Interview with Award-Winning Editor Diana M. Pho

Diana M. Pho is a queer Vietnamese-American independent scholar, playwright, and Hugo Award-winning fiction editor. She has over a decade of experience in traditional book publishing, including Tor Books, Tor.com Publishing, and the Science Fiction Book Club. Diana currently works as Lead Creative Executive for Co-Productions & Partnerships at Realm developing thrilling and innovative audio dramas. Additionally, she has a double Bachelor’s degree in English and Russian Literature from Mount Holyoke College and a Master’s in Performance Studies from New York University. Diana’s academic work includes critical analysis of the role of race in fashion, performance, and the media, in addition to pieces focusing on fan studies and fan communities.

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

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

Salutations, Geeks OUT, and appreciate you having me! I’m a Hugo-winning book editor, podcast producer, playwright, and academic who’s been in and around fandom spaces for much of my working life, and even earlier! 

How would you describe what you do professionally and creatively?

What I’ve done is help creatives tell stories professionally for about 15 years now. I’ve had the pleasure of working across novels, comics, theater, and audio. I strongly believe in the power of language and entertainment. Whether it is working as an editor in prose, a playwright for the stage, or a producer in podcasts, what I’m focused on are exciting, insightful, character-driven tales that make an impact.

What drew you to storytelling, and how did you get into editing and podcasting specifically? 

I was the bookworm who read the kidlit shelves in at the library in alphabetical order—or depending on how cool the cover art was! (Note to authors: young readers DO judge books by their covers!) I was a daydreamer, kind of spacey, and admittedly a nervous and introverted child. I also wrote a lot of fanfiction growing up! Eventually, I got out of my shell more in high school: I edited the literary magazine and the school newspaper. The theater bug bit me, but I did mostly crew work and wrote some plays for the state competition (and won some prizes).  Somehow, by the time I was a junior in college, I got it in my head that I wanted to work on books, and the endgoal was becoming a SFF editor. After a decade in books, I wanted something different and landed in audio at Realm, which luckily checked all of the boxes I was looking for at the time.

I only recently got into podcasts, what do you think is the appeal of this medium? What are some of your favorite examples?

Podcasts are portable stories that you can experience while multitasking. In our busy world, we’re still looking for that little bit of entertainment while commuting, doing housework, working out. I’ve gotten lots of joyful reviews from listeners working the graveyard shift of their job, and how Realm shows keep them company. I know many friends who play YouTube videos or TV shows in the background while they’re doing something else. Podcasts fit that same niche.

Podcasts are also extremely intimate form of storytelling. There’s a level of immediacy and visceral feeling that sound can get in ways prose cannot. The characters of fiction podcasts, especially, can lead you into a soundscape that feels like our real world. Even if that world is a fantasy with dragons or out on a space colony; it’s transportive!

Some of my favorite podcasts play with the format of a talking head show. Welcome to Nightvale is a classic introduction to podcasts that’s a spin on the NPR community radio show. This Sounds Serious is a pitch-perfect comedic reporting mockumentary that is full of unexpected twists. I also love the worldbuilding of The Edge of Sleep, Moonface, and From Now. And of course, my Realm favorites hold a special place in my producing heart: Marigold Breach, Overleaper, Spider King, the Undertow universe, to name a few.

I’m a regular listener of nonfiction and journalistic shows too: Sawbones, Code Switch, The Ezra Klein Show, and of course, The Daily, NPR, and the Journal. I read newspapers but I don’t have broadcast TV at home, so most of my news I pick up via podcasts.

What would you say goes into making a great podcast?

Having a point of view is the most important part: knowing what your show is about and having the confidence, commitment to research, and attentiveness to create a very distinct take on your subject. That counts for fiction as well as nonfiction. Fiction shows must know what they are, what listeners they appeal to, what kind of markets they can reach.

And of course, having a strong production team behind you can be great, but good production doesn’t always mean expensive equipment. It means knowing how to use it well, and to be invested in constantly learning about the craft of production, sound design, acting, etc as much as the words in the script.

As a queer Vietnamese-American creative, were there ever any times in which you saw yourself in pop culture/literature? What would you say representation means to you?

I never saw myself in pop culture exactly, but I will also have a special love for Tina Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American character from the original PBS Ghostwriter series. That’s the first time I’ve seen any Viet people on TV that didn’t have to do with the Paris By Night variety shows my parents watched, or the Vietnam War dramas you see for US audiences. I thought that was very meaningful to me, to see a kid like myself who lived in the shadow of war, but never personally experienced it. But was also just a normal teen girl trying to balance high school problems and solve mysteries with a ghost!

Over the years, there have been more Vietnamese creators of queer art: Ailette de Bodard, Nghi Vo, Ocean Vuong come to mind. I feel so lucky to be living in a time where I get to see these creators bloom.

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

I am a big believer in interdisciplinary work and draw from different creative formats into one giant storytelling toolkit. That’s what made my career exciting; a sense that I’m always learning more ways to express and communicate artistically. So far, it’s been novel writing, playwriting, comics, audio drama… and screenwriting is next on the docket, I think.

At the moment, I’m a big fan of Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World—I’ve read that book a few times and still am learning new takeaways.  I picked up a lot of audio drama tips from KC Wayland’s Bombs Always Beep. Writers who I’m always returning to include Ted Chiang, Walter Mosley, Ekaterina Sedia, N.K. Jemisin, Alexander Chee, Ray Bradbury, Jun Mochizuki, Suzie Lori Parks, Tom Stoppard. I have an undying love for really cheesy supernatural drama and anime. 

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives/writers? 

Find your community, and always pay it forward. Being a creator – especially being a writer – can be a very lonely experience. Being an artist can make you question your ability, your art, your working relationships, everything all the time. It can be hard finding financial support, free creative time, or emotional wherewithal to continue. But knowing you have people who can relate to your experiences – or non-artists who can offer an outside perspective – can really help support a career for the long-term.

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

Things are in the pipeline that people will be hearing about in early 2023 ☺ I can’t wait for the announcements to come!

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

LoL, what is my favorite tea? It’s lavender earl grey. ☺

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

Yay, list time!

Comics: Chronin by Benjamin A. Wilgus, Galaxy: The Prettiest Star by Jadzia Axelrod & Jess Taylor.

Books: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong; The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki, The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia.

Podcasts: Alice isn’t Dead from Nightvale Presents; Elixir from Realm; Soft Voice from QCODE.

TV Shows: the new Interview with the Vampire on AMC.

The Geeks OUT Podcast: Bi Bi Grom Queen

https://geeksoutpodcast.libsyn.com/geeks-out-podcast-bi-bi-grom-queen

In this week’s super sized episode of the Geeks OUT Podcast, Kevin is joined by new Eisner & Hugo award winning artist, Tana Ford, as they discuss Tana winning a Hugo award over livestream, cheer for Disney’s The Owl House confirming a main character’s bisexuality, and celebrate Lilly Wachowski affirming that The Matrix is a trans allegory in This Week in Queer. 

.

BIG OPENING

KEVIN: Disney’s The Owl House confirms a character’s bisexuality
TANA: Hugo Awards announced by an imperfect GRR Martin

.

DOWN AND NERDY

KEVIN: The Go Go’s, Star Trek: Below Decks, Razorblades, Empyre, Yes, I’m Flagging
TANA: Palm Springs, Perry Mason

.

STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER

Reboot of A League of Their Own coming to Amazon

.

THIS WEEK IN QUEER

Lilly Wachowski discusses The Matrix as a trans allegory

.

CLIP OF THE WEEK

New trailer for Ratched

.

THE WEEK IN GEEK

MOVIES

• Live-action Mulan skipping theatres and going straight to Disney+
• Nia DaCosta signs on to direct Captain Marvel sequel
• Antebellum moves to PVOD
• New trailer for I’m Thinking of Ending Things

.

TV

• New trailer for Raised by Wolves
• New trailer for The Third Day
• The CW releases pro-mask hero posters
• New teaser for DC Fandome
• Animaniacs reboot is coming in November
• Comedy Central orders a reboot of Ren & Stimpy  
• New trailer for season 2 of Pen15 

.

COMIC BOOKS

• Kelly Sue DeConnick speaks out on comic’s gatekeepers
• Cullen Bunn releasing D&D inspired Deepest Catacombs webcomic

.

SHILF

• KEVIN: Nyles (Palm Springs)
• TANA: Sarah (Palm Springs)

The Weird and Wonderful World of Digger

If you had asked me what my favorite genres were eight years ago, chances are I would not have put Epic Anthropomorphic Fantasy at the top of the list. It wasn’t until my sister (somewhat relentlessly) insisted that I read the first volume of Ursula Vernon’s Digger that everything changed. It introduced me to strange new world that challenged my every notion of what comics and characters could be. I could go on about its clever use of footnotes, or its beautiful black and white artwork. I could talk about how it inspired me to take on the daunting task of writing my own indie comic. What I will do instead is take a close look at the way it challenged and subverted gender norms and the tropes of the genre.

When your principal cast consists almost entirely of non-humans, the lines with which we typically define gender become blurred. Yes, they’re anthropomorphic and have humanistic attributes, but our notions of human gender don’t line up when it comes to wombats or oracular slugs. What becomes important here is that you find yourselves relating to the character regardless of their gender (if they even have one). Some of us do this naturally, but we’re often going against the grain of what’s expected of us when we do. The world Ursula Vernon creates in Digger is so far removed from that paradigm, that it’s refreshing. You can be yourself here. The old rules need not apply.

Digger is the narrator and titular character. Her name is short for Digger of Unnecessarily Convoluted Tunnels. She is a wombat who likes engineering and is not at all a fan of gods or magic. She is also our steady voice of reason guiding us through a bizarre and irrational world. Her gender is not immediately apparent (in no small part due to her being a wombat) but it’s also not especially relevant. Digger’s androgynous nature ultimately makes her more easy to relate to.

At the center of the story is a matriarchal tribe of hyenas that Digger becomes entangled with. Creating a matriarchal tribe of hunters (which my spell check just tried to change to patriarchal) is no simple task. It’s not just “what applies to males in human society now applies to females here.” Vernon does this meticulously through mythology and ritual (and probably lots of research on spotted hyenas actual matriarchal society). We learn that female hunter in the hyena tribe will typically lose her first born child, and surviving first born children are considered special because of this. They also have a custom of excommunicating shamed members of their tribe. This and much of the hyena lore is revealed through Ed, an excommunicated male hyena that Digger befriends. Eventually Digger also becomes acquainted with the hunter Grim Eyes, who at first wants to eat her before they become reluctant allies. The way Grim Eyes is presented as a bit of a meathead, and is obliviously patronizing to their male guide Herne, leads to some thoroughly enjoyable banter.

Lastly there are the two actual human characters. First we have Murai, a faithful servant of Ganesh and a member of The Veiled. Subverting the typical fantasy quest of a protagonist fulfilling a glorious destiny, Mauri is neither the protagonist nor is her destiny glorious. It’s more like a curse than anything else. Her encounter with a god has left her broken, but her condition resembles the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While she is a true believer and follower of Ganesh, her story becomes one of finding her own voice. There is also leader of the Veiled, Captain Jhalm. In many ways, his place in the story is a perfect example of using toxic masculinity as a villain. While he is not the chief antagonist, his misplaced commitment to serve all of the gods consistently causes harm and creates unnecessary obstacles. This comes to a head when he faces off with hyena clan leader Boneclaw Mother. As he is about to kill one of his own soldiers in order to save a dying god, he’s met with her biting wisdom: “a god that demands the life of a child is not a god worth saving.”

It wasn’t until after I sat down to write this article that I realized how difficult it is to articulate exactly what I love about the gender subversion and obscurities in this story. This is in no small part because it casts a wide net. I didn’t even get to touch on Shadowchild (a genderless feral demon child who asks lots of questions) or Ganesh (the avatar of a male god whose voice I always find myself reading as female). There’s so much detail in every culture encountered in this epic. It’s so densely packed with nuanced characters and blurred gender lines that it’s hard to focus on just one. It isn’t just one character or one central theme, it’s a whole world. But here is the best part: you don’t have to take my word for it. It’s still free to read on the original webcomic site, or you can pick up the new omnibus edition.

Sci-Fi Alien(ation): Diversity and Bigotry in Sci-Fi Fantasy

The need for diversity in Science Fiction, otherwise known as Speculative Fiction, has been getting a lot of media attention as of late. Racist fanboys tried (and failed) to boycott Star Wars Episode VII for featuring a diverse primary cast. The World Fantasy Awards finally removed the face of avowed racist H.P. Lovecraft from their trophy. Most recently, the Sad/Rabid Puppies tarnished the Hugo Awards for a second straight year. Traditionally marginalized groups are becoming more visible, while the subsequent backlash is growing louder and more absurd.

It is for these reasons and more that Dr. Philip Kadish organized a panel to facilitate a much needed discussion on the growing attacks on diversity in Speculative Fiction. Gathered at the CUNY Graduate Center were panelists Andre Carrington (Speculative Blackness), Craig Laurance Gidney (Skin Deep Magic), and Jennifer Marie Brissette (Elysium).

Racism in Speculative Fiction is nothing new–it has been there since the beginning. Gene Roddenberry may have opened minds when he envisioned a future of inclusion, but there have always been the likes of Jerome B. Holgate in the midst. Moderator Phil Kadish opened the evening’s discussion with a plot synopsis from Holgate’s A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation, one of the first Speculative Fiction books ever published. Written in 1835, it was critical of the Abolitionist movement and painted a dystopic future where slavery was no longer legal and race mixing was mandatory. In this future society, people had to build special devices to make their interracial society work; namely a sheep dip for the black partners so that their white counterparts could “stand the smell.”

Expanding on Speculative Fiction’s often problematic history, Andre Carrington talked about the paradox of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. “He was a man ahead of his time, but he was also very much a man of his own time,” Carrington remarked. While Star Trek is well known for breaking new ground by featuring a black female lead as a ranking officer and having TV’s first interracial kiss, it also had episodes that displayed gross misogyny and was very much a product of its time. Yesterday’s progressive entertainment looks very different to today’s audience, and likewise today’s progressive fiction is likely to look very different in the future.

Another paradox in the genre that he spoke about was how Speculative Fiction today is “simultaneously popular and marginal at the same time.” He explained this by contrasting the massive success of superhero and franchise films like Star Wars, with the diminished respect that genre writers receive in favor of more traditional ones. Prestigious awards like the National Book Award have historically shunned genre fiction, and that is one of the reasons we have the Hugos and World Fantasy Awards in the first place. We can see things splinter further as the Hugos and it’s contemporaries have historically favored straight, white, cis-male writers. This precedent has lead to the creation of organizations like the Carl Brandon Society (a group focused on awarding writers of color) and the James Tiptree Jr Awards (an award encouraging the exploration and expansion of gender).

Keeping the topic of literary awards going, Craig Laurance Gidney took the first deep dive into the 2015 Hugo Controversy. He opened his remarks by reading an excerpt from Sad Puppies leader Brad R. Torgersen, in which Torgersen admonishes today’s Science Fiction for containing too much subtext. He glamorizes the days when books with spaceships on the cover were just books about space adventure, and not allegories for slavery or other things he’d rather not think about. Gidney then tore into this short-sighted logic for its fundamental flaw: there has always been subtext in Speculative Fiction. He specifically cited Andre Norton’s Witchworld series as a series he read as a child that was layered in subtext. A more mainstream example might be The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, which is widely known for it’s Christian subtext.

One of the stories believed to have triggered the Sad Puppies backlash was the 2014 Short Story Hugo winner “The Water that falls from Nowhere,” a magical realism story in which a young man comes out to his traditional Chinese family. The Sad Puppies claim they felt that conservative authors were being blacklisted, and so they gamed the system with their ballot list. Gidney’s theory is that the Sad Puppies are less about principle, and more about selling books by appealing to a targeted audience. He argues that they are trying to appeal to the Glen Beck listeners, Trump voters, and Fox News watchers. The demographic that loathes “politically correct” language and has the money to buy books. If it were about principle, he argues, they would have focused on actually nominating good conservative writers. Instead they nominated some of the most inflammatory writers they could find, namely three works by John C. Wright who is best known for his homophobic views. More of Gidney’s thoughts and writing on the Sad Puppies can be found on his website.

Jennifer Brissett then took the conversation in a different direction, choosing to focus on the issues with the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). SFWA is supposed to represent Science Fiction Writers. In 2009, then SFWA President John Scalzi stated “any market not paying pro rates shouldn’t even be publishing.” In reality, a lot of small presses that pay below the pro rate (which is $0.05 per word) are the only ones publishing minorities and women. When SFWA uses primarily mainstream publishers to decide their criteria for membership, you have a system that shuts out historically unrepresented writers on a systemic level.

One root of this problem is the lack of diversity on editorial boards. Brissette laid out a hypothetical example of a present day editor starting out as an unpaid intern, as many of them do. Only those who have family to support them living in a place as expensive as New York City without a paying job are able to get their foot in the door. This in turn perpetuates only the status quo getting published. The real issues are systemic and embedded in the foundation of the structures that writers rely on. It’s not just that the Sad Puppies gamed the system; it’s that no changes were made to prevent it from happening for a second year.

Taking it back to her frustrations with SFWA, Brissette brought up the 2013 incident when Theodore Beale went on a racist Twitter rant about author N.K. Jemisin and had it posted to the SFWA Twitter feed. In spite of the immediate backlash, it still took the organization two months to expel him over the incident. Jemison wrote extensively about the frustration of the experience on the day his expulsion was finally delivered. People want to dismiss examples like this as outliers, but they are really just scratching the surface of the systemic issues beneath.

Left unchecked, these issues are going to lead to a great split in the Speculative Fiction community. Groups representing the LGBT Community and People of Color are successfully launching their own conventions and awards. George R. R. Martin organized The Alfie Awards in protest of the tainted 2015 Hugos. Alternative conventions are beginning to make strong impacts, such as FlameCon and the Afrofuturism Conference. To paraphrase the point Jennifer Brissette made: the future is in creating the support structures we need through alternative means instead of just relying on existing organizations.

In summary of the night, Andre Carrington remarked ” we are living in a golden age and a bronze age at the same time.” Brissette added: “It’s a reflection of this country. From the outside we look like a hot mess. We are in the age of Obama and the age of Trump.”

You can view a full video of the panel discussion here: http://videostreaming.gc.cuny.edu/videos/video/4298/

Follow me on Twitter @danielstalter.