#HugosSoWhite: The literary convention diversity scandals

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by Sumiko Saulson

“I don’t attend many conventions nowadays because of the mistreatment of women, the lack of diversity and sticking us on just the ‘diversity’ panels,” said Afrofuturist author Balogun Ojetade.

While most of America has been looking at the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which erupted in 2015 when, for the second year in a row, all leading and supporting actors and actresses were white, the literary arts world has a smaller footprint and so fewer have been aware of the same year’s Hugo Awards diversity scandal.

Why is diversity in literature important? Besides the obvious need for representation in all media, novels and short stories are very often the basis for movies and television shows. When there aren’t enough Black folks doing the writing, Black characters are written by white writers with all the inherent biases.

2018 was a big year for African Americans in the world of “speculative fiction.” You may not know the term, but speculative fiction is a literary umbrella covering the science-fiction, fantasy and horror worlds.

2018 started off big with the “Black Panther” movie breaking box office records. With an opening weekend USA gross of $202,003,951 and cumulative worldwide gross of $1,347,071,259, it almost singlehandedly dispelled myths that movies with Black casts can’t bank at the box office. The Black Panther movie is in a genre known as Afrofuturism.

“Afrofuturism is viewing and creating science fiction and fantasy through a Black lens,” said Balogun Ojetade, author of “Rococoa” and “Once Upon a Time in Africa.”

Significantly, writer-director Ryan Coogler and writer Joe Robert Cole are both Black. This is a big deal, because not only were the original writers for the comic book, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, white, but most Black characters in speculative fiction are written by white people.

Balogun-Ojetade, #HugosSoWhite: The literary convention diversity scandals, Culture Currents
Balogun Ojetade

This is part of the reason why director and writer Spike Lee boycotted the Oscars back in 2014-2015. Movies like “Django Unchained,” with writer director Quentin Tarantino, take awards, while Black directed movies like “Black Panther” traditionally do not.

This is changing. Both screenwriters and writers of literature who are African American are starting to get the money and recognition that the writing part of the industry provides.

Because so many people think of movies, sports and music as entertainment, many people are unaware of the series of diversity/anti-diversity scandals that have rocked the world of writers and writing fandoms since 2013, most of which had a direct impact on African American and African Diaspora authors. Part of it is because many Americans are still unaware of Black writers outside of the respectable voices of the Harlem Renaissance such as such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston or magical surrealist tales of the reformation by writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

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At the 2016 Sacramento Black Book Fair are panelists Doris Mangrum, K.E. Mullins, musician Jay King, who wrote an autobiography, and Sumiko Saulson.

Literary fiction – highbrow works seen in college curricula – are what we are taught to associate with Black writing. Science fiction, horror, fantasy, romance, spiritual guides and self-help books are largely disregarded as pulp fiction and therefore trashy.

As a result, outside of sci-fi writing fandoms, many have never heard of Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Octavia Butler, the undisputedly most famous Black sci-fi author, let alone lesser luminaries like Hugo and Locus Award winning author N.K. Jemisin.

Jemisin, a three-time Hugo Award winner, is one of the main targets of an alt right anti-diversity campaign called the Sad Puppy Awards – white male heterosexual writers who have persistently attacked all writers of color, but most viciously and consistently, Black women. Jemisin got on their radar when she contested the election of racist, sexist far right author and game developer Theodore Robert Beale, who writes under the name Vox Day, to the WorldCon board. World Con presents the Hugo Awards.

Nemisin, the 2013 guest of honor, called the notoriously bigoted Vox Day out on his bigotry in her commencement speech for Continuum, a sci-fi convention in Australia. She remarked upon the recent Science Fiction Writers Association vote:

“Two of the genre’s most venerable white male writers made some comments in a series of recent articles which have been decried as sexist and racist by most of the organization’s membership. … SFWA also recently voted in a new president. There were two candidates – one of whom was a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite and a few other flavors of asshole.”

She ended by pointing out that even though Day lost by a landslide, garnering a mere 10 percent of the vote, “Imagine if 10 percent of the people you interacted with on a daily basis did not regard you as human.”

Vox Day responded with a racist post on his blog, which includes this inflammatory statement:

“Jemisin has it wrong; it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we simply do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious historical reason that she is not.” – Vox Day, June 13, 2013, “A black female fantasist calls for reconciliation

Then, he doubled down on Twitter. As a result of this behavior, on Aug. 14, 2013, he was banned by the Science Fiction Writers Association.

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Sumiko Saulson is ready for an author signing session at BayCon 2015.

My name is Sumiko Saulson, and I am a local African American sci-fi and horror author of some note living in Oakland, California. I won the 2016 HWA StokerCon Scholarship from Hell. I have been on diversity panels all around, including at BayCon in San Mateo, where I had a lousy experience with David Brin, author of the book the Kevin Costner vehicle “The Postman” was based on.

I moderated a panel about the movie “Black Panther” and Afrofuturism at WorldCon in 2018. My anthology “Black Magic Women” on Mocha Memoirs Press was on the Horror Writers Association’s Recommend Reads List for 2018 and was the No. 1 Horror Anthology on Amazon twice that year.

I won the Afrosurrealist Writers Oakland Award in 2018. I won the BCCVoice’s essay award for Reframing the Other in 2017. I’ve been interviewed in the Chronicle about Jordan Peele and things like that. So locally, at least, I am sort of the go-to girl for anyone who wants a minority horror writer, especially a Black one, and on the short list of local Black sci-fi writers.

My first introduction to the Hugo Awards Anti-Diversity Scandals was back in 2015, when I was installed in various slots and placed on diversity panels by two local sci-fi and fantasy writers conventions, BayCon and ConVolution, which took place in Santa Clara and Burlingame respectively at the time, although 2017 was the last ConVolution, and BayCon moved to San Mateo. Although ConVolution went out of business, it was a sort of dream convention diversity wise.

“As a guest of honor at Convolution, I was treated well and well received. They were more diverse than most conventions I have attended on the West Coast,” said Balogun Ojetade, author, Afrofuturism expert and blogger at Chronicles of Harriet.

The liberal board and staff members at ConVolution decided to take a stand against the Sad Puppy Awards, Vox Day and the anti-diversity campaign. In order to show their disapproval, the convention decided to recruit minority authors to speak on panels and work hard to increase diversity.

“Those who started ConVolution were strongly pro-diversity and wanted conventions that appealed to a broad base of fandom and fannish issues. By the time I entered the scene in 2016, the board and convention runners had done much work to expand diversity in their guest lists,” said Chuck Serface, former ConSanity Board Member

BayCon did something similar, and declared the theme Women of Wonder, invoking their partial success in supporting women presenters in the past. They ended a dating event known as the Klingon Slave Auction because they decided it was both sexist and racially insensitive due to invoking slavery imagery that might offend African Americans.

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Both BayCon and ConVolution were making efforts to distinguish themselves from the right-wing agenda of authors like Correia, Brad R. Torgersen and Vox Day. Day, a Holocaust denier, was described by the Wall Street Journal as the most loathed man in sci-fi in 2015, the same year I was invited to speak at these conventions.

“By the time I became board in 2016, ConSanity had become mindful of the situation and indeed wanted to enhance diversity wherever possible. I think what happened (at the Hugos) was an “oh, wow” moment for many involved in Bay Area conventions,” said Chuck Serface, former ConSanity board member

This is the climate into which I was introduced to the local convention world. Vox Day was also a game developer and a member of the infamously sexist anti-female game developer group GamerGate. And so ConVolution took its stand against Day by inviting author, politician, female game developer and GamerGate doxxing and attack victim Brianna Wu and her husband, illustrator FrankWu, to be their honored guests as well as African American sci-fi author Balogun Ojetade and other high profile guests of color and women.

“I can’t take credit, of course, so I tip my hat toward Kimmi Allbee and Susie Rodriguez, who handled programming for ConVolution during different years. Also board members, executive staff, and convention runners including Erik Bigglestone, Jason Warlock, Jax McElravy, Sally Rose Rivers Robinson, Meredith Branstad, Stephen Nelson, Christine Doyle and others played strong roles,” said Chuck Serface, former ConSanity board member.

I was very new to the convention scene and didn’t know not to overbook myself. That year I was on 15 panels, up to four panels a day, running from the green room to panels with barely enough time to eat or use the bathroom. In later years, I learned not to tell them I was available for that.

In later years, I also learned that top billed guests were paid for their presence and got hotel rooms. All I got was a free pass, a 50 percent off guest-of-guest pass for my mother, and free snacks and coffee in the green room.

Sally Rose Rivers Robinson and Susie Rodriquez were the ones who brought me into the two conventions respectively. Rodriquez, a Latina married mother in her mid 40s, is young by convention organizer standards and has already risen to the role of vice president at BayCon. Some of my friends in their 50s and 60s recall Rodriguez as a 14-year-old girl attending these conventions.

Like Chuck Serface, she is idealistic and well-intentioned. However, they have to fight against the overall conservative bent of the literary convention world.

The Hugos are not the only awards plagued by a lack of diversity. Until last year, when Jordan Peele won the 2017 Stoker award for the script for “Get Out” and Octavia Butler won an award posthumously for a graphic novelization of “Kindred,” Linda Addison was the only Black author to have ever won a Stoker Award.

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Sumiko Saulson

Bestselling author Sumiko Saulson writes award-winning multicultural sci-fi, fantasy, horror and Afrosurrealism. They/she is the editor of “Black Magic Women,” “Scry of Lust” and “100 Black Women in Horror Fiction,” author of “Solitude,” “Warmth,” “The Moon Cried Blood,” “Happiness and Other Diseases,” “Somnalia,” “Insatiable,” “Ashes and Coffee,” and “Things That Go Bump In My Head,” wrote and illustrated comics “Mauskaveli” and “Dooky” and graphic novels “Dreamworlds” and “Agrippa.” She writes for SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bay View series Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of their adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area, she is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary). Contact Saulson through her website, wwww.SumikoSaulson.com, or via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

Saulson’s series Writing While Black follows the struggles of Black writers in the literary arts. From #HugosSoWhite to #OscarsSoWhite, Black novelists, short story scribes and screen writers are constantly up against an industry that excludes them and pays white people to tell Black stories. How do Black writers navigate a convention and conference circuit that is so vital to up and coming writers only to bump into glass ceilings and exclusionary practices?

VIDEO: https://youtu.be/S_TZ55EmNtU

VIDEO TITLE: Persistence of Racism Panel at BayCon 2015