The African Marketplace & the Feminist Sci-Fi Convention

For years, I attended the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Dance Africa Celebration on Memorial Day Weekend. It’s a full 3 day film, street, and dance festival in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It’s what a good, self-respecting African or Caribbean outdoor market should be. Sans the fresh fruit and live chickens. And everybody—vendors, shoppers, dancers, and exotic culture enthusiasts alike—looks fabulous!

When I started a family, I vowed that I’d never miss one year of Dance Africa. I had to impart culture onto my children. I’m a huge proponent of all things dealing with the African aesthetic. My husband is a visual artist, our colorful walls are covered with art, masks, children’s paintings; I wear loud colors, beads, shells; we drum, chant, do rain dances, etc. You get my point. And at Dance Africa with its African film festival, craft vendors, and exotic imports, we were at home. It was our Mall of America.

Note: The idea of the outdoor marketplace is the bedrock of the economy of traditional cultures. In Haitian Vodou, the keeper of the marketplace is Ayizan, who is also the mother of initiates. In West African Ifa or Yoruba, Oya is guardian of the marketplace, and winds, and change.

So when last year I decided to forego Dance Africa for the first time to attend the WisCon Feminist Science Fiction Convention in Madison, Wisconsin…I shrugged. It’s only for one year, I thought. The children will get their yearly dose of outdoor market culture with their father. Ultimately, WisCon was good. I enjoyed it. So much so that I went back for another year. And after this past weekend, I will certainly be back for more…and more.

Aesthetically, Dance Africa and WisCon look nothing alike–of course. The former takes place outdoors on a closed off street and parking lot in the most diverse city in the world. The latter is in a hotel in a capitol city in middle America. (Not so diverse, but progressive nonetheless. Madison was the center of protests earlier this year.) Obviously, there’s something intriguing about WisCon that would make me leave my children and travel nearly halfway across the country to convene with feminists and genre fiction fans.

Fandom they call it. I’m not a fan, per se. I don’t think I’ve read enough in my lifetime. I wasn’t that kid who held a flashlight up to a C.S. Lewis book when she was supposed to be sleeping. I started reading genre fiction late in high school when I learned how to analyze literature and understood the use of metaphors and satire and social commentary. Then, voila! I saw myself written all over books by Jean M. Auel, Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, and more obviously, Octavia Butler. I was the disenfranchised “other” and “alien” that was so prevalent in sci-fi and fantasy.

This is why I attend WisCon. The conversations are, more or less, about the “other”, the representation of the “other” in genre fiction, and what the “other” has to say about being the “other” in genre fiction. I go because it’s my way of saying, like the Who in Whoville, “We are here!” There aren’t many of us. The Carl Brandon Society does an excellent job of keeping us safe, warm, and cozy. (There was a dinner where over 50 people of color attended—out of nearly 1000 for the whole con—and there’s also a safe space, a private room, where we can retreat from the harsh realities of racial and gender ignorance).

At WisCon, I make sure to be on as many panels as possible. There are plenty of instances in my daily life where I’m forced to ingest what’s being said about me and representations of me. Here is a place where I can assert myself and my voice into the conversation.

Last year, I was on most of the “mothering” panels: Mothering as a Career, Mothers in Sci-Fi, or something like that. This year, I was on most of the “immigrant” panels: Magic Realism & Diaspora Literature, Assimilation & the Immigrant Grandchild, and Immigration in SF & F. And at every turn, I was figuratively waving the Haitian flag. (I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only Haitian within a hundred mile radius of Madison. Haitians have been known to inhabit the most remote corners of the country, e.g. Juno, Alaska.) My mantra for each panel: I’m Haitian. I know Vodou. There’s science in it!

A con attendee does a good job of summarizing one of the panels here.

Fellow New York mom and writer, and my con BFF (WisCon can be like the first day of high school where you must cling to someone in order to not be swallowed whole by the enormity of it all), Neesha Meminger said it best: “I don’t connect anymore to identity. I connect more to ideology.”

Dance Africa was a way of validating my identity, but I now realize that it’s not the sum total of who I am. I love reading. I love the culture of reading and the analysis of ideas and books and socio-political thought. I need to compensate for not being in some Ph.D. program right now (in Mythological Studies at the Pacifica Graduate Institute where Joseph Campbell’s papers are housed, to be exact). I’ve been mostly a stay-at-home mom for nearly nine years and I absolutely need intellectual rigor that reminds me that I am indeed smart.

I truly think that if I were not grounded in my identity, I would not enjoy WisCon. Some panels I attended were quite frustrating to listen to. One called “Outside the Hero’s Journey”, specifically. Some of the panelists, except for Japanese-Canadian author Hiromi Goto, did very little in dismantling the idea of the Monomyth and going outside the literary device as the title of the panel suggests. The reaction from the audience comes when a panelist mentions book titles and a string of “ooohs” and “aaaahs” would follow. This happened on many panels. It’s as if whatever ideas are presented, they must be validated by works of literature or non-fiction. As if to say that ideas cannot stand on their own and be examined and dismantled. My question to that panel as a cultural “other”: “What titles can you name where the idea of the Hero’s Journey is subverted and it is the community that is the hero rather than the individual?”

I’m imagining standing on a vendor’s table in the middle of Dance Africa shouting this very question into a megaphone. Maybe I’d get a few responses. But, ultimately, it isn’t that kind of party. What I’m realizing is that as a writer, rather than being a passive participant in culture, I’m choosing to be an active participant in the evolution of culture.

The marketplace and the convention are both similar in that they bring large groups of people together for the exchange of goods, ideas, and news. Both validate the cultural aesthetic for that group. And there’s always that lone vendor with their innovative wares that shifts the whole game in the case of the marketplace. Or that outsider group who come to rock the boat, create a sea change and challenge the very notions of that culture in the case of a convention.

Oya. Change. Ayizan. Initiation. The start of something new. The marketplace can be the breeding ground for all this.

*Last year, writers Nnedi Okorafor and Maryanne Mohanraj were guests of honor. This year, it was writer and Ifa devotee Nisi Shawl. Next year, one of the two will be author, playwright and professor, Andrea Hairston. This gives some indication of why I’ll keep going. This is one of the few places where these innovators can be celebrated.

Neesha Meminger and I.

In no particular order: K. Tempest Bradford, Nisi Shawl, LaShawn Wanak, Andrea Hairston, Sheree R. Thomas, Jenn Brissett, Zola Mumford, Candra Gill, Pan Morigan, after Nisi Shawl’s Guest of Honor Speech.

books, Culture, sci-fi/fantasy, WisCon, Wiscon35, Writing

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