Akwaeke Emezi has won the 2019 Otherwise Award for Freshwater (Grove Press, 2018).
The Otherwise Award (formerly known as the Tiptree Award) celebrates science fiction, fantasy, and other forms of speculative narrative that expand and explore our understanding of gender. The jury that selects the Award’s winner and the Honor List is encouraged to take an expansive view of “science fiction and fantasy” and to seek out works that have a broad, intersectional, trans-inclusive understanding of gender in the context of race, class, nationality, disability, and more.
About the Winner
“Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is beautiful, complicated, magical, challenging, and sometimes vividly cruel,” writes juror Edmond Y. Chang. “Told from multiple, overlapping, and often conflicted perspectives, the novel tells the story of Ada, who is caught between worlds, trying to navigate family, education, migration and immigration, Catholicism and Igbo spirituality, and what it means to be a self, a person. The novel does not shy away from explorations of gender nonconformity (particularly for people of color), sexuality, toxic masculinity, race, mental illness, and trauma. There are no easy paths or answers for Ada (or the reader), and therefore the novel imagines alternative, even radical forms of identity and most importantly survival. I will continue to think about Freshwater for a long, long time, adding it to my constellation of gorgeously intense stories like Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, and Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy.”
On a more personal note, juror Bogi Takács. writes: “Sometimes a work comes that says something you carry in yourself as intimately as flesh and bones, but you’ve never seen reflected in fiction; speculative or otherwise. For me, Freshwater by Igbo and Tamil author Akwaeke Emezi was one of those works, straining against the constraints of Western literary genres and bursting them in a luminous display of strength…. Freshwater gives me hope, room to grow into myself as a reader, and a sense of relation that emerges across continents and traditions; with all our commonalities and differences.”
The winner of the Otherwise Award will receive $1000 in prize money, a specially commissioned piece of original artwork, and (as always) chocolate.
About the Honor List
In addition to selecting the winners, each year’s jury chooses an Otherwise Award Honor List. The Honor List is a strong part of the award’s identity and is used by many readers as a recommended reading list. This year’s Honor List includes nine works, listed here in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Notes on each work are excerpted from comments by members of this year’s jury.
Kylie Ariel Bemis, “Dreamborn” (in Maiden, Mother, Crone, edited by Gwen Benaway, Bedside Press 2019)
“Speculative fiction often tackles the topic of different sentient species meeting, but it usually takes colonialism – and specifically settler colonialism – for granted, and writes from the colonizer’s point of view. The short story “Dreamborn” by Zuni two-spirit writer Kylie Ariel Bemis offers the exact opposite, from an Indigenous viewpoint, and also incorporating culturally specific gender. After a breach in the worlds, the Nahaka people appear in a giant spaceship to occupy the lands of the Seven Nations and oppress the people….Children are forced away from their culture, including the possibility to choose their own gender, and the tradition of the dreamborn, those who transition to a different gender. Ume, an elderly woman, is one of the dreamborn; and she is determined to rescue the children, one of them dreamborn like herself….[T]his story spoke to me and gave me hope like very few others did this year.” – Bogi Takács.
Meg Elison, The Book of Flora (47North 2019, book 3 in The Road to Nowhere trilogy)
“In The Book of Flora, Meg Elison manages to create a broader spectrum of genders than I have ever encountered in fiction (except, possibly, in Raphael Carter’s “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation”). The idea that people are either male or female, while held by many of the characters, is completely erased by the complexity of the individuals involved. The idea that people (or even most people) can be labeled as male, female, trans, or genderfluid proves to be equally dispensable, as Elison distinguishes between many kinds of women, many kinds of men, and at least one main character who falls into neither camp and has their own unique biology. By the end of the book, even the most basic assumptions about gender in this post-apocalyptic world are shattered in unexpected ways. Elison is a master of storytelling; books about worlds this bleak often require the reader to take breaks, but this one was difficult to put down.” – Debbie Notkin
Akwaeke Emezi, Pet (Make Me a World 2019)
“Pet is tender, a deftly woven spell that asks us what it means to be safe; what it means to be saved; what it means to identify a monster, and what it takes to rid ourselves of all monsters. The slim novel is a testament to the often under recognized complexity of Young Adult fiction. In the imaginary [city of] Lucille, all monsters have seemingly been eradicated, and yet Pet, the titular “monster,” has arrived ready to assist Jam in a hunt for one. The experience of reading Jam, a Black transgender teen girl, is gentle and a breath of fresh air. She’s shy, selectively mute, and supported on all fronts by her community, family, and even by Pet. Her gentle negotiations with Pet asking them to be patient and trust her are a joy to experience. …This is a story that treats its most vulnerable with care, and in doing so, releases them from the expectation of vulnerability and transforms them into the basis for a powerful new mythos. – Mariana Calderon
Kameron Hurley, Meet Me in the Future (Tachyon Publications 2019)
“A gorgeous and grotesque collection of short stories, a carnival of imagined futures that are, in Hurley’s words, “really different” from the world we know….With a background as a historian, and insight borne of struggles with long term disability, Hurley writes futures in which the what and how of having a body, and of being a person, might be radically reworked in myriad ways that are messy, meaty, mutating, cyborged, gendered and not so, mortal and not so. From body jumping mercenaries inhabiting the corpses of their enemies to a paraplegic fighting her way across an icy landscape to bring medicine to a plague stricken settlement, from many gendered mages to a probability engine built from a wall of the dead, the characters and worlds of Meet Me in the Future are extraordinarily richly imagined, compellingly rendered and increasingly surprising, strange and moving as one works one’s way through the collection.” – Trish Salah
Innocent Chizaram Ilo, “Of Warps and Wefts” (Strange Horizons, March 2018; reprinted in Transcendent 4: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fictionedited by Bogi Tackás., Lethe Press 2019))
“Innocent Chizaram Ilo’s story “Of Warps and Wefts” brings the reader into direct contact with the ways in which the roles we find ourselves in form who we are. Suppose you were a wife to one man in one life one day and a husband to another woman in a completely different life the next day – and you retained continuous memories of both lives. How would you be the same in both relationships? How would you be different? What would it mean to your children to have interchangeable parents, and would you be the same kind of parent in both lives? The same kind of lover? And what might happen if the lives coalesced? Ilo’s strikingly original short story , which has additional surreal elements along with the role switches, explores these themes deftly and deeply.” – Debbie Notkin
Mary Robinette Kowal, The Calculating Stars (Tor Books 2018)
“The Calculating Stars is as thoughtful as it is charming, funny, and full of hope. I have been a proud badge-holding member of the Lady Astronaut Club since the book’s initial release ….I still want to run out into the street yelling “spaaaaaace!” as I did upon my first read, but now I also do so whilst considering the intersectionalities of gender, whiteness, mental illness, and what it means to be an ally in industries dominated by cis white men. …The multiple faux pas of Elma as she attempts to help BIPOC friends (they didn’t ask for her help), and confronts internalized racism had me cringing, but these moments, along with her growth and acknowledgement of her mistakes, are important both to the book and to the genre as a whole….Elma York’s identity as a woman with severe anxiety in an era where mental illness meant “hysteria” and hysteria meant unfit for science (or life in general) adds an additional facet to the book that I greatly appreciate….Mary Robinette Kowal’s depictions of mental illness combined with sexism feel heavy, authentic, and not always hopeful. They feel real, and yet Elma continues to power through, to literally reach for the stars. For that, The Calculating Stars deserves all the accolades.” – Mariana Calderon
Laurie J. Marks, The Elemental Logic series (Fire Logic, Earth Logic, Water Logic, and Air Logic, Small Beer 2019)
“Laurie J. Marks’ Fire Logic was published 18 years ago, followed by Earth Logic in 2004, Water Logic in 2007, and Air Logic in 2019. The four Elemental Logic books reflect the author’s growth in skill and breadth over the nearly two decades, along with an extraordinary consistency in characterization and vision. The gender aspects of the story arc largely concentrate in the depth and detail of complex same-sex relationships, though Air Logic also ventures into the realm of treating autism-spectrum mindsets as a gender of their own. More subtly, while Marks does include heterosexual relationships in her story, she never centers the dynamics of those relationships, concentrating all of her relationship writing on same-sex couples. One crucial thing these books offer the contemporary reader is a vision of undermining and destabilizing polarized societies, focused on the long hard work of bringing factions that hate each other back into tenuous but respectful relationship – and perhaps that too is a form of exploring and expanding gender.” – Debbie Notkin
Yukiko Motoya, The Lonesome Bodybuilder (Soft Skull Press 2018)
“As a writer and editor of various trans projects, I sometimes feel that there is very little left to say about traditional binary gender roles from a perspective that is not explicitly transgender or intersex. The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a short story collection by Japanese author Yukiko Motoya, translated to English by Asa Yoneda, and it made me examine this preconception. This collection of present-day surreal pieces looks at binary gender roles, traditional male-female romantic relationships, and marriage in a way that still felt novel and biting to me, including shape-shifting gender changes (like husbands turning into their wives and vice versa), a dismantling of gendered tropes, and more….” – Bogi Takács.
Rivers Solomon, The Deep (Gallery / Saga Press, 2019)
“The Deep is deep, full of murky and unsettling characters, land- and waterscapes, and most importantly, ideas. Right from the start, the reader is disoriented, drowning, but slowly the story takes shape, like the sinuous body of the Yetu, a merperson descended from African slave women, to explore race, gender, sexuality, family, community, history, and the environment. The Deep is a thoughtful, creative, and unflinching reimagining and retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” settler colonialism, and the Middle Passage. It is a novella deeply about embodied memory, pain, and violence and resonates with and calls back to Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Morrison’s notion of rememory. The Deep, like Beloved, is profoundly about storytelling, who gets to tell their story, who survives to tell their story, and the perils and catastrophes of silence, disavowal, and forgetting.” – Edmond Y. Chang
Recommendations and more
The Otherwise Award invites everyone to recommend works for the Award. Please submit recommendations via the recommendation page of Otherwise Award website. On the website, you can also donate to help fund the award and read more about past winners and works the Award has honored.
In addition to presenting the Otherwise Award annually, the Award Council presents two annual $500 fellowships to provide support and recognition for the new voices who are making visible the forces that are changing our view of gender today.
The Otherwise Award began in 1991 as The James Tiptree Jr. Award, named after Alice Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. By her choice of a masculine pen name, Sheldon helped break down the imaginary barrier between “women’s writing” and “men’s writing.” In 2019, the Award’s governing body, the Motherboard, decided, in response to community concerns, to rename the Award. The Tiptree Award became the Otherwise Award. (For more on the reasons behind the change, visit the history section of the Award’s website.)
The Otherwise Award, under any name, is an award with an attitude. As a political statement, as a means of involving people at the grassroots level, as an excuse to eat cookies, and as an attempt to strike the proper ironic note, the award has been financed through bake sales held at science fiction conventions across the United States, as well as in Britain and Australia. Fundraising efforts have included auctions conducted by Ellen Klages and Sumana Harihareswara, the sale of t-shirts and aprons created by collage artist and silk screener Freddie Baer and others, and the publication of four anthologies of award winners and honor-listed stories. These anthologies, along with other publications, can be purchased through otherwiseaward.org/store.