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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.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Come see we at WisCon! (My schedule)

And now, on the heels of the Nebulas, comes my first ever visit to WisCon, the "world's leading feminist science fiction convention." I'm totally psyched for this!

Here's my panel and reading schedule. I will be reading "Mind Locker" on Monday at 10am at Michaelangelo's:


Call Out Culture in Social Justice Movements
Type Program
Track(s) Feminism and Other Social Change Movements (Power, Privilege, and Oppression)
Description The internet has given social justice activists a new way to organize and consciousness-raise. But it's also give us a way to pile on vitriol when we're unhappy. Has outrage fatigue subverted our ability to hold space for people's learning curves? Do we punch across instead of up? What happens when apologies go unheeded and public humiliation takes the place of well-reasoned discourse? And how can we support ourselves and our communities when one of us screws up?
Location Capitol A
Schedule Sat, 10:00–11:15 am
Panelists M: Debbie Notkin. Tanya D., ANONYMOUS, ANONYMOUS, Juliette Wade     


N.K. Jemisin's Fiction
Type Program

Description N.K. Jemisin's fiction consistently delves deeply into race, class, gender, oppression, colonization, and other topics near and dear to WisCon's heart. What does she do well? What does she do badly? Does her fiction (and its popularity) move the genre needle by its example, or do other authors even notice?
Location Capitol B
Schedule Sun, 10:00–11:15 am
Panelists M: David Emerson. Beth A-B, ANONYMOUS, Juliette Wade


Hard Chargers
Type Reading

Description Hard Chargers: Women Writing Hard Science Fiction. We don’t shrink-and-pink our science fiction. More particle physics, less boyfriend. For all the people who say that women can’t write hard science fiction or they’re not interested in it, we dare you to come hear us.
Location Michelangelos
Schedule Mon, 10:00–11:15 am
Panelists Kat Beyer, Kimberley Long-Ewing, Marguerite Reed, Juliette Wade

Nebulas Report, 2014

The Nebulas weekend was just amazing. So much so that I've been too mind-blown to report on it until today! However, I will give it a shot.

There's really nothing like going to a place where everywhere you go, you see famous authors. Oh, look, there's Tad Williams! Ooh, Ellen Klages! Connie Willis! Wow, wow, wow! It would be easy to spend an entire post just name-dropping, but I'll try not to do that. Just be aware that with so many awesome people around you get this intense feeling that the air is vibrating with fantastic speculative ideas, and that your own brain is starting to vibrate along with it.

Friday for me was a day of much scheduling. I had two meetings, one with the amazing Cat Rambo, newly elected vice president of SFWA, and one with Trevor Quachri, the new(ish) editor at Analog. These were great because I got to know Cat and Trevor much better than I had previously, having known Cat only from online interactions and Trevor only through business interactions. Among other things, Trevor and I talked about his vision for Analog, which was fascinating (summary: if you have never submitted to Analog before because you don't have a story "like that," try submitting anyway and see).

I was also on a very interesting panel called "Writing About Other Cultures, Real or Imaginary." Also on the panel were Tad Williams, Chaz Brenchley, Amy Thomson, Diana Paxson and Nancy Kress. I found the discussion interesting, but we ran into an interesting problem. Very early on we recognized that everyone on the panel was white. Did that mean somehow that it was inappropriate for us to talk about writing about other cultures? Not at all, to my mind - yet I think some folks in the room thought it did, or at least thought that the audience might think it did. Yes, from the standpoint of representation it would have been far better to have a more diverse group on the panel. However, also from the standpoint of representation (this time in the fiction) it is vital for everyone, white or not, to be writing about other cultures in the most genuine way possible, and how to do it respectfully without relying on tokens or cookie-cutter cultures etc. is an important question. All in all I enjoyed the discussion a lot. I can only imagine that diversity on panels will continue to expand in coming years, and working toward that prospect makes me happy.

In the evening there was a lot of socializing and then the mass signing, which I had bitten the bullet and signed up for. To my delight, three people came and asked me to sign things! Mostly, though, the signing was a great way to learn who everyone was by sight, and to say hello. I made a point of introducing myself to Sofia Samatar and Nicola Griffith because I was scheduled to interview them and didn't want the interview to be the first time I'd ever laid eyes on them in person! Here's a picture of me with my signing neighbors Chuck Gannon and Carrie Sassarego:

Saturday started with breakfast at home with my family. It's always hard to say goodbye to them even when I know that I'm headed out for something important! I attended the SFWA business meeting, and was very glad I had. Thereafter I attended a panel on short story editors and their tastes - always useful for a short story writer! Here is a photo from that panel (sorry about the microphones blocking everyone):

After that I floated about for the most part, socializing, and then changed into my yukata (summer kimono) for the cocktail party and banquet. Here I am during the cocktail party, standing with the illustrious Gregory Benford and Bud Sparhawk:
Thanks to our wonderful friend and babysitter Sheryl, my husband was able to join me for the banquet. He is a voracious reader, so he had a great time chatting with his neighbor, who was a book reviewer. Ellen Klages did a fantastic job as toastmaster in spite of a lengthy period of technical difficulty, which she managed to fill with stories that had everyone laughing.

I was super thrilled for my friends Aliette de Bodard, Ann Leckie, Rachel Swirsky and Vylar Kaftan who won awards on the evening! Thereafter I brought some gluten-free cupcakes to an afterparty, which was a thrill because I actually found someone who needed them (Nalo Hopkinson, who really deserved a cupcake after winning the Norton!).

I stayed overnight at the hotel and in the morning Jaym Gates set me up with my interview of Ann Leckie, Sofia Samatar, and Nicola Griffith. I felt like the luckiest person in the world to be able to talk to these wonderful women about the worldbuilding, language, culture, and privilege in their fascinating novels. After that I went home - but it took me hours just to come down from the post-Nebula high, and the ideas and inspiration I got during the weekend are with me still. I highly recommend the Nebula weekend to authors for fun, interesting discussion, and networking.

Thank you to everyone who made my weekend so amazing!


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Nebulas this weekend! (5/15 hangout canceled - sorry!)

Boy, I'm excited!

This weekend is the Nebula Awards, the annual event hosted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to give out their awards for the best stories of the year. Authors and editors by the score are descending on San Jose for the event - just half an hour down the road from me!

I'll be on a panel on Friday talking about Writing About Other Cultures, Real or Imagined from 3-4.

I've also been given the honor of interviewing some of the novel nominees about their work. Which means that I've been given three novels to read in one week.

I've been reading a lot this week, and I'm still not done, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to postpone the Domesticated Animals hangout into next month. The rest of the schedule for this month should remain the same.

I'll try to write up a bit about my experience after the weekend is over.

Our next hangout will be on May 29 - Cultural Ideologies. I hope to see you there!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Music and Worldbuilding - a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout report with VIDEO

This was a really fun, wide-ranging discussion. I was joined by Paul Shapera, Pat McEwen, Che Gilson, and Dale Emery. We had a bit of technical difficulty at the start and had to re-start the hangout (that was a first, and hopefully a last!) but we still had a great time.

I started off by mentioning Tolkien and how many songs he used in his stories. Paul took a different angle, talking about the role of music in SF/F as being a "signifier." All of us have seen how music can establish the mood in a visual presentation, or even by implication in a text. Pat mentioned an interesting example (Fred Hoyle's Black Cloud) where humanity saved itself from a consuming black cloud in space by transmitting music to it - which was apparently sufficient to give the cloud the sense that there was something intelligent on our planet that needed to be left unconsumed.

Paul expanded on his idea, saying that music can indicate the nature of a world and give it a steampunk or medieval feel, etc.

You can use music as part of the plot, as in the Black Cloud story (or as in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong) or you can just include it as incidental, to give mood and atmosphere or to convey a sense of time passing. It can also enhance your themes. Pat felt that the songs of Tolkien's work helped to give the whole story a bardic atmosphere. Paul emphasized that music creates a sense of immersion in the world, and I mentioned the opening poem/chant of "Mind Locker," which I deliberately use to create a mood and an expectation of the kinds of characters we will encounter.

Some ebooks include actual music tracks!

Pat remarked that not all humans respond well to music. Che said that music doesn't do a lot for her, and therefore she doesn't use it in her fiction much. Some authors love music, however, and use it to get them in the right "head space" for writing. Pat suggested it would be interesting to see a story about what might happen if humans encountered a highly musical alien species, and whether it would help us to send a musical ambassador, a non-musical one, or both.

Music is often associated with magic.

In text, music can be implied using the rhythm of words, using vowel quality (assonance) as melody and using consonants (alliteration) as percussion. I gave an example from The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber, which is just full of this sort of thing!

We also spoke about how music can convey a world and a story in itself - such as Peter and the Wolf, or Pink Floyd's The Wall. Music on its own to tell a story is not very concrete, so lyrics help it to be concrete. Opera is another example of musical storytelling.

Pat suggested that humming a tune could be used as a secret code to imply lyrics if two people wanted to communicate secretly in front of aliens. She was full of ideas that could make good stories! The humming idea reminded me of the hum language that two characters used in Frank Herbert's Dune, and we also thought of the whistle language of the Pyrenees.

Dale mentioned that Inspector Morse would give clues in morse code on the BBC television show.

One of the challenges of using actual song lyrics in a story is that if you go beyond a short phrase or the title, you have to get permission from the owner of the song.

Music is an art form that has often expressed transgression. I have used it like this in my Varin world, where the decay of the caste system has led to some unexpected interactions between people, and those interactions have created unusual changes in music and in the visual arts. Pat mentioned that chalga music was illegal in Bulgaria during the years before the fall of the iron curtain, and so playing it came to be seen as a rebellion. Andrea Stewart has a novel where music is outlawed, but the main character is a musician. Paul mentioned how swing music was frowned upon at a certain point, so inserting even a single phrase of it was very daring. Pat spoke about the strong influence of African and African-American music on the entire progress of music in the US.

Music can also be used to bring people back into the fold, to evoke teen nostalgia or patriotism. We talked about the recent recording that had been done of the American national anthem sung in minor key. Dale mentioned that some Beatles recordings have gotten the same treatment. Paul mentioned how the same theme in a film (for example) can be changed from major to minor when tragedy strikes.

Music is very powerful. Not only is it associated with particular contexts and emotional states, it is also directly neurologically stimulating, and can cause anxiety or comfort etc. It can echo with your heart's rhythm. Drums can beat through you, and music can even be designed to work with the resonance of the human chest so it can be felt more physically. Deaf people are often able to feel the vibrations of music even if they can't hear them. Ann Leckie use musical phrases in her new novel Ancillary Justice.

We joked about harmonizing with the vacuum cleaner, or finding the resonant frequency of the laundry room or bathroom. No doubt in small spaces like space ships one could also play around this way.

Che asked if octopi would use a visual version of music, and thus raised an interesting question: if one's primary mode of communication were visual - even if one did not possess ears in our sense - would that necessarily mean that one would lose an appreciation for vibration-based music?

Thank you to everyone who attended! Today's hangout will feature author Alma Alexander who will be talking to us about The Were Chronicles. I hope to see you there!

Monday, May 5, 2014

"Mind Locker" is on its way!

After a long wait due to the exigencies of putting ink on real paper, the July/August 2014 Analog is on its way through the mail to those places where you might want to purchase it. And that means...

Mind Locker!  
and that means...

Cyber-urchins.** Augmented reality. 
 Politics. Psychology. Conspiracy.
( **Cyber-urchins was a phrase coined by Trevor Quachri, editor of Analog. I love it!)

She's a night-walker, she's a child-stalker.
Won't see her coming, no use running
hands'll snatch you, she'll catch you
She's the night-walker, she's the mind-locker.

Look for it online here, here, or here, or in stores that carry Analog (like Books Inc and others).  It looks like this:

And our protagonist, Hub Girl, looks a little like this (drawn by yours truly):

I hope you enjoy the story!