I didn’t know what speculative fiction was when ‘Margins and Marginations’ by Otter Lieffe dropped on my doormat. It is a genre of fiction that encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements. Margins and Murmurations is set in the future – 2040 – a dystopian future that steps only a few feet away from the Trumpian world we reside in now, where things are going backwards.
Margins and Murmurations is about struggle, being different and time travel, where the main character is a trans woman, a reluctant freedom fighter, who has the ability to time travel. She is part of a resistance against a totalitarian regime, a resistance made up of trans people, sex workers and disabled people. The book is a page turner, you wish you could read faster to see what happens next in this gripping story. Before I even finished the book, I knew I had to buy the next book in the series ‘Conserve and Control’.
It is difficult to find fiction where you can see yourself reflected back, with characters you can relate to. I am not trans, but identify as gender queer, so this putting of gender and queerness on the table gave me a narrative feast. A murmuration is a stunning sky-filled congregation of hundreds of starlings, dancing like a heartbroken cloud, as one. In that way, I felt part of this book.
It is such a beautiful book that deserves wider exposure, that I interviewed Otter, the writer, for DAO. Every person that writes for and reads DAO reside in their own intersections. Is it time we explore that more?
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
I’m a working-class trans woman, a life-long activist and now, apparently, an author although that last bit has taken me quite by surprise. After a period of burn out from the usual despair and frustrations that come with political activism, I decided to take a short break and try to look after myself a bit better. That break turned into a couple of novels and two years of seventy-hour weeks. I’m not sure the resting part worked out well, but writing has definitely given me a new place to pour my love and rage and I see the effects of that political work already having an effect on my communities. Honestly, I couldn’t ask for more.
Have you got involved with disability arts or activism, if so how? Can you tell me how disability touches your books and/or life?
It’s important for me to mention that I’m chronically ill but not disabled. I’ve lived and worked as a carer for large parts of my life and through my work with Action for Trans Health I’m surrounded by incredible folk in disabled communities. But my experiences of life are very much those of an able-bodied person and that privilege certainly influences me a lot more than I can possibly know. I try to use it to show up for my disabled friends. I’ve worked organizing a peer support training for trans folk who hear voices and am increasingly involved with solidarity work for trans people in prisons.
I try to use writing to bring some visibility to disabled struggles and through consultation with my editor, Liv Mammone, who is disabled, have tried to make that work as relevant and useful as possible. Accessibility has been something I’ve been working on and I recorded an audiobook for Margins and Murmurations to help it reach people who find reading difficult*.
Through my new ‘Writing from the Margins’ workshop series, I’m working to encourage people with all kinds of oppressions to tell their stories and redirect our struggles.
Where do you spend your time? In the future or past or present? And why?
Three years ago, when I started writing, I would have said very much the past. I’ve lived for a long time with complex post-traumatic stress and for a while that took the form of intense flashbacks to traumatic events. My central character from my first novel, Ash, experiences the same thing but as a kind of time travel. I later thought more about how so many trans folk are actually time travellers. We live in the past of who we were or were meant to be. We also tend to live in the future, on endless NHS waiting lists, always hoping and being made to wait.
And of course, many of us learn to dissociate from our violent present for survival.
So all three a bit. But once in a while I have the luxury of really settling into the moment, somewhere beautiful, surrounded by bird song, and that’s when healing happens.
Why did you write ‘Margins and Murmurations?’
Initially, for my own mental health: to create characters that shared some of my intersections and experiences for the first time and to counteract the total lack of accurate representation that trans women, sex workers, PTSD survivors and working-class activists usually suffer. Later on, as I realized I might potentially share the work with other people, I started to write for a wider political change, to give voice to other marginal experiences (as well as I could), to tell the stories of struggle that were filling my heart and needed to come out.
When I wrote Conserve and Control, a companion book to the first, I very much wrote it as activism. The difference was mostly one of confidence. Three years ago, creating a book that people would read was as far from my expectations as anything can be.
Internalised classism had a lot to do with that, combined with so rarely seeing people like me writing books. But Margins has been incredibly successful at reaching folk and so have some of the articles I’ve written for my blog during the process. And that knowledge, that I was able to produce a book and that my words might be useful, gave me the confidence to write more. Now I’m in love and never want to stop.
* The audiobook is available to all supporters of the Patreon but free to anyone who finds an audiobook easier than reading – just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org