It has been a long month of being work-social (and we’re not quite done yet, either). Following an incredible Children’s Literature Summer School in Antwerp, I finally made it to an international fantasy conference – Once and Future Fantasies, hosted by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow, and IAFA. It has been a short, intense week filled with interesting talks, wonderful moments, and more wonderful people. But it has also been an revealing week, one that makes it more and more clear to me not only how much we all carry ourselves into our research and our work, but also how necessary it is for those of us who research fantasy to do so with our feet firmly planted in the world we inhabit – and all its ills, whether they touch our daily lives or not.
I’ve absolutely loved that at this conference people have been brave enough to question the foundational texts of the genre, pulling at texts and corners of the world that for many of us are not only a core part of our interests, but have become part of our identities. And to be honest, these were necessary, wonderful questions, that need asking constantly. And if I continue being honest, a byproduct of this questioning was responses that, though I’m sure unintentionally, drove home just how much of an outsider I am and have been and may well always be in these spaces. And it made me lean into my other skills, my mediator half, wishing that in certain moments I could have intervened from that skill-set, so the othering effect could have been resolved in the moment. And I wasn’t the biggest fan of having to have that internal battle in a public space that was also meant to be an open community. My reasoning for this is complex. I empathize, truly, with the need to defend academic ground and value for many reasons. I’m a Disney scholar in the worlds of children’s literature, fantasy, and media studies – of course I know intimately what it feels like when someone looks sideways at my research topics of choice, their importance, their value. I’m also deeply emotionally connected to my texts of choice, from the Disney adaptations to the fairy tale adaptations, and so many others, these books and stories have meant so much to me that I do really dislike when people poke at their worth. But, to me, academia is a place of uncertainty and curiosity first, surety maybe fifth or sixth, if ever. If we cannot separate ourselves from the work that drives us, especially when gathered in our larger and wider community, and ask deeper questions about the relative aspects or relational aspects of what we hold intellectually important, then, well, we have a little bit of a problem.
The idea of separating the self from the work is a tricky one, something I have deliberately worked on for the last three years. I firmly, firmly believe that we bring ourselves into our work, and that self inflects upon our research questions, how we investigate our topics of choice. There is no way that I can pretend that my life experiences have not informed my curiosities. But that self is present in terms of my investigations, my research, my writing. I have learned, through many a grant rejection season, a freelance writing career, and many other things in life, that when it comes to considering the place of my work in the world, I am going to have to accept that other people bring their whole selves to their consideration of my favorite things. I cannot cheekily describe my job as a researcher as “ruining everyone’s favorite childhood things” and not expect that to be a very multidirectional road. I have learned that if I don’t make room for other people’s whole selves and their criticisms, their modes of interrogation and questioning, I limit the potential of the work. All of us who push the edges of the field know what it is to be shut out of fields, to be sidelined. When we react to questions about the validity of what we might do, we need to consider where those questions come from. Are they coming from the establishment? Or are they coming from people who are also looking for their place in the wider intellectual community? Knowing the answer to those questions matters. And if we don’t answer those questions before we react to the questions, we risk passing on the negative part of academia, of making people feel like their inquiries are illegitimate and don’t belong in the spaces we hold so sacral ourselves. And that should not be part of the future we imagine for the field, or for the world.
A lot of the conference focused on questions of what fantasy has been, and what it might yet become. I think the question that also needs asking along side those ideas is, who is able to be imagined in fantastic spaces? Who gets to be part of the future imaginings? Whose dreams are considered big enough to to span the vast gaps in our possible futures, and are therefore taken up by others? We have to be honest with ourselves about who we imagine in speculative spaces, because this informs our reality, in small ways that then become big ways. I wonder sometimes if when we think about problem solving if we too often think about a small group of people doing the right thing to fix everything, and everyone needs to just wait for those with main character energy to solve the problems. We think about institutionalized problems as just too big to fight alone. And we’re right. Institutional and structural problems can’t be solved be even a small group of individuals. But communities being vocal, turning out, choosing the small right things over and over and over again? That can change things. If we choose to believe in that future. If we choose to imagine even future speculative fictions where solidarity is more powerful than heroism. If its not the ordinary person called upon to go on the wondrous journey, but the ordinary community called up to help individuals who need it. I addressed the conference attendees at the closing remarks in now what feels like a fugue state; I barely can remember what I said or if it even mattered. But I know I want to be part of of an academic community, a fantasy-loving community, a human community that believes not only in the power of a single voice speaking out courageously, but the ability of everyone to speak out against the myriad layered injustices we all face that make it so hard to dream of a better, more hopeful world.
I’m writing this on a record-setting day for heat in Cambridge; I want to imagine a world where this kind of heat is fully addressed – the way the world imagined a world where the hole in the ozone could be healed if the world could all agree to outlaw CFCs. I want to imagine that we still have time to make a difference in this big world using all of our strengths together, not waiting on a hero to come fix it. But I think the first step to all of that is learning to listen to other people as they speak from their experience, their place of strength, their place of weakness. No one of us can see the whole picture, ever. But all of us can imagine a better world into being. Once, and future, fantasies can give us so much, but I hope we have the courage together to imagine futurities that allow for more people to have a voice, and a presence, in the spaces we feel so at home in.
It has been an incredible month so far: though my own future remains so uncertain I know what a gift the month has been. I have been able to do the work I love, I have been able to truly enjoy the wider community in a way that I have not had access to in quite some time. I’ve met people that I’ve loved learning from for years, and new people who have inspired me to look more broadly and deeply at my own work, to question more things more deeply, to keep challenging my assumptions. If I get the chance to keep doing this work, I know this month has been instrumental in allowing me to do it better, to honor parts of myself that I did not know I had been suppressing for so long in order to just find my feet in the field a little bit. I think, when I call for people to be courageous in the future worlds they imagine, I am on some level asking for them to be courageous in the worlds they imagine, and notice who is missing in those spaces, whose absence they might not consciously notice, but if they can start noticing and imagining those spaces differently, those absences can be rectified. I’m asking that those of us who work on the fantastic be courageous enough to imagine an equitable fantastic, where people like me, and so different from me but bearing similar weights might also find both hope and refuge.
I’m looking forward to the next conference over the next few days, looking forward to who I might meet and what conversations might arise, and for one last chance (for now) to be part of these communities, even as I’m also looking at next steps in a variety of areas. But nevertheless, I’ll carry these days with me, for many reasons not written here, many many years into my future.