Writing the Other: Conflict and Inclusion
ICFA 40 Panel with JR Richard, Keffy Kehrli, Usman Malik, K. Tempest Bradford, Nisi Shawl
This panel did not have a description in the online schedule, but I marked it of obvious interest to me! What follows in this post is my attempt to capture what was said. I believe I caught about 60% of the remarks, so this is not all of it, and sometimes I may have mis-typed, mis-heard, or misunderstood what was said, so please do not take these as direct quotes. They may be paraphrased. Please check with the individuals here before you quote them based on this pseudo-transcript.
The panel began with the panelists introducing themselves:
Nisi Shawl: I am a writer and editor, and increasingly this year a teacher! And I coauthored a book called Writing the Other with Cynthia Ward. I teach classes on Writing the Other with this woman to my right…
K. Tempest Bradford: I am a sf/f author and I’ve been co-teaching for Writing the Other workshops, and I admin the classes we don’t teach ourselves. We’ve been doing this for 4-5 years and it’s my fault Nisi is teaching more classes!
Usman Malik: I am a writer of sf/f, subspecializing in horror.
Keffy Kehrli: I am a sf/f writer and I only have shorts stories out. And I edit Glittership, an LGBTQ magazine We dont restrict to LGBTQ authors, so I get a lot of people “writing the other.” I’m also getting PhD in genetics so if I space out I’m probably thining about genes.
JR Richard: I’m a sf/f writer and playwright and I teach creative writing, playwriting, design, and slam poetry to school age children.
Nisi: The first thing I wanted to ask the panel for are some examples of inclusion and conflict in writing the other.
JR: I think that for me, it’s about educating ourselves: as someone with privilege and someone not with privilege—I am female and queer and I go by she/they, but I’m white. And in a previous panel someone said writers go “oh, I have awoken! so now I have learned and it’s done!” And that’s not how it works…? You are always evolving and learning. I have learned what is my lane and what is not my lane. I have learned when people are faking it. I am also Jewish and just read a musical that was written by people who aren’t Jewish and they got what a mitzvah is wrong. Being wrong can be hard for those with privilege. Conflict is hard for people with privilege to accept. When they say “I don’t even see color, I don’t care if people are pink and blue…” they are skirting a conflict that makes them uncomfortable.
Nisi: But do you have some examples?
Keffy: Specific works to cite… I’m trying to think. I tend to forget things that really piss me off. So I have trouble citing examples. There are two things I see a lot when it comes to conflict and inclusion. If you’ve read a lot of sf/f—especially older stuff even beyond just Tolkien—a lot of the models you get for conflict in fantasy works tend be to problematic. They tend to include the other as the enemy. So if you base inclusion on how you read it as a kid, it may be problematic to start with. Tolkien is a great example of how not to do it. The second thing is if you have come up with a villain and you realize you have a very white, straight story, and now you decide oh, I’m going to make this character black, you will possibly run into a very serious stereotype without having realized it. If you put in a queer character without considering how the intersection of that identity with stereotypes you will run right into a problem with them. I see it in submissions where someone decided to make a character queer without seeing how it impacts the story.
Usman: My thought process over the last few years has been A) when I write a story I don’t write the other, I write ME. But you need people who have lived that role. If they write that story, they write about their own experience. That is your cement block for me. We need representation in every sector you can think of, every art. B) Great writers or anyone worth their salt are trying to be authentic. Authenticity is the heart of all good art. It doesn’t matter if you need to know intersectionalism — it’s great if you do, but you don’t need to know any of that if you are working with authenticity and honesty. I have a story set in inner Lahore, Pakistan. I have lived in Lahore, Pakistan, but not in inner Lahore where my parents had lived. So I went back home and visited people there and then I wrote that story. Those are my people and I still felt I had to go and study them. In the Internet, in what I call the Troll World, the ones who are complaining are inauthentic to what they are doing. They are bad writers. That’s how I think about it.
Tempest: There are a lot of conversations about authenticity but also Own Voices writing, people writing within their own identity category. They are from the identity and they are writing that identity. But there becomes a conflict in which their authenticity is challenged by people whose idea of that identity comes from inauthentic things! (laughter) Kate Elliot gave a really great lecture on this about a review of Ken Liu’s book Grace of Kings. This one reviewer was like “when I set out to read this, I thought I would find an authentic experience of Asian culture, like what I saw in a movie I saw one time.” (audience groans) They have this view of what is “authentic” which is often a stereotypical or really offensive view, and if you do anything else, the audience is very against it. This also causes a problem with people who are trying to write the other and have actually learned the lesson and are doing it well. Say they write outside of their racial cultural whatever, and it’s very nuanced and layered and great, and they send it to an agent or editor. They get told “but you’re white, so you can’t write about Native Americans or black characters” or whatever. Or the editor will say this is not realistic because the black people are not in a gang. The Native Americans are not alcoholics. You didn’t write those stereotypes, but because it’s not what they expect they think it’s wrong. So the conflict comes when what do you do when your editor tells you something like that? We tell them: don’t let them make you put racist nonsense into your book. You may need to call an expert in the subject who has some clout. This happens a lot.
Nisi: I think, Usman, you do write the other when you write someone from a different economic class. You also wrote about orphans. Those are not you. But I take your point about your representation of the other. Recent someone was telling me how “diverse” the cast was from Crazy Rich Asians and I was like: it’s not diverse at all!
Tempest: They’re all Asian! Using the word “diverse” to mean “not white” is every problematic.
Nisi: Who is writing what and who’s including whom—in their anthologies and their publishing stables—those are questions we’re asking.
Keffy: I can say for Glittership I try to be as inclusive as I can, but it’s always a caveat because you can’t be perfectly inclusive. Because there are a limited number of stories, but there are an unlimited number of intersections. Usman gave a perfect example. It’s OwnVoices because it’s Pakistani but it’s not OwnVoices because it’s not inner Lahore. I have one benefit over anthology editors in that Glittership is ongoing, whereas an anthology is out. If you fucked up and put no women in it you’re stuck with it. Inclusion is a process. I’m always trying to reach out to people I don’t have represented. Sometimes though they send me something that I just don’t like. I try to write the nicest rejection letter I can so that they’ll send me more. One of my problems is that some of the groups I don’t have enough fiction from is that I don’t have enough authors sending them to me. Part of it is that there’s a perspective that LGBTQ fiction is very white and that you can have all the types of queers as long as they’re white. I have to be very specific I want more writers of color.
Nisi: But can you clarify? The authors you reach out to are …?
Keffy: I don’t publish any fiction that isn’t queer. There are many authors who I would love to have, but they haven’t written anything fitting for my magazine. I will literally just email people and say “yo, send me stories.” It’s so easy for poeple to get into the idea that if they don’t see a story from people like them, then they think they shouldn’t send theirs either. Sometimes as an author you don’t want to try. No one wants to get the rejection that is like “well, but none of them are drug dealers.” That’s rejection and getting stabbed in the heart. It’s on ongoing process. I go through Fiyah Lit Mag and email all their contributors “Hey got ay queer stuff?”
Tempest: I really feel like in sf/f we have a giant problem where there are not enough editors who are not white cis men. This is especially a problem in anthologies. Most of the major year’s bests are compiled by white cisgender men. The exceptions are like Ellen Datlow, which is great, she’s there because of her seniority, but sometimes there’s not a lot of new people being brought into that. Every time I hear about a new years best it’s edited by John Q Whitefellow. When it comes to talking about stuff like World Fantasy and them not inviting and black people or women to be guests of honor for example. They just invite NK Jemisin and if she says no, they just go back to John Q Whiteguy. They say there aren’t enough others around. (They’re wrong.)
Nisi: When I edited an anthology, Nalo Hopkinson was asked to do it first. And she said no, you should ask Nisi instead. One thing we can do is keep pushing off the requests to someone else you know. I have edited three anthologies now and helped edit a few others. I make a spreadsheet and I track where are things coming from, what races are they, are they bi or queer or cis, et cetera. I don’t go for a quota but I am very conscious with trackable data about who I am getting.
Tempest: It’s good we have some editors who make an effort to understand things outside their understanding. I think Neil Clarke and John Joseph Adams do a good job with that. JJA does a good job because as the SERIES editor for a year’s best he brings in annual editors who are from more diverse points of view. He’s had Charles Yu and NK Jemisin. And then that influence rolls on.
Keffy: I do see a definite impact of my identity on my submissions. I see many more trans and nonbinary stories and authors than I did at Shimmer magazine. There I saw many women who were driven by the female editors there. As a transman I know that is impacting who feels comfortable submitting to me. But so is the fact I’m white. People want to hope they’re sending to a warm, welcoming place for them.
JR: The situation in my hometown in the theater community is very segregated. Nebraska has about a million people and it’s ridiculously segregated. There was busing when I was in school. I produced a show called Woman in Omaha. The show had women each given 5 minutes to do a thing under a pink tent. I told them I went to Omaha Central High School and I haven’t done anything at The Union, which is in the middle of the black area of town. Me and my husband were the only two white actors they had that season. I asked my friend Beau if she would co-produce with me. Most of the theaters in town will completely whitewash a cast. The white producers keep saying [non-white] people don’t show up to auditions. But it’s because they think they won’t be welcome in that space. Denise Chapman tells a story that a guy came in to audition with his dreads inside a hat like he was trying to hide it. She told him, look be yourself, and he just began to glow once he could be himself. I think A Woman in Omaha was really great and a moment of intersectionality. Anoterh example, we were doing Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin; it is all about being a black woman in musical theater. And in the Q & A after this white woman in the back stood up and said “well, but why aren’t all of you auditioning at the Playhouse?” It’s because the Playhouse’s idea of being inclusive or adding diversity is to do The Color Purple and Raisin in the Sun.
Nisi: Which is like 60 years old. Let’s talk about is conflict inherent in inclusion? Does inclusion automatically mean exclusion?
JR: I hope inclusion doesn’t mean exclusion! I think it means I can walk into a room with people of diferent faiths but all have a respect from what each of us are doing. Discomfort in inclusion, when you have grown up as white as the default in Omaha, Nebraska, it can be uncomfortable to step out of that and realize white is NOT the default and then be scared to mess up and not be inclusive. If you’re not uncomfortable in a situation either you are not pushing yourself enough or you are comfortable in your little box.
Keffy: I think conflict is inherent in inclusion but it’s also just as much in exclusion. Conflict that has been externalized I brought inside and you have to deal with it. I think that’s where a lot of the discomfort comes from. It’s not about whether black actors get in the door, it’s about whether they’re being treated correctly once they’re inside. That’s part of it. It’s a reframing of the conflict that already exists. I don’t think inclusion automatically means exclusion, but sometimes inclusion just moves the exclusion line elsewhere. Like with the expanding acronym of LGBTQ etc where do you cut off the letters? Who is left off when the bus leaves the stop? I try to be aware of that. Being a queer magazine there are people who don’t think they’re being excluded.
Usman: Exclusion versus inclusion — usually exclusion is a variant of colonization. If someone is doing that, the end result is always supremacy of some sort. Whether it happens by set mechanisms or systemic change, conflict is going to happen. The other thing is you know we were talking about editors and submission before. ICFA and the sf/f world is very different from the MFA world and the horror world. A horror antho came out by a well-known, big-time writer and I was reading the TOC. Out of 27 stories, one was by a woman. That editor is a friend of mine. I brought it up, and he came on my page and got mad. I don’t think people are deliberately being evil. But people are too arrogant to admit that things should change. There is a lack of humility on the people who are perpetuating the system. Even in the LGBTQ community there can be that arrogance. Another thing when you are a 16 or 20 year old brown kid sitting out there, they don’t know what we’re talking about. This is a very European and North-American centric discussion. We are already excluding 90 percent of the world.
Tempest: Then people who are rarely excluded claim that inclusion makes them excluded. Like if there is a “slot” for a woman in an anthology they feel that slot might have been taken away from them. I had a conversation with a co-worker that every country has one representative in the U.N. He felt America should have a bigger say. But why? Why should that bother him? I was like: what are you talking about. Of course it should be one each. But he was thinking America is the best, we deserve more etc because that’s what he’s been taught. So in his mind automatically America should get more seats in the UN. But in anthologies they’ll say yeah these are the “best” even if they haven’t made any effort to reach out to other cultural contexts. They’ll say “You can’t ‘exclude’ these (white authors) because that’s exclusion!” There’s a weird sense of fairness to these people. When I did the reading challenge. This one guy was like “oh you’re right I’ve only read one women in five years!” But when I suggested he read only women for a year he was like “But that wouldn’t be fair!” like that was going “too far.” As if one year versus five would swing the balance too far toward women even though he just admitted that only reading one woman in five years was too little.
Nisi: I was doing a reading at a place in New Orleans through a college there. We went to a home in a neighborhood. Outside black kids were playing with their bicycles and baseballs and the organizers told me I want those kids to come to this reading because I don’t want them to think this isn’t for them.
Keffy: Many things have been improved by the Internet. In the days of postal submissions I would not get stories from Nigeria. So there is more outreach than there was. But I run into the problem that there are countries where if an author sent me a story they could be putting their life in danger. The Brazilian elections recently, they elected an extremely anti-queer president. He’s Super-Trump. But right after that, I went through my submissions and I had submissions from Brazil. There are people who are going that far to get their message out. Most of the people of color who send me things are part of a diaspora in some way, and rarely from the indigenous countries. It’s hard to reach out.
Usman: I think the organizations are very smug. SFWA and the others, they feel they are doing a lot of outreach. They don’t get a lot of funding. Arts have lost their funding. But we have Codex and SFWA and ICFA, but how connected are we with the rest of the world? When is World Fantasy going to be “World” Fantasy? It’s taken ten years for the most briliant writer in India to get a reprint into Nightmare magazine. The way we know about Vandana Singh and Maryanne Mohanraj is because we’ve MET them. They’ve been at the cons. What about all the out of the country writers?
Nisi: Yeah. A lot of the people I know are from Clarion West.
Tempest: But that’s where the whole rolling down the hill thing happens. You open the door a little wider each time. But for people outside the US it’s a different trajectory. The staff on the Writing Excuses cruise give a scholarship for writers of color. It’s a networking opportunity. We have all these people now in our network. Con or Bust is another organization that was started because of POC being economically disadvantaged.
Nisi: I tried to talk about this in an essay I wrote called “Unqualified.” One way you are made to feel unwelcome is by a high economic bar. Lowering that bar proves you are welcome. One who is really reaching out is Neil Clarke who is reaching out to people of different nations. About the cascading effect of when you open opportunities to clueful allies, if you open up to people of color, then again we can further that. Alex Jennings, Ghita, all of these are people stamped with the approval of science fiction credibility, and they can now open the road further for other people.
JR: I also want to talk about elitism here in the US that I see a lot of with my students. I run a playwriting workshop in a special ed program. Often they have never had a creative writing class of any kind, ever. I also work in low income public schools. A lot of the time there are refugees or kids in low income families and there is such a gatekeeping. You have to have a cover page. You have to use Times new roman font. Etc. Stories are rejected for these gatekeeping reasons. I have one refugee kid from out of the country and he had written a beautiful story. He had written it on his phone. We had to figure out how to get it off his phone. We had to figure out how to get it out of there and reformat it and all these things (and then it wasn’t even accepted). I went to an MFA program but not everyone can do that.
Nisi: Not everyone can take 6 weeks out of their lives for Clarion even if they get a scholarship.
Keffy: There are such problems with so-called standard manuscript format. I don’t really care. I get things in all kinds of fonts. It’s in Word. I just change it. There is no standard anymore. With postal submissions there was a high barrier to entry. But do any two magazines have the same format now? I had to copy my whole story into a notepad file to submit it in plain text into on magazine’s submission form… I decided never to do it again. Some of it is just… ugh. The thing is, I didn’t know anything about any of this until I started going to conventions. I would go to panels of editors, some of whom will remain nameless, but they would go on these tears about the (sarcasm) horrible things writers did like using the wrong font and how can anyone take that writer seriously? I have anxiety disorder so I was so worried I didn’t get absolutely everything right. I was afraid I didn’t speak the right lingo. So I am trying to make my submission handle-able for me and my co-editor. We have a submission form to make it doable for us, but it’s important when you are curating anything which things are really barriers to entry.
Tempest: What information someone has access to so often gets brushes aside. Someone types something into the Internet and they don’t know where they land has the wrong information. There are a lot of scammers out there. The people who get taken advantage of is because they accidentally landed in the wrong place. They weren’t dumb or not savvy. The only reason I know anything is I once opened the right promotional email and ended up here instead of the wrong place. and it must be even easier to land in the wrong place if you’re not from North America.
Keffy: Like JR said, there are a huge amount of places where they don’t have computers but they all have mobile phones. There are kids right now writing full novels in the back of the English class on their phone.
JR: There was a teacher at our school who was holding back giving notebooks to the kids because they had to “earn” them. Me and my boss were so mad at that. They are only reading white men from the 1930s and so if we go into the class and we say we’re going to write poetry they go “yuck! ugh!” because they think of writing as something that is for “him” and not for themselves. And I say no, we’re going to write what YOU want to write.
Nisi: OK, let’s open it to questions since we’ve got 45 minutes left. Oh no wait, only 15 minutes left! Where did the time go!
Tempest: We got talking.
(Then came questions from the audience but my fingers are cramping so I’m going to stop typing.)