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Thursday, June 20

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Author Thu Apr 24 2014

Geek Chic Lit by Michi Trota

Michi Raks Geek.jpg
Michi Trota. Photo by Braden Nesin.

Invisible: Personal Essays on Representation in SF/F, an anthology about the importance of representation in science fiction and fantasy edited by Jim C. Hines, was released earlier this month (all e-book proceeds will go to Con or Bust). The collection is made up of heartwarming, and heartbreaking, posts on inclusion and exclusion, many of which originally appeared on Hines' blog. Michi Trota, a Chicago writer, speaker, community manager/organizer, geek, and -- what's the word? oh, yeah -- badass, contributed "I Don't See Color," an excellent essay about how her fandom(s) helped her to recognize how much she has struggled with her relationship with race. I recently asked Trota some questions (one for every panel she's appearing in at C2E2 this weekend -- well, almost) about her piece for Invisible, and her involvement in the geek community.

How were you approached to participate in Invisible?

I regularly follow Jim C. Hines's blog, in part because he's written so eloquently and passionately about diversity and representation in science fiction/fantasy and fandoms. A friend posted a link to his blog entry about wanting to do a series of guest posts about representation in SF/F, because he thought it was important for people who had direct experience with marginalized identities to speak for themselves. I pitched Hines my idea for an essay and honestly, I didn't expect my chances to be good -- Hines has a very strong and diverse readership and by the time I submitted my idea, the post was almost 12 hours old, and he'd been inundated with ideas from other people. So when Hines' accepted the pitch, I was thrilled -- and the terrified because now I had to write the damn thing!

What inspired you to write "I Don't See Color"?

I've loved SF/F my whole life. Watching cartoons, reading books like Lord of the Rings and Dune and Ender's Game -- those were things we did as a family because both my parents were big nerds, too. SF/F has provided a great amount of inspiration for me as a writer and as a person. I love the genres because they inspire us to imagine worlds beyond what we experience every day and to dream of endless possibilities for ourselves. So as an Asian American who was born and raised here in the US, even knowing that there haven't been many Asian American women characters in the fandoms I loved, it was a shock to realize that almost all of the characters who I've identified with have been white. Further, when looking back at my attempts at writing fiction, all of my characters were white, even when I was writing fanfic as a teenager and Mary Sueing (writing an idealized version of myself as a character) myself into the story. What it says about the culture I grew up in and the power of fiction is something I felt was important to untangle and write about. It turned out to be a very difficult essay to write, because writing about race and my relationship with the idea of race makes me more than a bit uncomfortable -- by contrast, I find writing about my relationship with gender to be easy and safer ground. Which is why I'm glad I was ultimately able to write this essay.

Are there any other essays in the anthology you'd recommend? If so, which one(s)?

It's so hard to choose! They're all amazing and it's a great honor to be included with these writers. Nalini Haynes's essay on the "Evil Albino Trope" is one that really caught my attention because I felt like it was a trope I was aware of, but not to the degree that I'd ever thought about how prevalent it is and how it contributes to systemic discrimination of people living with albinism. Mark Oshiro's essay is also a favorite because I love how the imagery and raw emotion that comes through in his writing. Joie Young's essay about how characters can be a lifeline for people struggling to understand their own identities was deeply moving. I would also highly recommend reading Alex Dally MacFarlane's intro piece for her column about post-gender binary on, because MacFarlane's piece (and the fairly awful criticism that followed it) was in large part the inspiration for Hines' decision to do the guest writer series, which in turn became this anthology.

If it's possible to choose, what's the best thing about being a geek woman? And conversely, the worst?

The best thing about being a geek in general is getting to be as enthusiastic and passionate as you want about the things you love. You can geek out about Batman, your favorite fantasy authors, food, beer, knitting, "Doctor Who," whatever you want. You meet someone who says, "I've never heard about 'Doctor Who,' what can you tell me about it?" and it's off to the races because there are few things more awesome than being able to introduce a friend to something you love because maybe they'll love it, too, and you can share your passion for this thing together. Geek communities are ideally founded by this sense of shared passion and curiosity -- it's a core principle of the Chicago Nerd Social Club (I'm on the board of organizers for the group), and anyone who wants to call themselves a nerd or a geek can do so.

What I love about being a geeky woman is that (ideally), being part of a geek community means I get to be a woman outside the constraints of gender norms. I can be girly and enjoy watching Batman whomp the bad guys. I can love "Project Runway" and school my friends on Lord of the Rings trivia. Being a geeky woman doesn't mean that I have to give up femininity, because being feminine and being a geek are not mutually exclusive! So many of the friends I've made are geeks and finding so many other geeky women has been incredible, especially because I grew up thinking that I was alone as a girl who liked sci-fi (silly me).

Sadly, that sense of community can also be a detriment when it slides into selfish, exclusionary gatekeeping. As a woman of color, I've experienced some disheartening exclusion and discrimination in geek communities purely because of my ethnicity and because I'm a woman. Harassment at conventions, being threatened with rape just because you have a critical opinion about a character, comic title or fandom, being told you're only calling yourself a geek because you want men to pay attention to you (and if you don't, you're being a judgmental, stuck up [choose your female slur]), these are all problems that women regularly deal with, not to mention what happens if, say, you're a black woman who likes cosplaying as Sailor Moon characters. There's still a deeply embedded misperception that "geek" equals "straight white cisgender male" and that anyone outside of those parameters are "newcomers," "interlopers," and "Others" who are now trying to "change" geek culture by merely wanting to be acknowledged as part of the community. We're not "new," we've always been here!

Can you tell me a bit about your upcoming C2E2 panels?

I'm really excited about C2E2! There's been an increasing hunger in geek communities to have more conversations about diversity and inclusion and C2E2's been a wonderfully supportive event to host these sort of discussions. This year I had two panels accepted to the con:

1.) Opening the Clubhouse Doors: Creating More Inclusive Geek Communities is scheduled for Friday, April 25, 6:30pm-7:30pm, room S401CD. We're going to talk about how diversity and inclusion are necessary to growing healthy geek communities and creating characters, stories and art; tools/methods we've used that have worked (or not) when addressing issues like social privilege; and what we can do to make communities more open, safe and fun for all geeks and nerds. The panel will be moderated by the CNSC founder and president, Jeff Smith; joining me on the panel are Mary Robinette Kowal, a Hugo-award winning author; Mary Anne Mohanraj, founder of the Speculative Literature Foundation; Karlyn Meyer, an avid gamer who's written legal scholarship on gaming copyright law; and Scott Snyder, DC writer for Batman: Zero Year and other critically-acclaimed titles. (After our discussion, Trota announced that Gail Simone, formerly of Marvel Comics and current DC Comics writer, best known for Birds of Prey, will also be attending.)

2.) Glass Ceilings, Missing Stairs and Gatekeepers: Geeks Still Deal With Sexism is scheduled for Saturday, April 26, 2:45pm-3:45pm, room S401AB. We're no longer arguing if sexism is a problem in geek culture -- it is, so we're moving onto tackling the finer points of how sexism in microaggressions, institutional-level discrimination, unquestioned biases, and how we can address these problems. The panel will be moderated by SoosheBot, a science writer, with returning panelists from last year's highly successful "Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl" panel: Carlye Frank, Laura Koroski, Kate Lansky, Dawn Xiana Moon, Erin Tipton and myself. We've worked together for several years now on these discussions, so we're really excited to keep things going.


Michi Trota is a writer, speaker, communications manager and community organizer who lives in Chicago, IL with her husband and two (somewhat) reformed feral cats. She writes about geek culture & fandom, fire performance and occasionally bacon on her blog, Geek Melange, and is a member of the Chicago Nerd Social Club's Board of Organizers. In her spare time, she spins fire (sometimes in cosplay) with the fire+bellydance showcase, Raks Geek, and at the Chicago Full Moon Jams (for which she also manages communications and event planning). Her mutant power is making anyone hungry merely by talking about food. Which she does a lot. You should follow her as GeekMelange on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, G+, YouTube and Tumblr.

From "Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl: Discussing gate-keeping, geek culture & sexism":

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