Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Moon Tea and Whiteface (III)

Part One, June 2014, continued

I approached this Wiscon planning to pay attention to its guests of honor — not something I always do, or always can fit into my schedule, especially in years when I volunteer my time to moderating panels. I was curious to hear more from Hiromi Goto, since I had heard her speak relatively little, the year she won the Tiptree, and since I have been trying to find room in my reading schedule for some Japanese-background writers. I was curious about N.K. Jemisin, too, partly due to her having appeared on the scene in 2010, the only recent year when I gained significant insight as to happenings in the fantasy-writing scene, and partly due to her Convergence 2013 speech that had won her a reputation for controversy.

I had read that speech's text and had thought it neither incendiary nor overly provocative. Yet I had come across comments from some within the science fiction and fantasy field who expressed discomfort. This suggested that more was taking place, in the speech or outside it, than fell within my purview — enough so as to make me feel it important to attend a panel that Friday, the first night of regular programming at Wiscon 38, with the title "Reconciliation within Science Fiction and Fantasy." The description cited Jemisin's 2013 speech, quoting a passage that seemed quite positive in nature, to my perspective, in calling for making "an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone." The program description added the questions: "What would a Reconciliation look like? How can we start one? How can we grow one?"

In that 2013 call for action, which struck my eye and helped send me to attend the panel, lies the beginning of the journey I would take during the next few days — not a journey anyone else might have noticed me undertaking, and not even one I much noticed myself undertaking until it had taken place. In the words "active, conscious effort" I found my stimulus: for they planted the pearl-seed that lodged not solely within my thoughts pertaining directly to the stated topic but also within the part of my mind concerned with creative effort. In the former thought-arena I wondered what more needed to be done, truly, that was not already in process, within the genres. In the latter arena, I wondered how an active, conscious effort might affect creative endeavor: for in the development of one's artistry, whatever that might be, one must seek an understanding of one's unconscious contributions to the creative act — insofar as "to understand" offers the best word for that statement; and to achieve, then maintain, a balance between unconscious and conscious contributions to the creative process. Excess reliance on the unconscious creative urge leads to incomprehensible, disjointed works that come across as flighty and undisciplined — whereas giving excess emphasis to conscious decisions can make it impossible for that indefinable quality to emerge that makes our word "art" so elusive. We have seen writers of talent becoming dry, becoming old, when riding a hobbyhorse mechanically designed to go from point A to point B, a course determined by a pedantic, moralistic, or political message — thus a predetermined message, or in philosophical terms a formal cause — a teleological expression, hence not one that we take as true expression, or at least as full expression, of the creative process, even if for no other reason than that the creative process cannot be pre-determined.

In the arena of the attitudes and practices within the field, I did think the process had gotten well on its way. One development occurred around 2010, following the formation of the Carl Brandon Society, which does seem to be performing a function akin to that of the Tiptree Awards organization. In 2011, the trio of new novelists N.K. Jemisin, Karen Lord, and Nnedi Okorafor made a striking debut in the U.S. fantasy scene, with all three appearing on the World Fantasy Award ballot. Okorafor won that award. Their appearance on the ballot reflected strengths: for the three made their novelistic debuts when other quite accomplished novels appeared without ballot acknowledgement. For me, Patricia McKillip's The Bards of Bone Plain comes to mind. While Okorafor gained perhaps the most public stature, in the immediately following years, both Jemisin and Lord earned readerships and critical attention.

2010 had arrived not as anomalous but as a year that arose from the continuum that began in the 1950s, when the self-awareness of the science fiction and fantasy genre reified itself — made itself physical, palpable, and almost measurable — in the form of awards. For better or worse, award-winners became prominent features on the genre's constantly changing, mirror-viewed face. Their lists created at least the impression of racial diversity after Samuel R. Delany won many nominations and awards, spanning decades; and his 1989 Hugo for The Motion of Light in Water made it more than clear that a work's expressing thoughts relating to minority identities in our culture, both racial and sexual, offered no obstacle to its achieving the highest recognition, nor to its becoming, as a memoir, an accepted subject or term within the field's conversation with itself. To draw on Charles Peirce's notions regarding the continuum of thought, Delany's book changed the continuum of the conversation within the genre, just as any other book would and could; and the book's title represented not only the book itself but also became a sign that yet another change had affected the continuum.

Similarly the 2010 World Fantasy ballot presented individual novels, drawn forth from a communal reading experience; and at the same time it became a sign in the continuum that three new novelists, who to readers seemed to share the quality of expressing the Black American woman's experience, had become significant parts in the field's development. From that point onward, any new signs of change within the genres would appear within a continuum in which the signs of 2010 were indelibly a part. These novelists had achieved permanence within the ongoing conversation; and the conversation that has taken place since then cannot be said to be the same as the one that took place beforehand. In other words, the genres cannot be said to be the same after 2010 as they were before. Or, to put it in yet other terms, Jemisin, Lord, and Okorafor seem to have taken the step, by means of cooperating genre editors and publishers, "to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone." Whatever their creative intentions, in their novels they had created works that would become standards, against which future works might be measured. Their works "established" them; and just as those works became part of the established genre, their authors acquired established voices. Neither the works nor the voices stood outside. Whether or not they stood elsewhere as well, they stood within the genre.

I should note that I was a judge in the World Fantasy Awards process that resulted in a ballot slate of which half were written by new Black women writers. Please note: half. The slate is normally not made up of an even number of novels. I am quite unsure as to whether any among us judges were quite aware that we were so disturbing tradition by sending in a six-novel slate. Had the administrators thrown out the slate, I have, naturally, no idea which of the six they would have cut, although Jemisin's might have seemed the logical sacrifice. I felt Jemisin's novel portended something of importance, while feeling it could not actually win the award, as part of a trilogy. What other judges felt I have no way to say. I do have reason to suspect some might have jettisoned the Lauren Beukes novel Zoo City, which impressed me tremendously, but which other judges regarded as too science-fictional — which came as a startling perspective, to me, since its flight-of-fancy elements were out front and essential, and were in-the-face anti-empiricist.

Imagine, though, if you will, what would have happened had Zoo City been expunged from the list. New novels by Black American women novelists would have occupied thee-fifths of the slots, on the nominee list. If, at that moment, the literature of the imagination did not belong to everyone — supposing that "everyone" means all who are black or white — then I find it hard to imagine a similar, equally powerful moment at which just such a gate-passage might have taken place.

In emerging from that gate-passage, Jemisin undoubtedly had experiences that helped inspire her comments at Convergence 2013. Yet from her comments at Wiscon 38, it seems to me that the situation within the genre that led to her comments about reconciliation derived — in however small a degree, though probably not small — from her experiences in the field of genre literature that prevailed before 2011. Anytime after that date she, herself, takes her place in the actual conditions surrounding and involving science-fiction and fantasy assessment and consideration.

For this does seem to me to be factual. The field as a whole, to some unknown degree, is to be judged on the basis of the works of the three Black American women novelists who achieved beyond the norm in their publications of 2010.

Oddly enough, Jemisin acknowledged this situation, in particular terms, not general terms, later during Wiscon 38: for she spoke about her Inheritance Trilogy being not her first novel series. Her first, in making the rounds of publishers, encountered among other rejections one from a publisher, Orbit, whose editors said they might consider it publishable had she an established name. Jemisin then wrote The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which ended up being published, in that things-coming-together way, in the year in which Lord and Okorafor also made their novelistic debuts. By doing so — by partaking in a group-alteration to the continuum — she created the genre-publishing environment within which her first novel-series could then be sold.

Jemisin said that she wrote this new novel in a rage. This makes me suspect that even if calculation went into devising a book that would make an acceptable first novel, it played a role subsidiary to heartfelt execution, in developing and executing a reply, through the means available to her as a writer and artist, to fit the situation.

Her first series reached publication likely helped by the fact, too, that the debut novels by Okorafor and Lord sported covers making it clear — insofar as any novel cover makes anything clear — that their perspective centered upon figures who were female and, too, were African, African American, or perhaps African-Global of identity.

Orbit, a presumably forward-thinking publisher of science fiction, published Jemisin's debut with a cover that might have spoken in almost any visual tongue to contemporary readers. I mean this observation not as a criticism against Orbit, especially given that Jemisin herself describes her Hundred Thousand central figures as being racially split, but rather to highlight the fact that DAW Books and Small Beer Press accepted the images of Black women for the fantasy-novel covers they published, with neither apology nor coyness. Jemisin became a "name" at the same time that two other prominent novels appeared under jackets placing, foremost, images that embraced the Black experience and the female experience, and that accurately presented the novels in that regard.

In any case, this trio, coincident in their rise, nudged the genre field in a new direction, without any "active, conscious effort" behind the re-directing. However much the coincidental might figure into the situation, it did arise naturally from an ongoing progress. Some observers in 2014 might have reflected on events in 2010-11, and made comments about the field "growing up" or becoming adult in a deeper way than before. We must remember, however, that mature, intelligent observers have made that same assessment since the beginning of the genre's self-conscious existence. The genre will never achieve any one, particular state until it has expired. Until that time, the process behind this appearance of maturation will continue.

That the Wiscon panel on reconciliation existed, as did Jemison's 2013 speech, reflects the perception and belief that "barriers that currently exist within the genre and fandom" do stand in the way of meeting Jemisin's call for recognizing "the real history of this genre" and acknowledging "the breadth and diversity of its contributors." These words from 2013, and Jemison's participation in Wiscon 38, take part in the process of facing these barriers — while these barriers, too, contribute to the process.

The panel description asked, "What would Reconciliation look like?" I would think that one possible appearance would be an awards category in the year 2011 that was dominated by woman writers, four in number, three of whom are "diverse" in an additional way — with one of the last winning the award, as chosen by a panel of judges, none of whom, to my knowledge, fell into that particular category of the "diverse." The four woman writers who did appear on the ballot, I might add, did edge out other women and Black-identity writers.

The year 2011 offers only one possible appearance, of course. As the process continues, just how Reconciliation "looks" will continue changing, with its ideal constantly receding into the future.

I will not say that I had all these thoughts while listening during the panel. Various aspects in the discussion interested me; and the fact that some related to matters other than the situation that existed expressly within the writing genres made it difficult for me, and perhaps for others, to remain focused on the core issue, or at least on the issue announced as the core one. Some aspects clearly had purely social ramifications. Yet even in these the topic became large enough to become unfocused. Did the notion of Reconciliation apply foremost to the situation of the Native American expulsion and segregation, and the theft of their land — in an echo of the Reconciliation process Jemisin had witnessed in Australia? Or did it apply primarily to relations between White and Black people in post-slavery America? Did it apply only to the current moment, or to all past time?

Despite the disparate comment-strands taking place, a crux moment arrived in the form of a question from the audience — a question that already had its equivalent forming in my mind, and that must have been forming in the minds of other listeners. For the panelists had returned repeatedly to the topic of the science fiction and fantasy genres, even while Reconciliation never yielded its central place in the conversation.

At some point this statement had arisen:

"Reconciliation takes place after great harm has been done."

I believe but cannot say without question that Jemisin first voiced this perspective, during the panel. I feel certain, though, that she restated it when the crux question came in, from the audience — which asked:

Was enough harm done, in science fiction and fantasy, to make reconciliation necessary?

Panelists offered replies that I recall being various approaches to an affirmative answer — all having validity, in that their replies contained perspectives that shed some light on the current situation in the genres, whether from the perspective of the reader, the observer, or the writer. Jemisin, I recall, made general and generally perceptive points about the field, and suggested that it operated upon a base language within which continued the harm.

(Continued in next post.)

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