The Otherwise Award winners for 2021 are Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki and Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon. The Otherwise Award (formerly known as the Tiptree Award) honors stories that expose the many ways we experience gender in this world and others. The winners will receive $1000 in prize money, a specially commissioned piece of original artwork, and (as always) chocolate. The jury also shared an Honor List of nine works.
The Otherwise Award jury for 2021 offers the following statement about this year’s Award:
Given the recent literal and legislative attacks on transgender people, it’s no surprise that we the jury were drawn to titles that cut to the heart of what it means to be trans or otherwise-gendered in our world as well as in other pasts or futures. We read stories that focused on what it means to become a fully fledged person in worlds that sometimes do all that they can do to keep their people in tightly constrained boxes as well as stories in which those boxes have been flung open, showing us new ways to be and new ways to imagine relationships between people of all genders. Both winners and each work on our Honor List do so in a way that only speculative fiction can do, illuminating how gender functions in the societies we live in by showing us a world different from our own in big and small ways. At the same time, each of these chosen titles showed us what actual diversity looks like and feels like and sounds like; explorations of gender in this list are not separated from race, sexuality, ethnicity, sexuality, class, or disability. Intersectionality is no buzzword but is brought to life through the characters we meet, whether they are in ancient China, the year 3000, or the Big Donut Shop in today’s LA.
Maybe what grabbed us the most in our winners and honor list titles was the strangeness we encountered in them—a strangeness that entranced, haunted, intrigued, delighted, and stopped us in our tracks—something that good speculative fiction should do.”
Each year, a jury selects the Otherwise Award winner and Honor List of works that celebrate 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, and disability. The 2021 jury members were Rebecca J. Holden (Chair), Anya Johanna DeNiro, Craig Laurance Gidney, Liz Haas, and Ana Hurtado.
About the winners
Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki is by all accounts, in the words of juror Anya Johanna DeNiro, “a joyous novel.” It’s a delightful mashup of science fiction (aliens coming to Earth from another planet); the demonic (a key character sells her soul to the devil for musical prowess); and a bildungsroman (a young trans woman asserts her identity); and to top it all off, donuts play a formative role in the plot and relationships. At the same time, this novel delves deeply into the trauma of rejection, betrayals, family estrangement, displacement, and survival—including, as juror Ana Hurtado writes, “the traumas of being transgender in a city/family that does not accept who you are.”
Juror Liz Haas notes that this novel “feels grounded in contemporary LGBTQ Asian American experiences while also using the speculative elements to expand on and play with its queer themes in an enjoyable way.” The novel upends, sometimes in a satirical manner, Asian immigrant stereotypes of both the model immigrant who is a violin prodigy—cue Faustian bargain with the devil—and the family-owned donut shop—cue the aliens who hail from a distant planet and need the large donut perched on top of the shop to make some kind of galactic stargate. Aoki’s characters, like the themes running through the book, are far from one-dimensional. Jury chair Rebecca J. Holden comments: “I love the focus on music and also how the characters and relationships between characters, all of whom are truly alien to each other, develop throughout the story—no one is perfect and no one, except perhaps the demon, remains static.”
This is not just a story about Katrina, the young trans woman finding her place in the world; but also a story about Lan, an alien woman falling in love with Shizuka, a human woman, who has sold her soul for enhanced musical prowess; and Shirley, Lan’s holographic, cybernetic “daughter” asserting her position as a person and part of her family. We travel along with the characters as they learn what it means to find acceptance and success in the world they have found themselves in. This novel not only forces its readers to think about our notions of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, personhood, and power, but also explodes our notions about what a speculative novel could be and how explorations of difficult and traumatic stories can transform into a joyful song. This novel, borrowing words from its epigraph, definitely has “the right soul” and thus gives us “transcendent song.”
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Rivers Solomon’s novel explores the link between Black and queer trauma in a provocative and dark narrative. In the words of juror Ana Hurtado, it is a “powerful exploration of history and gendered violence.” Resistance to the kyriarchy, that invisible web of multi-vectored oppression, is woven through this taut, cross-genre (horror? science fiction? gothic?) story of survival. The novel grapples with histories of experimentation on Black people and government infiltration into movements for racial justice, exploring these topics with nuance while remaining unflinching about their impact. Vern’s journey to gain ownership over the way her body has changed and evolved as a result of her experiences is a striking metaphor for finding one’s own power in a racialized and gendered body.
Vern is an unforgettable character, whose Black and queer identity is a source of strength against the obstacles, both “real” and speculative. Vern has the resilience of Octavia Butler’s heroines. Reminiscent of the work of Butler, Walker, and, in particular Gayl Jones in its unflinching and sometimes uncomfortable honesty, Sorrowland is written with a fever-dream intensity—that careens from nightmare to moments of epiphany. Vern’s journey as a mother, as queer woman, as a survivor from a patriarchal cult is resonant with the history of the oppression of Black and female bodies.
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.
A Natural History of Transition by Callum Angus
This brilliantly written collection of stories disrupts what is “natural” and who gets to decide what is natural. It’s a beautiful, at times stark, array of magic realist techniques that Angus puts at his disposal to get at what it means to have a body, let alone a trans body. The fabulism is wise, darkly funny at times, and constantly shifting. —Anya Johanna DeNiro
Danged Black Thing by Eugen Bacon
This sharp collection of Afro-Surrealist work takes the reader to near-future dystopic states where the body and tech and magic are all intertwined, twisted, and pulled from the earth. Myths are born and undone from the quotidian and later broken down through a candid and unafraid voice. —Ana Hurtado
The Actual Star by Monica Byrne
This complexly structured novel takes place in three times—ancient Mayan culture in the year 1000 CE, US and Belize in 2012, and Earth as a whole in the year 3000. By the year 3000, all people are treated in the womb so that they are born with both male and female sexual organs, all people use she/her pronouns in honor of St. Leah (who is from 2012), but people can also identify with certain historical gender positions. Sexuality is described by four “preferas”—whether the person prefers to take or give, grip or penetrate, or both, or neither. All people are basically nomads, or in the language of the book, “viajeras,” and families as we define them no longer exist. The book follows the story of two Mayan royal teens just prior to their ascension to king and queen (1000 CE), the American girl Leah who is of Mayan and Euro-American descent and forms the basis of the religion guiding the future Earth (2012), and two people in the year 3000 who represent two factions in the “viajera” world. By telling the story of the origins of this future, Byrne shows how time distorts intentions and choices meant to free humanity from its tendency to “other” those who differ from whatever norm is currently in vogue and gives us much food for thought regarding our conventional ideas regarding gender, family structure, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion. —Rebecca J. Holden
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
Bestiary is a strange and beautiful novel. The frank and yet poetic discussion of bodies immediately struck me, and I loved its magical realist approach to exploring the connections and disjunctures between the immigrant generations of daughter, mother, and grandmother. I always appreciate when fiction uses speculative elements to put into words feelings that are too big and complicated to contain in a straightforward, realistic telling, and Bestiary does that effectively. —Liz Haas
Deep and Darkest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore
McLemore has written a deeply intersectional novel that deals with Romani culture, religion, and trans issues set across two timelines. There is magic in how the author resurrects trans lives that have been erased by history. Deep and Darkest Red is, like the author’s other works, a fairytale for marginalized people. The dreamy romanticism of the style belies complex examination of history, gender, culture, and religion. Though marketed as a YA novel, it has a structural sophistication that will appeal to readers of all ages. —Craig Laurance Gidney
Chouette by Claire Oshetsky
Chouette is an incisive examination of how the pressures of ableist societal structures shape the experience of motherhood, using the brilliant device of the owl-baby to recontextualize these issues. The writing is at turns darkly hilarious and moving, and it’s like nothing else I’ve read this year. —Liz Haas
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Big, bold, and assured about the story it tells—and subverts—particularly about the relationship between gender and power. How much is the body you’re “born into” tied to fate? The interplay between free will and determinism is not so cut and dried however, and as the political stakes rise, so do the costs. Shelley Parker-Chan has written a queer historical fantasy that never relents, and also dismantles the timeworn conventions of white, colonialist historical fiction. —Anya Johanna DeNiro
The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum
In this highly imaginative world, there are two genders—but the genders do not fit into current gender categories. In fact, my brain kept trying to figure out which one was like “woman” and which one was like “man”—without success. The gender roles in Rosenbaum’s world are quite restricted and policed, but also outside of the categories or gender roles we might normally think about. Rosenbaum also plays with embodiment as well as with body modification and multi-bodied-ness, sometimes in ways that are disconnected to gender and sometimes in ways that continue to push the envelope on our notions of gender. In this way, the story plays with and explodes our current notions of gender while simultaneously critiquing restrictive gender norms in this fictional and sometimes overwhelming but fascinating world. —Rebecca J. Holden
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Through a rebel act against a patriarchal ceremony whose folklore roots are heavily linked to machismo and otherness, Cemetery Boys dismantles the brujx tradition to uncover the ways gender is constructed. The transgender young man practices radical hope while fighting for his personhood, falling in love, and, in the process, strengthening his latine community. —Ana Hurtado
RECOMMENDATIONS AND MORE. The process for selection of the 2022 Otherwise Award is under way. The Otherwise Award invites everyone to recommend works for the 2023 Award. Please submit recommendations via the recommendations 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.
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.]