Jenny's Library

Archive for June 2013

I have a confession to make: I’m quite sexist at times.

I blame myself when random men on the street harass me. I think I’m an awful person for being as fat and out of shape as I am. I wonder if I’m really any good at science and math. I worry that I’m wasting my talents working with children.

I think that what I have to say isn’t important or useful.

This is why I call out sexist assholes. Why I let my anger color my voice when I do.

I do it so that I don’t explode. So that the doubts in my head don’t take over. Because it’s a better choice than razor blades.

I don’t do it for them or for you, I do it for me. Because sometimes I need to hear the truth spoken out loud, even if it’s just me saying it.

I don’t use my anger to purge myself, I use it as an affirmation.

I don’t need to justify my anger to you. It doesn’t exist for your benefit.
It most especially doesn’t need to pressed, folded, and packed into a form that pleases you. It doesn’t need to be locked away so that you aren’t disturbed or frightened or “saddened.”

It’s not a weakness or a poison. It’s the stubbornness that keeps me going when people treat me like shit. It’s the sense of righteousness that placed twelve year old me between the bully and his target before I’d even realized what I’d done.

Most of all though, it just is. It’s there the same way that happiness is. The same way that I like pickles and geometry. Or the way my brain never seems to shut off.

I’ve had this temper of mine all my life and I don’t need you to teach me how and when to reign it in, I learned that from my parents. I don’t need you to show me how to make it work with me and not against me, I figured that out on my own while standing on the field in my cleats and giving death glares to the ref who missed my teammate being fouled. I’ve known how to use it to make myself faster, sharper, stronger for almost as long as I’ve known how to read.

I don’t need you to tell me what my anger is good for.

I don’t need you to tell me that I’m not being polite. That I’m not convincing you. That I’m only making myself look bad.

I’m not angry for your benefit. I do not exist for your benefit. When I speak, I do not do so for your benefit.

Except for the times that I do.

Not because I’m trying to convince you that I’m right dammit!, but because I’m trying to convince you that you are. That you are awesome and wonderful and please never stop being that way. When I’m letting you know that, as far as I’m concerned, all those sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, classist, and transphobic assholes who even dare to imply otherwise can go take a long walk off a short pier.

The privileged may think that they’re always the center of every conversation that women have about sexism. They may be incapable of comprehending that they are not the focus of every discussion that people of color have about racism. But you and I both know that not every “you” is about them. That not every conversation has to include them, sway them, or plead with them in order to be productive.

That’s the fucking point.

Communities and conversations do not belong to them and them alone. They are not theirs to hold hostage when we misbehave.

They may think that we are the ones that turn everything into a battle. That we invade their world and divide it into groups to which they don’t belong. But we know that all we are doing is taking the war that has been waged on our bodies, our hearts, and our minds and forcing it back into the space we all share, where it belongs. Where it can be dealt with without tearing us apart from the inside. We know that we have always been here, just like them, and that it’s their choice to refuse to meet us as equals.
I don’t expect everyone to be perfect. I don’t expect people to never make mistakes. Goodness knows I make plenty of them myself.

What I ask is that you remember that there are all kinds of “yous” in this world and in our organizations. That you contemplate that just maybe you aren’t who I’m taking to every time I open my mouth. That you aren’t the person I’m primarily addressing when I point out hate and bias and stereotypes.

But most of all, that you not let the Bryan Thomas Schmidts of the world tell you that you aren’t. Don’t let them trick you into thinking that they are the only ones that need to be persuaded, as if we were merely humble petitioners. Don’t let them confuse you into thinking that I wrote this post for anyone but you.

(If you haven’t yet, please read Amal El-Mohtar’s initial and follow-up posts for background. And also just because they’re really good.)

Dear SFWA,

SFWA members,

and fellow interested parties,

I’m not a member of SFWA. I don’t write science fiction – or any other kind of fiction.

What I am is a librarian. A youth services librarian, to be precise.  Since speculative fiction is one of the most popular genres in children’s and young adult literature right now, I think it’s safe to say that my goals and yours are often in alignment.

After all, you want to get your books into the hands of readers and I want to get books into my readers hands!  These may not be our only goals, of course, but as far as goals go, they rank fairly high.  As a fellow professional, I appreciate all the hard work you do to make that possible.  From supporting your members financially and legally to singling out their best work for praise and honors – and much more.

But we need to have a talk, because I’ve been hearing some pretty disturbing things lately.

I cannot say in strong enough words how much Beale’s actions, and SFWA silence on the matter, offends me not just as a private individual, but also as a library professional.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we librarians take issues of freedom of speech very seriously.  We don’t like it when ideas are silenced or people are denied access to information just because the ideas or the people in question are unpopular.  We’ve even been known to do what we can to render laws unenforceable when we think they infringe upon our patrons’ right to read – or even their right to privacy (since the former depends a great deal on the latter).

Defending the public’s right to read can be trickier than it sounds at first. Librarians have learned over the years that sometimes this requires placing limits on people’s behavior while they are in the library.  Solicitation, making loud noises, or being hostile to fellow patrons are all ways in which private individuals can infringe upon others’ right to free speech within the library.  All of these, harassment especially, disrupts people’s ability to make their own reading choices in privacy and without fear. It’s not just a matter of fighting back chaos, it’s about respecting everyone.  Not just the people who are the loudest or most demanding.

The SFWA is not a library, nor is it a workplace.  But it is supposed to be a professional venue.  The same basic concepts about free speech and workplace harassment apply.

US law says that Beale has every right to whatever opinions he has on any subject.  He has every right to express them – in his own space, on his own time.  I’m certainly not going to advocate for libraries start filtering access to his site.  I wouldn’t even be opposed, assuming space and budget and collection development policies indicate it would be a good choice, for his opinions to be neatly shelved alongside all our other books, where patrons may choose to read or ignore them as they wish.  It can hardly be more inflammatory than Mein Kampf or less scientific than the latest book by Glenn Beck.

But the moment that Beale used SFWA resources to promote his opinions is the moment that he made his speech more than just about him and his own rights and his own opinions.  He’s made it about you – all of you – about your integrity, about your professionalism, and about your good judgement.

This is the part that worries me.

As a librarian, I like being able to look over the titles of the Norton award winners and nominees.  It has been one of the many resources I can go to for suggestions on what to buy or recommend to my teenaged patrons, and it’s been a very interesting and helpful one.

But recent events, and your silence about them, threatens the integrity of this resource.

Beale may have his own opinions about the the capabilities of “a society of NK Jemisins” but I have professional obligations to my young patrons.  Obligations which includes fostering their hopes and building up their skills and resources, even for those patrons Beale would deride as “savages.”  When I choose books for my library’s shelves, for library programs and displays, I choose them based not only on literary merit, but also on what they offer my patrons in terms of interest, personal growth, and joy.  When I go to various resources for suggestions and advice, as the sheer volume of books requires that I often do, I’m making a choice to trust the judgement of others.  This includes trusting them – trusting you – to, unlike Beale, see all my patrons as worthy of respect.

You can see my dilemma now. For the problem now is not just that Beale is one of your own, but that he has appropriated your voice.  In blatant disregard of your own policies yes, but unless there are appropriate repercussions for such actions, there must be doubt about your commitment to your own policies.  Doubt about your our own integrity.

What does that say about your judgement?  The judgement I have until now relied upon?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you, individual SFWA member, if I continue to pay attention to the Norton nominees and winner each year, or if I don’t.  It matters to me, though.  When I say that I use the list of Norton nominees as a resource, I say this as a librarian and a reader who has passion for the genre and experience evaluating it.

And when I say that the Norton Award will mean nothing to me, going forward, without Beale’s expulsion, I say this as a librarian who knows my own library’s collection well.  I know that what is most missing from my library’s collection are stories by and about the very people Beale has insulted and dehumanized.  We already have Tolkien and Heinlein.  We will continue to purchase Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman’s latest whether they are nominated for the Norton or not.  What I need are reminders to make room in the budget for stories like Akata Witch, Above, Hereville, and Ash.  Books that tell my most marginalized and oft forgotten patrons that they, too, belong in the library. That they, too, belong to a world of stories and worlds of possibilities.

But how can I trust you to help me with that when you can’t even manage to treat your own members with respect?  What is your judgement worth, if it fails to understand the difference between private speech and blatant disregard for organizational policy and goals?  What am I saying to my own patrons if I trust the judgement of people who associate with men who refer to them as “savages”?  If I trust the integrity of people who make excuses for shocking displays of racism?

If you lack the most basic respect for your own members, if you lack the most basic belief in the humanity of the patrons I serve – of the youth I serve – then I have no use for you.

Sincerely,

Jenny Kristine Thurman

When I packed my bags and set off for college, I expected that I would have to get used to new routines and ways of doing things.  What I didn’t plan on was having to relearn old habits when I came back home for the holidays.  It felt odd not having my friends close at hand and my stomach was often angry with me for no longer eating dinner promptly at 5:30.

Not every change was quite so loud and insistent as my disrupted internal clock.  It turned out that I’d also picked up new ways of saying things without even realizing it – until others brought it to my attention.  My mom would get a funny look on her face, as I, her second youngest child, stood there in a Disney t-shirt and referred to my classmates as “women” instead of “girls.”  Amused, she asked me one day while I was home for Christmas why I did that.  I can’t remember her exact wording, but the implied question was clearly whether or not my snobby, feminist leaning, all women’s college actively discouraged us from certain kinds of language.

The truth is that it didn’t – not in the sense of lecturing or trying to correct us.  Instead, they modeled how they wanted us to treat ourselves and each other.  Our handbooks, our professors, the welcoming talks we attended, everything that came from the college and was given to us called us women.  Sometimes young women, but always women.

So when she asked me that, I didn’t have a ready answer for her.  I’m not sure that I’d completely realized that this was not a normal thing to happen in college (did co-ed colleges refer to their students as boys and girls???? ) but I thought about it and told her that we did it not because we were all that sure of our adulthood, but because it was important that we treat each other respectfully.  It was one thing to refer to one’s close friends as girls, it was quite another to talk about a classmate’s research project and refer to her as a child while doing so. If we wanted to go out in the world and be treated with respect after graduation, we needed to get used to it now, so that we would more readily recognize when people weren’t treating us right later.

If I were to have that conversation now, I would add that the point was also get us used to believing in ourselves.  That by referring to us as adults, our college was indicating that not only did they trust we were capable of rigorous academic work and mature behavior, but that they expected it of us.

I can’t help but think of that conversation when certain kinds idiocy stumble into my corner of the internets.

What does it mean when an organization whose job it is to represent women in a professional capacity publishes, in the organization’s monthly newsletter, an article that uses language like “lady writers” and “lady editors”?  How exactly do they think that’s furthering the professional interests of their members?

Most of all, do they think their members will not notice?  Do they think it’s female members own editors, writers, agents, and publishers use that kind of language while doing business with them?  Is that how they think women in the organization think of themselves?

Is that how we think of ourselves?

I doubt it.  Or, rather, I doubt we mean to – but that’s the power of language. It not only gives us a tool to share our thoughts, it shapes them too.

The language that’s used in places like SFWA’s Bulletin is important not only for symbolic reasons, but also because insulting language encourages people to dismiss the people being derided.  It tells certain people that it’s ok to act disrespectfully and it conditions others to being marginalized.  It’s one thing for that kind of talk to happen on some random blog or even reddit, it’s quite another for it to occur (apparently frequently of late) in a professional publication.

The SFWA does a great many wonderful things for it’s members.  But so long as insults of this sort are included within it’s newsletter, all that work is going to be constantly undermined.  And I don’t just mean that all the negative focus on such asinine behavior will cast a cloud over the good work many people do.  Fighting for fair contracts and the like is only going to do it’s female members a limited amount of good if the organization itself speaks to women in such a way as to undermine their belief in their professional worth.  A single insult is hardly going to break all the amazing female writers I admire, but a persistent lack of respect is hardly going to help them either.  And isn’t that the goal of SFWA – to help it’s writers?  All of them?

The problem with phrases like “lady writers” and all the other, even worse, things that have been published in SFWA’s Bulletin of late isn’t merely that they are outdated and sexist.  It’s that they waste members dues by undermining the fundamental purpose of the organization.