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Diversiverse 2015: I’m doing it, and you should too!

I just signed up to participate in Aarti’s 2015 Diversiverse Challenge for the second year. Basically, the idea behind Diversiverse is for bloggers and other readers to increase the visibility of authors of color in all genres, by reading one book written by a person of color, and posting a review of it between October 4th and 17th. Your review can be on your blog, if applicable, or through a system like Goodreads or even Amazon, as long as you’re able to link it back to Aarti’s site.

I had a great time with this event last year. I read two books: Ash, by Malinda Lo, and Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson. And since doing it, I’ve found myself eyeing the bookshelves when I walk into a store looking for books by authors I might not have heard of to add to my list. Aarti’s challenge led me to think more about picking diverse books off the shelf, which prompted me to check out Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings, and Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (all books I’m glad I read). For this year’s challenge, I think I’m going to try to read and review 3 or 4 books, and to choose authors whose work I’m not familiar with in hopes of finding more people to add to my “must read” list.

I hope you’ll join me! If you’re interested, go to the Diversiverse link above to sign up.

A Breath of Fresh Air: On Attending (Half of) the 2014 Tiptree Ceremony

It’s not often I trek into San Francisco on a whim, but this past weekend I made an exception. Late Friday afternoon, I saw an email notification from a fabulous local nerdy organization, SF in SF, noting that due to a congruence of unusual circumstances, one of the bestowals of the 2014 Tiptree Award would be taking place in San Francisco instead of at this year’s WisCon. The site of the ceremony would be Borderlands, maybe the most fabulous genre bookstore to have ever graced the earth; the awardee would be Jo Walton, for her novel My Real Children.

I love Borderlands, enough to have been one of the first 100 people to join their sponsorship program earlier this year when they nearly had to close because of the new SF minimum wage law (more about all that here; linked post first, then others from February and March 2015). And when I picked up My Real Children on vacation last year, I loved it so much I almost didn’t leave the hotel room (my review is here). So when I heard the two were going to come together in a glorious awards ceremony, I figured it was worth a chunk of my Sunday to experiment with being a Tiptree audience member.

I am so, so very glad I did.

For those new to the concept, here is how the Tiptree Award (named in honor of author Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote her sci-fi novels as James Tiptree, Jr.) is described at tiptree.org:

In February of 1991 at WisCon (the world’s only feminist-oriented science fiction convention), award-winning SF author Pat Murphy announced the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. (To read her speech go to PatMurphy.pdf.) Pat created the award in collaboration with author Karen Joy Fowler. The aim of the award is not to look for work that falls into some narrow definition of political correctness, but rather to seek out work that is thought-provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating. The Tiptree Award is intended to reward those women and men who are bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society.

The essence of the award is fundamentally in tune with the larger issues WisCon seems to be primarily concerned with — issues of representation in genre fiction, of rethinking what sci-fi and fantasy “should” be about, and of opening the genre to a wider fan base and helping underrepresented fans and creators feel like they’ve got a place in the crowd. In short, it touches on a lot of the same concerns that I raise in this space: I’ve described it to friends before as “a convention for sociologically-minded nerds.” I thought about making the pilgrimage to WisCon this year, and finally decided I had too much else going on to justify the expense of a semi-random trip to Wisconsin on Memorial Day weekend. But the presentation this weekend reaffirmed my commitment: maybe not next year, or the year after, but soon, I will be there. And I hope that someday I’ll be able to become a regular.

Here’s what I saw on Sunday.

Once everyone had gathered, most of us chittering over newly-purchased books to be signed, emcee and author Ellen Klages called up a friend of Jo Walton’s, Ada Palmer, to first give a reading from her new book Too Like the Lightning (which I will definitely be reading when it comes out next year — intrigue and mayhem and toy soldiers! toy soldiers who come to life!) and then to sing, with her colleague Lauren Schiller, a song called “Somebody Will.” Which pretty much embodied the essence of what it seems like WisCon-oriented genre writers are trying to do, and what I’ve talked about here more times than any other topic, and how I like to live my life: the idea that change is slow but inexorable, and that each of us has a role to play in making that change a reality even if it doesn’t change in our lifetimes, and that the important thing is to do what you can with heart. Which, among other things, is a central theme in My Real Children.

Once the song had been sung and the audience had collected ourselves and stopped sniffling, Klages sat down to interview Walton about her experience as a writer; I’m not sure if this interview is available on YouTube, but it was very refreshing to hear someone admit that all the Truths about Real Writing (you must write every day and never stop; you must never give away your creative work on the Internet; you must pick a genre and stick to it) hadn’t applied to her, and that somehow her books were still winning awards (and not only “feminist” awards, either; in case you missed it, Walton’s Among Others won both the Hugo and the Nebula in 2012). Walton also discussed how she’d written My Real Children to deliberately blur the boundaries between science fiction/fantasy and “women’s fiction,” which she defined as literature whose principal tensions derive from issues central to many women’s lives — marital relationships, children, balancing work and family, getting old — that are rarely addressed in genre fiction (regardless of whether the main character is a woman or a man). She talked about how she thought these things were particularly important to include in our field, since not only was no one writing about them, but (paraphrased) “they’re unlikely to go away in the future — and if they do, then that will be interesting and worth writing about!” It resonated with other conversations I’ve read about the importance of telling all kinds of stories, and reminded me why I fell so in love with Gabaldon’s Outlander books despite their flaws. And it felt so refreshing in the wake of all the angry rhetoric that’s been thrown down in fandom this year about what kinds of stories “deserve” to be told.

And then, once the interview was done, the Tiptree committee gave Jo Walton her prizes: besides a plaque, they included money, and chocolate, and a piece of specially commissioned art inspired by the subject of her book. Ellen Klages then explained that the Tiptree winner usually has rights to wear one of the Tiptree tiaras for the duration of the WisCon weekend, and that Walton did get those rights (even though she was the guest of honor at another convention that weekend, a Tiptree representative met her there with a “spare tiara”); but that because Walton had expressed concerns that wearing a tiara was more stereotypically “girly” than she really felt comfortable with for herself, the committee had gotten her a tiara hat pin instead, to wear on her fantastic broad-brimmed hat. I was surprised at how touching I found this, maybe just because it was evidence that the committee not only knew the author but had actually taken time to take her wishes into account.

And then, before cake (because there was cake, and we all got a piece), the committee and the audience sang Walton a song. Two songs, actually; a combined round, to the tunes of Row Row Row Your Boat and Frere Jacques, with the words changed so that the songs were about My Real Children. And as I sang, with gusto, and as I looked up to the front of the room and saw Jo Walton’s face light up, I thought: this is the community I want to be a part of.

I’ve read a lot about the people in the genre fiction community over the last few months, good, bad and ugly. I’ve read George RR Martin’s long explanations of how the culture at WorldCon has changed; I’ve seen other authors I like and respect wade into the fray and try to speak reasonably; I’ve considered the Hugo nominations and decided how I was going to vote on as much of the material as I was able to take in. And honestly, it’s all left me feeling a little uneasy about pursuing a career as a professional writer. I know that all groups of professionals have politics, that there’s no getting around that — but somehow, I thought that maybe there was a niche within genre fiction where nerds who felt the way I did about the world could just get together and hang out and talk about books and how they try to use them to create positive change in the world.

This weekend, I think I found that place. And if this ceremony said anything at all about the rest of WisCon, I may have to get a ticket for next year’s Memorial Day weekend this week. Because this whole event, from beginning to end, was food for my artist’s soul. Thanks to all who put it together, and I hope I’ll get to know you better soon.

Not “Blannie,” Just Annie: Remakes, Reimaginings and Representation

At one of our Christmas dinners this year, I mentioned that I was planning to take Husband to go see the new Annie remake. Hearing that, a relative smiled and said innocuously, “Don’t you mean Blannie?” Which, of course, is a hashtag that’s been appearing on Twitter in discussions of the new movie, a compression of “black Annie.”

“No,” I said. “I mean the remake of Annie.”

As a kid, I was a big fan of movie musicals. I watched and rewatched The Wizard of Oz. I remember sitting transfixed on the living room floor by West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and on the edge of the couch a few years later with Little Shop of Horrors and Jesus Christ Superstar. And as was the case for most kids who grew up in the ’80s, the story of the spunky orphan and her bald benefactor took its turn on-stage in my house, too. One of my never-quite-realized childhood ambitions was to cast and recreate these shows using my friends and family, and I have a very clear memory of discussing with my mother whether my best-playmate uncle might be willing to take on the role of Rooster, orphanage mistress Miss Hannigan’s no-good brother.

I don’t remember where Husband and I saw our first trailer for the 2014 Annie, and I don’t remember if I’d heard anything about the movie before seeing it. But I do remember how excited I got, just hearing snippets of the familiar songs. This was a story that had a special place in my heart as a kid; I was thrilled to hear it’d be coming back to the big screen. And when I saw Quvenzhané Wallis’s grinning face, I thought: “Oh, wow, the new Annie’s black? That’s amazing!”

I’ll freely admit that I might have had a different reaction before I started graduate school, before I took courses on the sociology of race that were the first place I read about how few characters of color (or diverse characters of any kind) have historically appeared in children’s books. Even a few years ago, I might still have balked at the idea that a classic, much-loved story could be reimagined with a protagonist of a different race and keep the spirit of the original story. But now, after a year of thinking about how to increase the representation in my own work, after reading Writing the Other and looking at the numbers on protagonists of color and following the efforts of the team at We Need Diverse Books to increase all kinds of diversity in children’s stories, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are more important things than respecting the canon.

It seems like the Marvel and DC universes provide a pretty good model for exactly this sort of thing. In 2011, the Ultimate Marvel universe killed off Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales, the first black (and second Hispanic) Spiderman; there was some backlash, but the loudest voices, including that of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, supported the impulse to make Spiderman a character who demonstrated that you didn’t have to be white to save the world. Both the Marvel and DC movie franchises are taking steps in the same direction, greenlighting films for, among others, an Aquaman played by Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa, and Marvel’s first black superhero, the Black Panther.

These stories don’t take away from the ones that came before them. Having a new Wonder Woman movie that’ll bring a female superhero into the imaginations of 21st-century little girls doesn’t undo the fact that The Dark Knight was a good movie, or that Bruce Wayne’s Batman is a fun character. Having a black Spiderman doesn’t erase the white Spiderman: it just gives more kids the opportunity to pretend to be a superhero who looks like them. And kids do notice that stuff. This Washington Post article, by writer Amina Luqman, about how her son didn’t want to dress as Harry Potter for Halloween because “I’m not tan, I’m brown” just about broke my heart.

One response to the unveiling of Miles Morales (archived here), by opinion writer Alexandra Petri, repeats a commonly-used phrase from those who object to what they see as the “forced” diversification of contemporary characters: “It doesn’t matter what the character looks like so long as he tells a compelling story!” As Petri suggests, the people who say this are absolutely right; we should all be able to enjoy a compelling story. And sure, part of pretending is imagining yourself to be somebody else. But increasingly, research and popular opinion seem to be assembling around the notion that it shouldn’t always be kids from underrepresented groups who have to stretch their imaginations the furthest to see themselves in the heroes of their favorite stories.

Husband had never seen the 1982 Annie, and so we watched it together last week so he’d be properly contextualized for the new movie. Seeing it for the first time in 20+ years, I was struck by its cheesiness (the adults all look a little too happy to be real) and its increasingly improbable plot (Miss Hannigan doesn’t recognize her brother with a fake mustache? Annie gets adopted by Daddy Warbucks only because she happens to be the one who overhears when his assistant first comes to the orphanage? There’s a mansion and substantial grounds somewhere on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue?). I was also struck by the movie’s casual racism: Daddy Warbucks’ two bodyguards are “Punjab” and “the Asp”; respectively, a tall, dark-skinned, turbaned man who can “put a spell on [the dog]” and make toy airplanes fly with a wave of his hand, and a smaller East Asian gent whose main jobs seem to be driving Daddy Warbucks around and teaching Annie how to do karate chops. I still hold some affection for the movie, and I might even show it to my own kids someday, but I wouldn’t do so without unpacking those stereotypes a little. And I suspect I would feel differently if I looked less like Aileen Quinn, who played Annie, and more like Geoffrey Holder and Roger Minami, who played the bodyguards.

The writers of the 1982 Annie, and its Broadway predecessor, took their own liberties with the original story. The comic strip Little Orphan Annie, which debuted in 1924, expressed its creator’s strong objections to (among other things) unions, the New Deal, and communism. If creator Harold Gray had known that his spunky red-head would someday be portrayed meeting with FDR to help set up the New Deal, he might’ve come back from the dead to protest. Stories change to fit the times they’re told in.

It’s true that when I saw the new Annie this weekend, I didn’t see a little girl with red hair. But I saw girls somersaulting around their group home singing “A Hard Knock Life”; I saw adults hamming it up in ridiculous dance numbers; I saw the message that a good-hearted youngster can have a positive impact on the world; and I saw a spunky kid with a sparkling smile who sang “Tomorrow.”

So no, I didn’t go see “Blannie” this weekend; just a new version of Annie, written to introduce the story to 21st-century kids of all backgrounds. And this movie musical nerd was glad to add it to all the others in her library.

A Plug for the Nerdiest Fundraiser Ever: Pat Rothfuss’s Worldbuilders

I’ve got a few more content-heavy posts that should be going up in the next couple days, but in the meantime, I wanted to direct any loyal readers who aren’t yet familiar with it to the Worldbuilders fundraiser organized by Patrick Rothfuss (author of Name of the Wind). It’s an annual benefit he puts together for Heifer International, a combination of items for sale, items for auction, and a lottery, and in the last few years, it’s turned into a BIG deal in the nerd community. If you look at the list of sponsors on the main Worldbuilders page, there are some definite high-profile organizations from a whole range of nerd valences (including DAW Books, Good Old Games, Think Geek and Penny Arcade). And if you look at the stuff you can get if you donate, you’ll see why I’ve dubbed it the nerdiest of nerdy fundraisers.

A partial list of things you can get or attempt to get right now, today, by donating some money to this great cause…

Items for Sale (through Worldbuilders’ online store The Tinker’s Packs):

  • Signed copies of books by (among others) Peter V. Brett, Max Gladstone, Kameron Hurley, and many more, including both English-language and foreign-language editions.
  • A 2015 calendar by artist Karen Hallion with prints of various Disney characters meeting a man in a mysterious blue box.
  • Coins from the worlds of Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • All kinds of memorabilia evoking the world of Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, including t-shirts and jewelry.

Items for Auction (the full list available on eBay here):

Items in the Lottery (for which every $10 buys you one ticket): games, books, variations on all of the above, and sometimes exceedingly cool limited edition things. In 2013, one of the lottery items was the opportunity to be a beta reader for a future work of Pat’s.

And so, there’s my pitch. Heifer is a good charity, well worth your investment, and should you use Worldbuilders as your investment strategy, you have the option of choosing, and the potential to win, some exceedingly awesome nerdy swag as your reward for giving.

I’m doing it. Y’all should go and do likewise 🙂