Thursday, June 16, 2016

Last Wiscon 40 thoughts

It's hard to believe Wiscon's already two weeks in the past. It's such an experience-rich, though-provoking event. Combined with hectic work-weeks before and after, Wiscon does strange things to my perception of time.

I already posted some recaps of the Book Reviewers and Hive Mind panels, which were a blast. I don't have time to do in-depth recaps of the other three days of that glorious event, but I wanted to share a couple highlights and notes.

Friday evening, Think Galactic hosted a delightful party. TG was formed by Chicago folks inspired by Wiscon, and a good number of the group goes every year--we usually read at least one of the guests of honors' and Tiptree Winners' works.

So this year, we wanted to host a party, and it was a treat! Our theme was "Sci-Fi Saved My Life", and we encouraged people to bring meaningful quotes from SFF works, or to share positive stories about their engagement with speculative literature and culture.

Rousing success! We covered part of the wall in quotes, we had good beer on tap, the chocolate fountain was a hit, and the room decorations and lighting made for a great space. Also, we got to introduce many Wiscon-goers to Malort (Letherbee's Besk, actually), the infamous Chicago liqueur.

For the rest of the weekend, I bounced between academic panels, Guest of Honor events, and a few panels I was speaking on.

The three guests of honor--Justine Larbalestier, Nalo Hopkinson, and Sofia Samatar--had an "Ask Me Anything" panel on Saturday that wound up being very focused on their writing methods, which was great. Lots of critique of traditional writing advice, especially of the "write every day" variety.

Method-wise, my ears picked up when both Larbalestier and Hopkinson sang praises for Scrivener, writing software that came to my attention when Charles Stross recommended it a while back. I'd actually started playing around with it a little bit before the conference, but hearing those two talk about how it works for them I definitely want to explore it a bit more.

Samatar, by contrast, talked about writing her novels out long-hand. And who, upon hearing that, can fail to get excited for all the future archivists who'll get to examine those drafts, yes?

(Incidentally, throughout this discussion I was thinking about Vonnegut's writer taxonomy--swoopers and bashers.)

Since all three GoHs this year are or have worked in academia, they had a lot to say about the writer/academic double-life, and receiving and giving writerly guidance in that setting. I was particularly struck by Samatar's call to use SF/F to help close the two cultures gap, essentially, and by Larbalestier's very practical advice to be diverse in one's skillset as an academic, so you can get by on whichever skill is needed at the time.

Larbalestier also briefly talked about her decision to no longer write from non-white POVs in her work, at least for single-viewpoint novels, as part of fighting the lack of diversity in the publishing world.

Not to be confused with the Ween album.
Oh also the discussion opened with a question about cheese, taking an unexpected detour to the topic of chocolate cheese, which has been coming up in my feeds recently, believe it or not.

Read more! K. Tempest Bradford put together a nice Storification of this panel, with especially good notes from Rivqa Rafael. (Highly recommend Rivqa's storified recap of the whole con, btw.) Also you can find more notes & comments (including from the speakers) on Twitter #gohama.

The Cyborg Round table was interesting. Hosted by Lauren Lacey, Lisa King, Rhea Lyons, and Sarah Moore, we talked about Haraway's cyborg manifesto--what it is, what to do with it, how students react to it now in the classroom. A solid "huh" moment when Lacey talked about how students used require convincing that they were cyborgs, whereas today they accept that status pretty nonchalantly. The conversation wound up focusing a lot on what social media is doing in terms of identity fracturing/augmenting, and not at all in a wholly negative way.

Saturday afternoon I got to speak on a wonderful panel: "Exploring the works of Sofia Samatar". The five of us: Caroline Pruett, Karen Healey, Julia Starkey, Sessily Watt, and myself had a really good email discussion leading up to the con, and we had so much to talk about we could have kept going for hours. We primarily focued on her two novels, "A Stranger in Olondria" and "The Winged Histories".
  • The many interweaving, sometimes contradictory binaries and oppositions: oral/aural vs. written traditions, the cults of the Stone vs. Avalei, rural and urban ways of life, different ways of thinking about the body, sensuality, and death...the list goes on.
  • Samatar's style, the density, the vocab, the shifts in tone, the richness of setting.
  • We ended the discussion with an extended quote from "Olondria" as an example both of her excellent writing and the way that these novels are engaging with questions of reading and literature. (The same passage I quoted in the Think Galactic discussion of the novel some time ago, actually, "a book is a fortress, a garden of weeping...")
  • We talked a fair bit about epic fantasy and how this relates to the genre, the way it grabs the camera and points it in unexpected directions to change the message.
  • Lots of great discussion about how these novels are about imperialism, cultural as well as military and economic.
  • The million-dollar question that we all took stabs at answering: what are *jut*, the spiritually-significant statuary of the tea islands?
  • Shout-out to her amazing story "Walkdog", which really shows her versatility as a writer.
  • We also tried to talk a bit about influences on these novels where we could see them, including Salih's "Season of Migration to the North". We admitted that we were not well-versed in Arabic or African literature on the panel, and really wished we were or had such an expert!
That said, it was delightful to go to Samatar's GoH reading, where she was explicit about some of her inspirations; she has a good list of recommended reading on her site as well.

Truly, a great panel to be on. Samatar's work is so good and so different; I've been raving about her for a couple years here and it was most satisfying to get to discuss other folks' insights and opinions on these novels. One of our audience members (John from Think Galactic, actually) said later that the panel was kind of like a book discusison on stage, which sounds perfect to me.

More academic panels!

I dug Anna Bunting-Branch's talk on Elgin's Laadan, the history of that as an experiment, what to make of Laadan's failure (especially given the success of things like Klingon or relative newcomers like Dothraki). Conclusion: Elgin maybe just had the wrong time/medium. A big hit of a miniseries or film might push Laadan into gaining a following. Lots more to this talk on methodology, Irigaray, "gendered failure", and people keeping the Laadan project alive.

Jordana Marion Greenblatt had a great talk about gender and language in Leckie's "Ancillary" trilogy, comparing it to Monette Wittig's "Les Guérillères". Wittig's French novel plays around with gendered nouns, pronouns, and modifiers--replacing "il" for "elle" in common, supposedly neutral expressions, for instance--but Greenblatt argues that Leckie's experiment is actually more disruptive because less jarring (if I'm doing it her theory justice). Reading the "Ancillary" books, it just seems like ever character you meet is female; questioning that is a more active and plot-triggered, rather than language-triggered activity. I was most impressed with Greenblatt's description of teaching both novels, as well as gender theory, in an undergraduate classroom. The students did not come for SF, and, astonishingly to me, did not leave craving it after Leckie.

Super-impressed with this as a teaching project--the students kept journals of their responses to the work, when they started questioning gender, what they thought about their assumptions about characters and how that changed as they figured out the Radch language gimmick. Greenblatt also talked about the "novel explaining the theory that was supposed to explain the novel", an experience I have been thinking a lot about. I also really dug, and want to learn more about, Wittic's "Trojan Horse" theory of changing canons by slipping in subversive, deconstructive works.

In the "Trauma & Self Defense" academic panel, more great stuff:

Lisa King's analysis of Jessica Jones was downright gripping, and it articulated in a specific and feminist way a gripe that I have with a lot of superhero narratives: it is addressing an issue (in this case rape culture and PTSD) in a way that is satisfying on a surface level (Kilgrave gets taken down), while not addressing or affecting the system that enabled the problem. Superhero takes down supervillain; the culture doesn't change, and there's a sneaky and probably unintentional way that it can come across as victim blaming (why aren't you strong enough to fix it yourself). Great talk, using Arendt's notions of plurality, power, and the social. Also referenced Faludi's theory of maternal masculinity (using the character of Malcolm as an example), something I want to read more about.
King's talk was the epitome of good academic/pop culture analysis--celebrating a work that most of us know and like, enriching and also critiquing it in a nuanced and theory-informed way.

I was also really impressed with Nancy Jane Moore's talk about martial arts & feminism, the way that bodily awareness and presence is something feminists need to do, not just write about. Really insightful talk, and it also gets the award for Most Anti-Dualist paper of the weekend.

Also enjoyed Saba Razvi's paper on Dahlquist's "Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" novels and how weird and awesome and disruptive they are.

Great Q&A on this panel, also--connecting the heroic individual narrative to an utter lack of education about collective action in U.S. history classes. We're always taught about "Great Men" (and occasionally women), never about the groups, unions, broad movements. Also there was some great long back-and-forth about physicality and feminism, talking about sports and the military as well as martial arts. Line that stuck with me: "You're not afraid of a man when you have hunted a moose."

Grr argh. In all seriousness though, would
love to do a panel/megatext/something
about SF/F that really engages with questions
of faith, religion, and scepticism/atheism.
Our atheism panel went REALLY WELL, and we had all been a little worried about it. Mostly because any really open discussion of religion can get contentious fast. But! Panel went great, especially thanks to our moderator Sarah Tops Rogers. Set some good ground rules (e.g. not talking about religion vs. atheism, just representation and diversity issues for atheists/skeptics of all kinds). Jason Robertson, Gregory Rihn & I talked a lot about groups and figures we like--Unitarian Universalists, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Sunday Assembly, Atheism Plus, SkepChick, and many more. Had a very brief discussion of religion in SF/F--there's a lot less meaty stuff than one might expect, perhaps because so many authors steer entirely clear of the issue, assuming that religion will just be phased out. (Seems like that's changing, by the way.) Talked for a bit about the secularism of Star Trek (fresh in my mind from the DepPaul conference), and avoided flipping the table and yelling incoherently about Russell's "The Sparrow".

Yeah, good panel, was very happy with how it went. Jason is suggesting a "women in sceptical movements" panel for next year; dunno if it'll get takers but hopefully it will! Hoping to be in the audience next year.

Samatar's reading was SO GOOD. It was like a university class in THE BEST POSSIBLE WAY. It even had a title! "Love/Hate: Sucking the Marrow from our Problematic Faves".

She read excerpts from "The Winged Histories" against some of her problematic faves to show how she was drawing on and responding to them--Tolstoy and McCarthy, in this case. Great discussion of how she reads while she's writing, how she has re-reads going the way some people have playlists. Really cool to hear a writer embracing influence that way. She also had us break into small groups and discuss our own problematic faves, and then opened it up to the whole room. A classroom in the best possible way, I say.

Sunday night we had the big Guest of Honor speeches and Tiptree Awards, which were astonishing, and I'm not going to try to do them justice. Scroll down that storify I recommended earlier for good coverage, or check the twitter hashtag.

Excited to see Nalo's "Lemonade Award" go into action, too!

Monday morning I presented my academic paper! In a nutshell, making the argument that C.J. Cherryh's fiction works from an ethical system that looks a lot like that of Emmanuel Levinas; that theory can be used to explore her novels fruitfully and vice versa. Used "Wave Without a Shore" as the primary text. Really happy with how the talk went. My fellow panelists Alexis Lothian & Kate Fruend-Heurer had interesting talks too, on family in Butler's "Xenogenesis" and queerness & futurism & the film "Born in Flames", respectively. We didn't have much time for Q&A, unfortunately, but I was pretty pleased with how it went. Looking forward to re-focusing on my Cherryh/philosophy project later this year.

Then it was time to pack up and run around, the bittersweet exit. I got to talk to Sofia Samatar in the hallway for a minute, and I *think* I actually put some coherent sentences together. Might just be remembering it that way. The Olondria novels have rapidly joined a *very* small circle of books that hold a special and very emotional place for me, that exemplify the relationship I have with literature--something like religion, something like therapy, something like a friend--and it is hard to express that in a hallway while starstruck. But I tried! I think I did a better job than I did on meeting Cherryh at the Nebulas earlier in the month, at any rate.

Oh, Wiscon. The above summary does not begin to do it justice. It's really hard to capture the feeling of Wiscon--such a unique environment, which the organizers work incredibly hard to maintain. So many great moments in hallways, out for food, in little room parties. My favorite image of this year was a half-dozen or so of us out on the capitol lawn at night, swiveling to watch the ISS go over--quite fortuitous timing with a science fiction con.

I've gone to a fair number of other conventions and conferences, including some really good ones...but it wasn't until I found Wiscon a few years ago that I really felt like I'd found "my" con. It takes equality and social justice seriously, and that matters; it makes a huge and positive difference the whole time you're there. Wiscon is also the most literature-focused con I've been to; there's lots of other media love and discussion going on, but the very high bookishness factor is a big pull for me. The academic track is strong, interesting, and not the whole con--it provides a kind of organized, focused backbone for someone with my interests, and a critical and educated voice that I don't always see at cons, but it's just a part of a much larger event. Wiscon in many ways feels like what I wanted to the academy to be--educational, inclusive, out-reaching, challenging in all the right ways, and never losing sight of an essentially positive mission of celebration and exploration.

And I've made so many friends there.

Can't wait until next year. Check out the Wiscon site for more info, and to give feedback and suggestions.

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