Virgins

“They used to send virgins. Little dainty things full of hope, innocence, and fear. Sticky sweet, mildly nauseating, but still a proper sacrifice of flesh from those who wished to appease or curry favor.” The creature purred, its eyes gleaming as it flexed one long purple claw in my direction. “But you are most definitely not a virgin. Or a sacrifice. So, why are you here?”

“Maybe they finally figured out that we like a little variety? I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.” I turned my head towards the guttural voice coming from the corner; doing my best not to look frightened as a gaunt giant reeking of decay came into view, “This one smells like she’ll actually taste good. Salty, sour, maybe just a hint of bitterness to liven things up.”

“I’m here to interview you.” I clutched my microphone holding it out in front of me like a talisman doing my best to keep breathing normally as I said, “You’re the last of your kind. Before you fade from existence I thought I, well we, really, I write for Truth magazine. I thought we could get the facts right from the source.”

“What makes you think we’re going to fade?” A thick slab of thought wedged itself into my head the pool of water behind me rippling as a heavy tentacle slithered across my foot; the tip of it wrapping around my ankle and squeezing gently before it moved away. Fortunately I’d chosen to wear steel toed combat boots instead of the sensible flats my editor recommended when he called to offer me the assignment, “We were here when your kind was still figuring out fire.”

“The end comes for all species eventually.” I shrugged, doing my best to look nonchalant “Wouldn’t you rather clear the air before extinction? The dinosaurs didn’t have that chance and we’re still trying to clear up the idea that they were little more than rampaging beasts.”

“Why should we trust a human with our stories?” The first creature leaned towards me, her face alight with some emotion I couldn’t identify, “A bargain must flow in both directions and you have nothing to trade.”
I cursed myself mentally for not thinking of payment. “What would you like?”

She stared at me contemplatively, the metallic sheen of her feathers almost hypnotic in the dim light as she spread and closed her wings repeatedly, “What do you have?”
I dug in my backpack, pulling out my lunch and the first aid kit that I’d stuffed next to my recording equipment. I didn’t need to hold up my peanut butter sandwich to know that it wouldn’t satisfy my new companions. I fumbled for my wallet, only to discover that I’d left it below in the skimmer I’d used to make my way up the mountain. Frustrated and embarrassed, I let my eyes wander only to realize that the veins of raw gold embedded in the walls were probably worth more than everything I owned.

A delighted laugh slipped past her lips when she saw the realization of my predicament cross my face, “You actually came here empty-handed? I took you for brave…not foolish.”

“I’ll do anything, well…anything within reason to make this happen. No human sacrifices or anything, but I…” I stammered, catching myself before I said anything they could twist to trap me “I can get you whatever else you would like with just a couple of phone calls. Books, valuables, whatever you want from the outside world can be delivered in a few hours.”

“We have no use for human trinkets. So, what do we do with you?” She turned her head slowly from side to side, apparently getting some sign of consensus before she added, “One hidden truth for each of our stories. Nothing easy. No sweet little childhood tales about hidden toys. We want the good bits, the juicy things that have never seen the light of day.”

“Fair enough. Secret for secret. Who wants to go first?” I held up my head, curving my lips into the closest thing I could muster as a smile, “You talk, I’ll listen and if I have any questions I’ll ask them when you’re done. Then I’ll share a secret.”

There was some shuffling and rustling and then complete silence. I had a brief flashback to my days of substitute teaching. Before I could muster up my best encouraging voice, the one that made even the shyest children stand up and share the creature in front of me flexed her wings and sighed, “I’ll do it. Sit yourself down little girl and I’ll tell you all about harpies.”

I glanced around for a comfortable spot away from the tentacles and still close enough to record her voice. Seeing nothing suitable I laid my microphone aside, pulled off my jacket, and tossed it at the largest of a pile of stones, only to see it fall short. I stepped forward, picking it up and throwing it again only to discover that my aim was off a second time. Confused, I started forward again only to hear “Stop playing silly games with her. It’s my turn.”

One of the highest stones in the pile twisted to form a set of lips, “She should at least ask before she tries to sit on my knee.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that you were…a you.” I bent to pick up my jacket and the stone slid toward me.

“Humans have completely forgotten about us. Not romantic enough or something.” A rumbling sound that could have been a laugh came from the pile, “Go ahead and sit down. I don’t bite. I don’t do much of anything now.”

“That’s okay. I can stand.” I shifted from foot to foot nervously.

“It’s not every day that you get an offer to be dandled on a stone giant’s knee.” The harpy bared her teeth, “I do not wish the pains of your feet to distract you from your work. Waste no more time on silly protests and sit down.”

“Go ahead. I’ll even shape it so that your protuberances are comfortable” True to his word, the stone’s shape altered into something like a chair complete with a place to rest my arms.

Arguing with a harpy and living rock struck me as a singularly bad idea so I said “Thank you” and took a seat. She paced back and forth in front of me, her claws clicking loudly on the rock.

Finally she spat out “You humans made up these stories painting my race as little more than screeching servants to some god’s whimsy. But we were so much more than that, so much more than you could ever imagine.”

She fell silent again and I leaned forward, debating whether I should press her for more details or simply wait her out. I had just made up my mind to take the risk of asking a question when she said quietly, “Our cities were beautiful. Homes with roofs that brushed the sky and marketplaces filled with the most beautiful art. And puzzles. That was our joy. To solve things, to use our minds to their greatest potential in all aspects of life. We’d map fake routes through the trees, dizzying paths designed to confuse any approaching enemies. Roads leading in all directions with secret shortcuts that only we knew so that we could send them into a trap and be home in time for supper.”

She stopped pacing, turning to face me as she raised her head. Her eyes burned into mine as she spoke, “When my mother was young there was a war. It culminated in a massive attack, but our science was unparalleled and our warriors were so fierce, so well prepared that the fighting amounted to little more than a series of skirmishes on our end. My mother wore the mantle of Leader for many years and she insisted that we maintain the false routes and regularly practice our fighting skills. But nothing ever happened, after a few years there weren’t even any more skirmishes. Our enemies seemed to have faded completely from the world.”

Her eyelids swept shut, and tears rolled down her cheeks to collect in the thin layer of translucent feathers that covered her body from throat to ankle “Eventually she succumbed to the peace of the ages, and I was left to govern in her stead. Our enemies hadn’t returned in so long that my people grew complacent, fat and slow, content to spend their time on puzzles and other idle amusements. Only the necessary routes for supplies and trade remained clear. Because I was content to laze around with them. Those were happy times. So happy, that my people lived like children without a care in the world.”

Rage seeped into her voice, sending a shiver down my spine. I tensed nervously when she stalked toward me, “I had a name, a place in the world, respect, and responsibility. I squandered it all. We were a people in our own right. Not monsters, spirits of the wind, or even willing servants. The ones you call gods…they knew us for tacticians who could beat them with a smile on our face and a song in our hearts. So they waited. Watched us for signs of weakness and then they pounced.”

“They came stealing among us with cages and collars, destroying those that they deemed useless and imprisoning the rest with magics that we could not hope to fight.”

She wrapped herself in her wings, hiding her face from me as she sobbed out, “My mates and I were taken. Our children held hostage to bind us to the petty whims of mad men. One by one we starved, or went mad, or were torn apart in one of their stupid wars. They didn’t fight for homes or love, they fought over land that they didn’t live on. Land they didn’t even want, and once only a few of us were left…they tossed us aside and went on playing at that war with brand new tools. What did they care about my people when they had new ones to enslave and destroy?”

“What was your name?” I cringed backwards in my seat at the awful sound she made, a grinding screech that made my hands fly up to cover my ears in self defense, “I’m sorry, I thought you were done. Please forgive me.”

She spread her wings to their full expanse, “I have no name. I lost that when I let my people be destroyed. It is your turn now. Tell me human, what is the worst thing you have ever done?”

“Don’t answer that question.” A deep voice commented dryly from somewhere above me; I looked up to see a massive reptilian head covered in black scales descending sinuously down the closest wall.

“I have to answer it.” Sitting up straight I met the harpy’s eye as I spoke, “We made a deal.”

“A human that keeps promises.” Amusement crept into his voice as the tips of what appeared to be wings came into view, “Keep it right now and she’ll kill you.”

I glanced at the harpy, seeing the truth of the dragon’s words in the tautness of her lips and her clenched fists. She flapped her wings restlessly, her gaze skidding away from my face to meet his opalescent stare as she snarled “You have no right to interfere.”

“I have every right to do as I wish in my own home.” He stared at her contemplatively, “And I know you would regret it later.”

She launched herself into the air to hover between us, “You said you wanted no part of this game.”

He yawned, baring rows of serrated black teeth “Once you asked her an impossible question I changed my mind. She cannot give you what you want, and you would deprive everyone else of their chance.”

A low angry rumble started to emanate from the creatures watching the three of us and I hunched in on myself hoping to avoid getting caught in any crossfire. She darted around the room, muttering to herself while the dragon and I watched her closely. Her erratic flight path brought her close enough to the wall that her claws sliced the air next to his face. He didn’t flinch, instead exhaling a tiny puff of fire and smoke to envelop her wings as she flitted away. The heat seemed to shock her out of her reverie, sending her to a perch high on the far wall.

Her eyes roved around the room as she said wearily, “I let old griefs overtake me. I meant no offense. My question can wait.” before she launched herself into the air again, this time winging her way toward the roof of the cavern.

I sat up straight, casting a furtive glance after her and carefully keeping an eye on the approaching dragon as I said “Thank you.”

“It is time that I’ve given you, not a guarantee that you will leave this place alive.” He settled on the stone dais where I had first seen the harpy as he added “I am exercising my prerogative as host to move to the front of the line just in case your fate is unavoidable.”

“If you think I’m going to die why do you want to tell me anything?” I reached over to set up a new recording, “That seems like an odd way to pass your time.”

“It is not as though I am certain of your death. And that bit about telling the truth before we fade was very convincing.” He twitched his left ear as he said, “If nothing else I will make sure that your equipment is returned to the humans.”

I bared my teeth in what I hoped would pass for a smile, and held up the microphone where I thought he could see it. “What would you like to tell me? What secrets have the dragons been keeping?”

“I hatched in the first volcanoes of this world and I have lived a long time. Long enough to have no regrets about the approach of my final flight.” He stretched like a cat, resting his chin on his front legs as he spoke, “Your legends tend to paint us as greedy violent creatures hoarding gold and terrorizing towns. It’s close enough to the truth for my tastes in general, but there is one thing in your lore that completely misses the mark.”

Looking inquisitive while talking to a dragon is easy, but having to smell charred carrion every time they speak is not a pleasant experience. I did my best to breathe through my mouth without looking like a blow up doll. It must have been good enough because he continued, “We are born carrying the seeds of our deaths. Our nature means that we burn from the inside starting as soon as we muster our first flame. Eventually the fire destroys our internal tissues and we perish in the resulting conflagration.”

“It is a long death; one that can start centuries before we lose all sense of self and try to outrun it. Some of us opt for another way out when the pain starts to mount. We find some creature capable of puncturing our flesh for us and thus our end is quickened.”

He lashed his tail restlessly against the wall, sending several chunks crashing to the ground behind him as he said, “Years ago, after all of the other options had been exhausted one of us chose a human to speed the process along. Presumably whatever fool was selected managed to survive, and was rewarded with whatever trinkets had been accumulated over the ages. Instead of counting his lucky stars and going about his life in quiet gratitude, he told the story in a way that made him seem a hero.”

His voice hardened, sending a chill down my spine as he said “Suddenly dragon slaying was a sport for stupid humans in metal clothes. Do you know how many of you we have had to kill? How many crying virgins we had dumped on our doorsteps?”

I shook my head ruefully, my mind filling with memories of fairy tales and cartoon movies as he stared past me into the distance and spoke mournfully, “I just wanted a peaceful life, but you humans…you can romanticize any crime. So, you break into the homes of the elderly, the dying, and you force them to fight. To defend their treasures and then have to live with the rotting remains. There is no honor in killing creatures so small and weak.”

He sighed heavily, forcing a cloud of smoke to slide over me, “And those poor little crying girls they kept dragging up to our homes. Some of them drugged out of their minds and halfway to death while others were such bright little sparks with no hope left in them. Killing them wasn’t an option, but they couldn’t go back to their villages. Even when we gave them what they needed to start over elsewhere the mores of human society often meant that we might as well have killed them.”

“So, we learned to live in remote places and never gather where you could see us. Eventually we became myths instead of familiar monsters. It was a lonely life. But some of us did not mind it, and the rest were willing to make the trade off if it meant no more pointless deaths.” He laughed then, this raspy pained sound as he ground out the words “We only died when we were ready, and before that you made us murderers. Killing sentient beings has never been our way, but it was forced upon us. So that you could justify stealing from us. Romanticize that one.”

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WisCon 40 Highs, Lows, & What The Actual F*ck?

I had really grand plans to be lazy at WiscCon this year. I totally failed on that front. I planned to do 2 panels and a party. I actually taught a Writers Workshop, did 4 panels, a party, and helped cook 50 lbs of beef for Saturday’s lunch, as well as help with logistics for Friday night’s dinner in the Con Suite. Oh & I recorded some things for two Kickstarters that are happening. Most of that list was great fun. Actually, even the prepping of the beef was okay (albeit a lot of work) because I was doing it with some of my favorite people. As always I enjoyed most of WisCon. I have some great friends, the Guests of Honor are all wonderful people, and over the last several years I have volunteered enough to know how the proverbial sausage gets made. The highs are pretty high which is why I keep going back to WisCon.

The lows…well, nothing is perfect. There was a minor hiccup with the hotel & billing (resolved easily enough), some mundane annoyance with my key card (which might just be a me thing, I killed two of them this weekend), and we got mild food poisoning from a place just off the square on Thursday. Also someone’s cigarette indoors habit made my allergies act up a bit one day. All minor, all normal. I mention the imperfections that can happen to anyone on any trip for a reason. You’ll see why in a second.

That brings me to the “WTAF?” part of this post. We’re going to start with the Con Suite. Because I made the actual beef for it, and because it is an exceptionally glaring example of an overarching problem. Time & time again I saw people come in, take umbrage that a place staffed by volunteers serving free food had imperfect service. Not dangerous service, not unhealthy (AFAIK no one got food poisoning which I did from a place where I actually paid for the food), just imperfect. Because a delivery didn’t show up on time the menus had to be shifted around. Because two of the aging fridges went out food was in shorter supply than expected. Because there weren’t enough volunteers actually willing to show up & work when scheduled some things took longer than expected. You know..normal things that can go wrong at any event.

Now, there are a lot of theories about the entitled attitudes on display from some con attendees. Some of it was definitely about race & gender (funnily enough all the Black women serving in the con suite that I know have similar stories about rudeness despite being there on different days, I didn’t get a chance to check in with other POC, but I have some guesses based off stories relayed to me), some of it was about bizarre expectations and a total lack of home training (possibly related to reason #1) but at base none of it was okay. Here is where I remind you that Julia, the con suite chair pays for a flight & hotel from Boston to Madison to spend an entire weekend volunteering. To feed hundreds of strangers three meals and unlimited snacks every day. Here is where I remind you that con suite staff are all volunteers. Here is where I ask you why a con that prides itself on being at a union hotel can’t remember to treat volunteers like people.

Mind you, I’m not totally surprised. The Concourse staff is heavily POC (particularly in housekeeping) and every year there are some…issues with the way they are treated. And people frequently lose the knowledge that housekeeping staff work very hard for relatively low wages and should be treated with respect, courtesy, and frankly they should be tipped. Just like the wait staff, the bartenders, etc. WisCon has a lot of panels on class & race (there was one this year that I was on with Nisi Shawl & Na’amen Tilahun that discussed the intersection of the two) so you would think most attendees at an explicitly feminist science fiction would have figure out appropriate behavior by now. Apparently not, so let’s get really clear because while the official con post will probably say this kindly, I want it to be said directly. You’re not less racist because you only treat Black people in lower income communities poorly. Your class politics aren’t great because you are only disrespectful to volunteers.

And while I’m at it, let me hit one more note about some of the aggression that was aimed at the POC Safer Space & at the DDP Yoga/Dance Party that I ran this weekend with some other WOC. There seems to be some idea that if the POC attendees and volunteers at WisCon don’t go out  of their way to make white people feel comfortable then they are being hostile. Someone lied to you when they told you that paying attendees are required to bend over backwards to coddle your unexamined internalized racism. That’s a personal problem. Do non white communities engage with each other in ways that might not center whiteness? Yes. Often. Pretty much always. And here’s the funny thing, plenty of white people at WisCon do understand that. They came to the DDP Yoga Party, they supported the POC Safer Space in word & deed, and they spoke up in support of the volunteers of color in the Con Suite. This is not about them.

This is about the people who were offended that the Floomp wasn’t the only dance party, that the music in the party hosted by WOC was largely music made by, and about POC. Yes you heard hip hop that wasn’t filtered through Clear Channel. Yes, you saw Black women dancing with each other, yes you saw interracial couples that didn’t include a single white person dancing with each other, yes it was not about you or your comfort. That’s life. Toughen up buttercup. WisCon is changing, and the mothers of children of color who don’t bring their kids to the con (hello, many of us have Black & Brown kids that would not be viewed as harmless if they were roaming the hotel unsupervised) are busy carving out a space via our money and our labor that celebrates the kind of feminism that we need for survival. We are working in concert with people who have chosen not to be parents ever, who may not be parents right now, who may be on undecided journeys to build a better future, in this genre that is all about the future. We cover a wide range of experiences and backgrounds, and the thing we have in common is that we want to make WisCon better. Not perfect, just…better. For all of the attendees. Not just a select few.

You might not like what WisCon is becoming now that the people working so hard to make it happen are different from you. You might not like knowing that their first concern isn’t the comfort of people who can’t see them as human or equals. That’s a hard road. It’s your road though, so you walk it. But don’t complain that it “feels unwelcoming” because it is becoming inclusive, and less concerned with the comfort of bigots. With the comfort of people who have been happy to not only excuse abusive behavior, but also to be abusers when it suited them. This isn’t “your” WisCon anymore? Okay. That’s fine, that’s your decision. It’s definitely ours now. We work hard for it every year. You can adapt, evolve and enjoy or you can move the hell on. We probably won’t miss you.

My WisCon Schedule & Other Con Stuff

 

Writers’ Workshop: Comics Writing  Fri, 9:00 am–12:00 pm 

Princesses and Ladies Within a WOC Framework  Sat, 10:00–11:15 am Capitol B
Some feminists decry the term “ladies” and have blanket disdain for Princess Culture. But how are these and other terms and aspects of culture seen from outside of typical white middle class feminism? They carry different weight and meaning for women of color and their daughters.
Intersectionality & Other Words Taken from Women of Color  Sat, 1:00–2:15 pm Capitol A
In conversations about intersectional feminism, we often forget that the term itself was created by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a black woman, for the express purpose of addressing the ways in which sexism and racism work together — specifically against black women in the US legal system. Mainstream (largely white) feminism has a history of minimizing or erasing the contributions of women of color, particularly black women. Flavia Dzodan, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker are just a few examples. Intersectionality has become an important part of WisCon’s feminist identity, but how can we claim to be intersectional if we don’t make a point to continually lift up the voices of the feminists and womanists of color who have contributed, and continue to contribute, so much to the movement?
Saturday Night DDP Yoga Party Sat, 9:00 pm–Sun, 3:00 am Conference 2

We know that yoga can be appropriated but can it also be gendered? Join us as we plumb the mysteries of DDP (Diamond Dallas Page) Yoga, as well as other sources. There may also be dancing at the end. This is a very casual activity. Come ready to laugh and sweat.
Women Can Be Evil Too  Sun, 10:00–11:15 am Wisconsin

Mikki Kendall and Justine Larbalestier discuss their research on women serial killers and psychopaths long thought to not exist.
You Got Race On My Class! You Got Class On My Race!   Sun, 1:00–2:15 pm University B

Race and class are two identities that exist in tandem, one never really trumping the other. What are the ways they intersect, diverge, conflict? What happens when our internal race/class state differs from an external race/class assignment — and what factors go into forming internal/external states in the first place? This panel will look at the realities of how we exist within and negotiate race and class without privileging either concept.

So…my schedule is pretty full. This is normal for me at WisCon. I always say that I’m not going to do many panels & technically I did fewer panels this year. Only 5. I…also added teaching a workshop to the list. Whoops! Anyway, I’m generally pretty relaxed at WisCon, I have a huge bubble of friends there & people who know me already know what not to do. But, it’s been a couple of years since I did one of these posts, so here’s the quick and dirty primer to a pleasant interaction with me. Don’t touch me without asking (no seriously, don’t do it), say hi, and if I step back a little don’t be offended. I have personal space issues that I manage by adjusting my position in a group. Other than that I’m generally pretty laid back. Happy WisCon!

Diversity, Political Correctness and The Power of Language

As some of you know I do diversity consulting for fiction (also known as sensitivity reading), and one of the things that comes up often when someone has chosen to write the proverbial Other is how that Other might speak about themselves. About their community, their culture, and yes their concerns with race or racism. Mostly the work I do is mundane, I help authors flesh out characters, I point out when their attempts at AAVE are wrong, and occasionally I have to tell them that the thing they wrote is a hot mess. That last conversation is awkward, fraught with a lot of emotions and generally not something I enjoy at all. My criticisms are of course somewhat subjective, based on my lived experience and my education. I like to think that what I do has value, and really some of the works that have passed through my hands have gone on to do well. This post isn’t about the ones where the author listened. It’s not even about the ones where the author didn’t listen. This post is about the idea that not wanting bigoted tropes to be replicated in fiction is about political correctness, censorship, or some unfathomable agenda.

You want to write a character with a different race, sexual orientation, religion, gender ID than yours? Okay. But before you set that character loose into the world, do some basic research. Do some basic work in understanding what obstacles that community faces, what narratives are most offensive to them? Are you replicating tropes that are used to dehumanize and erase members of that community? It’s easy to justify shoddy writing by proclaiming it is art. Well, okay your art is your art. Your art can also be offensive, your art can be harmful, your art can be wrong as wrong can be. You have a right to create it, you don’t have a right to never see it challenged. You don’t have a right to never have your biases questioned, or to never be told that you fucked up. The friends who might knee jerk defend you because they know you and love you, and really really believe that you’re a good person are doing you no favors when they convince you that your intent matters more than your impact.

And frankly, the person most likely to give you a pass on a slur, on using a bigoted trope instead of creating a full fledged character is probably not going to be someone that will face the impact of your art. They will, much like you, assume that good intent trumps harmful impact because they have no idea what it is to face that pain. They will project their image of you as a good person, as a person they like, over your work and they will rush to defend it without stopping to examine the reasons for the criticism. They will forget that other people, the vast majority of people reading don’t know you, and have no reason to assign good intent to such a harmful act. Heck, they may even have their own issues with the Other that your work has pandered to even if they won’t admit it. They will help you frame potential readers as being from whatever identity the two of you share, and will rapidly help you decide that the Other is a an unlikely consumer and thus not representative of the larger population. Because a huge part of the problem is the assumption that the Other does not read. Does not consume art. Does not have a right to a voice in how they are represented. Because your bigoted depiction of them is a key component of the kind of gatekeeping that locks marginalized communities out.

I’m a cis Black woman born and raised in Chicago. And while I can speak with some authority on what tropes are offensive for my community, I cannot hand out a pass for what might be offensive to a Black trans woman. Because I’m not trans. So if I write a trans character and someone from that community tells me I fucked up? I need to shut up, listen, and do my best to make amends. This is part and parcel of being a writer. I will never write anything that everyone likes, but there’s a wide gulf between “I don’t like the way your story ended” and “Your story contributes to this narrative that hurts my community.” I’m certain you can find someone to equate the two, and convince yourself that the criticism is invalid. I am equally certain the person who helps you do that is a not a true friend. Because people who love you, who really want you to succeed, they help you improve. Even when it hurts. Even when it might damage the friendship. Because true friends are honest about the good and the bad. No one who loves you, should hand you a free pass to hurt people. You shouldn’t be seeking that pass either.

And here’s the thing, there’s a million and one resources on how to not to be harmful. You can use TVTropes.org for a quick and dirty check of your character design so that you know when your bare bones character is problematic. You can ask someone you know in that community. Though if you don’t know anyone from that community, you’re not part of that community, and you’re unwilling to connect with that community? You probably shouldn’t be writing that character. Because not only are you not adding to diversity by creating a poor representation of someone else’s community, chances are excellent that your own internalized biases are about to be splattered all over the page. And while we all like to think of ourselves as the heroes of our personal stories, often we are the villains of other people’s stories. Because we hurt people even when we don’t intend to do so. There’s this weird myth that bigotry only looks like physical violence, and yes that’s awful, but deep down the physical violence is only a symptom. Bigotry, real harmful sustained across generations bigotry is much more covert. It lends itself to creating fictional characters that paint Black people as violent thugs, it lends itself to Black motherhood being depicted as loveless, it lends itself to trans characters that are villains, to killing lesbians off for loving, to disability as a burden on families, to a million and one seemingly individual stories that paint a comprehensive picture of anyone who is not cis, white, straight, and able bodied as unworthy of existence, much less of equality.

If your intent, your real and honest intent is to write a good story and depict diversity in fiction then shouldn’t you be willing to do the research? Shouldn’t you be willing to listen to criticisms? Shouldn’t you be willing to buck the system so that you’re not furthering the agenda of bigots? Writers have the power to create brand new worlds, so we should always stop and ask ourselves why we are so hung on replicating everything wrong in the old one? Yes, you have a the power to create, the power to sway your readers in one direction or another, but if you’re going to embrace that power fully, then you need to do so responsibly. Otherwise you’re not furthering the cause of improving diversity, you’re just making sure the gates stay closed and the Other remains an object for you to project onto, instead of people with agency.

Paths: a YA comic about online harassment

 

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Paths is free to download, written by me Mikki Kendall, drawn by my husband Patrick, and colored by kid #1 who also did the lettering and some QC on dialogue (I write like a mom!), with the help of kid #2 who weighed in on with the 4th grade perspective. This is a project almost a year in the making, done in partnership with the Center For Solutions to Online Violence. It’s not intended to be a be all response to all possible forms, just a way to help parents, teachers, and kids think about why this issue matters and its potential impact. Some other resources for information and support include the following:

Crash Override

Cyberbullying.org

Cyber Civil Rights Initiative

Please download, share, and discuss this with the kids and adults in your life. Content warning: references suicide

On Bad Cons & How You Kill An Event in Advance

So, I wasn’t going to bother with a formal response about the events at ConQuesT. I’ve never been, I probably won’t be going either. Not just because of the most recent hot mess, but because overwhelmingly con culture is a hot mess. And yeah, some people are trying to fix it. But as I watch people attempt to defend white women sexually harassing men of color…I feel like we’ve hit a point that demands an honest conversation about what’s really happening to cons. It’s not the aging of fandom (young fans are created every day, and I promise you they love to get together), it’s not political correctness run amok (hi, taking off your pants and rubbing against people without consent isn’t okay, neither is referring to Black people as sexy chocolate and licking your lips), it’s a fundamental belief that marginalized people don’t have a right to be treated like people.

It’s not an accident that these stories keep happening. Or that people who attempt to correct bad behavior are lambasted for doing wild things like banning people who harass other attendees. There’s some bizarre assumption that just because someone has been going to a con for a long time and behaving badly, newcomers should adjust to that bad behavior, not call it out. Well…that’s not how this works, that’s not how anything works. Cons aren’t gifts to new fans. They are a commercial venture, a party that new attendees pay for in cash and often in unpaid work. Like explaining to the people who have let a missing stair (or a whole flight of missing stairs) run amok that no, fans don’t have to pay for the dubious privilege of being harassed, demeaned or fetishized. Cons seems to think that marginalized people need them & the truth is cons need access to those communities to maintain their attendee rate.

I get invited to a lot of cons that have a diversity problem. I also get a lot of requests from cons that claim to want to create anti harassment policies. Aside from my feelings on an expectation that I donate hours of work to strangers for events I have no interest in attending, there’s the sad reality that many small cons are so entrenched on reinventing the wheel they’ve missed the window to do better. Younger fans, fans of color, disabled fans…they don’t have to keep going to cons that aren’t welcoming to be able to connect with other fans. They can go to the big commercial cons, to the smaller cons that do get it & to social media for their community needs. So no, they won’t keep giving cons with bad reps chance after chance. They won’t be patient with serial offenders or the places that enable them. Why should they donate that time & energy to some place that doesn’t want them, that thinks they deserve to be hazed, deserve to be mistreated in order to prove something to bigots?

Bluntly? Most small cons will age out of existence because of bad behavior, because of a focus on the past that prioritizes the social mores of the dead over the actual experiences of the living. Yeah, in 1974 maybe So and So was really progressive compared to the KKK. That’s nice. So and So is still a bigot in 2016. A loud bigot who is prioritized over younger fans. Fans who will take their money and their energy somewhere else. To major cons run by corporations, to create their own cons that won’t look anything like the ones that made them feel unsafe, unwanted & uninterested. Small cons are cutting their own throats when they decide that rather than listen to new paying guests, they should cater to the bad actors they already know.

Your con is going under and you can’t figure out why the kids today won’t attend, won’t volunteer, won’t put up with the bullshit? The answer isn’t that they are lazy, oversensitive or whatever other excuses you might be making. The answer is that your con sucks, it’s full of adults who skipped all those kindergarten lessons about not touching strangers, not calling people names, not expecting people to be your friend when you’re not a friend to them. And now, as you con runners sit around trying to figure out what went wrong, you’re seeing other cons…cons where young people might have staged coups or created new cons entirely prosper. The secret, the big amazing secret to their success is that they did all those things you’re complaining are too hard. They made their spaces accessible, set explicit standards for behavior, and they didn’t invite you. That’s not disrespect, that’s not forgetting history, that’s solving a problem in advance by not perpetuating it. Try that & maybe your con won’t go under.

 

 

White Feminism & The School To Prison Pipeline

Sometimes, feminism needs a reminder of what it means to be a movement for the advancement of all women. This is particularly true when we talk about issues that only impact some women because of their race and socioeconomic status. The criminalization of black female bodies starts almost as early as the hypersexualization of them, with black girls facing a disproportionately high risk of landing in the school to prison pipeline. This has held true for girls like Georgia preteen Mikia Hutchings, who is facing criminal charges for participating in a childish prank (her white accomplice isn’t facing criminal trespassing charges or juvenile probation) that fact is brought home early. Much like honor student Kiera Wilmot—the 16 year-old in Florida whose science experiment initially led to her being expelled and hit with felony charges for possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device—Mikia is looking at the possibility of one bad decision ruining the rest of her life.

These aren’t isolated cases. Black girls are suspended from school at six to ten times the rate of white girls, for the same offenses. They face much harsher levels of discipline with a greater risk of police involvement. Expelled students are three times as likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Recent events in Missouri, Ohio, New York, California, and Utah mean more people are talking about police brutality. Unfortunately it is often framed solely as a racial issue, one that disproportionately impacts black men, erasing the impact on young black women. We know far fewer names of black women who have been victims of police brutality. There is little discussion about their risk of sexual assaults, arrest, and even death. The fact that fewer black women die from police brutality supports the erroneous idea that to be a black woman is to be safer from oppression than a black man. Different risk factors aren’t the same as no risk factors. We don’t talk about over policing or police brutality as feminist issues, yet for women of color, policing can be a major source of structural oppression.

So why aren’t we talking about policing as a feminist issue? The awkward reality of the school-to-prison pipeline is that black youth are most at risk from the conscious and unconscious biases playing into the decision of involving police in school discipline. Teaching is a profession that is predominantly white and female. According to a study published in 2011 by C. Emily Feistritzer for the National Center for Education Information approximately 84% of teachers in public schools are white. 84% of teachers in public schools are female.  Although those numbers do not directly correspond, there is a significant overlap between those two groups. How do you discuss over-policing and discrimination as a feminist issue, when women who fit the mainstream idea of feminism are most likely to be complicit in a particular form of oppression?

The answer, of course, is to confront the problem; for feminism to examine the biases that contribute to school administrators seeing a white girl’s vandalism as a prank resolved with restitution, and a black girl’s vandalism as a crime requiring judicial intervention. Just as we can all be oppressed, we can all act as oppressors to someone. The sooner we confront that, the sooner feminism actually becomes a movement that embraces all women. Racism inside feminist circles has been a problem since the Seneca Falls Convention that many erroneously think of as the beginning of feminism. And yes, it is important for women to work together against gendered oppression. But what women? What forms of gendered oppression? After all, cis women can and do oppress trans women, white women have the institutional and social power to oppress women of color, able bodied women can oppress people with disabilities, and so on. Oppression of women isn’t just an external force, it happens between groups of women as well. While the oppressed can and do fight oppression, what happens when the people are who are supposed to be your allies on one axis are your oppressors on another?

If you are a school-aged black girl, and unexamined internalized racism makes your teacher perceive you as a threat when you act out in the same way as a white classmate, what is your recourse? What happens when your empowerment is a threat to the status quo? If you don’t fit in as one of the “good girls” because of your skin color and your hair texture, how do you become a part of the community? None of these questions have easy answers, but it is not up to the kids to come up with the answers. Nor, to be honest, is it the duty of adult black women to convince white feminists of their humanity or the right of their children to exist and have access to the same opportunities as anyone else.

In order to tackle over-policing and police brutality, mainstream white feminists will have to start talking about the racism of white women and the harm that it does. Whether it is the way that white women in schools can wield institutional power against youths of color, or the message sent in New York when teachers in Staten Island wear shirts to support the police officer that killed Eric Garner, the conversation is long overdue. Calls for solidarity or sisterhood have to begin with the idea that all women matter, that all of their issues are feminist issues. If the idea that a black girl could be innocent enough to do the wrong thing and still deserve a future is anathema to you, then you don’t belong in a classroom, and you don’t belong in the feminist movement, either. Not until you can look at little black girls and envision the same possibilities you do for little white girls.

"printed with the permission of Milkfed Criminal Masterminds"

That time I really wrote a comic book and other tales of being a freelance writer

So this is my official cover for my one shot in the Swords of Sorrow universe. And it’s a little surreal to be here after years of thinking of writing professionally as a goal. You spend so long tilting at the windmills of getting published that when it happens you get knocked back a bit. And if you’re me you wait for pinch that wakes you up. But there’s no pinch. When I decided to give up my good government job to pursue writing full time I was hoping for a year or two to heal, and maybe to get a book out. Instead I’m working on multiple projects. You’ll be able to pre-order the comic book next month from your local comic shop or online at Dynamite.com or on Comixology. It comes out in September. And just like that I’m on to the next project, because that’s part of this life.

Like a lot of full time writers I don’t just do one thing (seriously, never expect a single project to be what pays the bills), I do a lot of things. I write content for e-learning programs, I do the thinkpiece hustle (most recently in the Washington Post), write book reviews, I’ll be editing Hidden Youth, I do a fair bit of public speaking (next up is BlogHer 15), and generally I hustle all month. Every month. Clearly this is my vocation, but I’m not above the allure of a steady paycheck. In fact for years I was writing on the side while working full time (and in college at one point, though I don’t recommend that schedule because OMFG exhaustion), because I’m married with kids and I have responsibilities beyond pursuing my dreams. That doesn’t mean I stopped pursuing them, I’m just allergic to being a starving artist.

It doesn’t hurt that I have a particular skill set and background that makes it easy for me to get work in your average office regardless of industry. People talk a lot of shit about administrative assistants, but if you’re a writer it is in many ways the dream day job. You push papers around mostly, do some tech support (Printer needs a new motherboard? You can install that. Seriously I’ve done it.), and often have whole days with nothing major to do. If you’re efficient, you can make your boss think you’re working hard and hardly be working. I used to come in early, do all of my major tasks for the day by 10 or 11, and have the rest of the day to write or edit or pitch. At least two of my earlier bosses knew the deal and they just didn’t care because I always had their stuff done first. The downside is that office work is often boring, and coworkers can make things 100% more stressful than they need to be, especially if you’re someone who writes best when the rest of your life is quiet.

I work much harder now than I ever did in any office gig. And of course what I do now is easier in some ways than retail or food service (actually everything is easier than food service, I like cooking but I hate serving food for some reason), but the income flow is less stable and I have to push myself. Some months I make enough to pay all of our bills, most months I make enough to pay about half of them (this is where the aforementioned husband comes in), and any extra expense can throw a wrench in the works like you would not believe. I have that dental fundraiser going, not because we can’t cover some of it, but because that much extra cash in one year is more than I wrangle up while freelancing. Actually I’m not sure I’d be able to pull it off with a regular day job either. At least not with what I was making as an admin. And when I was working for VA, the stress levels meant I wasn’t writing, and the work was far too much for the pay.

So I cobble together what I need and keep my stress levels down so I can create. And it is risky financially. I’m so aware of that fact. But mostly we get by okay, and I can see the results of taking that risk as being worth it. I can always go back to having a day job. In fact I keep an eye out for day jobs that I think might be worth giving up my current flexibility for (so far I’ve only found one, and while I applied I didn’t get it) because I do like having that option. But when I stepped out on this proverbial ledge, my day job was giving me ocular migraines 3 or 4 times a week, and writing was the only way I could see to support myself while my body healed. I’m stronger now, the migraines have mostly stopped, and my name is on a comic book cover. Is freelancing easy? Nope. But I think it is totally worth taking the risk if you have some safety nets in place (a low cost of living helps a lot, I couldn’t do this in NYC or San Francisco I suspect), and a back up plan. Also, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Opportunities will come your way that might not look like anything you planned, and they can still be the best thing that ever happened to you. I made Gail Simone cupcakes, talked about writing, and somehow, some unbelievable way, I found myself here. With a comic book with my name on it.

Saving WisCon and Other Myths (my post con chair report)

WisCon 39 happened this weekend. I co chaired with Levi & we made a bunch of changes with the help of an amazing team of people. And I heard that we saved WisCon. I have a hard time with that idea because I don’t think WisCon was ever in danger of ending. I think it was in danger of drastic changes in one of two directions. Do I like the direction it went? Yes. My goal when I agreed to co chair was that we would make WisCon a safer space for the most marginalized members of the community. I think we accomplished the first steps of reaching that goal.

I am 100% certain it was imperfect & that we could have done many things better. This year was always (in my mind anyway) going to be the transition year where we had to learn old processes, improve some processes, and in some cases come up with new processes. Some people left, and new people came aboard. That is the nature of any long running annual event. Personally, I hope to make every position on the convention committee accessible to anyone who wants to do the work. We are all replaceable or should be when it comes to these kinds of events. No community event should hinge on the participation of one person, or one set of people. That way lies burnout.

We made some decisions that aren’t going to be popular. But you know, that’s life. You can’t please all of the people any of the time. Some people will likely not return to WisCon, and that’s their right. Some new people will be coming to WisCon, others who had left are now announcing their plans to return. That too is life. WisCon is changing. WisCon will always be changing. That’s not about destruction, that is just growth. Sometimes painful, often messy, and thoroughly inconvenient.

Despite the hype, decisions at WisCon remain community decisions. It’s just a question of the demographics of the community changing. Is fandom still the last refuge for outsiders from the mainstream? Well to be honest…no. Because fandom is mainstream. When we power whole industries, and are a demographic that is often courted as a financial and social force we have to let go of the myth that enjoying speculative fiction makes us outsiders. We have to stop pretending that being fen means we can’t set any boundaries with anyone in our community. Our community is global, and in order for it to be inclusive we have to learn to navigate that space, not the one of yesteryear that came about during and after Jim Crow laws in America. Part of having an integrated inclusive community is recognizing there is no hierarchy of who gets to be treated as human.

Yes, fandom spaces are not courthouses or governments. Conventions are essentially private parties with really large flexible guest lists, and many many things cannot be regulated in house. But…many things can be, and in order to make conventions like WisCon sustainable over time, one of the ways to regulate behavior is to set up clearly written community guidelines, create mechanisms to enforce them, and then for the community to hold members accountable. That too is messy, awkward, and often emotionally fraught. Because community health (like any relationship) requires a lot of work.

WisCon bills itself as a feminist sci fi con. And feminism keeps evolving. So too does sci fi. And so WisCon itself must evolve. It may not go in a direction everyone likes, but then that was always the case. The key to being a part of WisCon’s future isn’t towing some imaginary unknowable line, it is treating everyone with a basic modicum of respect, displaying some form of common sense about behavior in public spaces, and knowing that other people have a right to say no, to set a boundary, or to consent as it suits them. That’s a far cry from the draconian reputation being given to anti abuse/harassment policies. It’s not that you can’t talk to people, it’s that you can’t treat them like they aren’t human and expect that to be accepted.

We are a community that is learning to work together in new, and sometimes exciting ways. This is hard work, it will be hard work, but the potential results are worth it. WisCon is getting some much needed shaking up, and in twenty years as whoever is chairing gears up for WisCon 60, I hope they can look back as I do, and be grateful to their predecessors as well as aware of all the work that lies ahead. Thank you WisCon community for giving us something to fight for, for supporting us when times were hard, and for partying with us when times are good. We made it. Now we just have to keep moving forward. I am honored to have apparently been your first chair who is a Black woman. We’ve come a long way in 40 years.

Mary Shelley Didn’t Invent Sci Fi and other semi controversial things

So, yesterday I was finally able to announce that I’ll be writing my first ever comic in the Swords of Sorrow series. And I am so excited. But I keep seeing this claim roll around that Frankenstein is the first entry into sci fi. And it’s good, don’t get me wrong, and ground breaking for white women in fiction. But I keep thinking about the writers who weren’t nobles, the women who told stories to the children they were employed to watch and to their own children. I keep thinking about the superstitions, the beliefs, the very real reasons to be afraid of the dark, and of the people who couldn’t afford candles, much less the time, ink, and paper needed to write stories by that flickering light. And how those stories were still passed down in oral traditions that persist to this day. Mary Shelley might have entered a story of the dead being brought back to life into the European lexicon, made Frankenstein & his monster more real to the wealthy. But raising the dead and the turning on you was an old old concept 200 years before her birth. The fairytales that we think of as Grimm’s were told around fires in Africa, China, and so many other places by traders, bards, and griots. Their bones are dust, but their words live on and still carry so much weight today.

We stand on the shoulders on those who came before us. And so many of the tales we tell come from stories whispered late at night by people who couldn’t or wouldn’t write them down. I am a writer. I can claim that now. But long before I had the ability to write down a single coherent word I was making up stories. And like so much of what I write today, those stories were heavily influenced by the ones I’d already heard, the books I snuck in and read, and the tales I wasn’t supposed to know. We cheapen the craft of storytelling when we try to limit it to the first time someone wrote down an idea instead of remembering that writing it down is the last step. The first step is making up the story in the first place, and even if the story teller never writes down a word some of the best stories every told will be heard by children at bed time, adults over drinks, and in foxholes with walls that hold all manner of secrets.

My grandfather told great stories. He never (as far as I know) wrote down a single one. My grandmother could spin a tale or two as well. And she read so much, gave me so many things to read. When I write fiction, I hear the way they told stories bleeding into my work. I won’t dishonor them or the people who came before them by pretending I’m the first storyteller in the family. I’m not even the first writer. I might be the first one to write comics, but I wouldn’t even be able to do that without them making stories so accessible to me. When we rush to name a first, we should remember that the first writer of a story doesn’t make them the first to tell a story.