Stef (firecat) wrote,

Wiscon Panel Report: Reconciliation within SFF

Reconciliation Within SF/F

Tracks: Power, Privilege, and Oppression (Fandom as a Way of Life)
Description: N.K. Jemisin's Guest of Honor speech at Continuum 2013 included a call for a Reconciliation within SF/F. "It is time that we recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors.…[I]t's time we took steps—some symbolic, some substantive—to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that's certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone." What would a Reconciliation look like? How can we start one? How can we grow one?

NK Jemisin (NKJ) - Moderator
Eileen Gunn (EG)
Andrea Hairston (AH)
Debbie Notkin (DN)
Michi Trota (MT)

Twitter hashtag: #SFFReconciliation

[My notes aren't a complete transcription and may represent my own language rather than the actual words of the panelists. I welcome corrections. I did not identify all audience commenters by name. If you said something I paraphrased here and want your name to be used, please comment or send me a private message.]

Reconciliation Australia is an independent, national not-for-profit organisation promoting reconciliation by building relationships, respect and trust between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Our vision is for everyone to wake to a reconciled, just and equitable Australia. Our aim is to inspire and enable all Australians to contribute to reconciliation and break down stereotypes and discrimination.

The panelists introduced themselves:

DN: Don't write fiction but do all sorts of other things for SF and fandom. When I saw the panel description I checked "Please" (I really want to be on this panel) and then when I found out I was on it, I thought, "I should know about this".

MT: I run Chicago Nerd Social Club, write creative nonfiction, was a guest blogger on Jim Hines' blog (, was published in Hines' anthology Invisible (

EG: I am a writer. I have been working for diversity since 60s. We can make community part of the process now. Literature belongs to everyone.

AH: I am a writer and professor. I say to students: "I want your work in the world so I have to change the world." In reconciliation effort, I want to get at core issues, get beyond snark.

NK: I am both the moderator and the subject of this panel. That's a little weird. My thoughts have evolved, as you will find out when you hear my guest of honor speech later. Context of the quote: Was at an Australian convention. Went to City Museum of Melbourne. Museum was honest about the horrific things done to indigenous people. Until 70s they were classified as animals and were subjected to hunts, bbqs, scalpings. Public meetings now acknowledged stolen land. Sad because this won't happen in US despite same history of mistreatment of indigenous and imported people. In the US we actually want to rebrand the slave trade.

AH: I went to Savannah and went on a tour. They said "here is where the workers lived." Workers? What workers? They meant slaves.

NK: We aren't acknowledging what happened. White male dominance didn't happen by accident.

What would reconciliation look like?

EG: Everyone should be involved. Writers must read each other's work. We have to make it cool for white people to read different kinds of literature. If readers read, publishers will follow, editors will follow.

AH: I want that, I want people to read and to have diverse writing available. How do you know what to look for? E.g. on internet. People need access. My students don't know the people I teach. Some are afraid to take black writers class, but then discover "oh this is good!" People need to take risks. We need to make risk fun, to make feeling lost interesting. We need to get people excited so they go look for more themselves. People need to become readers.

EG: Amazon and other online booksellers should use "more like this" feature to highlight writers of color.

NKJ: They do that at least when I look for books on amazon.

DN: I was struck by the willingness to look honestly at the past in both Australia and South Africa. (At least at radical gatherings I am involved with). Boxed statement: "this genre is historically white and male."

MT: In classes I take, the same authors are always taught, but with no acknowledgement of why THOSE authors. We should at least acknowledge there are and have been other kinds of people writing. But if you love the genre, you'll love those writers too. Put a variety of writers on the list. Make little changes to normalize that the genre has more than the standard writers.

NKJ: Reconciliation involves looking at the harm that has been done. For example, apartheid in South Africa, Rwanda after genocide, etc. Within SF, was there enough harm done to warrant reconciliation? Examples?

MT: Examples: 1. Took a class on gender in comics. All the characters discussed were white. We tweeted at professor and said why are we only talking about gender from a white POV? She said it's too complicated to add race in too. This is a problematic assumption, a huge hump to get over. [Missed this] has been good about diversity, but no panels about race, submitted panel was rejected, because it made people uncomfortable? We can't have discussion about reconciliation if we can't have conversations.

NKJ: Historical compartmentalization. There is a default of white, so diversity is not "normal," it's a separate issue and inherently politicized. So can't have conversation. "Inclusiveness" means an assumption that there is a neutral state.

DN: We're avoiding a word: race. White ppl are afraid to say it. It's terrifying. So I talk about if all the time to demystify it.

NKJ - White people perceive race as a threat; think "If we acknowledge these people, then what happens?"

DN: In the fat liberation movement, when we say "fat women are beautiful," some people hear "therefore thin women aren't."

NKJ: This is part of American thought, only one at a time.

AH: White people think, there is rage, but I didn't do anything. Why am I bad?

Au: "Not all men..."

Systemic vs individual

NKJ: At Game of Thrones talk at Brooklyn museum, black fans enraged by assumption in epic fantasy that medieval Europe was exclusively white, when it was not. Martin said his writing is "realistic" and disparaged topic, said there were no people of color back then. This is an example of the harm: Conceptual violence. "Our ability to have fun" spoiled because we have to swallow white supremacy.

MT: Why can't we have the conversation? We know writers aren't perfect. Why can't we point out the problematic tropes? People feel you're attacking their identities when you attack things they like.

EG: If you say people are closing themselves off from reality, they feel you are criticizing them as people. People get invested in a work and in their worldview. You're right to tell them that, because they don't really want to do something wrong. But they don't see it that way.

AH: Writing historical fantasy, people argue with me about what happened. Wrote a book about the future, got criticism "people don't speak only 1–2 languages." People tell me "Women didn't make films." Nope, they're wrong. I am a scholar on this! The HARM is in not being taken seriously, not getting the benefit of doubt. We need to ask ourselves "Who are we questioning and why?" Our reality forms us before we can react to it. Let's check it out before making assumptions. For me, reconciliation would involve getting rid of that part.

MT: Some of us are more used to questioning our assumptions because we have to prove ourselves. So people with privilege should check their sources first. Check assumptions about who's speaking. If you think they're wrong, think about it for a minute.

DN: To take it a step further, you don't really need to tell people they're wrong. Or you can ask "what's your source?"

NKJ: Assumption of expertise. Daniel José Older edited the Long Hidden anthology of unheard voices. ( Includes atypical voices, tones, styles. A review in Strange Horizons dismissed this with "oh well, dialect is a literary trick and it damages the story." But what if the person who wrote it speaks that dialect? Daniel Older pointed out the fallacy. Dialect permeates canon.
Strange Horizons apologized here:]
AH: James Baldwin said writers "don't need to use dialect, just imply it." White critics use this against black authors.

NKJ: Abyss & Apex article about editorial decisions. Tobias Buckell is now the James Baldwin of SF.
MT: The Abyss & Apex article reframed editor's feelings as a white woman. Can we background white feelings for a change?

NKJ: Core is privileging a single voice and policing of voices that aren't that voice. This is the harm.

EG: I have Irish heritage. Dunn, a journalist, wrote in Irish dialect. It was hard to read. I tried to translate it into standard English but I can't. You lose something. It can't be told in another way.

NKJ: We need to ask the reader to be multilingual.

AD: In theater I use voice and dialect because it is part of being. The audience works and their work is rewarded. People don't want to make an effort.

DN: White man makes dialect out of nowhere and calls it Ridley Walker and it wins world fantasy award.

NKJ: If the book is 1/3 elvish that's OK, but 3 sentences of Spanish are not ok.
[Paraphrases Junot Diaz:]
Au: What about groups that don't exist on earth?

NKJ: ppl assume in my works.

Au: White people consider race oppression as an inconvenient truth. If we acknowledge it, that means we need to do something.

Au: How can we quantify harm? Can we quantify sufficient harm? Quantify = justify?

NKJ: Some harms can't be quantified. What is the loss to authors ? Can't get slate on bookcon.

MT: The cat is no longer on the guest list at bookcon.
Au: Many groups speak dialect but also speak standardized English.

NKJ: That's code switching.

Au: Our brains are trained to hear nuance by reading dialect. So why is there a problem with dialect?

AH: Because of the power to say "My language orders the world." People with that power don't have to learn other languages. In the US we defined our language this way on purpose. Defined our political reality using culture.

Au: Framing harm as harm to the people on the down side is a loser argument. White guy needs to feel white guy is being harmed.

DN: Eileen spoke to that—how much we lost. Not just heart but the loss of voices that we could have learned from. People who are more privileged lose more.

EG: I feel strongly white ppl have lost poc knowledge by avoiding black people. By holding them down

NKJ: I hesitate to reframe the argument in this way because white people already dominate conversation.

Au: In canada there has been reconciliation, but in quotes. It got little attention and was superficial. Harm is still being done. For example, First Nations women go missing.

Au: This happens in the US too.

Au: K. Tempest Bradford "Demanding the best" (

NKJ: Recommend Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora ( W.E.B. Dubois wrote SF!

NKJ: Ta-Nehisi Coates' article in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations" (

DN: Coates' article "This Town Needs a Better Class of Racist" (

I liked this panel a lot, and it was great to start my Wiscon with this panel and end it with N.K. Jemisin's Guest of Honor speech on Sunday night. Perfectly bracketed.

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