For its fortieth anniversary WisCon invited three Guests of Honor, Justine Larabalestier, Sofia Samatar, and returning GoH Nalo Hopkinson. Today, which happens to be James Tiptree, Jr.’s birthday, all three have published their Guest of Honor speeches online.
Justine Larabalestier gave a speech about prejudice against YA fiction as a symptom of societal prejudice against teens themselves.
Turns out it wasn’t just the SFF crowd who aren’t fans of YA. (Though I suspect that SFF folk have particularly painful memories of being a teen and being oppressed by other teens.) I heard the following a lot: “Teens are awful. Being a teen was awful. Why on Earth would you write about them?” Often accompanied by visible shuddering.
It was starting to dawn on me that the horrified reaction to my writing Young Adult had little to do with the books and a whole lot to do with lack of interest in, as well as fear and hatred of, teenagers. Much as dislike of Romance is often more about misogyny than the books themselves.
It’s a mystery to me how I failed to notice that many adults hate teens. I’d certainly been aware of it when I was a teen. But somehow I forgot.
I also realised that adults hating teen wasn’t just a personal thing it was also a societal thing. There are, in fact, laws against teenagers in many jurisdictions. There are stores and even whole malls that won’t let teens in unsupervised by adults.
Why? I wondered. Why do we hate teens so much. I mean sure some of them are arseholes but so are some adults. What’s going on?
She followed with a fascinating discussion of just how new an idea it is–less than a century old–to consider “teenagers” as their own category, and how important it is to take them seriously.
Sofia Samatar’s speech was a gorgeous, soaring defense of diverse style and voice within genre, opening by quoting a critic’s line, “Genre is much less of a pigeonhole than a pigeon,” and flying on from there.
In fantasy and science fiction we might ask—why does our longing so often look like Isaac Asimov’s longing? This is the genre of possibility! After all, many people are drawn to the worlds of fantasy and science fiction because they feel like outsiders, they feel like they don’t belong in this world. The tropes of fantasy and science fiction can be powerful vehicles for expressing the sense of dislocation experienced by those who are physically and psychologically on the outside. I myself am drawn to these genres partly due to the experience of growing up between cultures that everything around me insisted could not exist together: half of my family are Somali and Muslim and the other half are Swiss-German Mennonites from North Dakota. What does that make me? It might mean I’m from the future, it might mean I’m a citizen of an alternate universe, but either way it complicates my relationship to this world. It makes me long for ways of being I don’t see in the world around me, and that’s not John Updike’s longing, it’s not Isaac Asimov’s longing, it’s particular and I believe worthy of expression.
Nalo’s speech was structured around lines curated from her own exercise music playlist, and focused on the rhetorics of the genre fiction community. She looked at the reasons people are angry, and how they act in their anger, and the predictable responses that her analysis would cause.
Listen: If I’ve learned anything in this past little while, it’s that there are people who will warp one’s message, in violation of one’s principles. I know that soon after this speech goes public, there will be those who will either mock it, or appropriate its language for their own ends. They’re going to say that I’m modelling the very things against which I’m advocating. That kind of flipping the script has become a popular tactic. I’ve begun to take it as a measure of success, in part because said appropriation is reactionary, not originary. They envy a particular sound bite or concept, so they try to make it their own, or, failing that, to make fun of it.
I don’t know what to do about that, but I do know that snark is easy, maybe too easy. It’s easy to ridicule others, for good or for ill. It’s easy to encourage others to join your dogpile, to create an atmosphere of fear, anguish and self-doubt in your preferred victims. Yet it’s not a bad thing to urge people to question their own beliefs and behaviours. Anger and conflict have their uses. But what are we doing on the other side of the ledger? I’m hearing from far too many people who would love to be part of science fiction, but who are terrified of the bullying. So what are we doing to foster joy and welcome to this community? What are we doing to cultivate its health and vibrancy? What are we doing to create an environment in which imperfect people (as all people are) who are trying to be good people can feel encouraged and supported to take the risk of a misstep, perhaps learn from it, and come back refocussed and re-energized, eager to try again?
Following up that thought, Nalo proposed doing a specific thing: the creation of an award for kindness, given to people determined to have made positive change within science fiction communities. She calls it the Lemonade Award, and even discovered an SFnal object to inspire the trophy. I think incentivizing prosocial behavior in our field is an excellent and timely idea, and hope that her award takes off as well as the Tiptree Award–also proposed in a WisCon GoH speech–did.