22 Aug

Paneling while light, but not white

I just got back from London, and would love to be uploading pictures and talking about two weeks spent in Europe, but I’m catching up on bills and getting into the swing of work. And my kids start Kindergarten. And the dogs need picked up. So I’ll be a little late.

However, a few people have pinged me about a couple of blog posts that reacted to the panel “Imagining Fantasy Lands: The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding.”

London Worldcon had a fascinating vein of programming with an openness to discussion about diversity, challenging status quo, and world viewpoints. Noticeably more so than past Worldcons. It’s a far cry from the first time I attended a worldcon, and there was just a sole obligatory ‘race in SF’ panel and that was the one (maybe only, outside corridor meet ups) place to find this discussion.

This panel was another one of London Worldcon’s varied pieces of interesting programming. It featured Mary Anne Mohanraj, me, Kate Elliott, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Victoria Donnelly, and Ellen Kushner. The panel description goes thusly:

Fantasy world-building sometimes comes under fire for its pedantic attention to detail at the expense of pacing or prose style. Do descriptive passages clog up the narrative needlessly, when reader imagination should be filling in the gaps? Where does that leave the landscapes and cultures that are less well represented in the Western genre: can world-building be a tool in subverting reader expectations that would otherwise default to pseudo-medieval Euro-esque? If fantasy is about defamiliarising the familiar, how important is material culture – buildings, furnishings, tools, the organisation of social and commercial space – in creating a fantasy world?

Two people in the audience were a bit taken aback. Blogger Not By Its Cover (I’m not sure of their name) was upset when I demurred talking about being ‘light but not white’ for the panel and was pressed by panelists to keep on the subject:

He repeatedly said in his response that he doesn’t usually like to talk about his experiences of race, that people outside the Caribbean find his presence in discussions of race disturbing and confusing, that he doesn’t have the energy to deal with that, and that he does not want to be an educator. What enraged me was that, in response to his saying this, a couple of his fellow panelists exclaimed that he absolutely should participate in discussions of race precisely because people found it so problematic and that even if he didn’t wish to participate…

Kate Nepveu also noticed this and commented on it in her panel notes.

So on this panel, I talked about the fact that looking white but not identifying as such due to my bi-racial background complicated discussions. I’m happy to engage in this in some situations and in certain contexts where I known I don’t have an audience that’s still struggling with race 101 level stuff, but for the panel itself I didn’t come prepared and wasn’t expecting to become a focus of the panel. Partly because I came a bit more prepared to talk about what went into creating a fantasy world and how it’s done more deeply, and because I wanted to interrogate and poke at pseudo-medieval constructs.

So, the panel swerved to a bit more of ‘how we authors’ try to deepen work and use our backgrounds to do it. Panels swerve quite often, but I was unprepared for this and tried to demur. I was tired, as I’d just come out of three weeks of travel (promoting Hurricane Fever, teaching a workshop, then a week in Spain, and finally London Worldcon). My ability to switch tracks wasn’t there, I was very exhausted. I was also trying to monitor the panel’s conversational flow and make sure the sole non-writer on the panel, our archeologist Victoria Donnelly, who was making her first appearance at a science fiction panel, was not overrun by us authors and our opinions (even though I was sure Mary Anne wouldn’t do that, I wanted to make sure, as I thought Victoria had a very interesting background we could gain a lot from).

So I demurred, and the panel thought that I might have interested things to say and they…

…keep in mind Mary Anne and Kate and have known me a while…

…pulled a bit at me.

On the panel itself the fact that the audience felt my reticence and responded was not surprising. I didn’t want to talk about the complications of being light not white as a working writer right there because sometimes I have to carefully consider the impacts of my words. And I was tired. So I was worried about making mistakes.

But we muddle our way through. I wasn’t upset with Mary Anne or any of my panelists at the time, just momentarily trying to change the entire set of ‘stories’ and conversations I had arrived with loaded into my mental ready-state.

So why was I reticent?

It’s that if I get up and talk about my struggles, in some cases I can easily negate the even harder struggles others have. Look, I look and ‘read’ white to most people (including non-whites). I therefore complicate discussions about diversity due to living in a culture that takes race as binary. Look, I see the president of the US and see a bi-racial dude from a mixed family background. Most Americans are all like ‘dude’s black.’ And so are a lot of non-white Americans.

So I roll up and talk about how it’s personally annoying when people of all kinds don’t want to recognize me as bi-racial and that’s sometimes problematic. Here are writers struggling far more than I have who come from a legacy and background of far more vicious racism than can be even sometimes explained. So what if I’m left off most lists of diverse SF writers. Boo hoo, right? (And this has mostly been on my mind because I’ve been told by some that I’ve been taken out of articles or such for not being ‘properly diverse’ and just as someone who wants to be part of the tribe of diverse SF/F authors doing amazing things it pains to be excluded on a personal level, but on a larger societal level, shit, injustices against the people of diversity is vastly larger) People read me different than I read myself, I’ve been dealing with that for 35 years. It’s cool. But trying to talk about the complexities of it mean I can inadvertently suppress other narratives, right? I don’t get the *right* to say who gets on a list of diverse writers or how I’m considered at large, I can only keep conversing and trying to add to diversity and talk up good things. So when someone suddenly asks about the complicated nature of how I’m perceived or received in genre, or what my struggle has been, I freeze.

But even as that happens, I also get annoyed with narratives that try to require me to fit into a certain ‘type’ of diversity. It seems the white power structures like immigrant narratives and magical realism from brown-identifying folk. Man, is that ever true, and even allies can fit into this. There’s been a heavy pressure on me to drop doing the action and to write about magical immigrants. I’ve been offered book deals and better money, and it’s funny, I’ve had three editors in the last ten years point blank sketch out the outline of the same novel: immigrant from the Caribbean arrives in the US and does something magically realist.

So, you know, it’s complicated. I’m writing Caribbean Space Opera and have had historically black media *and* white editors tell me they’ll pay attention when I do a magical realist book and I want to keep doing what I’m doing and I’m slowly building this wide audience of people who are digging diverse characters in high octane adventures. Do I want to appear not grateful to make a living doing what I’m doing in public? No. I’m building something, and I’m trying to make sure I spend less time annoyed with people who don’t get what I’m up to and more time sharing excitement with those who totally get it!

So let’s end this positively. I’m all good. The panel was fascinating and was a sign of a fantastic convention (for me at least, I didn’t get to a ton of panels). I was delighted to be up there with amazing minds. And I’m impressed that the audience felt defensive on my part and thank them, but I bear no ill-will or negative feelings towards any of the panelists.