This year I went to my first convention: the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I went to a lot of panels, a LOT of panels. And I took a lot of notes.
I’m going to share a few of my notes here. Rather than chronologically, I’ve grouped the panels thematically.
This set of panels are those that talked about diversity.
Rewriting Gender Defaults
Roz J Kaveney, Alex Dally MacFarlane,Julia Rios, Geoff Ryman, Mary Talbot
This panel discussed the depictions of people of diverse genders in SF&F.
What to use? English only has “he” and “she”. There are a few different non-gendered pronouns.
What to use is the preference of the individual to whom the pronoun applies.
What do you do when you can’t ask what is preferred? Some people prefer their name as a pronoun. Does this lack ‘solidarity’? How do you deal with the situation where you don’t know anyone’s name?
There is no one way of handling pronouns and there never will be.
- If in fiction you choose not to use a pronoun for a character is this a copout? Does it obscure the complexity of reality? Does it challenge the reader in how to imagine the character?
- Gender perceived as social, when instead it is about physical embodiment
- Left Hand of Darkness is often trotted out as the book for this issue, but it has many problems. The use of “he” throughout puts a male filter on it and turns it into a book without females. In an essay Ursula K Le Guin defended her use of the male pronoun. However, in a later essay she had rethought her position about pronouns.
- Problems with how gender diversity is represented in SF:
SF is about solving problems. Non-binary gender is not a problem to solve.
Using gender or sexual plurality as ‘the other’ is a common SF trope that shouldn’t be continued.
In big SF novels it is statistically improbably that only characters of binary genders are present.
More gender diversity in novels, but these characters shouldn’t be a plot point, they should just be there.
Brenda W Clough, Shaun Duke, Nin Harris (no show), Aishwarya Subramanian, E. Lily Yu
This panel discussed the impact of colonialism on cultures and literature.
- There is no clear line between ‘colony’ and ‘not colony’. Even independence does not eradicate the coloniser’s influence.
- Cultures are not static. Even without the coloniser’s influence a culture would have changed.
Does the incoming culture affect everything in on sweep?
Is the healing of colony identity a return to what was there before?
Where does a culture go next?
- Cultural imperialism:
Education privileges US and European history. Education privileges the English language. English language and media privileges other aspects of Anglophone culture.
- The English Literature degree and canon were defined in India as a way to enforce the British culture.
- Nowadays how do writers from other cultures attempt to penetrate the English canon?
By referencing it? For example, Wide Sargasso Sea.
By writing in their own language and tradition and demanding recognition?
- Language is the key. The original languages of places are dying out. English (or other colonial languages) are privileged. These languages are seen as the gateway to better jobs and a better life.
If you write in a language other than English, you are limiting your chances of publication.
- After colonisers go, what is left? Depends on the method of decolonisation. Institutions. Values. What is taken? Assets go out of the colony to enrich the colonisers.
Mary Robinette Kowal, Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone, Keffy R. M. Kehrli, Jennifer Stevenson
This panel discussed diversity of gender, class, and race in fantasy.
- Neuroatypical representations.
Often invisible. Depression is not often represented in fiction, perhaps because of the lack of active agency a character has when depressed.
Mental illness romanticised – from Shakespeare onwards.
- The ‘cure’ trope can be damaging. Societal expectations are to ‘cure’ people who are not ‘normal’. Sometimes this is not consensual – the ability to cure is seen as more important than the consent to the cure.
More useful to have conversations about accommodating those who deviate from the typical. Rather than forcing them to conform.
- Disability. People often romanticise the achuievements of people with disabilities (“Inspriation porn”). Disability informs a character’s interactions with the world, but does not define the character.
- Often don’t see -isms (e.g racism, sexism, classism) in SF&F.
The ability to ignore class/race/sex is a privilege. Privilege provides insulation from experience that other unprivileged people have. You can’t say privilege doesn’t matter.
- Writing advice:
No member of a community is the only one. Don’t just have a token one of anything.
Google for the stereotypes about a particular set of people, then avoid them.
Listen with empathy.
We don’t tend to write what we know, we tend to write what we read. So read more widely and works by people who aren’t from the same background as you.