I’m in Orlando for the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA, pronounced “ick-fah”) where today the guest of honor, G. Willow Wilson, gave a terrific keynote speech at the luncheon in which she talked about how it is that some writers (particularly marginalized writers) get labeled “political” while others (of the most privileged groups) do not.
Some of you who read my blog might remember me getting into a Twitter storm in 2016 at a romance convention when I tweeted that a white, heterosexual, married writer had advised new writers “don’t be political on social media. Be Switzerland. Be neutral and don’t take sides.” My comment to that (on social media) was that only someone who is a member of the privileged class has the privilege to “decide” whether to be political. The rest of us don’t get to “choose” whether to be political or not because merely by existing we are perceived to be making a political statement.
G. Willow Wilson’s speech went right to the heart of that issue. What follows is a pseudo-transcript of about 60% of her remarks. I have recreated this from my notes, so please do not ascribe any direct quotations to her without checking with her first. Any errors are my own and I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t make a few while transcribing. (One little typo can change a “now” to a “not” and reverse the meaning of a sentence, entirely!)
I do these transcript-type blogs for my own record of things I find really noteworthy to talk about and to give folks who couldn’t attend the conference a taste of what was said. I stress again it’s only a fraction of what was actually said.
It begins with an introduction of the speaker by David Higgins, the vice president of the IAFA (hosts of ICFA) and then G. Willow Wilson’s remarks.
G. Willow Wilson GoH Speech March 14 2019 ICFA 40
Introduction by IAFA vice president David Higgins: You may have heard the Captain Marvel film just had a spectacular opening weekend, as the first female solo superhero film in the Marvel franchises, which has put to shame the [former Marvel CEO] Isaac Perlmutter’s wikileaked memos delineating his/the company’s anti-woman bias. I like to think that no one would be more excited by the success of Captain Marvel than Kamala Khan, the creation of our of our guest of honor, G. Willow Wilson.
Kamala is such a Captain Marvel fan, she writes fanfic about it, and [when she is imbued with superpowers] takes on the mantle of Ms Marvel. Although I myself have not written G Willow Wilson fanfic (audience laughter), I did help create the cover of this ICFA program. [Which depicts G. Willow Wilson and Mark Bould in comic book fashion fighting against unseen enemies.] Please let me let out my inner fangirl and gush about how much I love Ms. Marvel.
Let me also talk about the post-911 diversity efforts by DC to internationalize the Green Lantern corps. In the creation of Simon Baz there are elements combatting some problematic stereotypes while doubling down on others. Ms. Marvel, by contrast, is a great pleasure, and I teach Ms. Marvel in my class. Kamala doesn’t fit any of the easy labels that my students have been taught previously. Although they want to refer to her as Arab American but that’s not exactly true, she’s a second generation Pakistani American. My students arrive at [a really long string of words: second-generation Pakistani American millennial from Jersey City].
Part of the brilliance of Wilson’s writing is that Kamala’s identity isn’t oversubscribed to any one of those adjectives that describe her. Kamala comes to life and isn’t just a representative of a social category. Like her, Islam isn’t just one easy-to-understand thing. The fact that Kamala is a millennial is also important. Furthermore Kamala is loving, quirky, and inspiring. Wilson exhibits the same humor and sophistication in her other work. Cairo was recognized as a top pick by Library Journal, etc. [Long list of G. Willow Wilson’s accolades, and a detailed description of the novel Alef the Unseen.] Having finished a five-year run on Ms. Marvel, she has now started writing Wonder Woman for DC. And just days ago, The Bird King was released, a novel that tells the story of the last Emirate of Muslim Spain.
G. Willow Wilson: Wow, I’m apparently very busy! (Laughter) In my job, since I’m on these very specific comic book deadlines, you have to hit them month after month, but it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. I have to move on to the next and the next. You don’t get to sit back and think, wow, I did such a lot of stuff. But hearing that list makes me think, wow, no wonder I’m so tired! (laughter)
Thank you for having me here. I can already see why so many of you love this convention so much. It combines the best of fan run cons like Westercon and an academically rigorous exchange of ideas. This has already begun to seed ideas into my brain. I wanted to talk a little bit about the theme of the conference this year: Politics and Conflict. I wanted to say something about the trends I see as a writer today in both books without pictures as well as comics.
When I saw the theme, I thought it could not be more timely than to talk about politics and conflict in genre. The roles that politics play in the genres we typically consider escapism, these are at the forefront of what we struggle with at the far end of the political spectrum. Not everybody who writes about politics is considered a “political” voice, while others are automatically considered political. It’s played out in interesting ways in my own career and life. Who is labeled “political?” To talk a bit more about that I’m going to tell you an origin story.
Once upon a time in 2009, I got the most extraordinary piece of hate mail. Every line was a different color. One was red, one was blue, the next one orange… Someone put a lot of work into this it, like a work of art! It was the old Internet so someone put a lot of work into a lot of highlighting to make it like that. This anti-fan or non-fan accused me of being part of the, now let’s see if I can remember all the parts: “socialist Islamist homosexual attack on America.” And as I read it back in 2009, I thought to myself wow, that is not a real thing. (laughter) But it sounds fabulous! (cheers)
This was before I took my email private so I used to get this kind of thing, but never one with such a load of hyperbole and such a work of art! But what was interesting to me was that I got this letter because I was doing a guest writer stint for J. Michael Straczynski on Superman. He was having some health problems and had to take a couple of months off, and I was going to tread water for three issues until he got back. Anyone knows that when there’s a big-name writer on the book who takes a break, the idea is you don’t change anything. You put everything back where it was when you started, and wait for the big-name writer to come back. I was told to “use Superman as little as possible.” I was happy to just have my name on the book and these filler issues were about Lois Lane reconsidering her life and going to her old stomping grounds. The artist they gave me came over from erotica and only knew how to draw women in 3/4 profile with this [stunned] expression her face. So maybe it’s not a surprise they weren’t very well received. But by writing these very mild, banal, filler issues of Superman I was labeled political. This occurred to me was something that was going to follow me. No matter how ridiculous and banal what I wrote was, I would be labeled political.
It was interesting to me to note that some people who wrote political stuff, on the other hand, were NOT labeled political. Some of you may know Fables by Bill Willingham, which is a large ongoing poignant exploration of fairy tales and fairy tale tropes. He was really the first to do that, widely imitated later; he created a genre-defining work. But he wore his Republican credentials on his sleeve. He is a friend and mentor. He was very generous with his time and insight, and when he was the toast of the comic book industry he would throw these infamous parties at Comcion. But he really wore his conservative politics on his sleeve. His beliefs come up not infrequently in Fables. I’ll read you this little bit:
The main character is talking to Gepetto, and there’s big conflict coming between fairy tale creatures. The main character says to Gepetto have you ever heard of Israel? Gepetto [asks him about it]. The character answers: Israel is a small country that is surrounded by countries who want to destroy them. They have a lot of grit and iron and I admire them. [Description goes on for a while.]
It really struck me that if I had said anything similar in my own work, praising real world events or countries, and putting them into the mouths of characters who were owned by a giant media corporation, I would have lost my job. But when I just tread water and write banal Lois Lane stories, here I get these hate letters. Bill Willingham could do this and face no reprisals. And all I had to do was exist and still face reprisals.
Why does that difference exist? When we’re talking about comics and graphic novels, these are a unique medium because they are visual. Those of use who are born with sight, we learn to interpret images automatically. But writing and drawing comics we learn to interpret things in a special way. You learn things as a comic book writer like if you want a cliffhanger it has to go on an odd numbered page, so it was be on a page turn rather than a spread which would be a spoiler. How do different readers interpret different gestures? It becomes political in a way other media do not because it goes straight into our brain that doesn’t differentiate truth from fiction. We believe what we see. And we begin interpreting what we see from the moment we see it whether we realize it or not.
And then when you are writing superheroes in particular you are using characters people grew up with. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the great irony is that superheroes are meant to reflect the zeitgeist, what’s going on right now. But people get very attached to the version of the character they grew up with. So when you reboot Spiderman and make him a black kid from New York or Batwoman a lesbian, and you do it just so you can tell a new story, something fresh and current, you get labeled political. That gets labeled a political and not artistic choice. Who owns those images? Corporations or writers or the fans? Who owns the characters, who owns the discourses around them? What do we do when there’s disagreement?
SF/F welcomes the reader to interpret the work because it is so symbolic. It invites us to put ourselves in the work and imagine things wildly beyond the bounds of our daily lives. There is conflict built into these genres that invite interpretation; interpretation invites dispute and discussion. It’s not always easy to know why we label certain things certain ways and not others. It’s been interesting to see this play out as I write Kamala Khan. My run on Ms. Marvel is done and I am now handing it off to Saladin Ahmed. The label of innate politicalness–here I am inventing words–is something that is kind of a spectre that has been hanging over this since the beginning.
I was talking with a mentor of mine and the editor on Ms. Marvel [Sana Amant] about how to navigate that political descriptor. I knew we were going to carry certain labels. A lapsed Catholic from Milwaukee with a typical American backstory wouldn’t get the same labeling. [Making Kamala Khan who she was] shaped the series by forcing us to put care and attention into every aspect of the series that we wouldn’t have examined otherwise.
We set our expectations quite low. We said let’s shoot for 10 issues and it will be really cool, and then we’ll probably go right back to what we were doing before. We didn’t know she’d have a shelf life. Kamala had the “trifecta of death”: new characters don’t sell, female characters don’t sell, minority characters don’t sell. The retrospective is that of course these various other projects failed for various reasons. But we had to create something that had joy and beauty in it and didn’t reflect the terror we were going through in the production of the series. Our editor Steven Wacker who championed us, our colorist, etc. the whole team. We worked more closely with the artistic team than any before or since because we knew there was zero room for error. When you have a character who doesn’t fit in a box, there is a burden of representation that unfairly falls under scrutiny. So everyone has to bring their A game at all times. Then we got to 10 issues, and then to 20, and then 30 and then 50, and then the trade paperback hit the New York Times bestseller list, and then the second one did. And we realized that we had pulled together a team that overcame the low expectations. Kamala survived and will outlive all of us.
[This success] can open the door for more. We have been living in a bottleneck for talent. When we didn’t consider representation [and only wrote/published for the dominant group/dominant paradigm] several generations of talent built up behind that bottleneck. That talent might have been lost if it weren’t opened at this extraordinary moment in history.
I’d like to close by saying nothing is impossible. If there is anyone who knows that for sure, it’s the people in this room. Thank you.