Mary Anne Mohanraj

 

[Please note: This is the original text of the speech, not a transcript; there are some minor differences between the two. Video of the actual speech will be available shortly.]

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the WisCon concoms of the past eleven years, who have created this community, which has brought me friendship, and love, and joy. I'd like to dedicate this speech to Debbie Notkin, who brought me here the first time.

The Sword at Your Door

(WisCon 34 Guest of Honor Speech)

Mary Anne Mohanraj

I've always wanted to be a hero. When I was a kid, I loved science fiction and fantasy for many reasons, but mostly because I identified with the hero of the story. With A Wrinkle in Time, I was Meg; with The Dark is Rising, I was young Will. In The Once and Future King, I was the boy Wart, who would someday become Arthur Pendragon, create the Round Table, and bring the light of justice and chivalry to a dark world.

My favorite hero is Frodo, because he is so ordinary. As Le Guin says in The Language of the Night, Frodo is one of us, someone who has no fancy skills, no magic powers. What he has is a group of strangers telling him that he's the one they need -- he's the only one who can take on this incredibly difficult task and thereby save the world. That moment in the Council of Elrond, when it's clear the task is too big, too hard, too awful, and Frodo, knowing this, speaks up softly and says, "I will take the ring, though I do not know the way," -- that chokes me up, every time. Growing up, I wanted to be that brave, if the call ever came to me.

In the stories, there's always that moment when a stranger appears to the young hero, when the wise old man shows up at your doorstep with a flaming sword and says to you -- we need you, you're the chosen one, you're the only one who can save us. I grew up waiting for that call, waiting for someone to open my door, and reach out his hand to me. The call could come at any moment; that doorway could open to another world. Sometimes, walking alone down a street, seeing a shadowed door, I would step into the shadow, just in case. It was never a magic door, but I kept hoping. I keep hoping.

***

My family is traditional and conservative. My parents had an arranged marriage, and expected the same for me. I wasn't allowed to date, or even go to school dances. So when I started fooling around with boys in high school, I did it in secret. I hid under the basement stairs, terrified that my sisters might come downstairs and catch us, with some boy's hands under my shirt, unhooking my bra. It took some courage, but teenage hormones helped. It took more courage to come out to my parents about it, to tell them that I was actually dating, and worse, dating white boys. I waited until I was safely thousands of miles away at college to tell them, and it was still terrifying.

I had years of screaming fights with my parents -- at various points, they threatened to send me to a convent in Sri Lanka, or told me that I was raising their high blood pressure, and that I was going to give them heart attacks. My mother cried herself to sleep at night, and at one particularly bad point, stopped speaking to me for six months. But I held firm.

Some might call that selfishness, or ingratitude, or cruelty. Some did. But I thought then, and I still think, that it was important to draw that line in the sand, to say that I owned my own body, and I was the one who would decide who could touch it, and when, and how. I wouldn't have labeled it feminism at the time, but now I would call it a feminist move, to find the courage to stand up for that right over my own body, against my parents, against the whole culture they came from, a culture that they were trying to impose on me.

I found that once I stood up to them about my right to date (and by implication, to have sex), it became easier to break other taboos. I started dating women too. And I eventually stopped trying to be monogamous. Monogamy had never felt right for me, but it took me some time to be brave enough to admit it. I started writing about sex, and putting what I wrote online, and that was perhaps the most frightening of all. My parents got a call from a relative in England, saying, "Do you know what your daughter is putting on the internet?" They responded, "What's the internet?" And were horrified by the answer.

All through my twenties, I was a sex activist. I went to college campuses and talked to South Asian students about sex. I wrote erotica and published it online and in print. I had strangers write me hate mail, or send me unsolicited underwear to my unpublished real address, or call me up at three in the morning and ask where they could go to get sex. Sometimes I felt threatened, under attack. Sometimes I would cry. I wanted to stop, to just give up, so many times. But I believed the work I was doing was important, and sometimes people would take the time to tell me how much they valued it, and that gave me the strength to keep going.

***

I did that work for ten years. By the time I turned thirty, I felt like I had said most of what I wanted to say about sex. I started writing around race and ethnicity, which carried a different set of dangers. I was writing, often obliquely, about the war back home in Sri Lanka, about the Tamil Tigers and the ongoing ethnic conflict. I struggled with two different kinds of fear. The first was an immediate physical fear that if I said the wrong thing about the Tigers, or the Sinhalese government, someone might actually come after me. I might be in physical danger, or even killed, as others had been. It didn't seem likely in America, but it was possible. Mostly, I dealt with that fear by trying not to think about it.

I worried much more about the second problem -- that I might get things wrong. That if I, a Sri Lankan-American far removed from the conflict, wrote something about the war and got it wrong, by simple virtue of my living in America and writing in English, my words might be taken as true, might influence people or policy in dangerous ways. That fear almost paralyzed me, almost kept me from writing, and I still struggle with it every time I write about Sri Lanka.

I do my research; I try to learn as much as I can so I can get things right, as right as I can. I keep writing, but my words are often more cautious, less bold than I would like them to be. I second-guess myself constantly -- I say things, and then retract them, soften them. I hide the political stories in fantasy worlds that bear only a passing resemblance to Sri Lanka. But at least I keep trying, which is a kind of courage, I think. It's better than not speaking at all.

***

When I was thirty-five, my partner Kevin and I decided to try to have a child. I found myself assaulted by a whole new set of fears. I had recently developed fibroids, and I was terrified that I had waited too long, that I would be infertile and unable to have a child. Then, once I became pregnant, I went through much of the pregnancy darkly convinced that something would go wrong. The child would be ill, injured, would die -- over and over during that pregnancy I became convinced that she had, in fact died, and that I just didn't know it yet. I was afraid of the childbirth too, afraid I wouldn't be strong enough to handle the pain. I almost couldn't believe it when it was all over and I finally had a healthy baby girl. It didn't seem real.

Interestingly, I'm not sure I'd call any of that experience me being courageous. Because once I was actually pregnant, I was just in it for the ride. My job was to endure whatever came, hopes and fears and everything else. Whether I embraced the experience or not, this pregnancy was happening, this baby was coming, and my courage or lack of it was irrelevant, sidelined by the sheer biology of it all.

Sometimes there's nothing we can do in the face of difficulty but grit our teeth and try to endure.

***

But what I found much harder in the end, what has been the hardest challenge of my life, is actually parenting. As it turns out, I hate babies. I didn't love my daughter Kavya at first -- I didn't love her for months. She was a screaming, weeping, inexplicable mess that wouldn't let me sleep and made me more than a little psychotic. I would get so angry during those first few months with her, it was all I could do to keep myself from shaking or hitting her -- anything, if she would just please shut up. I'm not normally an angry person. I don't have a lot of practice in fighting back rage. I found it tremendously hard not to resort to violence. If Kevin hadn't been right there in the trenches with me, doing his fifty percent and maybe a bit more, I'm not sure I would have made it.

It got easier when she got older and I could talk to her, reason with her. I wasn't nearly as tempted to hit. But I still had, and still have, a very hard time putting her needs first, ahead of my own desires. I had almost twenty years as an adult before I had her, twenty years of being the center of my own universe. I'd been partnered with Kevin for almost that entire time, but he was an adult, able to stand up for himself. It's very different, knowing that this small person is dependent on me, that she relies on me to be strong, to endure whatever misery she's putting me through. Not hitting, is perhaps the minimum standard for decent parenting, but some days, meeting that minimum standard isn't easy for me. Being a decent parent doesn't feel particularly fun, and certainly not heroic. And yet, I think in a way, it is. Doing the right thing, even when it's hard and you don't want to. That's a big part of heroism.

Now, you could say that I asked for it, that I chose to have a child, and that maybe I shouldn't get extra credit for that bare minimum of decent parenting. All I can say in response is that I'm guessing you haven't been woken up for the eighteenth time by a baby who screams and just will not go to sleep, no matter how many lullabies you sing to it, or how long you jiggle it in your aching arms. I'm not sure any parent-to-be has any real understanding of what they're signing up for -- I'm not sure they can. That's just the nature of the beast. Some find babies easy, I hear. For me, they've been torture, and it has taken all my willpower to do the right thing.

To be fair, I must have found some parts of parenting pretty good, because we did decide to have a second one. Once we got past the worst of the baby stage, Kavya actually got kind of fun. Sometimes, your heroism is rewarded.

That's what I tell myself now, with our second child, Anand, still refusing to sleep. Sometimes, a glimmer of hope is all that gets you through the night.

***

I want to talk about the kind of heroic work that so many of you in this room are engaged in -- the work of social justice, combating sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, etc. and so on. In my own life, that mostly plays out in two arenas these days, gender and race. In the feminist realm, my battles against sexism are pretty quiet, and mostly involve things like making Kevin sit down with me and talk about the distribution of household labor. Even though he's a sensitive new age guy who wants and tries to be fair, who is philosophically committed to a 50/50 egalitarian household, he's still a man raised in a certain time and place. There are some kinds of labor that he wasn't taught to value, some kinds of labor that he just doesn't see. It's scary, forcing those conversations that might put our relationship at risk, but it's also fighting for justice, for myself, and so that our children will see and absorb a different model of shared labor.

It helps more than I can say that Kevin is committed to fighting sexism as an ally. It's astonished me, realizing how even for an enlightened, feminist man, how hard it can be on a daily basis to consciously give up those privileges. It's not so bad when life is easy, when time and money are hanging ripe for the picking. But when life starts squeezing, and every moment of free time becomes precious, it takes a effort of will to hold back from taking more than your share. Especially when society is pushing us both, so hard, towards the sexist path, it takes both effort and sacrifice on his part to fight to preserve my freedom and rights. Whether it's being willing to follow my career, or splitting the childcare, or making sure I get a room of my own to work -- I barely have the energy to fight society for my rights as a woman. I don't think I could do it if I had to fight my partner too.

***

Heroism isn't necessarily big things. It's being brave and doing what you're scared to do, doing what's hard for you -- what might be easy for someone else. We all have to calibrate this for ourselves, calculate the difficulty of the task, our own weariness, and how much we can bear. It can be hard to see clearly what the heroic action is.

Right now, for me, heroism is writing about Sri Lanka and the war, even if I have to touch on it oh-so-lightly in mainstream fiction or memoir, or code it in the description of a fantasy world. It's putting my children's needs first when they actually need me, no matter how much I resent it -- and sometimes putting my own needs first, over their desires, no matter how much society shakes its disapproving head. Heroism is arguing with Kevin about housework. It's valuing my work and taking care of myself. It's doing what I know is right, even when it's hard, and relying on allies to help.

It's resting when I am too tired to go on, so I can survive to fight another day.

***

When I got the call from Debbie Notkin asking me to be Guest of Honor at WisCon, my initial response was, "Are you sure you want me?" Debbie started laughing, but I was serious. After all, I'd never published a single book of science fiction or fantasy; I didn't feel like I'd earned the Guest of Honor title. All through this convention, while people have been so kindly congratulating me on the role, there's been a small voice in the back of my head saying I don't deserve it, and if they only knew how little I'd done, they'd be furious, and take the title away.

That's imposter syndrome, that sense that you're not good enough, not as good as everyone else, that you don't deserve the recognition that you receive. It's widespread -- my professors in grad school told me they felt it, even after tenure. My doctor sisters feel it too, and my freshman students as they write their first college papers. Almost everyone I've asked has experienced imposter syndrome at one point or another -- and it's a dangerous feeling, because it gets in your way. It makes you think that you're not good enough to be a hero, you're not the one to do the job that needs doing. You minimize your own talents, your skills and strength and accomplishments. You sit back, and let someone else do the work, and tell yourself that they'd do a better job anyway.

***

When RaceFail happened last year, I ended up spending most of a week on John Scalzi's blog Whatever, trying my best to do some social justice work, teaching Racism 101. It was hard, and scary, but important too, for the health and sanity of a community I have grown to love over the decade I've been coming to WisCon. Many people gave me advice and help during that week -- other writers, editors, readers, and my sweetie, Jed Hartman. In particular, I want to acknowledge Kevin's help during that week. This isn't even his community, but it was his financial and childcare and emotional support (as I occasionally burst into tears reading some of the mean, angry comments on Scalzi's blog) that got me through. That's a different kind of heroism, doing what he could to make my own work possible. He couldn't do the job for me, but he held me up while I did it. He's home taking care of our children now, not sleeping, making it possible for me to be here.

In the SF/F community in the past few years, there have been a series of incidents around social justice -- feminist issues, race issues, more. I think more are coming. I expect that along with RaceFail, we're going to see TransFail, AgeismFail, DisabilityFail. And that's scary, but it's also good. We're at a critical moment, a shifting of the social norms, and we are the ones defining what the new norms will be, what is and is not okay in our community.

This is a time for heroes. This is a time when we need many heroes. It's too much for one person, or a few people, to do all by themselves. You may think that these aren't your battles, but if you love these books, the people in this room, this community, then these issues affect you. These social justice struggles matter. And we need your help.

It can be frightening, speaking up against a friend, or someone you perceive as a powerful editor. It's hard, speaking up against your entire community. It's particularly hard when you're not even sure you're in the right. It's upsetting when you discover that sometimes you are the one at fault, and you are the one who has done damage with your words, your actions, damage that you're not sure you can heal. It can be humiliating to realize just how wrong you were, and it can take courage to admit your wrong-headedness out loud. But just because it's frightening and hard, doing this work, doesn't mean that you can't do it.

I think you can.

I think we need to fight through those expectations, fight against the idea either in our own heads or imposed by others that we aren't competent to do the job. We have the right as writers, as readers, as human beings, to engage with any idea we want to. Maybe it isn't your direct lived experience -- maybe you have to make something of an imaginative leap to get there. Maybe you have to do research to keep from getting things wrong. You're going to get things wrong. But you can't let the fear of being told that you're wrong, or not good enough, stop you from trying.

Because here is one truth I know --

The world is in terrible danger. You have been chosen, you are needed, you are each and every one of you the only one who can save it, if you will just be brave enough. And it will be hard. But heroism isn't about not being afraid. It is about being afraid, and doing the work anyway. Fighting for what you know is right. And I promise you this -- for every time you stand up for the cause you believe in, every time you break down one of the walls of fear to speak out, you will emerge stronger and braver on the other side.

I'm a literature professor now, and a fiction writer. As I grew up, I never stopped loving science fiction and fantasy; I never stopped loving stories, in part because good stories reveal character, and character reveals the fundamental truths of the human heart. It takes clear sight and courage to look at what is revealed inside us, dark and bright, and show that openly to the world. One of my favorite writers, Dorothy Allison, said that the best writing comes when we are terrified, and we write the truth anyway. So I am asking you to look clearly at the world around you, its beauty and its terrible pain and injustice. I'm asking you to take up that flaming sword, because it is here; I am standing on your doorstep, and I am calling you. You can be brave enough, you can be a hero.

The best of it is that if you lead the way, others will follow.

Deep in our hearts, I believe we all want to be heroes.