December 16, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Suzan Palumbo, co-administrator of the IGNYTE AWARDS and a member of the FIYAHCON team


This month's Behind the Zines interview features the amazing Suzan Palumbo. I am so honoured and grateful that she took the time to answer some of my questions about her work in the speculative fiction community.

More about Suzan Palumbo:

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Suzan Palumbo is a writer, active member of the HWA, co administrator of the Ignyte Awards and a member of the Hugo nominated FIYAHCON team. She is also a former associate editor of Shimmer. Her work has been published in The Deadlands, The Dark Magazine, PseudoPod, Fireside Fiction Quarterly, PodCastle, Anathema: Spec Fic from the Margins and other venues. She is officially represented by Michael Curry of the Donald Maass Literary Agency and tweets at @sillysyntax. When she isn’t writing, she can be found sketching, listening to new wave or wandering her local misty forests.

Q. What’s your background?
Suzan Palumbo: I was born in Trinidad and Tobago and immigrated with my mother to Toronto Canada when I was a preschooler. I grew up in a Toronto neighbourhood that was primarily made up of Caribbean and South Asian immigrants. I was immersed in Caribbean culture, and we maintained ties with my mother’s family in Trinidad. I had a rough childhood generally. My family was quite poor, and we lived in government subsidized housing my entire childhood.

I have B.A. in English Language and Literature. After University, I went to college to learn how to teach ESL. I taught ESL for many years, eventually becoming the director of the private school in downtown Toronto where I worked. In that position, I designed curriculum, interviewed and hired people and planned school events. I enjoyed teaching quite a bit. I might even have been good at it!

Q. Were there any particular books, movies, or shows, or something else that first attracted you to speculative fiction?
SP: I didn’t have access to many books as a very young child and I think that is partially why I was a “later” reader. I had trouble reading until something clicked for me in grade three. But, I grew up hearing bits of Caribbean folktales from my mother and her family. Those oral folktales have been a major pillar of my interest in speculative fiction. I’ve written several stories with Trinidadian folkloric characters: Soucouyants, Douens, La Diablesse and other jumbies. When I was little, I was scared of these characters. But, jumbies aren’t simply malevolent monsters or ghosts. They are spirits with tragic histories. They are often marginalized people who were forced to barter their humanity to survive or who died tragically. I think that backstory element is what sparked my love of gothic fiction.

In terms of actual media, I watched a lot of Scooby Doo, He-Man and She-ra, Thunder Cats, Gargoyles and X-Men. I adored the Addams Family film and The Last Unicorn movie. I had an obsession with Batman the Animated Series. When I was in my early teens I read a lot of the classics such as: Frankenstein, The Monk, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera and Rebecca etc.. When I was a bit older, I got into the dystopian classics like 1984 and A Brave New World. I’m intrigued with speculative fiction’s ability to reflect our world and relationships and its function as a tool that helps us examine our global, political, social, emotional and personal flaws.

Q. You are one of the co-founders of the Ignyte Awards, In the description of the awards it says, “The Awards seek to celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of the current and future landscapes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror by recognizing incredible feats in storytelling and outstanding efforts toward inclusivity of the genre.” Can you tell us a bit about how the Ignyte Awards were conceived and born. What was happening behind the scenes (and on the scene!) at that time?

SP: Yes! I cofounded the Ignyte Awards along with the incomparable L.D. Lewis. I’m going to speak about my part in the award’s conception but want to highlight foremost that I am only part of the story. The Ignyte Awards would not exist with out FIYAHCON which was born in the Summer of 2020 in the aftermath of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Tayler. FIYAHCON was conceived by L.D. Lewis and members of the FIYAH Literary Magazine team. It “is a virtual convention centering the perspectives and celebrating the contributions of BIPOC in speculative fiction.”

That same summer I had publicly questioned the Sunburst Awards, which are a Canadian Speculative Awards series, as to why their finalist list had “absolutely” no BIPOC representation. I was very wrong in that assumption. The list did have quite a few BIPOC in many of the categories and I was rightly and publicly corrected for the inaccurate statement and the erasure of those writers. That said, I still felt that the award could do better in terms of representation. I don’t think I was wrong for pushing for more diversity. You can’t have too much diversity in my opinion. I offered to help the organization and wrote a multi page proposal outlining how I would increase BIPOC engagement and participation with the awards and bring in more community support. I submitted that document to the contact I had. I haven’t received a response to that proposal at present. The following year, the Sunburst Awards announced that they would be going on hiatus for understandable reasons that were pandemic and workload related.

It was with that mindset that I watched the live stream of the 2020 Hugo Awards where the host, George R.R. Martin, mispronounced several of the nominees’ names, made a transphobic joke and centered the achievements of white male authors of the past. I’m not going into specifics of exactly what he said here. Those events are easily searchable on Google. He did offer a partial apology for some of his remarks afterwards. But by that point I felt I couldn’t keep quiet any longer about wanting SFFH awards to do better. If no one was going to let me help or volunteer with the established awards to make them more inclusive, respectful and diverse, then I was going to make my own awards and try my best to treat everyone it served with respect.

I’d been aware that FIYAH was planning a convention but did not know L.D. Lewis or any of the con committee personally. I messaged L.D. and asked if FIYAHCON was interested in running an SFFH awards and suggested that we could call it the Ignyte Awards. L.D. and the FIYAHCON team had already been thinking of including an award ceremony as part of the convention, so she invited me to join FIYAHCON.

We put on those awards together in just over two months. We collected the pronunciation of every nominees’ name and practiced them with our host. We wrote the script and remarks together to ensure the ceremony was inclusive and fostered the joy and sense of community we wanted people to feel while watching. Speaking for myself, the Ignyte Awards is probably one of the most important projects I’ve been apart of. BIPOC and other marginalized creators are doing great work and I’m not sorry to say that I think they deserve to be proud of themselves and come together and celebrate how wonderful they are.

I’m not perfect and can’t guarantee that we will never have a situation where a name is mispronounced but I care deeply about being respectful and am open to constructive criticism and feed back. I’m not certain that some of the legacy awards are open to receiving and acting on constructive criticism from the general SFFH community in the same way.

Q. Two of the Ignyte Awards I particularly love are: “The Ember Award for Unsung Contributions to Genre” and the “Community Award for Outstanding Efforts in Service of Inclusion and Equitable Practice in Genre”. What were your thoughts when you decided to include these Award categories? Because they seem specifically designed to award people for work in the spec fic community that isn’t always recognized.

SP: They are very much designed to award people for work in the spec fic community that isn’t always recognized. Short fiction magazines, professional organizations, conventions, forums, critique groups and so many other facets of this industry rely heavily on volunteer labour. They depend on other people’s kindness and willingness to help. I don’t see how SFFH, particularly the short fiction ecosystem would function without people volunteering their time.  We wanted to draw attention to this work because it has value. No one gets to where they are alone and for underrepresented groups, a lot of us wouldn’t be published at all without others advocating for us. I am nothing without community.

Creating an award for a specific person was L.D.’s idea. I came up with the name Ember. For me the name represents someone who kept working to help and inspire others even when they themselves didn’t have that same encouragement and support. It's important to thank people in the present while we can and not put that off until they get to some lifetime of service achievement age. Why not celebrate them now? Why not say thank you now?

Q. I know from following you on social media that you have some strong opinions about how cons should be run, and the problems with how many of them are run. What are some things you’ve learned from FIYAHCON, and what are some things you’d like others to learn from your experience?

SP: I am going to focus my attention on one specific point because I could write a book on this topic. I think virtual tracks for cons are vital and essential for accessibility. Any con that does not include some type of thought-out virtual component is silently saying we only care about parts of the community that are physically and financially able to attend our event. It may actually be the case that some cons only want certain people to be present at their events. If that is so, they shouldn’t be offended when they are told they are inaccessible or upholding exclusivity or gatekeeping, as the case may be.

FIYAHCON, under L.D. Lewis’ direction, proved that a virtual con could be engaging, educational, entertaining, and accessible. Flights of Foundry also runs a multi day, completely virtual convention that is time zone accessible to participants all over the world. Over the past couple of years, I’ve listened to many seasoned in person convention attendees bemoan the fact that virtual conventions don’t have the same atmosphere or dynamic as their beloved in-person events. There has also been a lot of talk around making virtual conventions feel like in-person ones.

My question in response is: Why should a virtual convention feel like an in-person convention? It is not an in-person convention. With FIYAHCON being the first event I was able to attend because of accessibility, like many of the attendees, I had no idea what an in-person convention felt like. Further, many in-person convention spaces are not physically or financially accessible for people in North America and around the world. Many are not welcoming to BIPOC. I understand wanting to get together with old friends in real life but then perhaps you should call the event: “Old friend get together” instead of “convention”. Shrugging off virtual components shuts out so many people from participating in community.

If conventions care about diversity and inclusion, they should bring in people who know how to plan and run virtual events and listen to their advice and opinions. I am baffled at how backwards looking and resistant to incorporating technology SFFH convention culture is, especially since the community it serves is interested in speculating about the future.

Please keep supporting and having virtual programming alongside in person events so that people who have been historically excluded can participate! You can do it, if you try! *steps off soapbox*

Q. You’ve been involved in a lot of different work behind the zines, for example as a slush reader at Shimmer. What advice would you give to someone else who might be interested in getting involved with a zine, or a writer’s organization, or breaking new ground like you’ve done with Ignyte?

SP: I think doing community work in any capacity is rewarding and educational. It’s important to consider how much time you have to devote to whatever project or organization you want to join and what your goals are regarding the experience. You have to be honest with yourself about how much work you can balance.

I learned a lot from reading slush. As a person who’s never had a regular critique group and had never been part of a writing workshop, being a first reader helped me learn to identify the strengths and weaknesses in other people’s fiction and articulate those in a concise way. When I first started reading slush, it required a lot of my time. That time commitment lessened as I learned to recognize which stories fit Shimmer’s aesthetic.  That said, while I was reading slush, I didn’t get a lot of my own writing done. I was okay with that back then because I was absorbing so much. Having that bit of a fallow period helped me be a better self editor.

Regarding running larger projects such as the Ignyte Awards: We need people who are willing and able to do ground-breaking work. It’s one of the ways change happens and the industry evolves. That said, when you run an event like this, the time commitment is significant, and you have to have a handle planning out your schedule months in advance. You have to be creative and good at thinking on your feet and problem solving because nothing ever goes according to plan when you’re trying to organize an event. You have to be patient and respectful when dealing with people and be prepared to work in a team. You have to be prepared for individuals to not take you seriously at first because you are not a traditionally lauded or respected event with a venerated history. The best way to stay on course with all these considerations swirling around, I find, is to make sure you believe deeply in the goal you are working toward. Knowing that the Ignyte ceremony will be a moment of joy for everyone is what gets me through all of the other hard work.

With that in mind, I want to emphasize that you don’t have to do something ground-breaking by yourself to have a positive impact in the community. Everything counts. I tend to have big ideas that I want to implement and announce them loudly but helping out with smaller things that take less of your time is valuable and appreciated. We have a small team with the Ignyte Awards that helps with emailing and vetting nominations. This doesn’t require a large time commitment and is crucial to putting together our ballot. I have to thank Eboni Dunbar and Leah Weyland for their assistance with this because I couldn’t do that by myself.

Finally, I’ll say if someone wants to be involved in a zine or a project or organization that they care about and isn’t sure how they can join in, you can always just ask. Contact them and ask respectfully if there is anything that you can do to help. Whenever I’ve asked if I could join or help out people have always responded enthusiastically. A lot of the time I put out a question on twitter and get several responses as to how I can get involved.

Q. How has your view of the speculative fiction community, such as it is, changed since you decided to get more involved in the “business” side of things? There are a lot of barriers, and lot of built-in biases, on every level in this business. What are your thoughts on that?

SP: My thoughts are: Yes there are a lot of built-in biases everywhere on many intersectional axes and barriers. I’d like to see more representation. I’d like to see editors, magazines and publishers move towards embracing Non-Western Story telling modes. I’d like for them to go beyond repeating: “I want an active protagonist” because their definition of active is very narrow and limiting. I’d like to see more diverse acquiring editors at magazines and publishing houses. It’s not enough to have diverse slush readers when the person who has the power to buy the stories has a very narrow view of what constitutes a good story. I’d like to see more diverse con chairs so that diversity is baked into every con space.

That said, I think change is happening and I am hopeful. I’m seeing so much great work being published. I’m going to point to F&SF. Before, as a writer, I had zero hope of ever being published in F&SFbecause the editorial vision was extremely biased towards white western story telling. Yes, BIPOC were published by that magazine, but those numbers were low.  Under Sheree Renee Thomas, the representation in the magazine has increased. People who never wanted to submit to F&SF because they had no hope, some people who are fantastic writers and who had been submitting for twenty years are finally being published. Everyone is benefiting from this change in editorial vision.

Workshops are becoming more diverse. They are offering online options. There are more grassroots groups getting together to help each other. Some conventions are moving past basic diversity panels. The community is trying and I give them credit for that. I have a lot of opinions on what can be improved but as I said earlier in my answer about the Ember Award, it’s important to acknowledge the work people are doing now. There is much good in the SFFH community. I am grateful for it.

Q. Is there any advice or insight you’d give to your younger self after all the experience you’ve gained?

SP: Honestly, I’d just hug my younger self. I think to give myself advice would imply that I could have saved time or done something differently and I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I’m happy with where I am with my writing work and my other community projects. But sometimes even when you are working towards a worthy goal, you can become tired or discouraged and feel lonely. I wish I could have kept myself company during those times.

Q. What is something about your job with Ignyte you think most people DON’T know, but which is a major part of it when you’re active behind the scenes?

SP: I deal with most of the people/public facing work with the Ignyte Awards. That means I supervise the inbox, draft a lot of the communication emails, organize and communicate with the jury members, and answer questions or pass questions that I can’t answer on to L.D. Lewis. I also write the first draft of the script and go over it with the host and practice pronunciation with them.

Perhaps it would be surprising for people to know that I spend time assuring nominees that they are in fact eligible for the award and deserve to be nominated. I also help them with nerves or anxieties related to writing a speech and the possibility of having to deliver that speech. For the record, no one is required to give a speech. We would never force anyone to do something they weren’t comfortable with but sometimes people need to hear: The viewers will love whatever you have to say, as a form of encouragement and reassurance. Sometimes they need a mental hug!

Q. To turn toward the writerly side. You write horror and dark fantasy, and one of your stories, “Laughter Among the Trees” was just included in a Best of Dark Fantasy and Horror anthology. You have a short story collection coming out, and your book “Countess” is coming in 2024. Tell us a bit about these upcoming projects.

SP: Yes! My short story collection “Skin Thief” will be published in the fall of 2023 by Neon Hemlock Press. It includes a lot of my previously published work such as “Laughter Among the Trees” along with a 10K word unpublished novelette called “Kill Jar”. “Kill Jar” is a queer gothic tale set on an isolated estate in rural Ontario. It has green houses, snakes and a girl uncovering a dark family secret! The collection is very representative of the short work I’ve been producing over the past five years and has an arc and theme. Here is my pitch for the entire collection for those interested:

“Skin Thief” is a dark fantasy/horror short story collection. The book is named for a group of characters that appear in the collection’s first story, “The Pull of the Herd”. The stories feature queer women of color grappling with the complexities of identity, racism, immigration, oppression and patriarchy. Themes such as nature, gothic hauntings, Trinidadian folklore and shape shifting are interwoven throughout and are used to explore these struggles. The order of the stories in the collection mimics the peeling away of an assimilated Western identity or skin. Stories at the beginning of the book are set in Canada and are written in Canadian English. As the reader moves through the collection, the Canadian voice and settings gradually fade. The middle of the collection is composed of diaspora stories such as "Laughter Among the Trees" which contain some Trinidadian English. The last section of the collection features stories set in Trinidad with larger portions of dialect. Samantha, the narrator of the final story, entitled “Douen”, narrates in full Trinidadian dialect. Thus metaphorically, the collection reenacts the process of shedding a stolen or assumed identity, mirroring the themes of the individual stories themselves.

“Countess” my novella, will be published by ECW press in spring 2024. It is a queer, Caribbean, Count of Monte Cristo retelling, space opera. I love this little book very much and feel it is the story I’ve lived my whole life to write. I have never read or watched a space opera with an indo-caribbean woman as the protagonist so in many ways, this may be me breaking new ground on the publishing front. Even if it isn’t, I put my entire heart into it. Here is my elevator pitch for it!

Virika Sameroo lives in colonized space under the Acerbot Empire, much like her ancestors before her in the British West Indies. Working hard to rise up the ranks of the empire's merchant marine, she's finally become the first lieutenant of an interstellar cargo ship. But her captain falls ill under suspicious circumstances and Virika must salvage the mission and the shipment of iridium that is integral to the functioning of the Empire's military fleet. When she returns to the capital, Virka is arrested and charged with treason despite her lifelong loyalty to the empire. This sets her on a path of revenge where she will confront personal trauma, intimate betrayal and prejudice as the fate of her people hangs in the balance.

Can’t wait to read that collection and that novella. Huge thanks to Suzan Palumbo for doing this interview!


About Behind the Zines:

In this interview series, I talk to people working behind the scenes at various speculative fiction publications. My goal is to highlight the work that goes into keeping these publications alive, and to share insights from the people doing that work. Each interview is available exclusively on my Patreon for one week, and is then posted here at Maria's Reading

If you want to support my work, check out my Patreon or Ko-Fi.


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