I miss WisCon. One of the reasons it’s been one of my favorite conventions — during the years I wasn’t personally boycotting it, anyway (it’s a love-hate thing) — is that I learn so much, often despite myself, and that kind of learning is always a pleasure. (So many mind blown moments.) But that said, it’s a 1000-person con, and while I’m a very functional introvert, I am an introvert; I need space and silence to recharge and reflect. So I’ve been doing a lot of that in the slightly-more-than-24-hours since I got home.
In particular I’ve been reflecting on the speech of my fellow Guest of Honor, Hiromi Goto. It’s a beautiful speech; she has more poetry in her little finger than I could ever muster in a hundred years, and given that I was sitting in the audience dripping nervous sweat when I heard it, it gave me strength. (If you’re reading this, Ms. Goto, thank you again.) I’d noticed the thematic congruity of both speeches before fellow author Sofia Samatar “remixed” them to show them in conversation, though her reconstruction really brings it home.
But in particular I want to focus in on something that Ms. Goto chose to do at the very beginning of the speech:
I would like to acknowledge the Ho-Chunk and Dakota Sioux Nations and their traditional lands. I am a guest, here, and I am grateful.
It’s a common thing in this genre for us to acknowledge our mentors and allies, our families, our readers, anyone else who’s helped us get to where we are within the scope of our career. What’s uncommon is a broader acknowledgement; one which stretches past the individual and into community, and history. My nation is one which encourages its people to think of the present and future as something neatly divided from the past; one which values, valorizes, rugged individualism. The problem with this kind of thinking, though, is that it lends a false gloss of accomplishment to everything we do. Like businesses built on public land using public utilities and roads which then refuse to pay workers enough to keep them from them going on public assistance in order to survive… and which then demand a tax exemption because they’re doing the public such a favor by existing. Of course individuals who succeed usually work hard to do so; it’s just that their accomplishment doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and we are a country that likes to pretend otherwise. Particularly when the people who got us to where we are are those we’d rather not acknowledge, for various reasons.
Ms. Goto’s acknowledgement is, I think, modeled on the Australian Acknowledgement of Country that I alluded to in my Continuum GoH speech last year. And though I’ve come to believe in the time since that it might be too soon for reconciliation in SFF — that we have not yet earned that level of closure — I do think there’s value in emulating some of the other cultures which are trying to do this. What many of these cultures seem to have figured out is that acknowledgements, however small, matter. It’s not just the thefts, the violence, or the exclusions that hurt, but also the rewriting of history to pretend none of that shit happened. Injustice keeps the wounds festering, but it’s the lies that salt and sting.
And maybe this is the kind of thing that can help. It’s a simple gesture, only a few words, but words have power. I did not include an acknowledgement like this in my speech, and I feel instinctively that it should be different to an acknowledgement of country; as I understand the Australian practice, those are done at events using public space and/or government funding, for the obvious reason that the government wouldn’t exist without the land it stands upon, and the people who’ve funded it — all of them. In the US, that’s a more complex statement, because so much of this country was built not only upon stolen land but stolen labor. And in the literary field, our foundations were built in different ways.
So this is my Acknowledgement of Genre. Or Art. Still noodling. I welcome suggestions on changing/improving this, BTW.
I acknowledge the Lenape people on whose ancestral land I stand; the African people whose bones were buried unmarked in this city’s foundations; and the involuntary and exploited labor of people from every land which helped to make New York City great.
I also acknowledge the literary ancestors without whose sacrifices and inspiration I would not be here: Mary Shelley, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Joyce, and Octavia Butler. You are joined most recently by Maya Angelou, an inspiration to us all.
I’m aware that this is too simple a statement to encompass the totality of any one person’s literary debts owed — just as the acknowledgement of country is too simple a statement to acknowledge the totality of any colonial nation’s debts. And I’m aware there’s substantial controversy regarding acknowledgements like this, which — without a real effort at memory, and unaccompanied by a serious attempt to redress past wrongs — can seem superficial, trivial.
Still, I think it’s a start. I kept it short because a complete acknowledgement would take forever, and because this is meant to be symbolic, not literal. The first paragraph is obviously specific to my locality. For the second paragraph, I chose four names so that two could be male and two female. For my first two names I deliberately chose people whose place in genre history is often forgotten or elided in favor of white men; then Joyce because he’s probably my strongest actual literary influence; then Butler because I would never have tried to get published in this genre without her example to lead the way. Obviously I chose only people who are no longer living — thus “ancestors” — because acknowledging the ancestors is a tradition that my own family has adopted, and which I suspect a lot of African American families do as well in an effort to reclaim lost aspects of our heritage. And I included Maya just because it felt right.
For now this is a thought exercise. I’m not giving any more speeches anytime soon — my next GoH appearance will be at Arisia — and I’ve got novellas and books to write as well as a whole bunch of short fiction to read before Clarion. But I think I’m going to try including this at the beginning of any future speech I give, once I refine it to my liking. You’re welcome to use it too.