By Farah Mendlesohn
A major new critical study of the writings of a giant of the SF genre by a Hugo award-winning critic and historian.
Monday, 16 October 2017
Mimi Mondal – Con or Bust
Con or Bust raises funds for fans of colour to attend conventions, particularly in the United States. I chose this organization is that it has been active in supporting friends outside of the Anglo-American fannish community. As Heinlein was a committed internationalist for at least the first half of his writing career (the crews of his spaceships and his Patrol were from all over the world, long before the crew of the Starship Enterprise boldly went) this seemed a relevant choice of charity. Furthermore, although—as I discuss in the book—there are real issues about Heinlein’s understanding of race and racism that we cannot ignore, the evidence that he was an advocate for integration is clear from as early as Beyond this Horizon, is manifest throughout the juveniles, and still there in his latest novels. And finally, Heinlein was one of our keenest advocates of pass it forward and mentorship, and Con or Bust is engaged in both.
Mimi Mondal, a fan from India, talks here about how Con or Bust helped her to connect to Anglo-American fandom.
This story begins almost a decade ago.
Con or Bust was one of the earliest organizations in the international science fiction community that I heard of; along with Clarion West, and the Crossed Genres magazine. Is that a strange grouping of things? I promise I wasn’t looking up just one letter in the science fiction dictionary. (There’s no such dictionary.) They showed up on LiveJournal, and LiveJournal was my only connection to fandom back then.
I didn’t grow up with fandom around me. I am from Calcutta, India; where I taught myself to read English from a dictionary, learned to surf the Internet from seedy cyber cafes at exorbitant prices, and couldn’t bring myself to be friends with the smug, condescending boys at high school who only read Silver-Age white-guy science fiction. I had known the brown-skinned kin of the GamerGaters and the Sad Puppies years before they became those terms. I was your proverbial fake geek girl—the one who liked the same things but would fail to prove her credentials to the Real Men of the community. Then I went to college and became friends with a girl who wrote Harry Potter fan fiction on LiveJournal. In those lost, angsty years of our early youth, LiveJournal saved both of our lives.
My friend and I were earnest lurkers. We were kids in a distant country. We never believed we would meet in person any of those people on LiveJournal, because we didn’t come from the kind of families that traveled abroad. We watched RaceFail happen from the sidelines—all those famous people, some of them complexly pseudonymous, clashing with so much sound and fury and documentation—and we sat at our favorite tea shop in Calcutta discussing the issues raised in those arguments by ourselves. RaceFail taught us a lot about our own writing, and the ways we read stories, and the things stories and representation could do. These were not the lessons we were learning in our own literature classes, which were still largely concerned with the established canon and mid-20th-century literary criticism. There would be some identity theories eventually, but nothing so abruptly contemporary.
We were still lurking earnestly when Con or Bust was formed. We thought it was cool. We also thought it was not for us. We were too small, too far away, too amateur—why would anyone give us money just to attend cons in other countries? Money for the arts wasn’t easy to come by in India, or money for anything. Smarter, older people we knew from college struggled to even get scholarships to universities abroad. Con or Bust sounded too good to be true. Of course, the guidelines said anyone from anywhere could apply, but surely there was some caveat—something like distance and expenses being directly proportional to how important you were? Life always comes with caveats.
So we graduated from college, went our own ways and forgot about it. My friend moved to a different city, discovered new friends, interests, political alignments, and there came a time when we could no longer talk to each other. As for me, I had stopped writing fiction as soon as she left. Severed from her gaze, a part of my identity was lost, as if it had never existed. At a personal level, this essay is my requiem for a friendship, an idyllic time, an unmarked state to which I can never return; but for the sake of the subject, it is also my reflection on why having a community is important for a fan, and how so many of us give up and move on because we cannot find even a single person who reflects our interests back to us. Back in those days, in Calcutta, that girl had been my only community. With her gone, there was no need to write any more.
For four years, I did not write stories. I never imagined I would again. I went on to be an editor of general fiction and nonfiction at Penguin India. I travelled to Scotland to do a second masters’ degree in publishing studies. I was still interested in fandom—but I had stopped following or talking about it. (It had started to feel like insanity, like talking to walls or myself in an empty room. A whole life lived staring at binary code on a computer screen that would never turn into flesh-and-blood people that I would actually meet. I could not do it.) That part of me was dead.
In 2014, in London, I met a young man who read and wrote science fiction. In retrospect I see we had little else in common, but I remember plunging into that relationship as if it was a lifeline, a knot in my chest suddenly cut loose, all the words and ideas and thoughts and relief flooding gratefully back. I started writing stories again, because he would read them, he would know what I meant, there was finally someone who spoke the language I had almost forgotten. Just one person had been community enough for me before. For just one person, I could live.
He turned out to be a Sad Puppy, and worse.
I made my first Con or Bust application in 2015, six years after I first learned of the organization. I was in Calcutta again, but I had recently returned from Scotland where I had been sponsored by a highly prestigious scholarship. I still did not have enough money to make a trip back, just barely the confidence that perhaps another group of important people would consider me worth their sponsorship too. I had also crossed another milestone—one of my stories had appeared in PodCastle, my first professional publication. I had learned the term “Don’t self-reject.” So I sent in a massively hopeful application—a membership to EasterCon, being held in London that year, and the cost of flight tickets to and from Calcutta. If you don’t count the price of the con membership, it came to about $900.
I was half-sure they would laugh at me. But they gave me the money.
So I went. I was starry-eyed, because by now I was familiar with some of the authors and their works, but I was too shy to say hello to anyone. I remember wandering in the vicinity of Seanan McGuire for two days in the hopes that I would eventually summon enough courage to ask her if she recalled my submission for Queers Destroy Science Fiction, but even with that excuse I didn’t manage it. I tweeted at Niall Harrison, with whom I had communicated before regarding my master’s thesis, and freaked out when he was friendly enough to ask me to join him and others at the bar. Why would these famous people actually want to hang out with me? What sorcery was this? This was not how things work in India. In India, you know your place.
(Two months later, I went to Clarion West with the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. Another continent. Another place I never thought I would go.)
In 2016, I applied to Con or Bust again for a membership to WisCon. I didn’t get it. The guidelines always mentioned that priority would be given to those who had not received assistance before, and what a crazy amount my first assistance had been, dear god. I was still broke, but if there was anyone who wasn’t entitled to complain, it was me. And 2009-me would never have a chance if the same people kept getting assistance every time, right?
I applied again for a last-moment transfer of a World Fantasy Convention membership in 2016. I did get it this time, and was overjoyed—memberships to the larger conventions are still unaffordable for me, especially if they also incur travel. It was a controversial convention last year, but I participated in three panels, did a reading, made some very good friends and professional contacts. It was another con level-up for me.
In 2017, Con or Bust gave me a membership to ReaderCon, once again a last-moment transfer, probably the only kind I will ever receive from them in the future. I don’t mind. I am not wealthy or even completely solvent, but I have been set off on my way by the generosity of many kind people, and there are so many others who can use that start. So many other starry-eyed hopefuls in faraway places who can never believe they belong here. I would like them to be here. It has been fun.