Part One in a Three Part Series.
What I’d like to offer in the next three segments are some suggestions to Science Fiction and Fantasy conference (con) organizers everywhere who might be interested in growing and diversifying their events. Part one of this blog will outline the issue. Part two offers solutions and approaches. Part three will contain concrete suggestions for panel titles.
I’m not a regular on the Canadian Science Fiction (sci fi) con trail but I’d like to be. Money, of course, is one obstacle that keeps me from attending as many cons as I would like. The second obstacle is difficult to discuss and puts many people on the defensive: lack of ethno-cultural diversity at cons.
While I attended some US cons back in the late nineties I’ve started attending them in Canada more recently. With two just-released sci fi novels, I thought I’d give cons another shot. After all, as in any other business, networking is crucial to learning, gaining respect and making sales. Unfortunately I often feel so traumatized at cons that I’ve vowed never to go again. It surprises me that in a genre known for its biting social commentary on a number of issues, including racism and colonialism, Canadian cons would be so … well, White.
This is especially puzzling when they take place in urban areas like my city of Toronto, which boasts an Aboriginal population of 70,000 and where half of the 2.8 million residents migrated from outside of Canada. If our cons were reflective of the city’s demographics, close to half the participants and presenters would be Indigenous and people of colour (POC). It’s clear that our peeps read and write speculative fiction, make fantastic art and enjoy genre films. So why don’t we do the con thing?
Bear with me while I relate a few experiences that might answer that question.
- At a con three years ago I witnessed a conversation among hard science writers (White) where they ridiculed folks who refused to get themselves or their children flu vaccinations. They felt such people were ignorant conspiracy theorists whose mistrust of all things government put everyone at risk. If these guys (and they were guys) had any knowledge of how Indigenous and people of colour have been experimented on by scientists, how ineffective and even harmful vaccines and drugs have been dumped into impoverished and racialized markets, they didn’t say. Maybe if they had been aware of this history they might have concluded, as many of us have, that a healthy suspicion of pharmaceutical companies and their vaccines, not to mention government policy, is a pretty rational survival strategy for Indigenous and POC communities.
- At another panel on “Bioengineering in Sci Fi”, one author ridiculed people who believed in God as worthy of being declared clinically insane. As I listened, I wondered what he would say if he knew that for Indigenous peoples in Canada the process of decolonization involves reclaiming a culture infused with spirituality; that spiritual colonization, particularly through the brutality of residential schools, was crucial to land theft, resource extraction and genocide. Most Indigenous folks I know feel that holding onto our spiritual beliefs and practices is what got us through the dark times. It is our lifeline still as governments enable corporate exploitation of our land and resources, standing idle as more of our women are murdered, assaulted and disappeared. Our capacity to survive past and ongoing colonization is a testament to our intellect and wisdom. To the extent that we suffer from mental health issues, we have colonization and not our culture to thank for it. While I get that there are religious leaders who are strongly opposed to bioengineering, I fail to understand how implying that because I pray to the Great Spirit I’m insane. Unfortunately with every(white)body in the room either nodding their heads in agreement with the author or ignoring the issue entirely, I didn’t feel safe challenging his assertion.
- In yet another panel I heard from a white author who came across an Inuit “myth” about the Aurora Borealis, liked it and published her interpretation of it in an anthology. When I asked her whom she’d heard the story from, she couldn’t remember the Elder’s name. “Did you get permission to publish it?” I inquired. She replied that, since she’d seen an online version of the “myth” she’d assumed it was okay to retell and publish that story. Hmm. I might have taken this opportunity to discuss cultural appropriation or ideas about community owned stories but no one else seemed concerned and I hardly felt equipped to argue the issue in an all-white context.
- Recently, at an all white panel (that, to their credit, noted they were an all white panel) entitled “Multiculturalism in Sci Fi” (don’t we all love that word?) one panelist referred to Sequoia, the man who developed the Cherokee alphabet, as “illiterate”. To be fair she was applauding his achievement as in ‘this man who couldn’t read or write English achieved this great thing’ AND she apologized for the use of the word after I questioned it. Still, my blood boiled. Sequoia was hardly illiterate in the ways of his people, their environment and in the many stories depicted in wampum belts and other artistic works. This time there was a person of colour in the audience who told me she was equally rankled by the panelist’s choice of words; so we grumbled and commiserated with each other because by then the panel was over.
I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. It’s too difficult to visit spaces where you have to repeatedly listen to ignorant remarks about you and your peeps. Even if you respond to them you’re usually outnumbered in the argument or otherwise silenced by lack of time for a thorough discussion.
Now I’ve organized weekend conferences before and I know they’re a lot of work. More so if you don’t have any funding. It’s very disappointing to come out of all that organizing only to have people gripe about everything that went wrong and never mention anything that went right. So, here are a few highlights of my Sci Fi & Fantasy con experiences.
- A very insightful and educational panel on the treatment of Asians in science fiction offered by a majority Asian panel. Panelists visited historical tropes, stereotypes and premeditated strategies in comics, film and literature to whip up anti-Asian racism through the genre. It was fascinating.
- Another panel discussed Sci Fi’s relationship to people with disabilities, panelists concluding that for the most part they felt accurately represented in the fiction and welcomed at cons. I learned a lot about what disabled Sci Fi fans expected and wanted of writers. I also made a friend, an aspiring writer with whom I keep in touch.
- At the most recent Sci Fi Contario I was delighted to meet Canadian author Doug Smith who launched his new book The Wolf at the End of the World. Smith is a self-proclaimed white guy who definitely did his homework before including Anishinabe and Cree characters as well as stories into his novel. The research he did and the conversations he had about residential schools, Idle No More and other issues seem to have touched him deeply and moved him to reflect on First Nations struggles in his writings. You’ll find a bibliography at the end of his novel of works written by Indigenous authors, for those interested in learning more about our cultures and histories. For me Smith is one example of how powerful relationship building can be when it comes to transforming hearts and minds.
Learning that there is some openness on the part of con organizers to accept panel suggestions and new panelists leaves me hopeful. However, there’s a huge difference between ‘being open’ and deliberately outreaching to communities. There’s a difference between seeing who shows up and actively extending a hand to begin building relationships. In my experience, SF fandom is intelligent and open hearted. We constantly challenge power inequities in our work and buying decisions. Are we willing to share space at our cons with Indigenous and POC fandom?
In my next blog post I’ll get on to making some concrete suggestions about how to transform your con into an event that embraces ethno-cultural diversity.