Apr 10, 2012
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Eastercon: It was fun, but…

I spent a sizeable chunk of this past weekend at Eastercon – the biggest SF con in the UK – and overall had an excellent time: hanging out with friends, meeting some people for the first time offline, and talking to some people I hadn’t ever expected to talk to. I was on my first ever panel. Aside from feeling very introverted by the end of it, I should be able to report that it was a wonderful weekend and Easteron is glorious and leave it at that.

I can’t.

This isn’t a post about John Meaney’s almost impressively offensive attempt to perform stand-up comedy at the BSFA Awards, for which he has fauxpologised, although it partly is. If Meaney’s speech had been the only instance of fail at Eastercon, we would probably gather round, mock him, call him an idiotic fuckwit and go home. But it really, really wasn’t the only fail.

I went to a number of panels about a wide range of topics this weekend. By Friday afternoon – that’s the first day of the con – I was already suggesting that we start a drinking game for people who mention China. (That’s the country, not the writer that Meaney “comedically” thinks is Vin Diesel.) From blithe remarks along the lines of “totalitarian regimes like China” to the utterly baffling, almost no one at Eastercon seemed to have any idea about China the real country, rather than China the caricature as portrayed in scaremongering Western media.

Did you know that in China, people are forced into the fields to hand-pollinate the flowers because all the bees are dead?

Well, now you know.

The one person who did seem to know something about China was Dr Leah-Nani Alconcel, who talked about China’s incredible investment in space exploration technology. This is pertinent to my recent post about non-white SF: China is putting lots of money, training and resource into space science. SF authors, take note. You’ll be shocked to know that unlike everyone else making sweeping statements about China, Dr Alconcel – who gave specific examples from her own experience of talking to Chinese scientists – is not white.

In a panel on Saturday about fantastic landscapes, the panellists started talking about London and how it can seem both real and science fictional. However, when one panellist started describing Lima (a city in Peru), she talked only about how it was science fictional. The idea that Lima is a real city in which real people live is apparently not worthy of comment. (This same panellist also described her book, in which there are very poor people and very rich people, and said the poor people are happy with their lives and even look down on the rich people.)

Later on this panel, the discrepancy between a very pricey hotel and the regular people of Hong Kong was described as an embodiment of Ying-Yang.

On a related note: while I wasn’t at the panel where Damien Walter felt the need to explain Buddhism, I hear that it was quite something.

And Lavie Tidhar reports that after the non-Anglophone SF panel (which featured non-Anglophone panellists), the following “compliment” was given: “For people who don’t speak English as a first language – your English is VERY GOOD!”

On my panel, “The Personal is Political”, which was about taking responsibility for fail (haha), the sole male panellist reported that To Kill A Mockingbird made him ~understand~ racism (Edit: although, when called on this by Jude, he amended his wording) and repeatedly told us all how diverse his award-winning books are and stressed that white males are ~trying their best~. Perhaps I put him on the defensive by saying quite early on that I no longer trust unknown male authors as much as I trust unknown female authors, but that’s not an excuse for his cookie-seeking antics. (Edit: What I think I failed to emphasise here is that it was his whole attitude that bothered me. Everyone says stupid things, but he persistently drew attention to him and his personal attempts to be a good person, rather than discussing the wider issues like the rest of us.) Additionally, while this panel represented a number of female and queer voices, it was strikingly all-white; given its subject matter, this is a glaring problem.

Then there’s the BSFA Awards speech, which was… something else. John Meaney went on for 40 minutes. We got Lauren Beukes being reduced to her looks, we got Ian McDonald being somehow capable of talking to Beukes even though she’s so so good looking (gosh, maybe McDonald sees Beukes as a human being?), we got something about Israelis liking to punch people in the face and how strange it is that someone called Lavie Tidhar could write a book called Osama, we got male allies being called “new men” in a very mocking way, we got a woman liking muscle cars OH MY GOD HOW BIZARRE, we got an impression of a stereotypical working class plumber whose girlfriend likes to go to Ibiza, and by that point I was walking out the door. Given that I was sitting by the door, I can tell you that quite a lot of people were walking out.

In the same ceremony (although before John Meaney got on the stage), Tori Truslow was commended in the James White Award for her story “Train in Vain”. You would think that this, at least, is a cause for 100% joy. Sadly not, as one of the judges described her story (set in Thailand) as containing “exotic intrigue” and “exotic imagery”. She talks about how damaging the word “exotic” is over here.

I think that’s all. But I’m sure it’s not, because I’m white and I only went to so many panels and only talked to so many people. As a woman and a queer person, I felt welcome at the con, but the continual current of fail – especially towards non-white people and countries and cultures – was un-ignorable.

Look. I don’t want to piss over the fun everyone had at Eastercon, I really don’t, because there was a lot of positivity at the con too, but all of the above is shitty and unacceptable and needs to stop, and I can’t not call attention to it.

29 Comments

  • Exactly right. I’d like to add that the otherwise not-at-all-bad and generally-moving-in-the-right-direction panel on climate change and geoengineering had its one major fail when China was mentioned – othering and orientalism and political naivete – amazing geopolitical naivete – all combined into one.

    And certainly on the extreme whiteness – when talking about con inclusivity on twitter it became very obvious that this was not at all the experience of many fans who are POC. Also, on reflection, I am not sure that the con was as diverse in respect of sociological class as I initially felt, and both of these tie together and into wider society in an intersectional way.

    • I think it was the geoengineering panel that made me suggest the drinking game, actually.

      I’m not sure cons can be very diverse in terms of sociological class, because of the financial hurdle. At best, some Londoners can commute in like I did and bring some/all of their own food, but it’s still not cheap, and excludes anyone outside London. Staying at the hotel and travelling from outside London makes the cost, on top of registration, suddenly quite formidable to anyone with low income.

      • The Geoengineering panel was not what it was meant to be since our expert in the field was unable to attend because of ill health. I’m pretty sure he would have been able to correct misassumptions about China, and elsewhere. Given his absence, it was touch and go as to whether we should run the item, but in the end we did. Maybe I made the wrong call.

        I’m glad most of your Eastercon was good, and am sorry that some things detracted from this.

  • As someone who has attended various cons over 26 years ago I was delighted to see significantly more diverse attendees this year than in the past. So something is going, if not right, certainly in the right direction. However I’m trying to remember if I personally spoke to more than a couple of PoC attendees, so I’m claiming no personal credit.
    The question is what could I do to make you feel included?

    As for cost, I was on a panel discussing this, and short of a huge structural and conceptual change in what eastercons are, some costs are fixed. There have been cons where I slept in my car, so I know the problems.

    • I haven’t been to enough cons to say for sure, but yes, this one did seem a bit more diverse than usual. (Although sadly that’s not saying much – and it was still incredibly white.) I do hope this trend continues. I agree that there have been some good steps in the right direction – I hear that some panels with very tricky subjects went mostly well, which was a pleasant surprise. (I’d been avoiding the tricky panels because usually these discussions make me angry at the copious failing.)

      I’m very aware that cost is hard to cut. While there may well be things that can be cut, I suspect that to a large extent that’s just the nature of a big con in an expensive country. What’s important is that we don’t pretend the con is socioeconomically diverse when it’s not – that we own the financial imbalance of congoers.

      The question is what could I do to make you feel included?

      Hmm. Well, I personally felt included, so anything I say would be speaking on behalf of non-white attendees. Grains of salt: get you some.

      I think what made me feel included was largely to do with the nature of the other attendees I interacted with: generally smart, clued-in people. I extracted myself from a couple of conversations that went south.

      But I was aware of tricky issues being tackled, even though I avoided them – and by panels with a fairly positive make-up. While my panel was glaringly all-white, it was female and queer, and that made me feel that the issues were being taken reasonably seriously, ie: some less privileged voices were not being thoroughly, institutionally drowned out by straight white male voices. So in terms of non-white representation, we need more diverse panels discussing more diverse topics. (Obviously, a bunch of white people discussing non-white topics is a recipe for epic fail.) And, of course, non-white people are not there to only ever discuss non-white topics, any more than women can only discuss women-focused topics, etc. More diverse panels across all subjects is needed.

      Ultimately it boils down to getting more non-white people to the con, and I’m not sure what the solution is to that. Invite more non-white guests? A non-white GOH or two or more would send a strong message, I suspect. I’m not sure if there is an easy solution to creating an environment that non-white fans feel comfortable entering, other than all of us talking about this kind of shit and criticising it and encouraging other attendees to not say idiotic shit and hopefully changing the con for the better.

      Because ultimately the problem is white (and other privileged) people being idiots, which is hard to solve.

  • Regarding the hand-pollination in China, it actually happens in Sichuan because of the loss of bees.

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/06/14/stung-by-bees.html

    http://blog.lib.umn.edu/efans/ygnews/2011/02/hand-pollination-of-apples-tre.html

    http://www.apinews.com/en/news/item/12780-china-hand-pollination

    Without knowing the context of the comment, it is hard to know if the statement was naive. If it was done to suggest China’s economy is backward, the statement was stupid (though only a society with very low wages could afford to have human workers hand pollinating). On the other hand, it the statement was made to identify the potentially catastrophic effects of the destruction of bee populations (most likely from pesticides), there is nothing naive about it.

    • The way the comment was worded and said seemed to suggest that this happens all across China, rather than in a specific area (which I have no trouble believing). That is certainly the impression that at least 4 of us got, and that’s everyone I spoke to about the panel; I would be surprised if we’re the only ones who got that impression.

      I suspect it was careless wording on the speaker’s part, but this kind of careless wording is the problem. We need to not be lazy about this shit.

  • the sole male panellist reported that To Kill A Mockingbird made him ~understand~ racism

    In his defence: while he did initially say this, he later reworded and clarified when challenged about it. He later said that Mockingbird helped him not so much to understand racism as begin to recognise and put a name to something that he had not – given his background – directly encountered at that stage of his life, and of course could not have experienced himself.

    Which brings me back to the point I raised on the panel: this is a discussion that needs to happen at different levels, for different audiences. There is a place – I do think there *has* to be a place – for 101 (or 201, or 301, etc…) versions of the discussion, whether this be ‘starter’ books like Graceling or this year’s Personal is Political panel (or, hey, even Dollhouse: however much I found it excruciating, I don’t doubt that there are some people out there who found it uncomfortable and eye-opening in a useful way). Not everyone is starting from the same level of knowledge or experience; plenty of people are arguing in good faith; and no-one is immune to making mistakes.

    This is not, of course, to say that people who experience such oppressions directly, and/or well-educated allies, are under any obligation to politely explain the 101 stuff every time the topic is raised.

    I’ll leave it there, because it looks like you’re taking a lot of flak on twitter this evening. I just wanted to say that it was great to meet you, and that I hope we can put together a less white Personal is Political II for next time!

    • Yes, you’re right. He did acknowledge the problems with his wording. I will amend my post. However, overall his attitude was still very cookie-seeking and derailing from the conversation the rest of us were having, which is the bigger problem I wanted to point to (but probably could have worded better).

      I completely agree with the need for 101-level discussions. It’s where all of us start, at some point, and I’m sure I’m not immune from needing 101-level stuff pointed out to me, especially regarding oppressions/prejudices I don’t experience. I unfortunately find dealing with 101-level stuff I do experience quite tiresome. I have heaps of admiration for the people who persistently speak out at the 101 level.

      I think there are (or have been) some panels at Wiscon that explicitly identify themselves as not 101 panels, which might be something to consider on any future Personal is Political panels (which I dearly hope happen) if we want to spend the majority of our time discussing 201, 301, etc stuff.

      Hahaha Twitter, oh my.

  • A lot of wince-inducing stuff, however:

    “For people who don’t speak English as a first language – your English is VERY GOOD!”

    I imagine I’m missing some context here, but as someone who occasionally speaks publicly and professionally in a second language, I would interpret that statement as a compliment, be almost pathetically grateful for it, and am not quite sure why anyone would object. When you’re learning a language at a high level you sometimes become paradoxically less confident in your accent and general accuracy. Any feedback, however brief, that confirms you’re communicating your points in an intelligible and articulate fashion, is fantastic. What you presumably think of as being patronising is almost certainly greatly appreciated.

    • It comes with a lot more baggage when it’s said by native-English-speakers to people who speak English as a second (or third, fourth, etc) language. Everyone I have spoken to who has been subjected to this phrase finds it annoying, patronising, repugnant. So do not assume that *I* am the one misreading reactions to it.

      Here are some reasons why, which I hope I am representing correctly (again, these come from quite a few people I know):

      – It actually is really patronising when the person in question is very good – nay, fluent – at English. Lavie and Aliette and Rochita – and, to my knowledge, everyone else on that panel – are fluent and have been for a long, long time. They don’t need their backs patted.

      – English isn’t an optional extra for a lot of people around the world. They are required to learn English to get by in the international world, because English is the lingua franca. Congratulating them like they’re great students, the way we are when we deign to learn other languages, is ignoring the part where we force them to be good at English by dominating the world with our language and treating people like lesser humans when they don’t speak it (or don’t speak it well, or don’t speak it with the “right” accents).

      – This is the most important aspect, as far as I know. We native-English-speakers say this kind of thing a lot. A lot. All the fucking time. Non-native-speakers get it on a daily basis, sometimes. Which starts to look like we assume that foreign people (typically non-white foreign people, although not always – see Eastern Europe) are not likely to be good at English, therefore always need to be congratulated when they are. It looks like we are surprised and shocked every time that brown person opens their mouth and excellent English comes out. Why the fuck are we shocked by this? After all, as I said above, we require people to speak English; why is it a surprise when they do? It also comes back to the patronising part. Do we assume they are not intelligent enough to learn English? That their foreign-ness prevents them from speaking English as well as we do? I know a lot of this is not what we intentionally, actively think, but it is the nasty nest of assumptions resting beneath our pleasant, oh-so-complimentary surprise and we need to acknowledge it. And then stop doing it. You think you’re being nice but you’re actually being a dick.

      • Hmm.

        Well I’ll go on being pleasantly surprised when French people say nice things about my French.

      • Actually, it’s quite insulting to those of us who speak it as a first language as well. ;)

        • Yes, and that. I’m sorry for forgetting about first-language English speakers getting this shit too.

      • Andrew, to sum it up from my point of view: it’s nice to be told you speak very well when you’re still a student and are still learning (as I am, say, in Spanish or Vietnamese). This, I think, is where you come from with your French.
        However, when you’re like me (or Rochita, Lavie or Nir, though I mostly speak from my own experience)–when you have been close to bilingual for over ten years; when you’re better at English than some native speakers you know; and when you’ve been professionally *published* in English–then no, I’m sorry, I don’t need to be told my English is very good. At this stage it’s an insult to remark on the fact that I’m a non-native speaker, because that distinguishes me from native speakers for no particular reason.
        (think about it. Do you want to be told that your *English* is very good? I’d feel bloody insulted if I were told by French people that my French was very good)

        (there’s also the whole assumption that if you look “foreign” by UK/US standards, you can’t speak English properly, but that’s another problem)

        • Thanks for explaining your point of view. I’m probably a little more advanced with my French than you give me credit for, but I get rusty and therefore very jittery when speaking it in a formal context. Perhaps I’m just attention-seeking, but I seize on those crumbs of encouragement when, for example, native French speakers are fooled into thinking that I’m German or, perhaps, on a very good day, even Belgian (ie, they can tell I’m not French, but have trouble tagging my accent as obviously English).

    • Oh, you turd. I’m a non-native speaker and you know what? My English is better than most native-speakers’. I’m more literate than most people who exclaim at me “Oh gosh! Your English is so good.” It’s insulting and patronizing every time.

      You don’t really get it. In fact, given that you appear to be a classic privilege-denying bullshit-spewing cock I would guess you will never get it. That much of the world speaks English is a result of imperialism (which yes, you clueless sack of suck, is ongoing).

      • Right…

        And it couldn’t just be a difference of interpretation, a difference of opinion, a nuanced viewpoint shaped by my personal skills and experience as a dedicated language learner? It has to be the usual toss about privilege? There has to be a foul-mouthed ad hominem rant in place of reasoned argument?

        You’re making a sack of assumptions about me, and you “appear to be” more bigoted than the very people you claim to despise.

        • Do not call her bigoted for being angry at racist assumptions. Do not ever.

          You continue to completely miss the point that you being complimented on your French is completely and utterly different to people being complimented on their English in the situations outlined by myself and Aisha and Aliette and Requires Hate above. I was giving you the benefit of the doubt, ie thinking you were the well-meaning stripe of ignorant. (btw, the fact I can do this and not get angry? My privilege as a white English speaker.) But you’ve made it quite clear with this comment – “The usual toss about privilege?” are you fucking serious? – that you’re ignorant and a dick. Stop talking.

          • My point of view is simply that of a language learner who can see why a certain compliment might have been paid. I admitted from the outset that I was short of context. Whereupon I was called, oh let’s see, “turd”, “clueless sack of suck” and “privilege-denying bullshit-spewing cock”.

            Now, I’m sure this delightful person is a good friend of yours, but can you see why that sort of thing might get me just a little bit snippy? A little bit terse?

            My argument/defence would be that actually a lot of the assumptions you make about English speakers can also be laid at the door of French speakers. The French are just as privileged and entitled as the English, and for many of the same reasons. Perhaps those French audiences are patronising me when they compliment my French. Perhaps I should get annoyed about it. Perhaps it’s not the same thing at all. But I still think it’s close enough that I made a reasonable point, and probably didn’t deserve to be called a “bullshit-spewing cock” of any kind, least of all a “classic privilege-denying” one.

            You were talking about public speaking, and that’s a terrifying thing for many people, regardless of whether they’re speaking their first language. The situation you outline above is just not the same as saying “Gosh, well done for speaking jolly good English” to a tourist buying a postcard. For every ESL or EFL writer quivering with indignation at the condescension in that situation, I’d lay good money that there would be another couple thinking: “Thank God, I did OK.”

            I hope we understand each other a little better now.

            • And yet here you are, comparing French attitudes towards the English to English/other Westerner attitudes towards non-white and non-Western peoples. I certainly understand that you don’t understand a single thing any of us have tried to tell you.

              • Ah, the people concerned were non-white/non-western? Then that is the context I missed. Apologies.

                I even typed, but deleted for length, an anecdote about French privilege. No doubt you’ll have heard this before, but the French government once claimed French kids were intellectually superior to Algerian children because the French scored higher on IQ tests… neglecting to adjust for the fact that the tests in question were written in French.

                • This is what I said in my post:

                  And Lavie Tidhar reports that after the non-Anglophone SF panel (which featured non-Anglophone panellists), the following “compliment” was given: “For people who don’t speak English as a first language – your English is VERY GOOD!”

                  You even quoted part of that.

                  And then apparently ignored much of the comments you received from, idk, everyone, but in my own – the first you got – I said: “Which starts to look like we assume that foreign people (typically non-white foreign people, although not always – see Eastern Europe) are not likely to be good at English”

                  I don’t know how you could read all the comments you received and assume we were only talking about white Western Europeans.

                  So uhhhhhh.

                  • Non-Anglophone sums up huge portions of Western Europe, let alone the world. Given that elsewhere you’d posted about the lack of non-white people on panels, I really think I can be forgiven for not realising you were talking about non-white / non-western panellists.

                    Again, apologies.

                    • You can be forgiven for not realising.

                      You haven’t yet apologised for being a dick about it.

        • Bigoted against what? Clueless snots? First-worlders? Anglophones? Ohhh, is it white men I’m bigoted toward today? I love that. Carry that badge loud and proud, quite honestly. Why if I had my way I’d shoot white men with paintball guns on sight!

          And it couldn’t just be a difference of interpretation, a difference of opinion, a nuanced viewpoint shaped by my personal skills and experience as a dedicated language learner?

          I’m saying your experience and viewpoint are worthless, talking penis. I’m invalidating it. I’m invalidating you, because you don’t have a clue and you show no hint of wanting to acquire one. I’m invalidating you because you’re an ethnocentric self-important turdstain who has been dismissing people’s marginalization by imposing your own gloss of privilege on it.

          See, it’s natural for non-Anglophones to assume you–a white Anglophone–are likely to speak no other language, or if you do, then you’ll do it poorly. That’s because you don’t have to learn any other language. There’s no pressure. You can go anywhere and bark in your native language, and bark louder if you feel your every whim isn’t being catered to (yes, I assume you’re a fuckwad tourist when you travel, what you’ve been saying reinforces this assumption). You will be, at the very least, understood. Nobody’ll judge your command of English or your accent. You have a global privilege, even though of course since you’re an entitled, spoiled crust of excrement you don’t want to confront that fact and unpack.

          Non-Anglophones don’t have this privilege. When we open our mouth we’re judged according to how we speak English, not how we speak our native languages. You on the other hand have a natural, unearned advantage built on a history of colonialism. That you don’t have to deal with the same shit I do regarding spoken language is you benefiting from a history of (and for that matter, ongoing) oppression, slavery, and exploitation. When a white Anglophone tells me “oh, you speak English so well!” they disregard this history, and ignore the fact that I have to speak their language just to get by. They are also disbelieving that someone like me could possibly handle English as well as I can, or that I must be an exception among my ethnic group. I’ve fucking lost count of the times people’ve told me on the Internet I can’t possibly be who I say I am because, my goodness, my English is too good. Everything about this has a dynamic of racist dismissal to it, and you know what? You’re contributing to it. Well done, racist fuckstick.

          Of course you don’t care about any of this, you just give a shit about your own widdle feelings being hurt. Go on, have a good cry and fellate yourself. If nothing else, that’ll shut you up and we won’t have to hear you oink anymore.

  • I can speak broken english if I try hard enough. It’s a gift. You want me speak broken?

    But honestly, I also get the “oh wow, you’re dutch is pretty good,” comment and I’ve lived in The Netherlands for more than ten years. It usually makes me go: duh…uh…yeah…what do you want me to say? I can also do broken Dutch if you want…

    Now, if someone Filipino told me I spoke Filipino really well, I’d probably smack that person.

    The idea that people from non-anglophone countries (and in particular people who don’t look like they are european or american) can’t speak English properly is a total stereotyped image.

    Personally, I find it condescending and patronizing. I come from a third world country but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

  • Later on this panel, the discrepancy between a very pricey hotel and the regular people of Hong Kong was described as an embodiment of Ying-Yang.

    WTF.

    I think that I’m going to have to share this with some fellow HKers. It’ll be grand.

  • […] at a humorous monologue. The Twitter reactions speak for themselves but Alex Dally MacFarland summarises the monologue […]

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