Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wishing for Alternate Universes on the Nebulas Panel "Writing About Other Cultures"

This is going to be a challenging post for me to write, because it involves a very uncomfortable experience I had at the Nebula Awards Weekend - in fact, the only seriously uncomfortable experience I had in my whole wonderful time there. That discomfort, and the fact that I was going almost immediately to head out to WisCon, is why I did not address it in the report I wrote immediately thereafter.

I was invited to participate in the afternoon panel called "Writing About Other Cultures." I was totally jazzed and immediately accepted the invitation, since writing about other cultures has been a major focus of my work for many years. This was the first time I had ever been invited to participate on a panel at the Nebulas and thus it was very exciting for me. I recognized many of the names on the panel, but in my excitement and preparations I did not notice the problem that was immediately brought up once all of the panel members appeared together at the same table. Thanks to Sunil Patel for this photo, which shows me laughing through discomfort.

As you can see, all the panel members were white. This is a problem - one that the program organizers clearly didn't notice when they were just working with a list of written names beforehand - and we all noticed it immediately (which I suppose is better than not noticing it, but really can't fix anything).

When I think back on it, I can't help but remember Henry Lien's fantastic post-Nebula-banquet idea of holding the Alternate Universe Nebula acceptance speeches, where the other nominated candidates got to deliver their speeches as if we were occupying another reality-line where their work had been chosen as the best. When I think about the panel on Writing About Other Cultures, I can't help but notice junctions where maybe things could have gone differently.

What if I'd had the wherewithal to notice the lack of diversity on the panel when I saw the names, and mention it to the organizers? I have no doubt the situation would immediately have changed.

What if we had simply called on some of the diverse writers in our audience to bring their chairs and join us at the head table? I can't imagine they would have said "no." I remember having this particular idea the moment the topic came up at the start of the panel, but I didn't say anything. I should have, maybe, but I didn't know how. I wasn't the moderator. I was still feeling that I was just lucky to have been included and asking myself in dismay if I shouldn't be there at all, whether I should have given up my place so that someone else could have been included.

Of course, we panel members readily acknowledged that we were a non-diverse group and that this was a problem. This was another possible point of divergence from what followed, which somehow turned into a round of people giving excuses for why they belonged on the panel, that we weren't all from precisely the same culture (which would have been true anyway even if the panel were only two next-door neighbors). What if, instead of excuses, we had just expressed acknowledgment of the problem and then re-framed the discussion as one of, say, "Writing About Other Cultures" respectfully as members of our own shared culture? Why did it have to take us so long to get to the real subject at hand?

In online discussions, and at conventions, we talk a lot about calling others out when we don't agree with their views. I was even on a panel about "Call-out Culture" at WisCon. Maybe it's not just about calling out, but at least engaging people in discussion and argument when we don't feel comfortable with the way they have been framing their arguments. But even within "one culture" this is difficult to do because of power dynamics and respect. When I think back, I can identify two possible alternate universes. In one, I might have "called out" a certain author for her characterization of the current political climate in science fiction as requiring writers to portray non-white characters always in a positive light (a statement she made with great authority which had me going, what? what? in my head). In another, I might have questioned panel members who appeared to have accepted one of the presuppositions behind that statement - that a large audience exists that demands diverse characters always to be portrayed as "good" - and urged them to leave off talking about how important it is to stay true to one's own vision of a story, but instead to talk about the larger context of representation in fiction and how our visions articulate with that.

The problem is, I don't see those actions as having a good outcome.

But what do I mean by not having a good outcome? It should be good to "call out" and make change!

In this case, I mean several things. First of all, a live panel discussion at the Nebulas weekend is time-constrained, and verbal, which means it doesn't operate at all like a discussion online. Second, if I had chosen to "call out," I would have been disrespecting our moderator as well as the author who made the statement. Most importantly in my view, I would have been disrespecting the entire point of our panel, which was not to stage an argument about representation and diversity on our own panel (which was moot at that point anyway), or to argue about how to characterize the demands of science fiction audiences (which would be an important thing to talk about but wasn't our given topic), but to talk about how to write about other cultures respectfully. Which, by the way, does not involve always portraying characters from other cultures as "good," but as people, real people with motivations that make sense and with whom the audience is expected to relate on some level. We don't only love our heroes! Once an author commits to populating a world with diverse characters beyond a single token representative, she or he will end up with the opportunity to create diverse characters whose stances are unique and individual. In any case, during the panel my solution was to try, whenever I spoke, to express a more nuanced position, to mitigate, basically to nudge the flow of the talk until we got around to what we were actually supposed to talk about.

Thank goodness, we did manage to get around to talking about that, and some of what we spoke about was probably valuable for our listeners. Perhaps, in another universe where every panel at an event like the Nebulas was culturally diverse and our panel was an unfortunate, coincidental exception, the diversity problem of our demographics could have been set aside and we could simply have talked about writing about other cultures in fiction. Unfortunately, in our universe, the way we got started cast a long shadow. During questions, one of the panelists actually drew attention to the fact that one of the questioners was non-white, and thereby put a lot of undue pressure on a poor fellow who was simply trying to engage in the panel discussion. The way the panelist's comment was phrased, I could tell that the comment about his background was intended to indicate that we were (still) recognizing our demographic inadequacy and trying to reach out. However, the end result was that he was singled out for his nonwhite identity. And that was totally inappropriate.

As I look back over what I've written here I still feel like I should have done more. I feel like I should have noticed the problem in the initial list, like I should have invited someone to come and sit next to me. The fact is, I failed people in that audience just by being there, sitting at that table, aligned as a participant in that discussion. Thank goodness I wasn't entirely cowed by my illustrious company; thank goodness I wasn't entirely silent. But it still wasn't good enough. That's why I feel it was important for me to write this post. Because there were a good many junctions where the outcome could have changed, even just through a different kind of engagement in the points my fellow panelists raised, to create a more supportive environment for the people in the audience.

So what can I do in the future? I'm going to continue to participate when I can, but try to be more aware of representation issues on the panels where I appear. I'll be braver, I hope. I remain convinced that there was no need for a big fight at that table, but that we could have changed the audience's experience meaningfully with just a few small changes in what we said and did.

I want to make the choices that will help take us toward a better universe.

Many thanks go to Sunil Patel for refocusing my attention on getting this post written after a hectic week, and to N.K. Jemisin for reminding me how important it is to continue to take action.