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I've been thinking a lot about awards lately. The blog I co-edit and write for, Lady Business, was announced as finalist for Best Fanzine in the Hugo Awards, and the recent Nebula Awards were swept by a diverse array of different women.

For the first time an award is personal in a way that an award has never been for me before. The girl who excitedly asked her librarian to find out more about the Hugo Awards and discovered an entire culture could have never imagined being nominated for that award, and not because she couldn't imagine writing a novel. She could (she still can). She couldn't imagine being nominated because she was a girl, and there weren't tons of women on the lists the librarian gave her (there were, actually, but some of them were disguised as men or initialed). She was raised by a father around his male friends, and she grew into me. I know how hard it is to carve out spaces in a culture that's disinterested or outright dismissive toward women. It's been widely established over the years that it's not that women and other marginalized genders aren't here, it's that we're often rendered invisible in insidious ways that are often hard to spot and even tougher to discuss and unpack without getting shouted down.

The community that runs and loves the Hugo Awards is facing some tough and ongoing harassment from a collection of people who are angry about the award beginning to reflect a wider range of society, both in who gets to write science fiction and fantasy and who gets to be represented in those stories. I haven't seen a ton of people call these campaigns what they are—abuse, harassment, violence—but I've lived long enough to recognize the same tactics between them and the women and men in my past who abused me and people I love. Lady Business is a finalist because Black Gate dropped out after being slated onto the ballot by one of these campaigns, even though Black Gate deserved its spot. Using people as weapons against each other is pretty familiar to me since I lived through my parents using me as one to hurt each other. I've played this game before. The moves aren't new and the shifting goalposts aren't a revelation and the rules are the same as ever: hurt, exhaust, terrify, silence.

The battle isn't just over awards, but also history. Who wins an award is a loud statement about who gets to write, to publish, to take up space when it happens. It's incredibly important for creative people because it creates a momentum they can use. But the people left on the short list or the long list: those people are important, too. It's why for years and years we had all male nomination lists and the wider culture didn't care, but as soon as we had more than two women on a nomination list more than two years in a row, the panic began.

I was introduced to the awards scene through one book. I was introduced to the science fiction and fantasy community and the works inside it through award lists. Not one winner, but instead a tapestry of books of all different kinds that I could choose from. Having a presence on an award list is incredibly important so the history of that award doesn't reflect all one perspective. As I watched the Nebula Award ceremony, and woman after woman won the award in each category, I was thrilled. I was also excited because the Nebula Award nominations were also diverse and engaging with story and culture in dramatically different ways. Those nomination lists are historical records where women get to exist. It shouldn't feel so dramatic in 2016, but it does. History is complicated and nuanced and the truth of it is easily lost to people with power who want to make sure inconvenient parts and voices are erased and buried and hidden so those of us who look for ourselves see nothing. As a young girl I looked at awards lists and saw very few women and used what I already knew about men and power to know that I could never, ever end up there because of my gender. Eventually, I left that reading behind, but those times were not an accident. A history of science fiction and fantasy was being created via awards lists, and the ongoing harassment campaigns want to replace a piece of the history of our community growing up and slowly maturing with their imagined history that centers a lie about the past.

We talk a lot about awards, and I spend a lot of my personal time on them, and there's a lot of drama that many disdain. But my interest and investment in awards isn't just to celebrate books I love and find new things to read and watch, but to influence history: to make sure people like me and other marginalized groups can stop looking at the history of a genre award and learning from that history that they can never belong. We deserve to tell our stories. We deserve to be heard. We deserve to take up space in the past as well as now.

The importance of awards and their history is easily lost. Probably because our culture is obsessed with exceptionalism. When a book wins an award you know that a group of people who read the area of the book's subject matter value that story. When a book wins several awards you know the book is an important cultural object. It could mean the book is good, but awards, especially popular awards, are subjective. We look at award winners in isolation, when what makes awards truly valuable is using several award winners to look at what a community was doing, what it was thinking about, and where it might be going in the future. And to go further, you can't know what a community was truly reading and enjoying and engaging with unless you look at all the books nominated for all the awards. This creates a context and a picture that matters. This is why having all white or all male short lists is a problem due to lack of marginalized voices being published, read, reviewed, and promoted for awards. Because it erases nuance and perspective. It's not the history of the field. It's a lie.

Uprooted won the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and after it happened I read some commentary on Twitter saying that The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin was robbed by Naomi Novik's win. Maybe it's funny to say as a joke on social media in the heat of the moment when a book you love doesn't get the honor you think it deserves. But it's not funny to pit two women writers against each other when their presence together on that nomination list is so incredibly important. Uprooted won, but both Uprooted and The Fifth Season will exist together in history on that short list for anyone to see and find. A young writer will look at that short list and see both of them. They'll take up space as long as the Nebula Award is relevant. And when someone in ten years looks back and looks at all the awards and places them in context, The Fifth Season and the books in that series that will follow it may or may not still be relevant and important, because culture is fickle. But its importance won't be erased, or buried, or lost. It will live forever. It will be part of conversations. It will take up space in history.

When I and my friends were first contacted to accept the nomination in Best Fanzine for Lady Business, I was angry. What a year to have to make the choice to be honored by the community I've loved and critiqued and been angry at and had such fun in. But when I sat down and thought about it, I thought about the history that's so important to me, and the people who voted for us, and the space we deserved, both now and in the history of the genre. Is what we're doing important? Is the way we critique media and complain about tropes and celebrate stories we love integral to the growth of science fiction and fantasy commentary? I have no clue and I don't get to decide, but I do get decide whether we deserve to take back space from people running a harassment campaign to erase me, my fellow editors, and the voices we do our best to boost from the historical genre record. I'm taking it back for the girl who thought she would never see herself there, before she learned that history, told from one perspective only, was a lie. This one's for you, kid.

Win or lose (and I am fully prepared to lose to File 770 and its excellent journalism of 2015), it doesn't really matter. We've carved out our space and we've reclaimed our spot in history from the people who did their best to erase us and failed. Against them, we've already won.

Renay has been writing SF and fantasy fan fiction, criticism, and commentary since the early 1990s. She has founded and contributed to several gaming fandom fanwork newsletters and fanwork exchanges and serves as staff within the Organization for Transformative Works. You can find more of her work at Lady Business or follow her on Twitter.
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20 May 2024

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