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Eastercon: It was fun, but…

I spent a sizeable chunk of this past weekend at Eastercon – the biggest SF con in the UK – and overall had an excellent time: hanging out with friends, meeting some people for the first time offline, and talking to some people I hadn’t ever expected to talk to. I was on my first ever panel. Aside from feeling very introverted by the end of it, I should be able to report that it was a wonderful weekend and Easteron is glorious and leave it at that.

I can’t.

This isn’t a post about John Meaney’s almost impressively offensive attempt to perform stand-up comedy at the BSFA Awards, for which he has fauxpologised, although it partly is. If Meaney’s speech had been the only instance of fail at Eastercon, we would probably gather round, mock him, call him an idiotic fuckwit and go home. But it really, really wasn’t the only fail.

I went to a number of panels about a wide range of topics this weekend. By Friday afternoon – that’s the first day of the con – I was already suggesting that we start a drinking game for people who mention China. (That’s the country, not the writer that Meaney “comedically” thinks is Vin Diesel.) From blithe remarks along the lines of “totalitarian regimes like China” to the utterly baffling, almost no one at Eastercon seemed to have any idea about China the real country, rather than China the caricature as portrayed in scaremongering Western media.

Did you know that in China, people are forced into the fields to hand-pollinate the flowers because all the bees are dead?

Well, now you know.

The one person who did seem to know something about China was Dr Leah-Nani Alconel, who talked about China’s incredible investment in space exploration technology. This is pertinent to my recent post about non-white SF: China is putting lots of money, training and resource into space science. SF authors, take note. You’ll be shocked to know that unlike everyone else making sweeping statements about China, Dr Alconel – who gave specific examples from her own experience of talking to Chinese scientists – is not white.

In a panel on Saturday about fantastic landscapes, the panellists started talking about London and how it can seem both real and science fictional. However, when one panellist started describing Lima (a city in Peru), she talked only about how it was science fictional. The idea that Lima is a real city in which real people live is apparently not worthy of comment. (This same panellist also described her book, in which there are very poor people and very rich people, and said the poor people are happy with their lives and even look down on the rich people.)

Later on this panel, the discrepancy between a very pricey hotel and the regular people of Hong Kong was described as an embodiment of Ying-Yang.

On a related note: while I wasn’t at the panel where Damien Walter felt the need to explain Buddhism, I hear that it was quite something.

And Lavie Tidhar reports that after the non-Anglophone SF panel (which featured non-Anglophone panellists), the following “compliment” was given: “For people who don’t speak English as a first language – your English is VERY GOOD!”

On my panel, “The Personal is Political”, which was about taking responsibility for fail (haha), the sole male panellist reported that To Kill A Mockingbird made him ~understand~ racism (Edit: although, when called on this by Jude, he amended his wording) and repeatedly told us all how diverse his award-winning books are and stressed that white males are ~trying their best~. Perhaps I put him on the defensive by saying quite early on that I no longer trust unknown male authors as much as I trust unknown female authors, but that’s not an excuse for his cookie-seeking antics. (Edit: What I think I failed to emphasise here is that it was his whole attitude that bothered me. Everyone says stupid things, but he persistently drew attention to him and his personal attempts to be a good person, rather than discussing the wider issues like the rest of us.) Additionally, while this panel represented a number of female and queer voices, it was strikingly all-white; given its subject matter, this is a glaring problem.

Then there’s the BSFA Awards speech, which was… something else. John Meaney went on for 40 minutes. We got Lauren Beukes being reduced to her looks, we got Ian McDonald being somehow capable of talking to Beukes even though she’s so so good looking (gosh, maybe McDonald sees Beukes as a human being?), we got something about Israelis liking to punch people in the face and how strange it is that someone called Lavie Tidhar could write a book called Osama, we got male allies being called “new men” in a very mocking way, we got a woman liking muscle cars OH MY GOD HOW BIZARRE, we got an impression of a stereotypical working class plumber whose girlfriend likes to go to Ibiza, and by that point I was walking out the door. Given that I was sitting by the door, I can tell you that quite a lot of people were walking out.

In the same ceremony (although before John Meaney got on the stage), Tori Truslow was commended in the James White Award for her story “Train in Vain”. You would think that this, at least, is a cause for 100% joy. Sadly not, as one of the judges described her story (set in Thailand) as containing “exotic intrigue” and “exotic imagery”. She talks about how damaging the word “exotic” is over here.

I think that’s all. But I’m sure it’s not, because I’m white and I only went to so many panels and only talked to so many people. As a woman and a queer person, I felt welcome at the con, but the continual current of fail – especially towards non-white people and countries and cultures – was un-ignorable.

Look. I don’t want to piss over the fun everyone had at Eastercon, I really don’t, because there was a lot of positivity at the con too, but all of the above is shitty and unacceptable and needs to stop, and I can’t not call attention to it.

Originally published at Tales and Foreign Markets. You can comment here or there.

Comments

Well, when you have UK SF/F gliterati insisting that "cunt" is gender-neutral, it's indicative of the state of affairs, to say nothing of the male-only anthologies and Guardian author lists.
And the (hideous yellow) Gollancz Top 10 Masterworks series, which are 100% male-authored, and the table in my local Waterstones of Classic SF which has quite a lot of books on it and only one book is female-authored (a Le Guin). Meanwhile The Windup Girl is a Modern Classic (non-genre, even!) according to Waterstones.

About the only positive thing it does for me is incentivise me to increase the % of my writing that is SF. I actually started out writing SF and only came to fantasy relatively recently, but it just happens that I've had a lot of fantasy ideas in the past 5 years. Time to encourage SF ideas to grow to the same volume.
I even know of one place that's ready to pounce on your SF... (smile).

The related kicker in all this is the armchair tourists producing works acclaimed (by other UK/US "authorities") for their "gritty authenticity" -- McDonald's Brazil/India/Turkey, Bacigalupi's Thailand, Roberts' Russia...
*grin* Even though I was trying to hold off on starting that until I'm done editing my novel (I'm not a great multitasker), it's starting to demand that I write it. Copied a bunch of notes into one place last night, hoping to get started on some actual writing very soon.

And oh god, yes, that. SO MUCH AUGH. That's why I'm so spitting angry that TWG is now some Modern Classic when it's a vile piece of Orientalising exotifying sexist shit that isn't even brilliant scifi or particularly well-written. Its only positive factor is that it has ghosts, but that does not even begin to redeem it, let alone make it a Modern Classic.

Speaking of Bacigalupi, I was quite happy to get a reaction from the audience on my panel when I pointed out that TWG lovingly depicts its 2 rape scenes but doesn't even show Emiko fighting back. So that's something.
when I pointed out that TWG lovingly depicts its 2 rape scenes but doesn't even show Emiko fighting back.

I love you.
I will never stop pointing that out.
Do we need to talk about the DOG GENES?
*cries*
I can see the flaws in Bacigalupi's Thailand pretty clearly, and I haven't read Roberts.

However, I'm interested in this view of McDonald. All the literature I've seen so far about his books praise his careful handling of post-colonial settings in literature, and indeed, coming from Belfast, he has a colonial background himself. I've had a poke around online, and I can't locate anything indicating otherwise. Can you point me at any criticism?
I personally found his depiction of India unconvincing, problematic, and sometimes outright colonial.

Here's a review of River of Gods by a non-Western and non-Indian writer.

and indeed, coming from Belfast, he has a colonial background himself.

Yeaaah no. Firsthand experience of the shitty treatment of Ireland by the English doesn't grant someone an understanding of English colonialism in India or any other pattern of colonialism. They are different experiences, different dynamics. It *might* give him better insights than the average Westerner, but it by no means whatsoever prevents him from failing.
That review makes interesting reading; thank you. I'm not sure I would agree much with the characterisation of McDonald's portrayal of India as "bland", though.

McDonald's descriptions of India were not contradicted by much in my brief experience there. Whereas, for instance, Arundahti Roy's The God of Small Things didn't seem very "Indian", and an argument could be made for it being a depiction of the American South instead. That would, of course, be a pretty nonsensical argument, as Roy's novel is an Indian book written by an Indian author, based in a place she grew up in in Kerala in... India. But I wasn't in Kerala, I was in New Delhi.

I think that saying anything authoritative about a depiction of India is like saying something authoritative about a depiction of Europe; you can find a contradiction to any image in a milieu of that size and variety. My concern is more whether the book depicts India as other, as exotic, alien, and if I missed that. I do feel it would have a tough time being exotic and bland at the same time, though.

To the other point: obviously, an experience of colonial Ireland doesn't give him an experience of colonial India. It can, however, give him a notion that there are after-effects of colonialism, which is something that often escapes Western writers.

If you take it that each experience and dynamic is different, and follow that through to say that it doesn't grant understanding, you arrive at a state where, say, only a native of the Shankill Road can set a novel in 2047 in the Shankill Road, and I with my Protestant Irish background can't because I'm from Wexford, in the Republic. I feel that if there's more in common - an origin in a colonised country, an origin in a country colonised by the same power - it gives the room for a few steps toward understanding that broad dynamic. It doesn't prevent a failure, but it can provide some tools to avoid that failure.

I'll have to do some digging, and see how River of Gods was received in India.
McDonald's descriptions of India were not contradicted by much in my brief experience there.

Well maybe that's because you both have outsider viewpoints on the country? I'm not surprised that they align.

For the equally little amount that it's worth, as I'm a white Brit, my experiences in India - only 2 weeks in Rajasthan - do not align with the India of McDonald's world, especially with the Indian people of McDonald's world. At some point I will go into this further, but I'm ill and tired so that's not happening soon.

Whereas, for instance, Arundahti Roy's The God of Small Things didn't seem very "Indian"

Oh no you did NOT just say an Indian writer's depiction of India is not "Indian" enough for you. You ignorant, dim-witted little mollusc.

You are not Indian. You are not the arbiter of "Indian"-ness. Shut the fuck up.

The rest of your comment is just 101 derailing and foolishness, so that's all I can be fucked replying to.

(Anonymous)

You didn't read the few lines after where I said that would be a stupid line to take, because Roy is Indian and I'm not?

Further, I didn't say it was or wasn't Indian. I said it didn't feel Indian to me, and you already know I'm not Indian and haven't spent much time there. It's an illustration of an outside point if view's near invalidity, which is precisely why I am going to go and find some non-outside points of view.

Discussion of degrees of colonialism and understanding thereof in a discussion of colonialism do not match my understanding of "derailing", but I'll see if I can find some explanations for a better understanding.

I am engaging in some pants position checking. So as not to cause further offense, unless I hear otherwise, I shan't post my conclusions here unless you ask me to do; I don't wish to trample on your space.

Mollusc is a new one.
You nonetheless said that it didn't seem very Indian, after saying that you thought McDonald's book was true to the India you experienced as an outsider. I don't honestly care that you admitted to the nonsense in the second remark, because you have been talking in those whole thread with me and helivoy about your need to find out for yourself if Indian and Brazilian people don't like the book(s) - which normally I would admire, but in this instance it comes across as "oh well I need to see for myself rather than believing you and in the meantime I totes experienced the kind of India that McDonald wrote about".

This kind of attitude and statements is a lot of what's wrong with this genre and how it treats works about non-Western countries.

I do, however, appreciate your ability to back off. It's a rarity.
For Roberts, see Catherynne Valente's critique of Yellow Blue Tibia. For McDonald, the critiques were private exchanges I had with Brazilian and Indian SF/F authors.

Traveling a few months in any country does not make anyone a semi-instant expert in that country. I realize McDonald is a fellow Irishman, but that was his MO, same as Bacigalupi's. There was no indication of cultural immersion, nor of extensive reading of native literature. Has praise for his work come from non-Anglo readers? Silence does not equal approval.

Furthermore, the experience of a late-20th century Irishman is not the same as that of a late-20th century Indian in terms of the repercussions and lingering aftereffects of colonialism.

Edited at 2012-04-11 04:36 pm (UTC)
It's the non-Anglo readers - and criticism in India - that I'd like to look at. I feel like the Indian point of view on whether it's a useful depiction of India is more germane than mine.

My major issue with this is that I read it and went, "That's rather good, he doesn't seem to be exoticising it", and I'll have to be rather annoyed with myself if I missed something major.
Exoticizing and authenticity overlap, but are not identical. An author that sets a work in a culture not their own may do well at grappling with both, either or neither. A work of speculative fiction has additional leeway, since it's an extrapolation of a real culture (this is also true of an author writing of their own culture).

However, the fault lines are fine and sharp and they lead to an additional problem: works by native authors are frequently devalued as too alien. In this connection, this may be of interest: Safe Exoticism Part 2: Culture
Thank you for that, much appreciated. As noted upthread, backing out of here now.
Not what you're looking for, but here's a positive review of The Dervish House by an Indian (who has lived in Dublin): http://www.practicallymarzipan.com/2010/11/ian-mcdonald-the-dervish-house.html
vomiting foxes

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