Art is our Weapon is an essay by Brazilian writer and activist Alliah/Vic that originally appeared in the third volume of our Quarterly Almanac.
Art is our Weapon
To be given a platform to speak your mind when you’re used to being made invisible is a powerful act. During the Encontro Irradiativo, an event to celebrate and discuss representation and diversity in speculative fiction and pop culture, there were a lot of people needing to express themselves and share their experiences of being writers and readers who are often misrepresented as offensive stereotypes, treated as second-class citizens, and forgotten by a whitewashed history. There was a sense of urgency in the room. You could hear the anger and frustration in the voices of panelists mixed with excitement and hope. It felt like the energy powering us was raw emotion.
The event was a continuation of what Jim Anotsu and I started in January of 2015 with the publishing of Manifesto Irradiativo, a call for diversity and representation in Brazilian speculative fiction.
A confluence of things led us to this.
Good things like We Need Diverse Books and #ReadWomen2014 (that inspired the monthly book club Leia Mulheres). Horrible things like racism, queerphobia, misogyny, and mansplaining in fandom spaces. And a re-awakened discussion about the works of Monteiro Lobato, an influential twentieth century writer of children’s books that are charged with racism. His stories, despite being one of the most famous and well-read series in the country, are undoubtedly harmful to black children. Lobato’s case deflagrated reactions and conversations similar to those that happened around H. P. Lovecraft and The World Fantasy Award. The same empty excuses about Lobato being a man of his time were brought up along with cries about censorship—though nobody was censoring anything. The people involved in questioning and analyzing the use of his books in government programs were simply giving it the proper critical analysis and historical context so teachers would discuss the racism in those stories with their students and parents could make their own informed decisions about buying it for their kids.
Jim and I have suffered episodes of microaggressions, harassment, and prejudice inside and outside the fandom—he as a black man and me as a queer person (I’ve been out as queer for a decade but only in 2014, at twenty-three years old, I came out as non-binary). Needless to say, we have been frustrated, tired, hurt, angry, and we needed to do something. And it wasn’t only speculative fiction and pop culture spaces that we were directing our attention to. As readers of literature of any genre, we knew about the conversations happening around contemporary realist fiction and how it was impacting the market and the way readers engage with stories.
An often cited 2005 research report by Regina Dalcastagné (A personagem do romance brasileiro contemporâneo: 1990-2004, published in Estudos de Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea, n.º 26) analyzing 258 contemporary novels published between 1990 and 2004 by three of the most important Brazilian publishing houses showed that 72% of authors published in the country are middle-class white men living in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Of all those novels, 72.7% were written by men and 93.9% by whites. Naturally, most of the stories they wrote reflected their own limited views of middle to upper class white men. These numbers are outraging, but not surprising. Brazil has a deep ugly history of systemic racism, economic inequality, and violent misogyny—structural oppressions that intersect and bleed into one another. Realist fiction is drenched in this as much as speculative fiction, with faceless black characters who are often criminals, one-dimensional queer caricatures, and women who are domestic shells or sexual objects with no agency, from the streets of Copacabana to the space ports of a distant exoplanet.
But the landscape has been changing, propelled by the efforts and voices of marginalized people working to transform the system. Small independent publishers are making art that rarely breaks, and even editors in big publishing houses are actively looking to publish minorities, and are having direct conversations with them to include their perspectives and concerns in the process. We wanted to add to that and build our own movement.
Over conversations on gchat and email, Jim and I decided to take a stance by writing a manifesto.
We’re well aware of how manifestos in the digital age can lose steam soon after they’re released and evanesce into the ether of oblivion, but our ambitions were beyond a mere reaction to hate speech or a counterattack to the establishment. From the beginning, we were concerned with thinking about new ways of making art and demolishing this toxic idea that white cis straight men are the default. And we wanted to bring this into our own creations, give substance to the manifesto, make it the opening gate to thriving new fiction, a more daring, pop, punk, weird, diverse, young, Brazilian-yet-eating-the-world kind of fiction. Both of us have been criticized for using estrangeirismos, as if the Brazilian Portuguese language didn’t already have an abundance of foreign words integrated in its blood since early development, and for using too many foreign references from the most bubblegum pop to the wickedest counterculture in our stories, as if that’s not how our generation breathes. So we talked about Tropicália and the Movimento Antropofágico and Manguebeat. There are multiple Brazis inside Brazil and we needed to acknowledge them all, always analyzing the past with a critical eye, like in the case of Lobato. We didn’t want to follow dusty oppressive traditions, we wanted to rupture them.
Jim, as a YA writer, also brought up his concerns about a kind of fantasy that wants to please too much to fit into what’s selling at the moment without taking risks, which only perpetuates a cycle of neglecting stories from unheard voices that could only be published by taking the risk. This is where small publishers do invaluable work. My book of weird short stories Metanfetaedro was published in 2012 by Tarja Editorial, a small publishing house that had published other stories of mine in their themed collections. They closed doors after eight years of life because the business had become economically infeasible. That book brought me many opportunities and to this day there are people discovering it for the first time and sending me messages about it. Jim started at a small publishing house with his first novel Annabel & Sarah, published by Draco in 2010. Now he’s being published by big houses and has two of his books (A Espada de Herobrine and A Vingança de Herobrine) translated to multiple languages.
We had a lot on our minds to put into the text, so the format of the manifesto needed to be simple. Our message should be clear like the goals and rules of Dogme 95. Jim mentioned the Riot Grrrls Manifesto as inspiration and we decided to use their format of organizing topics in sentences beginning with PORQUE (BECAUSE).
The process of writing both the manifesto and the letter was collaborative. Jim and I wrote bits and pieces, made changes in each other’s texts, and six days later we had the final form. A group of close friends read it to catch mistakes and make suggestions. But one of the hardest parts was deciding on a name. In our minds we wanted something as cool as Manguebeat, but we were coming up with nothing. A friend of mine, Luiza Melki, was the first one to bring up adaptação irradiativa (adaptive radiation) in a short brainstorming by email. I shared the idea with Jim and we ran with it, sticking with irradiativo as our word of choice and writing the letter around the concept.
To have something easy and attractive for people to share the manifesto, I designed a series of colorful posters highlighting some of our topics and put it on the blog. The page went live around 9:30 AM on January 12, 2015. During the first hours we were listening to the early feedback with close attention, talking to people on social media and editing details on the text. We added a line specifically about body types and fatphobia. We changed a few words a couple of times while discussing what would be the better term for non-whites. We don’t have an equivalent term in Brazilian Portuguese for “people of color”—the literal translation “pessoas de cor” is inadequate in our context. So we went back and forth a few times with different terms and sentences before deciding to go with “people from all colors who are underrepresented and discriminated against”. It’s not perfect, we know. But our manifesto lives in a state of flux as we keep learning and listening.
Soon people began signing their names on the manifesto (there’s a total of 271 signatures so far) and some of them left short beautiful messages of gratitude, support, and hope. The conversations sparked on social media were mostly enthusiastic and in agreement. Overall, we had a very positive reception.
Later, on a closed Facebook group started by historian and fantasy author Ana Cristina Rodrigues, we started experimenting with an idea for an event based on the manifesto. We were eager about doing something more concrete, something that would go beyond cool words on the internet.
For months we had a lively series of discussions with a diverse group of people from multiple backgrounds involved in different types of work and activism. Together, we built a programming with panels that tackled the bigger issues in both speculative fiction and pop culture, an exhibition of women artists, a talk on African myths, a workshop for writers, a minicourse on trans characters, and attendees were encouraged to participate in a crossplay competition. The event and all its activities were completely free. As soon as we had it all organized with the public library that would host the meeting, we started spreading the word.
Because we said the event wouldn’t have any white cis straight men participating in the panels—a conscious choice we made at the very beginning—we started getting backlash from, well, white cis men (though not all of them were straight) saying we were practicing reverse racism, being segregationist, and establishing a feminazi dictatorship, among other lovely things. There was also a short-lived stream of harassment on Twitter from people crying we were the real bigoted ones discriminating against white cis straight men. We promptly ignored and blocked them. It was our rule: don’t engage with hate, focus on the work. And we had a lot of work to do in a small amount of time. I finished designing the website in time to share and spread the word about the event for little more than a month. I guess we were all worried that we wouldn’t have enough attendees. But to our delight, there were moments the auditorium was packed.
The event, organized by me, Jim Anotsu, Ana Cristina Rodrigues and Gi Pausa Dramática, happened over two days on November 7 and 8, 2015. We had a lot of help from volunteers during the whole process: discussing the programming, helping people on the panels with an organized system to take questions from the audience, and guiding people through the place. We had the support of both small and big publishers and a bunch of amazing books to give away during the panels. Some of the writers and artists present were also selling and signing their books.
The Encontro Irradiativo took place at Viriato Corrêa, a beautiful speculative fiction–themed public library, located in Vila Mariana, São Paulo. One of the first things you would see upon entering the library was a series of illustrations. The exhibition entitled Draw like a girl, curated by Gabi Franco, Daniele Rios Boleeiro, Germana Vianna and Priscila de Paula, showed works by seventeen women illustrators. It was organized by the feminist collective Minas Nerds, a group created to ensure representation and offer cooperation, organizing and exchange of experiences among women.
On Saturday morning, November 7, the event began with the two-hour workshop I wrote my book, now what? by authors Ana Cristina Rodrigues and Maria Claudia Müller, about how the publishing market works. They guided new writers (there were around fifteen to twenty people seated or standing in a circle around a table) through the obstacles and pitfalls of dealing with publishing houses, editors and contracts, and shared their experience in the area.
At 2:00 pm we had the opening panel entitled Irradiating diversity: The motives of Manifesto Irradiativo, with me, Jim Anotsu and Ana Cristina Rodrigues. We explained how the manifesto was born, what were our main concerns and ideas surrounding it, the state of the fandom regarding stories by marginalized voices, and what we wanted the manifesto and the meeting to inspire.
The second panel was The formation of diversity: Representation for children and youth, with Estevão Ribeiro (writer, illustrator, and comic artist), Nanda Café (founder of Pac Mãe, a blog about women and youth empowerment through representation in pop culture), Scarlett Binti Jua (black movement activist and Fábio Kabral (fiction writer who’s currently working on an Afrofuturist series). They engaged in a crucial discussion about representation for black children and the lack of black children characters in books and TV, mentioning their own experiences growing up (Nanda Café was the only white person on the panel). They also highlighted contemporary successes like Steven Universe (an animated series I also gushed about on the next panel) and the importance of everybody—not only parents and teachers—getting involved in fighting for representation for children and youth in speculative fiction and pop culture.
The third and last panel of Saturday was The malefactions of stereotypes, with me, Rober Pinheiro (publicist, writer, translator, and co-editor with Cristina Lasaitis of A Fantástica Literatura Queer, a collection of four books of queer short stories), Cecihoney (trans woman pixel artist working in games) and Germana Viana (comic artist, writer, and member of the comics collective CBGibi). We talked about various tropes, mainly the ones about women and queer characters, and how those tropes could be harmful and violent. Cecihoney mentioned Lizzie Bordello e As Piratas do Espaço, a comic by Germana Viana, to say how she loved Fran, a trans woman character that didn’t have a cisnormative body type, and how she related to that, being outside the norm herself.
On Sunday morning, Fábio Kabral gave a fascinating talk called The Hero with an African Face about African myths in the world’s imaginary, explaining how these myths can be a cure to the Afrodescendant trauma and an answer to the unrest of the soul, and how the role of the African hero intertwines with all of it.
The first panel of Sunday was Fandoms and diversity: why nerds are bigoted, with Eva Morrisey (writer, proofreader, translator, and one of the organizers of 1º Encontro das Mulheres RPGistas, an event for women players of RPG), Gi Pausa Dramática (writer, proofreader, and member of Conselho Steampunk), and Jana P. Bianchi (engineer, writer, artist, and project organizer in Clube de Autores de Fantasia, a group for fantasy writers). They opened the discussion showing a series of slides containing print screens of hateful comments from Facebook and Twitter directed towards the event. It was a poignant and enraging demonstration unfortunately nothing new to us, but we could see some surprised faces in the audience realizing the level of ignorance and cruelty their privilege shields them from. The panelists, then, talked about their own experiences with harassment and misogyny inside fandom spaces dominated by men and how people could protect themselves online.
The last panel was A diversity balance of the Brazilian publishing market, with Ana Cristina Rodrigues, Cláudia Fusco (journalist with a MA in Science Fiction Studies from Liverpool University), Eric Novello (fantasy writer and translator) and Jim Anotsu. They gave an overview of the current state of the fiction market, talked about what came before, and what’s coming in the future, reminding us that diversity starts with inclusion.
It’s bittersweet to look back and remember the overflowing optimism we held looking forward to 2016, believing it would be such a great year for diversity, completely oblivious about the hidden circle of hell that would be unleashed upon the world. But we closed the event with a message of hope and cooperation that remains.
It’s hard to grasp the broader impact of the event because only time will show us how far these ripples spread. But on a personal level, I can say with certainty and pride that some people keep the Encontro Irradiativo as a much cherished memory. It’s easy to understand why. Those two days were a safe space for people to meet and talk and unapologetically be themselves. You could bring all of you into that library, all of the identities you inhabit, all of your colors and vulnerabilities, without having to hide behind a mask or filter what facets were safe to display.
The event was my first time (beyond the internet) being out as a trans person, openly talking about it amongst strangers and people who’ve known me for years since I first dipped my toes in the fandom, so I was slightly terrified. Just a few months before that I should’ve been on a LGBTQ panel at a comics event in São Paulo, but the morning of the trip I was swallowed whole by anxiety. I couldn’t leave the house. I still remember the pain constricting my chest and my hands and legs shaking with a hazy sense of dread. I was scared it was going to happen again, even though everything was perfectly planned and scheduled and I would have friends by my side at all times. Fortunately, it didn’t happen again and I had one of the most fun and energizing weekends of my life.
I kissed and hugged so many people (hugging tighter the ones I knew from the internet and was finally meeting in person for the first time), shared laughs and tears, talked about favorite books, comics, animations and TV shows, exchanged stories of struggle and resistance, and had a moving conversation I’ll never forget a reader who told me how she appreciated my work because it helped her understand her own body and gender a little bit better.
That Sunday night, after spending time with a group of friends at a bar having burgers and beer, we went back to our friend’s house and I packed my things and took a taxi to the bus station. I was on the back seat next to Eurritmia, a non-binary friend from Rio, and I didn’t notice at the time, but I was clutching their hand during the whole drive. I guess I needed something to tether me before I left. If only I could gather the event’s atmosphere into a magic vessel and carry it with me.
There should be a decompression chamber to reacclimate ourselves from an environment of radical acceptance back to the places we walk without knowing if a piece of us will be bitten off along the way.
I understand deeply when Julian, a non-binary friend and writer, says that even after one year, there are still emotions to unpack about the event. As a bisexual trans person with physical, emotional, and psychological characteristics that put them outside the norm, Julian said the Irradiativo was an experience of diverse recognitions that freed them as both reader and writer. As a reader, because they could recognize narratives and voices that were only possible through resistance, since these types of stories don’t always work inside the logic of the market. And as a writer, they said it was a process of re-learning, like learning how to walk, acquiring steadiness in their legs and equilibrium after many stumbles and despite continuous shoving. They persisted and found out what they were capable of.
I’ve gotten used to saying that I survive through fiction.
Time and time again, I find myself clinging to fiction while living with the wild fluctuations of my mental health, trying to navigate through a toxic environment at home, and dealing with addiction and financial struggles in the family. Life is messy. I’ve made mistakes, neglected responsibilities, lost opportunities, went off social media. And when I get back and watch fellow writers or readers going off Twitter with a vague note mentioning mental health issues or family problems, or with no warning at all, I imagine what kind of fiction they will plunge into and what kind they will sharpen their swords with.
I’ve used fandom as escapism as much as inspiration to fight.
I’ve rewatched a bunch of Supergirl episodes just to soak up all that unabashed glee. I’ve curled up in bed rereading passages of favorite books from my childhood, finding solace in genetic engineered dinosaurs and armored polar bears. After the Orlando nightclub shooting I was looking for answers in Wonder Woman stories, remembering her resilience and compassion while trying to control my anger, build strategies to act, and not give up. I’ve read countless fanfics with queer trans characters that helped me understand my own gender, body, and sexuality better. I’ve written a few, too. Where I didn’t see myself, I created myself.
Representation in fiction matters.
When I came back from Encontro Irradiativo in a state of sheer bliss, I channeled all of it into the last activity of the event’s programming, a free online minicourse on how to write trans characters. I had planned it to happen over a series of newsletters where I could interact with people over email to answer their questions and engage in deeper conversations. I expected fifty people to subscribe. More than 1,000 did—both cis and trans people, from all ages, backgrounds, and levels of experience as writers. Those were intense days of discussion about learning to examine your own privileges, dissecting fiction tropes, understanding the realities of trans lives in Brazil, and sharing examples of good and bad representation in books, animation, TV series, and games.
It was a delightful experience I plan to repeat over a longer course to keep spreading conversations about the issue, since there are so little trans characters in Brazilian literature beyond harmful stereotypes about travestis and trans women.
There’s always more work to be done.
The Manifesto Irradiativo is not the first battle cry of its kind. Marginalized authors and readers from older generations—especially women dealing with rampant misogyny, sexual harassment and patronizing bullshit from cis men—have been fighting to make their voices heard for a long time. Among newer examples, there’s been some good ones making noise in the fandom.
Universo Desconstruído, organized by Lady Sybylla and Aline Valek, is a Brazilian collection of ten feminist science-fiction short stories, the first of its kind, published independently in 2013, available as a free ebook (downloaded 7,000 times so far) and as a physical book at cost price. The collection has been well received, cited in an academic paper, and used in schools. In 2015, a second volume was published and has been downloaded almost 2,000 times. Continuing their work in feminist fiction, Sybylla and Aline also published O Sonho da Sultana, a science fiction story written in 1905 by Bengali activist Roquia Sakhawat Hussain about a feminist utopia.The ebook has been downloaded 3,000 times.
One of the obstacles new speculative fiction writers encounter along the way (unless they’re famous) is the resistance some readers show to national books. There’s a common belief that if it’s national then it’s automatically bad—poorly written, lacking editing, shoddy quality—and if it’s a translated book then it’s automatically superior.
“What is created here is strange to us because we’re not accustomed to looking at ourselves,” said Aline Valek. “We’d rather look to who’s out there at the top, distant, unreachable. We’re used to paying attention to what’s already popular. And the Brazilian writer isn’t valued because they’re here, accessible, taking the subway, eating black beans like the rest of us.”
Between this sometimes hostile environment and the steep climb of trying to get published by a big house as a new writer, lots of authors turn to alternative methods of publishing their work and communicating directly with their public. Aline Valek, writer and illustrator, has a personal newsletter called Bobagens Imperdíveis, with 3,390 subscribers, where she talks about life, art, what she’s reading and watching, and shares new pieces of fiction and comics. Some of her readers support her work with donations. She started by publishing independent ebooks of short stories and in 2016, her science fiction novel As Águas-Vivas Não Sabem De Si was published by Rocco—one of the biggest publishers in the country and the one publishing translated works from names like J. K. Rowling, G. Willow Wilson, Neil Gaiman, and Maureen Johnson.
Sybylla, a geographer with a master’s degree in paleontology, a teacher, and an author, has a well-known blog called Momentum Saga where she writes about speculative fiction, pop culture, and science. The blog has been alive for six years, with thousands of followers and 120,000 monthly views. But it’s hard work to keep writing for free, posting well-researched articles and reviews on a regular basis, while dealing with a throng of misogynistic comments and constant mansplaining. She also had a hard time when she participated in a series of episodes on the podcast AntiCast, not being well-received by some listeners because she didn’t shy away from discussing topics like feminism and afrofuturism. Sybylla was thinking about closing Momentum Saga until readers convinced her to keep it alive with help from crowdfunding, which is what she did. Now the blog has a Padrim (a kind of Brazilian Patreon) with fifty contributors amounting to around 500 reais per month.
Letting readers be directly involved in financially helping authors and independent projects can work.
Trasgo is the most successful national magazine of speculative fiction right now, edited by Rodrigo van Kampen and proofread and revised by Enrico Tuosto and Lucas Ferraz. Because their team is made of three white cis men, they’re aware of the biases that come with their privileges and work hard to dismantle it while selecting stories and making conscious choices of including diverse voices since they can’t pay for more people from different identities to join the team—the ones already there are the ones that agreed to work for free at the beginning. Recently they published an issue entirely made by women, guest-edited by Clara Madrigano (co-founder with Anna Fagundes Martino of Dame Blanche, a small publisher born mid-2016 engaged in publishing diverse stories written by minorities).
But the magazine almost didn’t survive. On their second year, they tried to sell the editions online, but the numbers were too low. Then they tried crowdfunding and that’s when people showed up to help. Trasgo has a successful Padrim page with sixty-seven contributors amounting to a thousand reais per month. That money allows them to pay their team of writers and illustrators and to pay for publicity, which makes a real difference to reach new readers. The magazine is downloaded around 200 times per month via sharing (plus direct downloads from contributors).
Commitment to diversity can’t exist as sprinkles. It’s easy to lose sight of doing the heavy lifting when the word diversity has been pranced around so much without an actual plan behind mere good intentions that it has been worn out to meaninglessness. A lot of people writing speculative fiction that is unique, daring, and pertinent to our times are also the ones that historically haven’t got a chance to tell their stories. Publishing them is bringing the plurality of real life to fields that have been unrealistically narrow for too long.
As Rodrigo van Kampen said: “Diversity is almost a sine qua non condition to make a top-notch magazine of contemporary speculative fiction.”
Jim and I wanted to create a new Encontro Irradiativo this year, a stronger edition with sharper discussions that would cut to the marrow of the matter, since there’s a lot of problems we didn’t touch on the first event, but life got in the way while 2016 just kept happening in a barrage of the worst possible outcomes, so we’re not quite sure what will happen next.
What we do know is that while we’re immersed in fiction writing, we still have a lot of work to do and a lot of issues—like the overwhelming whiteness of publishing and the socioeconomic barriers keeping poor writers out of mainstream circuits—to acknowledge in a way that brings in more people to fight and demand solid, meaningful change. I believe we’re getting there, albeit slowly. But that’s how organizing for social change works, it’s a messy long-term string of unglamorous efforts and there’s no way around walking the path, as harsh as it can get.
It’s a good thing we don’t walk alone.
Talking with Daniele, a friend that attended the event, she told me that the Encontro Irradiativo wasn’t only her first time being around other trans people and her first event that addressed gender issues, but it was also her first time socializing after starting her transition, so she was pretty excited, nervous, and afraid. And that’s why being welcomed with respect and being treated in a natural way made all the difference to her.
Being seeing as who you are is a powerful thing.
“Vampires don’t see themselves on the mirror because monsters have no reflection,” said Cecihoney during the panel on the malefactions of stereotypes, talking about how people who are not represented feel like invisible monsters.
It’s no surprise when marginalized people identify with outcasts and inhuman creatures—their hidden existences, the danger they represent to the oppressors’ eyes, and their disenfranchisement reminding us of our own dislocated place in this world. But we take that weird invisible self, that feared indescribable self, and make it ours, bringing the memory and community of our struggles and pumping human blood into its veins, making it bloom with renewed life. In uncanny realities and untamed bodies we build a home for ourselves. We walk through the liquid dimensions of the looking mirror, shaping our own reflections as we please. There’s power in reclaiming the realm of the fantastic, together. We know that spaceships can bring people in contact with one another before making contact with alien life on other planets.
And to advance in that direction, the first steps we took with Irradiativo were vital.
“I remember to this day each hug I got,” Daniele told me.
I do, too.
Alliah/Vic is a bisexual non-binary writer and visual artist working in the realms of the weird and pop culture. They have various short stories published in themed collections and on the web and is the author of Metanfetaedro. They’re currently building too many independent projects, working on their first novel, and haunting your internet cables. Find them tweeting @alliahverso
Collecting original short fiction, essays, reviews, and reprints from diverse and powerful voices in speculative fiction, THE BOOK SMUGGLERS’ QUARTERLY ALMANAC is essential for any SFF fan.
IN THIS VOLUME (JANUARY 2017): BECKY CHAMBERS, SHERRI L. SMITH, A.E. ASH, KATHERINE MACLEAN, NIGEL QUINLAN, ZETTA ELLIOTT, ALLIAH/VIC, KATE C. HALL, NICOLE BRINKLEY, ANA GRILO AND THEA JAMES
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