Time Out Sydney's Editorial Director Alyx Gorman joins us this year as guest writer, to provide daily wrap-ups of the Festival's most stimulating discussions and exciting events.
Here, Alyx recaps Blerd Culture, Talking Til Late with Chris Taylor and Mona Chalabi's Not to Scale: Numbers and the Immigration Debate.
“The whole point of nerd culture is that it's about the outsider, so why would you separate blackness from nerdness?” That’s what Miranda Tapsell said at the start of Blerd Culture, a panel that also featured Roxane Gay, Colson Whitehead and Nayuka Gorrie, hosted by Cleverman creator Ryan Griffen.
But for many, the “heightened world” science fiction and fantasy represents can still feel quite exclusionary. “It’s strange, because it’s about creating a universe where literally anything could happen. But fantasy is quite a conservative genre,” C.S. Pacat said later in the evening, at Talking 'Til Late with Chris Taylor. “It's so beholden to Tolkien.”
“But nostalgia's not accessible to all kinds of people. When you go back to the past, things were worse for so many. Even for women.” A noticeable absence of queer stories – particularly ones with a happy ending – is part of what drove C.S. to write her homoerotic medieval fantasy series The Captive Prince.
Nayuka Gorrie thinks the lack of First Nations voices, particularly in science fiction, is a huge missed opportunity. “A lot of nerd culture is very white — sci-fi is so often dominated by white imaginings of the future. Post-apocalyptic futures particularly. As Indigenous peoples, we've already seen the destruction of the world and survived it… If you're an outsider you see the world in a more interesting way. Because you're forced to.”
Roxane also notes that it can be harder to sell a story about blackness that isn’t about oppression. “People want to consume blackness through suffering, and it's almost pornographic. When shows and movies don't focus on black suffering, they don't do as well. Our culture is not strictly defined by oppression. We have rich and complex lives.” C.S. Pacat has noticed a similar phenomenon in queer culture. “In the 90s, all queer fiction was the same. It always ended in tragedy.” A framework of unhappy endings means it’s significantly more difficult to get a fantasy romp where leads just happen to be black, or gay, or both, past the gatekeepers of culture.
'The whole point of nerd culture is that it's about the outsider, so why would you separate blackness from nerdness?'
It’s not just geek pop-culture that can be unwelcoming for women and people of colour. Data journalist and advice columnist Mona Chalabi found a similar attitude working at ESPN-backed statistics website FiveThirtyEight. “It was a very nerdy culture, and I mean that in a derogatory way. It was very dominated by straight, white men — and there’s an intellectual arrogance there,” she said at Talking 'Til Late. “I understand why [nerd] became something that people proclaim quite proudly. Because it was something that a lot of people got called at school. But speaking from the position of a journalist… I want to speak to readers who don’t define themselves as nerds. Who don’t think of themselves as geeky.”
“I know so many people who define themselves as nerds who don’t conform to that white arrogant dude stereotype,” says C.S. Pacat, who also notes that the crowds at comic book conventions tend to be fifty-fifty men and women. “And probably those people who’ve defined themselves as nerds have co-opted the term. There’s the silent women, men of colour and queer nerds who end up not getting their foot in the door.”
C.S. Pacat wrote her book for those silent nerds. After being knocked back by every publisher in Australia, she self-published it online, went viral, and got picked up by Penguin in the United States. The fact that her books are now a huge financial success (some tip them to be the next Game of Thrones) should be a lesson to the mainstream purveyors of nerd culture, who Roxane says, “have no interest in marketing to anyone but white men.” Comic book stores can be particularly toxic for women and people of colour, and yet, that’s the only place where stories like the recently cancelled Black Panther and the Crew series by Ta-Nehisi Coates get promoted.
Roxane has observed a vicious cycle where stories about people of colour will be badly promoted, and then, when they fail, that failure is cited as an excuse not to try again. “The only responsibility I feel to my community is that I'm not the last. I'm often the first, and it’s important others have to get the opportunity after me.”
— Alyx Gorman, editorial director of Time Out Sydney
Alyx Gorman is the editorial director of Time Out Australia, and the fashion editor of the Saturday Paper. Alyx has worked for Elle Magazine, the Mamamia Women's Network, Fairfax Media and Oyster Magazine, and written for The Guardian, Meanjin and i-D.