Art and Kindness: A Conversation with Aleksandra (Ola) Hill, Kanika Agrawal, and Rowan Morrison
Aleksandra (Ola) Hill was born in Toronto, Canada, to Polish immigrants, then moved to Poland for a few years before returning to Toronto for high school. She went to New York City to earn her BA at Columbia University in biology and English and, “aside from a year back in Toronto that I spent in a truly nightmarish lab, I’ve been there ever since.”
Before attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2020, Hill won the grand prize in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards for her short story “A Life Measured in Moons.” Her story “The Bakery: Prelude to a Fairy Tale” appeared in the JordanCon 2019 anthology (both bylines as Alexandra Hill).
More recently, “Words of Advice at the End of the World” appeared in the anthology Fission #2 Volume 1, edited by Eugen Bacon and Gene Rowe, published by the British Science Fiction Association with HWS Press. Hill also took classes at Gotham Writers Workshop and completed a certificate in fiction writing at UCLAx. “After I got my PhD, I sold my soul and went to work in consulting for three years. The hours were brutal (I’d be working from basically 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day, then write for an hour or two, then pass out and do it all over again), but the pay was good enough that I saved enough money to give me space to write for a few years and do an MFA.” Hill is currently in an MFA program for fiction and nonfiction at The New School, working on two theses, both focused on horror.
A trained computational biologist, Hill ultimately switched from science to writing. “Part of it was because when I was a student, I knew my job prospects would be better with a science degree, so I dual-majored in bio/English and then went on to a STEM PhD; money was, and always has been, a concern, and it was drilled into me as a child that money and security come first, dreams second. But, I also grew up being told that SFFH is a waste of time and I’ll grow out of it, so even though my teachers told me I was a good writer when I was a kid, I stopped writing because what I wanted to write wasn’t a ‘good’ thing to be writing . . . I know we keep hearing about folks who’ve been writing since they were in diapers and published their first NYT bestseller at sixteen or whatever, but it’s also really okay to start late.”
Kanika Agrawal was born in Bahrain and grew up in India, Switzerland, Tanzania, Kenya, and the US. She earned a BS in biology and a BS in writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She also earned an MFA in writing from Columbia University, and a PhD in English and literary arts from the University of Denver. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Experimental Writing 2020, Black Warrior Review, filling Station, Foglifter, FOLDER, Notre Dame Review, SAND, the Texas Review, and more.
“What I studied as an undergraduate at MIT continues to be an essential part of my perspective and work as a writer. My manuscript Okazaki Fragments adapts concepts, images, and language from a series of sixteen scientific papers published between 1968 and 1977. The series, Mechanism of DNA Growth, presents research on discontinuous strand synthesis during DNA replication. This research was led by the Japanese molecular biologists Okazaki and Okazaki. Okazaki Fragments (re)constructs Okazaki and Okazaki’s experiences by reading their lives into (or out of) the scientific language and images of their papers. In a sense, I put the Okazakis under their own microscope: what might scientific texts on replication, (dis)continuity, complementarity, etc., reveal about the Okazakis’ lives—and our lives—if we expand the ways in which we read/encounter them?”
Agrawal has attended various workshops and residencies, most recently author Fonda Lee’s workshop at Aspen Words. Agrawal has also received support from the Juniper Institute, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and Writing By Writers, as well as fellowships from the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, MacDowell, and Vermont Studio Center. An experienced teacher herself, she currently does a combination of teaching/tutoring (English/writing), editing/consulting, and writing. She moved to Denver to start her PhD program and has lived there since.
Rowan Morrison is a writer and editor, originally from New York, currently based in Cleveland, Ohio, “where he thinks about trauma, trans identities, political wonkery, and storytelling.” He has published at a range of venues such as Argot Magazine and Cleveland Magazine. “I’ve held a variety of jobs, but reading, writing, and editing (in that order) have always been constants in my life. Fortunately/unfortunately I am quite private . . . ”
Volume 1, Issue 1 of khōréō, “a quarterly magazine of speculative fiction and migration,” was published February 15, 2021. The magazine has received praise from a number of respected reviewers and venues, had three stories on Locus Magazine’s 2021 Recommended Reading List, and was a winner of an Ignyte Award for Best Fiction Podcast along with being a finalist for the Ignyte Community Award.
What, for each of you, is special about speculative fiction? Is it distinctive from “mainstream” or “literary” or “realist” fiction, and what does speculative fiction do that fiction which isn’t speculative doesn’t do?
Rowan Morrison: What I really like about speculative fiction is that it’s a fairly broad and nebulous genre that can encompass any of the others you’ve listed, and I think that leeway often gives authors room to explore questions or themes that might not feel at home in “realist” genres, not least because of the perpetual question: who defines what’s “mainstream” or “literary” or “realist”? Speculative fiction is often less concerned with those constraints or norms and thus lends itself to category-resistant narratives—which I really enjoy.
Aleksandra (Ola) Hill: I really love that answer, Rowan. My biggest victory recently was having my mom, who was always hoping I’d grow out of my love for speculative fiction, reading all the issues of khōréō and conceding that it is, in fact, “literary.” For me, its power and specialness (I’m going to pretend that’s a word) is how it lets you address really fundamental questions of humanity/existence by looking at them kind of out of the corner of your eye. It’s what’s always made the genre feel more “real” to me than “realist” fiction has.
Kanika Agrawal: These labels/categories can be useful for thinking about the variety of reading experiences, expectations, and approaches readers bring to fictional work. But they can also be harmful in how they judge and circumscribe. Speculative fiction is by definition not “realist,” but much of it is, in my opinion, too bound to the “realistic,” especially in its use of language. And there is, of course, speculative mainstream fiction and speculative literary fiction and speculative genre fiction. I’m interested in the kind of speculative work that challenges the “reality” constructed by the majority and/or the privileged minority, that makes other realities/worlds possible.
Why is the immigrant and diaspora focus important for you? Why is it important for genre?
RM: For myself, that focus is important for personal reasons; my parents are immigrants, and their parents were immigrants too. I think our focus is important for genre for similar reasons: All of human history has been shaped by migration and movement, voluntary and forced. Some of the oldest stories in the world are about diaspora. I think it’s important to explicitly recognize and celebrate that.
OH: One of the most important moments of my reading life was when I first encountered “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu. The author and I come from different cultural backgrounds, but there’s a moment in the story where the main character’s mother speaks to them in Chinese and they, embarrassed, answer back in English. It was the exact same thing I’d done as a kid when my mom spoke to me in Polish. I’d never seen myself or my experience reflected on the page like that, never had to face the simultaneous ugliness and humanity of those moments before.
I wanted to create a place for people like me—folks who have experience of that “here and elsewhere” existence—to find stories where they see themselves reflected. And migration in all its forms—immigration, forced migration through slavery and war, colonization, etc.—is such a huge part of human history that it’s touched almost everyone in some way, whether they realize it or not. At the same time, I think speculative fiction is such a perfect place to explore these themes of migration and identity because each reader is transported to a slightly different world every time; they immerse themselves in a new story, even if the change is a minor one.
KA: Yes, and yes! Also, a lot of classic/canonic Western speculative writing, especially science fiction, celebrates the conqueror/colonizer, the adventurer, the hero and denigrates the supposedly static, uninspired/uninspiring and monstrous Other. It is important to continue imagining and writing against those visions.
Are there particular challenges for editing a magazine with this focus, which may not come up as often for other magazines? And how do you meet those challenges?
RM: I guess you could call this a “challenge”—I’ve gotten to work with a lot of writers from different backgrounds who are all, of course, far more informed than I am when it comes to the (often very personal) stories they’re telling. As a result, obviously, it’s very much my job to put in the extra legwork to meet them where they are. That’s more of an opportunity than a challenge, though, in my view, and I’m extremely grateful to the authors I’ve gotten to work with for being so generous with their time, knowledge, and trust.
OH: This might be a bit tangential to the question you’re asking, but: because our remit is so broad, it can sometimes be a bit difficult to assess whether an author is the right fit for us without feeling like we’re identity policing. We don’t require an author to make a statement of their identity, for example, but we want to make sure that we’re also being true to our mission. I’ve heard from a number of folks who run magazines targeted at specific identities that writers who are not of that identity submit pieces, either by conveniently “not seeing” the specificity of the call or simply “not agreeing” that the call should be limited. We’ve had the same issue.
When the magazine was first starting up, a professor of mine said “in a way, we’re all immigrants”, which . . . is patently untrue; we aren’t made for twelfth-generation English immigrants whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, nor for folks who write “on behalf of” their immigrant/diasporic spouse. At the same time, we have so many folks sending us queries asking if they belong on our pages because they don’t want to impose, and, without exception, those folks have absolutely been welcome!
KA: I very much agree with all of the above. I’m always asking myself and rethinking what it means to be “generous” with and “responsible” to our community of writers, readers, and khōréō staff members. What can I do, without exhausting/destroying myself in the process, to best serve the creative work entrusted to us and support the people and practices that make that work possible? Often, the more marginalized and overlooked the work and the people, the greater the challenge; there are so many forces acting against them/us, including our own ignorance and bias. I have to accept that I will make mistakes, some of which will haunt me for a long time, which may be a kind of blessing for a writer and editor of speculative work.
How did khōréō get started, how did each of you get involved, and what were the major obstacles along the way?
OH: khōréō was inspired by the Ken Liu story I mentioned earlier, and got an accelerated start due to discussions and issues in the genre that rose to particular prominence in 2020. Spite is a great motivator for getting things done. In terms of challenges: we’re volunteer-run at this time, which means that everyone who does it, does it out of love—and when Real Life comes knocking, that has to come first. We have a truly wonderful team (made mostly of people who were complete strangers before starting here!) that has been great at load balancing, but I would love to get us to a point where we can pay our volunteers for their time and talent. It’s the same problem you see with speculative fiction as a whole: unless you’re incredibly privileged, survival has to come before art.
RM: I saw a listing on Paper Cat Press (RIP) and the rest is history!
KA: I was following khōréō from its first call for submissions. The more I read, the more I felt that I wanted to be involved. So, when a fiction editor position opened up earlier this year, I managed to put together an application. My major obstacle was applying and getting through the interview! Ola and Rowan were absolutely lovely, but I’m always coming up with reasons I’m not sufficiently qualified. I’m so glad I didn’t talk myself out of it.
OH: We are, too! You’re a wonderful addition to our team!
Are there one or two stories that stand out as particularly important or special? Or which exemplify what a khōréō story is?
OH: It’s really hard to find a story (or even two) that encompasses what we’re about because there are so many facets of the immigrant/diaspora experience. There are stories that explore the loss of identity over the course of generations, like “All Worlds Left Behind” by Iona Datt Sharma; about the future of cultural and religious traditions, like “For Future Generations” by Rachel Gutin; about transracial adoption, like “Golden Girl” by A. M. Guay; about the legacy of slavery, like “Our Bones Were the Mortar” by Anjali Patel; about retold legends, like “Nine-Tailed Heart” by Jessica Cho; about climate change and choosing to stay, like “Love at the End” by Deborah Germaine Augustin. All of them come at the question of migration and identity from a different perspective, and even though they’re so different, they all feel like they belong perfectly with the magazine’s mission.
RM: Yeah, I think that’s kind of the tricky thing about defining a “khōréō story” (which is definitely something we talk about a lot in the selection process)! Every story that we publish changes that definition in some way, especially since it still feels like such early days—although we’re coming up on the end of our second volume now; when did that happen?! In a way, though, I think that’s also true to the khōréō mission. We aren’t seeking to define a paradigm but rather to capture and uplift the rich variation and diversity within that shared experience.
KA: From my perspective, if there is a common thread, it’s that we’re interested in stories and forms and characters that don’t “behave.” For example, I love the fury of the main character in “Golden Girl,” in defiance of the deference and gratitude expected of her. I love work that I can’t fully grasp, that resists/refuses me in some way.
Are there one or two stories that you feel may challenge readers in certain ways, or may surprise readers?
OH: The story I love to talk about most is “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” by Maria Dong. It’s a strange story in terms of structure and it’s also one that all three editors for the first volume knew we had to have the second we read it. To our surprise, Maria told us that she’d decided that, if it were rejected from khōréō, she would be trunking it.
She’d sent it off to a bunch of magazines and, in her words, “each time it was rejected for being ‘too wandering’ or not ‘having a central plot’ or being ‘too hard to follow.’” And each time that happened, she became more and more certain that this story was being told in exactly the right way. She didn’t want to change it for the sake of publication, and we’re so grateful she didn’t; we think it’s perfect as it is precisely because it is different, because Maria knew exactly what she wanted to do and she executed it perfectly.
It’s the story I recommend for readers who are looking for something different, and it’s the story I recommend for writers who are trying to decide whether to change their stories to “speak more to the center,” as I’ve heard it described.
RM: It’s a very cool story. I’m still amazed that we got to publish it (though that also goes for every other story we’ve published—I’m amazed that we get to work with all these fantastic people)! I’m also really glad that it was one of the very first stories we got to work on; to me, at least, it was a sign that we were on the right track.
KA: Dong’s is one of the stories that most “speaks” to me, by which I don’t mean I “identify” with the characters or author. I so appreciate how it evades and disorients. We have stories coming up that do something similar, though very much in their own way, and I’m so excited for our readers to experience them!
Does khōréō publish dark fantasy and horror? As readers, do you enjoy stories along those lines?
RM: I think we’ve published a few stories that definitely count as dark fantasy and/or horror! In fact, some of our recent issues have leaned in that overall direction. I love stories along those lines. There’s something very human, I think, about wanting to give yourself a good scare. It’s delightful.
OH: I’m finishing up two MFA theses this year and both of them are focused on horror, and in particular ghost stories, so yes! I love horror and dark fantasy, though we do need stories that have a speculative element to them (straight-up slashers or serial killers aren’t a great fit for us).
KA: I’m not well-read in dark fantasy and horror. But we’re interested in all “flavors” of speculative work—up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom. I want to learn to read a greater variety of work, and I lean on those who are more knowledgeable when I don’t “get” a story.
You are also writers. Has writing fiction given you a different editorial perspective . . . does it change the way you do things as an editor?
RM: For me, writing and editing are two very different mental tracks. I can’t do both at the same time—I bring too much of a critical eye to my writing—but I do try to keep my writing experience in mind when I’m editing. Being edited is often, I think, a fairly vulnerable experience, especially when the story in question is personal, as many stories about diaspora and migration are. That differential is always at the forefront of my mind when I’m editing, and I strive to live up to the responsibility it creates.
OH: I used to be the “tear it apart” kind of person: if my writing wasn’t ripped a new one, I thought the person wasn’t doing a good job critiquing; I saw no need to be kind in my feedback, but to lay it out “as it was.” That all came from both how I was raised—a belief that too much (any) praise will make someone lazy—and how writing workshops are structured, where the author has to listen silently to folks who give perspective as “a general reader,” which usually means a white, cis, American man.
In the last few years, though—the transformation started a little before khōréō’s founding—I started to see the value of kindness to art. I realized how incredible it felt to have someone look at my writing and, instead of telling me what they thought I should do, say, I see what you’re trying to do—let’s figure out how to get you there. I was fortunate enough to take an incredible class at The New School with Laura Cronk called The Teaching of Writing. There, we read Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, some essays by bell hooks, and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop by Felicia Rose Chavez. They cemented my belief that the writer knows what they’re doing and that the editor (and critique partner!), as Rowan said, has a responsibility to that writer to help them bring their vision more fully to life. I can’t recommend these books enough to any writer or editor.
KA: My work as a writer makes me a more thoughtful and trusting editor, I think, I hope. And my work as an editor encourages me to take more risks as a writer and be less disheartened by rejection. I also teach writing, and over the years I’ve learned that first, keep them writing. If they keep writing, they’ll figure out most of what they need to figure out themselves and/or by identifying the questions they need to ask others.
Are there publications, editors, authors, or even books who inspire you (or have inspired you along the way)? Or do you see khōréō and what you do as very different from other folks?
OH: I already talked a bit about books, but in terms of magazines: Strange Horizons had a huge impact on khōréō. I was a first reader there before I founded the magazine, and a lot of how we organize behind the scenes, including our scoring system and editorial flow, was directly inspired by them (thanks!). But I also loved how Strange Horizons approached fiction: how it always felt like they were doing something different and unique. And so many editors, writers, and industry professionals have been so helpful along the way in terms of offering advice: Neil Clarke, of this magazine; Benjamin C. Kinney; S. B. Divya; Mur Lafferty; you, Arley—the list goes on. For folks who are looking at starting a magazine, please, please: reach out to others. We’re so happy to help, to give advice, or just to chat.
RM: There are so many people. If I start naming them, we’ll be here for a long time and I’ll inevitably run out of steam and start forgetting names. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Rowan better give me props for my pivotal role and invaluable contributions,” consider yourself on that list! Also, shoutout to every single person who has ever posted on Archive of Our Own.
KA: One of my areas of specialization for my PhD was postcolonial and Indigenous science fiction. I’m bringing everything I read and thought about for that to my work at khōréō. I also draw heavily on speculative film and visual art. I can’t avoid being inspired! And I hope I’m channeling the most interesting and weirdest influences as fiction editor.
What are some of the most common reasons stories won’t make it out of slush at khōréō?
RM: Personally, I think I send a lot of rejections that are like: “We love this story, we love your writing, but this feels more like the start of a book than a story on its own!” Some stories are just too long to fit into 5,000 words. That’s great, but it’s hard to reconcile with our budget and the rates we pay authors (which is an area where we aren’t willing to compromise). If you’ve gotten one of those from me, I promise I meant it utterly and sincerely—please go out and write that book and sell it for the big pile of money you deserve and then send me a pre-order link! Seriously!
OH: Yes! On that note, there’ve also been a lot of stories that have felt very explicitly like the first chapter of a book—like, the main character starts on another journey at the very end. I want to know what happens! Please don’t leave me hanging. Another big thing that I’ve found is pacing: the story is either too fast-paced (i.e., it should be much longer, because it’s all plot and doesn’t have a lot of development in it) or it’s got a really slow start and then rushes to a conclusion at the end. Also, important to note: a typo will never be the reason we reject a story. Please don’t panic if you find one after submitting. Just . . . put the file away and don’t look at it again until you hear back, for your own sanity. 🙂
KA: I’ll add that stories that put all of their eggs in the twist/reveal basket tend not to go very far. And some stories are such a poor fit for us, it’s obvious the authors haven’t even read the guidelines, let alone anything we’ve published. That doesn’t mean these stories are “bad.” They’re just not right for us. I’m also looking for stories that offer something beyond benign “pleasure” or “satisfaction.”
What are your goals for khōréō, and how do those goals tie into your personal goals with regard to the publishing industry?
RM: I’m actually leaving khōréō at the end of the year (for purely schedule-based reasons—too few hours in the day), so this is a very easy question to answer! I hope khōréō is around for many, many years to come and that I get to read a lot of cool work edited by people who will, I hope, continue to build and improve on what the magazine has done so far. Those are pretty much my personal goals too: to keep reading great writing produced by a community of thoughtful, kind people, and to contribute in whatever way I can.
OH: I really hope that we’ll be around for a long time. It’s so hard to imagine khōréō without Rowan, but we’ve had incredible new folks joining us all the time—like the wonderful Kanika, our third fiction editor—and I’m so excited to see how our vision and voice keeps growing and evolving as our team does.
One thing that I want to make sure we keep doing is finding new voices. I don’t think we’ll ever solicit stories, and I don’t think we’ll ever stop asking our first readers to read stories in full. It can feel like it’s the same names in publishing again and again, and while I absolutely love so many of the established writers in SFFH, there’s always room for new voices and I hope we can help discover them. The only way to see more diversity in the genre is to add those voices to it, after all.
KA: Yes, I love our focus on writers who are new(er) to publication. As long as personal and financial circumstances allow it, I’m in for the long haul. I’m particularly interested in exploring how we can grow in ways that allow us to offer a wider array of opportunities and resources to our community. Publishing is not just about publishing.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about khōréō or about your own, separate projects?
OH: I need to do a plug for how important readers and subscribers are to a magazine’s survival. Times have been economically tough for . . . a while, but it’s really critical to support the magazines you love—including, but absolutely not limited to, khōréō. If you can help fund them by subscribing or donating to the publications you love best, you’ll help make sure that those places stick around. For a writer, and especially for marginalized writers, publishing isn’t enough: you can die of exposure, after all. Paying our authors is a critical part of what we do. And, on a side note, khōréō is a 501(c)(3), so any donation is tax-deductible, and we should also be available for employer donation matching programs!
And, if you don’t have anything to spare: help spread the word. Share the stories not just with the SFFH community, but to your larger circles, as well.
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.