Putting the world in WorldCon

Look! It's a post in English!

Mary Robinette Kowal linked to this statistical analysis of Hugo winners past, posted by Aidan Walsh: http://aidanrwalsh.com/2015/04/16/whose-rocket/

At the end of which, Aidan commented: "Nationality really surprised me. Unfortunately I expected women to be poorly represented, but I didn’t realise how overwhelmingly American it was. (maybe naivety on my part!)"

And Mary commented: "Wow. We really need more world in WorldCon."

And I rolled my eyes.

Yes, there is an American bias in the Hugo awards. There is an American bias at cons in general. In fact I would argue that Science Fiction*, as we think of it today, is at its core an American genre. Other cultures and other languages contributed to the foundation of Science Fiction, and I do not downplay the importance of creators such as Jules Verne, Karel Čapek or Stanisław Lem. But the current fandom culture represented at cons, especially those cons more inclusive of film, television, gaming and comics, is a product of American consumerism no less than it is of literature. There are influences running both in and out of this American culture: Japanese anime, manga and cosplay; Belgian graphic novels; British television – and nonetheless, it is American. Science Fiction is like Jazz music: it has roots outside of America, it is produced autonomously outside of America, but no discussion or history of it can be complete without America. (I would LOVE for you to argue with me about this. Any discussion is bound to be fascinating.)

Americans love diversity. They crave it. But like all humans, they need incentive to stray out of their comfort zones. For non English speakers, the incentive is there: learn English, learn to connect to American culture, or you are missing out on the dominant global culture. For English speakers**, it is just far too easy to remain within the boundaries of what is produced in English, and it takes special people to make the effort to grapple with something that is truly different and new to them. Only about 2 to 3 percent of books published in English are translated from other languages. In other countries, as many as 40% of books published may have been translated from English. The flow of cultural ideas is not equal. Language is not the only barrier: there are more insidious differences, such as what we consider to be good in literature, or what we consider to be literature at all. When WorldCon wants to include "more world", it may want more colors on the palette, more flavors in the stew, but it probably would not welcome a full upheaval and redefinition of what is Science Fiction.

People who write Science Fiction in other countries and languages tend to fall into one of two categories: either they are so strong in their own culture, that there's a gap keeping most of the dominantly American fandom from appreciating their work; or else their writing is an attempt to emulate American Science Fiction, even pander to it, in which case they are liable to be derivative and just not very good. It's a rare work indeed that is both inherently excellent and travels easily between cultures without bowing to one or the other. Non-Americans are conditioned by necessity to be more accepting towards American culture, than Americans are towards other cultures, for all the good will and intentions. In other words, chances are higher that a non-American will spontaneously like something American, than that an American will like something non-American. It's a simple matter of exposure.

As a non-American, non-Anglo who semi-regularly attends the World Fantasy Convention, and attended the last WorldCon, I am aware that organizers and most of the fan community think it would be really cool if these conventions had more cultural and national variety in them, and genuinely believe they would go out of their way to implement special measures to ensure this variety. I don't mean to disparage or hurt the feelings of people whom have been nothing but warm and welcoming towards me, but it's a bit like a convention of fish wishing they could get more mammals interested and involved. And then when the occasional dolphin attends, instead of asking it about what it's like to be a dolphin, they stick it on a panel with crustaceans, corals, and other non-fish, and ask them all what the water is like out there on the Serengeti.

I don't know if that metaphor made any sense. But my feelings at "world" conventions have always been a bit confusing to me, and tied up with lots of issues and questions about my own identity. I am no more a typical Israeli than a dolphin is a typical mammal. That is, I am unquestionably an Israeli and only an Israeli, as far as citizenship, where I was born and raised, where I now live my life. But I can attend Worldcons and World Fantasy because I am fluent not only in English, but in the CULTURE of fandom, which is predominantly English-speaking and American. I am frustrated when I feel I am being reduced to my nationality only, because I believe I have so much more to contribute that is not nationality related.

For perspective's sake: when I participate in Israeli cons, the kinds of panels that are offered to me reflect my strengths and areas of experience: panels on YA or children's literature, on small publishing, on trendy sub-genres, on girls' sexuality in classic children's fantasy, on parenting in the Geek community, etc. But when I'm placed in programming for WFC/WorldCon, I nearly always find myself being expected to represent my foreigness.** I've had to explain time and time again that the fact that I come from Israel does not make me a good authority on Israeli SF: I translate TO Hebrew, not FROM Hebrew, and honestly, I'm not very well read in current Israeli SF for adults. In Israel I'm the YA person, and I love it; in the USA I feel like I'm expected to be the Israeli cultural attache, and I'm just no up to the job.

I feel that WFC/WorldCon programmers find it difficult to see beyond my nationality, and place me on generic panels that are not about translation/language or coming from another country. Partly this is due to the fact that they need people to fill up spots on the few panels that are conceived as being about the world, and I respect that. But why do world perspectives have to be relegated only to their own panels? Why can't they be included in "normal" panels that are just about what they are about?

So what am I saying here? I am saying that OF COURSE the Hugos are dominated by Americans. This should be of no surprise to anyone. I am also saying that if you truly want more world in your WorldCon, it will require conscious effort, not only to attract and encourage fans and writers from other countries to attend, but to actually listen to them on their own terms when they arrive. Stop with the tokenism and the pigeonholing. Don't cram all of your foreigners onto special panels for and about foreigners – just as you wouldn't (or shouldn't) relegate women only to panels about gender, and POCs only to panels about race. Not only does it rub our noses in the fact of our being outsiders, it makes it far too easy for the insiders to skip our panels for lack of interest, and not really expose themselves to us at all…

People like me, who are comfortable in more than one culture, can serve as bridges and connectors. We bring a different perspective just by being who we are. But not if we're cordoned off and observed from a distance as alien objects. Non-Americans who come to WorldCons do so because we love science fiction and fantasy just as much as Americans do. We want to participate, not to be held up as examples of difference. I'm afraid that too often, the programming, while well intentioned, is inadvertently alienating – the opposite of what it purports to achieve.


* Much less so fantasy, which is heavily rooted in British tradition.

** I'm not conflating Americans with English speakers. Other English speaking countries have the advantage of a common language, so there are less obstacles to cultural exchange with America, which is why there have been British and Canadian winners of Hugo awards. But the obstacles are there nonetheless, as witnessed by authors who fail to "cross the pond"; just ask Malorie Blackman, David Almond, Jaqueline Wilson, Morris Gleitzman or other superstars in their own countries who didn't quite make it in America. My argument is that Americans are even more insular than English speakers of other nationalities.

*** At my first WFC, in Calgary, I was assigned to moderate a panel called "Location, Location, Location", a panel for authors on how they choose the settings of their books. I am not an author and have never chosen a setting. But looking at the original list of participants slated for the panel, the rationale for choosing me was clear: we were all non-Americans, that is, we came from PLACES.

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17 תגובות על Putting the world in WorldCon

  1. I have so much love for this post. Thank you, thank you for writing it.

  2. Brendan הגיב:

    In one of the 'fixing the Hugos' discussions going on, I suggested that nominations be taken from people who attended other counties Nat cons, making the awards presented at 'World'con truly representitve of the world.

    • gilibug הגיב:

      I see several problems with this. One is that attendees are even less likely to have read the eligible works, if they rely on translations for their reading. (The reason I don't vote for the Hugos is that I never feel I've read enough to form an honest opinion). The other problem is that not all countries have a single national con that everyone agrees represents their fandom. You'd have to start defining which cons are eligible, which will undoubtedly ruffle lots of feathers and make things even more complicated than they already are…

      • Brendan הגיב:

        Don't worry, I am not taking it to the next rules meeting for inclusion. It's a 'crazy' idea to deal with the 'World' in WorldCon which all too often seems like World Series Baseball. ie. The world is the US and Canada.

      • gilibug הגיב:

        It's not a crazy idea, Brendan. At the very least, these discussions are valuable. I don't need to agree with you entirely in order to benefit from your brainstorming! And WorldCon IS full of people from all over the world. Especially when it's held in Europe, so that it's not probitively expensive for Europeans to travel and attend. I brought my whole family to London, and there were more than 70 other Israelis – enough for my kids to find playmates in Hebrew! But, at the three panels on translation that I was on, it was quite clear that internationals (for lack of a better catch-all) were attending more than English speakers. At one of the panels someone actually asked the audience to raise their hand if English was their second language, and all but about three of the audience raised theirs. I'm glad for everyone who attends; I've loved meeting the other internationals who are with me on these panels. But I wish that speakers of only English were more open to the rest of the world.

  3. Laurie Mann הגיב:

    Good ideas. Getting more writers/fans from other countries is fine and we're working on that for

  4. rantalica הגיב:

    I have to tell you not all of us foreigners get treated that way. I volunteered for the first time to be on the program at a Worlcon in London. And was asked to be a moderator on a panel about cursing. And while I did wonder how they knew I love to curse in my own language, there was nothing Croatian about that panel. (I acutally asked to have sth Croatian but was too late for that) – All the stuff I was alternate for had nothing to do with my being Croatian either

  5. BT הגיב:

    Very good points, well made – lots to think about here and thank you

  6. Shauna הגיב:

    Fantastic post. Thank you so much.

  7. vnehring הגיב:

    Most Euros involved in soccer hate that the World Cup includes so many "unqualified" teams. You know, teams from foreign places. But who can soon forget the Senegal-France match? To be a WorldCon, the Con needs to travel the world.

  8. drplokta הגיב:

    Of course the Worldcon does travel the world. In the past eight years it has been in Yokohama, Montreal, Melbourne and London as well as four US cities. That's three non-North-American cities and two non-English-speaking cities. And there's a bid for Helsiniki in 2017, that's being voted on this year.

  9. Sam Lubell הגיב:

    Yes, but look at it from the point of view of the programming people (and for that matter the audience). there are plenty of people there who could talk about YA fiction. But probably just you who know anything about Israeli SF/fantasy. . So whatever information you can provide is probably more than they would get otherwise.

    • gilibug הגיב:

      There's a fallacy built in to what you've just written. Who are the people who are interested in Israeli SF/fantasy? Almost inevitably, people who have a vested interest in Israel. That's a limited group who already have some knowledge about what's going on. Panels on "what's new in Israeli SF/Fantasy" are bound to be rather repetitive, and you'll see the same faces again and again. And those aren't very exciting panels. Whereas on a panel that's devoted to different kinds of people exploring a topic, as opposed to grouping similar people together by category, I can offer a fresh perspective, and more people are likely to attend because who knows what will happen, what new spark will fly from rubbing new ideas together?

      Allow me to quote here, from some tweets twittered by my friend Kathleen Jennings earlier today (or it may have been yesterday, in Australia:)

      I still remember YA authors at the @BrisWritersFest being SO HAPPY not to be on "the YA panel", but on eg the WW1 or the cricket panel
      It seems so easy to always have The Non-English Panel, The YA Talk, etc.
      But having crime, history, SF and romance writers on the same panel about research, or YA, comic & news people talking cricket-in-books…
      … was So Much More Fun! And interesting, and cross-introduced readers, and everyone had a good time!
      Shout out to @BrisWritersFest and @AWMonline's Genrecon for those examples of unpigeonholing (it is a word now)
      It starts being about ideas instead of labels.
      It's nice to get all the non-locals in one place for welcome & identification. Ditto the horror writers and illustrators.
      But I want to be on a panel with, say, @gilibugg and @Thomas_Novelist about linguistic, literal & visual translation/transposition of story
      Rather than ONLY on the same good vs bad cover art panel, at which no-one can be entirely honest without causing offence*
      *and actually, dear conventions, could we occasionally replace this with a crash-course/masterclass in basic design/typography by an expert?

      She's @tanaudel on twitter, well worth the follow!

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