DC Zinefest 2019

I tabled at the DC Zinefest this past Saturday, and it was a positive experience.

I sold out of almost all of the zines, bookmarks, and stickers I brought, and I was able to use that money to buy zines from the other people tabling at the event. I love zines, and I love the subculture surrounding zines. It’s good to support other writers and artists, and it’s always nice to smile at someone and look them in the eye and tell them how much you value and appreciate their work.

The Zinefest staff were wonderful. I tend to get overwhelmed by the crowd at events like this, so it’s important for me to be able to step back and spend a few minutes in a relatively calm space. I think the people who organize DC Zinefest understand that everyone needs a quiet place, so they set aside a small, screened-off area at the back of the room where people could chill out for a bit without bothering anyone.

My experience with anime conventions has been that the staff are primarily focused on crowd control and therefore operate under the assumption that aggressive confrontation is the best way to minimize trouble. This has led to some awkward situations when I’ve given panels at anime cons, so I appreciate that the DC Zinefest staff took it for granted that everyone who participated was a responsible adult, and I’m grateful that the organizers were willing to provide simple accommodations in good faith.

This was the first time I’ve tabled at an event like this, and here are some things I learned:

– It’s good to have some sort of vertical display for your zines. I’m not a huge fan of the elaborate fortresses constructed by some of the professionals who table at anime and comic conventions, but a low-key vertical display uses space efficiently and helps catch the eyes of people casually walking through the room. I’ve seen a lot of variations of these displays, and I get the feeling that a lot of structures are made by the artists themselves. I only trust myself enough to put together Ikea furniture, so it might be worth looking into where to buy a premade display if I table at an event like this again in the future.

– It’s good to incorporate short written descriptions of each zine into your vertical display. Some people used sticky notes, some people used index cards, and some people crafted display notes by hand. They were all cute and creatively presented, and they were useful to me when I only had a limited amount of time (and money) to look at other people’s tables.

– Along with written descriptions, it’s good to rehearse at least two different elevator pitches for each zine. It’s important to design zine covers that are able to speak for themselves, of course, but it’s also important to engage the people who stop by your table. A few people asked me questions that I didn’t know how to answer, and it would have been helpful if I could have said a sentence or two about the zine as a response, even if my description didn’t directly address what they were asking.

– A lot of people who stopped by my table were a bit awkward. That’s totally understandable, since going up to an artist’s or writer’s table is an awkward situation that takes some experience to get used to. Since I can sometimes be a bit awkward myself, I think it might be good to practice a few simple conversation starters, such as “I like your shirt” or “Do you like video games?” as preparation. It sounds silly to have to practice small talk, but I found that I got better at it with each passing hour. I was downright friendly by the end of the event, which makes me think that practice and experience probably help smooth over some of the awkwardness of this particular social interaction.

– It’s good to table with a friend, or at least to have someone who can drop by for an hour or two and give you a chance to walk around and stretch your legs. The floor layout of DC Zinefest is well organized and has enough room for people of all sizes, but I still think it’s a good idea to apply for a half table (instead of a quarter table) if you have more than one or two zines. If nothing else, a half table comes an extra chair, which means that anyone who comes with you will have a place to sit if they (or you) need it.

The only slightly critical thing I have to say about this experience is that I had a bit of trouble with some attendees – all adult men – who wanted to buy something for $1.00 and insisted on paying with Venmo. If you’ve never used Venmo, it’s a money transfer service that allows smartphones to communicate via QR codes and thereby complete transactions quickly, usually within five to ten seconds. What a few people (about one per hour) did was to make a big deal about having trouble with Venmo. They would make a scene and refuse to let me direct the transaction from my end, and I got the impression that they might have been trying to pressure me into giving them what they wanted for free. I understand that sometimes money transfers can be tricky, and I understand that sometimes QR codes don’t scan, but this happened so many times that I started to suspect something bigger was going on, especially since all of these Venmo “problems” were solved immediately as soon as my male tablemate stood up, spoke to these men at eye level, and told them that they could try transferring the payment to his account instead. The idea that grown-ass men would try to use some sort of stupid “my Venmo doesn’t work” scam to get a $1.00 sticker or bookmark for free at a local zine fest makes no sense to me, but something weird was going on.

Anyway, that’s another reason why it’s good to table with a friend – so that someone can play “bad cop” if an interaction seems as if it’s heading in a difficult direction.

Those minor instances of strangeness aside, I had a fantastic time. The organizers knew what they were doing, the staff was great, my fellow tablers were lovely, and the event was a huge success. I’m truly grateful that I was able to table at the DC Zinefest this year. I met some cool people, I made some good trades, and I came home with a bag full of interesting zines. I’m looking forward to next year!

How I Got Kicked Out of High School for Being Queer

I got kicked out of high school for being queer. True story!

Content warning for institutionalized homophobia. I landed on my feet and turned out okay, but nothing about this story is pleasant or uplifting.

Because I am a smart and special snowflake, I got accepted as a scholarship student to an elite private high school, Woodward Academy. Woodward Academy is located just south of Atlanta, and it’s one of the three big private schools in the area. Unlike the other two, Woodward Academy has historically accepted students who aren’t white, so it’s relatively diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and national origin. In other areas, however, Woodward Academy was extremely conservative, and it had a “zero tolerance” policy for just about everything you can imagine. People got kicked out all the time for what basically amounted to doing normal stupid things that normal stupid kids tend to do.

It should be said, however, that officials could be bribed to look the other way by means of “donations” to the school. To give an example, there was a kid in high school whom everyone referred to as “[Name Redacted] the Date Rapist” because, well, he had a habit of inviting girls on dates after school, trapping them in his car, and raping them. His family was very wealthy, so it was the girls who came forward who were punished, not him. It’s not as if it were just him doing this, either; the environment at Woodward Academy at the time was very Brett Kavanaugh.

Anyway, I got kicked out of Woodward Academy during my junior year, a few months after I turned sixteen.

What happened is that a friend of mine had a stressful home life and smoked pot to help deal with her depression and anxiety. She was also in all Honors and AP classes, so she had to deal with that pressure as well. If you happen to be under the false impression that marijuana turns kids into academic burnouts, I want to assure you that this girl was doing very well academically. My friend was also openly bisexual and something of a leader and mentor in the fledgling LGBTQ+ community at Woodward. Under the pretense of cracking down on illegal drug use, the administration decided to force her to leave school. Again, she was doing very well academically, and it’s telling that it was her who got kicked out and not any of the kids who openly sold prescription stimulants and painkillers in the student center, openly advertised their raves, or openly did cocaine in one of the third-floor bathrooms, which we called “the cocaine bathroom” because it had a weird raised shelf above the sinks that honestly felt like it was installed for no other purpose than to make it easy to do lines of coke.

Because I was friends with this girl – and yes, because I once bought pot from her – I also got kicked out after being randomly summoned to the Dean’s Office in the middle of class in order to be subjected to a weird kangaroo court intended to induce panic and thereby pressure me into outing other students. There were a number of students in my grade whom everyone knew sold drugs; and, even though I never interacted with any of them, they were so notorious that I can still remember their full names. All of these kids came from money, and some of them are doing very well for themselves these days. It’s almost as if it’s not drug use that’s the problem, but the stigmatization of certain types of people associated with drugs in the popular imagination, right? Anyway, the dean only asked me about students who were, to put it in the language of 2019, queer or questioning. I didn’t handle this interview as well as I could have; but, to give myself credit, I quickly figured out what was happening and refused to say anything.

You may be thinking that I probably had other problems, because it’s not feasible that someone would be kicked out of school just for being suspected of being gay. It’s true that I had a difficult first year of high school, which was directly related to my own stressful home life, but I got my act together and, like my friend, was in all Honors and AP classes during my junior year. Despite enduring a ridiculously long commute, working several part-time jobs, and also managing a dysfunctional household more or less single-handedly, I got good grades and even managed to participate in a few extracurriculars and do volunteer work. Also, after my one teenage experiment with marijuana, I was obnoxiously straightedge until college. I had a wide circle of friends and was generally liked, but I didn’t hang out after school or go to parties. Instead, I would sit in the gorgeous school library and study foreign languages. In fact, it’s because I was doing so well academically that I was able to enter a top-ten school as a freshman during what should have been my senior year of high school.

In other words, I’m not the sort of person who would have been kicked out of an elite prep school for not getting good grades. What I was, however, was friendly with a lot of gay kids. We had actually started to come out and identify ourselves as LGBTQ+, which several of my friends’ parents later told me was a major topic of discussion in PTA meetings at the time. Apparently this was a problem.

I didn’t understand that I had “a gay identity” in high school, but I always knew that I was romantically attracted to people of all genders and that my sense of myself didn’t align with “male” or “female.” Romantic attraction and gender presentation wasn’t the entirety of my identity, however, and I wasn’t particularly interested in either of those issues at the time. I loved science and reading and visual art, and I really just wanted to study and do well in my classes. If you can think of a stereotype of the sort of high school student who becomes college professor, I would have been exactly what you’re envisioning. Still, even if I wasn’t aware of it, there was something about me that was “queer,” and it was apparently visible enough to become a problem for school administrators who didn’t want even one person like that in the student body.

So that’s how I got kicked out of high school for being queer.

After that, I was ostracized by my family, who refused to support me emotionally or financially. It was tough, and I had to make some awful decisions that I’m not proud of.

I want to say “it got better,” but it didn’t, not really. In order to survive, I had to pass as cisgender and straight, and I still don’t make a point of disclosing my gender and sexuality if it’s not necessary, especially within a professional context. What this has led to, unfortunately, is LGBTQ+ gatekeeping and the assumption that I’m unqualified to talk about queer identity. I’m still in a weird liminal space between presenting as straight and being openly gay, and feeling unwelcome has become my default. Having a disability doesn’t help, of course.

There’s no moral to this story, but I still think it’s important to share. If nothing else, it’s good to remember that progress is gradual, as is healing and acceptance. I may not be in a place where I can be comfortable with myself yet, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never get there.

I still love books, and now I’m a tenure-track professor in the modern languages department at a large international research university. My friend also turned out okay, and she’s now living with her wife in a beautiful part of the world and operating a legal marijuana dispensary. We’re mutuals on Instagram, and she is living her best life, which is lovely and super wholesome and filled with outdoors adventures.

In any case, I’d like to add that the issues raised in this personal anecdote have implications beyond my own life. Kids shouldn’t be kicked out of school just for being queer, and it’s important to say that the same goes for straight kids, as a lot of straight kids also have to leave high school because of their harmless sexual activity. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I’m such a strong supporter of collaboration between intersectional feminists and LGBTQ+ activism. No one should be denied the right to an education for expressing their gender or a healthy teenage sexuality!

Book Editing, Part Five

Today’s segment of responding to Reviewer #2 is especially frustrating. Not only does the reviewer want me to explain third-wave feminism, they also need me to justify it.

Despite occasional relativizations in the second half, the draft is inclined to generalization, clinging to fix (universal) rather than fluid (situated, positional) identities, which contributes to the overall impression of anachronistic methodology, if not a lack of information, for example with respect to theoretical posthumanism as allegedly male-dominated (omitting the central role of Rosi Braidotti and other female theoreticians in recent years).

Okay, sure. Let’s see, I have The Transhumanist Reader (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) sitting right here at my desk with me. Let’s take a look at the names of the contributors:

Max, Nick, Anders, Robert, William, Andy, Ben, Alexander, Randal, Ralph, Marvin, Hans, John, Michael, Ray, Eric, Aubrey, Brian, James, Giulio, Mark, Dean, Ravi, Marc, another Michael, another Andy, Gregory, Ronald, Patrick, Vernor, David, Damien, Robin, yet another Michael, Russel, and Roy

Granted, there are also: Natasha, Laura, Rachel, Martine, and Wyre

Natasha Vita-More is one of the volume’s editors, but I think this is balanced out by the fact that many of the 35 male contributors have multiple contributions, while each of the five female contributors only has one.

The same goes for popular transhumanism. In To Be a Machine (Granta, 2017), I don’t think Mark O’Connell discusses a single woman. The last page of his “Acknowledgements” section (which lists the people he interviewed) and his “A Partial List of Works Consulted” are a big sausage fest. I mean, Mary Shelley gets a mention, but come on.

I’m not saying that either of these is a “bad” book, by the way. I enjoyed both of them immensely. This is also not to deny the value of the incredible work done by a number of female and feminist transhumanist writers and scholars. Rather, this is a simple observation that the conservation is dominated by men and has been for a long time. I don’t think this is controversial.

In any case, the fact that there is one woman in a room filled with (older, and mostly white) men does not make the space any less male-dominated. This is such a stereotypically sexist argument that I can’t believe I had to read this sentence from the reviewer with my own two eyes.

Jesus Christ, what’s next?

Science Fiction is regarded as a male-dominated genre, but this cannot be easily assumed.

Oh my goodness. Okay.

You know, it’s funny. Someone told Nebula Award winning novelist Dr. Joanna Russ this exact same thing, and she responded by writing one of the most influential and frequently cited books in feminist literary criticism, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (University of Texas Press, 1983). What Russ is saying is not that there are not any female authors (obviously), but rather that the historical dominance of men in the field has had a major impact on how female authors are treated.

It’s not 1983 anymore, of course, and things have gotten much better! Still, let me say that, as someone who devours a debt-inducing number of Japanese-language science fiction and fantasy novels written by female authors and has run a book review blog about Japanese fiction in translation for more than ten years, I would give one of my kidneys and a sizeable portion of my liver to see even a remotely more equal gender balance in whose work gets written about, promoted, and translated.

Again, this is not to say that there aren’t female authors and scholars in the field of science fiction, and it’s not to say that they’re not doing fantastic work. In fact, the reviewer seems to be upset because I’m quoting from and discussing their work instead of spending more time on male writers.

What’s especially frustrating about this comment is that the reviewer doesn’t have anything to say about my actual analysis in this chapter. What they don’t like is when I (a) point out in passing that there has been a historical dominance of men in certain fields, and then (b) talk about women instead. If these fields aren’t male-dominated, why do people get so upset when I talk about women? All I’m saying is that female authors tend to view female characters with a female perspective. This isn’t a complicated argument.

I know some people might be reading this and thinking something along the lines of, “Stop being so sensitive! Everyone gets nasty reviewer comments like this. This is normal, so just deal with it.”

But why? Why should I have to walk through a gauntlet of sexism in order to publish a book about female comic creators? This isn’t useful or productive, and its only purpose is to put up a set of unnecessary barriers to publication. Why is something like this taken for granted?

Anyway, I’ll deal with the “fix (universal) rather than fluid (situated, positional) identities” issue in the next post. If you thought today’s dose of sexism in the guise of intellectual critique was intense, get ready.

Book Editing, Part Four

I’m now on Day 3 of responding to the reviewer report on my book manuscript. It hasn’t gotten any easier, but there’s no choice but to keep going.

Despite the centrality of “genre” genre theory is missing completely. In addition, the first half introduces manga genres as demographically defined; the second half switches to thematic genres without explanation.

Genre theory is beyond the scope of this project. Jennifer Prough has already written a great book about this, and I discuss it in the introduction.

The concept of “shōjo” is taken for granted, its historical transformation overlooked.

A historical analysis of the sociopolitical concept of female adolescence is beyond the scope of this project. Deborah Shamoon has already written a great book about this, and I discuss it in the introduction.

The differences between Japanese and North American manga culture call for consideration (regarding identity politics and queer baiting, but also different relevance of Hagio Moto etc.).

A comparative analysis of manga cultures is beyond the scope of this project. Casey Brienza has already written a great book about this, and I discuss it in the introduction.

It remains unclear why manga is given the main role: because of the greater relevance of gendered genres in manga as distinct from anime and video games?

A comparative analysis of all forms of popular media that have ever existed is beyond the scope of this project.

I’m writing about manga because I’m talking about fan cultures, and there’s a huge international community of people in the world who have been inspired by manga to draw their own comics. A book about independent video games or independent animation would be an entirely different book. I do spend a fair amount of time discussing the interconnectedness of various types of media, but I do so in relation to specific works and forums of cultural production, not in an abstract and general sense, which is not the purpose of this project.

None of these comments are helpful, as they’re too general and vague to serve as a recommendation or strategy for revising the manuscript. There could be two things going on here. The first possibility is that the reviewer has a perfect book that they’ve written entirely in their mind, and they’re upset that a book that someone else has actually written on paper doesn’t conform to what they would have written if they actually wrote something. The second possibility is that the reviewer never intended for the author to see their comments, but my first editor sent them to me anyway because he knew he would be resigning from his position at Palgrave at the end of that very workday.

Either way, it doesn’t feel productive to have to respond to any of this, and I wish I could spend my time incorporating useful feedback into the manuscript instead.

Book Editing, Part Three

Once again I find myself wading into the mire of Reviewer #2’s comments on my book manuscript. Today’s topic is: But what about THE MEN?!?!?

The discussions of Azuma and Lamarre are sloppy and exhibit a lack of understanding for the central philosophical issues raised (especially with regard to database consumption vs. representationalism, and Heidegger).

A comment like this is unprofessional and uncalled for; but, if I have respond to this level of immaturity, I guess I will.

References to Azuma and Lamarre are minor components of my argument. I address the elements of their work that are relevant to the discussion, and I shouldn’t be expected to delve into “the central philosophical issues raised” by these writers if they have nothing to do with what I’m talking about. This is a book about contemporary female artists, not dead white male philosophers famous primarily for their Nazi sympathies and affiliation.

Listen, I’m just saying. Maybe “a lack of understanding” of Heidegger isn’t a bad thing.

My argument is essentially that women are not just fictional characters. Many prominent male theorists – Azuma among them – make grand sweeping claims about media production and consumption without ever considering female creators and fans. If we can accept that women exist as producers and consumers in the real world, then we can shift our understanding of these theories accordingly.

Ironically, the five or six pages I devote to a close reading of Azuma are probably the most rigorously peer-reviewed section of the entire manuscript. I published them first as a book review, which went through multiple drafts with the primary editor of a major journal in the field of Japanese Studies. I then published them as a part of my dissertation, which was also commented on by a number of prominent scholars in the field. I went on to publish that chapter in another major journal, and it went through an extensive peer-review process. And then, after all of that, I still had to field questions from senior (male) scholars at conference presentations and job talks.

I’m not criticizing Azuma; I’m just making an observation that the only women he discusses in the work that’s been translated into English and widely circulated in English-language academic circles are fictional. This is not rocket science.

All I’m saying is that female creators and fans exist, and I don’t understand why it upsets so many people to acknowledge the existence of actual women in media theories.

I’m tired of having to explain this, to be honest.

But wait! There’s more:

Surprisingly, Lamarre’s concept of “male/female mode of address” is not considered.

I have an even bigger surprise! This very concept is discussed for five pages in my second chapter! With a lot of quotes and analysis! Wow!! It’s almost as if it’s the reviewer’s report that’s sloppy, not my actual manuscript.

Lamarre writes in an infamously opaque style, but it’s worth summarizing what his “concept of ‘male/female mode of address’” refers to. Basically, within the artistic conventions of anime, men are active and associated with science and progress, and women are passive and associated with feelings and tradition. Lamarre is more or less basing this theory on the fictional characters in one animated movie, and he applies the general theory to a tiny handful of other titles. This sort of dualism is sexist by definition, and Lamarre really leans into it.

Again, my reaction is a friendly reminder that women are not just fictional characters but exist in the real world as media creators themselves. Lamarre discusses the anime series Chobits while treating women as abstract concepts and empty symbols, and my response is that it’s worth considering that the original manga was written by a team of four women and extremely popular with a female readership.

The entire point of this book about “Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze” is that women are not just abstract concepts in the minds of male writers and artists. This reviewer apparently doesn’t see the value in this concept and thinks I should spend more time talking about men.

I have to ask – why was a person like this chosen to review my manuscript?

This is generally why a press asks at least two people to serve as peer reviewers. If one reviewer makes an inaccurate observation – because we all do; it’s not like we’re compensated for this sort of professional service, after all – then the other reviewer can balance out their blind spots and biases. I think it’s fair to say that it’s a major failing of my original editor at Palgrave to only ask for the opinion of this reviewer.

I resent having to treat this sort of lazy sexism as a valid critique. It’s not productive; and, more importantly, it’s hurtful and dehumanizing.

Book Editing, Part Two

I’m going to respond to some of the comments on my book manuscript from Reviewer #2. This is partially because I need to get all the salt out of my system before I send a formal response to the press, but I also want to justify to myself why my perspective and the decisions I made are valid. Okay, here goes!

While it is important to clearly position oneself, the highly personal and subjective writing style (especially in the Introduction) runs the risk of appearing journalistic or social-networkish.

First of all, that’s a mean thing to say.

Second, did this person only read the introduction? I do indeed have a ten-page statement of positionality in the introduction, but the rest of the manuscript doesn’t employ an overtly personal perspective at all.

Third, god forbid that an academic book is approachable and accessible to a wider audience, right?

The reason I included a relatively informal statement of positionality in my introduction is because I personally dislike reading the literature reviews in the introductions to academic books, which tend to be theoretical quagmires that have very little to do with the content of the book itself. Because these literature reviews tend to discuss material in a manner that only makes sense to someone who has already read it, I don’t find them particularly useful, either. The convention that an academic book needs to have an unreadable introduction needs to be challenged, and I would recommend that this reviewer examine their own prejudices and be a bit more open to diversity in academic writing.

Rather than to be told that something is “unpleasant and, quite frankly, boring,” it would be more important to learn why there has been a shift from suffering to pleasure in female writing and reading, to which research field the project wishes to contribute (literary studies, Japan studies, fanculture studies, manga studies, gender studies?), and within which methodological framework assertions and judgments are being made.

I… I can’t even. Does this person want me to reinvent third wave feminism? Do I really need to spend more time explaining why my feminist approach in 2019 is different from academic feminist approaches in 1995? Really?

Okay, fine. I can do that. I can add another three or four pages to the introduction for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t read any feminist scholarship on popular culture in the last twenty years. I haven’t seen anyone attempt to justify a third/fourth-wave feminist approach in more than a decade, but sometimes I forget that the academic job market crash of 2008 resulted in a major generation gap.

I mean, I already have a good fifteen pages of methodological framework in the introduction, which is then built on in the introduction and conclusion of each subsequent chapter, but I guess I could signpost this in a more easily recognizable way. Instead of calling the relevant methodology section in the introduction “The (Super)powers of Feminist Textual Analysis,” I guess I could call it, um…

Actually, you know what? That’s a good subheading, and I’m keeping it.

That’s enough for today, but stay tuned for more adventures in the academic salt mines.