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While I've read some of N.K. Jemisin's fiction and blogging, I came to WisCon with no prior familiarity with the other guest of honor, lyrical author Hiromi Goto. My first introduction to her work was thus when I saw and heard her performing it at the reception and reading the evening before the con truly began.

I'm not for anything going to suggest that you never pick up another book unless you first have a chance to witness the author personally performing it, but I will say: it would be hard to beat that first impression, as introductions go.

I say performed and I mean performed. I have a hard enough time reading my work in public, but Hiromi Goto embodies hers. Later in her guest of honor speech, she spoke of animating a word with a living spirit. The two readings of hers that I attended were vivid illustrations of this belief in practice.

At the reception, she read from her first novel, Chorus of Mushrooms. It's a prose work, but with something like the cadence and verve of the best slam poetry. The words she read were twenty years old, but they might have come to her off the top of her head. Or the bottom of her heart.

The selection she favored us with dealt in part with the subject of microaggressions while shopping for vegetables in a Safeway. I think it might have been instructive for some people to hear her read from this decades-old work, and when I say that, I'm thinking of the sort of people who think "microaggressions" is a made-up word (unlike all the other ones harvested from the word mines), and the people who believe that before the internet social platform of the moment Nobody Had Time To Care About This Stuff When There Is Real Racism And People With Actual Problems In The World.

And when I say this, I don't simply mean in a "See? See? Here's an example that counters your supposition about things." way.

It's instructive to watch this woman stand up, open a book, and then act out the pent-up, long simmering frustration of dealing with a kindly, interested fellow shopper who finds such surprise-wonder-joy in the exoticness of witnessing someone outside her experience shopping for produce.

It's more instructive to realize that beneath this act of frustration, there is joy... that dealing with the negativity created by such encounters is not the same thing as dwelling on it. That talking about these things, working through them, acting them out... it can be a release. It can be a relief.

Rather than trying to sum up her guest of honor speech, I'll link you to her own words on her own site. If you weren't there and haven't seen it, it's every bit as worth your time and attention as Nora Jemisin's. I believe it will stand as one of the most pivotal works on the subject of diversity in creativity and representation in stories.
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This year at Wiscon, I did a couple of things differently from previous years. One thing I did differently was recognizing people, and the other was talking to them.

I spent a lot of time at Wiscon this year complimenting people on their outfits. Since I don't recognize faces, I have to look for other things to help me fix them in my brain, and while clothing changes from day to day, it is a useful short-term reference point, and even works a bit from day to day when someone asks me if I'd met someone. Saying something to the person about the detail I'm focusing on helps to solidify the connection... and it's not like you need a reason to pay someone a compliment. It was never insincere, either, It's not hard to find something worth pointing out when you start paying attention to people.

Last Thursday wasn't the first time I met Nora Jemisin, but it was the first time I successfully fixed her--along with a lot of people I see once a year or so--in my brain. I told her that I liked the way the studs in her top coordinated with her earrings, which she appreciated because it turned out to be a happy coincidence. I might have also used the phrase "business casual steampunk" and called ensemble "riveting", because not only do I not know when to stop, but would not be capable of doing so if I did.

When you meet Nora Jemisin, you can't help being impressed with her gentle amiability and graciousness of spirit. She was very kind about the way that travel fatigue steals my strength, that first evening I was in town. It was a very small gesture, and possibly she doesn't remember it, but it was very important to me.

And then when it's time for her to stand up in front of a crowd and speak, you can't help realizing that gentleness and grace are not the same thing as weakness or timidity.

There are a lot of things wrong with the paired stereotypes of the Angry Black Woman and the Strong Black Woman. A lot of people with direct experience have written about this, and when I'm not waiting for an airplane I might make a round-up post to put this information in front of people who've never considered it before.

But one of the simplest is that they simply aren't true. They don't reflect reality. They don't reflect the complexity of a human being, a person who sometimes gets angry and sometimes does need to be strong but is so much more than that and needs the freedom and ability to lay a burden down more than she needs the strength to keep bearing up under it for the convenience or entertainment of others.

A lot of things are going to be said about N.K. Jemisin as her amazing speech makes the rounds. Don't let her detractors reduce her grievances, her resolutions, and her hope to solely anger, and don't let them suggest that the anger which is there is not natural and not necessary. Don't let your support of her consist solely of admiration for her strength and bravery. Be brave enough to share the load, in whatever capacity you're able. She has sounded a call to arms, not announced a plan to single-handedly dismantle the power structures she describes.

But I want to close this quickie of a post by talking more about N.K. Jemisin, the amazing author of the Inheritance Trilogy (the kingdoms one, not the dragons one) and the Dreamblood books. She who is warm, witty... frequently looking absolutely delighted at the warmth and wittiness of all the wonderful people around her. I spoke above of her hope, which might surprise some people who heard or read her speech. But what is it that tells her it's worth fighting, if it isn't hope?

When I say hope, I don't mean the naive optimism of thinking that things simply will get better over time, that time is the same as progress so all we have to do is wait. I do not mean the willful ignorance that claims that things have gotten better in an absolute sense, because some of those things have changed form and we've stopped talking about others.

And look at that... I'm talking about the speech again. Well, it's quite a speech. In order to actually close on a personal note about one of our guests of honor, I'll simply say: Nora, it was so very good to see you.
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I had some plans to live tweet this panel, as part of engaging more with Twitter. I was not able to do that for this panel, nor engage with it as fully as I might have liked, because of last-minute volunteering as an accessibility aid. I don't regret taking that on, but it will impact the accuracy and depth of this write-up. So, I apologize in advance for covering this in broadstrokes, and for anything I get wrong. There will also be fewer direct quotes or attributions. From past experience, I am sure that interested parties will be able to find quotable highlights by reading other tweeters' contributions to the designated panel hashtag, #calloutculture

The Topic (As I See it)

This is not a summation of the panel's discussion or a paraphrase of anything anyone said. It is different than the description I would have written before sitting in on the panel, because the ideas that were expressed and the way the panelists expressed them

The topic of this panel was call out culture. That's a very broad topic, and one that has multiple ways you can take it. Some of the early discussion among the panelists touched on this. I think we can break it down into two basic categories: "call out culture" as in a culture of accountability, where people are willing to speak up when something harmful or hurtful is being said or done and (hopefully) the person being spoken to is willing to listen and take it on board, vs. "call out culture" as in a culture where this sort of thing has become a vicious cycle, self-fulfilling prophecy, or even game that is played for points/laughs/sub-cultural cachet.

There's not a clear, hard and fast division between the positive and the negative. Some people--maybe most people--are engaging in shades of both. Certainly there are people who are both acting in good faith and people acting in bad faith in the same circles/communities, and to the people for whom this is a game, it's not hard to mimic the cadence and jargon that the community falls into, using it both as protective coloration and weapon.

The Discussion

Some of the high points:

  • People who are in privileged positions--part of the dominant/default narrative (white, straight, cis) are more likely to be listened to than marginalized people, who will be ignored or dismissed as "angry" and "unreasonable" even if saying the same thing. This was specifically raised in the context of race ("Angry Black Women" vs. "Nice White Ladies".)
  • Allies should be aware of this, conscious of this, but not use it as their excuse to let things pass.
  • "Allies" who are concerned with making sure that people know that they are allies and are looking for a cookie or a trophy for their good work are very tiring.
  • "Allies" who see someone engaging in a constructive call-out or simply answering a question in an exhaustively informative fashion and respond as if they're egging on a vicious burn or turn it into a dogpile are contributing to the problem.
  • One of the most important things for an ally to do is to speak up when someone assumes they can get a pass on saying racist/sexist/oppressive things because no one is around to be hurt by it.
  • "Outrage fatigue" is a bit disingenuous because it is fatiguing to deal with the things that are outrageous. We can't get away from the things that hurt us/people who target us because we can't take off the parts of ourselves that get us targeted.
  • There was a pair of points raised that women are socialized to express hurt, while men are socialized to see expressions of hurt as anger. (Note: Obviously anything that says "women do this, men do this" is going to be both a massive simplification and wrapped up in some problematic assumptions, and this was addressed at the panel. My thought is that as long as we have a socially constructed gender binary these things will have real effect, even if the ways we deal with them are a bit reductive and can contribute to the very problem being discussed if we're not careful.)
  • One question I raised for discussion was the difference between a take down and a call out. I have some thoughts about this that will be put in a separate blog post; since I wasn't on the panel and didn't want to talk over the panelists, I refrained from shoehorning an editorial comment into my question. N.K. Jemisin, in the audience, ventured the answer that the difference is that a call-out is intended to help someone you see as being on your side, someone you recognize as having a good intent (this is a paraphrase and may be a bad one; I'd love to be checking the Twitter feed to see if anyone has captured it, but the hotel wifi is a bit overwhelmed right now, and the longer I wait the less I'll remember) whereas a takedown is on someone you recognize to be acting in bad faith.
  • I feel like there was a comment near the end that had to do with approaching it as a battle, which I wish I could remember the specifics of as it touches on something very present in my heart right now.

As I said, I'll have a separate blog post about the takedown/callout, but my thoughts are less about how you know which one is appropriate to how to recognize which one you're actually doing, in the sense that I alluded to above where I talked about people being a mixture of acting appropriately for solid reasons and people acting out... it's easy to set out to call someone out and shade into showing off, or exerting power, or seeking acclaim.


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June 2017



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