erase slavery from textbooks.

Authors L.L. McKinney and Justina Ireland took these concerns further and brought up an even bigger issue happening in publishing. McKinney tweeted that, “gatekeepers help maintain the disparity between books ABOUT non-white authors and books BY non-white authors.”

Stories of slavery and the Underground Railroad are our stories.

They are not the stories for white people to twist, glamorize, and consume all the while black authors can’t get their stories published. I and other black readers alike are tired of white stories being consistently spotlighted.

We want to see more stories of black love and black fantasy. I want to dive into stories written by people who look like and understand what books like this would mean to me.

Hopkins has stated before that she would utilize her white privilege to be the voice of those who don’t have one in American society. While the sentiment is appreciated, we have our own voices. We can tell our own stories and we do it well.

It’s time for white authors to put our stories down and let us speak, so that young readers of color can see stories written for them by people like them.

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Hopkins issued a reply to the criticism stating that she wouldn’t have framed the pitch as it was, but that she believes her story is worthy of shelves and will cause an impact. She has yet to release an alternative pitch or shed light on what Sanctuary Highway will actually entail, stating that readers will have to “read and see if it’s worthy of shelf space.”

This sounds shifty, as readers will first have to spend the money and put it on their shelves before they can actually determine what it’s about.

I think it’s time for black readers to follow our instincts and not spend our money on people who clearly hope to profit off of us.

It’s time we start spending on the authors who are out for more than just the black dollar.

So, here a few of my favorites authors of color that deserve acclaim and attention:

  1. Promise of Shadows by Justina Ireland
  2. A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney (September 2018)
  3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  4. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (March 2018)
  5. Dear Martin by Nic Stone
  6. The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton (February 2018)
  7. The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon
  8. I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual by Luvvie Ajayi
  9. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
  10. Midnight Without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson

Happy reading!

Tech Now + Beyond

Becoming a best-selling author isn’t just a dream for me anymore – it’s about to become reality

As an aspiring writer, getting a book published is the dream. A few years ago, the concept seemed pretty much impossible to me – a chance in a million. But with the rise of self-publishing, the industry is changing and it is so much easier to get your work published.

Where previously you would have had the difficult task of finding an agent or a publisher, now all that is necessary is good content and the will to get your work out there.

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I decided to do my research and see which companies would be best to use when self-publishing and how much the process would require from me.

Being a Kindle obsessed-human, Amazon was the first place I looked into. With Kindle Direct Publishing, the process seems relatively easy – create the content, format the document, create an account, enter the relevant information and publish. Surely it can’t be that easy right?

With all Kindle titles priced between $2.99 to $9.99, Amazon pays out a royalty of 70%. They will also advertise your book for you so after creating and publishing the book, not a lot needs to be done. A huge plus is that you don’t pay anything to Amazon for using this service, however, this does not necessarily mean that you won’t be spending any money.

In order to publish the best version of your work, you may want to hire an illustrator, get the piece edited or get help with formatting.

There are drawbacks, obviously, the books will not be in bookstores as Amazon itself is technically an online bookstore. But unless you sign up to KDP Select, there is still the option of publishing in paperback elsewhere.

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Xlibris goes a step further.

You just have to write the actual content, it will then design the interior and the cover, get your books listed and print them on demand. You can pick from a range of packages depending on which services you’d want. They also offer additional services of editing, marketing, formatting, and design.

The pros of this are that you can also have your book in paperback and hardback. You get a lot more help in every department in order to ensure that you come out with a more polished version. However, unlike Amazon, this is not a free service. The fees vary from what type of package and add on services you wish to have.

Another useful self-publishing website is Author House, which also offers a range of packages from e-books to full-color paperbacks. Furthermore, they offer a range of additional services from editorial, marketing, production, and bookselling.

Another helpful website is Writers and Artists, and this is a great resource, especially if you don’t know where to begin and what kind of publishing service you require.  You answer questions based on your manuscript and about the tools that you require such as editing, design etc. This website then lists all the companies that offer the services that you require and also compares them.

You can then request a personalized quote to gain an idea of how much each service will cost. This website also has articles and resources to help you on your journey.

These are just a few websites but there are so many services out there to help you create your own book. Personally, I think the self-publishing industry is incredible, having work published has become more attainable. My favorite aspect of this, however, is how simple the process has been made. I’m not technologically inclined so the fact that some of these websites help you format the manuscript is a game-changer for me.

Becoming a writer is no longer a childish dream of mine. I’m not J.K Rowling, but there is a chance that I can get someone somewhere to read some of my work.

That, for me, is enough.

Tech Now + Beyond

South Africans are using Facebook to publish in isiZulu, so why is the language still seen as “backwards?”

isiZulu is the most widely-spoken language in South Africa, specifically in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. It is one of 11 official languages in the country. Despite being meaningful to many people in South Africa, not much has recently been published in the language.

Since this is the case, Facebook groups are being used as sites for self-publishing isiZulu short stories. Sites like Izindaba Ezimfishane Nosondiya (Short stories with Sondiya), Ekujuleni Kwenhliziyo With S’phaphalazi (The depths of the heart with S’phaphalazi) and isiZulu Short Stories have been contributing to the growing isiZulu writing community in South Africa, making creative outlets more accessible for writers’ work to be read, commented on and shared.

Many of the stories are serialized. Each story will be uploaded chapter by chapter, and readers will get a chance to critique the story, contribute their thoughts about the plot, and even speculate on what will happen next.

As we know, language is an important tool for communicating the way cultures can change and grow over time. For languages like isiZulu that are seen as less important and even less intelligent than English, having space where they can be appreciated is undeniably important. It gives writers and readers the chance to take control of their own narrative, specifically that of Zulu culture and how it is perceived.

Historically, Zulu culture has been deemed as ‘backward’ and ‘savage’ by first the colonial authorities and then the apartheid system. Zulu people were seen as ‘noble savages’: unrelenting and disciplined warriors. The stereotype still persists to this day. To be able to take control of the way Zulu culture is spoken about is so important for people whose culture has been twisted.

Although these Facebook groups are revolutionary, they also highlight the lack of support that African languages receive from publication companies. Many of these companies claim that there are not enough isiZulu writers and that even if there were, the market for isiZulu literature is small.

Despite this belief, the numbers show a very different picture. Business Tech states that only 600-1,000 copies of a South African English book will be sold in the author’s lifetime. In comparison to international books, this is shockingly low.

But what this illustrates is that there is a lack of understanding from publishers around the demographics that South African society represents. Business Tech also states that English speakers make up around 4.89 million people, whereas isiZulu speakers make up 11.58 million people. The fact that these isiZulu Facebook groups can have upwards of 50, 000 writers and readers attests to the reality that there is a potential for isiZulu literature to flourish and even outperform English titles.

It is clear that publishers are not only neglecting the most widely-spoken language in South Africa, but also refusing the reality that isiZulu speakers want to read in their own language. Since isiZulu is predominantly spoken by black people, this refusal is racist. It shows that African languages have no place in a so-called ‘post-apartheid South African literary scene’; a scene that claims to be progressive.

There are a few books in isiZulu that are published by educational book publishing companies. But what this means is that the only isiZulu books given the opportunity to be published are set works for schools and language guides. Most of the work, therefore, does not cross into mature themes above the level of matric or senior year of high school. What this indicates is that isiZulu is not valued artistically, but just as a somewhat necessary language to learn.

To negate the existence of African languages is to negate the existence of black people in South Africa. It is shocking that we are halfway through 2017 and still have to argue for something so obvious.

The truth is ‘indigenous’ languages across the whole world are being excluded in the same way. But what remains important is that we realize how technology is now so much more accessible and can, therefore, be used to promote writing in our own languages.

The existence of these isiZulu Facebook groups is integral to the reclamation of isiZulu as a language worthy of publication. It shows South Africa and the world that our languages are valid and beautiful and need to be heard. What it also shows is that it is time for companies to step up their game and actively seek out isiZulu writers.

It shows that we need a surge in black-owned publications to publish in African languages. Of course, there are so many factors to consider, such as the persistence of white capital in a definitively white supremacist world.

But it is important to understand that in the place of black-owned African language publishers, we can create our own platforms using social media.

Books Pop Culture Interviews

Making diversity the norm: An Interview with Aisha Saeed

Aisha Saeed is the kind of person you know you’ve heard of before. And it’s not because Aisha is a common name, either.

The author of “Written In The Stars” also contributed to the “Love, Inshallah” anthology and, as one of the amazing women behind the We Need Diverse Books campaign, is at the forefront of a movement to change the face of English literature. Her website includes a page dedicated to promoting the best of South Asian bloggers, along with great advice about writing, publishing, and life in general. Looking for advice on how to get started on your novel? Aisha’s got a list of books and websites that can help you get started. Searching for happiness in your life? Koala bears. Also, given her love for it, probably chai.

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Aisha spoke to The Tempest about her campaign as well as her upcoming book, “This Promise I Will Keep.”

The Tempest: Tell us about the We Need Diverse Books campaign. What inspired you to start this campaign?

Aisha Saeed: We Need Diverse Books™ is a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. The campaign came to be via a Twitter exchange in April 2014 when Ellen Oh, myself, and other authors were expressing our frustration with the lack of diversity in kidlit. We decided that we were tired of simply expressing our frustration and that it was time to do something about it. Spurred by our conversation, we planned a three-day event for May 1-3 to raise awareness, brainstorm solutions, and take action (Diversify Your Shelves). Soon after we launched our campaign, the hashtag started taking off and soon became a viral sensation. Now we are a non-profit committed to making the literary world a more diverse place.

What are your goals for this campaign? Any upcoming projects?

We have numerous projects underway from our yearly Walter Dean Myers grants for unpublished writers, our yearly publishing internship program that helps fund interns who are interested in working in the publishing industry, and we have many other initiatives as well that you can learn more about at our website.

What do you think needs to be done for diversity to become the norm in literature?

The biggest thing you can do to help diversity in literature become the norm is to buy diverse books. Buy them for yourselves, buy them as gifts for your friends. An author only has a future when their books actually sell, and so if you believe in the cause this is the biggest thing you can do. Additionally, requesting that your library carry particular diverse books can also help an author immensely. You can also recommend and signal boost diverse authors and diverse books. Every little thing that we do can make an impact and help us see more of the types of books we want to see.

What are some of your favorite diverse books?

I have a lot of favorite diverse books, five diverse books I recently recommend that I love are:
1. “Alif the Unseen” by G. Willow Wilson. She is the author of the newest Ms. Marvel which is absolutely fantastic, but her other works of fiction and nonfiction are also worth diving into.
2. “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s won many awards for this book and they are well deserved. A beautiful and heart-wrenching letter from a father to his son on what it means to be black in America.
3. “Tasting the Sky” by Ibtisam Barakat is a powerful memoir on growing up in Palestine. Penned by a poet, the words flow beautifully and its a read that brings the realities of life in Palestine into sharp focus.
4. “Painted Hands” by Jennifer Zobair is a great work of fiction trailing the lives of several American Muslim women as they deal with family, relationships, and love.
5. “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson. This is the memoir of one of the most gifted artists of our time, told in prose it sweeps you up into her story but also speaks to the experiences of anyone who feels marginalized.

Talk to us a little bit about your own writing. What’s your process? Where do you get your inspiration? 

My first book “Written in the Stars,” about a young girl forced into a marriage against her will, debuted last year. I am currently working on my next book “This Promise I Will Keep,” which comes out in 2017. In it, a Pakistani teenager enters indentured servitude to pay her family’s debts, and discovers the key to saving her village from a dangerous threat.

My stories come from everywhere. From the life I’ve lived, from the world that I see. I have no particular process beyond simply taking time to think about the world I live in, to question and ponders the limitless “what ifs” that can be and to seek the answers to those questions on the written page.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Books Pop Culture

Here’s how you can be a successful writer

Writing as a profession is difficult for a number of reasons. One has to be creatively inclined, first of all, quite well-versed in the technical aspects of plots and characters, as well as fluent in the language of your novel, of course. But the worst part is the cultural aspect, both Pakistani (where I’m originally from) as well as American (which is now my home).

Traditionally, Desis – people of south Asian background – do not think highly of writing and other creative pursuits. Our parents dream of us becoming doctors and engineers, and maybe if we’re good for nothing else, then teachers. When I was growing up in Pakistan, MBAs were all the rage, and women could go into financial fields without anyone having a heart attack. But writing was not even mentioned as a possibility. After all, what money or prestige is there in writing?

Fast forward to the U.S, where I moved after I got married. I quickly learned that writing may be applauded here, but it is certainly not monetarily recompensed. Writers and poets and artists have to have real jobs, ones that pay the bills. Then you write if you have time after work and kids and stress. But I wanted that more than anything else, so I wrote. What people don’t realize is that a writer must write, and that she may, at any time, have stories threatening to spill out any minute. I was consumed with stories, and often those characters I had made up in my mind were more real than my own family. So write I did, if only to keep sane.

My book was published in the summer of 2015. The journey has been long and arduous, and sometimes I wonder if it was worth it. It’s not enough to write a book, you see. You must also find a literary agent, and then a publisher. You must go through the often humiliating process of having your work called a piece of crap by editors, but then you also go through the wonderful transformation of editing and improving until your book is a little piece of gold, shining brightly in your hand.

Even then, does anyone really care? Publishing is a commercial process. An agent or a publisher doesn’t care how great your book is if it doesn’t have mainstream marketing appeal. So when I wrote a collection of short stories about Pakistan, most literary agents and publishers told me that it was too hard a sell, because no one reads short stories anymore, and no one wants to read about Pakistan, or Muslims. Still, I persevered, because those stories are real and they need to be heard. I finally found a small press FB Publishing that took a chance on me, and Brick Walls was born.

So for those who want to make writing a career (or any passionate hobby), here are some tips from someone who has walked that painful but infinitely rewarding path:


Read. A lot.

It will not only improve your writing by a hundredfold but will also give you motivation when you are down, when you start believing that nobody cares about or needs writers. Think how dry and boring our world would be without (insert your favorite author here) and then get back to your computer.

Network with other writers.

Most of us are a lonely, introverted bunch and we could use a friend or two. Use Facebook and other social media tools to find others interested in writing. Search for actual writing groups in your area, and if there aren’t any, start your own. You need encouragement, support and ideas, don’t you?

Be strong and be patient.

Rejection is the norm for a writer, and over time you will collect an impressive supply of rejection emails/letters from a host of institutions. Don’t start hating yourself because of them. They are a necessary part of the writing process and they can teach you a lot. Some rejections may point out flaws in your work, others may help you understand the market better. My favorite kinds are the ones that make you angry and fuel the fire inside you telling you to keep going, just to prove everybody wrong. Be strong and patient, your time will come.

Be realistic.

Very few of us are going to become the next J.K. Rowling, so be realistic about your writing goals. In fact, do you even have writing goals? If not, think hard about what you want to achieve and come up with a plan. My goals were to break stereotypes of Muslims and share Muslim narratives with the world, hence my writing Brick Walls and creating Blue Minaret, a literary magazine for Muslims. Other writers may have different goals, but without knowing your destination, it’s really difficult to find your road.