Writers Festivals, Diversity, and The Fangirl

 

Fanfiction takes someone else’s old story and, arguably, makes it new, or makes it over, or just makes more of it, because the fan writer loves the story so much they want it to keep going 

(Jamison, 2014).

———–

“What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?” read one of the trivia questions at the Emerging Writers’ Festival (EWF) ‘Late Night Lit: Fandom’.

Why did it sound familiar? Where had I heard it before?

Like most of the questions that night, that brilliant, fun night, the answers escaped me. I was too focused on my spiel that evening. It was my first time participating in a panel at a writers’ festival.

Dazed, I pinched myself.  This was real. I couldn’t believe it.  Who would have thought that eight months after I sent the proposal—as a dare—I would end up participating at the Emerging Writers Festival.

———–

Through some strange pull of the universe, I had just stumbled on a new podcast called ‘Fansplaining’, which in their third episode interviewed a guest who sounded very Australian. Podcast hosts Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel introduced Jules Wilkinson as having written a chapter in ‘Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World’ by Anne Jamison. ‘Fic’ was the very first book I’d read about fandom, and I had both a signed print copy and an ebook version.

Immediately after listening to the podcast, I followed Jules on her Twitter fandom account @Superwiki and a tweetup followed.  Jules was not only from Melbourne, but she also lived on my side of the suburbs.

Soon after, I followed another Melbourne fangirl, fanfiction-writer-turned-author Lauren E Mitchell.

And suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone anymore—there were three of us fangirls on Twitter, actively writing, tweeting, and curating fanworks in our respective fandoms—and we were all from Melbourne.

Empowered by this, I considered submitting to the Emerging Writers’ Festival sometime in November 2015. Surely, with three curators of fandom living in Melbourne, a writers festival could finally acknowledge the existence of fanfiction and fandom within the literary sphere.

But was it too much to ask from a literary event? To be honest, I wasn’t even sure that was even possible. I hit send and crossed my fingers.

Meanwhile, on social media, women around the world openly admitted that they were fangirls, and engaged in fandom-related activity. It was high time to ditch the disdain over fanfiction (Monier-Williams, 2016) and celebrate fandom (Romano, 2016).

———–

So then, on a cold winter evening in June 2016, I decided to present something different about my fandom at the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

“What sets this latest version of Voltron apart from its previous incarnations is diversity,” I said in a brave, shaky voice soon after showing a three-minute clip of my favourite animation’s latest reincarnation.

The writers and animators behind Netflix’s Voltron Legendary Defender was the same team who created the animated series ‘The Legend of Korra’, whose characters were well-written, well-defined people of colour.

The new ‘Voltron Legendary Defender’ series raised the stakes even more.

First, they changed the main characters’ design. Princess Allura went from blonde hair and blue eyes to dark skin, pale hair, and pointy ears. To breathe life into her voice, the brilliant Kimberly Brooks—who is also a woman of colour—was cast. Since the series started, I have seen women of colour tweeting their cosplay costumes as Princess Allura, wearing their cosplay with agency.

Also, Keith’s voice actor was none other than Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, best known from the hit series The Walking Dead.

Then there was a character with a disability. Shiro, woken up after being captured by aliens, missing an arm and having a robotic prosthesis in its place.

Lastly, a character named Pidge, revealed in the new series as a girl, unlike in the show’s previous incarnations.

I would later learn via the Let’s Voltron podcast 65, that the change of gender didn’t affect the way Pidge was seen or how she performed as Voltron’s paladin. Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos, the series’ producers, mentioned:

‘Her gender didn’t really dictate what type of character she was.  They treated her exactly the same and served the exact same purpose on the team…You don’t change the story, or how the character acts to make the character female. Pidge occupies the same space that she occupied when she was a boy.’

———–

Energised from brilliant morning sessions at the Feminist Writers Festival (FWF)’s Networking Day, I headed for lunch, my brain buzzing with plot bunnies.  New energy sizzled in the air.  It was late August, the end of winter and the start of the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF).

The FWF sessions I caught that morning were about diversity in genre fiction and handling social media with a feminist lens. The session rooms were jam-packed, standing-room-only for this inaugural festival, panelled by women whose names graced the literary world and social media. I was star-struck.

I didn’t care if the session rooms were too small or too cramped.  The energy ignited something simmering, something bright.  And to be in the midst of this creative, positive vibe, I felt I’d witnessed something simply amazing during those morning sessions. The challenge was about diversity and inclusion: daring us to raise our voices, find supportive places, to open the discussion using your preferred social media platforms.

In a nutshell, there was a need to acknowledge, to create and facilitate discussion as diverse and inclusive feminist communities.

This was the very same theme from West Writers Forum last July 2016 at Footscray Community Arts Centre: making the conversation; engaging, celebrating, and championing the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Lost with dozens of plot bunnies circling in my head, I realised I had left my mobile phone back in the session room on the top floor.  Rushing back towards the elevator, I outstretched my arm and caught the nearly-closing elevator door.

When I stepped in, I was taken aback by the condescending stares of the two young women already in there. In the tiny elevator of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, they seemed as tall as the ceiling, well-groomed, composed.

They looked like they’d just arrived for the afternoon sessions. They didn’t look harried or rumpled.  They looked like they’d just stepped out of an elite fashion catalogue. Melbourne Fashion Week coincided with Melbourne Writers Festival and it was a mere few blocks away.

That brief moment seemed to stretch infinitely, and their haughtily arched, well-trimmed brows and pursed lips showed their displeasure that I’d invaded their space.

I was barely five feet tall, with blue hair, pink eyeglasses, and wearing a fandom tee shirt. And I was a woman of colour.  Did they mistake me for a teenager?

Their stares brought back a flash of dark memory; of an equally tall woman, with pale, white skin. In her heyday, she’d been a stunning beauty, a fashion and commercial model.  She came from ‘old money’ and not ‘new rich’ as her daughter would later tell me.  Their family’s surname garnered respect among Manila’s business elite.  She too gave me that similar, judgmental stare.  I was a morena – my dark skin and short stature didn’t match her expectation for her equally mestizo son. In her eyes, I wasn’t worthy despite finishing a graduate degree with High Distinction. Even in my birth country I was judged by my looks.

I pushed the awful thought aside and focused on the present moment.  “I…I’m looking for the books,” I stammered.  “Isn’t the book stall at the fourth level?”

“What kind of books are you after?” A twitch of amusement from the one of the women.

I turned my back on them and faced the door.  “All kinds.  All the books.”  I said, too gleeful, sounding deranged even.

“Oh, that’s lovely, you like all kinds of books,” came the reply.  Did I imagine her voice too syrupy, sugar-coated sarcasm?

The short trip to the top floor seemed an eternity.   The moment the slow elevator door opened, I bolted out.  Grateful for small mercies that I finally was able breathe.  Was I even aware I was holding my breath?  How ironic this fraction of a moment would haunt me, something intangible, unspoken, and yet, disturbingly real that had happened… at a feminist writers festival, of all places.

———–

The answer was forty-two.

The same number—my age—when my daughter was officially declared in remission from blood cancer. The heavy cloud of uncertainty lifted and I found my voice.

———–

We went as a group.

Straight after FWF Networking Day, I met up with fellow members of West Writers Group at nearby bar for drinks. It was our first time to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival’s Opening Night.  Like eager fangirls and devoted groupies, we sat near the stage. We were there to show our support and solidarity for Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Mesmerised, I fought a constant stream of tears as Maxine delivered her stunning Opening Address.

This was epic.

This was unprecedented.

History was unfolding before us.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, a woman of colour, delivered a powerful speech that sent shivers and goosebumps. She was our torch bearer. She was a game-changer.  The call for diversity in the literary writing community was louder.  My inner writer was bursting with energy.

We can do this, I told myself.

We can make this happen.  We are, after all, in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature.

———–

“You should listen to Hamilton,” Sian said, whom I’d met on Twitter years ago and befriended the first time we’d met.  We were both geeks with a sweet tooth, and we were into slow cycling—cycling as everyday transport. I loved Sian straightaway.

Crinkling my nose, I reluctantly agreed to her suggestion.  I’d only heard of Hamilton when it briefly crossed my fandom twitter feeds. Fansplaining podcast episode 12 had Hamilton in their New Year’s countdown’s top spot.

At this point, I hadn’t seen any pictures or videos of the Broadway musical.

But I needed an earworm as I slowly cycled to and from the city to attend the memoir writing workshop, and so I found myself listening to the entire musical. In ear muffs, infinity scarf and winter gloves, the music of Hamilton pumped up my cargobike ride.

A hopeless romantic, I love anything and everything HEA—Happily Ever After. When I returned Sian’s CD box set, she asked, “How did you find it?”

“Why was it not HEA?  And had a love triangle?  And his son died? I was cycling and it tore my heart apart,” I said, clutching my chest.  “But I love the music. The brilliant beats and eclectic music helped my cycling momentum.”

“That’s good then,” Sian replied. Later, I would thank her with a fan-made Hamilton brooch and locket.

I expected my interest to wane, until Sian shared a weblink of the documentary about the Hamilton musical shown between 21 October and 18 November 2016.

Hamilton’s America, the documentary film that brings history to vivid life through the lens of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pop culture Broadway phenomenon Hamilton – winner of 11 Tony Awards® and the Pulitzer Prize – explodes onto THIRTEEN’s Great Performances, as the season premiere of the PBS Arts Fall Festival.”

Everything changed.

I was mesmerised, drawn into its vortex of awesomeness.  The cast of Hamilton were mostly people of colour.

Watching the documentary for the first time, I found myself in tears. Was it about Alexander Hamilton’s tragic beginnings and that he was a prolific writer? Or was it because of composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, his family’s migrant background and his musical brilliance?

And then it hit me.

Hamilton musical was fanfiction.

The fundamental objective of fanfic, especially when it is written by women, queer and genderqueer people, and people of color, is to insert yourself, aggressively and brazenly, into stories that are not about and were never intended to be about or represent you.

‘Hamilton unites the story of American independence with black, Latino, and Asian actors who were excluded from it, and in doing so allows these excluded citizens to put themselves back into the narrative. Hamilton is not just a story of history — it is the story of the ongoing struggle to make sure that people of color, immigrants, women, and other marginalized citizens are included in the sequel.’

(Romano, 2016).

Later, Sian lent me a large tome. Hamilton The Revolution had big, colourful pictures, full pages of snapshots of the Hamilton Broadway performance, beautiful people of colour.

I read the book cover to cover, reading and listening to the lyrics on a loop.

“How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?

Ev’ry second you’re alive ev’ry second you’re alive.”

How was it possible I would find inspiration in a Broadway musical that sang mostly in rap and hip-hop? And when did I start listening to hip-hop and rap?

And then I read this quote: “Just from the way the story is told, I feel like hip-hop is now a legitimate filter—though it’s always been legitimate to me. It’s as vital and important as dancing or poetry or singing.” (Miranda & McCarter, 2016)

———–

Then, the unthinkable happened, sending shockwaves across the globe.

My Twitter feed overflowed with racist, misogynist, and sexist tweets as the USA declared Trump as its president-elect. This was soon followed by the Australian politicians Hanson and Dutton with their own brand of racist insults.

A single line from Hamilton echoed in my head, repeating like a broken record, “And the world turned upside down.”

Since we were Down Under, turning the world upside down didn’t mean it righted itself.

Were things going to get worse?

Then I remembered that we recently attended the Diverse Women Writers event at Writers Victoria. Diverse voices were heard—Indigenous, women of colour, women with disability, LGBTQI+, and carers.  Were our endeavours this year to champion diversity all for naught?

Shell-shocked, my creative energy was at its lowest ebb.

Flipping through the Hamiltome, I found myself drawn on its passages,

“But as Alexander Hamilton kept trying to tell us, even the best-ordered societies need infusions of new blood to thrive.”

Hamilton wrote in The Federalist No. 36, “There are strong minds in every walk of life that will rise superior to the disadvantages of situation and will command the tribute due to their merit.”  (Miranda and McCarter, 2016)

Out of the blue, Lauren Montgomery—producer of Voltron Legendary Defender—tweeted ‘We have amazing fans!’ at this:

Picture3

But somehow, it wasn’t enough to bring me out of the stupor.

This time, fandom and fanfiction weren’t enough.

I needed more.

I was looking for something else.

I wanted voices from Australia. I needed to find inspiration from writers and artists from Australia.

From the literary and arts community, I found two women who helped put my creative energy back into gear.

Literary journal Kill Your Darlings’ Publishing Director and Editor-in-Chief, Rebecca Starford, wrote a piece called ‘Dreaming is a form of planning’: A response to the US election’:

‘But in these times of attack – on gender, on ethnicity, on sexuality, on common decency – the arts now have a greater responsibility than ever, to not only hold up a mirror to this unrecognisable world but to show a pathway to change and regeneration. This is our great hope within this deep despair. This is our politics, this is our purpose.’

And bold and vibrant colour comic zine by illustration and comics artist Rachel Ang visualised what I felt.

In its small A6-sized pages, a woman of colour shared her thoughts in words and art.  Was it coincidence that it was the same artist who drew the cargobike art for my Twitter banner?

In this mysterious pull of the universe, in the city of Melbourne—world’s most liveable city sixth year in a row, UNESCO city of Literature, and one of the top fourteen diverse cities in the world—I found my local and supportive writing and art communities, my safe spaces.

 

———– 

References

Rachel Ang. House of Bricks, (November 2019). <http://drawbyfour.bigcartel.com/product/house-of-bricks>

Flourish Klink & Elizabeth Minkel.  ‘The Year of Fandom’. Fansplaining, Podcast 12, (30 Dec 2015),  <http://fansplaining.com/post/136480173513/transcript-fansplaining-episode-12-the-year-in>

Hamilton’s America.  PBS Great Performances.  (21 Oct 2016), <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/hamiltonfullfilm/5801/ >

Anne Jamison. Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, Smart Pop Books, (2014), p 17.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter.  Hamilton The Revolution,  Hachette Book Group, Inc., (2016).

Elizabeth Moliers-Willam.  ‘Death of a Fan Fiction Snob’.  Medium, (9 Feb 2016), <https://medium.com/@analyticeye/death-of-a-fan-fiction-snob-d336796400a9#.79of13ki3>

Marc Morrell and Greg Tyler.  ‘Lauren, Joaquim and Return of the Gladiator’. Let’s Voltron, Podcast 65 (16 July 2016), <http://letsvoltron.com/65>

Aja Romano.  ‘Defending Fandom Is Exhausting. Let’s start celebrating it instead’.  Vox, (17 June 2016), <http://www.vox.com/2016/6/7/11859870/fandom-defense-transformative-community>

Author: CB Mako

CB Mako is a member of West Writers Group and art student at Footscray Community Arts Centre. In 2016, she won the Grace Marion Wilson Prize for non-fiction, was a panelist at the Emerging Writers' Festival's 'Late Night Lit: Fandom', and read her non-fiction piece at the Melbourne Writers Festival's 'Storytelling at the Dock'. Her works were published online at The Suburban Review, The Lifted Brow, The Victorian Writer, and Pencilled In. CB Mako can be found on Twitter as @cubbieberry and Instagram as @cb.mako.