Wiscon is an annual gathering of the feminist science fiction community. This year, the Guests of Honour were Sofia Samatar and Justine Larbalestier. I was a returning Guest of Honour (Nina Kiriki Hoffman and I were Guests of Honour in 2002). Justine, Sofia and I each gave speeches, and we are making them available to the public today, August 24, 2016, in honour of the birthday of Alice Sheldon, aka James R. Tiptree Jr. Justine's speech is here. Sofia's is here.
And here's mine:
I'm so glad to be back at Wiscon again. Thank you so much to Tanya, my guest of honour liaison, for taking such good care of me. I'm impressed by how well the new concom is handling this huge event, and I'm thrilled to also see beloved members of the old guard here, such as Debbie Notkin, Pat Murphy, Jeanne Gomoll, Victor Raymond, and others.
Such wonderful words, too, from Justine and Sofia. You guys are a tough act to follow.
I was startled to realize a few months ago that it's been 14 years since I last attended a Wiscon! I have no idea how that happened. If you'd asked me, I'd have said it was at most seven. Maybe I have reached that age in my life at which time speeds up.
I arrived in Madison on Wednesday evening, because I need a little extra time to recover from the hell that is North American airline travel. I woke up early on Thursday morning and went for a walk.
I use music to keep me motivated when I exercise, and for some reason on Thursday morning, even though I had my speech roughed out, certain lines from the songs in my walking playlist seemed particularly relevant to what I'd come here to do.
So I decided to re-structure this talk as lessons from my walking playlist.
And I'll tell you right now; many of them are songs you might think a feminist wouldn't enjoy. But it's my playlist, and I'll dance to it if I wanna.
I've slightly altered some of the lines to suit. Let me start with a Beyoncé-inspired: Y'all Look so good Tonight... Godddamn goddamn godDAMN!
A lot has happened in the 14 years since I was last at Wiscon. For one thing, Beyoncé came out with the song “Girls (Who Run the World?)," and for awhile I was angry with her, because women and girls, be they cis or trans, so very patently do not run the world. So very obviously are still at risk every day because of our gender.
But I got over being angry with Lady Bey. I mean, I also write fantasies of the world the way I'd like to see it, not necessarily the way it currently is. So why shouldn't she do the same? Making stories is one of the ways in which human beings make reality. It's one of the engines that sways public opinion. A few years ago, man-on-man makeout scenes were a no-no on television. Shows like True Blood are helping to change that. Entertainment is powerful. Stories are how we empathize with each other.
At one point during my walk, I had to wait at a stop light. On the opposite corner was a tiny dog being taken for a walk by its person. The dog kept growling and charging at passing cars, and Nikki Minaj was saying in my headphones: That's why yuh mad, thass why yuh why yuh mad-mad.
And I thought, “It's a good thing that someone with sense has leashed that mad, bad, sad and hopefully not rabid puppy, because it clearly doesn't recognize that some movements are bigger than it is and will keep trucking forward.”
And then I thought, “I'd better write that down.”
So yeah; something else that has been happening is the ravings of the various bands of ill-behaved soi-disant Puppies who keep trying to hijack the Hugo Awards, apparently in the name of making the field whiter, maler, straighter, and more conservative. I try to balance that against the yearning the genre is increasingly demonstrating for adding more voices and experiences into the mix; not for subtracting the straight, white, male voices and all the value they can and do bring, but for adding more value, more perspectives, more stories. I don't know about you, but I want more science fiction and fantasy stories, not fewer. I believe that as Cupid says, we can: Shake a hater off.
Speaking of hate and what it does or does not require (yes, I'm gonna go there): The recent wave of identity-based hatred directed against creators and fans in this field dismays me. It was especially disheartening to realize that some of the more vicious assaults were being led by a fellow queer woman writer of colour, under the personae of Winterfox, Requires Hate, and others. Worse yet, most of her targets were emerging queer women writers of colour. Not all of them; there was equal horridness directed at certain straight, white people. The person responsible has made her apologies. Time will tell whether the atrocious behaviour has actually been discontinued for good, but I am here to make my own apologies. To my fellow creators and fans who experienced and in some cases still experience the wrath of her and her followers: I am sorry that it took me so long to realize the extent of the harm being done to you. I am sorry that I didn't stand up for you sooner. I am sorry to see some of you continuing to struggle with PTSD, with damaged emotional health, with suicidal ideation, with gaslighting, with fear. I want you to know that even if people conspire to convince that you've been completely ostracized from your particular niche of science fiction community, you will still find allies there, and beyond. You don't have to be silent about what you're experiencing.
To people who are angry – as I am -- about continued ignoring and marginalization of queer people, trans people, women, people of colour, disabled people, and so on in this genre, please continue to be outspoken about it. Please continue to fight to improve the situation. As I gathered my courage to stand up here and speak to you, I remembered that Beyoncé said: My daddy taught me to love my haters My sisters taught me how to speak my mind
But please, as we fight, let's consider the outcome we want, and try to work towards that. I reject the narrative that says we should be unfailingly softspoken and gentle when we point these things out; doing so patently doesn't work. Yet in battling bullies, let us not become bullies ourselves. I never, ever again want to fear that a fellow author, artist, ally, or member of this community might kill him or herself because they've been harrassed, abused, and generally terrorized into not knowing how to continue. I realize I'm asking something complicated, in part because it's all too easy for someone to decide that their hurt feelings at being criticized by us amount to trauma at our hands. But in your heart of hearts, you know that that's not what I'm talking about. At least, I really hope you do. I hope you realize the difference between someone who'd rather blame us than deal with their shit versus a true ally. I hope you can realize the difference between demanding justice versus ruling through harrassment and intimidation.
While I'm on the topic of justice: the very first time I heard the phrase “social justice warrior” was from Will Shetterly. I finally researched the term and discovered that he hadn't invented it. But he and others sure have been turning it into a brand with which to burn people working for positive social change. Nikki Minaj got me thinking: Man a-bitter, but weh dat bout?
And now there are more and more people rallying behind that brandished “anti-SJW” slogan. I find that alarming. It's at best unproductive and at worst dangerous to cede leadership to those whose strength is in dishonest sloganeering, undermining alliances, shouting down unbelievers and manufactured strawmen, and fostering a fear-based harrassment and snitch culture that institutes puppy pile-ons to enforce compliance. Whatever corner it's coming from, that's behaviour it's useful to be able to recognize, so that you don't buy into it. So that you aren't discrediting its victims.
There are many reasons to be angry. But if the flashpoint of your hatred centres around groups who continue to be socio-economically disadvantaged
– maybe with the exception of one member of that group that you decide is appropriately inoffensive -- take a long, hard, honest look at your hatred. Because so often it relies on homogenizing, “those people” thinking that resents inclusion. “Those people” hate all white men. “Those people” will bring about the destruction of civilization as we know it. There are names for that kind of monolithic thinking, including sexism, transphobia, racism, homophobia.
I am not asking you to police your very thoughts and try to make them nothing but “pure” and “good.” That's not helping anyone. I've heard from white people who feel profound shame every time they catch themselves having a racist thought or fear. But why? People are socialized to be prejudiced. It's no crime if your first thought is a deeply problematic one. It's possible to gaze calmly upon that thought, recognize it for what it is, let it waft on by, and follow it up with a different thought, or a positive action. It's possible to check yourself without wrecking yourself. It's even possible, when someone else calls you on your shit, to recognize when they're right, to acknowledge that you were wrong, and to thank them for the corrective.
Listen: If I've learned anything in this past little while, it's that there are people who will warp one's message, in violation of one's principles. I know that soon after this speech goes public, there will be those who will either mock it, or appropriate its language for their own ends. They're going to say that I'm modelling the very things against which I'm advocating. That kind of flipping the script has become a popular tactic. I've begun to take it as a measure of success, in part because said appropriation is reactionary, not originary. They envy a particular sound bite or concept, so they try to make it their own, or, failing that, to make fun of it.
I don't know what to do about that, but I do know that snark is easy, maybe too easy. It's easy to ridicule others, for good or for ill. It's easy to encourage others to join your dogpile, to create an atmosphere of fear, anguish and self-doubt in your preferred victims. Yet it's not a bad thing to urge people to question their own beliefs and behaviours. Anger and conflict have their uses. But what are we doing on the other side of the ledger? I'm hearing from far too many people who would love to be part of science fiction, but who are terrified of the bullying. So what are we doing to foster joy and welcome to this community? What are we doing to cultivate its health and vibrancy? What are we doing to create an environment in which imperfect people (as all people are) who are trying to be good people can feel encouraged and supported to take the risk of a misstep, perhaps learn from it, and come back refocussed and re-energized, eager to try again?
As I mulled it over, my song rotation brought up Cupid, whose lyrics I'll paraphrase as: Colder than a freezer, Cooler than a fan, Woman on a mission, with a sizeable plan
I have a plan.
There are many people who do good in this field, who perform small and large actions of kindness and welcome every day. I'd like to encourage more of that.
I'm taking a page from Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler when they started the Tiptree Award at Wiscon, lo these many years ago. I'm starting an award, an annual kindness award to recognize people and groups who in the previous year have done something that makes positive change in the science fiction community. It's still in the planning stages, and my instinct is to keep it low-key. The award might take the form of printed certificates, awarded and announced with little pomp or ceremony; perhaps via a press release. Though there need not be a monetary sum, it would be nice to give the recipients a tangible token of our recognition. Should enough people commit to donating a few dollars every year, such that there is an annual pot of $2,000, that would be enough for five monetary awards of $300 each, with $500 left over for administration. $3,000 per year would be enough for each recipient to receive in addition a physical award. I spotted a perfect award object this past Thursday in the window of the Museum Store on State Street here in Madison. See the image at the bottom of this post. It looks like the perfect science fiction award, doesn't it? It's designed by Philippe Starck, and it's actually a lemon juicer. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right? I'm calling the award the Lemonade Award, not because of Beyoncé's excellent recent album (though the playlist reference is an opportune one for this speech), but as a reminder what the spirit of the award is.
People will be able to nominate others for the Lemonade Award, but the final decisions will not be based on numbers, but will be up to a jury that changes every year.
There are many details to be worked out over the next year. Sherryl Vint, my colleague in the Cultures of Science and Science Fiction program at the University of California Riverside, has volunteered to manage the nomination/adjudication process. I'll be doing fundraising, because even a non-monetary award has some costs. I figure I have enough energy to keep my part of it up for two years. If it takes off, I'll be looking for someone else to take on that aspect of it, while I remain involved in the capacity of keeping the award to its original spirit.
If you're so moved and so able, please help in any way you can. You can email us
. I think that we can infuse this community even more with something juicy and nourishing.
I finished my walk just as Busta Rhymes was chanting: Walk like a champion, Swing like a stallion, With the two big medallion,
Two medallions is nice, but let's start with five. Good? Allyou perfect.
Here's the Alessi "Juicy Salif" citrus juicer. I'm also looking into another option for the award object. More news as/if I have it.