Some faces from Sirens 2013

I Spent Two Weeks Attending Two Women-Focused Geek Cons And It Was Pretty Awesome

Some faces from Sirens 2013

I love going to science fiction/fantasy conventions. It’s one of the biggest drains on my wallet throughout the year and I regret nothing. I love talking about SF/F media and literature with other people who love it the way I do.

When I first started attending the WisCon Feminist Science Fiction Convention, it was the only women-centric SF/F I’d heard of. Over the years, I got wind of others and friends encouraged me to attend two in particular: Sirens, an academic conference and retreat on women in fantasy literature, and GeekGirlCon, a convention celebrating women in media, science, and technology. When I found out that these cons took place on consecutive weekends in cities just four hours apart, I knew it was time for a lady geek excursion.

Avoiding the Rocks

I started my female-centric con experience with the Sirens conference, which takes place at the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, WA. It’s a 40-minute drive from Portland, OR through the Columbia River Gorge. Driving along roads that cut through forests laden with turning leaves and close-clinging clouds that occasionally parted to reveal stunning waterfalls is the perfect way to get into the retreat mindset. By the time we crossed the Bridge of the Gods I knew I was heading to the perfect setting for a weekend of discussing fantasy literature.

Sirens is a very small conference with a narrow focus and only about a hundred women in attendance this year. This intimacy, combined with it being a conference and not a convention, gives Sirens a different vibe than most cons I’ve attended. There’s an emphasis on group discussions (not just panels), meals together, and individual keynotes each day. The narrow focus on academic discussions of women and fantasy literature gets even more specific in the keynotes and sessions that take on the yearly themes: warriors, faeries, monsters, retelling, and, in 2013, reunion.

Another thing affecting the vibe: a nearly complete lack of men. There were only three or four attending, so the conference space was almost exclusively women. (There may have been trans* or non-binary people whose gender I did not know, as well.) This might not seem unusual for a con that boldly announces the high presence of girl cooties up front. And if you’re familiar with academic conferences that focus on women’s issues, this won’t surprise you. It might if, like me, you’re from the world of SF conventions where even the most girl-cootie-filled among them (WisCon, for example) can still attract a decent number of guys.

Each of these elements contributes to the idea of Sirens as a “Safe Space” for women. Over and over conference organizers and attendees emphasized that point, and there is obvious pride in Sirens being the type of gathering where people can disagree yet still sit down to dinner together. Still, there are varying ideas of what makes a space safe.

As a woman of color, I don’t always find spaces created by white women or white feminists to be safe. Same with geeky or fandom spaces. Navigating the con scene means quickly assessing if a space is actually safe for me regardless of the label on the tin. It’s not often that someone sets out to make me uncomfortable or unwelcome at a con. Instead, I’ll encounter an unwitting microagression. Or, a person with no concept of their privilege, let alone how to check it, says or does something upsetting. That wasn’t my experience here.

I ended up pleasantly surprised at the depth of the attendees’ knowledge and interest in fantasy literature that goes beyond the white/white-washed epic tomes so often held up as great examples of the genre. Everyone I met was eager to understand different points of view and experiences of the world beyond their own. Nowhere was this clearer to me than in the Q&A sessions after the guest of honor keynotes by Alaya Dawn Johnson and Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Both women of color gave deeply personal speeches full of intersectional ideas and the understanding and solidarity they received back from the room impressed and bolstered me. This is the kind of space I feel safe in.

Meanwhile, At New York Comic Con

That same weekend my friends back home went to New York Comic Con. Each time I hopped on Twitter or Facebook to see how things were going, I discovered some new instance of harassment. It made me glad I was on the other side of the country.

There had been concerns prior to the con that one or more groups of dudes looking to entertain their fellow dudebros on YouTube might come to NYCC for the express purpose of harassing women there. Between the self-styled Referees of Cosplay who intended to call out women “too fat” to dress up as their favorite characters, the guys kissing women without permission so they could film their reaction, and the horrid SiriusFM-affiliated Man Banter dudes engaging in both sexist and racist harassment, the weekend was chock full of fail.

The good aspects of the con didn’t always balance out the fail for some people, especially women targeted for harassment. The swift action of the NYCC organizers to address the harassment is praise-worthy; it just doesn’t address the underlying problem. Even though Mike Babchik is banned, there are plenty of other men ready to take his place. And these men feel that New York Comic Con is an appropriate venue for their activities.

Thinking about why that might be, and the contrast between my friends’ NYCC experience and my Sirens experience got me thinking about the kind of conventions I attend and why. I only go to NYCC because I live in NYC, and even then only if I get a free press pass. I used to wish I could go to San Diego Comic-Con, but I prioritize my budget toward attending WisCon, World Fantasy, ReaderCon, or DragonCon. I stopped going WorldCon regularly several years ago. I would rather clean toilets than attend either PAX.

All of these cons cater to what I love — though the focus, vibe, and general purpose differ — and are ostensibly safe spaces to be a giant geek. Yet I do not feel that my geek self is welcome or wanted at SDCC, NYCC, PAX, or WorldCon.

Women Are Ambassadors

After San Diego Comic-Con I saw this quote, attributed to Hannibal‘s Bryan Fuller, popping up around Tumblr:

“What was really great about Comic-Con, it shows that the core demographic is young women… It’s all young ladies. Women love genre, they’re more open to genre in a strange way. … Women are the ambassadors.”

This is not new information. It’s also not just anecdotal. When Networked Insights measured social media response and engagement around the media being discussed at SDCC in 2013, women made up the majority. Brett Schenker’s compilation of statistics from Facebook show that 40% of the people who Like comic-related things are women. Facebook’s Doctor Who fandom is mostly female, according to this data. Women make most tech buying decisions, download more movies and TV shows than men, and play more games on certain platforms.

In his book “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture,” Rob Salkowitz points out that “women today are the loudest and most compelling voices in fandom.” Yet the average media, comic, or science fiction convention is generally dismissive of, if not hostile to, the non-cis, het male population.

I could bring up a mountain of examples, but here are three:

SDCC 2011: Batgirl vs. DC Comics

ReaderCon and WorldCon 2012: Renee Walling vs People Who Don’t Want To Be Sexually Harassed

PAX 2013: Dickwolves vs All Common Sense

This crap is flying at women from all quarters: con attendees, con runners, con guests, con sponsors. It’s not surprising that more conventions and conferences now exist to offer respite from the nastiness. Sirens is one approach, GeekGirlCon is another.

Re-Centering The Focus

GeekGirlCon, now in it’s third year, is a more varied convention. It’s similar in style and scope to media and comic cons, though throws the net wider than most by including science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) alongside literature, games, comics, TV, movies, and more. For such a young con I’m impressed with how ambitious GGC is in terms of providing a space for everything from tabletop gaming to professional networking, all with a focus on women.

That said, GeekGirlCon is a work in progress. The con’s track record on intersectionality is muddy, starting with the first year. A friend of mine warned me off this con because she got a strong vibe that she is not the “right type of geek girl” due to being POC. That was more about the attendees than the con itself, though this year a swell of anger rose up when people learned that problematic career feminist Amanda Marcotte was invited to participate in programming. As I said, work in progress. After talking to members of the staff and geeks involved in the community around GGC, it seems the con is worth the work and is also important on a larger scale.

At the Changing Culture in Mainstream and Alternative Spaces panel, I and my fellow panelists talked about the value of cons that focus on sub-sections of the geek community, such as women or LGBT people, and whether it’s better to create our own safer spaces or to try and make the mainstream conventions a better place for all geeks to be. Ben Williams, a founder of GaymerX/GaymerCon, spoke about how separating from a larger, less inviting culture has big benefits in helping people feel like they really belong.

However, Jo Jo Stiletto pointed out that even creating your own thing — in her case, roller derby — for your in-group doesn’t mean that it won’t grow and change into something that no longer feels right for you. Game designer Shoshana Kessock advocated for changing cons from the inside because she feels that if we completely withdraw, then the mainstream will only see geeks as the stereotypes we leave behind.

I can understand that point of view and I am often an advocate of changing instead of abandoning the cons I love. It can work; just look at how WisCon and ReaderCon have shifted in the past five years. However, there’s a big difference between those cons and PAX or SDCC, entities that aren’t as susceptible to big changes enacted by dedicated volunteers. I say the only way to force a change in that type of con is to starve them of their lifeblood: geek money and attention.

There Are A Lot Of Men Here

That’s where cons like GeekGirlCon come in. Here you have all the same kinds of events and panels and activities as other cons but with women at the center of the conversation. In this environment women hopefully feel like their voices and experiences and way of geeking out are celebrated and appreciated. If you listened to the common wisdom about centering women, you’d think that this type of con would result in a low male turnout. Not as low as Sirens, of course. But guys wouldn’t flock to this type of environment, would they?

Uh, yeah, they would.

There were far more men at GeekGirlCon than I expected and they participated at every level: on staff, on panels, and as attendees. And yet GGC people also spoke of the con as a Safe Space. Again, the idea of what is safe differs depending on what type of woman you are, yet I was pretty confident that there wouldn’t be anyone there saying that they “want to buy an umbrella [that comes] with an Asian girl,” no matter the gender. It’s not about banning or even discouraging guys from coming to the con, it’s about making it clear what is and is not valued that leads to a con women can feel safe attending.

So forget any ridiculousness you hear about how cons that cater to specific or marginalized groups are all about self-segregation. They’re not — not completely. Because if the con has all the elements geeks flock to cons for, it will attract all the geeks. And if these cons can attract geeks away from events that foster a hostile environment, then those other cons (and the media entities that support them) will either have to change or die.

There Are A Lot Of Women Here, Too

I’m torn on which option I want: Change or Die. The cons that represent the most problematic environments — NYCC, SDCC, PAX — aren’t the kind that I like to attend, anyway. I much prefer cons that are for the people attending and not media companies and sponsors looking to sell and market to us. Cons where fans and creators can share panel space and where attendees are treated with respect and not like cattle to be herded. And, after my two-week women-centric con adventure, I’m more reluctant than ever to go to cons that center the 18-49 year old, white, heterosexual male, explicitly or not.

Neither Sirens nor GeekGirlCon are perfect events and could benefit from a little change themselves. And I want to be part of that change. Because making a con better for me and women like me means making cons that are better for everyone. Guess I’d better start saving up now.

originally posted at xojane.

Writing and the Art of Provocation

Writing and the Art of Provocation

At last year’s Readercon I participated in a panel called Myth, Midrash, and Misappropriation (actually, I was the leader/moderator) with an interesting group of writers and Claude Lalumière. The panel was supposed to be about the appeals and challenges of creating fiction from a religious source and how to avoid or deal with the dangers of cultural appropriation and/or offending people.

I won’t recap the entire discussion for you, but the major highlight of the panel (for me) was when, in his introduction, Claude announced that the purpose of art is to be offensive or to offend people I can’t remember if he initially said offensive or to offend, but this was definitely the core of his argument. Art should offend! He said more than once until he started to backpedal pretty hard in the middle of the panel.

Not knowing much about Claude before that moment, I was unprepared for the douchewankery he brought to the discussioni. He was unprepared for how hard I would not allow him to get away with that statement or how prepared I was to challenge him on it. And he was super unprepared for how much the audience was not on his side when question time came. That’s when the backpedaling started.

We spent a good deal of time on the panel unpacking that initial statement and talking about all the ways in which it’s completely problematic (along with all the other problematic stuff he said such as how it’s okay for him to use any religious or spiritual trappings from any culture because he’s an atheist, anyway, and doesn’t believe in them oh and also he is from French Canada so he understands what it means to come from an oppressed, occupied culture). I believe it was Jack Haringa who, after initially agreeing with his understanding of what Claude meant, actually came around to something more like: artists may hope to offend if their message is aimed at a group or idea that they find offensive. Writing with an eye toward pointing out a horrible injustice, say. The ones perpetrating that injustice may be offended — good.

I sort of agreed with that as well, but still didn’t feel it was quite the right way to think about art. In the many months since I’ve poked at the idea more and more, but still hadn’t come up with a better way to think about what Jack was getting at. Then last month someone else came along and nailed it.

NPR’s Weekend Edition interviewed National Book Award-winning poet Nikki Finney, and toward the end of that interview she said this:

Art is about being provocative; art is also about beauty and if you leave the latter out, the former doesn’t matter.

I immediately thought: YES, THAT. That is what we were reaching for around the 600 pound gorilla of Claude’s initial statement.

There is no beauty in being offensive. Offending someone, especially when you’re coming from a place of privilege and oppression, is not the basis for great art, for beautiful art, even if the beauty you’re reaching for is terrible and tragic and real.

Consider the context in which Finney made this statement:

As a young poet, I grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s, when difficult things were being said and shouted and screamed,” Finney says. “I remember saying to myself, those things are very, very important to hear, but there must be another way to say them so that they will truly be heard. I mean, that’s what art is. Art is about being provocative; art is also about beauty and if you leave the latter out, the former doesn’t matter.

I haven’t read any of this woman’s poetry yet, but I want to. I feel like she can teach me the art of saying difficult things. I am often among those who say and shout and scream because that’s important, too. And I know for a fact that engaging in this mode of discourse does result in being heard, because I often have conversations with people who listened and appreciate it. But I’d also like to be adept at that other way she speaks of.

  1. Later, when I related the goings on to others, several people said “Oh, you didn’t know? Claude Lalumiere is a total douchecanoe.” No one warned me! []

WisCon 36: POC Safer Space

WisCon 36: POC Safer Space

I am once again the WisCon concom liaison and organizer for the POC Safer Space. This year I am joined in organizing and fabulousness by Jayme Goh. Huzzah!

We will once again be in the Solitaire Room since it affords us an out of the way space with no Gawkers. Last year we had the hotel push the conference room up against the wall which made the space a lot more inviting. I will also ask if more comfy chairs can find a way in there. If any locals are willing to donate comfy chairs, please let me know.

Last year we pre-scheduled some break out sessions and alternate panels in the room, but what seemed to work better was spontaneous stuff.I encourage any POC attending WisCon to come to that space if they need to discuss something that went down on a panel, continue a discussion that started at a panel, or if they just need a space to vent and calm down. I actually had some of the most enlightening conversations in that room during after-panel venting and I’m sure that will happen again,

However, if anyone wants to pre-schedule something please feel free. I just suspect mostly it will be spontaneous stuff.

The one thing I would like to schedule is a post Opening Ceremonies trip to the space so that people know where it is and how it will be set up and how they can use the space. This will come on the heels of the POC dinner earlier that evening. And then, of course, it’s party time.

Just as with last year, there will be coffee and tea service in the room throughout the day and a laptop for those who need to check email or Tumblr. Just don’t leave any Tumblr porn on the screen for those of us who are innocent ;)

Any questions, requests, comments, suggestions? Leave them in the comments or ping me via email or on Twitter or Facebook.

Tempest’s WisCon 36 Panel and Party Schedule

Tempest's WisCon 36 Panel and Party Schedule

WisCon 36 is almost upon us. Here’s where I’ll be!

Parties

Riots of Bloom | Sat, 9:00 pm Room 607

I’m the DJ.

Join us for spicy samosas and wine as we dance the night away to world beats! Riots of Bloom is a party to celebrate the speculative fiction of authors of color who have books and stories releasing this year. (N. K. Jemisin, Neesha Meminger, Kiini Salaam, Ibi Zoboi, Alaya Dawn Johnson) We are especially honored to celebrate WisCon 36 Guest of Honor and Tiptree winner, Andrea Hairston! So put on your most riotous colors and come prepared to boogie on down to the rhythmic beats of reggae, calypso, salsa, bhangra, and other world music!

Unnamed, not on the schedule shenanigans | Friday 11:00 pm room TBD

So there has been talk for a while about doing a party wherein we watch and heavily criticize Jem! and My Little Pony and some other beloved cartoons of our child and adulthood while eating gummi bears soaked in rum, vodka flavored with Skittles, and a number of other ridiculous, not safe for kids foods. Given the nature of the foods in question, it was suggested to me that we NOT make this an official party. So we’re going to find a suitable space and have it semi-privately.

Panels

From Sherlock to Sheldon: Asexuality and Asexual Characters in SF/F
Fri, 4:00–5:15 pm | Senate B

K. Tempest Bradford (mod), Liz Argall, Dawn Ash, L J Geoffrion, Jed Hartman

We’re all familiar by now with the sexual orientations homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual. Much less discussed are asexuals, persons who do not experience sexual attraction. This panel discusses what asexuality is and is not, and proposes ways for authors to explore this overlooked orientation in their characters. Is it enough that a character has no on-page sex life, or should asexuality be more positively portrayed? Asexuality in real-time fandom and asexual characters in fiction and media may also be discussed as time allows.

Feminist Blogging: What Is It and What Role Can It Play in Creating Social Change?
Sat, 10:00–11:15 am | Caucus

K. Tempest Bradford (mod), Brit Mandelo, Andrea Chandler, Michelle Kendall, Rachel Virginia Swirsky

The internet has seen an upsurge in feminist blogs, with those words returning millions of results in search engines. What are feminist blogs? How can feminist blogs help create positive change? In what ways can these spaces model an inclusive, non-hierarchical environment? What are the downsides to feminist blogging? Join us as we discuss new ways the internet can help further the discourse around issues of social and economic justice, feminism, and anti-oppression.

Sipping From the Firehose: Managing Writing and Social Media
Sat, 1:00–2:15 pm | Senate A

K. Tempest Bradford (mod), Barth Anderson, Kimberly Gonzalez, Michael J. “Orange Mike” Lowrey, David J. Schwartz

FaceBook, Google+, LiveJournal, Tumblr, Twitter, blog, traditional website: Does a writer need them all? How do they help with self-promotion? How do they help with the isolation of writing? If you participate in social media, how do you keep it all up-to-date and still find time to write?

Creating Your Own Religion
Sun, 10:00–11:15 pm | Conference 4

K. Tempest Bradford (mod), Ann Leckie, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Deirdre M. Murphy, Larissa N. Niec

Which SF authors create interesting, believable religions, and which get religion wrong? (What does it mean to “get religion wrong” anyway?) Do made-up religions with intervening gods work better than those without? How can we as writers avoid making mistakes when creating and writing about fictional religions?

Not Everyone Lives in the Future
Mon, 10:00–11:15 am | Room 623

Carrie L. Ferguson (mod), K. Tempest Bradford, Ruthanna Emrys, Jesse the K, Na’amen Gobert Tilahun

Technology has an undeniably transformative effect on our lives and it is worth examining who has access to those effects. Geeks are generally very engaged with technology and it is easy to assume that the Internet, cell phones, computers, etc. are a given in everyone’s lives. However, there are large communities where technological access is not at the level that geeks take for granted. How does lack of access to technology impede communities’ ability to prosper? How can geeks help to make technology more available to communities that may benefit from them? Are these transformative effects even desirable? What are good examples of SF that highlight or problematize this issue?

Reading

Title TBA
Sun, 4:00–5:15 pm | Michelangelos

Group reading: K. Tempest Bradford, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Jackie Mierzwa, Larissa N. Niec

Dragon*Con 2011: The Late, Late Report

I’m horrible at posting timely con reports, so I’ve given up worrying about it. It’s been a week since Dragon*Con ended, so at least with this one is up faster than my WisCon or ReaderCon reports. No, you didn’t miss them… they aren’t posted yet.

Onward!

This was my first Dragon*Con, and I was slightly worried about feeling overwhelmed. However, I had the chance to work for the at-con newsletter, the Daily Dragon, and that helped me feel less at sea. I had specific things to do and I spent most of my time doing them. Those specific things involved copyediting, being on call in the DD office, covering panels, and interviewing people. Being a journalist is a bunch of fun.

I had a great time talking to Ann and Jeff Vandermeer about steampunk and Alethea Kontis and Leanna Renee Hieber about being pro guests who are also fans. But the absolute highlight of my con was getting to interview Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Janeway. I also got to interview Brent Spiner of The Next Generation.

For Kate Mulgrew, I had to chase down her agent, then come sit at her signings three times before he found time in her schedule. William Shatner had just denied a couple of my colleagues an interview, so I was nervous. But Ms. Mulgrew wasn’t as ALL DONE THIS as Bill (and I don’t blame him, he did three solo panels and signed 4 times) so she granted me five minutes.

I’ve met her just once before, and she was just as warm and funny as before. She has this commanding attitude that I adore. It’s not obnoxious — more like a very forceful matriarch. If she tells you to do something, you do it because obviously she thinks it’s best. Plus, you don’t say no to Captain Janeway. Read the interview (Kate says so.)

Talking to her about how there needs to be more women leaders in the Star Trek franchise, I had this awesome idea for a panel at Dragon*Con about female leadership in SF. My dream panel would be Kate Mulgrew, Nana Visitor, Mary McDonnell, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, and Gina Torres. I also think that would make an excellent pop essay book, with the volume split between TV/Movie properties and SF novels. As things ramp up for next year’s D*Con, I’ll see if the panel is possible.

I was in the autographing room on Monday waiting for Brent Spiner to have time when I noticed that Robert Duncan McNeil (Tom Paris, Voyager) had a life-size cutout of himself in character sitting on top of his table. Not next to, on top of. I went over and asked, “How much to take a picture with the cutout?” because pictures with him were $10 and that’s just not my thing. Thankfully he has an excellent sense of humor and joked with me about it and, when I came back to actually take a picture with the cutout in my absolute silliness, decided he needed to be in the pic, too. I let him. You know, to make him feel better.

Tempest Bradford and Lt. Paris... and Robert Duncan McNeil

I also had one other mission during the con, which was to sell fans and raise money for Con or Bust when possible. I didn’t sell many fans, but my roommate, Mary Robinette Kowal, sold TONS. She’s a sales machine and earned Con or Bust a lot of money.

In addition to selling fans, I also asked some actors of color to sign one so we can auction them off. When I get home I’ll post pics. Edward James Olmos (BSG) and Garrett Wang (Harry Kim, Voyager) both signed readily and were very sweet about it. In fact, Garrett misunderstood my request (I’d asked him the night before in the green room) and had a picture he’d planned to give me of Robert Beltran, Robert Picardo and himself in character, signed by all three. It’s really adorbs. I gave him a fan in exchange for the picture and we’ll auction that off, too.

Sidenote: Garrett Wang is awesome. He runs the Trek Track at D*Con and does a fantastic job, does funny as hell spots for Dragon*Con TV, and spends hours and hours in the autograph room so everyone who wants to see him gets a chance. Plus, he’s super sweet, like I said.

That was pretty much my Dragon*Con. I met many awesome fans, hang out with the fabulous Daily Dragon staff, saw fantastic costumes, got to go to panels, met one of my heroines, and had conversations with a host of fabulous people. I’m looking forward to going back next year.