Nita, student-and-friend, and I attended WisCon #32, held in Madison, WI May 23 – 26. WisCon is billed as “The World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention” and offers fiction readings, academic panels, panels on various works of sci-fi/fantasy and on issues of interest to writers, readers, fans, gamers, and more: I attended an evening reading from the guests of Honor* and panels titled “Elves and Dwarves: Racism in Fantasy,” Sexual Politics in Cherryh’s Chanur Series,” “Strong or Stroppy?: Annoyingly Feisty Female Protagonists,” “What Can’t We Forgive?,”** and “Narrative and Politics.”** I wanted to go to many, many more, but didn’t for three reasons: first, so many great-sounding programs were offered concurrently; second, since something like 95% of speculative fiction folk seem to be night owls (not me), panels were offered past midnight (I wanted to go to one on Shirley Jackson, but it was from midnight to 1:15!); and third, the convention hotel was in the heart of Madison’s funky shopping district and its remarkable Saturday Farmers’ Market.**** Oh, there was also a lot of knitting to be seen at the con. I was in heaven.
One of WisCon’s claims to fame is that it yearly presents the James TipTree, Jr. award for “gender-exploring science fiction.” The award is named for the pen name of Alice Sheldon, who as part of an amazing life (really, click the link and read about her), wrote acclaimed (and gender-exploring) sci-fi under the name Tiptree from the mid 1960s to mid ’80s, all the while keeping her true gender completely secret. The award is the only speculative fiction award (including the Hugo and the Nebula) that has a cash prize.***** The award is supported with bake sales (how cool is that) and a fabulous and funny auction held yearly at WisCon, which I attended.
And now, some pics:
Nita, me, and Susan Palwick. Suzy McKee Charnas took the picture. Susan explained to Suzy that she’d taught me writing and I’d taught Nita, so we were three generations together. I then said to Susan that that made Nita the Maiden, me the Mother, and Susan the Crone. I immediately thought to myself, “shit, I just called Susan a crone!” but she LOVED it and said she’d been trying to claim wise woman/crone-ism and that’s one reason she took up knitting. Nita spent the rest of the con addressing Susan as “grandma” and then whispering to me, “I can’t believe I just called Susan Palwick ‘grandma’!” Nita also called me “mom” several times, which was much less cute because while Susan is NOT old enough to be Nita’s grandmother, I’m certainly old enough to be her mother.
This is me (obviously) and Jenn, who was a fellow student at Clarion West. We haven’t seen each other in 8 years! Jenn is just finishing up her first year as a professor down in Texas. She gives hello hugs that make you feel like the most important person on earth. I also had a chance to chat with Kameron Hurley, who also attended Clarion with us and who has just signed a trilogy contract.
Nita and Susan waiting for the Dessert Salon, a ticket-only event held before the guest of honor speeches. Susan is wearing a beautiful burnt velvet shirt she got (for free) at the WisCon Gathering clothing exchange. Is this a cool con or what? She’s also wearing a pin I bought for her as a thank-you for how very much she’s meant to me and done for me in the past 10 years that I’ve known her. She has pics of the pin here (scroll down).
The Dessert Salon ticket entitles one to 2 desserts;****** here are our combined yummies before we plunged in.
This year’s WisCon did have 2 unpleasant incidents. First, about 50 people caught a pretty virulent stomach flu (which they are calling Wischolera on their blogs– how can you not love these people?). The cause is unknown and the illness was even written about in the local newspaper. Unfortunately, Susan came down with it as soon as she got home. Second, and more virulent, if you ask me, a young woman attended WisCon for the sole purpose of using her cell phone camera to covertly take pictures of people she deemed unacceptable in some way — fat, disabled, ill, differently-gendered, etc. — and posted a vicious blog entry with those pictures. She also insulted people’s children. You can read about it, including some of the young woman’s vicious text, which was later taken down, here. The young woman (a 26 year old graduate student, certainly old enough to know better) also posted to a forum called the Something Awful Sychophant Squad, which is evidently primarily young men who enjoy anonymously writing and posting unbelievably cruel and tasteless comments and pics about rape and other violences against women, people of color, the disabled, gender exploration, homosexuality, etc. I could have happily lived my entire life without viewing their content. Anyway, they went to town with the original offending pics/comments and then trolled the web for other WisCon pics. The whole things has turned into a blogosphere brouhaha. Others have written much more cogently and at length about the issue than I care to at this time, but the main points are 1) by her cruel and covert actions, the young woman violated a convention that has for decades been a very safe space for people who are often made to feel as “others” in their daily lives, and 2) the young woman herself has documented on the Internet her own struggles with an eating disorder, which makes her in some senses an eternal victim of her own hate and explains, but does not excuse, her actions to some extent, and 3) given the fact that once we put something on the Internet it leaves our control and can continue “floating around” for years, the young woman has damaged herself much more than she’s damaged her victims (what happens when a potential employer Googles her?). I also want to say the the WisCon folks and others who have blogged and commented about this have, while expressing an understandable anger, been astonishingly gracious overall. And I guess that’s the real point to be learned by this — many, many speculative fiction fans and feminists are folks who often don’t fit into the neat molds presented to us by our culture and that lifelong experience, rather than making them bitter, makes them understanding. I’m proud to be associated with that.
Over the years, I’ve been to fiction conventions, RPG gaming conventions, Star Trek and other fan conventions, and academic conventions — including those with a feminist bent — and I have NEVER been to an event as open, as laid back, as interesting, and as welcoming as WisCon. Madison is a 6 hour drive from Storm Lake, WisCon is held every year, and HELL YEAH, I’m going back!
**In both of these, Susan Palwick was on the panel
***Susan Palwick is a good friend and mentor and an amazing writer. And I chatted with Pat Murphy and Candas Jane Dorsey, two of my teachers at Clarion West 2000, and Suzy McKee Charnas used my camera to take a group pic of me, Susan, and Nita and yeah, I’m pretty much just name-dropping now and have I mentioned that I’m a big speculative fiction reader and a complete dork?
****I bought two pairs of Keen shoes, a couple of books from a cool feminist bookstore called A Room of One’s Own, a bumper sticker, a handbag, and lots and lots of ethnic food.
*****At this year’s WisCon, The Carl Brandon Society announced that it too gives cash awards. The Society is named after a fake African American sci-fi fan that several authors created in the late 1950s. Brandon was an active writer in the fan community and many people claimed to have met him, before the hoax was revealed in the 1960s.
******There were leftovers. I had 2 more afterwards. And I’m not ashamed — the pears poached in port with pistachios (a very alliterative dessert, I now realize) was fabulous.