Continuum GoH Speech

Apologies for not posting this sooner, folks; my schedule as a GoH is packed almost solid, and I just got a free moment to upload. I ad-libbed a bit, but this is the text of my speech from earlier today at Continuum. Might miss some emphases and other formatting; no time to check it right now.

Warning for profanity.

My father was afraid for me to come to Australia.

He mostly made jokes about it — “Good, you’ve got dredlocks, maybe they won’t think you’re Chinese”, stuff like that. But I know my father, and I know when the jokes have a serious undercurrent. Now, mind you, I travel alone all the time, and I’m not always traveling to places that are friendly to Americans, or women, or black people. I’ve walked past trucks in Japan blaring “Gaijin go home” on loudspeakers, underneath billboards featuring a black man in an ape costume who was somehow selling breakfast cereal. I’ve sat on a public bus in Italy while a Somali woman was refused entry. I don’t speak Italian so I couldn’t be sure why, but the fact that everyone turned to look at me as soon as the bus pulled off was kind of a hint. And mind you — I live in New York. In Brooklyn, in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood called Crown Heights, which is internationally famous for a series of racial clashes between white Hasidic Jews and black Carribbeans; nowadays both groups have largely been driven out, replaced by wealthy young hipsters. But the cause celebre in New York right now is a police policy called Stop-and-Frisk, which gives the cops pretty much the right to search anyone they deem “suspicious” for any reason — and which in practice has resulted in a tremendously disproportionate targeting of black and Latino people for basically the crime of walking around while black or Latino. 95% of those stopped have been found to have committed no crime.

And both my father and I grew up in Alabama — he in Birmingham, dodging dogs and fire hoses turned on him and other Civil Rights protestors by infamous police Chief Bull Connor; me in Mobile in the 1980s, when the Michael Donald lynching — the last “traditional” lynching of a black man in the United States, with a noose and a tree and everything — occurred around the corner from my grandmother’s house. I remember my grandmother sitting in her den with a shotgun across her knees while I cracked pecans at her feet; I was maybe nine years old, had no idea what was going on. She told me the gun was just an old replica; she’d brought it out to clean it. I said “OK, Grandma,” and asked whether she’d make me a pie when I was done.

I say all this so you will understand the context of my father’s fear, when I told him I was going to Australia.

See, I just have a typical American education. When I took “World History” in high school, I think we spent three days on Australia — which, all things considered, is three times more than we spent on the entire continent of Africa. And though I’ve made an effort to educate myself further in the years since in a number of areas, I will admit that Australian history hasn’t been very high on the list. But my father has studied civil rights struggles everywhere in the world. He understood that a nation which classified its indigeous people as animals less than fifty years ago might not be the safest place for a woman like me… with brown skin and a big nose and a tendency to tell people to fuck off when they get on my nerves. Even in the depths of the Jim Crow era in the US, black people were people. Inferior ones… but people.

And now that I’m here I have spent the past three days — coupled with the three days in school, that’s twice as much as the average American! — visiting your museums and talking to your fellow citizens and just walking around observing your city streets, and I know now that Dad was right to worry. This is not a safe country for people of color. It’s better than it was, certainly, but when the first news story I saw on turning on my first Australian TV channel was about your One Nation party’s Pauline Hanson… well. Still got a ways to go.

Now. Before you tar and feather me, let me tell you something else I’ve come to understand in the past three days. Australia may not be the safest place for someone who looks like me… but it’s trying to become safer. And Australia may have classified the peoples of the Koorie and other nations as “fauna” until very recently, but Australia has also made tremendous strides lately in rectifying this error. I’ve listened in fascination to the Acknowledgements of Country made at nearly every public event I’ve attended since I’ve been here. I’ve marveled that indigenous languages are offered as courses for study at some local universities. I am awed that you don’t shove all of your indigenous history into a single museum, where it’s easy for people not of that culture to avoid or ignore, because that’s what happens in the US. So as horrified as I am by the nastier details of Australian history… I am also heartened, astonished, inspired, by the Australian present. You’ve still got a long way to go before Reconciliation is complete, but then again, you’ve started down that path. You’re trying.

I want you to understand: what you’ve done? It will never happen in my country. Not in my lifetime, at least. Right now American politicians are doing their best to roll back voting rights won during our own Civil Rights movement. They are putting in place educational “reforms” which disproportionately have a negative impact on black and brown and poor white kids, and will essentially help to solidify a permanent underclass. Right now there are laws in places like Florida and Texas which are intended to make it essentially legal for white people to just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence. So: admitting that the land we live on was stolen from hundreds of other nations and peoples? Acknowledging that the prosperity the United States enjoys was bought with blood? That’s a pipe dream.

I want you to understand that what you’ve done makes me want to weep with envy, and bitterness, and hope.

So: segue time. Let’s scale down. Let’s talk about the community — the microcosmic nation — of science fiction and fantasy.

For the past few days I’ve also been observing a “kerfuffle”, as some call it, in reaction to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ of America’s latest professional journal, the Bulletin. Some of you may also have been following the discussion; hopefully not all of you. To summarize: two of the genre’s most venerable white male writers made some comments in a series of recent articles which have been decried as sexist and racist by most of the organization’s membership. Now, to put this in context: the membership of SFWA also recently voted in a new president. There were two candidates — one of whom was a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole. In this election he lost by a landslide… but he still earned ten percent of the vote. SFWA is small; only about 500 people voted in total, so we’re talking less than 50 people. But scale up again. Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges, not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.

Just ten percent. But such a ten percent.

And beyond that ten percent are the silent majority — the great unmeasured mass of enablers. These are the folks who don’t object to the treatment of women as human beings, and who may even have the odd black or gay friend that they genuinely like. However, when the ten percent starts up in their frothing rage, these are the people who say nothing in response. When women and other marginalized groups respond with anger to the hatred of the ten percent, these are the people who do not support them, and in fact suggest that maybe they’re overreacting. When they read a novel set in a human society which contains only one or two female characters, these are the people who don’t decry this as implausible. Or worse, they simply don’t notice. These are the people who successfully campaigned for Star Trek to return to television after 25 years, but have no intention of campaigning for Roddenberry’s vision to be complete, with gay characters joining the rainbow brigade on the bridge. These are the people who gleefully nitpick the scientific plausibility of stopping a volcano with “cold fusion”, yet who fail to notice that an author has written a future earth in which somehow seventeen percent of the human race dominates ninety percent of the characterization.

Unlike the ten percent, these people do not overtly hate me, or people like me. But they are not our friends, either. And after all: what is hatred, really, but supreme indifference to the suffering of another?

And here’s the thing: women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there. And people of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms — and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role. Or a lesbian, or a poor person, or an old person, or a trans woman, or a person in a wheelchair. SFF has always been the literature of the human imagination, not just the imagination of a single demographic. Every culture on this planet produces it in some way, shape, or form. It thrives in video games and films and TV shows, and before that it lived in the oral histories kept by the griots, and the story circles of the Navajo, and the Dreamings of this country’s first peoples. People from every walk of life consume SFF, with relish, and that is because we have all, on some level, contributed to its inception and growth.

We tread upon the mythic ground of religions and civilizations that far predate “Western” nations and Christianity; we dream of traveling amid stars that were named by Arab astronomers, using the numbers they devised to help us find our way; we retell the colonization stories that were life and death for the Irish and the English and the Inka and the Inuit; we find drama in the struggles of the marginalized and not-quite-assimilated of every society. Speculative fiction is at its core syncretic; this stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere. And it certainly didn’t spring solely from the imaginations of a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys in the 1950s.

Sadly what the SFWA kerfuffle reveals — and MammothFail before that, and MoonFail, and RaceFail and the Great Cultural Appropriation Debates of Dooooom, and Slushbomb before that, and so on — what this reveals is that memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.

So I propose a solution — which I would like to appropriate, if you will allow, from Australia’s history and present. It is time for a Reconciliation within SFF.

It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps — some symbolic, some substantive — to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.

I think to some degree this process has already begun. Discussions like the one that’s been happening in SFWA for the past week are the proof of it; not so very long ago, there would have been no response at all to that kind of casual sexism or racism. All this anger, all this sturm und drang — these are good things. Signs of progress. What I am proposing, however, is that we take things to the next level. Maybe it’s time for a Truth in Reconciliation commission, in which authors and fans speak out about their misconceptions and mistakes, and make a commitment to doing better. Maybe we need practical reconciliation efforts such as encouraging more markets to accept blind submissions, demanding that more publishers depict diverse characters on book covers. At the same time, let’s have some self-deterministic reconciliation, since women and people of color and disabled folks and the like certainly haven’t been shy about offering their own suggestions for change. Incidentally, if you did not follow RaceFail when it occurred or if you dismissed it as too much to handle, try. It’s all still there; just Google it. Hundreds of people poured millions of words into articulating what’s wrong with this genre, and how those wrongs can be made right. You owe it to yourself to read some of what they wrote.

I’ve been in this country three days, and I love it. The things that have happened here are in many ways far more horrific than what happened in my own country — but you as a people have shown a stunning willingness to progress beyond those wrongs, and to transform and improve yourselves in the process. Now, I do not mean to belittle what has happened here by the comparison; no one has died in SFF for its failure to acknowledge and embrace its own diversity. No lands have been stolen, no children kidnapped. But careers have ended, in some cases before they began. Opportunities have been stolen, dreams kept segregated. A potential richness of content has been hoarded and hidden from the SFF readership. So I am asking you, Australian fans, to share what you have learned about how to be a multicultural society, with the world. We can learn from your mistakes and your successes. This is what science fiction and fantasy need to do, if they are ever to truly become the literature of the world’s imagination.

Thank you.

ETA: Got pointed out by several folks that the little space between “trans” and “woman” is important; whoops. Fixed!

78 Responses »

  1. All: I’m getting a bit of bigot shitsplatter against my mod filters, so apologies if it takes me a little while to approve posts; I’m actually doing some minor background checking before I let things through. (I did let one through, so you could see the quality of their… discourse. I suspect the same person has tried again via a different anonymized address, but I’ve gotten a few others, too. Not many, surprisingly and pleasantly; hopefully I’m not speaking too soon.) Anyway, just an FYI.

  2. I missed the goh at continuum, have just read it. Pleased to be both shocked and impressed by the message. I am anglo male and do not always know the perspective which others come from. I do my best to reflect the better aspects of the Australian experience, whatever that is, by including all. As I get older I am still saddened by many things that occur around me of which I have little control. I try to affect what I can and make change by doing the right thing in personel relationships. I spoke briefly directly to at the con. And wished I had known of the speech to thank you in person. Let our actions be evidence of our beliefs. If this is not in context or relevent I will not be offended if not listed.

  3. You continue to amaze me, and I proffer grateful obeisance in your direction.

  4. I’m just not certain where the endpoint is, here. Is it when we open each convention with a standard statement listing off each and every downtrodden group, shaking our fingers at the Horrible Old Fossils? Or will it be when nobody notices, and it’s just accepted that people like Samuel R. Delany or Octavia Butler could be black, white, male, female, gay, straight, or even self-aware collections of octarine energy.

    It reminds me of a discussion somewhere along the lines about how Rod Walker, from Heinlein’s _Tunnel In The Sky_ was black. My opinion was… “So? What difference does it make to the story? He survived, and ended up running the colony, and in the epilogue we see him leading more exploring parties. Could probably as easily been Jackie in his place.”

  5. I LOVE this, thank you so much for sharing. You are spot on, with all of it.

    Research in area of organizational leadership and change management shows what within an organization you’ve got 3 – 5% of people who are game to try anything new, they are open and ready. You’ve got 3 – 5% of people who will never change no matter what you do. 70 – 80% (SEVENTY TO EIGHTY PERCENT!) are fence sitters, unwilling to step out of the line and make something different. Only about 15 – 20% of an organizations population are ‘informal leaders’ willing to step in front and make change happen.

    I’m not certain if these numbers expand to the general population, that isn’t my area of expertise, but I suspect the numbers are similar. Imagine the implications when trying to create this kind of change on a national (or global) scale?

    K.

  6. You ma’am are one of my writing heroes. I love your work and tell everyone I know who reads SFF that your books should be the very next thing they read. (fangirl gushing over now, just had to put that out there)

    Thank you for this, it speaks to the heart of the issues that lie within the SFF writing community. I too hope for a Reconciliation among the community that will lead to a better, enthusiastically inclusive environment. Not one that grudgingly accepts or is apathetic, but one that actively works towards creating an atmosphere that welcomes everyone and is grateful for the variety of perspectives. I expect better of the SFWA and the fans, I hope to some day see those expectations met. It’s things like this that will help us get there.

  7. I’m a brown person who’s only recently immigrated to Australia, and I just want to thank you, so very very very much, for this speech. I wasn’t able to attend Continuum unfortunately, but now I wish I had, if only to hear you speak (I have also been a fan for ages, and someone whom you honored with a fan calligraphy commission, so getting to see you speak would have been fantastic). This is such a powerful speech. Tears were pouring down my face as I read this. Thank you for speaking truth to power as always; thank you for bearing so much hope.

  8. The condescension you engage in by visiting someone else’s country as a guest and then proceeding to lecture them on their supposed shortcomings and laud them on what you believe to be their progress in addressing said shortcomings is truly breathtaking.

    Your ignorance of the history of your own country is unsurprising, of course. I guess you’ve never bothered to read Lincoln’s Second Inaugrual Address, either.

  9. Impressive and very timely, Ms. Jemisin.

  10. “Right now there are laws in places like Florida and Texas which are intended to make it essentially legal for white people to just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence.”

    What a load of horse-crap. I hope there are enough clear thinking Australians to see past this lie.

  11. Saw the link to your speech on the Pharyngula website. Loved the speech! Well done.

    You forgot to mention that up until the 1970s Aboriginal girls were kidnapped from their parents and raised in orphanages and then sent to work as domestics for White Australians. The movie “Rabbit Proof Fence” documents this part of Australian history.

  12. This was a truly bizarre rant and the fact that so many agree with it should give one pause for concern. OK, I get it. People who come here love this author. They are also predisposed to agree with her worldview. Perhaps she should spend more than three days in Australia and actually start talking to people rather than listen to government pronouncements. She may not find as much progress as she expects. No problem. She has already white-washed that issue by placing “good intentions” over reality. Reality? The people commenting here are not representative of the average Aussie. Or average northern European for that matter. In my travels, I have been astonished at the racism of the typical university educated Aussies and Euros. Listen to your Nordic friends and see what they think about the Sami (Laplanders) in an unguarded a moment. Will she get out of the tiny bubble of fans and like-minded people with which she associates and learn how many Aussies still believe the Aboriginals are sub-human? As I have been told, “you know, like Americans think about the Indians”. Ummm, no they don’t. The first time I find an American who thinks that I’ll let you know.

    Her tirade about the US is predictable: they are going backwards while others are progressing. She feels the need to apologize to establish credibility with her new Aussie friends. Distressingly, she enjoys spreading the lie that it is the US that is the racist country while she herself and her sycophants here are actually the ones consumed with race and gender. People in the US south especially have moved on. In the immortal words of the gay activists, “get over it”. Just write and read your books from whatever perspective you like and stop insisting others behave according to your worldview. How boring. A couple of guys in their 70s use the word “lady” and the intolerant have a fit. Yes, that would be almost all of you, but somehow you don’t see yourself as intolerant, do you? How else would describe people that demonize and pillory people for using completely non-offensive language. Oh wait, I forgot. Everything with which you upstanding people disagree is, by definition, offensive! Strange.

    I don’t return to read comments so flame away.

  13. “Right now American politicians are doing their best to roll back voting rights won during our own Civil Rights movement.”

    It is indeed terrible that with the new voter ID laws being passed, Latinos, African-Americans, the poor, the elderly, the differently-abled, the Inuit, LGBTQ, and other minorities will only be allowed to vote once, instead of multiple times.

  14. Tim Duncan wrote:

    >It is indeed terrible that with the new voter ID laws being passed, >Latinos, African-Americans, the poor, the elderly, the differently-abled, >the Inuit, LGBTQ, and other minorities will only be allowed to vote once, >instead of multiple times.

    You forgot to mention the male white folks, Tim. They’re the ones who taught everyone else how ballot box-stuffing is done.

  15. I am a sci-fi/fantasy reader who came across your speech circuitously. Thank you for your bravery in speaking honestly.
    Needless to say, I agree.

  16. I’m a little late to this, but I wanted to thank you for this speech and for your bravery.

  17. Here via Facebook. A wonderfully thought-provoking speech, with plenty to study on and act on. You’ve given me fodder for moving ahead with my own writing in terms of a wider variety of characters, having begun in a time when simply creating active female heroes was a revolutionary act. We keep plugging away, hoping to create a better, more inclusive world. With people like you sounding the call for us to listen, keep working, and stay aware, not to rest on what’s been achieved, I hope we’ll get there.

  18. From a reader, much applause. A lot of us would love to see more diversity in the field.

  19. “You forgot to mention the male white folks, Tim. They’re the ones who taught everyone else how ballot box-stuffing is done.”

    Very true, Janbo. There *are* white males in the Democrat Party, after all.

  20. I love your idea of reconciliation. It should be apply in Romania too.

  21. Crying like a baby. God, could it happen? Could it really? Sometimes lately I feel like it could. I feel like I’m seeing more anger about this stuff, stated in a way that seems impossible to argue with. People have to listen, don’t they? Sometimes it seems like more people are. But I don’t know if my optimism is just because I’ve become good at filtering out the people I don’t want to hear from.

    Mostly, I’ll confess, I tend to despair. Unless a huge number of the world’s people permit themselves to steep for a while in shame about things that feel like THEIR FAULT (and some of which are), nothing is ever going to get better. And that’s the part where I feel pessimistic, because most of the people I know would willingly stand in the path of an oncoming car rather than admit they were wrong about the street being closed.

    Communications like this one, though, are giving me more courage to fight, because it makes me feel like it’s a battle that can eventually be won.

  22. Amazing speech. Thank you.

  23. Amazingly fantastic. I second Ellen Kushner’s position for you as SFWA President. A remarkable speech from a remarkable woman. Thank you for speaking out.

  24. A wonderful speech Nora, and it is one we need to hear especially now with the obvious set up going on in Oklahoma.

  25. I love your idea of reconciliation. It should be apply in Romania too.

    This would entail massive changes within Gypsy culture. Most mentions of “minority rights” ignore the other half of the coin which is minority responsibilities.

  26. As a casual reader who picks up SF from time to time from the public library but otherwise hasn’t been to cons/meetups, first I would like to say I really liked The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Secondly, thank you so much for this, NK. This definitely needed to be said.

    There is such a miasma of racism in SF books, from Tolkien’s Eurocentrism / Islamophobia, to all-white crews on spaceships, to orientalist brogrammer authors like Neal Stephenson that need to be bitch slapped with the Edward Said book, that it took a lot of guts to say what you said. And it’s like when you try to say something people get pissed off and feel personally dissed.

    Although I just found out about RaceFail just now, looking through that forum thread it was like wow, there are other people who agree that Something’s Not Right. Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for saying this in such a public forum because the miasma of bias made me too chicken to even blog about it.

    No wonder the scene actually been made safe for an atavistic redneck like Beale, who would have been expelled immediately for Klanishness from any other venue. It’s like how can people who are so smart be so stupid? Hell I don’t know if I could be in the same room with a clown like that without walking out, you are a way stronger person than I cuz I would have been way less civil.