Nisi Shawl on Race and the IFCA

Strange Horizons are having a week dedicated to American writer Nisi Shawl, who writes about racism, science fiction and the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts:

Sometimes race is the official topic of a given conversation, and sometimes it isn’t. For many of us, though, race is always on our minds, in our hearts, at the tips of our tongues. It can’t not be.

ICFA ended a day ago. That’s the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (IFCA), an annual academic gathering-cum-ProCon held poolside in Orlando, Florida. I first attended in 2010, thanks to the generosity of Arthur D. Hlavaty, Bernadette L. Bosky, and Kevin J. Maroney. That year, ICFA 31’s theme was “Race and the Fantastic.” The Guests of Honor (GOH) were Nalo Hopkinson, Laurence Yep, and Takayuki Tatsumi—all people of color. This was reflected in the attendance. There was a strong and unabashedly responsive racial minority presence in the audience for the GOH speeches. (In her speech, Nalo “channeled” a translator having trouble with phrases from white speakers such as “I’m not racist,” which they could only make sense of as “I can wade in feces without getting any of it on me.”)

ICFA 32’s Guests of Honor were Connie Willis, Terry Bisson, and Andrea Hairston. I felt I had to come to this session also, in support of Andrea, an audacious thinker, brilliant writer, and dynamic speaker. More generosity from friends made this possible. ICFA’s 2011 theme: “The Fantastic Ridiculous.” Thus Connie Willis and Terry Bisson, two of SF’s more successful authors when it comes to infusing imaginative literature with humor. Andrea, as the Scholar GOH, gave her speech on Igbo traditions of satire, and the ambitions and failures of the film District Nine. Race was not the theme ICFA’s organizers had chosen, but it was a factor in the conversation beyond any doubt—not only present but demanding attendees’ overt acknowledgement.

The ridiculous intersects with race in several ways. Of course there are racist jokes. There’s the ridiculousness of the pseudoscience inherent in the lack of any biological basis for racial classification. And then there are dozens of ludicrous ideas about racial difference, plus dozens of other racial concepts creating the tension laughter releases. During an ICFA panel on the problem of assigning genre labels, James Patrick Kelly posited as precursors to SF some nonexistent stories by an 1890s version of his copanelist Ted Chiang. Then Jim asked Ted if he thought he could have written those stories back in the 19th century, without the benefit of an SF tradition. “Assuming I didn’t die working on a railroad,” Ted said. The room exploded. Not that the idea of Ted dying was funny. But he had just whisked aside the drapes covering the elephant furnishing this conference’s conversational nook, revealing the racial element missing from Jim’s thesis. There followed questions about cultural and racial assumptions influencing genre assignment. – continue reading.



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