While they’ve previously explored their fictional world the Birdverse in novellas and a novel, writer R.B. Lemberg has also penned a number of short stories and poems that are set in this realm as well. Now they’re collecting nearly a dozen of them in the new compilation Geometries Of Belonging: Stories & Poems From The Birdverse (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Lemberg discusses what inspired and influenced these stories, and how they connect to those novellas and the novel, as well as the larger world.
It’s my LGBTQIA+-focused secondary world fantasy with a Bird goddess, hence the Birdverse name. Birdverse is a culturally diverse place with many different languages, traditions, and mythologies. Over the years I have written stories and poetry set in this world, and more recently novellas and a novel, with more to come, I hope. The protagonists of Birdverse works tend to be queer and/or trans, and often neurodivergent as well. I bring my background as a linguist and folklorist into my worldbuilding.
Geometries Of Belonging: Stories & Poems From The Birdverse is obviously a collection of short stories and poems set in the Birdverse. It’s right there in the title. Where in relation to The Unbalancing and the other Birdverse books do the stories take place?
The stories, poems, and longer works are all set on a timeline, which I have only published on my Patreon. There is an arc to the stories that I want to tell in this world, even though it is more of a tapestry than a line.
The stories and poems in Geometries explore the different events of the Birdverse arc; some connect to my longer works, others do not, or not yet. For example, the poem “Ranra’s Unbalancing,” which won the Strange Horizons Readers Poll back in the day, has Ranra talking and swearing about the events of The Unbalancing. When I wrote the poem, I knew that I wanted to write a longer work about these events. Now the readers can get both the poem (in the collection) and the novel, too. The opening poem and novelette of the collection, “I Will Show You A Single Treasure,” and the Nebula-finalist novelette, “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth Of Winds,” are prequels to the novella The Four Profound Weaves. Other pieces in the collection might be connected to longer works one day; for example, “The Book Of How To Live” and “Where Your Quince Trees Grow.”
So, aside from the Birdverse connection, is there an underlying theme to the poems and stories in Geometries Of Belonging?
The underlying theme for the collection is belonging. The people in the collection — often queer, trans, neurodivergent, migrants — are often outcasts and exiles, experiencing a profound disconnect from their cultures, families, or workplaces. They are looking for new places and people to belong with, and they often find them. In “The Book Of How To Live,” the artificer and inventor Efronia had traveled on foot for weeks through inhospitable forests to reach the university, only to find that the academics there will never see her as anything other than a menial worker. She will find a new home among the revolutionaries. The healer Parét, who is very secure in his personal relationships and contexts at the time the story “Geometries Of Belonging” takes place, must find a way to help a young person who is dehumanized by their family, and in the process, deal with his own trauma and depression. In the original story “Where Your Quince Trees Grow,” the young protagonist is a migrant finding their way in a new land.
I think the only person who does not experience some kind of rupture is Marvushi e Garazd (“The Splendid Goat Adventure”). Marvushi is only happy as long as they can keep moving and moving and moving and moving, both physically and intellectually. They don’t want to stop and belong somewhere. They want to keep traveling, and will continue doing so as long as they can, and probably beyond. They are a recurring character and I hope to share more of their adventures soon.
Did the theme emerge as you were putting this collection together or did you start out with the theme?
I guess I’m always writing about those things. I’m a migrant (multiple times), a transnational person, I am queer and nonbinary, and my own life experience is that of motion, that of multiple overlapping liminalities. The Birdverse world is where I dream about belonging as a distinct possibility, a reality created by people together, between loved ones and between strangers and in community. Putting the collection together was largely a smooth process, even though the stories and poems happen in different parts of this world, and in different historical times for it.
Aside from being part of the Birdverse, were there any other parameters for the pieces you included in Geometries Of Belonging? Like, did the stories have to be of a certain length, do all the pieces take place around the same time…
As someone who edited a number of anthologies, both prose and poetry, I am very invested in creating a cohesive progression in a book which has many pieces. I always start with figuring out the first and last pieces, and go from there. I knew that I wanted to start from “A Single Treasure,” the poem that resonated with many people and launched the weaving storyline which culminated in my novella The Four Profound Weaves. Since I was going to start the collection with a poem, I wanted to finish it with a poem as well. I published many Birdverse poems on my Patreon, not so many in more public places — Birdverse poems are gifts for my patrons, and I love many of them. I wanted to include some of my work in the “Raker To Royal / Royal To Raker” series of poems, but in the end I did not. “Mirrored Mappings” is a poem which was originally published in Through The Gate, and which is actually connected to the “Raker / Royal” poetry cycle, and also to the desert mythologies referenced in “A Single Treasure,” so it was a good way to end the collection. I structured the other pieces between these two poems. Because my storytelling in this world is not done, the ending of the collection is more like a stop on the long road than journey’s end, or at least so it feels to me.
Are they poems you’ve written about the Birdverse or are they supposed to be poems written by people who live in this world?
The poems in the collection are a mix. “A Single Treasure” has a narrator (who is not me). The narrator tells the story of how the greatest carpet ever woven came into being. At times, we get to hear the voices of the characters in the story of that treasure — the woman who spun the thread, the traders who helped her, the weaver who made the great work. The narrator of the poem does not have the same view of the story as I do. For example, the narrator does not know that the trader who speaks in the poem is Grandmother-nai-Leylit. The narrator has a view of the weaver which I do not share — the weaver in the poem is gentler, and with a different story than Benesret, whom we meet in The Four Profound Weaves. While the stories are interconnected, they do not always perfectly match; this is a feature of my storytelling. I do this as a feature, not a bug. My goal is to approximate the process of folk storytelling, where each narrator has a different take on the same exact story. In a cumulative process, a larger, more polyphonic sense of story emerges.
Two other poems I have in the collection are spoken by characters — most of Birdverse poems are in first person. “Three Principles Of Strong Building” is a poem about magic that I wanted to include; it is a worldbuilding poem which comes from one of the academies of the Central North, probably from the Mainland Katra University. In-world, it was found in one of the library books.
Is there a reason you decided to make Geometries Of Belonging a collection of both your poems and short stories, as opposed to just one or the other?
I actually held back on including many of the poems. There are some poems I really love and which have only been on my Patreon, that I would love to include, but I had to hold myself back. I wanted the collection to mostly focus on fiction. Still, I had to include some of the poems, especially the more recognizable ones.
Perhaps in the future I can do a Birdverse poetry chapbook. That would be cool. There is one poem which I wanted to include and which did not fit in the end, about the school of assassins. I read it at the Nebulas a few years back, and a kind fan asked me to publish it, and I haven’t yet (outside of Patreon), which is sad. There is a whole cluster of stories connected to the school of assassins, but not in Geometries. Most of them are longer. Hopefully in the future.
The Birdverse is a fantasy realm. But are there other genres present in any of the stories or poems in Geometries Of Belonging?
It’s all fantasy, but “The Desert Glassmaker And The Jeweler Of Berevyar” is an epistolary romance, “Geometries Of Belonging” is an anti-cure story, “Quince…” is a migration story. “The Book Of Seed And The Abyss” is Jewish mysticism. It’s basically Kabbalah. If you’ve read some Kabbalistic books, even in translation, you will see the references right away.
So, are there any writers who had a particularly big influence on any of the stories or poems in Geometries, but not on any of the other Birdverse books?
I seem to be always influenced by the same people… Although the anonymous authors of Kabbalistic works that helped shape “The Book Of Seed And The Abyss” had a more direct influence here than they do elsewhere. Also, revolutionary Russian thinkers of the early 20th century, such as Kropotkin, influenced “The Book Of How To Live” more directly than other pieces.
And how about non-literary influences; are any of the stories in Geometries Of Belonging influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Alas, no, unless one argues that Kabbalistic exegesis goes beyond the text, which one certainly should, but I would rather not go there at the moment.
Now, some of the stories and poems in Geometries Of Belonging were previously published in such journals as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Uncanny. Are the versions in Geometries the same as the originally published versions?
I tweaked some things, mostly details of language and culture to match the evolution of my understanding of the world and the characters, but I kept tweaking to a minimum. I am not against editing stories for collections / reprints, in fact I think sometimes it can be really important, but I also try to think about my published pieces as finished — otherwise I won’t be able to move on.
I always think short story collections are a good way to get to know an author. Do you think Geometries Of Belonging is a good representation of your style as a writer? Or that certain stories in it are?
Geometries is a great representation of my Birdverse work, and I think it gives a good insight into who I am as a writer.
However, I have also written a fair amount of weird, slipstream, and magic realism, and I do not feel that that is necessarily reflected here. Each published story and poem (here and elsewhere) illuminates a part of myself — my interests, beliefs, knowledge, principles, etc. — but I don’t think I’ve exhausted the well. There is more to tell in this world and in others, more to learn, more to share.
The Unbalancing is about a group of queer and nonbinary who are trying to prevent an ecological and magical disaster that threatens their homeland. In the process they argue, form friendships, fall out, fall in love, save the cat, write some poems, discover new ways to do magic. They nourish the trees. They fail. They find a way forward. It is a story which is very personal for me, a story which is also a beginning.
Did you write The Unbalancing either at the same time as any of the stories or poems in Geometries Of Belonging, or back-to-back?
The stories in Geometries have all emerged over a long period of time. The story of The Unbalancing was known to me for years. I’ve written a poem about it, “Ranra’s Unbalancing,” which is in the collection; but it is also narrated in Portrait. However, the novel itself I wrote entirely in 2020, and no other Birdverse stories or poems were published then. I wrote shorter pieces in other settings — the novel occupied my Birdverse brain slot.
Going back to Geometries Of Belonging, Hollywood loves turning short stories into films. Do you think any of the stories in Geometries could work as a movie?
I think most authors would love to see a movie based on their works. I’d love to see The Unbalancing as a movie, for example.
In terms of the stories in the collection, I think they are a bit too short for a full length film. Maybe? But I’d love to see “The Book Of How To Live” as a film, perhaps go further into the story which happens after “Book” concludes. And I’d love a short film made out of “A Splendid Goat Adventure.” That film should have many goats in the cast. Perhaps it could be animated?
And if someone wanted to make those movies, do you have any thoughts on casting?
I have no opinions about actors, so it’s difficult for me to tell you which actors I’d want to be cast. I find it difficult to watch films because of how my neurodivergence works. TV series are a bit easier, especially if they are subtitled, but watching media is often stressful for me. I do love some TV series, and I love it when newcomer actors are cast. I think new(er) actors often bring incredible passion and drive into their work, so if one of my pieces does get a cinematic treatment, I’d love to have a cast of people who are just starting out.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Geometries Of Belonging?
If you enjoy this world and want more, please follow me on social media so you can get updates when new things happen. My Patreon [https://www.patreon.com/rblemberg] is a cozy place for people who enjoy this world — I share original pieces there which I do not share elsewhere, especially poetry.
Finally, if someone enjoys Geometries Of Belonging, and it’s their first trip to the Birdverse, which of the other Birdverse books would you suggest they read next?
After Geometries, I would recommend The Four Profound Weaves if you liked “A Single Treasure” and “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds.” I would recommend The Unbalancing if you liked anything with the name Ranra in it. And if you want a mythic, lyrical novella which deals with some difficult themes, read A Portrait Of The Desert In Personages Of Power.