“Uncanny Magazine” staff talk representation and “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction”

A few weeks ago I came across a Kickstarter campaign called Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. It was all over my Twitter feed because it was around this time that the American House of Representatives was trying once again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and this time they came dangerously close to managing it.

It seemed like the campaign had dropped out of the sky to send me a message: science fiction is finally doing something about representation! Also: check this thing out.

Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is part of the Destroy series (previous: Women Destroy and People of Colo(u)r Destroy, among others) by “Uncanny Magazine,” an online science fiction and fantasy magazine that publishes fiction, nonfiction, and some killer artwork.

Issue 17 cover art, courtesy Lynne M. Thomas

I reached out to the editors of “Uncanny,” Lynne M. Thomas and husband Michael Damian Thomas, who along with Managing Editor Michi Trota and Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Guest Editors-in-Chief Dominik Parisien and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, discussed the upcoming issue and its place in the current sci-fi scene:

1. What have you noticed with representation in sci-fi over the years? A lot of people would argue that sci-fi has a representation problem – what’s your take?

Michi: If you’d asked me several years ago, I’d have said that there wasn’t much representation beyond primarily white people, particularly white men, writing SF/F. But I think that’s because I didn’t know where to look, as well as the fact that SF/F writers, editors, artists, and other creators who aren’t able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white men are just not made very visible by the industry. Because the truth is that marginalized creators have been a part of the genre since the beginning, and there are so many creating amazing stories and art. But we’re continually pushed to the side and erased so that it seems like it must be “a new thing” whenever waves of visibility for us come back around. Which can be really discouraging for marginalized creators who want to be part of SF/F;  – it’s hard to imagine yourself as part of something if you don’t see people like you included from the get-go. It’s a long-standing problem because there’s still the entrenched idea that women, POC, queer people, disabled people, etc., aren’t “appealing” to a general audience, as if, say, white able-bodied characters will appeal to everyone, but stories featuring disabled POC are “niche” and therefore not worth the marketing effort.

I think what we’re seeing reflected in projects like Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and the previous Destroy projects, is a push for those with power and influence in the industry to be more aware in their choices of work and creators to publish. There’s more of a desire to actively combat biases and normalized systems of discrimination instead of just waiting for these problems to fix themselves, or relying on marginalized people to do all the work of addressing our own oppression. And the more visible marginalized creators are in all aspects of SF/F— – as characters, writers, artists, editors— – the more it encourages other marginalized people to imagine the possibility that there’s also room for us to be an active, welcome part of the genre.

2. The Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue is coming at a time when the Affordable Care Act is on the brink of repeal. Was this part of the impetus to develop this issue?

Elsa: No, but it’s certainly a driving force behind how I look at the issue. As a disabled person, and certainly as an editor, right now my perspective is shaped by what’s happening to disabled Americans, and this legislation and repeal are a huge part of that. But it’s also about the legislation that already exists: The ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] turned 27 this July, and yet there’ve been no improvements to the law in that time, nor have there been better laws put in place. Civil rights for disabled people are a long ways from equal, and that shapes how I look at disability representation as a whole, too.

When we’re not equal in real life, in our governance as citizens, it’s hard to envision futures where we’re equal. I hope this issue challenges that, and creates better futures for us.

3. How would you describe the representation of disabled people in the sci-fi and fantasy genres generally?

Elsa: Well, there’s not as much representation as I’d like. And by that I mean, there isn’t enough variety. There was a hashtag by Netflix recently: #FirstTimeISawMe, and I saw a lot of disabled people posting that they’ve never seen themselves in literature or film. Myself included. I’m partially deaf-blind. I’ve certainly never seen myself in science fiction, though occasionally I’ve seen pieces or parts of my experience.

Often, disability is erased, especially in settings in the future where medical science could theoretically cure all disabilities and illnesses. Same goes for fantasy settings where magic can do the same. The good representations are few and far between. Of course there’s the beloved Miles Vorkosigan series [“Vorkosigan Saga”], and there’s Inquisitor Glokta [“The Blade Itself”]. But it’s not enough, and there’s very few film representations that involve disabled actors (count: None as far as I know.)

Cover art for “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction”. Courtesy Lynne M. Thomas

4. What are you hoping to achieve with this special issue? Is there any particular goal or conversation you’re trying to induce?

Dominik: For my part, I want to give disabled writers an opportunity to tell their stories. It can be difficult to want to write about a character like yourself if you’ve never encountered one in media. It’s easy to internalize the conception that you don’t belong, that people don’t want to read about others like you. I want to help disabled authors who might be reluctant to write themselves or people like them into their stories to have the confidence to do so, not just for this special issue but in general. Something like Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is important, but it’s an opportunity and not a solution. You can’t have these stories appear only in this environment, otherwise their value becomes limited, sanctioned in a way. I want editors, writers, and readers to see people’s enthusiasm for the project and demand to see more material like it elsewhere.

And for able-bodied writers who want to write disabled characters into their books, I want them to read the material — the fiction and poetry, but especially the nonfiction and personal essays — and to consider how they’re writing those characters, and why. Are they actually writing a character, a person, or just a trope or a plot device? Are they perpetuating harmful representation? These are important things to consider, especially because it’s too easy to dismiss criticism later by hiding behind good intentions of “‘ just wanting to include those characters.”’ Stories have an impact, and our nonfiction in particular is a powerful way of showcasing that.

Elsa:  Dominik hits the nail on the head here: having disabled authors tell their stories is the most important part of this issue, and that includes nonfiction. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to share a wide variety of experiences from disabled authors, about genre, about their writing processes, about themselves.

5. Let’s talk about the “Destroy” series more generally. What was the goal of the series originally? Has that transformed over the years?

Michael: When “Lightspeed Magazine” started the series with Women Destroy Science Fiction, they began their mission statement with: “Women aren’t writing ‘real’ science fiction, the fallacy goes. ‘Real’ science fiction is… . . . whatever science fiction certain men like. Some days this makes us sad. Some days it makes us angry. And some days it just seems hilarious… . . .and a quip on Twitter turns into a special issue of LIGHTSPEED in the space of roughly half an hour.”

This was expanded for their Queers Destroy Science Fiction and People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction special issues. The goal for the series is to challenge the idea that science fiction literature’s default is cis, heterosexual, able-bodied, white, American male creators and characters who shared those creators’ points of view. These special issues quite successfully countered that these stories should be privileged over everybody else’s.

Editors of “Uncanny Magazine.” From left to right: Michael, Michi, and Lynne. Courtesy Lynne M. Thomas

The Destroy series has transformed over time by finding many different marginalized voices from a variety of backgrounds with each subsequent special issue. The series has also more and more embraced intersectionality and understood that there is an axes of oppression and discrimination.

Of course, the biggest transformation has been passing the series to “Uncanny Magazine”. Since “Uncanny” already shared these values with the series, it was really a perfect fit for us.

6. What’s next for “Uncanny Magazine”?

Michael: Year Four for “Uncanny Magazine” promises to be extremely exciting. Thanks to the amazing response to the Kickstarter, we know we will be doing both the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue and a shared-world dinosaur issue along with our four regular issues. The Hugo Awards are in a week (“Uncanny Magazine,” the Thomases for editing, and “Uncanny” stories by Alyssa Wong and Brooke Bolander are all finalists) and the the World Fantasy Awards are in early November (the Thomases and Bolander’s story are also finalists for that award). We will also have a new poetry and reprint editor (Mimi Mondal) and interviewer (Shana DuBois) for Year Four.

We are so grateful for all of the community support of the magazine. We think we are doing something important, and it’s only possible thanks to our contributors, staff, and readers.

Johnny Perez talks fantasy and diversity in art

I originally came across artist Johnny Perez on Twitter. A quick visit to his site and I was hooked. His work is surreal and colorful (you know how much I love color) and is inspired seemingly by otherwordly creatures – the women are fairies, mermaids, supernatural beings, and yet still intensely human.

Johnny was recently in Mexico collecting references and inspiration for a new project. He gives us the scoop here, as well as his creative process.

How did you first get into art?

I’ve been drawing pictures since I could hold a crayon. But I didn’t think of it as a career until around 6th grade, when we began looking at our futures for a class project. I have always been told I would be an artist, but I wanted to be many things before I chose to use my talents for work. My family was always nurturing, so I never had to fight to become an artist. My sister has great talent and helped me improve as a child, and then my own research took over from there. Plus I don’t sing very well, so that was out.

What inspires your work?

I have no lack of inspiration! My constant sources are mythology, folklore, animation, and comics. I find inspiration in nature, in people around me, and colorful environments like my recent trip to Mexico. I love authors like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and it’s no secret I love “Harry Potter”! I love directors like Guillermo del Toro and Baz Luhrmann, and old fantasy movies like “Dark Crystal”, “Labrynth”, and “Legend”. My childhood influences I believe are very strong in my work and come out in my color choices, my subject matter, and the fact that I really like to have fun with an image. Probably because I’m a big kid.

Your website mentions that your work features “figurative fantasy and cultural diversity.” What does that mean to you? How do those two things work together in your art?

To me figurative fantasy is a play on the traditional figurative model. In my work I don’t just want to portray the figure as it is in reality, because I believe there is so much unseen mysticism. I want to capture something that speaks more about who they are perhaps if dreams could be realized. For instance I painted one of my favorite singers, Erykah Badu, and instead of a traditional portrait, she is painted as a siren atop a jukebox in a sea of records with speaker-head fish, and a crane carrying a microphone. There is a nod to fantasy, and a bit of surrealism there. I believe in the veil between our world and others and I believe they are always influencing one another.

As far as cultural diversity, I try not to limit myself to what I know, but I want to heavily lean on ambiguity when it comes to cultures. Living in America I still hope for peace because I truly believe we are a melting pot of the world, and I find it so odd when people forget that. I want to express my cultural heritage from Mexico and Native America. I want to express my upbringing with Hip-Hop/African-American culture. I want to express the excitement of learning about cultures from all the continents, because it’s all so fascinating and it should be celebrated.

Courtesy Johnny Perez
Courtesy Johnny Perez

Beyond that broad sentiment I want to bring what I know to be a serious lack of diverse entertainment and imagery to what I do. I look at what other people are doing and I can’t help but see that I’ve been blindsided by popular media. I use my work to correct that. I’m not just talking about Hollywood, because sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don’t. But on TV, in movies, and on the internet, fantasy images (and images in general) are often devoid of colorful, unique characters. For a few years I took a break from American movies, because I got tired of the lack of flavor and tired repeating stories. I was missing some imagination. I was inspired by anime movies by Hayao Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai, and those series that really pushed boundaries on what the medium could do. I try to do the same with my work.

What message are you seeking to impart with your art?

There is more to us than the skin we’re in, and there is more to life than what corporations would have us believe. There is more to the world than what we are taught. I bring myself, a lover of fantasy and traditional media, and introduce these foreign concepts. Many are hot political buttons, like religious freedom, racial equality, and gender ambiguity. I still work on bringing these things together. I aim to expose my viewers to diversity in all its forms, racial, cultural, sexual, religious because I feel so much sheltering being forced. Because we only have two genders in our society when so many more exist. Because we have oppression of races because our society is built on it. Because we have interference of freedom from all sides who seek to have THEIR way because they believe it is right. I’m asking questions and seeking answers every day, [and] so should everyone else in my opinion.

I often paint the fantastic, but it does mean more to me than a fairy tale. In a sense they are what fairy tales used to be, cautionary tales. “Don’t hate, appreciate!” as the saying goes. I was in a bubble as a child, and when I drew, my mother asked me, “where is the color?” referring to the pale skin and blonde hair of my subject. I was immediately offended, but something in me opened that day. And from there I realized the world I lived in. It is clear in recent events that many people want to remain in a bubble, and I hope that if any see my work, perhaps that will burst, in a good way. More importantly I hope to help fill the void along with other artists, that shows people of color are just as beautiful, fantastic and full of magic as any other.

Courtesy Johnny Perez.
Courtesy Johnny Perez.
Tell us about your latest project in Mexico.

My project [that] I’ve been referring to as Urban Sketches and Landscapes of Mexico, and sometimes “Viva Mexico!” is about my exploration of the country’s natural beauty as well as urban environment and graffiti art through photo and painting. Many things in my childhood and later my love life led up to this project. First I grew up in a mainly English-speaking household. I always felt I was Latino/Mexican in race, but as I learned more about my roots, I realized how out of touch I was, and what I was missing out on. My elders spoke Spanish, and we ate Tex-Mex daily, but that was certainly not enough. I hated the Spanish music my family listened to, I didn’t particularly like molé, and I was positive everyone south of the border was wearing ponchos and sombreros. I mean, I had so much to learn! That chance [came when] I was about 10, and I went on a trip with my grandmother to Acuña, Coahuila just south of Del Rio, TX. She was conducting bible school classes there with a church group from Haskell, TX. I immediately felt the sting of the privileged life I had led. But I also fell in love with the landscapes, the architecture of buildings, and the small neighborhoods of the residents we visited. There was so much color, and history!

After that trip, I became friends with someone at my school who was from Jamay, Jalisco. From his family I learned what Gorditas were (real ones!), how to play Lotería, how to make Horchata, what chile seasoning goes on Duritos, and so much that my family never did or ate. We also connected over the music and death of Selena. Because of it, I listened to Spanish music, and learned the words. I learned her story, and probably watched the movie of her life a million times, all the while gaining the inspiration to connect with my roots in the same way and someday have my art be as admired. Not long after, in high school, I lost my grandmother to liver failure from diabetes. It was in the back of my mind that we would take another trip someday. I thought I would never go back unless it was on my own, but I was always told it was too dangerous.

My boyfriend of two years now got a great opportunity to perform professionally there, and I of course had to tag along. It was a time of connecting for the first time with his immediate family that still lived there in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. It was also a time of reconnecting for me to see what I couldn’t before, and appreciate what I didn’t understand so many years ago. It was my intention to paint plein-air [meaning outdoors, so that you recreate the source as it is while you paint] but that was nearly impossible with everything we wanted to see. So I took every photo possible. I was able to tour the city with his family, which was a far cry from the poor villages I first encountered. I was able to eat the home-cooked Mexican food, that was so different and yet familiar. It was almost instantly a home away from home that I had been away from for too long. This was my first chance to see Mexico both as an adult and as an artist, to connect the dots, and capture the experience to reference for future work.

When will the project be available to the public?

I’ll be releasing artwork as it becomes available through my website: JohnnyPerezArt.com/vivamexico I will also be posting progress on my blog, so its a good time to message me if you see a piece in progress that you want! Prepurchase is no longer available but links will be provided to buy each work through PayPal, or in person if local.