A Love Leter to Can Con

A Love Letter to Can ConBy Derek Newman-Stille

One of the things being talked about in academic circles currently is the issue of the “all male panel”, which happens far too often. I often expect academic conferences to be ahead of a lot of public conferences, but was increadibly excited when I heard Can Con planners talking about the issue of the all male panel earlier this year and was even more excited when I arrived and saw that it was already in practice. In all of the panels I attended and presented in there were panelists who identified as male and female. This is yet another reminder of the welcoming environment that Can Con strives each year to create. 
For those of you who don’t know, Can Con is an annual speculative fiction conference held in the Ottawa region with a particular focus on literary SF. I have attended Can Con for a number of years and have seen it grow in numbers. A growth in numbers always evokes an anxious response from me because I worry that the sense of camaraderie and family will be lost as the numbers increase, but Can Con consistently excites me because even as the numbers grow, the welcoming environment grows with those numbers as more people are invited into this familial environment. There is no ubiquity that comes with the growth, but rather Can Con makes sure to invite the individual to express themselves in diverse ways. 
I think part of what makes Can Con so welcoming (especially of diversity) is the excitement by the organizers to create panels that explore the diversity of people creating Canadian Spec Fic, reading it, and being represented in its pages. Can Con organizers make sure to have exciting panels on representations of disability, neurodiversity, sexuality, gender diversity, ethnicity, and a range of identities as part of their planning and they consistently are able to attract exciting panelists who are writing these SF representations of identities, are people who identify with these identities, and people who are invested in exploring what these identities mean. But the really exciting part is the reactions of the audience to the panels on identities because these panels are consistently packed and the audience questions are insightful…. and I think this is part of that culture of diversity inspired by the Can Con organizers. It filters through into the audience and whereas at other conferences where there is the one token “here are the people who aren’t talking about the white, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, male” panel the audience is often not as geared toward excitement about the exploration of identities, because of the plethora of panels on diverse identities at Can Con and because of the welcoming and encouraging support of the organizers, Can Con tends to have more positive and excited audience responses to diversity. 
Why do I write a love letter to Can Con? Because there is a certain environment to the conference that allows me to feel refreshed, inspired, and excited after every conference. I often throw myself on as many panels as possible because I love to participate in Can Con, but I don’t feel exhausted after the conference as one would expect from all the work put into it. Instead, I feel energized, excited, and inspired to do some writing, reading, and (most importantly) fan boying about Speculative Fiction. I have been watching the various love letters to Can Con come rolling in through Facebook, Twitter, and through my email inbox and I think that I can say that this sense of camaraderie is shared by others who attend the conference and that they are experiencing the bittersweet combination of excitement and mourning that comes with having a great time and realising that we all have to wait another year for this exciting experience.

If you haven’t checked out Can Con, you can find out more about it by visiting http://www.can-con.org and I hope to see you all there.

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The Ad Astra Experience: A Reflection on Ad Astra 2015

By Derek Newman-Stille

As an educator who engages in fandom, I see fandom as a teaching space, by which I mean it is a space for developing new ways of looking at the world. Ad Astra is nominally a Canadian SF writer’s conference, but there is some magic in the slippages between writer and fan, and in my case between academic, writer, and fan. 

I wanted to be on as many panels as possible because I feel that as an academic I have a duty to share knowledge and experience wherever possible. So, being on panels allowed me the space to share some of my ideas and to learn from the ideas and perspectives of others. Having said this, many of the most informative and educational experiences happen between panels, in those random hallway conversations and in breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with fascinating people.

I was on 8 panels this year: “The Classics – In Space and Beyond!”, “The Beldam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture”, “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star”, “The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature”, “Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer”, “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World”, “Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen”, and “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”. I had the opportunity to talk to a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds and interests and was fortunate  enough to share the experience with brilliant, wonderful panelists who varied from performance artists to authors to academics and, of course, fans. I was impressed by the incredible amount of enthusiasm and passion from all of the people involved, and I think this is the particular magic that comes from a mingling of people who come from varied perspectives to bring their delight and sense of wonder to this collective space.

“The Classics – In Space in Beyond!” in addition to having an amazing title and an exclamation mark (letting us know that we were DEFINITELY in for excitement) allowed for an exciting place for exploring something that I love to explore: adaptation. Texts can shift and change with time and with the interests of people, and this panel explored the notion of a “classic” text and how these classics could become platforms for changes that allow them to shift to include new ideas while maintaining their core, or become spaces where under-represented people can insert their voice or ideas. I have probably talked about this before, but I see fan fiction as an exciting potential space for playing with texts, for shifting them, changing them and asserting new ways of looking at them (as well as allowing for fan agency) and I see a lot of the adaptations of the classics as forms of fan fiction, explorations of new elements of texts and creative engagements. As a panel made up of performance artists, authors, and instructors of literature, we were able to explore the possibilities of investing new energies and new insights into classical texts through adaptation and also the potential dangers in adaptation.

For me, the real magic of the panel “The Bedlam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture” was the exploration of the power of books that feature witchcraft for empowering young people. Often these books feature young people who begin in a situation of powerlessness and gradually are able to shift their circumstances through magic. The wonder of this is that it illustrates to young people that they DO have magic, that they have an ability to change their world by words – not spells, but another form of words, those on the page. They learn that by reading and writing there is a power to challenge assumptions and to change the way we view our world. This type of power results in things like the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that began as a fan group for Harry Potter and changed into a group that takes the Harry Potter texts and uses them to change the world by empowering young people, encouraging them to help get books to those who can’t afford them, and generally by challenging the cultural assumption that young people can’t change their world. This is a special kind of magic – that of empowerment.

The beauty of the “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star” panel was the excitement of the audience, and, particularly, their desire to engage in those communication spaces that allowed for their voices to be shared with the world around them. Many of the attendees were interested in sharing their perspectives, their interests, and their understanding of speculative genres. This excitement underscores why i began blogging, podcasting, and running my own radio show – to provide a space for people to share their voices and their perspectives about the genre that they feel so passionate about and to encourage people to think about and interrogate the works they are reading. 

“The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature” blended a critique of the embedded ‘traditional’ ways that literature is often taught (which are often assumed to be the only ways of engaging with the process of teaching) with new ideas for approaching the process of teaching students about literature. We examined the idea of ‘pedagogy’ (teaching) itself and looked at what this means for our engagements with literature: what do we consider ‘teaching’?, what does teaching inside the classroom look like?, and, of course, my favourite question – how do we extend teaching literature beyond the walls of the classroom. I think that this last question occupied a lot of our time and concentration because many of us engage in the idea of teaching in diverse ways: through providing a space for students to think about how literature and life outside of the book interact with one another, through looking at literature as a medium of empowerment, through encouraging students to think critically about the texts in their lives, and through making ourselves figures who look for learning opportunities outside the classroom.

“Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer” extended the idea of hauntings to encompass an idea of the haunted, spectral space itself. We looked at traditional ghost narratives and how they develop to express cultural issues, representing sort of a cultural icon of our particular cultural preoccupations. Ghosts tie in with the subconscious and represent those things that we deny in our culture, the things that haunt us. We looked at the relationship of ghosts to the texts that they are presented in, whether through the descriptive power of literature or the CGI of film and television, and explored the diversity of ghost narratives and the idea that ghosts are presented in diverse ways in our cultural media to present diverse issues and understandings. Ghosts, as figures who represent that barrier between life and death, become figures who are surrounded by questions and come to embody the idea of questioning ideas themselves. It turns out that the “boo” of the ghost is actually an existential question. 

Of course, right after the ghosts panel, I was able to stay in that space of the undead for “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World” and have a chance to explore the figure of the zombie with two authors of zombie fiction and a costumer. We looked at the changes in the zombie narrative and the current diversity of narratives, while being aware that the zombie narrative in recent years has tended to be inclined toward the infected zombie (the zombie virus). The zombie narrative has been able to shift and change to express the fears, anxieties, and even desires that we have as a society… though when I talked about Claude Lalumiere’s descriptions of wiggling maggots in zombie kisses there were gags around the room (it is always awkward to talk about zombie romance before lunch). We also took the zombie beyond the page and film by talking about how people have used the image of the zombie to make cultural commentaries – through dressing as zombies to protest educational reforms to the CDC’s use of the zombie narrative to create a pandemic preparedness guide. The panel’s exploration was staggering… or maybe shambling… 

“Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen” allowed panelists to explore the shifts and changes that are perpetually happening in the superhero genre as well as the potentials and dangers in the transition from comics to film. The superhero was exposed to the Kryptonite of critique and through that process, like Star Labs, we were able to look at the superhero through new lenses and then turn that lens on the society that creates and needs its superheroes. We looked at the social conditions that make superhero narratives desirable and the changing social conditions that mean that we need to shift and change our superheroes to become representative and dynamic figures. We looked at the different possibilities that the comic book or film media represent and the way that these different media change the figure of the superhero and, by necessity, focus on different issues, needs, and desires. At the end, we were even able to sneak in a little discussion about ‘the gutter’ (the white space between the panels of a comic book) and the incredible creative work and insights that happen in the comic book when the audience has to fill in the narrative between panels. 

One of the highlights of the con for me was the final panel I was on, “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”, because we explored a particular type of fantasy that is generally considered absolutely the most “real” thing possible, and that is “normalcy”. We looked at the potential that the speculative genres have for illustrating that “normalcy” is itself a fiction, something created to embed certain groups in power and to suggest that other groups don’t have worth or value. This clearly hit home for some of the audience members because one member expressed his issues with the notion of changing SF to be inclusive. He told us that we were too disparaging of past SF that portrayed a white, straight, able-bodied male hegemony and expressed his concerns that if SF and other social media changed that he and other straight, white, able-bodied men would “become a minority”. I think this itself illustrates the power of SF to challenge those power structures and to illustrate that the structures that keep groups like straight, white, able-bodied men in power are themselves quite weak and that questions posed by minority groups can destabilize those structures, open new possibilities and fundamentally point out the insecurity surrounding the structures that situate one group as “normal” and therefore naturalize their power when in fact it is as constructed as any fantasy story.

Ad Astra would not have been such an amazing experience if it weren’t for the incredible insights, passions, and interest of the fans. I am so thankful for all of you fans who asked brilliant questions and brought up new ways of looking at the material. I am also extremely thankful for brilliant co-panelists and the co-panelists for these panels included people like Kate Storey, David Lamb, James Bambury, Gail Z Martin, Karen Dales, Gregory Wilson, Kari Maaren, Robert Boyczuk, Douglas Cockell, Erik Buchanan, Alisse Lee Goldenberg, Chris Warrilow,  Peter Prellwitz Dennis Lee, Derek Kunsken, Max Turner, Adam Shaftoe, Cathy Hird, and Charlotte Ashley. Authors, academics, musicians, biologists, podcasters, costume designers, a Wiccan priestess, fans, and a whole lot of people who blended these roles… this complicated mix of panelists made for some amazing interactions and really incredible discussions. 

I want to particularly thank Angela Keeley for all of her hard work at Ad Astra this year. She was both a great resource to presenters and her enthusiasm and interest in the topics of the con really encouraged presenters to be similarly excited, energetic, and engaged in their panels. 

I have to say that my favourite overheard line from the con was “Watch out: things tend to get derailed by the Klingon in the room”. I would imagine that unlike “the elephant in the room”, the Klingon in the room makes him or herself heard.

To discover more about Ad Astra, visit their website at http://www.ad-astra.org 

Sexist Con: Geek Gatekeeping and the Convention

By Derek Newman-Stille

The topic of geek gatekeeping has been discussed a lot recently, and I have previously discussed it in my post “My Cane is Not a Costume” https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/04/07/my-cane-is-not-a-costume-convention-exclusions-and-ways-to-think-about-oppression-at-cons/ , but I wanted to talk a bit about how the structures of fan conventions can sometimes add to the specific incidents of sexism that are perpetuated by fans.

Much as I did in my post “My Cane is Not a Costume”, I am not going to refer to the specific Convention that I am using as the case study for this experience because I believe that many of these issues can apply to numerous genre conventions and that we should look at geek gatekeeping as a whole, rather than direct attention at one specific con.

When I refer to “structures at fan convention”, I am referring to the overall planned events and actions of those representing the con. These set the tone by which fans react to others at the convention.

As in previous years at this convention, and as others have mentioned about fan conventions in general, there were the typical issues of sexual oppression. Women were leered at by men, propositioned by men, and quizzed by men about their knowledge about particular fandoms, creating an atmosphere of discomfort for women and issues that women had to deal with that men did not. Male fans showed a sense of entitlement to stare at, touch, and proposition women.

One of the structural issues I observed in microcosm was a “professional interviewer” on a panel for a television series that featured a post-apocalyptic world. The questions were divided along gender lines to reify ideas that women and men occupy different skills sets and try to suggest that women’s concerns are largely domestic. Male actors wee asked about their acting experience, about whether they are good with weapons and whether they shoot them in their lives off screen. Female actors were asked about romantic relationships in the show and about whether their characters are going to be having babies. Women were further asked about how emotionally harrowing it was to be on set all day and to deal with the charged emotional nature of the show. Despite the fact that one of the women questioned played a character who was an excellent sword-wielder, she was told by the interviewer “obviously you don’t use a weapon in real life”, inferring that it is more likely for a male actor to be interested in weapons use outside of the show than it is for a woman to do so. This dichotomous questioning first of all relegates women and men to different worlds and assumes that they cannot cross interests or experiences. Secondly, the types of questions asked of the actresses were focused on an assumed domesticity, vulnerability, and emotional nature, whereas the male actors were asked about questions of skill.

These types of questions shape a dichotomous view of gender that casts women in a peripheral role, even when they are, themselves, the people that fans are coming to see. When fans see this occurring at the official level, it reinforces the types of gender divisions and alienating of women that occurs at the fan level.

A strong example of geek gatekeeping being structurally created can be seen in the Cosplay shows, where identity is on display for all of those who are watching people perform in the costumes of their chosen characters. For this particular Cosplay show, an announcer was chosen who has reinforced the characterizing of women as sexual objects. Whenever women were on stage with little clothing, the announcer would leer at them and say in a sexual voice “I love my job.” This was not a singular event, but rather occurred every time a women was on stage with a costume that revealed her body shape. He at times would comically chase women across the stage as though stalking them… at least he and much of the audience seemed to consider it comical. But what concerns me is that this is not comical, and expressing laughter at his behavious entrenches the notion of considering women as sexual objects as a taken-for-granted norm and something to be laughed at, which is why fans assume that leering at women is both acceptable and comical and why several fans expressed the notion that “if they dress like that, I should have the right to stare”, “those costumes are distracting”, and “she could have taken more off than that”.

The announcer created a place where these characteristics are considered normative and not problematic. At times he also said things like “she had a nice bum”, “I love my job. All the pretty girls”, and “I am an old man and I get to be a creepy old man.” His entitlement to view women as sexual objects abstracts to the overall culture of viewing women as sexual objects and not as fans themselves.

Although I have only referred to a few select events, I hope to point to overall issues whereby fan conventions create or at least to reinforce a cultural environment of gendered oppression. Fan conventions are not solely responsible for geek gatekeeping or the oppression of women, but it is important for us as fans, as geeks, to be looking at the way that certain sexisms are reinforced and given cultural value.

 

My Cane is Not A Costume – Convention Exclusions and Ways to Think About Oppression at Cons

An editorial by Derek Newman-Stille

A Geek Diversity assemblage by Derek Newman-Stille

A Geek Diversity assemblage by Derek Newman-Stille

On a regular basis at speculative and other fan conventions, I get knocked around, shoved, pushed out of the way. People assume that because I am using a cane, I am taking up more than my fair space, after all, I have THREE whole legs on the ground (two legs and a cane). I hope this is because they assume that my cane is the equivalent to their lightsaber, a performative piece, a part of a costume… That is my hope.

However, I have seen issues of systemic ableism at cons. There have been recent discussions of the sexism that happens at cons, and I hope to add to that discussion by brining attention to other (perhaps associated) forms of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and ableism. Sexism still continues at cons. I just recently attended a con where a panelist referred to the only female person on a panel he was on as “little lady”, and I certainly see it in the ogling of women that happens constantly.

Some cons have started to create harassment policies, which, while a start, are still not addressing the underlying cultural issues where harassment is considered okay. Most of the people who engage in harassing behaviour don’t look at the harassment policy because they don’t think that they harass people. Harassment policies are an important first step toward creating a safe space for diversity, but we need to find further ways of creating and maintaining those safe spaces.

A lot of people who attend cons are people that, in their past, have been bullied, and I wonder if this has created a notion that “I am the person who is bullied, and therefore I can’t be bullying others”, which may lead to a lack of critical self questioning about “are my words or actions bullying or making others uncomfortable?”.  We can think about this collective act of being bullied as a way of teaching ourselves to be aware of the experience of oppression and how it plays out against individuals and groups of people and work toward creating an oppression-free space. After all, since we have been bullied, we should be able to empathize with others who have and are experiencing it now. A good step that we could take at cons would be to offer a panel that allows us to talk about bullying and the creative ways that we can work toward ending oppression. Rather than specifying types of bullying (since this often means that people who haven’t experienced that specific type of bullying won’t attend), a general discussion of bullying of fans can be discussed.

I have noticed a great deal of homophobia in the general mocking of queerness, homophobic language, and in the reaction, particularly of fans to males cosplaying as female characters – the reactions are those of disgust and censor. This year at a fan convention (I will leave off specifics here since I want this to be a general discussion, not an attack on a specific con), I attended the cosplay masquerade because I enjoy theatrical play…. But what I witnessed was a systemic “ewww” from a large number of audience members when the sexy woman in costume on stage revealed his very male face under his mask (I use “he” here because I don’t think the cosplayers were trans, I think they were just having some fun celebrating female characters). But there is an issue when the reaction to gender play is met with cries of “what the hell” by audience members… and this is tied to the sexist looking at women as objects of desire and the revelation that their object of desire is male under the mask or make up.

I have noticed ableism (discrimination against the disabled) in con staff at various cons telling people in wheelchairs that they can’t use the elevators closest to events because “it will let you cut in line”, in the number of people who move people in wheelchairs (literally pushing the chair of another person out of their way) or stand in front of them, and, personally, in the number of people who run into, push, or otherwise knock me or my cane to the ground. I noticed it at a recent con when I was told that I couldn’t sit on the ground off to the side because other people might want to stand there (despite the fact that I am sitting due to pain and the inability to stand much longer). I experienced it again when I set my coat on the edge of a table that was empty apart from a few pamphlets at the far side and empty water glasses around the cooler, so that I could adjust my cane to stop being in pain, and juggle the items I was carrying, only to have someone shove my coat to the floor. Even though I explained that I am disabled and in pain and just needed to set my coat down for a moment in the empty space at the corner of the table, I was told “I don’t care what your EXCUSE is. This is my table.”

Our society seems to have become one that believes that disability means “disability perks”, that somehow because the larger bathroom stall is marked with a disabled sign and the closest parking space has a disabled sign, that this means that disabled people are getting “perks”, “extras”, things that the able bodied don’t get. I think a lot of people forget that this is because we need more space to maneuver our slightly different bodies, we need closer spaces to keep our pain levels down or give us room to exit our vehicles by chair. Rather than paying attention to the needs of bodily difference, there is an assumption that “fair” means “the same”, without understanding that my “day’s activity” may cause me debilitating pain where an able-bodied person’s “day’s activity” won’t. I may need to sit. I may need to rest. I may need to not be pushed or shoved because these cause extra pain on a body that is already stretched to its tolerance limits so that I can enjoy the same con, share my experiences with other conventioners, and maybe even give some panels that will entertain.

I have talked a lot about my own experiences here, but I think we need to pay attention to the ways that we exclude, the ways that we accidentally make certain bodies uncomfortable, pained, or endangered… because most of these behaviours ARE ACCIDENTAL, most of them are not intended to be malicious but are rather the products of a society overall that has behaviours and attitudes that are sexist, racist, ableist, and homophobic. We can start to change this by being vigilant, by paying attention to the ways that our words or actions may exclude or oppress. We need to check ourselves AND OTHERS when they objectify women, try to claim that they know a culture better than the people who belong to it, make generalizations about race or ethnicity, make a space inaccessible, or make remarks that make GBLTQ people feel uncomfortable or threatened (all of which I have seen at cons).

There are genuine acts of kindness and support from our convention community – people have often held doors for me, pulled chairs from the stacks so I can sit, helped to respond to homophobic remarks by others, and these are things to be celebrated, acts of a community of bright, interesting, creative people who are working together to access that shared creative, brilliant, excited, fantastically geeky community of different individuals.

With all of our geeky enthusiasm, brilliance, and creativity, we can figure out ways to shift a culture that excludes or oppresses certain people. We can work together to shift some of these embedded ideas that privilege certain bodies at cons.

My cane is not a costume … and there is room for all of the assistive tech, attitudes, and thoughts needed to include diverse bodies AND all of our costume paraphernalia. Let’s think about some new ways that we can make our cons places of comfort for all of our expressions, needs, and interests.