Thoughts on Eastercon 2022 [Hope In Strange Places]
I’m currently sitting in my hotel room, on my rather large bed, with an electric fan going back and forth blowing the heat about. I’m tired, confused, and feeling a little hopeless.
Eastercon has a long history that I’ve very little knowledge of. Many people tell stories from cons that happened before I was even born. They give anecdotes of encounters with authors I read when I was first getting to grips with science fiction. Those are the authors who to me had transcended beyond the here and now and into the science fiction canon. Those are the authors whose ideas and stories got read and discussed and debated. And now I’m here, realising that yes, they were real people, that they went to the same events, that they maybe, just maybe, are not so different from me.
So why do I feel so bad?
The Informal Short Fiction Markets Discussion: 20 or so writers, all huddled into a circle, sitting on hotel chairs and listening as the moderator starts the session off. They tell us they’ve sold stories, been given their ‘5 quid’ for each of them, and then sigh, a wry smile on their face.
Soon it’s an open discussion. We talk about tools for submitting, we talk about the one day rejection; one person is adamant that receiving the infamous form rejection means the story was never read, another shares they received insults in a rejection letter. When someone asks about the feasibility of self-publishing a short story collection, the moderator shares, rather openly, about liking the validation that comes from selling a story, even if it’s just ‘5 quid.’
It feels like a group therapy session. We’re all struggling with this addiction: we want to get published, we want to be read, we want people to know our name. We’re damn special and it’s an injustice our voices haven’t been heard. What do those editors know anyway?
The grimness sinks its teeth into me. Will I ever reach the level of those authors I read as a teenager?
Eventually I summon the courage to add to the discussion. I ask, ‘Do you read all the magazines you submit to? It feels to me there’s a lot more people trying to sell stories than there are people reading them.’ It gets a laugh.
The moderator says no, not all of them. You can’t do it. They’re busy writing stories. The ones they have read are, much like in my case, the ones that have stories in them written by friends.
Grimness takes a bite.
It feels like we all want to speak, and nobody wants to listen. Is that the right way to look at it? All of us are clamouring to be heard, to transcend into that science fiction canon.
I’m as bitter as bad coffee.
From the corner of the room someone asks, right at the end of the session, ‘You’ve all spoken a lot about Anglophone markets, but do any of you have experience with non-English speaking ones?’
They talk about wanting to break into the Anglophone markets, to write and sell in a non-native tongue. The moderator briefly comments on this, and all in the group agree, we want to hear those stories, don’t stop trying.
Once the discussion ends I go over and speak to the person. They are from Brazil, recently moved here, to the UK, and are looking to get stories in the English mags, get a book out in an English speaking publishing house.
Our conversation soon departs from writing. We talk a lot about Rio. We talk a lot about the martial arts culture way back in the early 90’s, when jiu-jitsu folks were going around beating everyone up. We talk a lot about surfing, the surf culture, how hard it is to get a spot on the wave. We talk and talk and talk—and I realise, holy shit, this is it, this is why Eastercon is so valuable: it brings like-minded people together. It’s a community.
My bitterness does linger, though, and it finds a second-wind in the early morning Notable Agent talk the next day. I’ve been to a handful of agent talks over the years and they always go a little like a war film, where the New Guy arrives at the front, meets their grizzled sergeant, who is chewing on a big cigar, and is quite quickly told that whatever you’ve heard is wrong, it’s way worse than that.
We’re tin-helmet troopers in a war for your attention, agent!
As the agent talk goes on, there’s a lot like, I have to have no doubts; I have to absolutely love it. And I look side to side at my fellow writer friends and we’re scared, in the trenches, realising—again—that we’re in a war, so to speak. The agent gets 40 novel submissions per-week, half of which are pretty good.
We gulp. We check our rifles. And we head to the bar.
I soon find myself in the talk on kēhuàn—Chinese science fiction. Giddy.
My fiancée is half Chinese and half English. She, like the speaker, had spent her childhood in China, and then came over to the UK later in life. When your culture comes from two very different places, forming an identity can be difficult to say the least. You lose your roots. Your first language slips away to your second. The way you think, even, changes too.
We try to speak as much Mandarin as we can at home. I’m very slowly learning it. We have dreams of maybe one day moving out to China, just like my fiancée’s father did all those years ago.
And I must confess, I can’t think of a single Chinese work of fiction I’ve read. I am a huge fan of Zen and Taoism and have read a lot of the Tao Te Ching, and done my best with The Gateless Gate, Wumen would be proud! (And then probably give me a slap!) So it was amazing to finally get an insight into what’s going on in China in terms of sci-fi. And there’s a lot.
We learn about the history of it all. We learn about its themes. Its contractions and expansions. Its battles with diversity of voices. All of it. It leaves me stunned and carrying the weight of a rather large reading list.
At the end of the talk I linger at the front. I must speak to this person who has opened my mind so much. I ask, so nervous I’m near to shaking, how someone who is struggling to learn Mandarin might learn Mandarin, how someone might use these kēhuàn stories as a way to get his characters (Hanzi) in order.
They ask, ‘Well, what level are you at?’
And I think, Do it, you’ve got to stretch yourself, so I say, ‘Wǒ de zhōngwén fēicháng bù hǎo.’ Literally: My Chinese is very not good.
It gets a laugh—and a reply in Mandarin that goes over my head and that I have to play off with a giggle and a quick shift back into English.
We talk, I get some hints, there’s another reading list coming my way, and, as the next talk’s audience begins filling in, I say, again, being brave here, ‘Wǒmen zǒu ba?’ - Shall we go?
My heart’s pounding. Did I screw it up? Am I being weird for trying to speak Mandarin?
They say, ‘Sure,’ and we go out to the lobby. It’s alright. I think it’s gonna be alright. We talk some more, but I soon speed off, there’s someone else lingering too, who wants to get their copy of Sinopticon signed.
Rushing down the hall I’m fresh-faced, excited, my bitterness is thoroughly blown away.
As the Con goes on I realise more and more that the panels and talks are like ports, ports for us weary sailors to come and drop anchor at, from which we then head over to the taverns, share our tales of adventures, show each other our scars, and have a good old time.
Let me know how you all found it, and see you in Scotland!