|Painting by Hendrik Vroom, 1628|
Dawn -- or as close thereto as made no functional difference -- found me trying to find the room in which the SFWA (Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America) Business Meeting was to be held. The convention center, where the panels and other official events were held, was closed up, and the few bleary-eyed souls there had no idea. I found out later that there indeed had been "signage" -- in 12 point font. The con suite offered me orange juice but no information, and this is a good place to say what a splendid job those folks did in supplying real food -- tasty and sustaining -- on a regular basis. Eventually, someone suggested I check out the building aptly named "Meeting House" and indeed this proved to be the right place. I arrived in time for tea, yogurt, fresh fruit, and various business stuff. If you're a SFWA member, you can read about it in the official report; if you're not, I'm not supposed to divulge the secret handshake. I hung around afterwards for g/o/s/s/i/p professional conversation. The reason the meeting had to be so early was that under the rules of World Fantasy conventions, "outside" organizations may use the facilities only "outside" convention hours, which meant we had to be done by 10.
Then came the high point of the convention for me -- lunch with my editor! It's always lovely to be treated to a nice meal and even nicer to hear that the person into whose care you have entrusted the precious child of your creative spirit is as excited about it as you are. Mutual appreciation ensued.
Next came my one panel, which I was moderating: The Lands Of Islam (to fit in with the overall theme of "Sailing the Seas of Imagination"). The panel included Howard Jones, Na'amen Tilahun and Sandra Kasturi.
Here's the description: Islamic lore is one of the world's richest stores of fantastic premises, as illustrated by Burton's 1001 Arabian Knights [sic] and its sequel. A look at the legends and lore from this fascinating cultural source, as well as other Middle and Near Eastern stories and myths. Are there specific dos and don't for writing Muslim characters with authenticity? And what are the considerations about using Muslim characters in the current political climate?
I felt, with a moderator's prerogative, that it was important to tackle the panel description and point out how it conflates Arab culture and Islam. Many of the story elements we find in the 1001 Nights are not in fact "Islamic," but are derive from pre-Islamic folk traditions that span not only the Middle East but Northern Africa through India and beyond. More than that, I wanted to point out the issues of "Orientalism" and "othering." I was disturbed that none of the panelists were Muslim, so I invited Saladin Ahmed as a "ghost panelist" and read from his essay, "Muslims in My Monitor" (The Escapist, 31 August 2010):
In Orientalism (1978), his landmark study of Western attitudes toward the Arab and Muslim worlds, the late Columbia English professor Edward Said defined "Orientalism" as Western culture's tendency to depict the Middle East through "a series of crude, essentialized caricatures." Some of these caricatures "present [the Islamic world] in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression." Others are more positive, but still treat the Middle East as an exotic land perpetually stuck in the past.
(In addition, I'd obtained a [very gorgeous] cover flat of Saladin's upcoming novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, to wave about. There are distinct benefits from sharing an editor!)
We talked about Amin Maalouf's The Crusades Through Arab Eyes and other resources, and Judith Tarr joined us as another ghost panelist. Howard Jones, one of the panelists, furnished a great deal of historical background.
At some point, my brain stopped taking notes and I just followed along with the conversation. Once I'd anchored the panel with the points I thought were crucial, I threw it open to "Who does it right?" and "Where do we go for accurate information?" And the discussion was wonderful. I wish we'd had more time, as I often had to choose whether to interrupt a lively panelist conversation or ask the audience to wait just a little longer with their own questions and comments.
We came up with a few titles and authors -- significant that there were only a few -- but I wonder if it would be of value to start compiling such a list.
A couple of comments from the audience troubled me, although not overwhelmingly so. One was the comment that if we don't have Muslim friends, we are somehow not paying attention or are deliberately isolating ourselves. The response was that there are many areas in North America that have few or no Muslims, but the internet allows us to create a wider community. I think that's worth paying attention to.
The second question was why should we worry about getting Arab culture or Islam right when we're making up fantasy worlds. This troubled me more. No matter how "made-up" our stories are, they reflect our own experience and prejudices, and have resonances of the real world. We don't have to represent current cultures but we do need to be aware that any time we depict "people of the desert" or a monotheistic religion that in any way resembles Islam (accurately or based on the worst stereotypes), those resonances will be present in the minds of our readers.
Next installment: Immortality panel, publisher dinner, and fan-girl-go-squee highlights.