Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Readercon: "Guess Who's Coming to Fairyland"

Since I asked y'all for ideas about this panel, I thought I should report back. I am tired but my memory won't get better later, so some sketchy comments.

The description, as a reminder:

Many fantasy and SF novels struggle with an issue that, at first glance, looks downright old-fashioned: interracial marriage. The races are non-human, and some of their problems are unique; for example, in Cheryl Brooks's Cat Star Chronicles, the near-extinct Zetithians must breed with other species or die out. Others face very familiar concerns such as being rejected by their families or peers. Their risk-taking is often rewarded with the birth of children who display enhanced or unusual abilities--though those children have their own concerns about not fitting in. How do these themes reflect and interact with real-world tensions around race, marriage, and culture?

Gwendolyn Clare, C.S.E. Cooney (leader), Victoria Janssen, Kate Nepveu, Joan Slonczewski.

The thing about this panel is that Joan Slonczewski is a biologist and has written SF exploring the possibilities of human-other relationships and reproduction, and so was more interested in the biological and practical, I guess, possibilities than the thematic questions posed by the description. And when it came to the thematic questions, I think a number of her statements could have been more considered, by which I mean the question period had two different people say to her, "OMG DON'T USE ALIENS AS METAPHOR FOR RACE OR A REPLACEMENT FOR RACIAL MINORITIES." In response she said no she hadn't meant that and discussed it a bit more, but I don't feel that the audience members misunderstood her initial statements.

Anyway. I was a little worried that I sucked all the oxygen out of the room early, and generally was talking more than appropriate. I'd wanted to lay out my basic position early, which was three-part: (1) race is a social construction, species is a biological classification [*], and therefore mapping one onto the other is a very tricky thing; (2) to the extent that cross-species characters were special and sparkly by virtue of their ancestry, that was calling on a problematic thing as discussed in my last post; but (3) it seemed more common for cross-species characters to instead mimic negative stereotypes about biracial people. But I'm not sure if that was the best thing to do to generate further conversation, it may have felt like it occupied the entire field.

[*] Joan pointed out the inadequacies of the traditional definition of "unable to reproduce" as a boundary on species, but I think it's fair to say in everyday usage, race and species are considered separate things (and should be).

I don't think anyone actually offered an example of a cross-species character being special and sparkly; the examples people offered were instead characters with one human parent who were more/better at X than humans but not as much as their non-human parent (Spock, Aragorn). We talked about always being in the midpoint as itself reflecting a misconception about interracial relationships, that you always get an averaging ("everyone will be beige in the future") rather than a more complex result. People talked a lot about Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, which was by the sounds of it is incredibly relevant; her books are getting ebook releases soon and I look forward to their availability in a format that makes it more likely that I will read them.

What else? I got to recommend Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series again (the main character is biracial and it's handled very well, and also they are just super fun). One of these days I will have time to update the booklog and they will be first in line. We didn't end up talking about In Great Waters at all, though I mentioned it to someone afterward (or The Broken Kingdoms, but that may be just as well because it would have involved major spoilers).

And I have just stared at the screen for a good five minutes and can't think of anything else interesting, so I'll just close by what we said when the mod asked how to avoid having cross-species characters be bad metaphors for race: don't make them metaphors for race at all. Have actual human races in your story and deal with race and racism through them. (Caveat: you may have your non-human characters illuminate/parallel the things you explore with your actual human characters). And when you create power dynamics, always think about where they come from, what they resonate with, and whether that's really what you want to convey.

Anyone who was there remember more than me or want to talk about things further?

Oh, and someone in the audience mentioned Lee and Low Books to me after, which is "an independent children's book publisher focusing on diversity," whose catalog I shall be checking out.

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Tags: cons, cons: readercon, cons: readercon: 2012, race

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