Location Matters: on self-selecting out of the speculative fiction industry

I’ve been offline for a week, and I missed the latest #CripLit twitter conversation, but my thoughts don’t really move at twitter speed anyway, so it’s probably better that I’ve had a bit to think about this.

Several days ago (more like a couple weeks at this point), Nicola Griffith wrote a furious essay: An open letter to all writing programmes, workshops, and retreats. She says, “I will no longer support in any way any writing-related programme or organisation that does not have a public commitment to and specific timetable for becoming accessible. I will call on other writers to do the same. In addition, all writing programmes should include their accessibility policy and access information on their website. If you are not accessible say so plainly so that those of us who are disabled don’t have to work to find out we’re not welcome.”

I’m pretty sympathetic, and I would be even if I didn’t know exactly the situation she’s talking about. It sucks when all your friends are having a party and they’re talking about it on all sides around you but they’ve ‘forgotten’ to invite you. Sucks even more when it’s a constant grind of trying to keep the smile on your face as they talk about their party with you even though you both know you’re not actually invited. Trying to build a career (a life) under those conditions is… well, it’s a big reason why I’m a very angry person.

So, I support Griffith’s boycott, but I’ve been thinking about what that means in practical terms. I already don’t give money to writing programs, but that’s practical, not an ethical stand — I have a very small budget for donations and right now it’s all going to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the National Network of Abortion Funds. I love the arts, but, you know: I’m disabled. I’m not in a position to be anyone’s patron. My meager dollars are going directly to my fight for social and bodily autonomy.

I’m not famous enough to be asked to teach, either, and anyway, since my disability involves chronic pain and fatigue that mean I can perform quality work for only about three hours a day or fifteen hours a week, I’m too crippled to take part in any kind of program, either as teacher or student, no matter how wide the doorways are, or whether there are ASL interpreters or long flights of stairs or not. I mean, the stairs are also a problem, some days. Air conditioning is actually a bigger problem: if I’m too hot, I get weird headaches that shut down my ability to track conversations, but if I’m too cold it hurts in my bones and skin and that shuts me down too. But just because your location has an elevator or even perfect air conditioning doesn’t mean a workshop is actually accessible to me, which means I can announce that I refuse to attend an event until it’s held in an accessible building but it’s not like I’m going to be attending it after that, either.

Another very important essay was published this week (two weeks ago now actually…), Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali’s One Year Later and We Still Have Work To Do. It’s a follow-up on Fireside’s #BlackSpecFic report, and you’ll be shocked (shocked!) to learn that stories by black authors are much rarer in speculative fiction venues than would be predicted by overall population statistics. A major reason for this? In spite of some structural changes at magazines like Fireside and targeted calls for submissions, “We’re not seeing a huge uptick in the number of black people submitting stories.”

Now, I’m not a publisher, but I’ve been the head organizer of the North Seattle Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Meetup for about a year now, and I’ve been working continuously on making our critique groups as accessible as possible to every part of the community. We have a diversity statement and a website that is neither femme nor butch and a “you don’t have to talk about your trauma” policy during writing critiques and moderators who read as female, queer, neurodiverse (and who have practiced saying “please don’t interrupt her” to old white dudes). We talk frankly about racism and have meetups where we do writing exercises from Writing the Other. All of our meetups are held in places that are ADA compliant, that have gender neutral restrooms, and where you don’t have to spend money to attend.

The one hurdle I haven’t been able to even start tackling, though, is our location. The meetup was established in North Seattle, which is either gentrified or old money (depending on the neighborhood) and is the most segregated part of Seattle. The people who live there mostly don’t realize it, or at least I didn’t when I lived there. But then my economic status caught up with my ability status, I accepted that I was poor, and I moved south of the city with everyone else who has been pushed to the edges of Seattle’s urban, new-tech-money bubble. Now I know: the population composition of North Seattle is not an accident. White supremacy is subtle and creepy and distorts the entire city, literally centering white people in these central neighborhoods that are full of money (that is, venues and highway access and public transportation and all the things that make public, community life possible).

We see a lot of new, aspiring writers at NS SF/F Writers meetings — the kind of new writers who have never been to a critique group before, who workshop their stories with us, and who then send their (very good) stories out to magazines like Fireside. In the year I’ve been head organizer, we’ve started to consistently get meetings full of attendees who are young, female, queer, and even the kind of disabled that means you can still work full time — but who still are mostly all white. Because location matters.

I’ve never been to a Seattle-area science fiction event that was south of downtown. There might be one or two that are — I suppose Norwescon is at SeaTac and that sort of counts. But there’s nothing in the Central District, Seattle’s historically black neighborhood, or the neighborhoods south of Central like Othello or Rainier Beach where people of color, and particularly black people, are being pushed by economic racism. There’s definitely nothing in Tacoma, in the far south of the Seattle metro area, where I live, where my neighbors are a solid mix of Hispanic and E Asian and SE Asian and Native and African-American, where it’s not unusual for me to go to my gym or the grocery store or the library and not see another white person the whole time.

There isn’t even a general purpose writing group in my neighborhood, let alone a speculative fiction one. I’m pretty sure this kind of structural, economic racism is a big part of the reason why Fireside doesn’t get more submissions from black writers. From the very beginning, black writers don’t have the same structural supports.

This summer, as a way to address the physical inaccessibilities I’ve found in the professional writing sphere, NS SF/F Writers started offering a credential, the Wayfarer Writing Certification. I’m proud of this project, because my hope is that it will break down (some) barriers for marginalized people who want to be part of the speculative fiction community. I built our accessibility around my own limitations, so there are probably some ways in which our locations and program design are not accessible to everyone with every kind of disability, but the foundational design of the group is the opposite of an intensive workshop, which makes us more flexible. We’re slow-paced, we’re anti-hierarchical, we’re patient, and we’re really trying to boost the voices of writers who are left out of traditional writing education — and traditional credentialing and networking, all the unspoken marks of Serious Professionalism. We don’t have any money or a lot of social capital, but I think we’re doing pretty well, all things considered. (If you spot a way we could improve, please let me know!)

The next step has got to be dealing with the other kind of location, geographical locations and the way they disinvite people based on the structural racism that is embedded in the bones of our city. I’m honestly not sure how to do that; it’s going to take me a while to figure this out. I mean, I really am disabled, which means I move at the speed of a glacier. I’ve considered a few different angles to attack this problem: I got in touch with the Remann Hall Book Club, which is a book club for incarcerated youth at a juvenile prison in my community; I’m going to make contact with Tacoma’s strongest independent bookstore, King’s Books, about putting up a flyer or something to find a few local science fiction writers who might help me establish a branch of the NS SF/F critique group in Tacoma; there are librarians throughout the Seattle metro area I should email.

I’m prepared for a few false starts. But I’m excited to be on this path, and I’d love to hear ideas about how we could reduce barriers, especially from other people who consider themselves part of Seattle’s speculative fiction community. There are a lot of us, with a broad array of resources we could bring to bear.

And if there are any of you in other cities considering these same kinds of issues, I’d love to hear from you, too. Seattle isn’t the only city where access to the writing community is a physical problem, where people in chairs and people in poor/black neighborhoods are both not invited to the party. What are you doing to fix it?