I did two readings the past week. There were some noted differences that got me thinking.
Reading one: Women in Sci-Fi
This had been planned months in advance yet became stressful in the final weeks leading up to it. As my novella, Marta Martinez Saves the World, was born from a discussion to promote female authors and female protagonists, me doing a solo reading just didn’t seem right to me. I called upon some awesome local female authors to join in a discussion at THE bookstore in this town to do readings, and they agreed to join in the endeavor. As the dates approached annoyances happened, as they do – the events organizer quit and a new one was hired. Paperwork wasn’t passed on. They had trouble ordering my books (for my reading!) and didn’t tell me until it was too late to order more, so we had to go with the 5-6 I had on hand. The other authors were frustrated because there was no advertising, etc.
Then – The election.
When this was planned months ago the election wasn’t in play, or at least not considered. With the outcome as it was our event, which was slightly political as it always is when women go into public spaces to speak about the need to have more female presence, became a political beacon of sorts. We were now four women in a Trump world talking about equal rights and wanting to stand up and write, and write female characters as human- this after the past two years of Hugo vitriol saying we also shouldn’t exist (and others standing up and showing why it’s necessary we do).
The unthinkable happened at this reading. We were between the gender studies aisle and the children’s book section. The place was standing room only (that’s not the unbelievable part). Violence erupted. It was not a fight. It was a man standing up, taking off his jacket, turning around, and letting loose on a friend of mine. A good person who had come to support me, a white male who wanted to show he was an ally and who also wanted his kids, both boys, to learn to be allies. And he ended up bloody with a black eye, bruised wrists and nose. He told me about how he turned it into a lesson to his kids and I couldn’t help but cry, even now as I type this.
However, I want to focus on the awesome audience, because this goes into the comparison. For one, the audience stayed. Also, the audience was made up of a lot of females, yes, but there were also men in the audience, which was awesome to see. But the biggest ‘YESH!’ was that the crowd was so full of people from all walks of life, all ethnicities, a wonderful mix of the population of a midwest I used to think was so white, but learned pretty quickly isn’t. In fact, There were probably fewer of those who looked ‘white’ than others. And I loved it. Because, as we got to discuss, it is a female issue but more than that it’s a representation issue and in sci-fi we have the chance to create the future we can aspire to make real.
Representation in fantasy and sci-fi is a huge issue, with places such as Fireside tackling the dialogue, starting with a spotlight on how the numbers stack up. I see discussion and questions of what we can do to help all over the place. And in that audience, oh man, what a thrill to see the sea of people there joining in the conversation, telling us in tears and laughter THEIR stories and how they pushed themselves to come to that reading because hope was needed and man, was there ever a lot of hope in that room. Despite me being fearful all day, and then that fear proven true with the random attack, we ended with each other asking the same questions: “How do we improve? How can we support and how can we do better?” And that brought on happy tears. Tears of relief that we are not alone.
Reading Two: Big L literary
Some know that despite growing up in extreme poverty, living in a car and tent for a while, I grew into the academic establishment. Ivy League degree, MFA in writing. I publish in lit magazines as well, and had pieces of my memoir accepted into a lit magazine and went to the opening reading and reception of the issue, an annual.
The winner of the fiction prize for that issue was a Pakistani woman who came up from California to read part of her work. There was talk about how now, more than ever (yes, that phrase was used) we need art to pave the way, to create the culture we want. But when I spoke to the prize winner after we both commented on the same thing: The readers and audience was mostly those who, I’m going with first glances and not known genealogy, were not nearly as varied as the previous reading. AKA – people looked white.
The evening was lovely and I was shocked I was able to do that after what happened two days later. No one was injured, not a bad word was even uttered unless it was in the readings. But I couldn’t help but notice the extreme difference in ethnic make-up in attendance at the two readings. In fact, when I first saw the room, scanning it, I made a point to do something I’ve never done before: I prefaced the reading by talking about my PTSD, my labeling as a disabled American and how my work in this issue was me trying to translate the way my disability has my mind work into a form others could in some way begin to accept. The reception was amazing with a lot of people coming up to talk to me afterward. I got to meet the people who championed for my work on the editorial board. I had someone tell me it sounded better out loud than when she read it (ha!) and it was thrilling. But I did learn some things.
I had trouble in my MFA because it felt incredibly exclusive. I got comments about writing about asian characters, or my characters having jobs. Why do I have to have so many females? Things got even worse when I asked that we read more female or experimental writing. The capital L literary world has a huge problem with the voices it says matter as a way to ‘illuminate the human condition.’ However, it’s the Establishment, it’s the school, it’s what they teach is good and true and right in art. The journal I was in pushed to publish people from all over the world and community, but the community that showed up was- white. What does this say about us and what we are teaching the next generation to be? Better yet, how does that reflect the election, where the establishment can dictate the values of our country when the populace can’t?
I did feel a mirroring. Sci-fi and fantasy, the little l literature for the populace, the stuff that is read at a high clip and given to friends to read again before becoming movies, that was the most diverse reading I’ve ever done or gone to. It was amazing and wonderful and made me feel that, that is the field I want to be in. It made me smile at all the comments coming out of the Hugo mess, how people banded together to say great sci-fi, great literature, can come from any person.
Another thing I learned was that as much as I hate defining myself, and probably haven’t defined myself, sometimes it is important to do that and not just pass for what others think you are. I said in the Sci-Fi reading that as I began to get published in the genres I had to come to terms with being female and it’s true. I was pretty much genderqueer until I realized it was an issue that I couldn’t shy away from. I do identify as mostly female and a woman writer, perhaps with not all the markers people expect in someone with breasts, but I’m here. I tend to like slipping between worlds, so until I started getting backlash for having a female name didn’t consider it a point of pride to be a woman. Now I do.
The same goes for my PTSD. I feel it important now to say, “Hey, yo, you, I am labeled as disabled because of my childhood, because I grew up in extreme poverty which is itself a HUGE disability, but you know what? My voice is important and it matters and you should listen to it, internalize it, and when you hear someone else say they are disabled you should listen to them to because really, we’re all human and we’re all talking about the human experience. And it’s wonderful. And it’s beautiful. And there is heart and hope there.”
However, I do hope that one day we can get to the point where it’s not ‘woman writer’ or ‘disabled writer’ but that it can be ‘awesome writer’ and ‘Wow, what a writer’ without the identifiers. But that isn’t happening soon, so now I kind of want it known where my voice is coming from so others who have been thinking they don’t have a ladder can begin to see the rungs are there, just clouded right now, and begin to climb.