Conversation with Angel Leal
Angel discusses sci-fi as a vehicle for trans and nonbinary issues, the state of LGBTQ+ in the SFF community, finding socially conscious markets, and the state of Texas
Angel Leal is a Latinx genderqueer poet from Texas. Their work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Rhysling Award, and has previously appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Anathema, Radon Journal, and the Club Q Benefit Anthology “We Apologize For The Inconvenience” published by Beyond The Veil Press. You can find them floating around on Twitter at @orbiting_angel
Angel is also the author of the poem “The Machines Had Accepted Me For So Long” from Radon Issue 2.
Are there elements of science fiction that make it a unique genre for writing trans and nonbinary experiences?
With all my heart, yes, I believe there are. The “what if” of science fiction, the strange speculation so crucial to its storytelling, is challenged by individuals whose everyday lives often feel unreal to them, and whose solutions towards safety are often speculative.
Because of this, science fiction can and has served trans/nonbinary writers in numerous ways. For some, the “what if” comes from a place of creating new options, healing spaces, and far-flung worlds where our lives are not in danger. Where we can be hired to run the generation ship without worrying if the application form only offers the “male” or “female” option. (Just this weekend, I’ve had to choose one of those options to be considered for a position, and I’m in no way alone.) Moments like these make me want to invent characters that live with a sense of agency I might not always feel myself.
Another kind of “what if” story isn’t as much a hope as it is a challenge. When I wrote the poem published by Radon, “The Machines Had Accepted Me For So Long,” I wanted to deconstruct my internalized transphobia and ask myself if the life I lived was dystopian and surreal. If a young person changes the way they speak, walk, and think to match a machine, and does it for so long that their own identity collapses—is it really less surreal to say I erased myself to pretend to be a man? It challenged how I understood myself when I wrote it. But it healed me in a different way than the first option. Both “what if” stories are cathartic to me because they allow me to interact with transness and memories in a way that expands them, clarifies them, and morphs them into a space I can learn from.
Do you feel that the SFF poetry space is in a positive place regarding LGBTQ+ issues?
This is going to be a complicated answer from me, so I want to start with a real example.
A fascinating new magazine called Heartlines Spec just showed up for the speculative world. This magazine wants speculative stories and poems that focus on long-term relationships. That’s already interesting, but they add this beautiful sentence in their guidelines: “We are especially interested in stories featuring queer platonic relationships, ace/aro love stories, and polycules.” How do I express the joy I felt when I first read that? I’m not very vocal about being on the asexual spectrum, and here comes a new magazine that says, “Hey, not only will we take your perspective, we’re searching for it. We need it.”
You might know where I’m going with this.
That line meant so much because it communicated real, direct hope in me—the infectious kind of hope that Anathema: Spec From The Margins also inspires for BIPOC, queer writers.
I wouldn’t be completely honest if I said every SFF market made me feel like this. There have been times when I’ve felt uncomfortable self-identifying in my cover letter or sending a poem to a market that seldom publishes queer writers, let alone queer narratives. (And I do search for that. I read any market I’m interested in joining, but I don’t stop at the poems and stories. I’m interested in the editors. Are there any marginalized identities on their staff? Any LGBTQ+ staff at the helm? What about their guidelines—are there specialized submission periods open for BIPOC, queer, disabled, or other marginalized people? Or, are there any mission statements in their guidelines that openly discuss their desire to champion marginalized voices of any kind?) There’re many ways to communicate this open-minded vision, and I’m seeing it more often than ever.
I don’t want my replies to be too long, but I feel I should mention this too: After reading FIYAH’s vast and incredible #BlackSpecFic Report which examined “the state of representation of Black authors within the speculative short fiction market published in 2021,” I noticed a curious coincidence. Several of my first publications such as Anathema, Fantasy, and Strange Horizons were topping the lists of highest representations of Black authors published, excluding reprints. Is it a coincidence that these markets published an unknown genderqueer poet and more Black writers? I can’t say for certain, but I have a sense that if a group of queer people performed an identical survey to FIYAH’s we might find common ground. We may see that the willful or accidental silencing of one group is a silencing of many more. And we may see that the purposeful attempt to uplift the voice of one group can lead to the uplifting of many more.
How has your experience been seeking out SFF markets aimed at socially conscious work?
Even though I’ve been actively searching for these markets, I’ve also been really, really fortunate. Early on I found Strange Horizons, Radon, and Anathema. As soon as I found them, I felt an intense respect for their vision, inclusivity, and boldness. I dreamed of earning a place in their pages! Then, soon after, I found Lightspeed’s “Queers Destroy Science Fiction” and it destroyed me.
I fell in love, cried, and leaped from story to story. What a brilliant and meaningful anthology! Yes, but I also found another treasure in that book. I found Arley Sorg’s complex essay, “Acceptance” which still informs how I read the work of other cultures and identities to this day. I read this essay before I knew that Arley Sorg co-edited Fantasy Magazine, which I would also fall in love with for its depth, vision, and inclusivity. I submitted to them soon after and received my second acceptance. It was joyous, but I also felt like something was clicking.
I found myself having much better luck submitting to magazines that I truly loved, yes, but also with editors I respected, editors who themselves were socially conscious. To give you an idea of what made me want to submit to Fantasy, here’s a quote from the essay “Acceptance” by Arley Sorg: “I want you to embrace the things that aren’t-quite-you. I want you to appreciate the ways in which someone might be different from you. I want you to value them, to get excited in meeting, to enter into discovery. I want you to learn, to edify each other through cultural exchange.”
I couldn’t argue with a sentiment like that. I wanted to read work from people who were different from me, and I wanted to send my work too!
What queer writing communities have you uncovered that you would like to highlight?
Well, I know one queer writing group I want to highlight! But before I do, I’d like to mention the fact that every con and workshop I’ve been in so far has accidentally helped me cross paths with queer writers I can’t imagine not knowing now. It started with AugurCon, my first con ever! You can imagine the feeling. I’m nervous, I feel like I’m awkwardly taking up space. Then a mysterious person pops up in the Augur Con Discord. T.C. Long? A transmasc writer who cheerfully asks if any queer writers would like to join a queer-centered speculative workshop he’s starting soon.
Are you kidding me? I’ve only needed this my whole life, no big deal. I casually say I’m interested and we start chatting. What blossoms from this chance meeting (at a Con I almost didn’t attend) is one of my dearest memories. We talked for hours about dreams of a space for queer writers to watch each other grow, to build each other up with beta readers that had direct emotional understandings and sensitivities to the queer stories we were telling. We dreamed about this community, sent invites, and people really joined. As more members joined, T.C. and I schemed for months, asking ourselves what we could offer queer writers in a space that prioritized them.
(When and how did I become one of the organizers? Who knows for sure.) One day it happened, and I was happy, and I didn’t know working with others could make me this happy. CALAMITOUS, an LGBTQ+, BIPOC, disabled, neurodivergent group of friends started forming and . . . well, you’ll have to continue reading the interview to find out what happened next.
Do you have advice for authors and poets with marginalized identities just starting out?
The first thing I want to say is people do want your work.
I didn’t believe in my voice at first, and when I did believe in it, I still didn’t believe the audience I hoped for was real. It is real. But I don’t think this audience is found randomly, or not always by the same means that non-marginalized groups find their audience.
To be frank, there’s a practice fairly common among writers that I’ve heard for a while: submit your stuff to the highest paying market, and once or if it’s rejected go down from there. Start at the top and keep submitting. Rinse, repeat. Expect rejections, a lot of them, but try to follow that principle. Eventually the rejections hurt less.
I liked parts of this sentiment, but some things never sat right with me. It didn’t feel complete. Now in my second year of submitting, I realize that this strategy as it is doesn’t account for marginalized identities. In fact, as soon as I entered the speculative field, I realized very quickly that my personal submitting process wasn’t that clear and simple.
I was constantly asking the questions I mentioned earlier: who runs this magazine, what’s their vision, are voices like mine part of that vision, are there any LGBTQ+ stories available here, do they have special BIPOC open windows? These questions informed me just as much as “response times” or “cents per word.” I can’t devalue the power of higher pay and quick turnarounds. How could I? But there were other valuable elements that helped me decide where to send my work.
One of my favorite examples is this very magazine, Radon Journal. When I found them, they only had one issue out and they paid $10 for a poem compared to, let’s say, Uncanny Magazine which pays $40 for a poem. Why was I so excited to send this piece to Radon instead of Uncanny? Because I read Radon and felt a real connection between my poem and their poems. I felt a kinship between them that I couldn’t ignore. Uncanny’s poems were gorgeous, poignant, but also vastly different in tone. Once I finally decided and submitted to Radon, my poem was accepted on its first try. That decision led to being nominated for the Pushcart Prize and now longlisted for the Rhysling Award. I’m so deeply happy I did that initial research because that one sale led me to joining the Radon Discord where I made my first real writing friends.
All this from a new magazine with only one issue? Yes, and it taught me that as a marginalized writer, finding editors that share your vision and want to raise your voice to the clouds is just as valid as checking for higher pay rates.
You helped launch an LGBTQ+ writing workshop called CALAMITOUS. Tell us more!
Ah yes, now I can tell you more! As I mentioned above, I met T.C. Long by pure serendipity. We connected through our shared dreams and found other queer writers who wanted a collective space to work, create, and learn together. That part was settled, but we wanted our space to be more than a Discord and monthly meetings to workshop.
Luckily, our members have had brilliant ideas and skills to bring to the table. In fact, everyone has their own niche of expertise—one has graduated from Clarion West and is adamant about sharing anything they’ve learned. Another member has attended weekly flash fiction contests for years and decided to help us organize a monthly flash fiction contest to both train our writing skills and editorial skills as we choose winners. Apart from weekly writing sprints, which was another popular request, we’ve also begun to develop an elaborate archive of our favorite speculative work from marginalized writers!
The idea is to pull from all our favorite online magazines and search for works from BIPOC writers, queer writers, disabled writers, female writers, and any other voice less often printed that inspires us. In fact, I’ve included some brilliant cis/straight white authors as well because we can learn from everyone! The only real difference is that in this little space, those identities are simply a minority among the marginalized pieces.
Other than that, we’re really trying to include work that can make our heads explode with new ideas and work that we can feel at home with. Our hope is that these combined activities create a real sense of comradery and safety, a getaway place to reignite our passions when the world gets us down.
Speaking of reigniting, I should probably explain the title of our workshop: CALAMITOUS. T.C. came up with this and I won’t alter his wonderful notes a bit.
1. calamite (n.)- a euphemism for homosexuality from the 20th century, derived from the “Calamus” section of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
2. calamitous (adj.)- being, causing, or accompanied by calamity
3. A spiritual reference to “disaster gays:” queer characters who are problematic, messy, and fallible, and so all the more human
4. A call to good trouble and unruly action against the status quo, in the same vein as “become ungovernable”
And that’s our group so far! It’s still growing and solidifying, but I’ve truly loved meeting so many queer spec writers in one place. I can’t wait to see where our little group goes!
Science fiction poems uniquely mix fantastic narrative elements alongside traditional poetry elements like imagery and rhythm. Do you focus on one aspect before the other when creating your work? Or do you let them influence each other as you create your ideas?
For me, the magical or speculative narrative almost always comes first. In fact, I’ve trained myself over the years to never let an idea, no matter how audacious, slip by me without noting it down. Never. Even if I don’t know how I can possibly write a poem about a machine going through puberty, I’m convinced it has a chance to be created. Then, to make it more real for myself—the title or the first line has to make me feel something. I want to feel an intense need to continue it. I believe that a narrative that compels us to finish it, that briefly drags the writer away from the world because this needs to exist, has a higher chance of compelling readers to finish it too.
The poetic elements come second. The rhythm, the shape, even the cadence of the poem come after the rough story already exists in my mind or is scribbled on paper.
Only some special poems happen in one electrifying moment, like a spilling out. Those poems feel like songs in their creation. The sound, the meaning, the story all happening at once. Those are wonderful moments, like opening my backdoor at just the right hour of night and catching a glimpse of fireflies.
Are you more at home writing long form? Or are your poem lengths dictated by each poem?
Before I started publishing speculative poems, my work was always long form! I loved the space to tell a full story. But that changed when I wrote magical realist and science fiction poems. Suddenly I became obsessed with the idea of condensing a myth or a thought experiment to its tightest form.
I was inspired too by Jorge Luis Borges, who loved to condense an entire imaginary universe into a few pages. The possibilities seemed endless to me, and they still do. (The rare exception to this goal of mine are poems I don’t plan, poems that force themselves to continue because their story needs to resolve honestly. Sometimes that search for honesty doesn’t fit on a page!)
What is your relationship to Texas, a notoriously rough place for progressive individuals? Does Texas inspire your writing or do you write in spite of Texas?
So far, in spite! But I will say, despite the political warzone and overall discomfort I often feel here, a part of me can’t help but feel inspired by the expansive, empty land. Recently, I’ve been learning about the queerness of the wild west, and the gay cowboys who once inhabited it. I’ve been listening to the music of Orville Peck and it feels like I am having my own re-evaluation of the roots of the place I call home. More and more, I am discovering that the “Wild West” was dominated by people living on the margins—queer people, single women, BIPOC people . . . . It’s fascinating, and I implore anyone reading this to look into it further. Even though this identity has been co-opted by toxic masculinity, it’s coming to light more and more how queerness is at the heart of so much of this lonesome cowboy history.
Why do you hope to teach middle school English over high school or college composition?
My first dream was to teach middle school because those were years I really needed a safe place and a good teacher. Fortunately, I did have a few very good teachers that cared about us, and I learned first-hand what that could mean for a child. My inner life and my home life were unhealthy, but class was a brief haven with adults that were thoughtful of us. Many of my classmates also struggled with difficult situations like fathers disappearing from their families, anorexia, and body dysmorphia like myself. I have distinct memories of talking one-on-one with teachers when I started fainting from not eating enough. They noticed before I asked for help and they reached out.
Ever since, the word teacher meant more to me than educator. I hoped that one day I could provide that same patience, guidance, and concern for their well-being.
Something to note with this information is the fact that I didn’t come out to myself as nonbinary/trans until I was 31, long after I began my degree to teach 4th-8th grade. With several anti-trans laws that are or are attempting to be passed, I’m not sure how safe or realistic this path is for me anymore. I don’t know. The future is uncertain, but I want to believe in it.
No matter where I end up in the next few years—working with 8th graders or working with college students if I seek higher education and a safer field to express my gender—I still want to teach. I want to be in a classroom.
Do you have a favorite database to find new publications? Do you have your own method?
I, like everyone else, adore the Submission Grinder. What a wonderful and free resource! These days though, I often hear about submission calls on Discord before anywhere else. Friends on the CALAMITOUS Discord always post interesting calls. So do friends on Radon’s Discord and a horror Discord I’m part of. What’s particularly useful is the diversity of these options and the comradery inherent in other writer’s giving us a heads up! It’s fun, and each one of these Discord tailors their own unique submission opportunities to the tastes of the group. At this point, I’ve found a greater diversity of markets to send to from the collected efforts of fellow writers than any single site.