Comics, Con Diaries, Diversity, Feminism, Gender, Race

Nine Worlds: Days 2&3

Saturday/Sunday: Life is not non-stop suffering and the meanness of white people

My second day at Nine Worlds began with a very well-attended debate between several writers – including Joanne Harris, author of The Gospel of Loki – over which was better: dragons, werewolves, vampires, or warlocks. Topics covered included each species’ body odor, fashion sense, and sex life. Vampires won points for cool outfits, while warlocks, due to being human and therefore “the pervert captains of the multiverse,” had the most exciting/depraved sex. In the end, dragons won, which I wasn’t too pleased about. They may be formidable, but I prefer to think that brains can always beat brawn.

After a quick lunch, it was time for the panel on race and culture in fandom that I was appearing on with Koel Mukherjee, Iona Sharma, Frank Voss, and moderator Zen Cho. Although the panel wasn’t billed as addressing the experiences of women of color, all the panelists except one were women of Asian descent (East, Southeast, and South Asian), which made me extremely happy.

Things got personal in a good way very quickly, probably because a lot of what we were discussing dealt with our own fan experiences. I mentioned the female-centric fandom that I was exposed to at home through my mother; she was the first geek fan I ever interacted with, and as a result most of my early geek media experiences were courtesy of her. I also brought up the nerd rage email that she sent me after watching series three of Sherlock, to general laughter, which made me thankful that she didn’t grow up with the Internet, otherwise she’d be arguing with strangers on forums. “Well, ACTUALLY, in the last episode…” Afterwards, several people told me that my mother sounded amazing. One even suggested that she should be on Tumblr, which I think should be prohibited for sanity reasons.

The other panelists came from a range of fandom backgrounds, but our stories were remarkably similar. We all started out viewing geek media as a means of escape from society, and the feeling of not measuring up or being perceived as fraudulent by male fandom gatekeepers. The women on the panel agreed that our credentials were questioned on the basis of our gender more than on the basis of our race; one panelist and an audience member, who were both of Black ethnicity, shared accounts of feeling like their interests conflicted with popular constructions of their racial identities. All of us seemed to share a sense of finding it difficult to fit in – not just among individual social groups, but in our respective countries of residence and origin. It got me reconsidering my place in fandom in unexpected depth, and ended up being emotionally fulfilling as well as intellectually enlightening.

My next appearance was at a comics-making workshop for children, which I was helping to supervise. There were the usual nerdy kids, such as a boy from Wales who created Ra’s al-Ghul’s Welsh superpowered assassin grandson “Myrddin al-Ghul,” and an adorable Filipino girl who loved Princess Bubblegum and whose mother was sitting on the sidelines watching. I’d never seen a Filipino person who wasn’t me at any UK geek events or venues before, so I had to talk to her mother.

We chatted for some time about age-appropriate comics for children and what our own favorite series and graphic novels were. Since it was my first time talking comics with a fellow Filipina, I may have given a lot more attention to the chat and a lot less attention to the comics-making kids than I intended. (The kids were fine without our help, though, so I was in the clear.) At some point in our conversation, I agreed to give some writing and study/career tips to her older daughter, who enjoyed writing poetry.

When the workshop finished, I met Dad and the poetry-writing daughter, and the family and I went off in search of coffee. Dad turned out to be the science fiction writer Victor R. Ocampo: an up-and-coming name in Southeast Asian SFF and a huge X-Men fan.

Talking to the poetry-writing daughter was like time-traveling back to my own early teens. What did she like writing about? “Philosophy,” and sharing her thoughts about the world. Her mother’s comments about how the poems were “so dark” and “too deep for me!” were exactly what my mother said during the same point in my life. I couldn’t help laughing.

Both girls soon succumbed to jet lag, though, so I was left to talk to the parents. We covered Guardians of the Galaxy, Singapore’s ban on the issue of Life with Archie where Kevin Keller gets married, life in Hawaii, the comics scene in the Philippines, the Singapore school system, and a lot about the X-Men. I wished I could have kept talking to them for the rest of the day. Most of the Filipino people I interacted with growing up were my father’s family, who weren’t interested in geek media (with the exception of my cousin Eric, who remembers my mother reading his comics when he was young). As a result, I unconsciously viewed “Filipino” and “geek” as mutually exclusive categories. Only when I talked to Victor and his family did I realize that. and start breaking down those barriers in my own perception.

Following that conversation, anda run-in with Mega-City and San Futuro justice, I was late for the next panel I wanted to attend. I missed Si Spurrier’s take on comics as the purest form of storytelling, but made it just in time for the beginning of Kieron Gillen’s visual analysis of Watchmen. Since I’m not a visual person, I find art-focused analysis very helpful in pointing out elements of comics that I would normally miss. It was a dense yet easily understandable overview of smiley face motifs, repeated key phrases, references to knowing or being unable to know everything – and whether Rorschach’s journal is read or thrown out at the end of the book.

Saturday ended with a dance party that was part of the LGBTQAI track. Songs included a fandom parody of Icona Pop’s “I Love It” (the key phrase being “I Ship It”) and Alice Cooper’s “Poison,” the lyrics of which inspired some truly dramatic hand motions on the dance floor. This marked the point of no return. Hence there was a reggae version of the Game of Thrones theme song, working it to Jace Everett’s “Bad Things,” an en masse Time Warp, and Kieron Gillen and Si Spurrier busting some hot dance moves.

To quote Jay-Z, after the party it’s the hotel lobby. Once the music stopped, a small alcohol-filled delegation headed downstairs to talk, drink more, and be discreetly laughed about by the front desk staff. What with the camaraderie and the wine, I didn’t go to bed until 5 AM.

I woke up with a mercifully clear head on Sunday, the last day of the con. Although I was only able to get to one panel before I left, due to the restrictions of British public transport, it was a great one: Reading Science Fiction While Brown.

On the panel were authors Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and Taran Matharu, editor Camille Lofters, book reviewer Aishwarya Subramanian, and moderator Stephanie Saulter. The panel dealt with the issues raised by reading and writing a predominantly white genre as a non-white person, such as exoticism and commodification in the portrayal of ethnic minorities. An Egyptian character in a book Aishwarya Subramanian once read was described as smelling of “spices;” along the same lines, Camille Lofters noted the use of food and drink-related terms such as “coffee-colored” to describe brown skin tones, as though brown people were there to be consumed.

What really got to me, though, were the discussions of normativity and the literary trend of defining ethnic minorities in contrast to the majority. As Camille Lofters put it: “Life is not non-stop suffering and the meanness of white people! Sometimes we want to train dragons.” I definitely identified with that. My Asian-ness didn’t make me a racial minority until I started undergrad in St. Louis, so my identity wasn’t shaped purely by oppression and a sense of non-whiteness. However, I rarely found any reflection of this in the books I read.

The normativity discussion pointed to how what is perceived as universal experience may only be a majority or white experience. Camille Lofters recalled a white friend having to explain the sensation of sunburn to her. Stephanie Saulter remarked on how long it took her to figure out that barefoot children in stories were meant to signify poverty, due to growing up in Jamaica where all children went barefoot.

Throughout it all, I found myself nodding and even “mmming” along, though it annoys me to no end at poetry readings. It was a good note on which to end my Nine Worlds experience. During the course of one weekend, I’d gained an understanding of some key aspects of my sense of identity, reconsidered my geekdom paradigm, and found other Asian people who wanted to talk about the representation of PoCs in the media we consume. It left me already looking forward to next year.