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Conversation with Jenna Hanchey

Jenna chats about the fiction reprint scene vs. academic writing, becoming poetry editor at Orion's Belt Magazine, detangling institutional structures to nurture decolonial justice, and ongoing culture wars at ASU.

Conversation with Jenna Hanchey

Jenna Hanchey is a critical/cultural communication professor by day and a speculative fiction writer by . . . um . . . earlier in the day.

Jenna is also the author of the flash fiction story “Hello This is Automatic Antigrief” from Radon Issue 5 and "Choose Your Own Future: Fascism Series #8" from Radon Issue 7.

Q: How do you feel about the short fiction scene and its treatment of reprints?

Hmm, this isn’t something I’ve thought much about before! In general, as someone who’s published a lot in academic contexts before beginning to publish fiction, I’m still surprised that people want to pay me for my work—and that they will do so again as a reprint is doubly fabulous! In academic contexts, everything is behind a paywall and generally extremely difficult to access, let alone reprint. You can often only get permission to reprint your work in single-authored monographs, and otherwise need to pay the original publisher to have permission to reprint it. That everyone in the fiction world is so supportive of getting each other’s work to a broader audience—and compensating the author to do so—is pretty amazing to me.

Q: What was your experience publishing with Nature: Futures?

My goodness, getting that acceptance was such a surprise! It was my first sale of a story longer than 250 words, and the one that made it possible for me to apply for Associate Membership in SFWA. From the start, I was so excited to work with Nature. And it was a super quick acceptance, too—The Submission Grinder tells me that Colin (the editor) only had it for 14 days! I’ll have to be honest, though, I read through that contract five times before signing. The contract lists the payment as a “fee” and because Natureis also an academic journal, I was worried that I was misunderstanding. But I wasn’t, and I got paid, and now I’m in SFWA! I particularly love the layouts that Nature uses, and the image that they chose for my piece: human and robotic hands coming together to form a heart. I’ve had a couple near-miss rejections since and am hoping to get published there again in the future.

Q: Tell us about your work as poetry editor at Orion’s Belt Magazine?

I absolutely love working at Orion’s Belt! If you’ve submitted there before, you know that Orion’s Belt is one of the friendliest venues in genre. It is particularly known for its encouraging rejections. It’s just as supportive an atmosphere on the other side. Working with the Orion’s Belt team is energizing and uplifting. One of the coolest things is that they help us to enable our latent potentials.

For instance . . . ahem . . . I have never sold a poem. I actually applied to be a Fiction Editor at Orion’s Belt, but Joshua (the editor-in-chief) asked if I would consider being a Poetry Editor instead. I was concerned about my qualifications, but he said that all my fiction that I’d submitted to them demonstrated a talent for poetry that would make me a great editor.

It’s been a little scary, taking this on, but it’s helped me to learn and grow in ways that I don’t think I would have thought I could without that encouragement. And reading people’s poetry is so fun! We’re always shorter on poetry than fiction submissions, so send us your beautiful imaginings! Two insider notes:

          1. The biggest reason poems are rejected from Orion’s Belt is that they’re not actually speculative. We’re always looking for a central speculative element to the poem.

          2. Watch out for media trends! I was drowning in poems about love at the end of the world and killer fungus last year, and I’m guessing it was because of The Last of Us. If you’re inspired to write from a huge popular culture happening, do it! . . . But then maybe hold onto sending it out for a little bit, ‘til the trend dies down.

Q: What Western institutional structures do you argue should be allowed to fall apart to make possible the emergence of decolonial justice?

Oooo you’ve been looking at descriptions of my book, I see! For readers unaware, I published an academic book in August called The Center Cannot Hold: Decolonial Possibility in the Collapse of a Tanzanian NGO. In that, I argue that there’s two Western structures that need to fall apart to make way for decolonial justice—aid organizations and the way Westerners understand ourselves as individuals.

I know that sounds weird—how is my individuality a structure?—but hang with me here. Aid organizations are often based in neocolonial ideas—that people of the Global Majority “need help,” that white Westerners inherently have the ability to give that “help,” and that outsiders can better perceive what communities need than they can themselves. There’s no way to decolonize aid work without those structures falling apart so that something new can be built in its place.

Now, what does this mean for people? The idea I’m working with here is that the way Westerners, and particularly people from the US, understand ourselves as individuals is based in colonial logics. That I’m an individual human, separate from everyone else. That this country is based in freedom, the best country in the world even. That I am #blessed. You might already see how this understanding of who we are sets up people from the US, particularly white people, to paternalistically relate to others. Beyond this though, it’s all based in erasing the violences of genocide and dehumanization and how these are ongoing processes in our contemporary lives. Basically, we have to fundamentally redo how we think of ourselves to be able to relate to others in anti-colonial ways.

Q: Does your academic fascination with ruination draw you into the dystopian genre?

Great question. It sounds dystopic, doesn’t it? But I actually see ruination as deeply hopeful. That is, I feel like it takes a lot of imagination to allow for things to end, rather than holding onto the norms that currently structure our lives. I wonder if the actual dystopia is the space where we continue to accept things as they are, even as the structures we live in cause death and destruction and dehumanization. The dystopia, perhaps, is the labor we’ve done to train ourselves to ignore it, and what that has turned us into. Allowing that system to fall apart is only frightening for those it’s currently working for—or for those of us that have conditioned ourselves to ignore all the death. If we can just imagine that there could be another way, that we could create something better, together, that we have the potential to do so, then ruination doesn’t seem so scary—it’s full of radical potential.

That being said, I do love reading dystopia, and sometimes writing it (though I find my stories end up more hopeful than not). I just finished reading Womb City by Tlotlo Tsamaase and More Perfect by Temi Oh, and damn! Those are powerful books!

Q: How was your experience talking about your book at the National Communication Association?

Oh, my goodness—when the first person came up to me and told me that they had read my book and loved it, I burst into tears! Talking about the book at the conference ran me through a gamut of emotions, from the most heartwarming to feeling misunderstood—which I guess is probably the gamut most authors run, now that I think about it. A couple folks told me it’s the best thing they’ve read this year. One other said they think about the concepts every day. That it’s impacted even a few people this much is all I could hope for. The reactions that made me feel misunderstood came from, I think, the way my book doesn’t fit neatly into academic structures. It’s intimately personal, dealing with the death of a friend, as well as deeply theoretical, and it crosses a lot of disciplines, from rhetoric to anthropology to critical development studies to decolonial feminisms. It’s not easy to put into boxes, and that elicited some interesting reactions.

Q: In October 2023 you co-launched a podcast, Griots & Galaxies. Was it difficult to get the project off the ground?

Honestly, it was surprisingly easy to get off the ground. Easy as in the way that starting a ball rolling down a hill and then realizing “oh shit, I have to run to keep up with it” is!

The biggest obstacle was my intense anxiety that I was somehow going to mess it up. I got a grant from the Humanities Institute at ASU to support a new book project I’m working on called Africanfuturism: Beyond Development (which is currently under contract with Ohio State University Press in their “New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Speculative” series), and the grant required a public outlet for the work, along with the scholarly one. So, I proposed a podcast.

When I got the grant I was like, “oh fuck, now I actually have to figure out how to make a podcast!” I just planned to record it in my apartment, but I off-handedly mentioned it to Bob Beard at the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and he said, “We have a student sound engineer who doesn’t have enough work to do. We could produce that.” And from there it took off! We got Chinelo Onwualu and Yvette Lisa Ndlovu on board to co-host. Ten amazing African authors agreed to be interviewed. We had Dethie Sarr Diouf and Sonja Branch record Senegalese drumming theme music. We got a corresponding multimedia display put up in the Hayden Library at ASU to line up with Black Speculative Fiction month and the podcast release in October. We had a release event at the rad Phoenix bookstore Palabras. I feel like I got caught up in some sort of strange, awesome whirlwind! Working with all these fabulous people eased my anxiety, too. And I think we put together something pretty cool. Check it out, support African writers! I also believe we’re eligible to be nominated for a Hugo in Best Fancast, if you feel like putting in a nomination . . .

Q: Have the education culture wars reached your campus at Arizona State University?

Ooof, thanks for checking in. We’re not at the forefront, like Florida or Georgia, but the answer is: yes, definitely. We’re working in a context where the state legislature is pressuring us to do away with references to diversity, equity, and inclusion in positions and policy. David Boyle, one of our adjunct faculty members—notably, someone who likely does not have healthcare benefits from the university—was recently followed and physically assaulted from Turning Point USA members for being one of the co-founders of Drag Story Hour Arizona. It’s not a safe place to be a transperson, and the one Black woman ever hired in my department is retiring this year, meaning we will have no Black faculty. These things are not just surfacing; they have deep histories.

But! The students are alright! I’ve been constantly impressed with the conversations undergraduates are willing to have if the classroom atmosphere is constructed to give them a context to do so well. We talk a lot about separating action from identity and recognizing that if someone is willing to tell you that you’ve done something racist, for instance, that’s a gift because it means they’re trusting that you can take that information and do something with it. That you can learn and grow, instead of taking it defensively as an attack on identity. It opens possibilities to have conversations and ask questions.

And the doctoral students? THEY SLAY. The best part of my job, hands down. They’re creative and imaginative and going to set this world on fire and I am so, so honored to be part of helping them to do so. I can’t wait to see what arises from the ashes.

Q: Do you prefer navigating the academic publishing industry or the genre publishing industry?

Genre, hands-down. It’s more supportive, less toxic, is doing more to support marginalized writers, and actually gives writers money for their work. I’ve found my people in academia, but it’s taken a long time and we’ve all gone through a lot of violence from various institutions—and continue to do so. Genre has its problems, sure, but I found communities of care here so much quicker. When people come together on the basis of imagination, so much more becomes possible, I think. When people are writing stories that are fundamentally about questioning who gets to be human and why, why is it we’ve structured societies this way and not that way, what makes something a monster, what is it we should truly be afraid of—all these things make for a space where many people gathering in it believe that worlds can be different and that we can build them better.

Now, this is coming from someone who’s mostly navigating the industry through magazines run by authors and fans—I guess I might be more disillusioned if I were trying to sell a novel. There I might run into more of the same structures in big publishing that I do in academic contexts. (Oh hey, do you think the problem just might be capitalism? ;) )

Q: Do you find yourself writing your fiction too pedagogical, or do you keep your writing styles well-separated?

Oooohhhh that might have to be something you ask the people who’ve read my fiction instead of me! I don’t know if it’s too pedagogical, but I definitely don’t separate my fiction from the rest of my writing—or my life. Everything is really intertwined for me. In everything I’m doing, I’m trying to catalyze imagination and action for making the world a place where we all can be free. For instance, I taught a class for doctoral students at ASU last year on “Writing Speculative Fiction for Social Justice.” The class helped researchers who’d never written fiction before figure out how to use that as an avenue for the things they were passionate about academically. And my fiction style definitely seeps into my academic writing as well. I’m a big fan of using sentence fragments for emphasis in my stories, and let’s just say the editors at Duke University Press were . . . not big fans that the style found its way into my academic writing!

Q: What are you working on next?

On the fiction-side, I’ve actually had a really difficult time writing this year, so I’m just hoping to get writing again! I’m a member of Codex and they have a contest coming up that challenges us to write five flash stories in five consecutive weekends, so I’m hoping to have some stories come out of that. I have ambitions to make progress on the novel that I’ve started this year, which is cli-fi high fantasy with dragon gods, queer ghost romances, and a decolonial politic (obviously).

Academically, I’m working on that second book on Africanfuturism, which I’m super excited about. We’ve got high hopes to make a second season of Griots & Galaxiesand are currently in the process of finding funding for that (cross your fingers). My big genre goal for this year is to actually publish a poem—I’ve got some on sub, so we’ll see!

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