Inclusivity at Sirens: s.e. smith

Sirens is about voice: the voices of each individual attendee, how those voices come together in conversation, and how those conversations create a community. At Sirens, we want everyone to have an opportunity to use their voice, whether that’s as part of our programming schedule or late into the night over tea.

But we also know that building a space for those conversations—a space where everyone is willing to speak and, equally important, where everyone is willing to listen—is not so simple. So often, we as a society build barriers that prevent people from speaking, and so often those barriers are based on gender, sexuality, race, religion, ability, or other identity—and so often those barriers also help others ignore those voices.

This year, we are featuring a series of posts addressing diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality at Sirens in order to highlight voices that are both vital to our community and are too often unheard.

Sabrina Chin and Amy Tenbrink, Conference Chairs



I first came to Sirens in 2012 because a fellow literature-loving friend needed a roommate, and I had a flexible schedule. I was hesitant at first, because of the way it was pitched to me: As a conference “for women in fantasy literature,” which sounded like a place not for me since while I am many things, a woman is not one of them.

“It’s small and intimate,” she said. “You’ll like it,” she said. And she was right. (She usually is.) (I’ve been back every year since.)

“What is someone who’s not a woman doing at a lady conference?” is, it turns out, a bit of a trick question, although people ask some variation of that question with a depressing degree of regularity. Sirens isn’t a lady conference: It is a conference celebrating women in fantasy, and one where people of all genders participate in the conversation and work to push it further. It is a place where for a few days, cis men don’t get to be the center of the universe.

One of the things I love most about Sirens is that it is a place that is challenging. It is a place where I feel comfortable asking difficult questions, and it is one where the lens is turned back on me, as well—Sirens is the place that it is because we expect more of each other, on both a personal and institutional level.

For some attendees this is a novel and discomfiting experience, especially those in positions of relative privilege who may feel unsettled when confronted with world-shifting realities. While Faye referred to “taking off armor” in her discussion of experiences with diversity and inclusion at Sirens, this goes deeper than that—it is not simply that Sirens is a week where (some) attendees feel comfortable and confident, but also that taking off your armor leaves you vulnerable. Tender. Soft.

At some point during the weekend, it’s likely someone will say something that upsets you because it disrupts your worldview. Someone will critique a book you adore from the position of an experience you don’t share—as for example a co-panelist did on a religion panel I did several years ago. Someone will comment that a character archetype that feels very intimate, that speaks to you, comes laden with oppressive baggage you were blissfully unaware of. Someone will make a comment about the barriers holding underrepresented people back in publishing, will ask why we have to work four times as hard for half the recognition, and it will sting.

Perhaps it will sting because you’ve never thought about this issue before, or in this way, and it hurts to be confronted with the fact that diversity sometimes comes with hard truths. Or maybe you thought this would be a fun weekend of fantasy, and you weren’t expecting to be confronted with harsh realities. Your first instinct may be to lash out, to find a way to minimize the pain you’re feeling, to make this a problem for another time.

But that’s not what Sirens is about, and you will be shortchanging yourself if you take that route. When my co-panelist criticized a book I’d just professed to loving in front of a room full of people, my first reaction wasn’t to shut her down, but to take up the challenge. I wanted to learn more. And I did, because she spoke about how her experience of religious themes in the book differed radically from my own. Because a Hindu, a Jew, a Christian, and an atheist sat down to have a conversation in front of a room full of people, unafraid to contradict each other, our understanding of faith and literature was cumulatively enriched.

Learning is hard. Sometimes learning is scary. And Sirens is indubitably a place to geek out about books and celebrate our mutual love for the people who aren’t cis men who write and read and love and star in fantasy literature but it is also a place of learning. We develop programming because we want to share our thoughts and enthusiasms with the world, and we attend programming because we want to learn something fascinating about a text or issue; one of my panels this year is about gender and witchcraft, and I’m deliriously excited about all the things I hope to discuss, from reading The Mists of Avalon after hearing the truth about Marion Zimmer Bradley to how N. K. Jemisin explores gender in The Fifth Season. I’m hoping to learn things from my panelists, and I hope the audience does too. Along the way, panelists may challenge each other, or get challenging questions from the audience, and that will make the discussion stronger, more inclusive.

If diversity is the presence of historically underrepresented groups, inclusion is the belief that we have equal footing, a right to speak and a right to be heard—in any contexts, but particularly when we are wounded. Sirens creates a space for having conversations about those wounds, even if they are sometimes sticky and uncomfortable, as they spill from panel to dining room to after hours next to the fire to next year’s conference. For those who haven’t been in diverse and inclusive spaces before, it can be a bit of a shock—and for those who have been in environments where lip service and buzzwords define these issues, it can be awakening to realize that “diversity and inclusion” isn’t just a phrase but a way of being.

Even as a member of several underrepresented groups at Sirens, I must constantly acknowledge that I am not exempt from challenge. My experience isn’t universal, nor is it applicable across sociocultural backgrounds, and I hold privilege, not least as a white person, even as I am also on the receiving end of oppression. Even as I warn others to prepare to shift their worldview, I warn myself, as well—someone may say something that hits a tender point of my own, that forces me to expand my understanding, that questions an internalized belief. This is a dance, a give and take, not a one-sided dynamic.

This applies to microaggressions as well—the seemingly small instances of oppression that get tossed off without thinking, making members of underrepresented groups feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the casual racist joke, the reference to someone disliked as “crazy,” a flip comment about someone with ambiguous gender. When you belong to one or more underrepresented groups, you spend a great deal of time in a complex calculus of deciding whether individual instances of oppression are “worth it” to deal with. Do you correct the dinner guest who refers to you by the wrong pronouns when you’ll likely never see that person again? Do you patiently tell the TSA officer that he’s pronouncing your name wrong? Do you swallow it, for the thousandth time, when people pointedly exclude the disability community from public discourse? Or do you speak up, be “that person”?

Sirens is filled with “those people” and that is why I keep returning—but it is up to the attendees of Sirens to support “those people” and cultivate an environment that fosters conversation and exchange.


s.e. smith is a Northern California-based writer with a focus on social justice issues. smith’s publication credits include The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Teen Vogue, Bitch Magazine, Vice, and In These Times, along with entries in several anthologies, including the upcoming (Don’t) Call Me Crazy.

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