Culture and science fiction conventions

I wrote out many thoughts on last weekend’s World Fantasy Convention, but something rather important has come up and I need to talk about it. It’s related to World Fantasy, true, but it’s also related to many other online conventions this year.

People from all over the world dropping in to take tea and chat can be delightful… but can also cause problems. No convention has been entirely without problems and no convention has been entirely without moments when cultures have come together and produced fascinating and useful conversations.

I could cause more problems if I listed the issues each and every convention has had or say nice things about the terrific conversations, but I shan’t do either. Instead, I shall give a small list of quite specific ideas to consider. These are the kinds of discussions that program people have or should have. (I’ve had them when programming. And yes, I made mistakes. The world is a big place and full of exceptional complexities.)

1. How do countries see their own various cultures? We can’t just take our own views and use them as a framework for the description of others. My favourite example of this is that people of Korean ancestry are from the dominant culture in Korea and the opposite in the US: a Korean and a Korean American have completely different experience in terms of prejudice and who society favours.

2. How do minorities see themselves, explain themselves, and why? The example I give on panels is often me, myself and I, for I am not the same Jewish as US Jewish and have some very interesting life experiences to prove it. Ask me about them, and ask me what elements of Australian history pushed me towards my self-description as off-white.

3. In any community, who are the experts on matters of culture? I’ve spent a large chunk of my life working on these things and some con-runners know this and ask me to be on panels or for advice. Others… don’t. The variations on ‘don’t’ can be entertaining but often make me feel like an outsider. I have other things to do than spend more of my life as an outsider (I am one anyway, so I don’t need to accept the gift of more outsider status) and move on to other things. We are all different people. Ask around and find out who knows what. (Ask me what my new PhD topic is, I dare you. It includes the words ‘culture’ and ‘genre fiction’. Ask anyone researching what their research is about.)

4. There are procedures and guidelines for working with so many minority cultures in so many countries. My favourites look a bit like this: https://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/workspace/uploads/files/writing-protocols-for-indigeno-5b4bfc67dd037.pdf This and a set of writing guidelines have been produced by the owners of the culture in order to make it possible for the rest of us to write without appropriation. While not all cultures have documents of this sort, they often have people who can be asked. It would be very useful if possible panellists know about policies and protocols and politics. It would also be useful if they could explain how one works with people of this culture or that. However, none of us know everything. Panellists should all know their limitations. That’s the bottom line. We need to know who we can speak for and who we should defer to on a given subject.

This is not a list of ten. It could be, but those four subjects are immense and enough to be getting on with.

What We Lose, What We Gain

About 15 years ago most of my jewelry was stolen. None of it was very valuable, although there were some pearls and jade and a little amber, and a lovely pair of moonstone in gold stud earrings that had some monetary value. But, as is the way of things, each piece had a story that was part of my life. That was their real value, and hence the deepest loss. I’d had some of them since my childhood, and some had been gifts from loved ones who’ve since died. Some of it was my mother’s.

I went through the expected rage and frenzy, scouring local flea markets in the forlorn hope that I might spot a piece or two. Of course, I did not. When that stage had run its course, the police report filed (and, doubtless, immediately tossed), anger turned to grief, and grief to acceptance, and acceptance to looking in a new way at what I’d lost.

I wrote in my journal that although the thieves had taken bits of minerals, crystals, shells, fossilized tree sap, they could not steal:

the stories in my mind
the books I’ve written
my children
the redwoods
my dreams
my friends
their kindness and generosity to me
my capacity for joy…

Slowly, over the years, I have acquired a new collection. It’s smaller and more suited to who I am now. I discovered a few things from my mother, tucked away in an old cigar box with some broken bits and things I didn’t wear. Friends and family surprised me with simple, beautiful pieces: a strand of black pearls, an amber pendant, a necklace of silver and garnet dangles, tiny, amazingly delicate garnet earrings. I went through a period of needing “replacements,” and then letting them go. My daughters and I have swapped a number of pairs of earrings. It’s such a delight to pass them on. And to realize I don’t truly need any of this.

What I need are the people I love, and who love me. What I need is to write the stories in my heart. What I need is to work for a better world for everyone. In light of the covid-19 pandemic and the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement, my priorities have sharpened.

I look at what I have, what I have lost, what cannot be taken from me, what I have gained. Yes, I enjoy beautiful things. How much more dear to me are the memories that come with them. And how much more precious are the lives of those who are oppressed and terrified and suffering today.