Friday, May 10, 2024

Roundtable Interview: Broken Olive Branches

Broken Olive Branches is a charity anthology; over 30 authors in the horror community donated stories to help the civilians of Palestine

Among the stories are:

  • codependent necromancers
  • a spy discovers a supernatural weapon that might turn the tide of the war
  • a Girl Scout troop camping trip goes horribly wrong when dinosaurs show up
  • a child's drawings of their family are not quite what they seem
  • a group of men fighting a forest fire are about to have a Very Bad Day
  • a man is constantly followed by a terrifying shadow figure he calls the Other
  • a young woman's new job at the mall isn't nearly as mundane as she anticipated

Proceeds from the anthology go to ANERA and the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund.

Today, Roseanna will be talking to the editor and some of the authors involved in the project:

Stephanie Rabig has been an avid reader all her life, and connected with horror at a young age. She’s the author of On Stolen Land, Playing Possum, the Cryptids & Cauldrons series, and a collection of short stories called Collapsed Veins.

Aysha U. Farah is a video game developer and science fiction author. She works as a lead writer at Deck Nine Games and in the past has done work for Magic the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons. You can find her short stories in Uncanny Magazine, Foreshadow Anthology, and the upcoming Amplitudes Anthology.

Rachel Roth graduated from the University of South Florida with a BA in English and a Certificate in Creative Writing. She’s the author of the horror novel The Undead Redhead and the short story collection Dead Flies.

Alex Wallace reviews for Nerds of a Feather and has appeared on various blogs and podcasts to talk alternate history. This anthology marks his sixth published story.

It's a pleasure to have them all here to discuss their work, so without further ado, let's see what they have to say about the anthology:

Roseanna: Normally for this type of interview we would open with a question on how the anthology came about, but that feels a little unnecessary here—we all know what’s happening in Palestine currently, and a charity anthology to raise funds for Palestine Children's Relief Fund and ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid) is a very clear response to that.

So instead, I want to start with thisfor Stephanie, what made you decide to start pulling this anthology together? And for the authors, what made you answer the call for submissions, and write/submit the stories you wrote?

Alex Wallace: For me, it was a combination of raw human empathy and the knowledge I have of the situation in the Holy Land. Back in 2021 I did a deep dive into the history of the region and so I learned the contours of Palestinian history (the result of all that was an essay I wrote for the Sea Lion Press blog).

But there was also the urgency I felt when I saw how the region was heating up in October; it was the same urgency I felt when Ukraine was invaded in 2022 (which I raised funds for here and here). Part of it is doubtlessly the stories I was told by my mother of how members of my Filipino family fared under the Japanese invasion. It’s the gut feeling of “people are suffering, and I must help them.”

Rachel Roth: I wanted to contribute to this anthology the moment I saw the submission call because of its connection to Gaza. To not only contribute to a collection that promised to help and support Gaza, but to pour a little of my anger out into a piece of fiction. I also loved the idea that it was a collection of not just stories, but people who supported the people of Palestine. Since this war began, I’ve been in a state of worry because of my friend who lives in Gaza. Zainab and I have been friends for about eight years now and I’ve always been concerned for her safety. Throughout the years, she’d message me, usually in the early hours of the morning, about a bomb that struck the building next door to her or of a colleague that died from an airstrike. It wasn’t just her neighbors, but her family too. Her older brother was killed by an Israeli bullet years ago, and her older sister died at a young age from heart disease. The fact that the Palestinian people get basically no healthcare and have to ask Israel’s permission to cross the border to even get to better doctors likely contributed to that.

Her building was the first one Israel destroyed in the response attack. I still remember the message I woke up to. “Hey Rachel, they bombed our building. We managed to get out in our bed clothes. I’m staying at a friend’s.” There were days when I wouldn’t hear from her, weeks in silence and I’d think the worst. Then Gaza went dark, the internet was cut off, and I went into a panic. The only thing that made me feel somewhat sane during that time was writing a couple of shorts. Basically, rage and pain fueled wish fulfillment. The story I wrote, “Our Land, Our Cave, Our Home,” is all about that, rage. It’s the spiritual beings of the land who have woken up from the screams and shakes of the earth, and they’re angry, they’re upset, they’re in pain at seeing their home and the people suffering.

I was looking for ways to help outside of what I was already doing, such as boycotting and speaking out. I joined a few protests, donated to a couple of charities, and tried to spread information as best I could, but being a writer, I was naturally thrilled at finding a way to help within that subject. This anthology is such a good way for writers specifically to band together and show their solidarity while hopefully spreading some awareness.

Stephanie Rabig: I’d honestly known very little about the entire conflict over PalestineI remembered the Rachel Corrie case, but at the time I sadly listened to the media drums of “it’s just Like That there; the conflict has been going on for all our lifetimes and will never stop.” Then, as things got worse and worse last year, and after seeing footage and hearing stories from people who are actually there… I realized how ignorant I’d been, and I wanted to help; and writing is the way I know to do that. I’ve always loved charity anthologies, and thought if there was a time to try my hand at setting one up, it was definitely now.

Aysha: At the time I saw this anthology call, there’d basically been radio silence in the publishing world re: Gaza and Palestine. Every publication that purported to align its mission with diversity, inclusion, and the project of decolonization were just… silent. Since then, some mags have made statements or proposed special anthologies of their own, but more have not.

My friend linked me to the call for this anthology (since I’d bounced off Twitter sometime late last year) and, even though my genre generally isn’t horror, I felt compelled to submit.

Roseanna: Can you tell me more about where the anthology title came from, and what resonances it has for each of you?

Rachel Roth: When I hear the words Broken Olive Branches, I think of all the olive trees in the West Bank that get vandalized or, more often than not, burned year by year by Israeli settlers. I remember thinking the title was appropriate upon its announcement because right before that was a news story about the massive amount of fig and olive trees that were getting destroyed in the West Bank. It felt like an answer to that specifically. The title creates an image that touches on many levels, the fact that the olive tree is sacred in Islam, that its native to the land, that it’s a source of income and tradition to the Palestinian farmers who grow them. The broken branches are all these things, the land being destroyed, the Muslims facing religious hate, and the Palestinian people that are forced to endure so much loss.

Stephanie Rabig: I chose the title after seeing a heartbreaking picture of a woman hugging what remained of one of her olive trees after a settler attack. The human cost in Palestine is unimaginable, and the state of the trees represents that to mepeople put so much love and care into these plants, years of their lives, and then they’re gone in an instant.

Alex Wallace: The olive tree is such a consistent symbol of Palestine in the literature of the Palestinian people. It is a symbol of this nation, and the title is an allegory of how the Israeli state is trying to destroy it.

Aysha: It’s a horrific image, isn’t it? The breaking of something significant, the trampling of it underfoot. I can’t think of a better title.

Roseanna: Why did you go for the format of a short story anthology—what draws you to them, and to write short fiction?

Rachel Roth: I’m not necessarily drawn to any format, whether it be short, novella, or novel. I’ve written types of all three, but it’s rarely planned. Almost all my shorts just started from me writing and they ended when I felt it needed to end. There’s been a few times where I’ve aimed at writing a short or a novel, but it ends up becoming something else. I've only ever contributed to one other anthology because it moved me, because its purpose was to spread awareness. It was a LGBTQA-themed poetry collection, Smitten, and it really does create a sense of purpose within you to be included in such a creation. Though this is of course on a much larger scale.

Stephanie Rabig: One of my main goals in getting the anthology out was to do it quickly so it could start earning money right away, and I also wanted to represent a bunch of different voices who all had the same goal. Short stories were the perfect way to do that: the project had a short turnaround time, and I know from experience that a lot of authors have an “I love this story but haven’t found a place for it yet” folder, and fortunately so many amazing writers were willing to see if that piece of theirs would fit here.

Alex Wallace: I think there’s something very moving in the anthology format for a fundraiser; it showcases a variety of people, often from many walks of life in many countries, who have come together to benefit a singular cause. It’s my empathy getting in the way, again, and as soon as I saw the call, I knew I had to submit something. It came from the same horror, the same helplessness, that I felt when I read about what happened on the 7th, on the following pulverization of Gaza, that I felt as I stayed up far too late following the invasion of Ukraine on February 24th. On a raw psychological level, participating in these anthologies lets me do something, not just in the anthology itself, but in the promotion.

Aysha: I tend to have a lot of ideas that revolve around a single thing. An image, an idea, a moment, a line of dialogue. Short stories are usually the easiest way to develop something like that.

Roseanna: What draws you to writing stories with horror/fantastical elements? And how do you think those link into this anthology, its purpose, and its themes?

Rachel Roth: Horror is my comfort zone. I live for anything creepy, being surrounded in the macabre and sitting in the mind of terrifying individuals. I’ve always loved horror, my mom loves horror movies, and we’d watch them together as a kid. It wasn’t the only genre, but it was the one I connected to the most. The idea that horror loves to hold up a mirror to society, to people, and ends up showing them their ugliest sides. As for writing it, again, horror is just my go-to genre and the only one I have any real interest in writing. I like to imagine Lovecraftian critters hiding out of our line of sight, the idea that the natural and the unnatural live side by side but is veiled either by being hidden or by ignorance of the one looking at it.

Horrific things live all around us, though maybe not the way it appears in fiction. War, violence, government corruption, famine, death, people trapped in a city illuminated only by the fire of the burning buildings around them, that’s horror. You can take any piece of horror fiction and turn the subject into a very real and relatable one, and even though most war literature and films are never formatted like horror, it very much is so. Most depictions of war are from a soldier’s perspective, or it’s a backdrop to something else. Zainab talked about the ground invasion of North Gaza, about the tanks she could hear rolling through the streets, “They’re a block away.” That’s a terrifying image. That’s horror.

Stephanie Rabig: Rachel is absolutely right; things that I’ve seen happen in Palestinians’ videos would be sneered at as “too graphic” or “gratuitous” if we put them in a book. The scope of some things is so huge to consider that we have to make sense of them through our stories. Many stories in the anthology weren’t written directly in response to the situation in Gaza, but every one struck a similar… vibe, I guess? for me. There’s an uneasiness to them, and though some are more absurd and some are flat-out heartbreaking, I selected the ones that had an underlying This Should Not Be Happening tone, a feeling of someone absolutely overwhelmed by something they can’t control.

Alex Wallace: I’m not actually a horror writer, mainly—I do mostly alternate history with or without fantastical elements. My story is an alternate history short story I wrote for a competition on the Sea Lion Press forum.

But more broadly, a lot of my stories are about terrible things in human history. It’s a lot like what Rachel said, applied to the historical realm. The world we see has whole vaults of skeletons locked away in the closet, and in Palestine, as in other places, we are seeing that closet stuffed full.

Aysha: Like Alex, I’m not really a horror writer either, although I’m a huge fan of horror podcasts and video games, and recently I’ve really gotten into Lovecraftian horror. When I say ‘Lovecraftian,’ I mean remixes or retellings of Lovecraft’s concepts or mythology, or just cosmic horror in general. My dude himself was racist as hell. The stuff I’m into would give him a stroke.

I’m drawn to cosmic horror because the thought of an indifferent, terrifying power that doesn’t care if I live or die has been particularly resonant to me recently.

Roseanna: What are those unifying themes for this anthology, and how do they speak to you/how do you draw them out in your own work?

Stephanie Rabig: I wanted there to be some hope in the anthologyhowever horrifying most of the stories coming out of Gaza are, I see teachers in refugee camps trying to provide some normalcy for the kids; children sketching in the dust, someone planting a garden in a tiny patch of the rubble that remains of their home. Most of the stories in the anthology are weird horror; the “I have NO idea what’s going to happen next but I bet it’s not going to be good” tone worked for most of it (Rick Selars’ story Abyssal is flat-out Lovecraftian!) but I chose the final story (Tower Creepers) for its hope.

Alex Wallace: I think science fiction in particular has a lot to say regarding the situation in Gaza. Let me quote a piece by Kim Stanley Robinson:

“Science fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now. This radical spread of possibilities, good to bad, which creates such a profound disorientation; this tentative awareness of the emerging next stage—these are also new feelings in our time.”

This was about the pandemic, but it works just as well for how human beings work tirelessly to develop exciting new ways of massacring other human beings. The traditional consensus of the science fiction community has had a Whiggish view of technological development, a feeling that it would only ever be used for good. It’s a white-centric viewpoint, from an era when the United States bestrode the world like a colossus, its inhabitants caring not a whit for the millions of lives destroyed by its guns and its bombs and those in the hands of its proxies.

In our world, fancy new technology has been used for great evil. The airplane was almost an adult the day it was used to drop bombs to destroy Black Wall Street in Tulsa. The airplane’s youth was spent razing villages in Europe’s colonies; Arthur Harris, the RAF officer who ordered the firebombing of Dresden, was in awe of how bombs dropped from the skies could level a village in what is now Iraq in forty-five minutes. More recently, facial recognition technology is a cornerstone of the modern colonial police state in Uyghurstan, and has seen increased use in Western police departments (themselves descended, all too often, from colonial occupation forces).

Much has been made of the use of artificial intelligence in more recent wars, such as the ‘Uber for artillery guns’ used by the Ukrainian army. That is technology used for good, in the service of an anti-colonial war of national liberation. In Gaza, however, the IDF has used artificial intelligence in the service of mass murder. Read this article, revelatory in its coldness.

This is a prime example of the saying ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ Much as facial recognition technology can amplify racial profiling, the Lavender system employed by the IDF amplifies the wanton disregard the Israeli state has for Palestinian life. It has given the Israelis the ability to reenact Deir Yassin, Kafr Qasim, and Sabra and Shatila at the push of a button, to provide a coldly concrete realization of the phrase ‘one death is a tragedy, and a million a statistic.’

This system is the stuff of science fiction, albeit one that few people in the community ever wanted to come true. It is the proverbial Torment Nexus brought to life, although capable of destroying far more life than said nexus ever could. This is human ingenuity, human creativity, human imagination at work in the service of an utterly evil goal. The IDF uses this artificial intelligence as something akin to a pesticide, and the Palestinians are seen as vermin (the Israeli politicians overseeing this genocide make all-too-common comparisons to the biblical Amalekites, who God commands the Israelites to utterly destroy, after which they shall receive the Land of Israelor Palestine, by another name).

This is something that I hope science fiction fans pay attention to. We have seen the likes of Elon Musk horribly and perhaps willfully misunderstand science fiction to further their unbridled greed, but now it is in the service of a colonial war of extermination with the full backing of the Western military-industrial complexes, a coalition of the willing to depopulate Gaza. To science fiction writers: your dreams can be twisted to serve evil ends. All too often, science fiction serves to put guided missiles in the hands of misguided men. And I am certain there are still more horrors being tested in laboratories in the deserts of the American West or the Siberian tundra. To quote the rather pulpy game Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 (most famous for the meme of Tim Curry yelling about space), “Who knows what nightmares we have created?”

Rachel Roth: I agree with Stephanie about the way that many of the stories in the anthology have an “I don't know what's happening here” sense in their narratives, but I also thought that a great deal of them had a feeling of intrusion to them. People whose safe places are invaded by someone or something, a person who goes somewhere they're not familiar and maybe shouldn't be. Just a general sense of unwanted presence within many of the conflicts taking place, which are feelings that can be taken straight out of the turmoil brought on by something like a violent occupation.

Roseanna: Do you have a favourite story from the anthology (other than your own stories, which are of course all excellent)? Can you tell me why it works so well for you?

Stephanie Rabig: The language in two of the stories really struck me: the poetic quality of What the Ghouleh Said on Thursday of the Dead brings beauty to a terrifying story, and the capitalization differences in Promotion made me feel like I was reading A. A. Milne for the first time. The Brides of Drume would make an amazing short film. The ending of Tower Creepers always makes me tear up… I just love all these stories so much and am so grateful to everyone who contributed.

Rachel Roth: I really enjoyed Magic 8 Ball by Pedro Iniguez. It had qualities of cosmic horror, a regular person who encounters a force beyond their comprehension and ends without explanation. I love all that, especially unexplained endings. Love when things are kept in the open; more real that way, has more of an impact, instead of explaining things just for the sake of resolution.

Alex Wallace: I was a big fan of The Brides of Drume by Derek Hutchins. It’s adjacent to alternate history and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.

Roseanna: This is one way people can help support Palestine. Are there any other ways —charities or action— you would suggest to people looking to do more?

Stephanie Rabig: Wearing a keffiyeh or pro-Palestine pin, something that lets people know where you stand, is so important to let people know they have allies, that they’re not alone in this. Despite what it might look like in the news, other people are worried, too; they’re thinking of the people over there and trying to help. In terms of donation, this is an incredible document listing tons of GoFundMes and other ways to help people who are in immediate danger.

Alex Wallace: Donate directly to the PCRF and ANERA, and other aid groups. Learn the history of the Palestinian people, and defiantly let others know that they are people with a history. Donate directly to families fleeing Gaza—here is one active as of writing, and here is another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another. Do not let the world ignore this. Do not let the world forget this.

Thank you all so much for your time and words.

If you want to read Broken Olive Branches, it is out now and available to buy.