I can finally make the news public; Anglia Ruskin University has offered me an honorary Doctor of Letters, and I've accepted. I'm flying there in a few days to graduate. I've known for ages, but they said I had to keep it secret until now.
We, like the truth, are out there.
13 Things Never to Say to Bi People.
The Real Life Impact of Calling Bisexuality a Phase.
That's a photo of me dressed as Lt. Uhura at the very first science fiction convention I ever attended. I think the year was 1977 or 1978, which would put me around 18 years old. I remember trying to figure out what the hell to dress up as, since at the time, none of the commonly recognized characters or creatures in popular science fiction and fantasy reflected me or my culture. None that I could think of, anyway. Except Ororo Munroe and Lt. Uhura. This was half a decade before Tina Turner as Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (and God, do I still ever want that chainmail dress!) Years before Grace Jones as Zula in Conan the Destroyer, May Day in the Bond movie A View to a Kill, and Katrina, the 2000 yr-old vampire in Vamp. It was about 22 years before the uncomfortable portrayal of Sineya, the first Slayer, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and 18 years before the equally uncomfortable portrayal of Kendra Young, the Jamaican? (What was that accent they gave the actress supposed to be, exactly?) Slayer. It was decades before Zoë Alleyne Washburne in Firefly and Serenity, and even Patience Phillips in the ill-fated Halle Berry version of Catwoman. Are you getting the word picture I'm painting here? I could have gone as a creature from Caribbean folklore, but I was almost certain to be the only one at GVSTAcon with any knowledge of Caribbean folklore, and I didn't want to have to explain what I was depicting.
I couldn't pull off cosplay as Storm. The cost of the haircut and hair-bleaching alone was way beyond my budget at the time, never mind the contact lenses. (Were contact lenses even a thing back then? I can't remember.) But Uhura? She was pretty close to perfect for what I wanted.
You can't tell in the picture, but I wore my hair straightened in those years, so that part of the look was covered. I sewed the costume myself, based on a book of Star Trek paraphernalia descriptions I saw in Toronto's Bakka Books. I remember scouring the fabric stories for cheap fabric with the right colour, weight and hand.
The costume is fairly accurate, except I couldn't bring myself to make the bloomers they supposedly wore under those skimpy dresses. So I made the dress a tad bit longer and wore regular tights.
Nichelle Nichols, you were there when I needed you, and not just in terms of taking part in a costume parade. Because you were and are visible where you are visible, you make it possible for other Black women to be seen, too. Thank you.
Cicada is a lit/art/comix magazine for teens and young adults. My short story "The Easthound" has been reprinted in the Sept-Oct 2016 issue, and they also did an interview with me. Just got my contributor's copies. It looks like a great magazine.
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:
Look so good
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.
Finally finished a very rough draft of the last scene of Chapter Seven! Now to tackle the remaining two chapters, then give the whole thing one more going-over.
I'm new at this, and boy, is it ever fiddly work.
In the past month, two budding writers have given me the same reason for not applying to introductory writing workshops they'd love to attend; they aren't good enough yet. I understand how this can happen. You're an unpublished writer, you're not sure whether your work has any merit, and you're not sure how to tell whether it does or not. You look at the lists of names of people who've attended these workshops and gone on to have successful careers, and some of them are writers whose work you love. You think, OMG, I don't dare apply; I'm nowhere near as good as any of those people!
But here's the kicker; neither were they, when they attended those workshops. They went there to learn. That's what a writing workshop is for. When I attended Clarion, a lot of my stories were hot messes, sometimes with the occasional pearl or two floating in the mire. (Hell, there are those who think my writing is still a hot mess.) A good workshop for beginners isn't there to shame you if your writing skills aren't what they could be. It's there to inspire and challenge you. Ideally, it's a space in which you can push yourself and fall because you took the courage to aim higher than your reach. I think of workshops for budding writers as places for writing badly precisely because you're trying out new skills. It's not pleasant to hear that you still don't have the knack of it. But in the workshop, there's room to keep trying. Saying "I can't apply to x workshop for non-published writers because I'm not good enough," boils down to, "I can't apply for school because I have a lot to learn." See the circular reasoning there?
Mind you, some workshops suck at the part about creating a space that empowers you to risk failure. Avoid like poison any workshop that confuses constructive criticism with ridicule. A good instructor/administration tries to nip that shit in the bud the second it happens. A bad instructor/administration *participates* in it. Make no mistake; constructive criticism of your writing can be painful to experience. A workshop that's all feelgood all the time is useless. There's a place somewhere between empty praise and pointless shaming where you can find honest efforts to help you improve your writing. Those are the workshops you want.
Now, if selection is based on the promise your work shows, there's a good chance that you won't get in the first time you apply, or the second, or the ninth. You may never be accepted. But taking that risk is good practice for submitting your stories to editors. I can't tell you how many workshop students have told me that they applied more than once to the workshop before they were admitted. Yes, it's scary. If fear of rejection is really what's keeping you from applying, I completely understand. Rejection stings. I've been a published writer for over 15 years, and I still feel awful every time I get a negative review, or a reader blogs a rant about how shite I am. But I've come to think of that as part of the job. Athletes have bumps and bruises, too. The shame of being rejected doesn't stick long enough to ruin my joy in making art. In the spirit of being honest, I'll confess that the best cure for the sting is that there are editors and readers who like my work. If there weren't, I'd probably find it more difficult to keep going. But before I was published, I didn't have access to that cure. Budding writers generally don't. If one of them decides that the likelihood of rejection if they continue is more than they can bear, that makes sense to me. But please, please don't prevent yourself from applying for a workshop that could improve your writing because your writing needs to be improved. It makes my heart hurt when people do that.
Because the thing is, sometimes the act of applying and being rejected in itself helps the writer strengthen their skills. I once trapped a mouse in a very, very tall container with smooth sides. I couldn't bear to kill her. I was planning to release her outside, far away from the house. I didn't have a lid for the container. The mouse was desperate. She kept leaping, trying to get out the top, but since she could barely get 1/4 of the way up, I felt certain she'd remain in there until I could get my coat and boots on. However, with the next jump, she got 1/3 of the way up. I watched, fascinated. Two leaps later, she reached halfway up. Before I could get to the container, she tried a couple more jumps, made it to the top, and skedaddled out of there. I have to say that a part of me was cheering for her.