Nalini Haynes holds a Master of Social Science from the University of South Australia and an Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing from RMIT. Her work has been published in various places including the Arts Centre Melbourne (I think I can project 2014), the Wheeler Centre (‘Eye and Prejudice: a Vision for Equity’) and the ACT Writers Centre (blogger-in-residence program). Accolades include the Chronos Award for Best Fan Writer 2013, shortlisting for various awards, two invitations to join the Golden Key International Honours Society, the Dawn Slade-Faull Award 2008, selection for Adelaide Fringe Festival’s upstART program in 2008 and selection for Adelaide University’s ‘Place in the World’ exhibition in 2006.
- You’ve been running the successful Dark Matter Zine, a massive website collecting reviews, interviews and all things speculative fiction., which features many regular contributors as well as yourself. What have you learned over the years of running the website? Is there any advice that you’d give to other people who are looking into starting writing reviews and the like?
First I’d like to point out that Dark Matter Zine is not just a spec fic website any more: reviews include everything from literature to nonfiction with speculative fiction as just one of the genres featured.
DMZ started as a PDF in October 2010 and launched as a website in April 2012. I’ve learnt a lot about the mechanics of software, writing, editing and publishing. During my years studying for my associate degree of Professional Writing and Editing from RMIT I focused on forms of writing and editing, for which I was awarded all distinctions and high distinctions as well as a second invitation to the Golden Key International Honours Society.
Advice for people starting reviewing… it could take a day to detail how to set up a website, so I won’t go into that here.
Focusing just on reviewing, I’d say read. A lot. Start writing reviews. Find good reviews — not necessarily reviews of good books, just well-written and well-thought out reviews — and read them. Read good books and bad ones and figure out what you like and dislike about them. Judge a book by what it sets out to achieve: if it’s a frivolous comedy, don’t criticise it for not taking an in-depth look at society. If it’s Cleverman, don’t say it needs to transcend its genre (I’m looking at you, Overland Journal). Trust yourself: if you’re going to check what other people think about a book, make sure you’ve written a draft review and developed your own opinions first or you’ll just echo everyone else.
Before you solicit review copies from anyone, start your website. Demonstrate your ability and your endurance. Gather an audience. Large publishers will ask you for your analytics (how many visits or views your website receives). They will ask you to demonstrate that you have an audience because if they gave books to everyone with their hand up for review copies they wouldn’t sell any.
Every reviewer and author needs an authentic voice. Who are you, what experience and training do you have that sets you apart from everyone else? I have a graduate diploma and a masters degree in social science as well as training and experience working with social issues including disability. This background gives me a unique voice. I have authority to speak on issues while understanding the limitations of my knowledge and experience. This is part of my unique authentic voice.
Someone else may be the Pauline Hanson of book reviewing. Don’t laugh, she’s ba-ack! (The minion says ‘Buy the domain name RedNeckReviews’.) If his or her voice is authentic, that person will gain a following. The Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies are a thing for a reason, folks. Be authentic and find your unique voice, no matter what it is.
Also have a friend or partner who will provide tissues, treats and hugs when the shit hits the fan. Remember: vilification means your website is being read. You need a plan to help you weather the storms.
Finally, beware of dual relationships. Don’t review your best friend’s story regardless of whether you loved it or hated it. Don’t review a book by someone with whom you’ve had conflict or your valid criticisms will be dismissed as spite; in other words, don’t cast your pearls before swine or they will turn and rend you.
Around the time I started Dark Matter, an author sued a reviewer. Apparently the reviewer had actually lied in her review and the author refused to settle out of court, preferring her day in court to provide public vindication. Always, always stick to the facts. If I post a negative review — a big ‘if’: if the book is bad I usually just discard it before I finish — if I post a negative review, it tends to be cautious, providing detailed justification for being negative. I’m not as cautious with reviews for average books because the Bell Curve is a thing.
In summary: have plans for every contingency; read lots; review lots; read well-written, thoughtful reviews; establish your review website before soliciting books for review; develop a unique authentic voice; plan for haters and even death threats; and avoid dual relationships.
- One of the issues you focus on is diversity, and specifically, the treatment of disability in culture (and speculative fiction). Do you feel like the speculative fiction community is improving in its attitudes to these issues? Are there things that you feel we still need to address?
The speculative fiction community’s representation of disability in stories is varied. Much of it is mediocre at best so those books that do it well are to be treasured. Those authors who write disability well are treasures in themselves; I’m particularly thinking of Francesca Haig, Kim Whitfield, Anita Bell and Jo Spurrier whose depictions of disability in SFF stand out from the crowd.
I won’t read books by authors who say of disability ‘I don’t need to do research, I use my imagination’. This is called ‘MISAPPROPRIATION’. Would you read a time travel book written by an author who had never consumed time travel stories? Probably not because you’d expect the story to be deeply flawed, reinventing mistakes of bygone eras. Well, it’s worse for disability: not only are you reinventing mistakes of bygone eras but, because there is so little good representation available, you’re reinforcing the status quo that is so scum-suckingly putrefyingly horrendous that people with disabilities are more likely than non-disabled people to commit suicide. Read this article about racial stereotypes on the Wheeler Centre website and mentally replace ‘racial stereotype’ with ‘minority group stereotype’ to include people with disabilities in this discussion. Don’t be the privileged person misappropriating disability culture or mocking the vulnerable.
In contrast, I applaud people like Francesca Haig who studied disability before representing disability. When I interviewed Francesca, she was cautious about representing disability as a person who is not disabled; she was tentative and respectful.
My own work in progress features a few protagonists including a Chinese American; my writing benefits from research and especially from input from a Chinese Australian and a Philippina Australian who shared features of their home-life that enriched my character’s multi-lingual world. Likewise I urge writers to represent disability after research and to consult with beta readers relevant to the represented minority group, just as you should if you write Indigenous Australians.
The speculative fiction community’s attitude to disability is as variable as its members.
Someone invited me to moderate a panel on disability in speculative fiction and gave limits: only discuss good representation of disability. Shortly afterwards a non-disabled woman harassed me on Facebook via private message telling me that I’m incapable of moderating a panel on disability because I’m disabled. Several times this woman told me (she did not ask) that she was going to run the panel but I kept saying ’no’ then I blocked her. When she realised I’d blocked her for harassment, she switched to email, sending a series of emails asking to at least be co-moderator because, according to her, only a person without a disability is capable of moderating a panel on disability. I have a Graduate Diploma and a Master of Social Science that both include study of social issues including disability; I participated in Reins, Rope and Red Tape, the disability arts advocacy training course by people with disabilities for people with disabilities run by Arts Access in South Australia before it was defunded; as a counsellor and ASO4 Community Health Worker, I have worked with people with disabilities; I have a lifetime’s experience of disability and disability discrimination; and I have published over one hundred podcasts of interviews and panels. Many people have commented that my interviewing skills are excellent. But, according to this non-disabled woman whom the spec fic community touts as an expert on disability, my disability precludes me from moderating a panel on disability. This is disability discrimination in action. This is an issue that needs addressing.
Earlier this year a writing group leader told me via email that disability issues in my short story made her feel uncomfortable and that disability issues do not belong in near-future speculative fiction but she could allow disability issues in far-future speculative fiction. She emailed me twicetelling me to write a memoir and find another writing group. The second time was after I acknowledged her first ‘suggestion’ and explained that writing a memoir, reliving all that soul-shattering discrimination, would destroy me. After her second instruction to find another writing group I requested a copy of the writing group’s constitution to check whether the group is intentionally ableist. The committee retaliated by revoking my partner’s and my memberships without a hearing, issuing a refund of membership fees and failing to respond to my protest sent in reply to their email. Groups within the speculative fiction community are working against the development and publication of stories featuring disabilities when written by people with disabilities; this is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Anthologies touted as focusing on disability need fact-checking and careful editing. For example, I read a short story about a woman with spina bifida, which was explained in the narrative as ‘missing spine’ (a gross simplification that implies lack of understanding). The character dragged herself around with her arms but could urinate without a catheter. [See my impersonation of a goldfish. Then see steam coming out of my ears while I think of all the people I know living with spina bifida and how this story could detrimentally impact them.] If you’re going to write or edit stories about disability, check your facts. Make sure the representation is medically accurate and representative of at least some people with that form of disability. Otherwise you’re misappropriating disability culture while, at the same time, perpetuating or worsening the lived experience for real people.
In recent years the speculative fiction community has increasingly discussed disability and become more aware of disability access issues, however, there is resistance to change and a tendency on the part of privileged people to applaud themselves prematurely. In part this is due to the current trickle of crip fic (see the previous paragraph) but also due to ableist assertions that ‘we have provided disability access’ in the face of complaints.
A few positives: PAXAustralia is the best expo or convention I’ve been to with regards to disability access. I <3 PAX although their program app has dire yet common issues with regards to disability access. (Does no one test these apps with iPad magnification turned on?!) Russell B Farr of Ticonderoga gave me an iPhone 3 so I could experience the joys of large text, enabling me to use SMS. I loved it so much I now have an iPhone 6 Plus. Tom Dullemond encouraged me to turn to Apple for increased disability access, giving me tips on how to set it up. Thanks in part to Tom, I’m sitting in front of a 32 inch Mac today. Back in the dawn of (DMZ) time, people were supportive although I still needed to get runs on the board. Meg Mundell was very understanding and helpful when she was the guinea pig for my first phone interview while I was taking notes without a recording device. Michael Pryor wrote The Extraordinaires, which I both love and criticise simultaneously because the albino is a kick-ass protagonist but glasses cannot fix albinism; using glasses to fix albinism is problematic because it reinforces public misconceptions. Pryor has never lashed out against my criticism and has since come on a Dark Matter Zine podcast as a panelist discussing diversity. Anita Bell has been very encouraging, leaving comments on Facebook or quietly messaging me when she sees discrimination and bullying getting me down. Small acts of kindness, equity and inclusion are like flecks of real gold in the golden shower of life.
The speculative fiction community is as varied in attitude as broader society. There is good, bad and ugly behaviour. Citing examples is to hold a mirror to behaviours, thereby lobbying for change. I use acts of kindness and exclusion to illustrate the spectrum of equity to ableism that is my lived experience when interacting with the speculative fiction community.
- What can we expect from you, and from Dark Matter Zine, in the future?
I’m writing a novel featuring a disabled protagonist whose BFF is half Chinese. Dark Matter is embracing more diversity in genre as well as more diversity in characters. I’m aiming at a fortnightly podcast featuring some really interesting authors. Lately I’ve interviewed Will Kostakis, Wendy Orr, Zana Fraillon and Rajith Savanadasa. I’ve been getting two-for-one out of these interviews by distilling the essence of their comments on equity and representation for a series published via the ACT Writers Centre blogger-in-residence program. These posts can be found here as they come online.
- What Australian work have you loved recently?
Lately I’ve loved The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (OMG everyone should read this novel about an Australian girl and a refugee boy, it’s the new Boy in Striped Pyjamas with a more hopeful ending), Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr (a strong female protagonist aged 12), Sidekicks by Will Kostakis (a teenager dies then his diverse friends have to come to terms with his death and their lives), Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa (set in 2009 in Sri Lanka as the civil war officially comes to an end)… the list could go on.
- Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Margaret Atwood. If you have to ask why, you haven’t read enough of her work.
This interview is cross-posted to the 2016 Snapshot blog, along with all the other Snapshot interviews.