FlameCast – E10 – Mike Curato

It’s a new episode of the Flame Cast, our celebration of past, present, and future Flame Con guests. Join Kevin in a conversation with Mike Curato, writer and illustrator of the YA graphic novel Flamer, about the importance of books geared toward young queer audiences, especially when so many placers are banning books with these topics. They also talk about his inspirations, where and how he connects with his community, and what he’s getting Down & Nerdy with in pop culture.

Interview with author SJ Sindu

SJ Sindu is the author of the novel Marriage of a Thousand Lies, which won the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and was an ALA Stonewall Honor Book; as well as the hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook I Once Met You But You Were Dead. Her latest novel, Blue-Skinned Gods, is available now. She holds an MA in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Florida State University. Sindu teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

I had the opportunity to interview SJ, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself and your latest book, Blue-Skinned Gods?

Blue-Skinned Gods is a novel about a young boy who has blue skin and who is believed to be the last human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, born to lead us into the next epoch. He lives at an ashram run by his father in Tamil Nadu, India, leading prayer sessions and healing the villagers who live nearby. Soon, his fame starts to spread, and the ashram attracts wealthy foreigners and investors. The boy’s father dreams of a world tour, but when it finally happens, the boy—now a man—runs away to join the underground music scene in New York. Blue-Skinned Gods explores questions of religion, faith, identity, and the spiritual industrial complex.

When and how did you realize you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to the mediums you write?

Like many geeks, I wrote fanfiction in high school. Mostly Harry Potter, but also a handful of other fandoms. I was deep into LiveJournal and a whole bunch of forums and such, too. That’s really how I got into writing. I wrote a bit of my original stuff here and there, but it wasn’t until I took my first creative writing class in university that I really dove into original fiction. Now I write in multiple mediums (poetry, creative nonfiction, novels, short stories, graphic novels, etc.) and I love the different opportunities and challenges presented by each one.

As someone who has not read your latest book, Blue-Skinned Gods (yet!), the title reminded me of the medical condition, Blue Baby Syndrome, which is correlated with vulnerability in an early stage of a child’s life. Is there any parallel to that within your story, between physical and emotional vulnerability?

The story is definitely about vulnerability, the ways in which we’re vulnerable to those who hold power in our lives—like our parents—the ways in which people are vulnerable to manipulation by authority and religion, etc.

How would you describe your writing process? 

I’m a drafter, meaning I like to write a lot of drafts for a single story. Especially with fiction, I think I do my best work when doing multiple drafts. My first drafts are often exploratory—I start with an idea or a premise and a few milestones I want to hit, but usually I’m not fully sure of what the story is yet. I write toward that story, and usually it clarifies by the second or third draft. That’s when I really start the bulk of the writing and revising. Blue-Skinned Gods went through twelve drafts before it even went to publishers, and twenty drafts total before it became the version you see on shelves.

What some of your favorite or most difficult parts of the writing parts?

The second draft is always difficult for me, because I’m just starting to figure out what the story is, but it also feels like I’ve been working on the project for a long time, and I get frustrated because the quality of the writing is nowhere near where I want it to be. It’s a long way from that draft to finished, and it’s easy for me to get overwhelmed thinking about all the work that still needs to be done. But I have to remind myself that I need to take it one page at a time, and I have to trust that I’ll figure it out.

As a queer writer of a different diaspora (Ukrainian-Jewish), I think I can understand a little something about the challenges of writing about queerness while existing as part of a community that does not speak about it or may speak about it in code. As an author, what are your thoughts on writing about the intersection of queerness and your other backgrounds?

This kind of intersectionality is really important to me to write about. I feel like the publishing world hasn’t always been kind to multiple marginalized experiences—they really like it when you’re only one kind of minority, because there’s a sales/marketing box for that. It’s hard to publish as a multiple-minority author, especially when you’re wanting to write about those lived experiences. There’s a fear—which is somewhat valid—that diaspora communities might not be welcoming to queer stories, and that mainstream queer culture might not be seeking out racialized stories. But in my experience—and I think publishing and Hollywood is starting to catch on to this fact—having multiple identities in one story actually doubles or triples your potential audience. So not only are these stories important, they also have the opportunity to cut across communities and reach farther than conservative corporate estimates.

Aside from being a writer, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I’m also a professor of creative writing (I teach currently at the University of Toronto Scarborough). I brew beer. I’m into bespoke gift wrapping. I love geeking out about Sailor Moon, Avatar the Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, BBC’s Merlin, and Warehouse 13.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

No one has asked me any in depth questions about fanfiction, or how that has impacted my original writing. I think starting out writing mainly fanfiction as a teenager shaped my later writing in that it taught me the importance of creating memorable characters and worlds. The reason why we are drawn to write fanfic is usually because we find the worldbuilding compelling, and/or the characters compelling. Often it’s both. I try to apply that wisdom to my own writing. My own personal goalpost for “making it” is to write something that inspires someone to create fanfiction or fanart with my world and/or characters.

What advice would you have to give to other aspiring writers?

The three best things you can do for yourself are: learn to take criticism and rejection well; meet your deadlines; and be patient. Writing is a long, slow relationship with creativity, and the publishing industry is even slower. The stories you’re seeing on the shelves or screens took years to write and years to publish. There is no immediate reward in this career, except for your own satisfaction at making a good story. But at the same time, if you love writing, pursue it. You don’t want to regret the life not lived.

Are there other projects you are currently working on and at liberty to discuss?

Yes! I have two graphic novels coming out: Shakti, a middle-grade fantasy about witches, forthcoming 2023; and Tall Water, a YA graphic novel about the 2004 tsunami set in Sri Lanka, forthcoming 2024.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you commend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Oh there are so many! But my go-to authors are Gloria Anzaldúa, James Baldwin, Jeanette Winterson, Audre Lorde, Eli Claire, Shyam Selvadurai, and Alison Bechdel.

Interview with the “Shuri and T’Challa: Into the Heartlands” Creative Team

Shuri and T’Challa set out to remove a curse from Wakanda in an action-packed, totally original Black Panther graphic novel, Shuri and T’Challa: Into the Heartlands available now!

The creative team includes Roseanne A. Brown, Natacha Bustos, Dika Araújo, and Claudia Aguirre.

Roseanne A. Brown was born in Kumasi, Ghana and immigrated to the wild jungles of central Maryland as a child. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor’s in Journalism and was also a teaching assistant for the school’s Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House program. Her journalistic work has been featured by Voice of America among other outlets. Rosie currently lives outside Washington D.C., where in her free time she can usually be found wandering the woods, making memes, or thinking about Star Wars. Her debut novel, A Song of Wraith and Ruin, was a New York Times bestseller.

Dika Araújo is a Brazilian animator, comic artist and illustrator based in Sâo Paulo. Her previous work includes several independent Brazilian anthologies, including Amor em Quadrinhos, which was nominated for the Angouleme International Comics Award in 2018.

Natacha Bustos is a Spanish comic book artist who drew the story Going Nowhere, written by Brandan Montclare, for DC/Vertigo’s Strange Sports Stories. Bustos then made her Marvel Comics debut on Spider Woman before re-teaming with Montclare and co-writer Amy Reeder on the inaugural run of Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur, winner of Glyph Award for Best Female Character in 2016. In 2020, she drew the Buffy the Vampire: Willow miniseries (BOOM Studios!) and became part of Marvel’s Stormbreakers Artist program, dedicated to spotlighting the next generation of elite artists.

Claudia Aguirre is a GLAAD and Eisner Award nominated artist and writer. She is co-founder of Boudika Comics. Her works include Hotel Dare (Boom!Studios), Morning in America (Oni Press) and Lost on PlanetEarth (Comixology Originals

I had the opportunity to interview Roseanne A. Brown, Natacha Bustos, and Dika Araújo which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

Roseanne A. Brown: Hi! My name is Roseanne A. Brown, but everyone calls me Rosie. I’m a Ghanaian-American young adult and middle grade SFF author. My debut novel, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, is a New York Times bestselling YA Fantasy inspired by West African folklore that’s been described as what would happen if Aladdin and Jasmine had to kill each other. The sequel, A Psalm of Storms and Silence, came out in November 2021, and I have several more books on the way. On the rare day I’m not writing, I can usually be found watching obscure documentaries on Netflix or trying to cook the perfect poached egg. (It’s really hard!)

Natacha Bustos: Hi! I’m Natacha Bustos. I draw comics and live in Malaga. I’ve enjoyed comics since I was very young, and I’ve always loved telling stories. I like going for a walk in the countryside or having a nice meal in good company. My everyday life is dominated by my two loves: my son, Alan, and my cat, Momo.

Dika Araújo: Of course! I’m a 28 year old Brazilian illustrator. I work in animation and sometimes I make comics.

What can you tell us about your project, Black Panther: Into the Heartlands? How did each of you get involved?

RB: Back in early 2020, my agent sent me an email saying she’d heard that my now editor Lauren Bisom was looking for pitches for a new line of young reader graphic novels featuring some of Marvel’s most popular teen heroes: Miles Morales, Shuri and T’Challa, and Kamala Khan. The idea of a sibling story featuring the prince and princess of Wakanda came to me almost immediately; while there have been both books and comics about the two as youths, there were few centered on their relationship as children. Then during my research, I learned that the two share a father but have different birth mothers. As a member of a large, blended family myself, I really connected to the idea of these fantastical characters dealing with complicated family dynamics just like millions of kids around the world, and the idea for Into the Heartlands grew from there.

NB: Lauren Bisom contacted me to talk about a project that Dika had started. I really like Dika and her art, so the idea of working on a comic with her was appealing. Then, I saw that Claudia Aguirre had also joined the team, which was cool. I’ve known her for about ten years now through social media. I love the Black Panther universe and Shuri’s my girl, so this type of project is a no-brainer.

DA: I developed the character designs and drew the first batch of pre-Heartlands pages. 

Roseanne A. Brown

Before this project, how would you describe your connection to the Black Panther universe? What does it feel like to be working on this project now?

RB: I’m relatively new to the world of Wakanda as I really didn’t know much about the characters before the movie came out in 2018. But I was blown away by the world in that film, particularly by how the creators organically wove in the African influences that created these characters. Shuri, T’Challa, and the Black Panther as a concept are icons in every sense of the word. Getting to write them has been an honor, and I only hope that my entry into the Black Panther world is full of the same heart and power that have drawn people to these characters for decades. 

NB: I’ve done some Shuri and some Black Panther covers for Marvel and I’ve read Kirby’s comics. I love Shuri as done by Nnedi Okorafor and Leonardo Romero, as well as Brian Steelfreeze’s interpretation of Black Panther. They’re really powerful, all told with a singular voice.

Becoming part of the family of Black Panther authors is really a dream come true. So I’m delighted to have added my own little drop into this ocean.

DA: I started paying more attention to it after the MCU movies. Me and my brother hadn’t connected together so intensely to a character before since the Blade movies came out. So it was really exciting getting to contribute a little bit to the Wakanda canon.

Are there any other superheroes besides Shuri and T’Challa that you feel drawn to (excuse the pun)?

RB: I’ve loved Static since I was a child. He’s of Ghanaian descent, like me, and the episode of Static Shock where he went to Ghana was the first time I ever saw Twi spoken in an American media. The Batfamily were my entry point into superhero comics, with the second Robin, Jason Todd, being my absolute favorite. And I have to shout-out my girl Storm. She was a big inspiration for the character of Karina in A Song of Wraiths and Ruin. 

NB: Many, including Storm, Ironheart, Ms. Marvel, Doctor Strange, Loki, Miles Morales, etc.

DA: Hehehe, that was a good joke. Yesterday I watched the first episode of Moon Knight and being autistic I could relate a lot to the chaos and general disorientation the character goes through. I could say the same about Jessica Jones. Besides that, I tend to relate to side characters more: Peridot (Steven Universe), Wolf (Kipo), Toph (Avatar the Last Airbender)…

As author of the book, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin and A Psalm of Storms and Silence, how did you find yourself becoming a writer? What drew you to young adult and speculative fiction specifically?

RB: I can barely remember a time before I wanted to write. When my family first immigrated to America when I was three, I couldn’t speak English. After years of struggling in school, it was books that opened up the world for me and helped me connect with my new community. Since then, I’ve wanted to create works that help people feel a little less alone like the books I loved did for me. As for YA and speculative fiction, I love how they’re categories where the extraordinary becomes the extra ordinary. Everything just feels a little more possible in SFF, and with YA, there’s something so refreshing about depicting the world through the eyes of a character with one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. 

Dika Araújo

How would you describe your writing/illustrating process?

RB: Rather than a plotter or a pantser, I’m what some like to call a headlighter. That’s to say, I write books similar to how someone drives at night—all I can see is exactly what’s in front of me at the moment, but that’s enough to get me where I need to go. All my first drafts are written like that, which often leaves me with an extremely heartfelt, yet incomprehensible manuscript. From there, I’ll revise/rewrite as needed until a structure weaves through the emotion. It’s not the most efficient process, but it’s mine.  

NB: I can be quite chaotic but working digitally provides me with a certain amount of order. I start sketching first off and I tend to be extremely focused at this stage. I can’t have any music on, I need silence. I pretty much skip the penciling stage when working on the final art because I’m working digitally. It’s a really fun stage: my hand is engaged in one thing, while my mind may be elsewhere; I have music playing or podcasts or even a TV series.

DA: Err… Chaotic, time-consuming, but at the same time very orderly. 

What are some of your favorite craft when it comes to writing/illustrating?

RB: The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass is one of my favorite craft books of all time. For plotting, I tend to use a mixture of Save the Cat structure alongside the 7 Point Plot Structure by Dan Wells. But I always say the best craft techniques are the ones that work for you. Pick and choose what fits your writing style! 

NB: I really love Pentel for illustrations; I tend to use it particularly for commissions.

DA: Getting to translate the script into a visual form of storytelling, for sure.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (as well as the answer to that question)?

RB: Ooh, I love this question! I’ve always wished someone would ask me where the weirdest place I’ve ever written is. The answer would be on the floor of a bathroom in a grimy club in Osaka, Japan. Pass pages for ASOWAR were due, but my friends were visiting and wanted to go out. I learned the true meaning of multi-tasking on that trip. 

DA: “What are your favorite reality shows?”

I love The Circle, Blown Away, Too Hot to Handle… The more random and further removed from my reality, the better. I work in animation all day, and it’s hard to watch movies and cartoons without having my “work brain” on. That kind of show lets me turn off my brain completely.

Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

RB: After Into the Heartlands, my next published work will be a short story in the Star Wars anthology Stories of Jedi and Sith, out on June 7th. I’ve been a Star Wars geek since I was a teen, and have written my fair share of fanfiction, so I’m still freaking out that I got to write a canon story in the world. My next full-length book is my middle grade prose debut, Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting, out with Rick Riordan Presents on September 6th. I describe that book as Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Mean Girls with a huge helping of Ghanaian folklore. It’s a lot of fun, even if writing it did force me to relive my middle school days. *shudder* 

NB: I have a few projects. I could tell you, but then….

DA: I’m working on a Brazilian animation studio called Copa Studio, and they’ve just released a Carnival special for a series called Jorel’s Brother, on HBO Max! I hope people like it, we made it with a lot of love.

Natacha Bustos

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives, whether those working on prose novels or graphic novels?

RB: Give yourself permission to take your work seriously. I always tell people that if you want to play sports at a professional level, you have to be practicing at that level long before you ever make a pro team. Writing is similar. This doesn’t mean write every single day, because I sure don’t do that, but it does mean carve out time for your craft when you can and guard it like you would any other major commitment. You and your art deserve that. 

NB: You need to have a routine and persistence to finish the job. It is also vitally important to have your free time, so you don’t burn out. This is essential for your mental well-being and so you enjoy your work!

DA: Don’t be fooled, it’s a career that requires a lot of hard work, but at the same time you need a lot of luck and privilege to “make it”. I’m not telling anyone to give up their dreams, that’d be an *ssh*le move, but don’t feel guilty or compare yourself to people who may have had more opportunities than you did.

Finally, what books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

RB: Some of my absolute favorite comics as both a reader and a creator are:

NB: Miles Morales: Shock Waves, Ms. Marvel comics, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Shuri, Black Panther! Read some OG stuff by Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Buscema, José Luis García López, Mazzucchelli, etc. In the world of manga, I love Osamu Tetzuka, Shigeru Misuki, Kentaro Miura, Naoki Urosawa, Hiromu Arakawa, and Rumiko Takahashi.

DA: A big inspiration when working on this comic, for me, was The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis. Other than that, all I can say is BUY AND READ ROSIE’S BOOKS. Sorry, I got carried away, haha. Buy and read everything Roseanne writes. She’s amazing.

The Geeks OUT Podcast: Love, Death + Westworld

The Geeks OUT Podcast

Opinions, reviews, incisive discussions of queer geek ideas in pop culture, and the particularly cutting brand of shade that you can only get from a couple of queer geeks all in highly digestible weekly doses.

In this new episode of the Geeks OUT Podcast, Kevin is joined by Christopher Murray, as they discuss the Stranger Things season 4 premiere, new trailers for Westworld and Love, Death + Robots, and celebrate our first look at the queer horror movie They/Them in This Week in Queer.

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BIG OPENING

KEVIN: The networks cancel 17 series in the span of 48 hours

CHRISTOPHER:  New teaser for Resident Evil series

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DOWN AND NERDY

KEVIN: Firestarter, Dr. Strange, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Heartstopper
CHRISTOPHER: Destiny 2, FF shirt collection at Uniqlo, Death Stranding

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STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER

New teaser for season 4 of Westworld

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THIS WEEK IN QUEER

First look at queer horror movie They/Them

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CLIP OF THE WEEK

New trailer for volume 3 of Love, Death + Robots

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QUICK HITS

MOVIES

• New trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water

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TV

• New trailer for First Kill
• Ncuti Gatwa to star as first black Doctor Who

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COMIC BOOKS

• Marvel introducing new trans mutant Escapade in Marvel Voices: Pride

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SHILF

• KEVIN: Storm, Regent of Sol
• CHRISTOPHER: Mr. Sinister

Interview with Author Shveta Thakrar

Shveta Thakrar was one of the inaugural Walter Dean Myers grant recipients of 2015 and has been a shining mainstay in fantasy, appearing on conference panels since 2010. She has had fiction published in Uncanny Magazine, Faerie Magazine, and forthcoming from anthologies TOIL & TROUBLE (HarlequinTeen, 2018) and A THOUSAND BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS (Greenwillow, 2018). She is also the author of Star Daughter.

I had the opportunity to interview Shveta, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you for having me! I am a very spiritual dreamer who believes in magic and kindness and has a violet felt witch’s hat I like to wear around the house sometimes just for fun.

Congratulations on your latest book, The Dream Runners! Could you tell us what’s about?

I really love the blurb my editor came up with, so I’m going to cheat and just paste that here.

“Seven years ago, Tanvi was spirited away to the subterranean realm of Nagalok, where she joined the ranks of the dream runners: human children freed of all memory and emotion, who collect mortal dreams for the entertainment of the serpentine, immortal naga court.

But when one of Tanvi’s dream harvests goes awry, she begins to remember her life on earth. Panicked and confused, she turns to the one mortal in Nagalok who might be able to help: Venkat, the dreamsmith responsible for collecting the dream runners’ wares and shaping them into the kingdom’s most tantalizing commodity. And as they search for answers, a terrifying truth begins to take shape—one that could turn the nagas’ realm of dreams into a land of waking nightmare.”

Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

A number of things, starting with my fascination with the ancient lore of the war between the nagas (serpent shape-shifters) and their cousins and nemeses, the garudas (eagle shape-shifters). You can read more about that here: https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/mythic-creatures/air/opposites-attack.

I love the idea of selling dreams, and originally I was thinking of a store where you could buy and sell dreams—as inspired by Laini Taylor’s wonderful Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, in which wishes are sold in exchange for teeth—but once I combined that with another of my favorite folklore motifs, that of the changeling, and realized the story would be set partially against the landscape of the mythical war mentioned above, I had the foundation of this book. And it grew from there!

How did you find yourself drawn to the art of storytelling? What drew you to young adult fiction specifically?

I’ve told stories as long as I can remember, even if they were just adventures in rich worlds in my imagination, so it was natural for me to start writing them down. And once I realized I never saw myself in any of the books that I loved, especially minus the real-world problems of things like prejudice, I decided to do my part to help change that.

Young adult fiction is a place of firsts, and I really like thinking maybe I could bring hope to someone who needs it. But also, it’s a great place for adventure and exploration, both inner and outer, so there’s room for all kinds of stories.

How did you find yourself getting drawn into the world of fantasy? What were some of your favorite examples growing up? What are some of your favorite examples now?

This question made me laugh, only because I’ve never not been attracted to fantasy and magic! See above, re: adventures in my head.

My favorite examples from childhood: I’m not even sure where to start! Maybe Dorrie the Little Witch and collections of fairy tales and Amar Chitra Katha comics?

My favorite examples now (always an impossible question, so I’ll just grab a few at random): Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales trilogy; Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone; When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore; A Green and Ancient Light, by Frederic S. Durbin; The Light at the Bottom of the World, by London Shah; Magical Women, an Indian anthology edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. (There are definitely many more than these five, all of which I’m sure I’ll start remembering the second I send this off.)

How would you describe your writing process?

I’m definitely an intuitive writer, and I figure out things as I go, layering in various aspects through various drafts. That means some mistakes along the way, but I’m getting better about accepting that and even starting to view it as a challenge. And revision is where I shine.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

Creative influences: Holly Black and Laini Taylor and Anna-Marie McLemore, all for different reasons.

Sources of inspiration: their books but also my Hindu/Indian background and its folklore and mythology, along with global folklore and mythology. Plus the possibilities hidden in the world all around us.

What are some of your favorite parts of writing? What do you feel are some of the most challenging?

My favorites: the fact that I’m spinning something out of nothing. Literally nothing. That’s magic! And that people I don’t know then get to read it and play in the worlds I’ve created and get to befriend the characters who sprang from my imagination and my heart.

My most challenging: it’s a toss-up between figuring out how to get the story right (sometimes it takes many drafts and lots of despairing) and accepting that sometimes what a reader is looking for doesn’t mesh with what you wrote. But as long as you’re happy with what you produced, that’s what counts.

Aside from your work, what are some things you would want people to know about you?

I recently got back into video gaming after a twenty-year or so hiatus, and it’s been so fun, both revisiting games from my youth and trying ones out now. It’s a different type of storytelling, and I’m so excited to see what it inspires in my own work!

I’m also a big fan of cupcakes and kaju katli (definitely with the silver leaf on top, thanks).

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

If you had to choose between hands or wings, which would it be?

I’m leaning toward wings; I could fly, and falling would just not be a thing. I could figure out how to make up for hands, even if it would be challenging.

As of now, are you currently working on any other ideas or projects that you are at liberty to speak about?

I’m not sure when the announcements will be made, so I have to keep it vague for now, but I can say you’ll definitely be seeing more fantasy from me! It’s probably safe to say it’ll also be drawing on more Indian folklore and mythology, because of course.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

I actually have two separate bits of advice to offer. The first is to figure out what kind of story you want to tell. Not what you think other people would want to read, but what the reader in you would want to see in the world. What would be fun for you to write? Follow that glimmer of a notion down the rabbit hole and see what results!

Secondly, I’ve been working with Becca Syme and the team of her Better-Faster Academy for writers, and it’s been so illuminating to understand what kind of a writer I am based on my CliftonStrengths and how to work best with that, rather than trying to follow advice meant for someone else. I’d strongly advise any writer to check out Becca’s work!

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Let’s see; off the top of my head, aside from the authors I’ve already mentioned:

Bethany C. Morrow

Imani Josey

June Hur

Axie Oh

Lori M. Lee

Akshaya Raman

Rati Mehrotra

Maya Prasad

Ciara Smyth

Cassidy Ward


Header photo credited to Luminous Creative Studio

Interview with Creator Laura Gao

Laura Gao is a 25-year-old queer artist, author, and bread lover. Originally from Wuhan, China, Gao immigrated to a small town in Texas when she was four. Gao’s art career began by doodling on Pokémon cards and has since blossomed to be featured on NPR, the MOCA in NYC, and most notably, her parents’ fridge. Her debut graphic memoir, MESSY ROOTS, was published on March 8, 2022 with HarperCollins.

Gao graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. She worked at Twitter as a Product Manager until 2020, when her webcomic, “The Wuhan I Know“, went viral on Twitter and ignited her art career. She swears on Jack Dorsey’s beard she did not pull any strings to go viral, and wishes people would stop asking her for tips. Besides drawing and complaining about early-onset back pain, Gao enjoys living nomadically and biking around the world, designing apps for nonprofits, bakery-hunting, and watching SNL. Laura’s pronouns are she/her and they/them.

I had the opportunity to interview Laura, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you for having me! I am a queer artist and author of the upcoming graphic memoir, Messy Roots. I was born in Wuhan, China and then immigrated to a small town in Texas where I grew up. I’ve been drawing ever since I was a toddler doodling (and probably slobbering) on Pokemon cards, but I didn’t start pursuing it professionally until 2020 when a comic of mine went viral and got me a book deal. 

What can you tell us about your debut graphic novel, Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

Messy Roots is about my self-discovery journey as a queer, Chinese American teenager stuck between cultures, homes, and expectations of “who I should be” instead of “who I want to be”. It explores my differing experiences between Wuhan, where I was born and visited later on, Texas, where I grew up and experienced the most amount of racism and homophobia, and college and San Francisco, where I had to reckon with and love my entire identity.

Messy Roots started out as a viral comic I created called, The Wuhan I Know, which highlighted the beautiful things I loved about my hometown and shared my own experience with racism growing up and at the start of the pandemic. When the comic unexpectedly went viral, I received countless heartwarming notes from people around the world! The one that struck me the most was from an Asian-American mother whose daughters had read and were inspired by the comic, asking if I was planning on writing more. 

And that’s how this book began.

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to the medium?

I didn’t start drawing comics until after graduating college, although I’ve been reading them for as long as I could remember how to read. The most impactful graphic memoir I read, Spinning by Tillie Walden, was pivotal in helping me understand my own LGBTQ identity despite growing up in a conservative place like Walden did. After graduating college, I worked a standard corporate job but kept up drawing after work as a creative outlet. I’ve always loved telling stories, and had taken animation classes in college where I learned my favorite part was the storyboarding, so comics became a natural medium for me to explore.

For Messy Roots, I wanted to magically transport the reader into my shoes as they undergo the same identity-seeking journey I did. From squirming in embarrassment as the entire school mocks the Asian mathlete, to staring in awe at the beautiful Wuhan skyline reflected on the Yangtze river the first time I went back to my hometown, to my internal battle with identity portrayed by the white rabbit from Chinese candies and folklore. Comics enable me to marry my storytelling with my art to give readers the full, immersive experience.

As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

Makoto Shinkai’s works, Weathering With You and Your Name. Tillie Walden. Anime and manga I grew up on, like Yotsuba, Naruto, and Haikyuu. Comedy TV, like SNL, Parks and Recreation, and Sex Education.

In light of the pandemic and this being a memoir, this story seems like a highly intimate and potent project for you. Could you discuss some of the craft elements you utilized when trying to depict the personal?

Talking about personal and sometimes traumatic events is incredibly hard, especially when sharing with millions of strangers! However, in the same way I often cope with bad memories through humor, I balance out the heavier scenes with comedic ones throughout the book. It lets the reader take in all the Big Feelings while also allowing them a break before the next Big Feeling. 

I also depicted some intangible feelings through motifs, such as the dream-like scenes with the white rabbit from Chinese candies and folklore that symbolize my internal battle with my Asian American identity, and the moon being hidden by clouds as signs of my closeted feelings.

What are some things you would want readers to take away from Messy Roots?

I hope readers understand that everyone’s search for identity and home is different and complex. And that’s okay!

I just wrote a whole memoir about it, and every day I’m learning new things about myself. However, by letting your voice shine above the doubts, you’ll realize the right people and places will naturally gravitate towards you. No matter how messy your roots are.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creators?

Post terrible work! 

Yes, you heard right. The quicker you get over your perfectionism, the faster you’ll finish projects, get feedback, improve, and overcome imposter syndrome or “artist stage fright”. I give myself a deadline for when I must post the art, finished or not. Even if it has mistakes, after I post, I realize 99% of people never even notice. Ultimately my goal is to tell a story; I don’t need to be perfect to be impactful. 

When I look at “The Wuhan I Know” I see plenty of ways I could’ve improved it, and I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my book when it comes out, but if I kept the comic in my drafts trying to get it perfect, I’d never have published it and gotten the book deal to give me my dream career. 

Besides your work as an artist what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I lived nomadically last year, splitting my time between Taiwan and Europe, and would love to continue exploring the world while drawing and hunting for the best bread. I also build websites and apps for various nonprofits. My bucket list includes biking every major long-distance trail in the world, and starting a media company that only creates queer joy content.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

What’s your favorite queer ship? Korrasami hands down.

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

I’m currently working on my second book, which will be a queer rom-com about astrology throwing a group of teens’ lives into a hot mess! 

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Any book by Tillie Walden, She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal, Flamer by Mike Curato, and Stone Fruit by Lee Lai.

Interview with Xiran Jay Zhao

Xiran Jay Zhao (they/them) is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Widow series. A first-gen Hui Chinese immigrant from small-town China to Vancouver, Canada, they were raised by the internet and made the inexplicable decision to leave their biochem degree in the dust to write books and make educational content instead. You can find them on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, TikTok for fun short videos, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is their first middle grade novel.

I had the opportunity to interview Xiran, which you can read below.

What can you tell us about your upcoming book, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor? What inspired the story?

It’s a middle grade adventure I pitch as Chinese Percy Jackson meets Yugioh! It features a 12-year-old Chinese American boy who’s not really connected to his Chinese heritage, but is compelled to go on a journey across China to fight historical and mythical figures and heist real artifacts after the First Emperor of China possesses his AR gaming headset. I was inspired to write this story when my friend Rebecca Schaeffer, author of the Not Even Bones series, encouraged me to try my hand at writing MG, since I’d been hyper fixating on Chinese history and myth, and myth stories make for very good MG novels. Immediately I thought of doing a Chinese take on Yugioh, the most formative anime of my childhood, in which I would combine modern gaming tech with ancient myths and magic.

When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to speculative fiction and writing for young adult and middle grade audiences?

I’ve always had stories in my head inspired by the media I love. 7-year-old me would babble imaginary scenarios to my friends at recess—which I now recognize as basically Yugioh fanfiction. So in a way, I really came full circle on that with this book! I write kidlit because I’m drawn to coming of age stories, having had quite a tough time finding my identity while growing up. Writing kidlit allows me to share what I’ve learnt along the way to future generations, and I hope it can help them in some way. Not to mention that I can be as wacky as I want!

From the looks of the synopsis description, it looks like this book will explore the themes of diaspora and Chinese identity. As a member of a different diaspora myself, I’m curious what working on these subjects has meant to you as an author, exploring it within Zachary’s character and your writing in general?

Zachary Ying—both the book and character—pull deeply from the inner turmoil I struggled with when I was around his age (12). That was when I first immigrated from China to a small town in Canada and landed in a school where I was the only Asian kid. My experience there plummeted my self-esteem, and it took me years to unpack the shame I was made to feel about my heritage and identity. I’m incredibly grateful that I now get to write the books I wish I had when I was younger. Through my stories, I hope I can help the next generation of diaspora come to terms with their identity, so they will have a smoother adolescence than mine.

How would you describe your writing process? What are some of your favorite/ most frustrating parts of the process?

I figure out the character arc I want my protagonist to have, the specific goal they’re trying to achieve in the story, then how the antagonist(s) competes with them for that goal. I used to have a problem with my plots meandering, but I solved it by constantly keeping in mind what my antagonist is doing and building a push and pull between my protagonist and antagonist. Then I whine nonstop to my friends about how impossible it’ll be to finish the book until I finish the book. I love worldbuilding and imagining the exciting scenes I want to put in a book, but putting the actual story to words is an absolute chore for me.

Were there any author, books, or media influences you feel have helped shaped you as a writer?

As mentioned before, Yugioh is the biggest direct inspiration for this book. I’ve always loved how Yugioh blends ancient magic with sci-fi technology—they don’t have to be kept in separate genres! I’m also inspired by a lot of Yugioh-adajcent shonen anime like Dragon Ball Z and Saint Seiya, plus superhero comics on the Western side. For some reason, I seem really drawn toward media that’s meant to target teenage boys. As for books, Lemony Snicket, Laini Taylor, Marie Lu, Rick Riordan, and Wu Cheng’en are some authors who’ve had big influences on me!

In addition to being a writer, you are also known for your YouTube videos discussing Chinese history and representation (and for your amazing costume!) May I ask how you got into both?

I got really into Chinese history a few years ago when I was in a pretty dark place in my life. Finding the stories of defiance and resilience in the historical records inspired me like nothing else. While there’s “typical Chinese culture” that seems to make everything about Confucianism and obedience and sticking within your designated social roles, there has also always been a counterculture that rebelled against that, and that spirit is just as Chinese. I think there’s much misunderstanding about Chinese culture from Western points of view, so I’ve made it my life’s mission to demystify it by spreading the stories I love. I didn’t have serious thoughts about becoming a YouTuber until I accidentally blew up with my first video though. I just wanted to rant about how terrible I found the 2020 live action Mulan movie, and Twitter wasn’t enough to express all my feelings, so I recorded a 35 minute video on a shoddy camera and made a YouTube account to throw it up there. Next thing I knew, the video had hundreds of thousands of views and my brand new account had more than 80 thousand subscribers from the single upload. I knew I couldn’t waste that platform, so I committed to making more videos. The costumes and clothing are stuff I’ve accumulated in my closet in my years of cosplaying. Turns out, the editing and makeup skills I’ve picked up from being active in fandom spaces translate really well to YouTubing.

As a queer writer, you are known for including some pretty cool queer characters within your work (including polyamory within Iron Widow, which is still pretty rare in YA!) Would you mind discussing what queer representation means to you (and whether we might see any in Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor?)

Oh yes, Zachary Ying is a queer book! Let’s just say his Chineseness isn’t the only identity Zack has to come to terms with. I will never write a book without queer rep because I’ve experienced what it’s like to crawl and scavenge for crumbs of representation when I was younger (and mainly by hanging onto characters the official creators will never admit to being queer), and that’s not something I want the next generation to go through. I want them to have a selection so large that they can find exactly what delights them.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

Who are my inspirations when it comes to pop history outreach? The answer is famous Chinese historians like Yuan Tengfei, Meng Man, and Yi Zhongtian! Indeed, Chinese media has famous historians and archeologists who constantly appear on TV. A big show that broke them out was Lecture Hall (百家讲堂), which aired every day around noon and featured a professor giving a lecture on a certain topic, often history. I used to catch it every day during lunch break when I went to school in China (did you know Chinese schools and work give like 2-hour lunch breaks because you’re supposed to take a noon nap?). I never would’ve become so interested and knowledgeable in Chinese history without exposure to these amazing lecturers. My YouTube style is very inspired by them—I sit there and talk for a long time while giving my own opinions freely instead of doing short animated videos like most HistoryTubers. I’m grateful this works for me because I have neither the talent to do animations like that nor the restraint to talk about a topic for just 5-10 minutes.

Aside from being an author, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I am honestly a huge mess of a person. My life is not glamorous as it may seem. It involves a lot of sleeping and waking up at improbable hours and stressing out over deadlines.

What advice would you give for aspiring authors?

When you’re on your first draft, stop constantly going back and editing. Power through the whole thing so you train yourself to actually finish books, THEN dive into the mess to edit. This way, you’ll avoid the trap of being one of those writers who starts a lot of stories but can’t finish them.

Finally, what are some LGBTQIA+ books/authors you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Linden A. Lewis’ THE FIRST SISTER is a mind blowing space opera, pitched as Red Rising meets The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s seriously SO GOOD and has amazing queer characters. Please read it! There’s a full review on my website if you wanna know more.

SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Shelley Parker-Chan, a genderbent retelling of the founding of the Ming dynasty, should appeal to those who enjoy the historical aspect of my books as well.

FRAGILE REMEDY by Maria Ingrande Mora, a YA sci-fi, gave me huge Yugioh 5D’s vibes, so I’d recommend it for fellow Yugioh fans.

CUTE MUTANTS by SJ Whitby is a delightfully chaotic and queer take on superheroes!

Interview with Author Adiba Jaigirdar

Adiba Jaigirdar is the critically-acclaimed and bestselling author of The Henna Wars and Hani & Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating. A Bangladeshi/Irish writer and teacher, she has an MA in Postcolonial Studies from the University of Kent, England and a BA in English and History from UCD, Ireland. All of her writing is aided by tea, and a healthy dose of Janelle Monáe and Hayley Kiyoko. When not writing, she is probably ranting about the ills of colonialism, playing video games, or expanding her overflowing lipstick collection. She can be found at @adiba_j on Twitter and @dibs_j on Instagram.

I had the opportunity to interview Adiba, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you so much for having me! I’m a Bangladeshi-Irish author and former ESL teacher. I was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but have been living in Dublin, Ireland since the age of 10. I love reading and playing video games in my spare time. 

When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to young adult fiction?

I’ve always loved storytelling since before I could even read. So once I learned how to read and write, writing stories seemed only a natural progression of my love of storytelling. Some of the most memorable books I read are from when I was a teenager, many of them being Young Adult books. I think of them as formative to me, both as a person and as a writer. I think this is the case for a lot of people. The stories that we grow the most attached to, the ones that we remember and often go back to, are the ones that we read when we were teenagers. And so, I wanted to write those stories that hopefully help teens see themselves, and that I hope stay with kids for a long time. 

How would you describe your writing process? 

Chaotic. I don’t really have a single writing process. I try a bunch of different things with each book that I write and see what works and doesn’t work. I like to go where the story and characters take me. 

As a queer Jewish person, can I say how cool it is that your books feature complex queer characters of faith. Would you mind speaking a bit about what that kind of representation, or what representation in general means to you?

Sadly, I think a lot of the world views faith and queerness as mutually exclusive. In my experience, when we have this quite narrow point of view, we drive people away from faith, and oftentimes we also make people feel uncomfortable with their own sexuality. I’ve always simply wanted to write stories that feel authentic to my experiences, or the experiences of people that I know, and that includes the representation of people from religious backgrounds who are also queer. And so that’s the representation I often end up writing, because it’s true to my experiences. 

Did you draw on any specific sources of inspiration while writing your debut novel, The Henna Wars, and your more recent novel, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, i.e. books, movies, music, etc.? Where do you draw inspiration or creativity in general?

In general, I draw inspiration from anything and everything. For Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, specifically I was inspired by the TV show Faking It. I was a little annoyed at the sapphic representation and the bisexual representation in it, and so I just wanted to write my own version of a sapphic fake dating story, where the representation was more authentic to my experiences, and the sapphic characters got to have a happy ending. 

One of the notable things about your novels, is not only featuring Bangladeshi/Muslim characters but also queer characters from Ireland, something that is still rare (though getting less so) in YA. What do you think are some of the distinctions between US centric and Irish YA/cultures, in terms of queerness or in general?

This is a difficult question to answer because I’m not from the US, so I don’t actually know what US culture looks like in terms of queerness or really, in general. I know America is also hugely influenced by religion, but I do think a big part of queerness in Ireland comes with having to unlearn a lot of the harm that the Catholic church has perpetrated over the years. Most of our schools are single-sex and run by the church, and we often have nuns as teachers and principals, and if not that, then living on school campus. This is the kind of school I went to (and I graduated just a decade ago), and there were no out students during my school years. There was also quite a bit of homophobia which was probably both a result of the culture and the times. Ireland has come a long way in terms of this though, and we were the first country in the world to vote for marriage equality by way of popular vote. 

Besides being a writer, what are some things you would want your readers to know about you?

My favourite way to unwind is by playing video games. My favourite video game franchise is probably Uncharted, closely followed by Assassin’s Creed. But I love any good action/adventure game that has a compelling storyline and enjoyable gameplay. I also like to read a lot of adult thrillers in my downtime, and find them very comforting to read when I’m feeling down. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

What’s your favourite flavour of donut? I love coffee flavoured donuts. 

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

Later this year, my first YA historical will be released. It’s called A Million to One and it’s about four girls who board the Titanic in order to steal a rare jewel-encrusted book. Next year, I have another romcom coming out called Donut Fall In Love. It follows a Bangladeshi-Irish girl who joins a Great British Bake-Off style reality TV show, only to find that her ex is one of the competitors, along with another girl who she may be developing a crush on. 

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

There are so many I love. I would definitely recommend any book by Alechia Dow, who writes the most wonderful sci-fi books starring LGBTQ+ characters. I highly recommend Ace Of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, which is a brilliant thriller pitched as Get Out meets Gossip Girl. I am a huge Nina LaCour fan, so I would recommend absolutely anything she has ever written, because it’s all brilliant. In terms of romance, I love Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee, She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen, and Fifteen Hundred Miles From The Sun by Jonny Garza Villa.