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June 4, 2014

WisCon38 Takes on YA


There is so much to talk about when you talk about YA! From relationships to gender to diversity…the list never ends. That’s why we were excited when reviewer Charles Payseur said he’d break down two YA panel discussions that he recently attended at WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention that takes place in Wisconsin every year. The first featured guest of honor Hiromi Goto and talked about YA novels that don’t fixate on romance. The second, which featured guest of honor N.K. Jemisin, talked the role of race and identiy in YA fantasies. Read below for more details on these fascinating talks and the convention as a whole --- maybe you’ll be inspired to attend in the future!

WisCon38--- Guests of Honor: Hiromi Goto and N.K. Jemisin

Going to any convention can be a little crazy at times --- the pace of it, the great gathering of people who probably lean more introvert than extrovert. Especially for book conventions, when the emphasis is on written stories, it can be fairly surreal, a bazar of sights and thoughts and sounds. WisCon38 was no exception to that. It had an energy --- a feel to it --- that was unique and freeing. It truly is a convention that encourages people to be exactly as they are, to not hide anything away.

In that way, it was incredibly appropriate to feature writers Hiromi Goto and N.K. Jemisin. Both are incredibly skilled writers, and both focus to some extent on the difficulty and rewards of standing up to culture, to not accepting the prescribed place. And it was something of a theme of the convention --- finding ways around the standard expectations to create stories that resonate with people otherwise pushed out and marginalized.

Hiromi Goto, for instance, participated in a panel about middle grade and young adult stories that don't fixate on romance as a primary focus or ending. The expectation for much of the genre is that romance is a prominent or the most prominent story element, and often in the popularized romantic triangle story of "who will she choose?" Calling for stories that show a greater range of possible relationships, from familial to friendships, the focus of the discussion was about encouraging a more complex view of character and relationships within books geared toward younger readers, especially young women, who should see that there are ways of having stories that don't primarily involve or end with romance.

The panels that N.K. Jemisin took part in were, by and large, more geared toward race and identity, and tackled the idea of "historically accurate" fantasy as well as issues of cultural appropriation. Especially when dealing with young adult and middle grade fantasy, where the themes are often simplified and these settings presented in such a way that might erase racial diversity, Jemisin and her fellow panelists argued for a conscious reexamination of history and on a reassessment of why fantasy is depicted the way it is. Emphasizing the need to represent more than just one culture or one kind of person, the talks turned to how to be responsible in depicting race and gender in fantasy stories that might otherwise draw on a largely white, largely male tradition. Seeing those traditions as not only unnecessary, but as not based on the actual realities of history, the talk was about how stories shouldn't get a pass for racial insensitivity or erasure simply because that is how the past was presented.

And the convention as a whole was just a great experience, a chance to discuss and think about stories in ways that are generally not dealt with directly. It was amazing to hear such talented writers speak on the issues facing the genres and facing professional writing as a whole in a way that was empowering and insightful. Of course, there were a great many other authors, readers, booksellers and publishers represented on panels and presenting papers, and the convention was packed with things to do. It was rejuvenating and heartening to find such a bastion of thought and discussion, and sleep definitely suffered because of late-night panels or discussions with fellow con-attendees.

Fans of young adult have even more to look forward to next year, as the guests of honor were announced to be Kim Stanley Robinson and Alaya Dawn Johnson. Most of Johnson's work is in the young adult field, with urban fantasy being her genre of choice. It is a great credit to WisCon that it manages to engage such writers, whose work provokes and challenges readers of all ages to think and examine themselves and the world around them. I really can't recommend this convention enough.

Charles Payseur is a reviewer for