Sunday, May 25, 2008

WisCon, Day the Third

I woke up at nine this morning feeling very groggy, with only an hour to get to my 10:00 panel. It turns out that there's a nasty stomach virus going around WisCon -- there are warning signs everywhere instructing people to wash their hands -- and I suspect I had a touch of it yesterday, although I was better today.

So, when I got to the 10:00 panel on "Narrative and Politics," I was tired, still a bit under the weather, and was in the procss of gulping down a power bar and my first cup of coffee. I suspect that fatigue, blood sugar and any lingering virus account for my responses to what happened.

It was a very smart, lively panel, with very smart, lively, and intimidating panelists: Eileen Gunn, Caroline Ives Gilman, L. Timmel DuChamp, and Pat Murphy. I felt very outclassed by the company, who've all published more than I have and are far more famous, in addition to being hyper-articulate. (Many of my acquaintances consider me hyper-articulate, but these women leave me in the dirt.) At the beginning, I was fine; I thought I was holding my own reasonably well, and audience reaction supported this. But early on, Timmi read a statement by Chip Delany about narrative, and the ease of falling into certain oppressive narrative patterns (men = human, women = less-than-human, etc.). She asked for our reactions to it.

I've known Chip since 1984. I've hung out in his living room; he introduced me to one of the guys I dated before I met Gary. I consider him a friend, and I hope he considers me one as well. But I had a funny Chip story that I thought pertained to the topic, so I told it.

In 1994, when I was in grad school, I taught a personal-essay class. Chip had just been hired as a tenured professor at Amherst for big bucks. As a grad student, I wasn't making big bucks, and I was at an institution that treated grad students like cockroaches. At some point during or immediately after his visit to my class, Chip and I got onto the subject of identity politics, and he told me -- I believe in so many words, although I may well be misremembering this -- that he was more oppressed than I was, because he was black and gay while I was white and straight.

My reaction to this was more or less, "Um . . . I'm female. You're male. I'm making two cents an hour doing journeywoman work in a field where I have a good chance of never getting a job; you're tenured and making $70,000 a year." I don't think I had the courage to say any of that, or to add that Chip was hugely famous while I was hugely obscure. At least within the field where we were working, the academic study of English, he had immensely more privilege than I did. Context matters.

Okay, so that was the personal story I told. My analytical point, which I went on to explain, was that I don't think competitive oppression is helpful. I believe that everyone's both oppressed and oppressing: the challenge is to use our own experience of oppression, whatever that might be, as a way to feel compassion for the oppression of others, rather than to play the "more oppressed than thou" game. Chip and I, unfortunately, didn't do that; but to me, the anecdote illustrates the danger of totalizing identity categories rather than looking at individual lives. It seemed to me that Chip's critique of conventional narrative structures was doing exactly that: books that are oppressive in one sense can be liberating in another, and it's important, if possible, to pay attention to both those things instead of rejecting the text wholesale because of one problem (as the person on my previous panel had done with Tolkien). Although, of course, in another light, the anecdote supports his point: it is indeed easy to fall into oppressive patterns!

So far, so good. We chatted about many other things; I brought up the healing power of narrative in trauma, and although the other panelists brought us back to fiction, a woman in the audience raced up and gave several of us free copies of Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy's The Mind's Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma. How completely cool is that? I love WisCon!

The panel wound down: time for comments from the audience. At which point, a young woman of color stood up and absolutely blasted me for the Chip story. I'd responded to a piece of analysis with a personal story, and furthermore, I'd appropriated both Chip's narrative and the Obama-Clinton conflict we've been hearing about for the last year (white woman versus black man), and I was responding to theory with emotion, and . . . I don't remember what else. It went on for a while. My critic was obviously very intelligent and hyper-articulate, and also clearly loathed me on both a personal and political level.

In retrospect, I think she was probably projecting onto me problems she's had with other white women. I'm used to this kind of thing in the classroom, where teachers can become the symbol of every authority figure the student has ever hated, and normally I'd have handled it better. But my guard was down: I was at WisCon, which has always been reasonably safe, and I was physically vulnerable.

I replied by saying a) that I'd been telling my own story, which had happened to me in 1994 and wasn't connected to the current election, b) that I had in fact offered analysis too, c) that one problem with literary theory is that it's traditionally punished emotion, especially in women, and d) that criticizing women for being emotional is a classic anti-feminist strategy.

I offered this in small snippets, as most of the rest of the panelists tried to change the subject. In the meantime, I found myself on the verge of, and then in the middle of, helpless and humiliating tears, although I think I stayed coherent. Another audience member tried to respond and said to me, "I was going to start out by saying something really mean about you, but I won't." (What the f***?) He got cut off because there was no more time. Meanwhile, my critic had left, so I had no chance to talk to her to try to sort anything out (although it probably wouldn't have helped).

A few people, especially my friend Janice Mynchenberg, came up and said nice things to me, which helped. The guy who'd decided not to be mean to me came up and made several very useful points, the first of which was, "Parables are tricky. Need I say more?" He also pointed out that my critic had responded so emotionally to my personal narrative that she hadn't heard the analytical piece, and that she -- like Chip -- had focused on race and gender and completely dismissed class, which was, for me, the most important factor at that moment of my professional life. We also commented wryly on the fact that the panel had talked about whether conflict is necessary in narrative: evidently the answer is yes! ("Is violence necessary?")

I was still feeling very shaky, though. Inez, who'd heard the whole thing, swooped down and bore me off to her room, where she gave me tissues, a power bar and a glass of water, and sympathized with me. (When I pointed out that the critic had made some valid points, Inez said crossly, "My job right now isn't to be reasonable. My job right now is to be on your side. I'll be reasonable in a few minutes.")

I started feeling better. We went to lunch, which made me feel much better. We returned to the hotel and I attended Maureen McHugh's delightful GoH reading. I wasn't sure if I wanted to go to more panels, and Maureen's reading had ended early, so I did a circuit of the art show and saw Ellen Datlow. We had fun trying on hats; Ellen complimented me on my beautiful silver-gray hair. Yes! Cronehood has its advantages!

I also saw Eileen Gunn, and asked for her feedback on what had happened. She shrugged and said, "She was right. You should have said, 'Thank you, I didn't think of that,' and not gotten into a debate."

Oh, dear. Well, I still don't think that either of us was completely right. I also think that dismissing the critic would have been far less respectful to her than trying to engage in the conversation; I apparently merely came across as defensive, though. There are several fairly discouraging lessons here about what it's safe to talk about at WisCon -- especially when one's physically vulnerable -- but I was getting a headache and decided not to tax my brain further. The main lesson is probably simply that one must never dare say anything negative about an icon, especially one who belongs to multiple minority communities. I kept trying to emphasize how much I liked and respected Chip, but that probably didn't get through.


In any case, instead of going to afternoon panels, I went back to my hotel, read a bit, took a nice nap, and then called both of my parents, who love me even when I'm politically incorrect.

After the nap, I changed into dessert banquet clothing (the new shimmery shirt with black jeans), took myself out for sushi, and then headed back to the Concourse to meet Inez and Nita. They were the third and fourth people in the dessert line, and had saved a space for me. And then Inez handed me a little box and said, "You're going to be mad at me for doing this, but remember that I'm getting my economic incentive check and that my school is paying for this trip. You have to read the note before you open the box."

The note was a beautiful two-page letter about how much my friendship and mentorship have meant to Inez and how much she values me. It made me cry. (She told me she'd cried while she was writing it.) Hey, you know women: we're emotional.

The box contained a piece of jewelry from the art show, a gorgeous Celtic enamel cat brooch made by Catherine Crowe. I'd admired the pin but hadn't bought it, not least because of its price. It was a supremely generous gift. (Inez also bought herself some earrings that we'd both loved.)

The brooch also went beautifully with the shimmery shirt, as I hope you can see at least a little bit from this shot. I love it, and Inez loved the fact that I love it, and so we were both very happy.

The three of us pigged out on yummy dessert, listened to excellent GoH speeches, and networked. One of the women at our table is interested in my views on fanfic and wants to include me on a panel she's doing next year; another woman at our table works for a seminary and wondered if I might be interested in teaching a summer course for them about writing and healing. Yay!

So it turned into a good day after starting out as a difficult one. I've stayed up far too late, because I'm wired from coffee and too much chocolate and my afternoon nap. Tomorrow I'll go to the SignOut, but at some point I have to figure out how to pack everything. Eeeep!


  1. Human beings are emotional creatures - the third leg of our troika, if you like, body, brain and heart. Ignoring that devalues any consideration - I regard it as the equivalent of telling a depressive to pull themselves together or just on this little pink pill. This is especially so in any consideration of literature - after all, what does any writer do except attempt to manipulate the emotional response of their reader as well as they are able?

    I'm sorry your experience was so trying and hope it hasn't spoiled what seems to me - from your reports - to have been an envy making Wiscon.

  2. Well, Susan, I can see that this panel thing has its land mines from time to time. I'm sorry you had such an emotion tinged experience. Hope your feeling better.

    Know you're busy but I've tagged you for a meme. Plus there are a few quizzes that are up on my blog if you have time to take any of them. It's all fun!

    When are you headed back to Reno, Gary and the kitties?


  3. Anonymous5:19 PM

    I am sorry this happened to you. I just told my friend and he thought you didn't even have to justify this attack with an intelligent response. It sounds absurd that you were acused of capitalizing on the Obama-Clinton race. I really enjoyed reading your descriptions of WisCon (this was my first year there) and I hope you never got a full case of that stomach bug! - Carol

  4. Um, Susan, I said "I was going to start out by saying something mean about Chip," not "aboutchu." I'm very grieved that my wisecrack added to your stress.

  5. Only knowing him through his writing, I doubt I'm qualified to say, but I suspect Chip Delaney would've approved of your use of that story.

    I've heard the argument that using something emotional in a logical setting is an invalid form of communication, and I find it highly limiting. Which is, I suspect, exactly it's hidden intent, because it's much easier to "win" a debate on only one level, just like it's easier to find the distance from point A to point B on mapquest. Once you start adding dimensions (and, dare I say, reality?) to things, everything gets very gray. And, really, isn't that what literature is for? To help us explore all the shades of gray, including the many outside our comfort zones? I find myself hoping that your critic gets more of a chance to explore those shades, and is open to them, for her sake. I hope she went home, got done fuming, and really thought about some of the finer points of your example, because it was a good one, and the points you made are worth much consideration.


  6. Thanks, everybody!

    And Josh, thank you very much for clarifying! (But I'm glad you didn't say anything mean about Chip.) And it was a pleasure to meet you.

  7. Anonymous11:11 PM

    Without knowing more, I think it's an exaggeration at least to say that the woman "loathed" you. From what I heard she had certain specific concerns that she brought to the story, which are understandable given what the election year and especially the media have done to related issues. The media have done a lot to portray the Democratic campaign as a contest between who's more oppressed, and it's easy to become sensitized to the same rhetoric or the possibility of it. You did the audience member the honor of responding and no one would have guessed that it upset you so much. At least I didn't.

    It's hard to say whether it would have been better to respond or not. I tend to think it is more respectful to respond. I did see your story as attempting to call into question the election year's rhetoric of competitive victimization. Perhaps the right thing to do would have been to ask the person to clarify what she meant by references to the Obama-Clinton campaign, or anything else she found objectionable, since then it would have been easier to answer with specifics. I wasn't entirely clear on the specifics of her objection other than that it was wrong to engage in competitive victimization, which seemed to me the point of the story.


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