2020 Otherwise Award

The 2020 Otherwise Award winner is Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki for “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” (in Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Donald Oghenechovwe, Aurelia Leo, 2020). This novella was a unanimous favorite of the jury. [Note: The winner’s name is given first as it appears in his social media, then also as it appears on the cover of the anthology.]

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

The Otherwise Award (formerly known as the Tiptree Award) honors stories that expose the many ways we experience gender in this world and others.

About the winner: “Ife-Iyoku” is set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war. Survivors gather in Ife-Iyoku, the spiritual capital of Africa’s ancient Oyo Empire, where they are altered in fantastic ways by its magic and power.

In their statement about about this year’s award, the jury writes:

“What could have easily slipped into a stereotypical depiction and affirmation of patriarchal norms among African societies presents itself instead as the struggle of a community in the context of colonialism and colonization, a context that pits the impetus for communal survival against the dictate toward individuality. What does it look like to have gender roles enlisted in the pursuit of a community’s survival against larger, aggressive, unreasoning entities? How does the threat of annihilation further entrench that social schema?”

The jury found much to praise:

“A story that contains everything that‘Ife-Iyoku’ contains could easily have burst at the seams, but one of this work’s most stunning and impressive qualities is its cohesion. In the exciting cinematic opening, a team of psychically gifted hunters battles a mutant, winged, lava-breathing dinosaur. Over the next few chapters, the complex web of the community, its history, its divisions, and its context in the world are revealed, leading us to a situation that shows the disruptive power of a single woman’s choices, and her insistence on self-determination. Not once did it feel like the story’s many themes and aspects existed in isolation. That the story, as much as it holds within it, reads as a seamless piece is a testament to the craft on display.”

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, the jury noted overlapping themes that stood out in the winning work and the Honor List. Like “Ife-Iyoku,” many of the honor-listed stories treat gender in the context of intersectionality — showing how racialized, national, and ethnic identity, as well as disability, affect gendered experience. Several stories grapple with how the world experience of trans men, trans women, nonbinary people, and other embodied entities is affected by the different paths that they walk.

A number of stories deal with queer elders, demonstrating that age does not stop a person from growing, healing, hurting, or being lost and in need of re-forging community and place. Exile was another theme that came up repeatedly, with characters who have been cast out of their homelands and must find a way to construct new kinds of home, with their chosen communities. 

Often, this sense of exile is compounded by environmental destruction, the multi-generational legacy of industrial production and agricultural waste. In these stories, the environment isn’t just a force “out there”—it affects people’s bodies, both physical and political, as well as their social roles. These stories depict people who can wring rain out of the air, build floating cities, transform themselves into clouds of gas, merge with machines, and transcend the world altogether. Human identities do not end where our skin meets the air, but instead are part of ecosystems. And when those ecosystems are under attack, so are we.

Many of the Otherwise honorees grapple with this idea by showing how human bodies are permeable to the environment. This is especially apparent when it comes to characters whose bodies have been rebuilt to function as weapons or hyper-productive workers—a literalization of the ways that patriarchy and capitalism demand that we refashion ourselves as things-to-be-used rather than people. 

The notes on each work in the Honor List are excerpted and edited from comments by members of this year’s jury.

Honor List: 

  • Anya Johanna DeNiro’s City of a Thousand Feelings(novella, Aqueduct Press), a swooping poetic allegory, takes us with trans exiles into battle as they try to enter a city of dreams and wonders, only to be turned away by militant patriarchal villains. Relationships form under pressure, lapse, and are taken up again years later, as the protagonists hide in exile or continue to fight in wars. Finally, new generations are born with new goals, creating their own amazing city, built on the work of the elders who fought so hard to make a world where that was possible. Deeply moving.
  • Isabel Fall’s “Helicopter Story” (short story, Clarkesworld Magazine), which extols the triumphant gender/sex-messiness of the protagonist’s transition into a military weapon, exposes the ways that the military industrial complex can co-opt some of our deepest human social structures to weave our identity construction into components of a bigger machine, a military force. With beauty, depth, and sensitivity, Fall describes Barb’s gendered precision, feelings, fierceness, and relationships built on the trust developed in battle. It is a love story in the mil-sf tradition, one where its heroes, whose identities are tied to war, begin to question the ethics behind that war.  
  • Amy Griswold’s “Custom Options Available” (short story, Fireside Magazine) explores mechanization and gender-modelling in a joyous romp. A retired mining robot chooses gender and sexuality configurations, then cruises for partners. The protagonist then starts to uncover feelings and preferences that they didn’t choose, including a fierce desire for freedom and self-determination. 
  • Sim Kern’s Depart, Depart!(novel, Stelliform Press)follows Noah, whose escape from climate disaster in Houston to a refugee camp further north is complicated by more specific needs for safety and key resources as a young trans man. Luckily, he has a ghostly ancestor for an ally, and a wealth of ethno-familial history to lean on as he navigates his distinct instant of a struggle for a sense of home, belonging, and acceptance that stretches back eons. 
  • R.B. Lemberg’s The Four Profound Weaves (novella, Tachyon Publications) explores the intertwined lives of genderfluid and trans elders who live in a world that hovers between dreams and ancient history. It centers on a nameless man, exiled from his home for moving between genders. He’s on a quest to find an old friend, Benesret, who has the power to weave textiles that embody the four “profound” human experiences of hope, change, wanderlust, and death. Haunting and delightful by turns, the story explores a world of nomads and city-states, magic and art, youth and age, and ultimately what it means to remain friends even as the world and our identities shift like desert sands.
  • Chana Porter’s The Seep(novella, Soho Press), set in San Francisco in homage to Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, takes a somewhat bitter, leather-jacket-wearing butch dyke protagonist into a post-singularity future where alien nanobots ingested as a drug make almost everyone super happy. Her search for meaning and connection takes place within a community indifferently giving up specific embodied histories, to become whoever and whatever they wish with seemingly no adverse consequences, while she questions whether identity can have meaning without its histories. 
  • Maria Romasco Moore’s “The Moon Room” (short story, Kaleidotrope) brings us into a glittering, but gritty, urban world of drag bars and clandestine identities as seen through the eyes of an alien. Trained from a young age to hide her true nature, she takes photographs of drag queens and revels in their ability to be seen—while the pressures of hiding her polymorphous body drives her to drink and blackouts. Luckily, queer joy saves her from a life of hiding—and she’s finally able to come out as the beauty she is. 
  • Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea (novel, Candlewick Press) is an exciting, complex story about a young nonbinary pirate and an aristocratic young woman figuring out who they are in the face of danger. Unable to return to their homelands, pursued by nasty colonizers, they form an alliance that grows into a fierce and wonderful romance. We can’t wait to return to the world of The Mermaid to learn more about these delightful characters, their cool magic system, and the ways they might start to resist a tyrannical empire! 

Award Ceremony: A virtual award ceremony will be held on Saturday, October 30, at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. Details on how to join us will be posted at the beginning of October on the website for A Room of One’s Own Bookstore, which is hosting the event. 

The winner will receive $1000 in prize money, a specially commissioned piece of original artwork, and (as always) chocolate.

Recommendations and more: Each year, a jury selects the Otherwise Award winner and Honor List. The 2020 jury members were Liz Henry (chair), Chesya Burke, M.L. Clarke, Annalee Newitz, and Tochi Onyebuchi.

The Otherwise Award invites everyone to recommend works for the Award. Please submit recommendations via the recommendation page of the 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. Applications for Otherwise Fellowships are currently open. Deadline for applications is October 31. Apply here

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. Most of these anthologies, along with other publications, can be purchased through the Otherwise Award store.

[Based on a press release.]

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