XOXO main stage

Stack Overflow: XOXO Edition

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XOXO main stage
The XOXO main stage at the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I missed Stack Overflow last weekend because I was attending XOXO, a somewhat hard-to-describe event that’s become one of my favorite things. It bills itself as “an experimental festival for independent artists and creators who work on the internet,” though that feels a little too limited. I’ve gotten to attend the past few times, primarily in conjunction with the tabletop games event, but I always come away feeling energized and inspired by the various speakers on stage and the many attendees that I get to spend time with. (In case you want a bit more about XOXO, you can see the 2018 lineup, my thoughts about gaming at XOXO 2015, and a reflection on XOXO 2015. The talks are also posted to the XOXO YouTube channel, though this year’s talks aren’t ready yet.) So today’s Stack Overflow is a little odd, but it includes books that are linked to XOXO.

Meal cover

Meal by Blue Delliquanti and Soleil Ho

Meal is a graphic novel about Yarrow, a young chef who loves entomophagy—that’s the fancy word for eating insects. She’s heard about a new restaurant opening up from chef Chanda Flores that will have bugs on the menu, and she’s determined to get a job there … but it turns out that Chanda is suspicious of Yarrow’s intentions. It’s a fascinating exploration of the culture of eating insects in different cultures. It seems weird and novel to us, but in fact nearly every culture except Western Europeans has a long history of including insects as a part of their diet—and not just in hard times or when other food sources aren’t available.

The story is also about friendship and falling in love, about restaurants and cooking and memory, and about race. There are moments that reminded me of Ratatouille, where a meal (or even just a taste) can pull you back to a particular moment in your life.

Soleil Ho and Blue Delliquanti
Soleil Ho and Blue Delliquanti talk about Meal at XOXO. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The creators of Meal, Blue Delliquanti and Soleil Ho, gave a talk at XOXO’s comics track, and they really dug into the subject of entomophagy and how this book came about. There’s a section after the story ends where Ho outlines her own experiences eating insects and some of the complicated politics that surround the topic. Insects are marketed now as a superfood, as a protein source that’s more environmentally sustainable than meats, but it’s often either sterilized to remove its insect origins or made into a novelty that highlights how weird it is.

Meal is a fairly short book—I got an ARC and read the entire thing in one sitting over the XOXO weekend—but it’s got a lot packed into it, and I love the way it got me thinking more about insect cuisine.

Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too by Jomny Sun

Jomny Sun is a little alien visiting Earth for research purposes. Jonny Sun is a Canadian writer, illustrator, and humorist who tweets as Jomny Sun and makes observations about life with weird spelling. The book itself is probably best categorized as a comic book: each page shows Jomny talking to various animals or trees or sometimes other aliens, as he wanders around and tries to figure out what it means to be “humabn.” He makes friends, learns about art and death and desire. It’s very cute and has a sort of tragic humor—you laugh even though it’s a little bit painful. Many of the pages work as single-panel (or two-panel) cartoons on their own, but the book also has an overarching storyline.

Jonny Sun at XOXO
Jonny Sun talks about insecurities and impostor syndrome at XOXO. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Sun was one of the speakers at XOXO this year, and one of the topics he discussed was impostor syndrome, the feeling that you don’t belong somewhere, that at some point people will figure out who you really are and no longer want you around. It’s a feeling that often hits artists and creative people hard, and is pervasive at XOXO. Everyone’s a Aliebn includes a lot of cartoons that explore impostor syndrome, from the owl who isn’t sure it should be an owl because it doesn’t feel very wise, to the egg that’s very anxious about what it will be, to the onion who states “peel back the layers and u’ll see that deep down inside im just a smaller, mor afraid onion.”

When Sun started tweeting as the alien and sharing his insecurities, what he found was that there were so many other people who felt the same way. That’s one of the messages of the book: we’re all outsiders sometimes, which means that you belong just as much as everyone else.

Dialect by Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu

This one’s a bit different, because it’s not just a book you read; it’s a book you play. Dialect is actually a storytelling game designed by Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu of Thorny Games in which you build a dialect as you play. There are various “backdrops” that you can use, the settings that explain why a certain population has become isolated, with aspects that influence how the language will evolve. Over the course of about three hours, you work your way through three ages, in which the isolation begins, changes, and ends. I was able to play a brief demo of the game at XOXO just to get a taste of it, and I’ve got a review copy that I hope to play soon.

Dialect game in progress
Hakan (lower left) runs a demo of Dialect at XOXO. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The book itself is gorgeous, with full-page illustrations by Jill DeHaan and Erica Williams scattered throughout, and contains not only the rules of the game and the backdrops, but also some fascinating material about linguistics and dialects. There’s a chapter about inventing languages from David J. Peterson, who created Dothraki for Game of Thrones. There are reflections on what it means to preserve languages, what happens when languages die, the way different cultures think of language and identity.

The various backdrops include things like a Martian outpost that has lost communication with Earth, a boys’ boarding school, robots that have been left behind by humans, even a wolf pack that uses body language and other non-verbal cues. If you love exploring language, it’s worth reading even if you don’t play the game—but of course the game itself seems fascinating, too!

Thorny Games also had another game called Sign that is about sign languages, and was inspired by the story of Nicaragua’s official sign language. A group of deaf children were brought together to an experimental school back before there was an official sign language. Their need to communicate with each other led to creating a language, which became the basis for Nicaragua’s official sign language. Sign gives you a small taste of that experience.

There were many other amazing people at XOXO, both on stage and off, but those are a few of the book-based highlights. Ijeoma Oluo talked about the difficult conversations we need to have about race, which she explores more in her book So You Want to Talk About Race. Ryan North and Lucy Bellwood talked about How to Invent Everything (mentioned in Stack Overflow a month ago), which had a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. Taneka Stotts talked about Elements: FIRE, a comics anthology focused on creators of color. I didn’t make it to all of the talks, but I’m hoping to catch up on them later when they’re posted!

My Current Stack

I finally finished reading Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, the third book in her Wayfarers series. This one is a series of vignettes told about characters in the Exodan Fleet. Originally designed to take humans to the stars in search of a new home planet, the Fleet has become a permanent home to many humans even though they’ve made contact with aliens and have access to moving back onto land. It is, like the rest of the series, beautifully written and fascinating, and I enjoyed nibbling on it in small chunks over a longer period of time, letting the various stories simmer in my mind a bit.

I’ve also recently started Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier. I’m a fan of Auxier’s previous books Peter Nimble, The Night Gardener, and Sophie Quire, so I’ve been looking forward to this one. It’s about a young girl who works as a chimney sweep—and, of course, her monster, but I’ve just gotten to that part. My oldest daughter snagged the ARC from me and read the whole thing in one gulp, and then started in on it again, but I’ve managed to get it back so I can find out what happens next!

Disclosure: I received review copies of most of the books highlighted in this column.

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