After attending two literary festivals in the UNESCO City of Literature: Emerging Writers’ Festival (EWF) and Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF), I wanted to find out if I would have the same immersive, diverse and welcoming experience at genre-related conferences and conventions. What would a genre convention look like? Would it be as diverse, engaging and festive as EWF and MWF?
I am a member of an amazing writing group, but what my writing group doesn’t know about me, is that I’m a hopeless romantic. My ebook app is loaded with romance and other genre fiction titles with happily-ever-after endings. At bedtime, I read them on my mobile to help me wind down at the end of a busy day.
So, the first genre convention I signed up for was a romance convention (without telling my fellow writing-group members). I was excited, and thought I might even find a community of like-minded readers.
What I found, though, was that I could only afford to attend the book-signing session. And as a carer, I only had a small window of three hours of me-time that weekend. For a minimal fee, the book-signing session meant I would get to discover the prominent romance organisations, meet the local romance writing group, and fan-girl local and international romance authors.
I arrived at the venue during the convention’s lunch break. The registration and bookseller tables were all unattended. And then, slowly, attendees trickled down and started to queue for the book-signing session. As I expected, the majority of attendees were women. But what I didn’t expect was that all were white women. Was I the only woman of colour in the queue? Surely, there were others around. I awkwardly attempted small-talk with a couple of the women near me, asking whether I was queuing up in the right line or were they there for the entire weekend, that sort of thing.
To my surprise, their replies were succinct, emotionless and disinterested. Their stares seemed to say, ‘What are you doing here?’ or ‘You don’t belong here.’ I realised, that in the microcosm of Australian romance, where authors and readers were ninety-nine per cent women (based on the romance convention’s 2016 survey), the dominant narrative was that of the white woman.
‘Challenging women in power is not easy, particularly when many are blinded by their own privileges … when Aboriginal women and women of colour face barriers that white women do not, something is wrong.’ (Ball, 2017).
With glazed eyes, I tuned out the noise and chatter around me. I wondered if the event organisers discussed diversity and representation in romance during their weekend convention. Were any guests or delegates from diverse backgrounds? Did their definition of diversity include readers and authors of colour?
According to Anupama Pilbrow (2016):
[P]eople of colour – Indigenous Australians, migrants and children of migrants – are such a vital and noticeable component of Australia’s current make-up; its socio- cultural and economic profile, why is it that a literature class at an Australian university features only one non-white writer out of twelve? When migrants and children of migrants make up at least twenty-five per cent of the population … how are we supposed to combat discrimination and racism without recognising and normalising the human condition from the perspective of non-white humans?
Also, did their conference discuss disability and ableism? Romance authors, editors and publishers continued to include ableist words like ‘moron’, ‘idiot’ and ‘imbecile’. Some authors still wrote the magical cure-all trope, ending ‘suffering’ to their disabled characters, making them whole and healthy again.
Eventually, the queue began to move. Inside a cavernous, themed room with low-toned, warm lights, a half-naked white man with solid abs, wearing white angel wings, stood at the doorway to welcome the giddy delegates.
I quickly found the authors I’d come to see, bought a copy of a locally-produced anthology and had two books signed. Then I got out of there. This space was constructed exclusively for the straight white female audience. Outside, I exhaled my tension and swore beneath my breath. I met a friend at a nearby café. ‘I’m not going back there. Ever,’ I told her as I handed her one of the autographed books.
Despite the disheartening experience, I forged on and continued to the next genre convention that piqued my interest. This one covered speculative fiction, sci-fi, paranormal and fantasy. I was an eclectic reader after all, often reading books that crossed romance, sci-fi and fantasy. (This time, I told my writing group about it – they didn’t even know that such an event existed.)
After the previous experience, I didn’t want to go by myself so I tagged along with a friend who knew the event’s organisers. I wouldn’t be alone and I would be in a safe space with people I knew.
Walking into the venue, I was greeted by a rainbow of attendees, with purple, orange, pink hair. This boded well – I had changed mine from blue to a bright red anime colour a week earlier. Then, when people recognised the sci-fi robot t-shirt I wore, it buoyed me even more.
The conference was located in two floors of a local hotel near Queen Victoria Market, and had concurrent events on diversity that day. There was an entire set of panellists of people of colour. The large session room was full of a rapt audience. Meanwhile, upstairs, another diverse panel discussed cosplay. In this session, the panellists gave me the validation I needed – that it was okay to cosplay any character.
All of this discussion was great. But for all the talk, where were the people of colour? Once again, I had found myself in a space where I was one of the few people of colour, women of colour, in an event that was predominantly white. This time though, the delegates were mostly men (though the organisers were mostly women). The well-known sci-fi fantasy magazine, one that I subscribed to, had a table where they sold printed back issues. Even this was manned by middle-aged, white men.
As Masako Fukui wrote in the ‘Griffith Review’ (2013), despite the fact that ‘we live in a world in which we have multiple identities … we cannot escape being Asian, we cannot escape being women.’
Perhaps, I needed to go back to safer places, back to Melbourne’s western suburbs. Surely, a west-side literary festival would be more welcoming.
So, the following weekend, I took my writing group along to the opening ceremony of a west-side literary festival, where entries for the local writing prize were from west-side postcodes only. They would announce the winners that morning. I sat among my fellow writing group members and their families. Looking around, we were the only women of colour in a room of white.
The opening speaker asked the audience, ‘Who among you is local?’ We were confused, dumbfounded. Why was she even asking this question? Weren’t we all local? Perhaps, I was imagining things, but somehow their furtive glances toward our diverse group conveyed, ‘No, don’t raise your hand. You’re not local.’
This time, I wanted to fight back. In a show of defiance, I stood up, matched their stoic glares and freely moved around the conference room and began taking pictures for social media.
Millicent Weber (2017) described literary festivals as ‘complex beasts, its immediate local audiences – typically wealthy, white and well-educated.’ My fellow local writers may not be wealthy nor white, but we’re well-educated writers of colour, with combined multiple tertiary and graduate degrees in our writing group. But did it matter? After all, our writing group wasn’t part of the dominant white narrative. And contrary to what Ben Walter wrote about geography and privilege (2017), it also didn’t matter if we lived in the inner suburbs of Melbourne.
None of it matters, as one prominent writer of colour from Sydney told me a few days ago. White writers and publishers won’t listen because writers of colour, no matter where we come from, whether Melbourne or Sydney, no matter how many times we write about representation and empathy, and the need to read diverse books, especially Australian writers of colour. ‘What this really comes down to is the issues of power and dominance and those who refuse to share it.’ (Lopesi, 2017).
Audre Lorde wrote, ‘As white women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone, then women of colour become ‘other’, the outsider whose experience and tradition is too ‘alien’ to comprehend.’
As proof, it takes commissions such as these, from organisations such as Writers Victoria (and benefactor), to give a space to emerging writers of colour.
In the end, I was tired and deflated. I decided to shift back to where I started. I went back to my pop-culture fandom via Melbourne’s comic convention. For the first time ever, I walked around in an ‘80s robot cosplay. Masked, no one judged me by the colour of my skin, my gender, race, size and age. I felt a relief that I never felt at the other conventions. Was this what privilege felt like? I relished those few hours until the real world swallowed me up again, where women writers of colour were constantly silenced, and our voices erased, remaining invisible and tokenised in the white mainstream narrative.
Timmah Ball. ‘Still talkin’ up to the white woman.’ Millennials Strike Back. ‘Griffith Review’, 56 (2017), pp 42-43.
Masako Fukui. ‘Madame Butterfly’s revenge: a new direction for orientalism.’ Women and Power. ‘Griffith Review’, 40 (2013), p 219.
Lana Lopesi. ‘The ‘D’ Word: In Conversation with Alice Canton.’ ‘The Pantograph Punch’, (12 July 2017) http://pantograph-punch.com/post/The-DWord- Alice-Canton
Audre Lorde. ‘Age, race, class, and sex.’ ‘Sister Outsider’, (2007), p 117.
Anupama Pilbrow. ‘A Remarkable Thing.’ ‘The Suburban Review’, Vol 7 (October 2016), p 5.
Ben Walter. ‘You can be a successful writer, but only if you live in Melbourne or Sydney.’ ‘Overland Journal’, (12 April 2017) < https://overland.org. au/2017/04/you-can-be-a-successful-writer-butonly- if-you-live-in-melbourne-or-sydney/>
Millicent Weber. ‘At the intersection of writers festivals and literary communities.’ Overland Journal, (6 September 2017) <overland.org. au/2017/09/at-the-intersection-of-writers-festivaland- literary-communities/>
About CB Mako
CB Mako is a member of West Writers Group, an art student at Footscray Community Arts Centre, and winner of the 2016 GMW Emerging Writers Competition (non-fiction). Her works have been published in ‘The Suburban Review’, ‘The Lifted Brow’, ‘The Victorian Writer’, ‘Pencilled In’, ‘Peril Mag’, ‘Mascara Literary Review’ and ‘Koru Mag’.
This article was originally published in The Victorian Writer.