World Fantasy is one of my favorite conventions. The convention is known more as a professional event rather than a fan convention like WorldCon. Still, there are plenty of fans who attend who are dedicated readers of literary fantasy and science fiction.
I love World Fantasy because you never know who you see on the elevator or the dealer’s room or the art show or at the bar, where much barconning was going on. As usual I didn’t get to see half of what was happening, but I did my best.
As the theme of the convention was Secret Histories, my panel, Myths of the Old West, tried to get at the root of the mythology and outright inaccurate history of the West. Panelists including Walter Jon Williams, Tex Thompson, and J.M. McDermott delved into the backstory of the myth, the reasons for why so much of the literature about the Old West obliterates the truth of native peoples, immigrants, women, and the land itself. With only 50 minutes, we left a lot on the table, but tried our best.
And that brings me to the controversy. The programmers had done their damndest to program panels with diverse panelists, and to create programming that does justice to all the people in fantasy and history, not just straight, white, and mostly male. But there is a certain reality and that is that there are not as many authors of color or queer authors, or non-binary authors who come to WFC. (Note: there are plenty of authors; but they just weren’t at the convention.) So, led by Joe McDermott, we tried our hardest to find authors who are Native American or Latino or other than white, straight, etc. to be on the Old West panel who could speak on the topic. And we couldn’t. The programming committee tried, and they couldn’t. So we did our best, and I know we fell short, but it was not for lack of trying.
In a more disturbing example, the cultural appropriation panel was a study in how not to go about it. I’ve linked to Rebecca Kuang’s experience. I caught the last 20 minutes of the panel, and I was shocked and confused by what I heard. Kuang has every right to be angry. We can do better, as authors, and editors, and as part of this community.
Despite this, and because the programming committee worked hard and thoughtfully to create a convention that honored the theme of secret histories, many panels lived up to their mandate. I hope that people can look upon this con as a step in the right direction, and take lessons about what works if we work at it, and how to prevent missteps for the next one.
A significant bright spot in the convention was the great Martha Wells’s toastmaster speech. I had to leave before the banquet and the speech, but Tor printed the whole thing. It was magnificent, and you all should read it if you have not already. Heck, I’ve read it twice now.
Book burning draws too much attention. In science fiction and fantasy, in comics, in media fandom, everybody was always here, but we have been disappeared over and over again. We stumble on ourselves in old books and magazines and fanzines, fading print, grainy black and white photos, 16 millimeter film, archives of abandoned GeoCities web sites. We remember again that we were here, they were here, I saw them, I knew them.