Friday 27 May 2016

FAE Visions of the Mediterranean

This month sees the release of Fae Visions of the Mediterranean, the latest Publishing anthology, featuring 24 stories and poems of horrors and wonders of the sea. The editors Valeria Vitale and Djibril al-Ayad have kindly agreed to appear on my blog to answer a few questions.

Q.        Why did you chose the Mediterranean as an anthology theme?

Valeria: I have always had a passion for folktales and old mythologies, that has been frustrated recently when I discovered how little of my own literary and anthropological tradition has been translated into English. Also, as I often work with Mediterranean ancient languages and artefacts, I like to imagine their journeys through time and space, looking at the connections they might have with modern words, artistic traditions and popular tales. Fae Visions is a dish based on these dreams, seasoned with a pinch of sea salt, a handful of fresh algal slime, a teaspoon of crushed cuttlebones and just a dash of homesickness.

Q.        Is there any connection to real life events in this theme as well?

Valeria: Of course! Europe isn’t one world, Africa another, and the Near and Middle East a third; the Mediterranean has always been much more a road linking the peoples around it than a barrier dividing them.

Djibril: Also of course: everything is connected to the real world, isn’t it? Fiction tells us more about the author’s present than it does about the fantastical distant past or the speculative far future it’s set in. Wanting to remind people that the Mediterranean is a single world is equal parts Valeria’s delicious recipe, and a social-political agenda: reminding ourselves of the links between people is a radical act. Just look at the centuries of political strife caused by those who have set up artificial boundaries between the north and south coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.

Valeria: Probably the real life event that made us feel most compelled to talk about this area of the world is the ongoing tragedy of the millions of refugees seeking a new hope on the other side of the Mediterranean. We were crushed by the idea that what has always been a connection between peoples has now become a fence of barbed wire, guarded with guns. The floor of the Mediterranean has seen countless shipwrecks in many centuries of trade and travel. But I don’t think its waves have so often swallowed desperate cries for help as now.

Djibril: Yeah, there are some horrors that are worse than seamonsters or spawn of the underworld.

Q.        I love the cover candy for FAE, do tell me more about it.

DA: We love the cover art too! Tostoini is a wonderful designer and illustrator from Italy (see her portfolio at whose work we love—she had a free-standing artwork in the Accessing the Future anthology. When she started work on the cover art for Fae Visions, she said she wanted to capture the transcultural feel of Mediterranean art, from ancient Greek vase paintings to Moroccan mosaics by way of abstract and craft-inspired textures. We let her run with a few ideas before settling on the mosaic sea-monster and silhouetted trireme on a semi-abstract sea under the ominous, storm-filled skies. I’m glad you agree it turned out wonderfully—we think so too!

Q.        FAE features stories and poems in 9 languages. What’s special about multilingual publications? How do they impact the reader?

Valeria: We knew it could have been a risky editorial choice, that some readers might have felt put off by fiction in languages they are not familiar with. But we wanted people to see a polyglot anthology as a playful invitation to have a look, maybe for the first time, at new languages and even alphabets. We wanted our readers to go on a linguistic adventure and maybe discover connections between words never heard before, creating chains of thoughts linked by letters and sounds. But most of all, we wanted the represent the intrinsically multilingual nature of the Mediterranean and how dealing with bits of foreign languages is part of our everyday experience, and of our identity. Language is one of the barriers we decided a long time ago we didn’t want to let stop us.

Djibril: Absolutely! I don’t know exactly how this sort of thing would impact a monoglot reader—I was raised bilingual and seeing text in another language, even one I can’t understand or even read, purely thrills me. I hope it’s the same for most people. But of course we haven’t included any pieces in this anthology that are not accessible to a monoglot Anglophone reader. An extract in sixteenth-century Franco-Italian handwriting is both transcribed in typeface and translated into English; a couple of non-English stories are translated, a few others are glossed with plot summaries in the margins. There are back-translations, self-translations, parallel editions. I genuinely think I could read an anthology like this full of bits of Far Eastern languages (none of which I read a single word of) and love it. I’ve not heard of anyone alienated by this gambit yet, so I’m optimistic!

Q.        The guidelines were welcoming to authors traditionally under-represented in Western fiction. And I notice that you extended the deadlines for micro fiction in Mediterranean languages and for stories from North African or Near Eastern authors. Was the slush pile as diverse as you’d like?

Djibril: It could never be as diverse as we’d like… there’s too much variety in the Mediterranean and the world, not only linguistically and ethnically, but culturally, religiously, in politics and gender and ability and identity. And yes, some parts of the Mediterranean were much better represented than others (by content or by authors), and sometimes that was a little frustrating. But on the whole we were delighted with the variety and diversity and sheer quality of the slush pile, and we ended up with a lovely anthology full of styles and media and genres and languages that we couldn’t have dreamed of, without ever once having to select on the basis of “fit” or tokenism or anything other than sheer love. That’s a big deal to me.

Valeria: We are very fond of the anthology in the way it turned out to be, but the idea that some Mediterranean places, languages and cultures are less represented than we would have liked them to be is slowly pushing in our minds the idea of a sequel to Fae Visions with more attention to inclusion of authors and stories from North Africa and the Near East. A second anthology could also be the chance to try a variation in genre too, maybe opening to darker and weirder stories or generally to give a different perspective on the wonders and terrors of the Mediterranean.

Let’s see how tenacious this idea will prove to be!

Djibril: I’m sold on it! But it won’t be the next thing we do…

Q.        What else can an editor do to encourage diversity? Why is this important?

Djibril: In a sense, the only thing one needs to do to encourage greater diversity in publishing is to let authors from underrepresented groups know that their work is valued. This means reaching out to the communities and demographics that you think need better representation in your publishing world—which is hard, as Claire Light has pointed out. It also means supporting authors, editors and publishers who are already out there working: make sure that people from diverse backgrounds are able to be involved in the production, selection and especially inception of creative projects—buy their works, employ diverse editors as well as authors. And above all, it means making sure that authors and artists you publish—not only but especially creators from under-represented or under-privileged backgrounds—are fairly paid for their work. Why is this important? Well, even if one didn’t care about social justice in its various forms, who on Earth would want their reading (listening, watching, game-playing, art consumption, etc.) to be constrained to the tiny percentage of perspectives that are white, Anglophone, cis, male, ablebodied, neurotypical, monied heterosexuals?

Q.        I was pleased to see the call for micro stories (although I didn’t write one) as I’ve a great fondness for very concise fiction. What makes a successful micro fiction for you?

Valeria: I agree! Flash fiction is such a versatile medium, it encourages experimentation and risk-taking, and is highly subjective and so a risk in itself, almost like poetry. I think it’s impossible to say what makes the perfect short short story, as one of the thing I enjoy the most is exactly how diverse they can be. But one of the thing that fascinates me the most is the necessary selection that the authors have to make, the fact that they have to find what is really essential to the story. And what amazes me is how, even when the stories are reduced to their bones, they still manage to be surprising, to find new twists. I think that writing flash fiction looks deceptively easy and quick but, actually, it takes talent and experience to craft a good one.

Q.        FAE’s guidelines asked for horror quite prominently within the broad guidelines. Why was that?

Djibril: We wanted to see ghosts, pirates, monsters, ancient inscrutable evils rising from the sea. We wanted terrible things happening to people (and terrible people happening to things); we wanted cathartic supernaturals horrors to offset the all-too-real horror of the world. Horror as a genre sometimes contains the most hopeful and heartening writing, overcoming the worst strife as well as the fantasy of the vicious receiving their comeuppance.

Valeria: In the end we received more dark fantastic than proper horror, though. There is a good balance of both in the anthology, so it isn’t overwhelmingly dark or bloody. But yes, we really did want to subvert the glossy “travel agency” image of the Med. The plan was for the anthology to talk about the second, less-visited face of the Mediterranean Sea, using the narrative of the horror genre to reflect and allude to the real life horrors going unnoticed there: not only the plight of refugees but constants like pollution, overfishing, warfare.

Q.        Let’s pretend that I’m a writer. What can I do to make you buy my next story for your anthology?

Djibril: That’s a bit hard to say, as we don’t know what the next anthology will be yet! I can say a bit about the sort of fiction we’re looking for (in common across the anthologies and the magazine), but before I do I would stress one thing: I don’t think any writer should try to write to our tastes, or should try to create the sort of story we would like. Be true to yourself, push yourself to be as good as you possibly can be on any given day, stretch your boundaries and your experiences, make mistakes, be prepared to fail better tomorrow, but you have to be yourself, or else it just doesn’t work.

So what sorts of fiction, poetry and art do we like? Well, as we discussed a few minutes ago, we’re always looking to hear from diverse and under-represented voices—which means content as well as author, perspective as well as origin, intention as well as history. We’re looking for speculative work, both in the sense of science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird shit, magical realism, surrealism, *-punk and whatever, but also in the sense of stories that are willing to ask the real “What if” questions: not just what space exploration could we achieve with warp drives or ansibles, but what would the social and political implications be of a futuristic/paranormal/unreal/horrific development; what would happen to people, what would happen to minorities, what would happen to the privileged, to the disenfranchised, to the dissident? Stories that are willing to be socially progressive, optimistic, cooperative, inclusive. Stories that recognise the problems in the world—scientific, social, ecological, political—and are not afraid to satirize, to sympathize, to address, to shout about or even to suggest solutions to them. Most of all, any story we publish will be beautiful, startling, poetic, creative.

Q.        You’ve been interviewing FAE authors at Future Fire, I’d like to throw one of your own questions back at you: Do you feel a connection with the Mediterranean Sea?

Valeria: I was born in a port city of the South of Italy. The sea was not just landscape, it was a part of the city, it was everywhere. I grew up with the sound of the waves cradling my thoughts. The old city is a tiny island, hung on the land with just a bridge, as if it wasn’t really convinced it was a good idea. Just before the bridge, there are two massive Doric columns. They are the only relics of a temple dedicated to Poseidon, overlooking the sea. Even surrounded by traffic and indifference, they still manage to look magnificent. Powerful. My city was sacred to the god of the sea and was also known as Neptunia when it was a Roman colony. Then we had the Normans, the Turks, the French, the Spaniards. They left us one of their castles protecting the entrance of the port. Funnily enough, we made it one of our most beloved places. Near the castle, just past the bridge, there is one of the loveliest things you can find in my city: a monument to the sailors. It can be seen clearly only from the ships. It’s nothing conceptual or too aesthetically daring. It just says “ciao” to all the sailors who arrive or leave, so that they always feel welcome to come and return.

Everything speaks about the sea in the place I come from, everything and everyone is connected to it. And I long for it almost everyday that I spend in my new country.

Valeria Vitale is a researcher in nonexistent worlds and disappeared cities. When she’s not busy writing and reading, you may find her staring at ancient objects in museums or modelling buildings in 3D. She likes ghosts, vampires and old mythologies. And crocodiles.

Djibril al-Ayad is the nom de guerre of a historian, futurist, writer, editor of The Future Fire, magazine of social-political speculative fiction, and co-editor of five anthologies. His interests span science, religion and magic; education and public engagement; diversity, inclusivity and political awareness in the arts.

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