I’m writing this post not because I have answers but because I have questions.
I just returned from WorldCon 73/Sasquan, held in Spokane, Washington, from 18 – 23 August 2015. From my perspective both Sasquan programming and everyone who organized and volunteered for Sasquan as a whole did a fine job in a particularly difficult and fraught year. I say that to make it clear this post is not about Sasquan but rather about the general situation within the SFF field and the larger world of publishing and popular culture in general.
In the past SFF conventions have sometimes featured panels on “using foreign lands and histories to give new color and detail to your SFF,” a format I personally find appropriative (even though I can be accused of doing just that in my writing). Those aren’t panels analyzing and opening up for discussion the need for and presence of often-marginalized writers/artists and stories and characters, and how (usually USA) publishing (and Hollywood) culture supports or hinders these efforts.
In the wake of 2009’s #Racefail discussion, LJ blogger delux-vivens (much lamented since her passing) asked for a wild unicorn herd check in to show that people frequently told they don’t read SFF and aren’t present in SFF circles do in fact exist. In some ways I personally think of this as the first unofficial “diversity panel.”
Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo launched the Diversity in YA tour and website in 2011. At that time, featuring a diverse group of authors talking about the existence and importance of Diversity in YA seemed fresh. In 2011, when the World Fantasy Convention took place in San Diego, Lo wrote to the programming committee to offer to moderate a Diversity in YA panel for convention programming. Instead, WFC programming scheduled a panel titled “I Believe That Children Are the Future” whose description began, “How do we convert YA fantasy readers into adult fantasy readers?”
These days, more conventions & comiccons feature panels on diversity: what it is, why it matters, how we can support it. I’ve seen examples of these being absolutely packed, especially when they first became features of the con and library landscape, because they addressed a pressing need to discuss how the publishing industries too too often marginalize many as they highlight the same few and provide more publicity and visibility to certain kinds of stories while neglecting others in a systemic way.
Now, however, without in any way suggesting that the need for discussion is over or that we have solved the problems, I am wondering to what degree the “diversity panel” may be beginning to become less effective and perhaps even to exacerbate the problem.
I’m not the first person to bring this up or ask these questions, not by a long shot. [Please feel free to link to related discussions in the comments.] I emphasize I don’t have answers; I only have questions, and I’m writing this post not to suggest solutions but because I am wondering what people think and what their own experiences are.
For example, at Sasquan I was on a Diversity in YA panel with Fonda Lee, Cynthia Ward, Cassandra Clarke, and Wesley Chu. First of all, Fonda Lee did a fantastic job moderating: She prepared for the panel by emailing us a list of questions she planned to ask and a course of action she planned to take as moderator to cover as much ground as possible in the 45-minute time frame we were allowed. The panelists all had smart things to say. But let’s look at the line up.
Ward was placed on the panel because she and Nisi Shawl wrote a well-known and much cited work on “Writing the Other”. Lee and Clarke have both published YA (Young Adult) novels, Zeroboxer and The Assassin’s Curse, respectively. My YA debut fantasy Court of Fives was released the week of Worldcon. Chu, however, has not written YA or MG although his debut novel, The Lives of Tao, did receive a special citation from YALSA as a novel that could also work for teens. As Chu himself pointed out, there really was no reason for him to be on the panel except that he is of Asian ancestry and thus fits in an obvious diversity box.
Chu’s fourth novel Time Salvagers was published in July, a straight-ahead SF time travel story, yet at Worldcon he was not placed on any of what I’ll call “mainstream” science fiction programming items in which he could discuss, as a writer with other writers, writing science fiction, science fictional ideas, and the use of science fiction to comment on trends and futures. This strikes me as the very opposite of what we might hope to accomplish with an emphasis on more “diverse” programming.
In this same fashion, besides a reading, autographing, and Kaffeeklatsch (small group meeting), I participated in five other programming items: two I proposed (a dialogue with Ken Liu (The Grace of Kings) on world building and a powerpoint lecture on Narrative Structure and Expectation), one last minute (and really fun) Ditch Diggers live podcast (hosted by Matt Wallace and Mur Lafferty), and two “assigned by the convention,” which were both YA panels, one on world building and the other on diversity. I was also offered a panel on Teen/YA Romance, which I asked to be taken off of.
That’s three YA panels. Now in one sense I believe the programming committee was kindly acknowledging that my YA debut was out that week, and yet I couldn’t help but notice that although I have a new epic fantasy series whose first volume comes out in November (not so far away) and although I have under my belt multiple multi-volume series, I was not asked to be on a panel titled “Writing the Multi-Volume Series” (populated by four male authors all of whom, I hasten to add, are bestsellers). This isn’t the first time in recent years I’ve been given programming in diversity or gender and not in multi-volume series and/or epic fantasy, which has been my main sub genre for — oh — all of my career.
I understand the desire of a convention committee to present bestselling authors on their panels (or much beloved older authors at Worldcon given the importance of fannish history). People naturally want to see them! I do too! Yet at the same time if they are the only ones consistently tagged for such panels, the practice ends up highlighting the visibility of a limited number of (often already very visible) people.
I wonder if the “diversity panel” is in some circumstances becoming a way to “fulfill” the pressure to have the diversity conversation while meanwhile funneling it off to one side in a way that prevents actual diversity from fully integrating into the “regular” “mainstream” discussion.
I’m not saying this happens deliberately on the part of organizers but rather that people may need to pause and reflect on how decisions like this get made. The need for discussion remains acute, and a diversity panel may be an effective way to introduce people to concepts they haven’t thought much about, yet discussion only takes us so far. Dismantling the systemic biases embedded in our culture is the ultimate goal but obviously is a vast, complex, and long term endeavor.
Meanwhile: Visibility matters. Action matters.
Here’s a final observation from Sasquan. My world-building dialogue with Ken Liu happened to be scheduled back-to-back with the Diversity in YA panel, in the same room. Ken and I had a full room, while the Diversity in YA panel (which took place in the next time slot) had perhaps a third of the audience. While I understand that most who came to the world building panel were writers hoping for insight, I can’t help but think that people are increasingly looking for diverse panels rather than diversity panels.
What have your experiences been with diversity panels? Where next?
The diversity conversation includes many voices. I list a very few here: