Small Acknowledgements

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.

13 Responses »

  1. Ms. Goto’s acknowledgement is also similar to a practice among indigenous peoples in the Americas. Whenever I hear American Indians speak, at academic conferences, they always preface their remarks with acknowledgement of the peoples whose land the conference takes place in. I don’t know how long it has been a practice, but it has spanned my attendance of those kinds of events.

    I have thought about adopting it for myself because I do study indigenous peoples, but I have never quite felt comfortable because it does seem like ritual and sacred to me.

    I’m always thinking about it.

  2. I work at a tribal college and generally it’s considered etiquette around here for anyone (indigenous or no) to acknowledge that you are a guest on sovereign land and thank the nation for inviting you.

    Hence, I like this, as it draws attention to all the sovereign land those nations still own in spirit. Outside of the context of culture and presentation in the indigenous community, where such acknowledgments are not expected, and including some of Nora’s additions here, it might strike people as odd and require a bit of context, but hey. It’s not like writers lack for words to give context.

  3. I love this post! I deeply appreciate that you pointed this out and talked about it, because I’d never heard an acknowledgement like it before Hiromi Goto spoke, but as soon as she said it I realized we should all be doing that, as a standard. I didn’t know anybody in the room who had Ho-Chunk or Dakota ancestry, and the enormity of that struck me. I wondered if there were people in the room I didn’t know who had Ho-Chunk or Dakota ancestry, and what their experience of WisCon might be. One pause for thought is nowhere near enough, but at the same time it was a lot more powerful than I would have guessed. This tradition is definitely something I want to think about more and do as well if/when I have the chance.

  4. The university that Hiromi teaches for on occasion prefaces all its public ceremonies with a similar acknowledgement. Vancouver, Canada.

  5. You’re so thoughtful, Ms. Jemisin, and I learn from your capacity to reflect. Thank you. Your rally cries in your GoH speech– for everyone to fight, to not remain silent, has reverberated inside of me. Your very astute observation, that reconciliation is not possible while violence is still being done, has shifted the way I think.

    I acknowledged the Ho-Chunk Nation and the Dakota Sioux Nation in my speech because they are the traditional Indigenous peoples of the (colonized) Madison, Wisconsin area (to my knowledge– my research was not exhaustive). It was included as a way to acknowledge their lands, history, culture, and that I was, at best, a guest there. It is a gesture of respect and a recognition of the great debt we owe to Indigenous peoples.

    As an immigrant to traditional Indigenous territories and lands, I am implicated in colonialism. I am, by default, a colonizer.

    To acknowledge is a relatively easy thing to do– there are people (in Canada but perhaps elsewhere as well) who think that it’s just PC lip service, a way to “sound” progressive, etc. but it has no real outcomes. I appreciate this critique. I imagine there are folks who may acknowledge Indigenous peoples as a shorthand gesture of progressiveness. But I do think that to acknowledge is an important step toward a shift in thinking. We can listen to each other’s stories. We can learn from the wisdom of elders. And from this learning we can turn toward strategic actions.

    Such a complicated/complex situation…. So many legacies, not all of our making, but they move through us and with us all the same. I’ve much to learn. There’s much to be done. A great debt is still owed.

  6. This kind of thing is a tradition in New Zealand too, to acknowledge the tangata whenua (M?ori, people of the land). Some events (eg the opening of a new public building, or the national library associations conferences, or orientation this year at the university where I work) start with a p?whiri, welcoming ceremony, where the tangata whenua welcome the guests. At the end there may also be a poroporoaki, farewell, which I think serves the reverse social/spiritual purpose. (I’ve participated in a number of these but I’m not M?ori; I have some understanding but by no means a full one.)

    I know by report that there’s a lot of dialogue among indigenous peoples (in my field, dialogue among indigenous librarians) in different parts of the world about matters of common interest. The accounts I’ve heard have always sounded like there are a lot of such matters and a lot of common ground, so I’m not surprised to see one commonality be the acknowledgement of country/land/people.

  7. Oh dear, Unicode didn’t work. Maybe: Māori and pōwhiri. Otherwise Maaori and poowhiri shows the length of vowels better but normally you’d see them as Maori and powhiri.

  8. The Welcome to Country is an important thing – there have been times when it has been the first time I have ever heard the names of the traditional owners of the land I was standing on. I love your notion of an Acknowledgement of Art.

  9. Thank you, Nora. I used the New York City-specific part of your suggested acknowledgment this morning at my opening keynote address for Wiki Conference USA.

  10. I just read your blog post on racism in science fiction – the Wiscon 38 GoH speech. I want to say this to you: I am deeply, profoundly grateful to you, as a person of color, for writing. You make my world a better one by what you do, richer and more interesting and you bring me perspectives I’d never have known otherwise.

    That there are people in this world who fear change, and by extension react violently to it, is understood. That these people should have chosen science fiction as their safe white space is astonishingly stupid and shocking, and I’d much rather turf them out into the world to join the Klan than deal with their venom in a space which is predicated on the concept of pushing boundaries. (Stagnation, in science fiction, is always death; and clinging to the skin colors of the past is a terrible and shallow form of stagnation indeed.) One of the primary founding themes of science fiction, one of the things which has most informed our lives and thoughts in the genre from the beginnings in frankenstein throughout the past two hundred years, is that the mind of a person is vastly more important than their body or appearance ever could be. This has moved in tandem with women’s lib and the civil rights movement, the Americans with disabilities act, and the trend in all our subcultures towards body modification and social acceptance.

    I would stand behind you, in front of you, or beside you as you wanted, if anyone ever gave you any shit about your gender or color in our community. Thank you for being here from the bottom of my heart.

  11. The speech I gave is now up and several people have thanked me for including the acknowledgment at the start, so I pass those thanks on to you; your research and phrasing were what let me do that.

  12. There’s something poetic about this idea. Wouldn’t it be an interesting to trend if, in addition to having acknowledgements to others who helped shepherd an existing book into being, books came with an additional acknowledgement of something of this nature: a recognition of and appreciation for what came before which makes a thing possible. I think that would be lovely.

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