Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 2
With a wait of just 24 hours, I am very happy to post the second half of my conversation with Gemsigns author Stephanie Saulter. Please check the first part here. I promise this wasn’t just a clickbait move on my part – this interview more than doubled my usual post count and I wanted to keep it easily digestible. I hope everyone enjoys her comments as we dig in things more deeply. And, for those who haven’t yet given Gemsigns a read, please do. It’s well worth the time. Even better, the sequel, Binary, is available now in the UK and next year in the US.
When I read Gemsigns, it only took about five pages before I said to myself, “Oh hey, it’s the Jim Crow South!” I would imagine that this is a common reaction here in the Thirteen Colonies. I’ve seen you say that the European reception is different. What is it that people over there connect the book to?
What’s been really interesting about the reaction to Gemsigns is that every community that reads it relates it to some issue which is current and relevant for them. In America, as you say, it resonates with the black experience: slavery, emancipation, reconstruction as the backdrop to lingering inequalities centered on race. In Jamaica it’s much the same, although as I said earlier the post-emancipation path has been a bit different in the Caribbean, so the nuances that people pick up on are different.
(Although appearances remain very important in both. You made an amused comment in your review – and no, it does not make you a bad person – about the gems’ brightly-coloured, glowing hair. That and similar observations have been made several times; always, as far as I’m aware, by white folks. It’s worth pointing out that for black folks in these countries, hair is hugely political, hugely fraught. A black woman in Jamaica thanked me, with tears in her eyes, for making the point about how having the ‘wrong’ hair can condemn you. So even within the same national group you get these very different readings: white people read the hair thing as a clever or maybe not-so-clever SFnal device, black people read it as a forthright political statement.)
In Europe there is a degree of removal from the legacy of slavery; people do recognise it as an element of the metaphor, but the impact tends to be a bit less visceral. However what a lot of people here thought I was specifically commenting on was immigration, which has become a very big issue in the UK, and Europe more generally. There’s a narrative around people who are not ‘us’ taking ‘our’ jobs and living in ‘our’ houses and enjoying the benefits of ‘our’ welfare state. And the counter-narrative, of the data that shows immigrant groups tend to put more into the system than they take out. And the counter-counter-narrative, which both disputes the numbers and complains about changes to ‘the British way of life’ – as though that hasn’t been in constant flux since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It is a very complex, very emotive topic, and it has parallels in the Gemsigns story as well.
I will admit to never having thought of hair that way. Mostly I just worry about it thinning. You seem to be a vocal participant in the equality discourse within the genre community. Here, many of the arguments and talking points mirror those in US politics. Do things have a different tone on your side of the pond?
They do, because questions of equality don’t generate quite the same kind of political friction here. Even our most right-wing politicians don’t tend to suggest that everyone isn’t or shouldn’t be treated equally, and when someone does let some horrible sentiment slip (as has happened) the public, the press and other politicians generally land on them like a ton of bricks. That doesn’t necessarily mean our society is intrinsically fairer – we talk a better game than we play – but I think there is more of a shared agreement, at least in public, that every citizen should have the same entitlements no matter who they are or what resources they possess (the differing attitudes between the UK/Europe and the US to the provision of health care is an example of the kind of consensus I mean).
What’s interesting at the moment is the way grass-roots arguments and issues drive political responses. There’ve been a number of really horrendous Twitter campaigns against women who’ve taken a stand on various issues; that becomes a big story in the mainstream media, and then politicians weigh in to condemn the trolls’ behaviour, and, increasingly, the ones who make threats are arrested and hauled off to the clink. Our politicians and public institutions seem pretty clear that freedom of speech does not include the freedom to threaten rape and murder.
From your perspective, are things getting better in the community? For every Hugo/Nebula Awards slate we have a Gamergate; it’s sometimes hard to think we’re making any progress. (For the record, I think that the book community is far ahead of other tribes in Greater Geekdom.)
It’s hard for me to judge, because I am so new to the community; until I sold the Gemsigns manuscript I didn’t know it existed. It was my agent who told me about conventions and genre fandom and suggested I go along to a few things and start to get acquainted. This was in 2012 – really, I’m that new. He thought I would find them welcoming and friendly and supportive, and he was absolutely correct. It’s a bit astonishing that I have become part of such a longstanding tradition so quickly, but I’m still climbing the learning curve.
So I guess I have two comments about how things are. First, the fact that I have been welcomed so readily gives the lie to the notion of an exclusionary, hide-bound, horribly conservative group who want to remain the center of their imaginary universe; but of course, I’m in the UK. Most of the horror stories I’ve heard are US-centric, so it may be that there is simply less of that conservative, exclusionary ethos on my side of the pond.
Second, I have bought and read and enjoyed and shared SFF throughout my life, and wrote a science fiction novel that I very quickly sold (and on the back of which a trilogy was commissioned), without ever knowing the tribe existed, let alone being a member. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad now to know it exists, I’m very glad to have been admitted. But it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective. It’s a big, big world out there. One of the wonderful things about this year’s Worldcon in London was that it felt broad as well as deep; it understood its context within the larger culture. It wasn’t insular.
Finally, and in a non-spoiler way, how hard was it to sit on Aryel’s secret, just waiting to let everything out? I have this image of you fist-bumping yourself in relief once the moment finally came. (Great moment, by the way. Very memorable.)
Thank you! It actually wasn’t very hard – I knew I couldn’t drop that bomb too soon. If anything I was worried about the reveal itself: whether I could do it justice, whether I had the skill to craft it so that my readers would experience the emotional impact that I thought it warranted. In that sense the entire Aryel narrative was very tricky. I really get into my characters’ heads, but she is such an enigma. It’s hard to fathom the willpower, the sheer depth of character, that enable her to do what she does; until you know what she’s hiding, you can’t really understand how hard it is for her to hide it. I just thought to myself, If she can keep this secret, so can I.
Thank you, Stephanie, for the insightful comments.