I’m headed to Readercon 28 next week and I just got my schedule.
Wednesday, July 12
Reading, etc. 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.
With Max Gladstone and Yoon Ha Lee at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA (4 Pleasant St.). This event is free and open to public. Click here to get more info.
Friday, July 14
Our Dystopia – 1 p.m.
Since the election, many on the left have been calling attention to George Orwell’s 1984 as a missed warning. Guest of Honor Nnedi Okorafor said in a radio interview that she believes Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower is a more appropriate dystopia for our current climate. Orwell’s Animal Farm, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and other books have also warned of surreal authoritarianism. Do they map to our current world or are we projecting? What other books have warnings for us that we might heed?
I’ll be reading my short story “Sin Embargo” which was published in the anthology Latin@ Rising in early 2017.
“In ‘Sin Embargo,’ Sabrina Vourvoulias plays with translation and transformation in interesting ways.” — Publishers Weekly
Come hear me play with language(s), live and loud … 😜
Saturday, July 15
The Long Tail of the Tall Tale – 1 p.m.
Tall tales, like their fairy tale cousins, are reinvented in every culture around the world. These tales, handed down through generations, provide context for how humans relate to one another and to storytelling, as well as giving an intriguing look into cultural history. Panelists will discuss the ways tall tales and oral storytelling traditions have influenced the work of present-day speculative authors such as Andy Duncan, Andrea Hairston, Catherynne M. Valente, and Daniel José Older, and explore what helps a tall tale hit the sweet spot of both exaggerated and believable.
SF writers have often written deeply political books and stories; some stand the test of time, while others become dated very quickly. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The New Atlantis,” to name just a few, directly addressed major issues of their day and are still relevant now—but differently. What affects how political SF ages and is read decades after its publication? What are today’s explicitly political books, and how do we expect them to resonate decades in the future?
There is a registration fee for Readercon weekend, except for Thursday programs which are free. There are day passes are available ($55 each for Friday and Saturday programs, $25 for Sunday programs). The schedule of programs is pretty spectacular, even on Sunday. The full schedule (except for individual readings) is here.
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 (in2014, 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, EllenKushner, 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 Distributedand 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.
From July 7 through the 10, I’ll be in Quincy, Mass. at Readercon. For those of you who haven’t heard about it, here’s a description:
Although Readercon is modeled on “science fiction conventions,” there is no art show, no costumes, no gaming, and almost no media. Instead, Readercon features a near-total focus on the written word. In many years the list of Readercon guests rivals or surpasses that of the Worldcon in quality. Readercon is the only small convention regularly attended by such giants of imaginative literature as Gene Wolfe, Samuel R. Delany, John Crowley, Barry N. Malzberg, Kit Reed, and Jonathan Lethem. The program consists of two tracks each of panel discussions, author readings, and solo talks or discussion groups, plus kaffeeklatsches (intimate gatherings with an author) and autograph signings. The program also currently features the presentation of two major genre awards: The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award for a neglected author and the Shirley Jackson Awards for dark fantasy and psychological suspense.
This year’s Guests of Honor are Catherynne M. Valente and Tim Powers; the memorial Guest of Honor is Diana Wynne Jones. I’m slated to be on three panels, and I’ll be giving one reading. If you are at Readercon, please stop in and say hello.
When we think of the world of Harry Potter, what comes to mind first—the magic and childish delights of Hogwarts, with its cozy dormitories and feasts and flying lessons, or its numerous, creeping dystopian elements (even discounting Voldemort!), from the enslaved house elves to Umbridge to the Dementors, which are, frankly, the tools of a fascist state? Can we make an argument that HP is actually more like a dystopia than a fantasy? Even if we’re half joking, there’s still an interesting discussion here: how do these two sides of the wizarding world play off each other, and how do they compare with other dystopian YA? Maybe we need a new subgenre: Cozy Dystopia.
Friday, July 8, 3 PM:
Victoria Janssen, Ada Palmer, Andrea Phillips, Sabrina Vourvoulias, T.X. Watson.
Dystopia is popular in YA fiction for a variety of reasons, but why do authors frequently base their future dystopian society on some flimsy ideas, rather than using history to draw parallels between past atrocities and current human rights violations? Is it easier to work from one extreme idea, such as “love is now considered a disease” rather than looking at the complexities of, for example, the corruption of the U.S.S.R or the imperialism of the US? If science fiction uses the future to look at the present, is it more or less effective when using real examples from the past to look at our present through a lens of the future?
Friday, July 8, 6 PM:
Who Gets to Tell My Story?
Keffy Kehrli, Mikki Kendall (leader), Robert V. S. Redick, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Sabrina Vourvoulias.
Some calls for diverse submissions focus on the identity of the author, while others focus on the identity of the characters. What are the differences between the stories that result? Is there something problematic in a cis/het writer taking on a queer character’s story, or a white author with a protagonist who is a person of color? Does it depend on the story they are telling? Their skill telling it? Their awareness/avoidance of tropes? What responsibility do they have toward their protagonist’s community?
Saturday, July 9, 1 PM:
Sabrina Vourvoulias reads either “El Cantar de Rising Sun” scheduled for the July/August issue of Uncanny Magazine, or “Sin Embargo” which is included in Latino/a Rising (early 2017)