An Unlikely Interview with Rose Lemberg

The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye deals with several important themes, namely visibility and who has access to education. Did your own academic background inform this story in any way, or is it a more general, widespread societal issue you wanted to address in your story? Do you see any positive changes in recent years within the education field when it comes to access? What can and should schools at all levels improve on so that they are reaching as many people as possible?

Those are great questions; unfortunately, I could bloviate endlessly about those topics. I’ll try to be relatively brief. As a twice-immigrant and an academic, I’ve been in education systems in multiple countries, mostly in public institutions (first without much choice, then by choice). I teach at a large state university and I care deeply about my students and their success, so yes, this is one of the stories that are informed by my own experiences and views. Positive changes -- well, the story, I think, comments rather heavily on budget cuts, and in my career as a student and as a professor, budget cuts have been a refrain. Shrinking educational budgets affect student success. It’s often hard to find the silver lining among all these cuts and the often inefficient support systems. I live and work in the US now, and what I see in the US specifically is an ever-widening gap between those students who can afford their education, usually through parental supports, and those who must take out student loans if they are to have a chance at all. I believe that this establishes inequalities very early in life. Another issue is that many students do not even get to participate in higher education because of pervasive issues like systemic racism that often begin to harm children as soon as they are in any educational system. And many students who do reach university reach it already with scars, already hurting, and those students are often lost. To improve anything at all we need to fix society. But yes, there are some positive developments. There’s a new federal initiative that’s called the First in the World grant that is awarded to some institutions to financially support underprivileged and first-time college goers. I’m waiting to see how this will work at the universities involved.

Do you have a favorite magical school from literature? If that school offered you admission, do you see yourself gravitating toward a particular subject or specialty? If you were offered a teaching position at that school, is there anything new you’d add to the curriculum?

I am not a very tropey person, but I do love magical schools. Since it’s been a very, very long time since I talked about anything mainstream, I think I’m going to make an exception now and talk about Hogwarts. I was actually selected to attend Hogwarts when I was 11. This is a true story. I was raised by my grandmother in Ukraine, but when I was 11, I briefly lived with my parents in Vorkuta, one of the northernmost towns in Russia and a former GULAG site. Vorkuta lies beyond the Arctic circle, and it gets very, very cold. We lived in an apartment building on the outskirts of town, which overlooked the tundra. One evening my mother was in the kitchen frying beef cutlets. She opened a small window to let in some air, and some minutes later, a gigantic snowy owl flew in from the tundra and tried to get into the house; its wingspan was too large to fit in, though, and it made an unholy racket striking a metal box that was affixed under the window. My mother, a famous yeller, nearly outshouted the owl, at which point my father emerged from the living room and chased the owl away -- my admittance letter went with it, I reckon.

Anyway. Hogwarts. I like thinking about Hogwarts because, for me, it represents things that are both cool AND wrong with our education. The exclusion of non-magical students; the problematic treatment of students with disabilities; the fact that students from non-magical backgrounds are not as well positioned to succeed as the students from magical backgrounds; the rather arbitrary division into four houses with Hufflepuff being the most denigrated, etc, etc. I am, obviously, a Hufflepuff. I’m pretty sure the Sorting Hat would try to put me in Ravenclaw, but I’m a determined person. Unsurprisingly, I feel a certain affinity with Albus Dumbledore. I don’t see myself teaching at Hogwarts, though.

In my own secondary world, Birdverse, there are a few famous magical schools and universities, with different teaching styles and approaches to magical disciplines. There is a striking difference between the southern and northern scholarly traditions of magic; the oldest and probably still the best academy is southern, in Keshet. I’d probably teach in one of the Northern universities -- they are all flawed and problematic, but I am yet to find an unproblematic institution of higher education anywhere. In terms of Birdverse magical disciplines, I am afraid I am a magical geometrist. Magical Geometry is a foundational discipline. I went for much more obscure choices in real life, but I don’t see myself doing anything else in Birdverse. I’d focus on theory, though I could branch into more applied things too, like Strong Building. Some of these things appeared in my Birdverse novelettes and poems, but academia is truly in focus in the novels. Academia specifically is a focus of my Birdverse novel Bridgers, which needs a revision -- I’m hoping to tackle that next year. I’m looking forward to publishing novels, if that ever happens -- I do hope it will. I’d really also love to write a magical school MG or YA novel set in Birdverse. If I were hired to teach at a magical school, I’d probably do what I’m doing now: lots of mentoring.

Whether it’s philosophy or quantum physics or economic theory, speculative fiction writers often draw from academic theory, research and new discoveries to inform their work, and it’s no surprise that an Academia-themed magazine will attract stories that do just that. Can you tell us a little about one such influence? Who are they? What aspect of their work resonated with you, and how has it influenced your own work?

With this story, it was actually the other way around. I wrote the story and thought, well, obviously my subconscious is telling me to write an article about immigrants and language hegemony, so that’s what I did in the summer.

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

As a high school student and immigrant (in Israel), I was constantly struggling with the system. Like other new immigrants I was often assumed to be linguistically incompetent, and there were constant attempts to put me in ‘special’ classes for immigrants -- that had to do with discrimination rather than language ability. I don’t think I’ve ever, in my life, asked anyone “Why do I need to know this”; I am a voracious learner. But, of course, there were things I did not want to learn. At some point I was in an advanced physics class and the obscure important thing I learned in there was beginning Old Norse (I snuck in a bilingual edition of the Poetic Edda). I was also sneakily working on my conlang, Takiritalë, which is the language I mention in my Strange Horizons poem The Three Immigrations -- Takiritalë had a regular modality and a Road modality which did not grammatically mark for gender, tense, or person. I still think that was neat. I did quit advanced physics (it was an elective) and all was well.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I’m not one of those people who held a lot of odd jobs. The oddest… well, when I was 17 there was a brief stint during which I folded hats at a clothing factory. My takeaway from this was “hats really don’t need folding.” After graduating high school, I worked in an architecture firm, where my job was mainly coloring architectural drawings for clients. This is described briefly in my magic realist memoir, “These are the Roads that Loop and Entwine Me” published in Bahamut earlier this year. During my first college year I worked as a support person at a faucet factory. I try not to think about that much, because my brain fixated on the various types of faucets and faucet components.The thing that saved me from going completely faucet during that time was an epic poem I was composing about … surprisingly… a magical bird. Things improved after that juncture.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

My first ever published work was “The Dragonfeeder’s Lament”, a poem in Star*line (2008). It was the first poem I did not delete (I used to regularly delete my writing). I am a better poet now, but I still like that piece.

Twenty years is a geological microsecond, but is a vast stretch for a person, no matter how quickly it seems to slip away, and it can be interesting to think about what one’s characters might be doing twenty years in their futures. Do you see anything interesting in any of your character’s futures that you’d be willing to share with us?

Warda… well, you know, there is an older Warda in Amal El-Mohtar’s “Pockets”, which is how I ended up with this story in the first place! Warda of “The Shapes of Us…” is an alt!Warda, though. I hope that in 20 years Warda of “Shapes…” is a full professor with lots of students and lots of good publications. She’d probably be a departmental chair, too, because she’s a kind of person who gets saddled with more and more responsibilities because she is hard-working and gets along with people. There’s also a good chance that Warda does not have a happy life. She’s lonely and tired and did not publish all that much and she’s done a lot of teaching and service which is not appreciated, and she’s still an associate professor and she is pretty bitter.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

I mostly read short fiction by emerging writers. Among the people who don’t have a novel out (yet?), I enjoy the work of Vajra Chandrasekera, JY Yang, Bogi Takács, Ken Schneyer, Shweta Narayan, Sonya Taaffe, Alyssa Wong, Lisa M. Bradley… too many to list. Some of those authors have brilliant work forthcoming in an anthology I edited, An Alphabet of Embers. M. Sereno has an amazing story in An Alphabet of Embers, her first story sale. We hope to release the book soon! If you want to drop everything right now and read a short story, I hope it’s Polenth Blake’s “Never the Same.”

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

Too many things. There’s my upcoming debut poetry collection, Marginalia to Stone Bird (Aqueduct, 2016). There’s An Alphabet of Embers. There’s… well, rumors of a Birdverse short fiction collection next year. I haven’t signed on the dotted line yet, but I am working on. Those are the big projects. Smaller things: I just had a novelette (almost novella) come out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, “Geometries of Belonging.” I hope you give it a read.

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