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Chatting with J.D. Harlock

J.D. discusses his poetry editor experiences at Solarpunk Magazine, anime for positive male role models, themed magazine issues, SFPA's Eye of the Telescope, and utopian publishing amid a dystopian world.

Chatting with J.D. Harlock

J.D. Harlock is a Syrian Lebanese Palestinian writer and editor based in Beirut. In addition to his posts at Wasafiri, as an editor-at-large, and at Solarpunk Magazine, as a poetry editor, his writing has been featured in New Lines Magazine, Strange Horizons, Star*Line, Nightmare Magazine, and the SFWA Blog. You can find him on Twitter @JD_Harlock.

J.D. is also the author of the poem “Neo-Beirut, Closed City” from Radon Issue 4.

Q: What is your experience as the poetry editor at Solarpunk Magazine, a cli-fi/utopian magazine?

It’s a wonderful experience, and one of the few endeavors I’ve been a part of in publishing that I’m actually proud of. Now that I’m the sole poetry editor, I get to decide what makes the cut. To most it might not seem like much, but because of how corrupt MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) leaders are, that’s a level of responsibility that the 99% here will never have unless we come from the right family or have the right connections. 

Q: As the Solarpunk poetry editor, you list on its website speculative poems that you enjoy, and recent ones that have tickled your fancy. Have you found this information to help you receive submissions that better fit your vision for Solarpunk?

Not at all. It’s strange, but, for some reason, most of our submissions aren’t in the solarpunk genre. That might not seem odd, but most of them don’t even have speculative elements in them. Of course spirituality is an element of solarpunk, and especially lunarpunk, but it’s still weird that most of what we receive is traditional religious poetry that tends to be pessimistic and gruesome. The cover letters included with the submissions tend to highlight how much the solarpunk movement resonates with the poets, so the reason for the submissions could be because I’m from the MENA, and there are certain assumptions being made about my religiosity. It’s hard to tell.

Q: You are unique in that you have your own author subreddit. Have you found this self-curated community on Reddit to be a boon for your career?

Not at all. I was supposed to work on my ‘personal brand’ as an author so that I can make a living off my work, but my country is going through one of the worst financial crisis in human history. Everyone lost their life savings, and it’s compounded by unemployment, liquidity, and electricity crises alongside mass food, water, and medicine shortages. This all started four years ago around the time I decided to become a writer and so my primary focus shifted from a stable career in publishing to basic survival right from the start. From the beginning, I’ve been shilling myself out writing click-bait instead of the fiction and poetry I’d like to write. I’m too anxious over the situation to be as productive as I should be, and it’s hard to deliver quality prose when it feels like I’m always suffocating.

Q: You’ve written articles detailing the benefits of anime that showcases empathy and emotional maturity. What are the best shōnen anime you recommend for adolescent boys looking for positive male role models in a world awash in toxic masculinity?

Not that the U.S. was putting out more progressive material during this period, but generally, the shōnen genre I grew up with is deeply problematic (especially when it comes to the way it treats its female cast) and is deluged with formulaic crap. It’s 90% of the anime imported to the States, so it gave the general public an impression of anime being juvenile soap operas about overpowered troubled teens laser-blasting their problems away with the power of love. I’d recommend skipping it completely and going for introspective seinen anime like Cowboy Bebop and Mushishi. Of course, there are some shōnen works I love. If I had to pick one, it would be One Piece, but I don’t think someone unfamiliar with the genre could appreciate its storytelling prowess and subtle subversion to the formula. And, of course, it also has its fair-share of problematic elements that we all knew were problematic at the time even if we were only kids and the people writing this crap were grown men. 

Q: How did you come to be selected as an upcoming editor for SFPA’s Eye of the Telescope?

All issues of Eye of the Telescope are guest-edited and revolve around a certain theme that the selected editor chooses. I was honestly surprised by the reaction to my announcement, since it made it seem like a much bigger deal than it actually was. Anyone can pitch them a theme with the email listed on their site. It wasn’t a rigorous, grueling process, and it didn’t seem like they were particularly selective. The only concern was that there was a long line of scheduled issues ahead of me, and they seemed worried that I wouldn’t be around in two years to honor my commitment. 

A lot of editors I know mentioned that they first heard about the SFPA from that announcement, and I think they got the impression that it’s as selective, established, and organized in the way SFWA is just because it’s been around for a while. I get the impression that a lot more people have joined recently, so I have no doubt it will be in the coming years. The SFWA has certain requirements for entry, but when it comes to the SFPA, anyone who pays the fee becomes a full-fledged member. If I’m remembering correctly, I don’t think you need to be a member to pitch them a theme. As of writing this, I’ve been submitting to Eye of the Telescope for years now, and never had anything published of my work. Make of that what you will. 

Q: As editor of a utopian magazine, do you find yourself being a hopeful person in everyday life?

No, not at all. I think we’re about to enter the darkest period in modern history. The war the billionaire class has been waging on us was and still is frightfully effective. My country has been in the midst of a great depression for years now. Our politicians haven’t even taken step one to try and remedy the situation. This is why the solarpunk movement is important to me. If we sit idly by and let our corporate-controlled governments handle issues, then we’ll continue to be gaslit while they take what little we have left. The anarchist leanings of the movement promote the idea that we need to take control back into local community hands, and I can’t agree more. 

Q: Has your cultural background informed your work and writings in a number of ways?

In general, I prefer writing about westerners. I tried to shift my writing to fit my cultural context, because I thought that would give me an edge in submissions, but it just ended up confusing editors since they couldn’t bother googling a lot of the references and there was no way to translate them. What’s worse is that some magazines just didn’t want to print stories that dealt with the lives of Arabs and tackled Arab concerns. I was told that my short story “Bahamut and Kuyutha, Tainted” was rejected even though the EiC was pulling for it, because the other editors had concerns about discussing religion in the work. The story dealt with Arab mythology specifically and the themes it dealt with were about the clash between the old generation and the new. I get the impression if this dealt with other culture’s mythology that these editors would not have had these ‘concerns.’ I see a lot of stories that deal with Eastern, Latin American, indigenous African, European, and Native American mythology, and no one seems to have those concerns there.

Q: You seem to regularly show support for the other writers with whom you cross paths. What inspired that, and have you found it to be beneficial for both yourself and them?

I’m twenty-six, but I came into the social media game later in life. I didn’t really have any personal accounts until I started writing four years ago. I never saw it as an extension of myself or a way to connect with friends and family. Most of the accounts I follow are muted, and I follow back anyone who follows me. I just check in to see any submission window or job opportunity announcements. It’s always been a cynical marketing tool for me, so I’m not exactly picky when it comes to liking/retweeting any support for whoever asks it of me. I’ve seen other writers be really stingy with it which I frankly find pathetic, especially if they’re older. You’d think social media wouldn’t have that kind of hold on them, because they didn’t have corporations force it down their throats when they were growing up.

Q: Do you consider your fantasy and science fiction work off-shoots of the same creative branch? Or do you draw an internal line separating your F&SF writings? 

I haven’t written any fantasy in a long time, and there aren’t many completed short stories that I’ve written that are in the genre. I started out there then shifted to SF when I realized more magazines and anthologies were interested in publishing that. A lot of my early sci-fi was in the vein of Russel T. Davis-era of Doctor Who, where it functioned more like magic with a tech aesthetic. Up until recently, the market just dictated what I wrote, because I thought it would give some edge. It didn’t. I eventually moved into writing the kind of anime-inspired cyberpunk I’ve always wanted to write, and these are usually low-tech compared to the American variety, which I’ve never been into. The cyberpunk anime I’m referring to here are Texhnolyze, Cowboy Bebop, and Serial Experiments Lain. I’m in temporary retirement now and trying to sell off the last of what I’ve written, as I decide where to go with my writing career.

Q: As both a publisher and a writer, are you a fan of themed magazine issues? Or do you prefer not to mess with them? 

I wouldn’t call myself a publisher. I’m just an editor, and even then, I don’t consider myself a professional. In general, I don’t have a problem with themed issues. But there’s this tendency in SFF to pick extremely specific themes for niches that no one cares about. This forces writers to interrupt what they’re working on in private to write for that theme because one of the only ways to get ahead in short story writing is to be published in these anthologies and magazines. Self-publishing isn’t really an option the way it is for novels. It’s rare that writers have anything in the trunk that would fit what the publisher has in mind. Additionally, this practice hurts editors too because most writers are not going to write for that specific theme. They’ll dig through their trunk for something that’s kind of similar and send it over,  hoping that it might fit. This forces editors to scrounge through a ton of submissions that are DOA trying to find something that works.

It would be so much easier if these magazines opened up pitches for these kinds of overly specific themes. Also, my love for SFF comes from anime/manga, British-invasion American comics that DC was putting out in the 80s and 90s, video games, and film/TV. I didn’t grow up on genre fiction and I don’t like much of the SFF fiction I’ve read unless it’s coming from literary writers trying their hands at it. I mean stuff like Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Metamorphosis. The themes SFF magazines tend to pick are built around SFF tropes that the community likes but I tend to loathe.

Q: What do you end up doing with the poems you deem too personal and not for the world?

Alas, I’ve never written anything like that. There’s always been a distance between me and my writing. I don’t see my writing as a form of expression, but as a way to explore themes through fiction and cement some form legacy for myself. I don’t think artists should have a palpable presence in their art. I prefer art to stand on its own.

Q: What is your favorite method of ensuring your story’s supporting character’s feel that they have a life outside of the narrative they appear in?

You can’t get away with it in short stories since fiction editors will flag it as confusing and reject the story. But I love that old Star Wars trick where characters reference past adventures we never see or sociopolitical developments happening somewhere far off that don’t directly tie into the story. 

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