Readercon 27 just ended and I am trying to convince myself not to write this.
Here’s the thing, I love Readercon. My first year (Readercon 22) was a bit rough since I knew no one IRL (and precious few folks virtually), but it had enough substance and just enough fluff to hook me into returning every year (except last year, which I couldn’t swing for a variety of boring, mundane reasons).
The con has evolved a lot in those six years. It had a fairly major harassment fail that prompted it to revamp its safety policies and procedures so wholly it has become a model for other cons. The panels steadily grew more inclusive, and some even focused entirely on underrepresented groups (in 2014, the Thursday open programming track included a Latinx SFF panel, for example). Last year — in a welcome admission that even the intellectually predisposed need moments of bodily abandon — a dance party was added to the mix.
All of which is to say, that this year should have been great. And, in some ways it was. I spent time with a lot of wonderful people. The audience for my solo reading was fantastically supportive and appreciative. The new venue had better food, more lobby space and offered free wifi in private as well as public spaces.
But in ways that really matter to me, Readercon 27 wasn’t great at all.
There were more all-white panels than I remember from previous years. Microaggressions toward people of color became macro and played out in front of rooms full of people, and for the first time in my Readercon experience I came away from panels shaking my head at the stunningly unrepentant arrogance of members of the SFF community.
Others can speak to the panels they attended or were part of (the Readercon twitter timeline is full of incisive comment — I particularly suggest @ANerdCalledRage), I will stick to the worst of the ones I myself witnessed and have since been stewing about.
Beyond Strong Female Characters
This was a complete shitshow. Sorry, but there is no other way to describe it.
Within seconds of starting, the leader of the panel, Ellen Kushner, silenced Mikki Kendall (the one Black panelist) as she was speaking about the trope of the Strong Black Woman.
When Kendall gave pop culture examples of the Strong Black Woman trope, Kushner demanded literary ones in a move that was 50 percent gaslighting and 100 percent intellectual hubris.
Instead of actually grappling fully and honestly with the trope, Kushner asked for a show of hands from the audience from those who had heard of the Strong Black Woman trope and those who had read N.K. Jemisin, and seeing many hands, dismissed the need to speak further about it, or the way a Black American author has addressed it in her work.
“Well, that was graduate level comment,” Kushner said to Kendall at one point, in a comment so wincingly condescending it hurt me, as an audience member, just to hear it come out of her mouth.
Kushner is someone who, at my first Readercon, held a reading so spectacularly wonderful it still lives vividly in my memory. I’ve always liked her work; I’ve always admired her talent. But … but … I will never be able to unhear this comment and the disgraceful stereotype it plays to.
Because of Kushner’s antipathy toward Kendall, the other panel members — Delia Sherman (Kushner’s wife), Kat Howard and Natalie Luhrs (all white-appearing folks) — got a lot more time to address the topic at hand than Kendall did. At the end there was time for only a few audience questions. Thankfully, Readercon’s Emily Wagner directed her question to Kendall, and so gave her some time to speak without constraint … but it was way too little and way too late.
The panel was real time proof that the online discussion of white feminism’s exclusion and dismissal of the concerns of women of color, particularly Black women, is sadly on point.
Blue Collar SF
I don’t actually know the name of the leader of this panel but not too long into the panel, the words “too many chiefs, not enough ‘injuns’” came unabashedly out of his mouth. My friends Ezzy Guerrero Languzzi (a Mexican-American writer who has been attending Readercon for the past five years) and Kay Holt (one of the publishers of Crossed Genres) got up and left right then. I’m sure others did too.
I did not, I stayed — because it’s hard to look away from an accident, and also because I am eternally hopeful that clueless leaders will experience a corrective from their co-panelists (all of them, at this panel, white-appearing).
After some time of bemoaning the lack of blue collar protagonists (the leader listed some five or six books he remembered with blue collar protags, and Bud Sparhawk spoke about his own blue collar characters) I thought we were finally going to broach the complexities of depicting blue collar protagonists of color when Marissa Lingen brought up intersectionality.
But I ended up feeling both disappointed and let down by the partiality of her plea to remember women are blue collar workers too.
Fran Wilde did mention a writer of color — Nisi Shawl and her steampunk novel Everfair (which will launch in September) — but as in the previously described panel, it was too little and too late.
Oh, and again, the leader of this panel made the point that books, not media or pop culture, were the acceptable references and subjects for analysis at Readercon. I’m not sure why this point was being made over and over again by leaders of panels this year in a way I don’t remember from previous years — is it about “making Readercon great again”? (Yes, that is a very intentional choice of words.) But, no matter its intent, it really sticks in my craw, as all such “purist” pleas do.
The panels I was on
Two of the panels I was on, Cozy Dystopia (about Harry Potter’s dystopian elements) and Fantastical Dystopia were inexplicably programmed one right after the other. They were pretty white (I’m a white-appearing Latina), which I think is bizarre given the ongoing discussion about erasure of people of color from post-apocalyptic worlds and dystopian literary constructs.
Cozy Dystopia was a great panel, thanks in part to Kenneth Schneyer’s leadership and his willingness to broach every we issue raised, no matter how fractious or complicated.
Fantastical Dystopia, on the other hand, was really quite awful. I took on the role of leader the day before, and consequently hadn’t organized it — and it showed. I truly value everyone’s contributions under less than optimal conditions, but things never meshed for us. On the other hand, at least nothing “outright barbarous” (to, fittingly, quote George Orwell) was said or enacted by any panelist — which reportedly happened at other panels on dystopia and apocalyptic fiction.
The third panel I was on — Who Gets to Tell My Story? — was terrific. The panelists were, without exception, great and it ended up being led by Julia Starkey, because Mikki Kendall (the scheduled leader) thought she was going to be late. Kendall actually arrived just as the panel started, and the session was lively and dynamic. This was the Readercon I remembered and loved so much.
I don’t know for a fact if the panel composition was less diverse this year, but it sure seemed that way to me, and much of what happened during panels felt like a huge step backward because of it. The tweets I’ve seen about The Apocalypse Is Already Here; It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed and other panels I did not attend, seem to confirm that others felt that way too.
Where to go from here
Because I love Readercon, I hope the folks in charge find a way to look at what failed this year and why, and to understand what it might have meant to the first-time attendee of color in the audience.
I think this deserves as much thoughtful discussion as what took place during the harassment situation from years ago. I’m thinking that in-depth conversations with Mikki Kendall and Vandana Singh (if they are willing) and other folks who might have been subjected to public macro- and microaggressions are in order before next year’s planning begins.
Also, attendees of color should be invited to give their suggestions and recommendations to ensure that Readercon doesn’t garner — further? — a reputation as an unfriendly con for PoCs to attend.
There is an opportunity here for Readercon leaders to do better and to confront the damage done this year head-on. To paraphrase Dolores Huerta and conflate several of my favorite quotes from her: Every minute is a chance to change the world …now get off the sidewalk and march into history.
Updated 7/12/16 at 4:34: The leader of the Blue Collar SF panel was Allen Steele, per the comment on this post by one of his co-panelists.
Updated 7/11/16 at 2:38 p.m. to correct title of panel about which I’ve seen tweeted complaints.