Personal Essay: "Buzzword" by Alyssa Wong
When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing POC voices, telling what it really means to be POC reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays about the experience of being POC in science fiction.
Here’s how you learn that there are people you’ve never met who hate you.
You are in your early twenties, small of frame and confidence, and you have just been nominated for a Nebula Award. Your world explodes; fans email you to tell you that they’ve read your story, your Twitter follower count ticks rapidly upward. People start wanting things from you, and it’s both flattering and disconcerting.
Shortly afterwards, you’re in New York, visiting friends, dodging snowstorms. Someone forwards you a link to the comments on a blog. “Just look,” they write. And when you do, you find that someone’s written pages upon pages about you. There’s a brief mention of your story, but you’re the main target, and the accusations are ugly.
You don’t sleep well that night. The air mattress deflates and you wake on the cold, hard floor, thinking, Who the hell’s been watching me?
You think about going dark, locking your social media account. But your career is just starting, and if you lock down your social media, will that hurt it? Will that help? Is a career in SFF short fiction even worth knowing that someone is watching your every step?
It takes a drunken, dramatic reading of the post with one of your best friends and a night out on the town to begin getting over it. What bothers you most is that you can’t figure out where the venom is coming from. “I’m not even a person,” you blurt out to your friend.
She looks at you sharply, eyes glittering under the Manhattan streetlights. “Yes, you are,” she says. “You’re very much a person. Don’t ever forget that.”
The truth is, you’re used to people seeing you as a category instead of an individual. You’re the Asian girl, the Chinese one, sometimes the Filipina, but mostly just the Asian girl. You’re used to getting stared at in restaurants or mistaken for one of the two adopted Korean girls in town, even by people who’ve known them their whole lives.
It’s a weird, hypervisible sort of invisibility. You give up on being a person, because no one will remember which one of the Asians you are anyway.
You discover this is a problem in SFF, too, even with award-winning authors. You wonder when it will be your turn.
The 2015 Hugos happen. Cixin Liu wins Best Novel for The Three-Body Problem. He is the first Chinese author to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel, and watching Ken Liu, his translator, accept the award sparks something bright and burning in you. It reminds you of the time in college when your friend pushed a copy of Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” into your hands, the intense, excited look on his face, the way he said, “This means we can do it, too,” and how, for the first time, you really believed it.
The 2015 Hugos happen, and the internet explodes with commentary and slurs. One white editor refers to Cixin Liu as a chicom; another writer calls him a chinaman. To them, he’s not a person, just a racist caricature. It is two-thousand-fucking-fifteen, and your blood boils, and when you speak up, the trolls descend. It’s not really a slur. It’s an old military term, how could it be offensive? What do you know, anyway? The digs are personal, and they get more and more personal with every attack.
You think of the cold, distant tone of your father’s voice when he says, “Chicom? Oh yes, I remember that word very well.” You think of your college friend, who spun fury and hurt into fire and art.
You install mass-blockers on social media, you bunker down, you lean on your friends, you channel the pain, and you write.
There are a lot of posts like that first one. Quotes pulled from social media, context be damned. All kinds of identities theorized and insisted upon. Your favorite is that you’re a gay, cosplaying Vietnamese woman who hates white people and wants to destroy the Constitution. The constant subtext: You aren’t even American; what are you doing in American SFF?
The more you read, the more you realize the truth. These posts were never about you as a writer, or even as a person. They’re about what you represent. They’re about white supremacy and yellow peril, a majority’s fear of growing irrelevant and being displaced. It’s about hating you for taking up space they believe they deserve.
You talk to older POC about how to deal with harassment. They tell you that you have two options: You can be quiet and hope that it stops, which won’t work, or you can expose their ugliness for everyone to see.
People will write about you. Your very existence in this space is a political act. Some people will accuse you of corrupting their genre with political agendas, for daring to write about race and gender and all of the things that you are. People will make up ugly-sounding acronyms to describe you; others will go straight for the racist slang you’ve heard your whole life. But you are a survivor, and you’ll never get less brown or yellow, no matter how little you speak, and they’ll never stop hating you for it, so you might as well speak your goddamn mind.
And every day, you make a choice, and you think, “I am a person,” and you press post.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alyssa Wong is a Nebula-, Shirley Jackson-, and World Fantasy Award-nominated author, shark aficionado, and 2013 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, and Black Static, among others. She is an MFA candidate at North Carolina State University and a member of the Manhattan-based writing group Altered Fluid, and can be found on Twitter @crashwong.