Monday, July 14, 2014


Readercon this year, for me, anyway, had a bit of the feel of WisCon (except, of course, for the Dealers Room, which had no Aqueduct press table and essentially no Aqueduct Press titles anywhere, unless one counts the satchel of her books Guest of Honor Andrea Hairston schlepped around to sell to attendees who were interested in buying her books). Several of the panels would have fit comfortably into WisCon programming, and of course many of the people who are often to be found at WisCon were present at Readercon. Also? More than once I found myself torn between two panels--an experience I've hitherto suffered only at WisCon. I had an enjoyable--and mighty stimulating--weekend. My only complaint was that the hotel absolutely insisted that the music in the bar be loud enough to be heard all over the first floor (and too loud to permit conversation with drinks after about 8 o'clock in the evening).

I thought I'd mention a few of the panels that particularly interested me. At the top of my list was a panel on Saturday morning titled "When the Other Is You," featuring Samuel R. Delany, Chesya Burke, Sabrina Vourvoulias (M), Peter Dubé, Mikki Kendall, and Vandana Singh. (ETA: a video of this can be found here: The panel pretty much took its lead from the panel description: "Being part of an underrepresented group and trying to write our experience into our work can be tricky. We might have internalized some prejudice about ourselves, we might not have the craft to get our meaning across perfectly, and even if we depict our own experience totally accurately (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed in her TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story"), we do so while struggling against the expectation that our experience is or isn't "representative" or "authentic." How do we navigate the pitfalls and responsibilities of being perceived as spokespeople? What potentially pernicious dynamics allow us that dubious privilege in the first place? Which works make us cringe with their representations of us, and which make us sigh with relief and recognition?"

Toward the beginning of the discussion Vourvoulias raised the question of whether the conversation was inflected by generational differences. Delany offered a dramatic example of cultural amnesia-- how the issues of contraception and abortion tragically impacted the lives of women he knew pre-Roe v. Wade, resulting in many, many deaths that young people today never imagine could be the result of destraoying access to abortion. 

The issue that received the most attention was that of "authenticity." One aspect of this is that the authenticity of the voices of those positioned outside mainstream culture is often judged by the expectations of mainstream readers (and editors). At the same time, the mainstream reader is often oblivious to emphasis, nuance, and multiple meanings. Kendall noted that we seldom hear the stories of the people who resist oppression in small ways: "The stories that get heard are the low and the high." I found myself thinking that this is partly because the ordinary person of color is largely invisible in mainstream culture (except when they're depicted in relation to white people), and partly because small everyday acts of resistance are considered too boring and undramatic to be depicted in fiction, unless the consequences are dramatic. 

Most of my notes for this panel are paraphrases or quotations from panelists, sans elaboration:

Vourvoulias: Does diversity just mean "be nice to everyone?" The bottom line is that respect for the other is essential for the health of the genre.

Kendall: We don't have a single language: the question becomes, "whose language?" (This was said in the context of discussing Black English and diverse forms of colloquial English, regional and ethnic, and their representations in fiction.)

 Dubé: Language is the single most important lens; translation is the creation of new meaning. More meanings is good, fewer meanings is bad. (Someone else on the panel, I can't remember whom, observed that when a member of a marginalized group speaks to the mainstream, they are always translating.)

Vourvoulias: There's a political weight to Spanglish, or other languages. There are levels and levels of nuance.

Singh: When I'm writing or reading about non-mainstream (in the US) cultures, emphasis matters.

Vourvoulias: Language itself is hierarchical; certain voices aren't heard.

Vourvoulias: Who listens to the victims of the genocide of Guatemala? We re-victimize epople by giving them less agency than the government that repressed them when there stoy is told by others who are heard, not by themselves, as though they can't be trusted to tell their own stories.

Delany: only one review of his most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, got that the novel doesn't engage in exceptionalism for his poor, black, gay characters: the world of his novel makes black gay men unexceptionable and offers them an environment in which they can thrive-- as themselves, and not transformed into characters who aren't poor, black, and gay.

Dubé: Alterity gives you an outsider's view--which is valuable. As a gay man, he's distressed by the marriage/assimilation emphasis.

To tell the truth, I wanted this panel to go on for another hour at least. Or to have been about one or two of the various issues that the panelists discussed, to allow greater depth. But all in all, it offered me a lot to think about.

Another panel of interest sometimes overlapped "When You Are the Other" in the issues it addressed, viz., "East, West and Everything Between: A Roundtable on Latin@ Speculative Fiction," featuring Sabrina Vourvoulias (M), Daniel Jose Older, Matthew Goodwin, Carlos Hernandez, and Julia Rios. Vourvoulias asked the panel to begin by addressing the challenges facing Latin Speculative fiction. (ETA: Scott Edelman has posted a YouTube video of this one, too:

 Vourvoulias: Why is it so invisible? Is it because Latinos don't read?

Hernandez: The pressures of assimilation are enormous. Assimilating leads to camouflage.

 Older: Gatekeepers-- i.e., booksellers, editors: Latino writers have to get through bottlenecks controlled by Anglos; our stories can be threatening to Anglos.

Rios: Dialect & Spanglish can be threatening.

Older: Nalo Hopkinson's use of Caribbean vernacular was a revelation to me. We translate ourselves-- trying to water down our voice and narratives to please white gatekeepers.

Hernandez: Cites Junot Diaz's observation that sf/f readers will negotiate 200 pages in elvish without complaint, but will freak out at the presence of two Spanish words in a novel. He suggests there's a double standard about real-world difference, which makes its presence political. (Spanish can't be neutral in the way that English or Elvish can.)

Vourvoulias: Accent becomes a signifier in fiction.

Goodwin: When we start thinking about the category [Latin sf/f], it makes us think about past work as well. The screenplay of Blade Runner was written by a Mexican-American. The Chicano character he placed in the film [who wasn't in the Dick original] enriched it. We need to uncover the long presence of Latinos in spec fic.

Older: Latin presence in "urban fantasy"usually involves a white person having sex with a Chicano werewolf etc. But what about the urban fantasy stories Latinos have always created? The ghost stories and zombies-- that were long found in our oral tales. The crude mechanisms of publishing-- of power, money, and race, excludes those stories.

Vourvoulias: There are regional differences. There are agrarian latinos-- there's a long history of them in California. The urban latino is the story that has become a trope. We don't often see agrarian latinos in sf/f.

Rios: A lot of white America is listening to Fox News and are terrified of the "flood" across the border.

Vourvoulias: As Americans, we're invested in the exception. Junot Diaz is our exception. It's the Latino quotient for the century.

Older: We have to beware of the one-and-only model of success, in which breaking out means breaking away from your community-- and getting out. How do we conceive of diversity? We need to have an analysis of power, and leadership from those who are successful.

Vourvoulias:  We need to be mentoring young writers-- or someone who's more emergent than you are.

The panel concluded with remarks on packaging, teaching, and reaching young Latinos some exposure to Latino spec fic.

I stayed, after this panel, for the next one: Readercon Classic Fiction Bookclub: Memoirs of a Space Woman with Amal El-Mohtar, Lila Garrott (M), Sonya Taaffe. I didn't take many notes for this one, at least partly because of my familiarity with the book. I thought the panel did an excellent job of giving the audience (most of whom hadn't read the book) an idea of its richness and interest. Certainly as I was listening I had the thought that this was one of those books that came out before its time, which was heavily in the throes of essentialism of every sort (though particularly, of course, gender essentialism, Simone de Beauvoir notwithstanding). Here's the program description: "Naomi Mitchison's 1962 exploration of a life lived nearly entirely in space has deep humanist themes. Mary's specialty in alien communication leads to a life and profession of embracing the Other, literally realized in her accidental pregnancy via a Martian. We'll discuss criticisms of the book's heteronormativity and biological determinism as well as the themes of Mary's immersion in alien

El-Mohtar: She initiated this panel because she got angry that Mitchison was not a name on the lists of authors considered canonical.

 Taaffe: The protagonist, Mary, doesn't gender her career roles (contrary to what you might expect from the title's "Space Woman"). The narrative uses casual-sounding words to convey huge amounts of information about the society and culture Mary comes from. 

El-Mohtar: The society that produces these characters is incredibly flexible and elastic in its attitudes, giving us a fascinating window on a society that somehow, over the course of centuries, developed into such a livable place.

 Garrott: This is an egalitarian, non-homophobic utopia-- written in 1962.

Taaffe: It has almost no sexual social stigmas-- except for the taboo against intergenerational sex, which they are especially conscious of as the result of the time dilaltion of space travel.

El-Mohtar: This book is about space travel and exploration without colonization-- something we almost never see in sf.

Garrott: The book is episodic, without a plot; the protagonist is passive.

El-Mohtar: But how much of that is due to the book's being in the form of her memoirs?

Garrott: But memoirs are usually artfully crafted.

Taafffe: The book just stops. At the end, you turn the page, expecting the text to continue, and there's an ad for Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind.

El-Mohtar: But the episodes gain in complexity as the book goes on. The trajectory is almost fractal.

Garrott: You get the feeling that the utopia is a result of people just finally growing up.

Taaffe: You can't tell how far into the future this is.

 A member of the audience brings up the point that in the book, humans can no longer eat animals because they can and do communicate with them.

Taaffe: In this future world, space travel solved the problems of vegetarianism-- introducing new fruits and vegetables to humans.

Garrott: This is mostly a comfort read, even though she has a lot of stuff that most people would find horrific and terrifying; but Mary isn't bothered by any of it.

Taaffe: There are mostly heterosexual relationships in the novel. But all the children Mary has are by choice. Mary worries lest she might be becoming monogamous.

The panelists discussed some of the details of Mitchison's remarkable life. (For more, I urge those interested to check out Lesley Hall's Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of Her Life and Work, which is the fifteenth volume in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series, and is available in both print & digital editions.)

I want to mention just two other panels. One is the last panel I popped into-- I managed to catch only the last 20 minutes, alas (because I was delayed by a conversation I didn't care to abandon), a panel on unreliable narrators. Eileen Gunn commented that all narrators are unreliable, and that in her experience, all people are unreliable narrators. "As you get older," she said, "you realize you need to have your smart hat on when people tell you their stories." Dora Goss, reflecting on the prevalence on unreliability of narrators, said: "It's a magical trick we pull, making any narrators reliable."

The other panel I wanted to mention was one of my own-- simply because it's on YouTube and has some interesting discussion (which I moderated): Empathy, Identity, and Stories:
Matthew Kressel, L. Timmel Duchamp (moderator), Julia Rios, Andrea Hairston, and Walt Williams appeared on the panel "Empathy, Identification, and Stories." Here's the description from the program book: "At a panel at Arisia 2013, Andrea Hairston said, 'I can only tell you a story if you're a human who can hear a story and imagine what it's like to be someone who isn't you.' Tannanarive Due added that access to stories matters: some children, for instance, can easily find books about characters like themselves, while others have to read books from outside a position of identification. Culture creates structures of identification and empathy; or, to put it another way, ways of feeling from within and ways of feeling from without. How do stories create structures of feeling, and how can writers and readers both benefit from awareness of these structures?" The link to the video is: 

This round-up only scratches the surface, of course. I don't have enough time to go into greater detail, alas. But certainly it made me, as Eileen would have, "put on my smart hat."

ETA: A video of Mikki Kendall's excellent interview of Andrea Hairston is now available, here:

1 comment:

Mark Rich said...

Nice. I became much more aware of the "authenticity" concern at this last WisCon. Cheers ...