So, I recently went to AWP. It's a hella fun time. The usual debauchery occurred. Can't go into all the cool readings I went to and cool people I met. I noticed that fatigue had set in for a lot of folks by Friday. And on Saturday, everybody was just done. Ready to go home and sleep it off. I . . . ended up going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Guess I wasn't done yet. Over the course of the week, I made some new friends, all the while running into an ungodly number of old friends.
People complain about AWP being an overpriced shill for MFA programs. I'm sure at some point I'm going to hit the same wall I did with anime conventions and get bored. But, I don't know, I don't overthink things. There is nothing that could not be fun about spending a weekend with 14,000 like-minded people. It's why we have cons. It's why we have sporting events. It's why we have Burning Man.
-Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time from the airplane. Wow.
-Pre-registering. Got my badge in under five minutes. No more onsite reg for me. Anywhere. Ever.
-The Cave Canem/Copper Press reading. One thing that kept occurring was people telling me how cool it was that I went to poetry readings, me being a fiction writer and all. My reaction: "I didn't know we were at war." Anyway, this reading was on a high floor in a swanky hotel where you could see the Seattle skyline. If nobody read a word of poetry, that would have been enough for me. All the readers were good (and erotic). But the cool part was the audience was also good. So much screaming, "amen"-ing, and general poetry slam style affirmations, giving the energy back to the performers.
-"The Poetics of Hiphop." Cool panel, out of many cool panels. The readers, all serous academics, read essays that were both thoughtful and personal about the significance of hiphop. Even the lights mysteriously shutting off couldn't stop them. It made me want to do a "Poetics of Metal" panel. Always nice to be reminded of how the discourse has changed. Hiphop is being acknowledged for the world-changing cultural force it is.
-Ursula le Guin. Sherman Alexie. Caught these two legends at their respective readings. The Alexie one was particularly cool for the good vibes, and all the talk about writing community, and how this was the biggest AWP ever. Gave me the warm fuzzies. (The readings were great, too.)
-Saw a panel about teaching genre fiction in the workshop. I forbid genre in my creative writing class (forbid!), but it got me thinking about doing the opposite.
-More poetry! This is what gets you thinking about language. Read poetry! Watch poetry!
-Small presses. I've been a small press author since the day I was published. It hasn't always been awesome. Doesn't change the fact that, as traditional publishing becomes more profit-driven and insufferable, the small press is kicking ass all over the place. AWP is a space where the indies get to show their stuff.
-My friends are awesome. I met up with so many folks who are bestselling authors, or innovative professors, or teach slam poetry to kids, or write radical poetry, or run their own presses. I remember right after a panel on DIY touring, commiserating with a friend of mine about how we could have done that panel. Because we organize tours. I'm very fortunate to know so many exceptional people. I make no bones that AWP puts me in a competitive headspace. I see what others are doing and want to match it.
-The most interesting panel appears to be one I missed. AWP is the epitome of a back-scratching safe space, but apparently Lucy Corin broke the social contract. Here's a write-up I found online:
Basically, Corin trolled the audience hardcore. It's social experiment kind of stuff, and it worked when that lady had the outburst. I don't think I would have liked to have been at that panel. I don't like feeling uncomfortable. I certainly wouldn't have read a piece like the "dead baby" piece (which, btw, sounds like it would work just as well on the page). My stuff is often confrontational on the page, but when I step in front of an audience there is such an automatic desire to be loved. It's cool somebody did an honest-to-Odin cringe piece at AWP.
-Which leads me to another highlight. Using a litany of dead baby jokes to represent the ways in which fathers traumatize their children is over-the-top, grotesque, highly metaphorical. In other words, it is the epitome of fabulist writing, a term I had no grasp on until that weekend. I attended "Weird Girls (Fabulous Ladies of Fabulist Fiction)." It was a panel of women who write "weird" stuff. The earth's rotation slows down, dudes break into homes to steal knick-knacks, grieving girls start hoarding lemons, that sort of thing. The best speaker was Amelia Gray, who said (among other things) that she dislikes the term "quirky," as it reads as dismissive. The work isn't quirky, to her--it is serious. There seemed to be a general consensus that they use "weird" elements to look at everyday life in a new way. Take something like the laws of physics, or human behavior, and just make it a little off. Notably, no outright fantasy elements like dragons, elves, or unicorns. The genre is based on finding new ways to express the impossible, outside of our old mythologies. It was pretty eye-opening.
-A nice treat was chancing by the opening of "Winter is Coming," a gallery exhibition based on A Song of Ice and Fire. Entirely unconnected to AWP, just another cool thing. To get in the spirit, I drank like King Robert.
-Seeing the Zulu Parade.
-I didn't do a reading :( Maybe next year.
-Getting stuck for a few hours in Houston during a freezing rainstorm. Only to go to New Orleans for MORE RAIN!
-Anything having to do with Greyhound.
-Being reminded how insular the writing scene can be. This s not really a bad thing, just an observation. The same people keep showing up. Everybody knows everybody.
One thing I noticed about the "Weird Girls" was, in a diversity-minded conference, it was monochromatic. It got me thinking about the major voices in fabulism/slipstream/whatever you call it. Lucy Corin. Amelia Gray. Alissa Nutting. Karen Russell. Theodora Goss. Karen Joy Fowler. Kelly Link. The godfather might be George Saunders, and the grandfather might be Marquez, and the crazy uncle might be Kafka, but the modern-day practitioners are overwhelmingly white women. The fact that I've never heard of a black woman being published in this genre might have to do with the usual prejudices as far as who gets published. Still, I wonder if this popular genre is the white female's approach to fantasy.
I don't see this as any sort of problem. It is simply worth looking at genre movements from an ethnic perspective. Black people have an ethnic form of spec-lit in Afro-futurism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afro-futurist I've never identified as an Afro-futurist, because I don't write about the future. Afro-pastist, maybe? But Afro-futurism cannot be separated from the black experience, the same as magical realism has its roots in Latin American culture. What we call high fantasy is literally a white male fantasy of conquering the world and being worshiped. All this stuff about chosen ones and kings and battles fits squarely into the colonial narrative. These speculative genres come from a distinct cultural place, and I would say the experience of being a middle-class white woman in the western world is the driving force in this new literature. A highly literate genre, based around the domestic, focused on humor and metaphor, feminist, and in rebellion against norms of publishing (uplifting stories instead of dour) and social behavior (a middle-class woman writing about dead babies and the apocalypse).
I like a lot of the aforementioned authors. I don't know if I could write a "fabulist" story, i.e. one where somebody turns into a refrigerator as a metaphor. I want to write about actual dragons, not metaphorical dragons. I just don't think I could do it. I am too attached to the narrative of the adventure story. But Gray can write a story where a 40-year-old woman becomes distressed when everybody suddenly finds her unlikable, treating the usual sexism like a physical aberration. It is humorous and poignant, yet fantastical in an unexpected way.
It's cool to watch what might be the emergence of a new ethnic literature. Especially since this form of fantasy is way more exciting than the typical Warhammer 20K stuff. If this is the white female version of fantasy, the question arises: how can people of color engage with this white genre? Is there room for black women? Is there room for women born with less privilege? And will fabulism become just as stagnant as high fantasy as it becomes the norm?