Being Ayize Jama-Everett at FOGCon

Last year, at the Bay Area Book Festival, I listened to (and wrote about) a fabulous panel of speculative fiction writers, including Ayize Jama-Everett. I ended up coming home from that panel, and finding to my surprise (and horror, frankly) that there was no English Wikipedia article on him.

One of the niche areas that is impressively covered by enWP editors is that of science fiction and science fantasy, especially for writers from the United States. I could only think of Ayize’s absence from that coverage for one reason: that even when you’re a well-meaning Wikipedian who loves science fiction, it’s likely that you’re white and male, and reading primarily white writers. So in my ongoing quest to write Wikipedia articles on marginalised communities and themes, I created a stub on Ayize over the next few days.

Through asking Ayize for a triangulation of facts and a photograph (a task that took some persuasion), we ended up getting to know each other, and I learnt a great deal about Afrofuturism.

Then Ayize was invited to be an Honoured Guest at this year’s FOGcon (Friends of the Genre Convention) – an intimate, deep geek gathering of science fiction and fantasy writers and readers in the Bay Area, that took place over this past weekend. One of the conversations he had was with Lonny Brooks, on what it means to be an Afrofuturist and an African-American SF writer who dreads writing about the future, when the present is already so disturbing.

To my surprise, and delight, I was invited to write a reflection about Ayize for their conference booklet, as is their practice. Quite truly a privilege, given folks like Sherryl Vint and Steven Barnes have written about past Honoured Guests like Donna Haraway and Honoured Ghosts like Octavia Butler. Tell me what you think of mine.

Ayize slips between human and plant, between reality and fantasy, between philosophy and fiction, and offers up a liminality which is where we all live, if we are honest enough to recognise it. He pushes us beyond binaries with deft dark humour and the confidence of living in multiple spaces himself. Despite being a theologian, a psychologist, and a teacher, Ayize never gives in to either the righteousness of philosophy and psychology, or the self-consciousness of pedagogy. He leaves it to us to wander amazed in the worlds he constructs for us, or – as is far more likely – hurtling between them in gasping breaths of questions, about ourselves, about each other, about the ways in which our marginal, liminal selves can get centered in a writer’s imagination.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest gift Ayize gives us. He once said, “There’s a big wound in not being seen, in having your reality not being represented in any way.”[3] Yet that lack of representation is not solely of race, or gender, or sexuality, or age, or… it’s a wound of invisibility that comes from not being easily categorised, even as those around you try strenuously to fit you into a box of their shaping.

Bloomberg BizWeek asks: is Wikipedia woke?

Whose Knowledge? gets featured in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek – and far more importantly, US media begins to see the multiple dimensions of gender, race, language, location… (especially the global South) as part of the ongoing Wikipedian efforts to be more plural and diverse. Shout out to all our friends and allies who are mentioned: you rock!

Dimitra Kessenides did a great job navigating the complex universe that is Wikimedia. And I’m honoured that she used some of my work as the frame for the story. She ends the article with this:

Like many people in the “free knowledge movement,” as some in the Wikipedia world describe themselves, Sengupta has been discouraged by the rise of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S. and Europe. But they see Wikipedia as a potential bulwark against those tides—if it can live up to its own ideals. “Making Wikipedia more plural and diverse in terms of who edits and what they edit is one of the most effective ways in which we can move beyond the stereotypes that exist all around us,” she says. “There is something very, very meaningful about this moment in time.”

Feministas, African Women’s Development Fund and Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi get mentioned right at the start (courtesy of my first ever Wikipedia article).

A frustrated feminist aside, though: why do media groups find it hard to understand shared leadership models? Whose Knowledge? wouldn’t be what it is without the co-scheming of Siko Bouterse. Our knowledge production and storytelling can go beyond the individualist paradigm, and still be compelling.

Fascist Club meets Capitalist Club

How apt that this popped up in my ‘memories’ feed today, and I could share it (ironically) to my Facebook community.

Mirza Waheed writes:

During his trip to Silicon Valley in September [2015], Modi was seen hugging a fawning Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, at the same time he was promoting Digital India to Silicon Valley tech-plutocrats, his government turned off the internet in disputed Kashmir for nearly four days.

Modi, Zuckerberg, Trump, and the unholy nexus of greed and power for profit. Beneath it all, the racism, the misogyny, the homophobia, the xenophobia… is a wildly monetised consumerism of fear. Produced by Modi, Trump and their ilk but also by Zuckerberg and his ilk. Fascist Club partners with Capitalist Club. Will Silicon Valley do any soul searching at all?

Shut Up and Listen (also, Read).

20160604_103350Just back from two days at the Bay Area Book Festival in downtown Berkeley, where we bookended our time with the most brilliant panel yesterday of five authors of speculative and subversive fiction in which only *one* was a white dude (and the others covered a multiplicity and intersectionality of races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities), and ended today with an Egyptian transnational secular Muslim feminist speaking with a Bay Area African American feminist.

20160604_112602In between, we went to a panel of science nerds who write about cooking, linguistic nerds who are conlangers (those who construct languages) for shows like the Game of Thrones and the Expanse, wandered down Radical Row and talked revolutions, and made friends with bookshelves in the middle of the road. Bibliophile, activist, heaven.

While my brain is still processing and sedimenting all I learnt, I’ll leave you with a few brilliant lines from Harlem/Bay Area African American science fiction writer, Ayize Jama-Everett, who when asked how/if his speculative fiction is also subversive, said: “I’m a black man in America. Every thing I *do* is subversive… When I read about utopias, I ask: where are the black people? …Writing is both an act of lunacy and bravery. It’s blood on a page.”

And the final final word from the fabulous Mona Eltahawy, speaking to the equally fabulous Chinaka Hodge, to folks who think about ‘rescuing’ people from ‘over there’ and bringing them back ‘over here’, mistakenly thinking ‘over here’ is not equally (if differently) misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, homophobic… “We’re doing our own work ‘over there’. Work on your own ‘over here’… and don’t forget to shut up and listen”.

Yes, my brother, my sister. *mic drop*.

My ColdFusion feminist…

jolt_new_logo.gifSo, in the continuing spirit of celebrating my feminist family – their shrieks of protest are but faintly heard – I wanted to come in, very late, on a matter of great joy for Ashwin. He was on the engineering team for ColdFusion 8, the Adobe server, which won the Jolt Awards 2008 (he assures me that these are the tech Oscars, only much more fun). Damon Cooper, Director of Engineering, has a blog post that lists everyone on the team – which Ashwin said was the best he had ever worked with. One of my fondest memories of the team is when we all went to watch Casino Royale together; it was quite a thrill to be sitting with a gang of Adobe while James Bond’s sidekick talked of photoshopping. sigh. These little pleasures of being a geek’s wife get to me.

And the funniest YouTube video yet is of Borat (aka Adam Lehman) extolling the virtues of ColdFusion. Ashwin and I marked the news of the Jolt Awards – sadly far away from the team – by laughing hysterically at the video. It’s a sobering thought, however, that I actually understood the techie references. These little pleasures of being a geek’s wife *really* get to me!

The double helix: racism and gender discrimination

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Coincidentally, this post is about the not-so-noble laureate James Watson, widely known, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, for the double-helix model of DNA, for which they won the Nobel in 1962.

The Indian Express runs an article saying that Dr Watson has been suspended from his New York based scientific laboratory for allegedly saying, in a Sunday Times interview on October 14, that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.” Reuters also reported that he has cut short his book tour – for Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science (how apt) – and returned home to the United States.

While there has been understandable furore over his remarks, his own apology in a statement he issued at the Royal Society on Thursday, adds to the utter ridiculousness of his previous comment, though he does say it has no scientific basis: “To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly […] That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

His scientific peers are horrified. The trustees of his lab have said they “vehemently disagree with these statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments” while Robert Sternberg, a prominent researcher on race and IQ at Tufts University, called Watson’s statement “racist and most regrettable.”

In the Chicago Tribune, Sternberg, a critic of traditional intelligence testing, comments that intelligence can mean something different for different cultures. In parts of Africa, a good gauge of intelligence might be how well someone avoids infection with malaria — a test of cleverness that most Americans likely would flunk. In the same way, for many Africans who take Western IQ tests, “our problems aren’t relevant to them,” Sternberg said.

Watson has made other extraordinary comments in the past, as this article in the Independent reports.

In 1997, he told a British newspaper that a woman should have the right to abort her unborn child if tests could determine it would be homosexual. He later insisted he was talking about a “hypothetical” choice which could never be applied. He has also suggested a link between skin colour and sex drive, positing the theory that black people have higher libidos, and argued in favour of genetic screening and engineering on the basis that ” stupidity” could one day be cured. He has claimed that beauty could be genetically manufactured, saying: “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would great.”

This sort of prejudice is not new, but when it is demonstrated by someone of Watson’s stature, it gains currency in exceedingly dangerous ways, not least by the way it is portrayed in the media. Cameron Duodo comments in the Guardian about the front page headline in the Independent of October 17, ‘Africans are less intelligent than Westerners, says DNA pioneer’:

[I]n emphasising Professor James Watson’s proficiency with regard to DNA research, without making it sufficiently clear that his work on DNA does not necessarily make him an expert in the determination of human intelligence, Milmo elevated Watson’s racist rant into the semblance of authoritative scientific opinion.

My surprise is at those commentators who see Watson as being ‘an obsolete product of a bygone time’ (Laura Blue in Time.com) and others in the blogosphere who are dismissing his remarks as being ‘senile‘. Watson’s prejudices are not new, and certainly, they can’t be excused as the possible ramblings of old age.

For me, the story that has always been told far too little is that of Rosalind Franklin, thefranklin.gif woman who, if she had been alive in 1962, should have also won the Nobel for her work on DNA. One account tells of how the race was on between the teams of Wilkins and Franklin, working at King’s College, London and Crick and Watson, at Cambridge. Watson attended a lecture of Franklin’s and based on a rather unclear recollection of the facts she presented – while ‘critical of her lecture style and personal appearance’ – created a failed model. Franklin worked mostly alone (another story talks of how even when there was conversation amongst them, it was so patronising that she didn’t take it further), and didn’t want to publish her findings until more confident about her theory that DNA was helical. Wilkins grew frustrated and in January 1953, showed her results to Watson, without apparently her knowledge or consent. This account also quotes Wilkins as admitting, “I’m afraid we always used to adopt – let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her.”

When Watson and Crick published their paper on DNA in Nature in 1953, they made no acknowledgment beyond the statement: “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished results and ideas of Dr. M.H.F. Wilkins, Dr. R.E. Franklin, and their co-workers at King’s College London.”

In 1962 Watson, Crick and Wilkins together received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In their Nobel lectures they cite 98 references, none are Franklin’s. Only Wilkins included her in his acknowledgments. Franklin died in 1958 at the age of 37 of cancer. The Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, only to living persons.

Much after her death (and presumably, the Nobel), Watson and Crick made it abundantly clear in public lectures that they could not have discovered the structure of DNA without her work. But how much of this was too little, too late, and carefully so? Franklin’s name is hardly associated with work on the DNA model, certainly not in the way Watson’s and Crick’s are, to any school child in most parts of the world. What is even more upsetting is the counter-factual possibilities of her having been acknowledged for her work; would the resulting fame (and some fortune) have helped her in her battle against cancer? Worse still, she never knew that Watson and Crick had accessed her results; she communicated with them till she died.

Even those at Stockholm wonder. Since all archives related to nominees are closed for fifty years after it is awarded, we will know in 2008 – next year – whether Rosalind Franklin was even a nominee for the Nobel prize that her three colleagues – without her knowledge – won based upon her work.

Dr James Watson may still be in our textbooks, but he has been a scientist and a human being of bias and prejudice, and certainly, in Rosalind Franklin’s case, all these and more: a man with tragic, unethical, lack of generosity towards a fellow scientist.

The image of the DNA helix is of a sculpture at the Lawrence Hall of Science, UC Berkeley, taken by Hsien-Hsien Lei. The image of Rosalind Franklin is from the article by David Ardell.

Geeky Gals at the BlogHer Conference

I know I was being cheeky by commenting on Stake Five that we might explore Feminist ColdFusion or ColdFused Feminism, but the interfaces between gender and technology do fascinate me. Unsurprising, now that I’m with a geek who’s feminist and slowly turning into a feminist gee-eek! myself (what else can explain my evangelism around Ubuntu, which is my OS, and various other minor joys around website constructions and blog creations?). Any which way, it made me interested in learning more about the second BlogHer (‘where the women bloggers are’) conference, held in San Jose, July 28-29.

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Transgendering science: mind the gap

Former President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers may – once again – need to eat his (in)famous words – that innate differences between men and women lead to fewer women than men in the top rung of scientists. This time, he may have to chew them fairly soundly. Because Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, is uniquely placed to refute his argument: he used to be Barbara. In Shankar Vedantam’s piece on Barres in the Washington Post, he quotes Barres:

After he underwent a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”

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