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2014 WisCon/Tiptree Speeches: Body Image and Much More

Debbie says:

This year’s WisCon had a particularly extraordinary set of guest of honor and Tiptree Award speeches at the Sunday night dessert banquet.

The first guest of honor to speak was Hiromi Goto, author of (among others) The Kappa Child (Tiptree Award winner), Hopeful Monsters, and various young adult books including Half World. Hiromi spoke mostly about story as lived experience.

Story is what has brought me here, today. Story is what has brought you here. We are alike and very unalike in many, many ways. Our bodies, our genders, our sexuality, cultural and historical backgrounds, class, faith, atheism, migration, immigration, colonization, have had us experiencing our lives and our sense of place (if not home) in distinct and particular ways. These differences, at times can divide us. These differences can be used against us to keep us divided. But here we find ourselves. Look around you. The faces of friends and the faces of strangers. We came here because of story. There is much power in story.

There is a Japanese term: kotodama. Word spirit. When you invoke a word you animate it. It becomes. We see echoes of this in other religions/philosophies. I.e. the word is god. When writers try to imagine different ways of engaging, humans to other humans, humans with aliens, humans with animals, all these different relationships, we can make possible new kinds of engagements. To bring stories alive in this way is to try to make change in the workings and fabric of our world. If something is not of this world already, it first needs to be imagined. After it is imagined, it needs to be shaped by the parameters of language. And in writing, in the utterance, the story can begin its life. It can become.

And so we begin. With each telling. With every retelling. A slight skewing of the familiar toward a different plane. The perspective shifts and the way the light falls upon the world casts it anew, ripe with possibility.

N.K. Jemisin‘s guest of honor speech was a call to arms, and war is something we conduct with our bodies:

Maybe you think I’m using hyperbole here, when I describe the bigotry of the SFF [science fiction and fantasy] genres as “violence”. Maybe I am using hyperbole — but I don’t know what else to call it. SFF are dedicated to the exploration of the future and myth and history. Dreams, if you want to frame it that way. Yet the enforced SWM dominance of these genres means that the dreams of whole groups of people have been obliterated from the Zeitgeist. And it’s not as if those dreams don’t exist. They’re out there, in spades; everyone who dreams is capable of participating in these genres. But many have been forcibly barred from entry, tormented and reeducated until they serve the status quo. Their interests have been confined within creative ghettos, allowed out only in proscribed circumstances and limited numbers. When they do appear, they are expected to show their pass and wear their badge: “Look, this is an anthology of NATIVE AMERICAN ANCIENT WISDOM from back when they existed! Put a kachina on the cover or it can’t be published. No, no, don’t put an actual Navajo on the cover, what, are you crazy? We want the book to sell. That person looks too white, anyway, are you sure they aren’t lying about being an Indian? What the hell is a Diné? What do you mean you’re Inuit?”

But the violence that has been done is more than metaphysical or thematic. Careers have been strangled at birth. Identities have been raped — and I use that word intentionally, not metaphorically. What else to call it when a fan’s real name is stripped of its pseudonym, her life probed for data and details until she gets phone calls at her home and workplace threatening her career, her body, and her family? (I don’t even need to name a specific example of this; it’s happened too often, to too many people.) Whole subgenres like magic realism and YA have been racially and sexually profiled, with discrimination based on that profiling so normalized as to be nearly invisible.

Arm yourselves. … Claim the knowledge and language that will be your weapons. Go to sources of additional knowledge for fresh ammunition — histories and analyses of the genre by people who see beyond the status quo, our genre elders, new sources of knowledge like “revisionist” scholarship instead of the bullshit we all learned in school. Find support groups of like-minded souls; these are your comrades-in-arms, and you will need their strength. Don’t try to do this alone. When you’re injured, seek help …. Exercise to stay strong, if you can; defend what health you have, if you can’t. And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.

This post should end there. But the WisCon evening follows the Guest of Honor speeches with the Tiptree Award presentation, and N.A. Sulway, winner of this year’s Tiptree Award for her novel, Rupetta, had to follow it, so I won’t cheat. Nike brought in a third voice, perhaps the most directly body-image related of the three. She talked about her novel is, in some ways, a response to Rene Descartes, the philosopher who exemplifies the “mind is more important than body” line of thought of his time.

Rupetta is in some sense a book about compromised mothering. About non-conforming mothers. About mothers who are separated from their children. About grief. And longing.

My first wish is that we—and by we here I mean feminists—learn to speak about mothering in new, honest, complex and powerful ways. Not as an essential aspect of femininity, because it is not that, or as a biological right, but as a process we, as women, are often part of; a process many of us experience as both a source of power, and a means of oppression. As an intimate and deeply private process, and a very public role.

Descartes is, of course, perhaps most famous for the ideas he laid down in his Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy. It is here that he decides that the only thing we can know without any doubt is that we are thinking beings.

That we think, and therefore we are.

My second wish is that we will continue and finally complete the work of undoing the false assumption expressed so powerfully by Descartes that it is our minds—our intellects—that are our only Truth. That our bodies are merely the vessels in which we live. I want to find a way to convince you to understand that we think with our bodies, and feel with our minds.

My third and final wish is that, one day, we will find a way to encounter the new, the unfamiliar or uncanny, without fear or superstition or terror. That we will not, in that moment when the stranger sits up and turns to us, hurl stones or throw them overboard. But instead find a way to open our minds and hearts and embrace that strangeness on its own terms. With courage, and grace, and full acceptance.

Story, rage against injustice, and integration of the body and mind. Or, for those of us who were sitting there, the voices of three extraordinary women.

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