Monday, December 16, 2013

Calling all geeks! Your King Dennis Upkins has arrived @ Twinja Book Reviews!

By far, Twinja Book Reviews' longest interview ever! When it comes to the marginalization of any non "default" group, you can bet author "Dennis Upkins" has something to say about it. He refuses to be silenced, and between writing his new novel, standing up for injustice, and leaping from tall buildings in a single bound, Dennis has found time to sit down with the Twinjas!

1. Good evening Dennis Upkins. Why don’t you let readers get to know you, tell us a little more about Dennis Upkins, the person, and Dennis Upkins, the author.

My name is Dennis R. Upkins, I’m a speculative fiction author who pens YA, urban fantasy, superhero fiction. My stories usually feature minority protagonists. I’m also a equal rights and social justice activist. I regularly analyze media and its portrayal of women, people of color, LGBTQs, and other minorities on my website,Dennis Upkins Official SiteArs Marginal Blog and other spaces.

I guess I could be described as a shy serious awkward and precocious thinker who lives in his head. Or as it states on my Twitter page, novelist by day, nerd seraph by night. LOL!!!!!

2. Your first book "Hollowstone" has been out for a little more than two years. How did you go about publishing your first book? Did you find it difficult to pitch seeing as how your main character isn't a White cis-gendered straight male?

The story behind publishing my first novel is almost as fantastical as the novel itself. I was at a crossroads of sorts in my writing career. While I had made a few sales, most notably my audio short Stranger Than Fiction, the market was imho not where it needed to be for it to be worth my investment of time and energy. A few of said reasons were recently mentioned and explained in this article (SFWA-Five things you have to know link).

At that point I decided it was time for me to try my hand at penning the proverbial “Great American Novel.”

It was also when I learned of the National Novel Writing Month challenge which takes place annually in November. The idea is that with 50,000 words, you’ve either completed a novel or have written a good portion of it. Famous novels that are roughly 50K include Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Great Gatsby.

And speaking of The Great Gatsby, it was one of those elite books that had a profound impact upon me as a teenager. Which says a lot because the Harlem Renaissance and a few other exceptions not withstanding, I’m generally not a fan of American Lit. And in many respects Hollowstone is a modern day reimagining/homage of the Fitzgerald saga. 

The plan was simple. Write 2,000 words a day. That way I would have a buffer in case something happened and I couldn’t write that day. At the time, I was working two jobs and was in the process of moving and it seemed like every possible hurtle was thrown in my path.   In spite of everything, I was triumphant and hit the 50K with a few days to spare.

I took some time off from Hollowstone to recharge my cells and returned to it a few months later. I finished the novel, revised, edited, polished, and began shopping the novel around to agents and publishers alike.

I wish I could say that all of the rejections were legitimate. To be fair, some of them were: while a great story, not a a fit for our niche; we just bought a story like this a month ago, etc.

However given the infamous episodes of racefail that have transpired in the last few years alone in the industry, having a story where two of the three main players were characters of color and bisexual, I was all but committing career Seppuku.

I knew what I was signing up for. I refused to compromise myself or my work. 

To quote one infamous lyricist, “It ain’t even about the dough. It’s about being down for what you stand for, Yo.”

So I planned accordingly.

One of my key strategies was searching for markets that didn’t just tolerate marginalized voices but welcomed and celebrated them. And that’s how I came upon Parker Publishing. Their tagline is what sold me: Quality Fiction For Readers Of Distinction. The late L.A. Banks is among the talented names that can be found on their roster.

I remember when I submitted to Parker, I kept saying to myself, if I get picked up by a publisher, I truly hope it’s someone like them. Their mission statement epitomized not only Hollowstone but the stories I’m trying to tell.

Nearly a year had passed and I hadn’t heard anything from Parker or anyone else. I was facing some other life decisions. I was working in a call center at the time and that job was hell on a good day., I was stuck in a town that I desperately wanted to escape and my writing career wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I was searching for purpose. I wanted to travel abroad, I wanted to gain new experiences and some new skills. I wanted to make a lot more money and save up in the hopes of leaving the states for good. I was looking at the military with the aims of becoming an Air Force officer. 

It should be noted that Don't Ask Don’t Tell was still in effect and I was facing the decision about having to return to the closet.

Approximately two weeks before I was scheduled to sign my enlistment papers, Parker contacted me and informed me that Hollowstone had been accepted and they wanted to publish it.

The timing of it was too significant to be a coincidence. It was as if fate was intervening and informing me of my calling to be a writer, an artist and a storyteller. 

Editor Kymberlyn Reed and Publisher Miriam Pace have been amazing and I will forever be grateful to both of them for the opportunities they’ve blessed me with.

Publishing a novel without a straight cis-gendered white male lead while often difficult is not impossible.

3. You are a proud member of the LGBTQ community. But from my experience in looking for books, especially in SFF, most of the protagonists who are queer, are almost always white, or a stereotype. You have your own version of the "Media Litmus Test." Can you tell us more about what made you decide to create your own?

Create my own queer protagonists or Media Litmus Test? I’m sure you were probably referring specifically to the latter but because both issues are interconnected, I think it’s important to examine both. 

They say necessity is the mother of all invention. For me it was certainly the reason I vowed to start featuring more diverse queer protagonists in my narrative. One of the things that was heartbreaking about going into a bookstore or venturing into the book section of a grocery store is that it’s Mission Impossible when it comes to finding a black Harry Potter, a gay Artemis Fowl, or a trans Katniss Everdeen. Instead we’re subjected to the same old, same old. Epic adventures of cis-straight white people for cis-straight white audiences.

Unfortunately the gay markets aren’t much better. While there are some gems out there, you really have to pull a Veronica Mars to find them. It’s not shocking that most portrayals of queer characters are almost always white and/or a stereotype. To understand that failed mindset look no further than the agenda of (read white) Gay Inc. Advertisements usually only feature cis white queers and the erasure is so outrageous that many whites are often dumbfounded when I explain to them that being a person of color and an LGBTQ is not mutually exclusive. 

Despite the fact that teen homelessness, job protection, and violence against trans people continue to be pressing issues, Gay Inc. opts for assimilationist politics and tries to qualify the gay marriage as the end all be issue for all queer people. Given that legalizing gay marriage would primarily benefit middle to upperclass white queers and over 73 precent of the hate crimes reported are against LGBTQs of color, I’ll let you do the math.

And if that kind of exclusion, racism, classism and transphobia is happening at the national level, needless to say this kind of rot can also be found in gay markets as well.

About a year ago, a white gay publisher reached out to me and invited me to to submit to a Civil War anthology because he wanted more diverse voices. This was wonderful and I felt honored. Until I was instructed to make the story straight because if I included the gay, he couldn’t accept it. In other words my blackness was welcomed to bring the flavor but he had a gay quota to consider and I don’t count.

I late read an interview where he was promoting this anthology and a reader rightfully took him to task and ask why didn’t the anthology feature a more diverse collection of authors. He just couldn’t understand why the colored writers didn’t want to work with him but he tried his best.

The sad part is that was one of the better scenarios I’ve endured. The really sick reality is that many gay titles being churned out (particularly those written in M/M romance genre) are not being produced by gay or queer people. No these cultural appropriating creepy heterosexist fetishistic bile is being spewed by cis-straight white female authors (many of whom impersonate gay male authors for “authenticity”) for cis-straight white female consumption.

I have a serious problem with that, especially given that it’s next to impossible for me and mine to have our voices heard. I have no issue with a white straight female author portraying marginalized lives if it is done with respect. In fact, a buddy of mine is very inclusive in her narratives, makes a valiant effort to get it right with marginalized and does so.

But anytime an industry, an organization is supposed to represent a marginalized group but it is comprised and ran by those of privileged variety, it will not end well……at all.

A gay literary genre being primarily comprised and ran by cis-straight white women is akin to say a feminist movement being run by men for men or an anti-racism initiative being populated and operated by whites. Recipe for disaster. That’s why equality isn’t enough. We have to have resources and opportunities to stand independently and on equal footing. Because when the privileged majority still have the power, inevitably equality comes with conditions and conditional equality is not equality at all.

This is why I’m dedicated to introducing diverse and sophisticated LGBTQs and /or protagonists of color. This renewed commitment to multicultural and progressive media is what led to the creation of My Media Litmus Test.

I always appreciated the idea behind the Bechdel Test and I wanted to do something in that spirit that was custom fitted for me. The Media Litmus Test is a set of questions I’ll ask before I even entertain watching a television show, movie, reading a novel, a comic book, etc.

Question 1: Is the lead or central protagonist a person of color?
Question 2: Is the lead or central protagonist an LGBTQ?
Question 3: Is the writing exceptional? And by exceptional, I mean would I as a fellow storyteller be impressed taking notes? By exceptional, I mean is it on some Octavia Butler, Shondra Rhimes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joss Whedon, Russell T Davies, JK Rowling level of exceptional?
Question 4: Is there eye candy? Because if the eye candy of a potential future hubby is pretty enough I might be willing to overlook a lot but there better be some smoking eye candy?
Question 5: Does this project feature Gina Torres in any shape or fashion. Because if the Goddess herself is involved, game on!
If said media cannot provide an affirmative for any of these five simple questions, then it is simply not worth my time. You would be amazed at how much junk is eliminated by these five simple questions. And while it may require me to do some a little more footwork, the payoff is more than worth it. For me it’s been a diversity renaissance of sorts. I’ve come across  some amazing web shows such as the Unwritten Rules, Ask A Slave, the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, Mortal Kombat Legacy. This year alone, I celebrated the triumphant return of black comic book protagonists when my man the Rock held it down as Roadblock in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. For that matter Vin Diesel, the Rock, Michelle Rodriguez and the rest of the Fast & the Furious crew broke box office records.
My television viewing time is usually reserved for those special ladies in my life: Olivia Pope, (Scandal); Nikita; Aria, Spencer, Hannah and Emily (Pretty Little Liars); Melinda May  and her partner in crime Agent Phil Coulson (ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD); I’m rocking out my summers with Teen Wolf. My reading time is being reserved for titles like Archie’s Kevin Keller, Gail Simone’s the Movement, Ankhesen Mie’s Selo & Inya, Scott Tracey’s Witch Eyes series. And that’s when I’m not rewatching Martha Jones centric eps of Doctor Who, the Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood, or rereading Storm-focused X-Men graphic novels,  the Midnighter solo series, or the epic Cassandra Cain run of Batgirl.
On top of all of that I’m having a blast creating my own work. One thing I’m certainly not doing is enduring endless abuse and microaggressions of racism, misogyny, queerphobia, and shoddy writing from inferior works like the Misadventures of Cis Straight White Dude and His Token Sidekicks. 
The Media Litmus Test has been a godsend and I’ve been a happier person ever since.
4. I've read articles from authors I like who are gay, a person of color, or both, who have mentioned being resentful when a person who is not gay or marginalized, they tend to get praise for something authors of color or who are queer have been doing naturally for much longer. Do you think the publishing industry is more accepting to authors whom are white, cis-gendered, straight, able bodied, than those who aren't? Why do you think that is if you do, or not if you don’t?

Oh absolutely. In fact, that goes without saying. Tim Wise has made a successful career ripping off the anti-oppression works and strategies of PoCs. While many whites will line around the block to hear him rehash our truths, those same liberal caucasians can’t be bothered to pick up a Toni Morrison or Junot Diaz book. 

People keep trying to qualify Macklemore as the progressive voice and gay savior of hip hop. The same straight white musical hipster duo who ripped off rapper/producer Le1F to create that garbage, Same Song. Yeah Macklemore is totally the game changer because Frank Ocean didn’t happen at all. Oh they say the right things to appear to be progressive. They pay lip service white privilege and racism but note how they didn’t miss a step to collect those AMA and MTV trophies while black artists got blacklisted and blackballed from genres like hip hop and R&B.

It goes back to privilege that is unfortunately still the norm in our culture. It’s mind boggling. 

Sadly the publishing industry is no different. We’ve seen the fallout that occurs from bigots when women and authors of color are nominated for a sci-fi award. Clearly these white fanboys didn’t get the memo on Mary Shelley.

What’s interesting to note is that while the mainstream (read white) publishing industry is still steeped in some serious isms (because where there’s one, there’s usually others), I’ve found that generally non-white publishing markets, organizations, and efforts are not only evolved on the racial front, but also understands the importance of intersectionality and is progressive with other marginalities such as orientation, gender, etc. I’ve seen this phenomenon play out with Milestone Comics, Parker Publishing, Onyxcon earlier this year, and many other examples.

5. As an author of SFF, do you consciously create characters whom are apart of marginalized groups? Or is it something you think very little about? Your leading man Noah Scott, if Im correct, is not queer? Did you choose this consciously, or was it just something you didn't think much about?

Noah is actually based on 3 high school buddies. He is not queer and I still catch flack for that to this day because by law or something I’m supposed to write black gay characters and according to some of my beloved readers, he and Cal should’ve like hooked up by chapter 3 by the same logic that Xavier and Magneto were a thing and were totally like totally frakking throughout X-Men: First Class because something something something slash white boys are the prettiest something.

I am firm believer in showcasing and celebrating characters who are members of a marginalized group and thus rarely if ever get any respectful representation. However it’s really not a conscious effort as I often draw from my real life experiences. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to meet some extraordinary individuals, many of whom I’m honored to call friends and loved ones. 

One of my good friends is an award-winning African American trans spokeswoman and equal rights activist. A couple of buddies are serving openly in the armed forces as gay soldiers, which is something they couldn’t do just a few years ago.

My four younger sisters have carried the family tradition in establishing themselves academically. In fact one of my sisters is about to graduate law school and giving her ambition and brilliance, I wouldn’t be surprised in a few years time if she launches her own firm of suited gladiators and/or learn that she’s one of the senior partners at Wolfram & Hart.

I have one friend teaching abroad in Korea and another loved one, this phenomenal sistah, who just got her pH.D and relocated to China and is having the time of her life. 

Another bud of mine is a world class pilot who travels the country having some adventures  with his best friend and spouse who can best be summed up as a live action version of River Song.

The titles of my loved ones range from graphic designers, to editors, life coaches, priests, journalists, fellow pro authors, actors, Pagans, Christians, Jews, scientists, college professors, musicians, computer programmers, models, comic book artists, martial arts instructors, all walks of life, varying demographics, from all over the world. Some of them aren’t conventionally abled, some of them aren’t cis-gendered, many of them are not men, many aren’t heterosexual and most of them aren’t white.

For me, compelling complex marginalized protagonists is not a difficult concept. In fact it’s often art imitating life.

6. Do you find that the problem with the lack of diversity has more to do with the readers or the publishing industry? In your opinion, do you think there are more efficient  ways in reaching audiences that seek diversity?

Easily hands down the publishing industry. Finer folks than me have documented the problems that plague the industry, which include an antiquated business model and refusal to adapt to change. Let’s not forget, there were many people who were opposed to e-books of any forms when they first emerged and I’m not going to even touch the abysmal treatment many self-published authors have endured.

And as we’ve already established, the industry is rife with prejudice, discrimination, ignorance and malice. We do remember that one of the installments of racefail popped off because a white author asserted that fans of color discovered speculative fiction primarily as a result of the internet. Because black people certainly weren't reading or writing science fiction prior to that.

Even though the range of supernatural elements in Hollowstone runs the gamut, the common response I constantly hear from white readers is that a 14-year-old mild mannered straight A Catholic middle class black student is unrealistic, a Mary Sue, and an author insert. Because talented and accomplished black teens are imaginary (even though I attended high school with a few of them) and Noah is clearly supposed to be me, because he’s black and I’m black……and that’s it.

And garbage like this has come from figures in the industry who are supposed to know better. The whitewashing of book covers featuring non-white protagonists has been well noted, and it’s not random happenstance that so few titles featuring queer leads is published. We saw the crap Jessica Verday had to put up with when she attempted to publish a dark gay romance story featuring gay leads. This also goes back to the gay quota nonsense with the Civil War anthology I mentioned earlier.

The truth is readers have made their voices heard at conventions and online and they have voted with their dollars time and time again. They are voracious knowledge seekers and thinkers who are constantly looking to be challenged or at the very least represented with respect. And rather than assessing what’s not working, being open to new efficient ways of improving this industry we all love, most would rather maintain the status quo in an ever-changing world and lose out as a result.

Such is their choice. Doesn’t mean it has to be mine. One of the most effective fruitful strategies I’ve utilized over the years is networking, connecting, sharing resources, and joining forces with other artists, storytellers, fans, activists, and other visionaries working towards at the mutual goals of progression and  multiculturalism. Make no mistake, progress is rarely easy and it’s often heavily resisted. That said, I’ve seen the impact one single determined soul can make. Two, three, a small handful of people, possibilities are endless.

Some of my biggest victories and opportunities were the result of working with other PoC and queer authors and cross-promoting each other’s work. I also joined some online forums, networked, and more than once found myself connecting with some significant players who would be an invaluable resource later. We can’t wait for an industry to fix itself. You’d be better off waiting for Godot.

See what I did there?

7. You're extremely active in the social network world. Makes us want to take tips! Between juggling Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and Facebook pages, are there any presences online, or hashtags that really spoke to you and why? 


Black Twitter reminded the world several times this year alone that black power is undeniable and to attempt to deny said power is to set yourself up for failure. While I’m still learning about them, I have to say I’ve been impressed with Anonymous and the actions they’re taking to fight back against Institutional Oppression so to speak. On a personal note, I’m always honored and humbled when any of my posts go viral and get a lot of love (and some threatening stalking hatemail) for telling the truth and shaming the devil. 

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen was the shot heard around the world and one that’s been long overdue. Bigoted white feminists are finally being called out for moving heaven and earth to undercut and sabotage the work of women of color, PoCs, trans women and other queer folks all the while working to get a seat at the Oppressor’s Table.

Whether it’s the Myth of Black Homophobia guest post (The Myth of Black Homophobia Guest Post), Geek Culture Is For White People (Geek Culture is for White People link) or even my review of Man of Steel (Man of Steel review link) which I was honored that my buddy Gail Simone gave it a shoutout.

One of my proudest accomplishments this year (aside from releasing another book) is launching the Black Folks Being Awesome initiative on Facebook. Black Folks Being Awesome Facebook Page!

It’s just as crucial to control our narrative, to celebrate our accomplishments, cut down monsters with swords of truth. Simplest truths can destroy the machine, hence me also launching the hashtag #FactsAreMagic this year. You would be surprised at how a little knowledge and wisdom can alter courses and reshape landscapes or have you feeling like a young black Albus Dumbledore. Because while they may kill or imprison a man or woman, they can never kill an idea, or a deeper truth. The truth is the world is changing. The old gods are dying, but they aren’t going without a fight and things are probably going to get worse before they get better. But change is upon us.

The internet has been a key factor. It’s allowed people who wouldn’t have otherwise met to connect, trade ideas, information and pool resources. With PoCs being armed with information, ideas and inspiration, it’s threatened many whites because they can no longer silence minorities in the way they could have done once before. 

PoCs are now using the internet launch comic books, e-book companies, short films, web series, all the while Hollywood is hemorrhaging money because they refuse to acknowledge that diversity and multiculturalism isn’t just morally right but good sound business. So many of these execs are scratching their heads wondering why another poorly written movie featuring straight white people tanked while PoC media is thriving online, on television and in film in spite of an industry and a society actively working against marginalized people.

When young black kids learn that there are in fact black chess prodigies who have set world records, that will inspire and empower them.  To see another day in an oppressive society is a feat in and of itself. Sometimes what people need more than anything is hope. It doesn’t have to be an amazing leader becoming the first black president of the United States,though that also rocks and then some. 

That’s what Black Folks Being Awesome represents. We are celebrating us, our history, our culture, our accomplishments, our seemingly infinite accomplishments, our diversity: young, old, LGBTQ, rich, working class. We’re doing the impossible all over the world. Sometimes that bit of gospel is the just what a weary soul needs. 

What has been amazing is that I have not had to look far for stories. Many of them I just happen upon in my normal day to day routines and there are some that wonderful friends like my good buddy Lola sends in regularly.

I’m so happy to see so many people enjoying the posts and the stories. We’re talking about a vastly diverse readership and demographic who are happy to learn about our history, culture, and legacy.

I had no idea this endeavor would be as successful as it has been in such a short of amount  of time. I will say this. These posts and updates have me convinced that Wakanda may just become a reality far sooner than we think.

8. We also notice you are a royal member of geekdom! Give us ten words or less that make you worthy of such nobility!

You need only check this Evil Regal’s receipts and note the A-list company he keeps. Case in point: The Twinjas.   ;-)

I’m aware that’s over 10 words. I reject your edicts. I am nobility that way. MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHA

9. I for one, would love to see more POC queer characters as leading protagonists. Please tell us your next project "West of Sunset" features this?!? 

Well……I would tell you that. I suppose technically I could tell you that. Oh I am so  going to tell you that LOL. West of Sunset is my sophomore title from Parker Publishing. The novella is actually comprised of two stories that star Brecken Everett, a college wizard detective who is also black and gay. Brecken is your quintessential overachiever. Top of his class, a bit awkward, and affable, we meet Brecken at a very key point when he is recovering from a personal tragedy.

Initially West of Sunset was going revolve around Brecken’s colleague and buddy Grant Ness. I had been developing a few stories for Grant and West of Sunset was a perfect vehicle to give him a proper introduction.

Shortly after submitting draft zero to Kymberlyn she and I chatted and she wondered if I would consider changing Grant’s ethnicity from white to black. She made an important point that while white gay protagonists are extremely rare in urban fantasy (especially written by actual gay authors), black gay protagonists are even more rare and are long overdue for some shine.

I had to seriously ponder this. On the one hand, I knew my editor was absolutely right and this was the reason I do the work that I do. On the other hand…part of me was less than thrilled, because of the hell I would catch….again.

You see when Hollowstone was released, I had more than a few white “critics,” “experts” and “authorities,” repeatedly attempt to qualify that Noah was an author insert simply because we’re both black. Not Neely or Ryan, both of whom are queer like myself or Cassidy who is also black, but Noah. And remember I also got flack because he wasn’t black and gay.

Perhaps I’m being unreasonable or even a bit “uppity” but I’m generally not thrilled about having my honesty, intelligence, sanity, or talents questioned by passive aggressive fools and cowards who deem it their life mission to sabotage “race-themed” media.

As a testament to how awesome she is, Kymberlyn made it abundantly clear that it was my call and no matter what I decided, she would support my decision and the project. I knew making Grant black wouldn’t be feasible as there’s too much to his backstory and relocation to Atlanta as a young white gay Bostonian Catholic. Breck, however, would most definitely take.

What was interesting to explore with Brecken is that as a double minority, he’s constantly trying to find his footing in a world where stacked decks and goalpost shifting is the norm for minorities. We live in a society that boasts success is strictly contingent on hard work and fairness. Only that’s a lie because Brecken is often resented and under fire for being exceptional, black and gay.

If Hollowstone was inspired in part by the Great Gatsby, West of Sunset, more specifically Brecken’s arc can in some respects be considered a unique take on the poem, Richard Corey.

Something else I’m excited about is that both stories feature two incredible black heroines who are also a bit of a love letter to the phenomenal black women who have enriched my life.

While West of Sunset addresses some themes such as race, privilege, this is not an issue story, the black gay tragedy pain porn for straight white consumption. Writing stories and creating a dialogues about those issues are very important, however PoCs and LGBTQs also need escapism, fantasy and adventure as well.

The novel is due out this winter. I’m a bit nervous but also excited.

10. Lastly, where can people go for everything Dennis Upkins? This is where you can provide links to twitter and facebook, your blog, the works!

My official website is the best stop for intel on all things yours truly. I try to update it regularly and keep my readers up to date on upcoming appearances at conventions or events; blog posts or news on my next release.

In addition to my webpage, I’m a regular contributor for two of my favorite spots Ars Marginal and Nashville Geek Life.

If you’re on Facebook, you can hit me up here

I’m also on Twitter @drupkins

In any event I’m usually not hard to find.  ;-)

Dennis Upkins reveals his true identity! *gasps* 

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