The fact of the matter is that we’re all sick of diversity panels focused on how people of color are othered. We’re tired of sitting on panels talking about race, gender, sexuality, disability, and all the many ways we feel ostracized from our industries and the SFF community. It just makes people of color feel even more like our identities separate us out from the majority, like we’re invited to do diversity panels but not invited to take part on panels for our fandoms. It feels like we’re here to share our traumas, not our joys.
The Geeks of Color panel at NYCC is in its seventh iteration this year, so moderator Diana M. Pho (Hugo-Award nominated editor for Tor Books) had an idea. What if a diversity panel didn’t talk about race at all, but instead was given the opportunity to talk about the work they do and the fandoms they enjoy?
Diana asked each of the panelists to list their favorite nerdy topics, and then roll a giant D20 die to answer questions on everything ranging from Wheel of Time to Harry Potter to The Leftovers. If the die showed a number that didn’t correspond to something on their list, they answered a question about their job. But one rule remained firm: try not to talk about race.
The intention of the panel shifted from hardship to fun, and each of the panelists, including Locus & Nebula Award-winning author P. Djèlí Clark, Professor Sargon Donabed, cosplayer Jay Justice, comic author/editor Nadia Shammas, and comic author/artist Wendy Xu, shared excitement at the prospect of something different.
The panel was full of nerdy rambles, laughter, and understanding. Here are a few snippets of each of the panelists on their fandoms and the work that they do.
On Iron Fist: “I’ve always loved Iron First ever since I was a kid, I loved the comic books. My uncle and I would always watch old VHS movies of kung-fu movies, and Iron Fist brought that into a different medium for me. When they announced they were doing a TV show, I was so excited because I thought it would be an opportunity for Marvel to bring in martial arts and the street level superheroes. I was so disappointed, all I really wanted was a show that could bring to life the feeling you get when you read the comic books. He may not be the strongest, he’s not immortal, he’s not invisible, he does bleed, he does get hurt. But he never gives up, he does keep going. I would love to see that done again. Let’s actually have some fun martial arts. I definitely think the most important part of a martial arts show should be the martial arts.”
On work-life balance: “It’s hard because when your work is something you enjoy, the lie is ‘oh if you love your job you don’t work a day in your life’, but no, you work every day. I do editing and consulting and sensitivity reading, and I’ve done so much work in the fantasy genre that reading fantasy is not fun for me anymore. I gotta take a break and do something different. When you’re not clocking in and out, you have to make your own clock.”
On Luke Cage: “It was so cool to find a character that goes through a lot, and even though he’s super physically durable, he still has emotions and is a depiction of non-toxic masculinity, at least in the comic books. I just felt like every single woman in the show was a sex object. In the comic version of Luke, he was a dad and we got to see him be softer, and not just the bulletproof guy all the time. And I loved his report with his best friend, I love that we got scenes with healthy emotions and he got to talk about how how he was feeling, and be vulnerable even though he’s this big tough person.”
P. Djèlí Clark
On The Leftovers: “The entire show is basically that the world has lost its center, nobody knows what to do and everybody’s trying to deal with this tragic loss. There are some episodes that should win Emmys for art. It has interesting philosophy in it, the characters are well-written…they even played a Wu-Tang song in one episode, and you’re just like, they’re playing Wu-Tang on HBO. Stick around for all the seasons, I know it gets weird, there’s an episode on a cruise ship with furries and it is one of the best episodes of television ever. Even though he gets on your nerves, my favorite character has the be the main character, Kevin, the cop. He’s so effed up.”
On career challenges: “My day job is in academia. My biggest challenge is now that I have contracts [for writing], and my editor expects me to have certain things done, academia also expects you to have all this other writing. You have both of these sources of writing, and you have to figure out a way to turn off your academic brain. Otherwise I’ll start putting footnotes in my fantasy work. I think one of the challenges I’ve had, and I’ve recently become the father of twins, is trying to figure out how to be a Time Lord. Time has vanished from me. It was really different when I was like, I’m gonna write a story and submit it and I hope it gets published. Now they’re like, here’s a contract, and we need you to have that by this time. It’s a different world completely. The challenge is just figuring out how to balance all that.”
On Deep Space Nine: “Doesn’t it feel like there should be more Deep Space Nine? We need to see more. I’ve gone back and watched the series, and you know whenever you watch those Star Trek series that you loved, and you see the first three episodes, you’re like, “eh you’re still trying to figure things out”. And that’s still there with Deep Space Nine, I always said it was really good when Avery Brooks put the beard back on. This show is one of the best Trek series I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t need to have a ship that’s going everywhere. Even on the space station, they touched on so much – they used the Holodeck like no one’s used the Holodeck. The Star Trek series treated Deep Space Nine, to me, the way Marvel always treated the Blade movie – it was one of the best that doesn’t get the appreciation it deserved. Except from the fans, fans appreciated it, but the franchise doesn’t, and I wish there was more.”
On Harry Potter: “My favorite obscure character is…you know the kid who took pictures? Colin Creevy. You know what? That kid was great. That kid was the best kid, and everyone treated him like shit. Everyone thought they were too good for poor Colin, and Colin was just such a fanboy. Have you never been eleven and excited about something? My soul died long ago and I hope that I feel that excited and genuine about anything ever again. That is the spirit of fandom right there, in that child. It’s pure and unperverted, and he was punished for it for no reason! I think we should all be a little more like Colin, that was a good boy.”
On work-life balance: “I believe that work-life balance exists, I personally have not mastered it. I had a really bad burnout earlier this summer, it was an absolute crash. Even writing for one second felt like walking through glass. That really taught me that, as much as the hustle is important and the hustle is all I ever had, I’m from an immigrant background and everyone in my family is a hustler, so I didn’t really consider myself…Right now I’m working very hard to put my life back into focus. Seeing my friends is important, if I’m tired, not going out to a networking thing is important. Putting myself first, even if I want to put my work before that, is a thing you have to learn.”
On teamwork & collaboration: “I work in comics, it’s a team sport. I’m a writer and I’ve done some editing, so the biggest thing is communication. Be honest and keep in touch with your people. Try to be mindful. As a writer, my biggest thing is – don’t treat your artists as if they’re just a machine to make your vision or an extension of your ideas. They are their own creative mind and they bring something to your project. It only works if you two are respecting each other. Don’t be too precious.”
On Lestat: “I just think that Lestat is like, a himbo. The most extra character I have ever met in my life, and I love how much Anne Rice loves him and strives to take him seriously when nobody else does. I certainly don’t. He’s the kind of man who will be like, look I had a child, you have to stay with me now Louis, right? And then, imagine being so extra that the French theater vampires don’t want to hang out with you. Imagine being that guy that goes to a party, and all the other vampires who are extremely extra, are like ‘oh it’s Lestat, please go away’! I watched both Interview with the Vampire and Queen of the Damned. They changed the casting and I loved that, I loved that in Queen of the Damned, he wakes up after 200 years and decides he’s gonna be a rockstar. Lestat’s entire existence is about trying to get back with his ex and screwing up the world in the process. I empathize with how much he wants to deny that he has feelings. I love him as a character, he’s a dumb bitch.”
On valuing art: “I think there’s a lot of growing in comics. Everyone knows how to read and write, this is taught in elementary school. Reading prose is considered a basic life skill. But what we don’t learn is the language of visual literacy. Visual literacy is so important, especially in the era of targeted ads that are meant to ping the centers of your brain that respond to visuals. I think that it’s important to know that you’re being marketed to and the specific types of images they’re using for that. And comics are really good tool to teach you how to read images, to teach you empathy, and facial expressions and body language, and all those things we take for granted as people who rely on eyesight, as we live in a sighted society. So I really wish we taught visual literacy the way we taught prose literacy and that it was taken seriously. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a question from a well meaning librarian or parent that is, ‘how do I convince people that comics are not candy books and that comics are important tools for reading development?’ One of the selling points of comics right now, for kids especially, is that comics are great for reluctant readers. And yes, they are great for reluctant readers or readers with disability who can’t process words and prose in the same way. But tying that in to the notion that comics are not as worthy as prose is so ableist. And this ties into the devaluation of artists as people who make important cultural contribution. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a writer be billed more than an artist on a comic when that artist actually did most of the work. The devaluation of art and images is something I wish people would be better about.”
On space and theoretical physics: “One fact about space that I think is so cool is the fact that black holes exist and that they are so dense that it’s like a pin point that’s stretching the fabric of the universe so far out that it might as well just be a hole. What a universe that we live in. Time just stops when you’re around black hole. I just think that the way time and space work together and the way they warp around objects is so interesting. I have had several crises of faith in my life, but I think that the more I learn that the way the universe works, from how I understand it, through these documentaries where people try to dumb it down for people with overactive imaginations like me, the more I appreciate being in this world. And it really helps my anxiety sometimes to think about how small we are, and how we all exist on this floating rock in the middle of a void. I really like the Cosmos series on Netflix, I listen to that in the background while I work.”
Prof. Sargon Donabed
On the Wheel of Time: “Wheel of Time is awesome. I’m super excited for the series. I’ve been going to JordanCon, I’ve been lucky enough to go the past four or five years. Everyone’s a total geek, they even have this quiz show for people who know the most obscure shit on the planet. I get to talk to my students about Wheel of Time. They come by my office and go, you really like wolves. Then I’m like alright, let’s talk about wolves. One of the characters, Perrin, can talk to wolves. It is the coolest thing on the planet. I love animals, I went and got another degree because some dude challenged my knowledge on animals. The most amazing thing is, Jordan tells us that they don’t speak in language, the speak in this general imagery. And I imagine that’s how my two cats were communicating with me, that’s how I understand animals. There’s this really strange connection to primal humans that you get with this deep wolf-brother connection.
On finances as a creative: “The reason that I’m still in academia and not writing fantasy full time is because academia pays the bills. I have a lot of friends and colleagues that are full time writers or visual artists in speculative fiction and I am just in awe of the fact that they spend their entire time doing this, they cast their worries to the wind in some cases. It’s hard to make it in the academic world as well, the burnout rate is like three years if you’re in elementary or secondary education. There are so many pressures laid on teachers. In higher education it’s a bit easier. What I get to do that’s awesome, that’s been my gateway to fantasy in academia, is I get to take my joy of fantasy and I do it through the realm of mythology, and I bring that into my classwork. I get my students to write, and while they’re writing, I’m also writing.”
On Patrick Rothfuss: “Book 2 of the Kingkiller Chronicle (The Wise Man’s Fear) has a great segment where the main character spends time in the realm of the Fae and the way time moves there is totally different. And he does a really great job of expressing it, about how things are just always slightly surreal. When you spend time with the fae, just like the myths, you don’t know if a day has passed or ten years have passed. Rothfuss’s character, Kvothe, spends time there and basically has tantric sex for hours and hours and hours on end, and then learns all this magic for hours and hours and hours on end, and comes back and he’s still a jackass, and doesn’t take everything back. It’s really fascinating. Time is one of the most difficult things to write about, especially when you start talking about time travel. Getting stuck in a particular place and talking about how the world goes on in a different way without the main character, I think Rothfuss does that in a very palpable way.”
Diana M. Pho
On Avatar, The Last Airbender: “If I was going to be real with myself, I’m a tourist so that means I’d be an Earth bender. And also if you’re an Earth bender, you can also be a metal bender, and that’s really cool. I love Appa, but I also love the flying lemurs. I also love the animal hybrids, and it’s still very realistic to the environment they came from. I’m also a big fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and I just love the idea of some sort of animal bond that talks to you on a spiritual level. All the animals on that show are way smarter than the humans sometimes.”
On Animorphs: “Animorphs was my very first fandom. I was a really big Scholastic bookclub fan, and Animorphs came out at such a fast publication rate: one new book a month, are you kidding me? It was great. My favorite character is Ax the alien, Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill. I actually had a whole wax drawing of Ax on my childhood ceiling that stayed there until I was in college. I just loved the science fiction, but Animorphs is basically about child soldiers. It’s child soldiers stopping an alien invasion, who have the ability, through alien technology, to morph into any animal they touch. And I just thought that was a really cool idea, and I liked how Ax’s alien race, that brought this technology and introduced it to these kids, was a really flawed warrior culture.”