The Sword at Your Door (Wiscon 34 Guest of Honor Speech)

[Please note: This is the original text of the speech, not a transcript;
there are some minor differences between the two. Video of the actual
speech will be available shortly.]

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the WisCon concoms of the
past eleven years, who have created this community, which has brought me
friendship, and love, and joy. I’d like to dedicate this speech to Debbie
Notkin, who brought me here the first time.


I’ve always wanted to be a hero. When I was a kid, I loved

science fiction and fantasy for many reasons, but mostly because I
identified with the hero of the story. With A Wrinkle in
Time
, I was Meg;
with The Dark is Rising, I was young Will. In The Once
and Future King
, I
was the boy Wart, who would someday become Arthur Pendragon, create the
Round Table, and bring the light of justice and chivalry to a dark
world.

My favorite hero is Frodo, because he is so ordinary. As Le Guin
says in The Language of the Night, Frodo is one of us,
someone who has no
fancy skills, no magic powers. What he has is a group of strangers
telling him that he’s the one they need — he’s the only one who can take
on this incredibly difficult task and thereby save the world. That moment
in the Council of Elrond, when it’s clear the task is too big, too hard,
too awful, and Frodo, knowing this, speaks up softly and says, “I will
take the ring, though I do not know the way,” — that chokes me up, every
time. Growing up, I wanted to be that brave, if the call ever came to
me.

In the stories, there’s always that moment when a stranger appears to the
young hero, when the wise old man shows up at your doorstep with a flaming
sword and says to you — we need you, you’re the chosen one, you’re the
only one who can save us
. I grew up waiting for that call, waiting
for
someone to open my door, and reach out his hand to me. The call could
come at any moment; that doorway could open to another world. Sometimes,
walking alone down a street, seeing a shadowed door, I would step into the
shadow, just in case. It was never a magic door, but I kept hoping. I
keep hoping.

***

My family is traditional and conservative. My parents had an
arranged marriage, and expected the same for me. I wasn’t allowed to
date, or even go to school dances. So when I started fooling around with
boys in high school, I did it in secret. I hid under the basement stairs,
terrified that my sisters might come downstairs and catch us, with some
boy’s hands under my shirt, unhooking my bra. It took some courage, but
teenage hormones helped. It took more courage to come out to my parents
about it, to tell them that I was actually dating, and worse, dating white
boys. I waited until I was safely thousands of miles away at college to
tell them, and it was still terrifying.

I had years of screaming fights with my parents — at various
points, they threatened to send me to a convent in Sri Lanka, or told me
that I was raising their high blood pressure, and that I was going to give
them heart attacks. My mother cried herself to sleep at night, and at one
particularly bad point, stopped speaking to me for six months. But I held
firm.

Some might call that selfishness, or ingratitude, or cruelty.
Some did. But I thought then, and I still think, that it was important to
draw that line in the sand, to say that I owned my own body, and I was the
one who would decide who could touch it, and when, and how. I wouldn’t
have labeled it feminism at the time, but now I would call it a feminist
move, to find the courage to stand up for that right over my own body,
against my parents, against the whole culture they came from, a culture
that they were trying to impose on me.

I found that once I stood up to them about my right to date (and
by implication, to have sex), it became easier to break other taboos. I
started dating women too. And I eventually stopped trying to be
monogamous. Monogamy had never felt right for me, but it took me some
time to be brave enough to admit it. I started writing about sex, and
putting what I wrote online, and that was perhaps the most frightening of
all. My parents got a call from a relative in England, saying, “Do you
know what your daughter is putting on the internet?” They responded,
“What’s the internet?” And were horrified by the answer.

All through my twenties, I was a sex activist. I went to college
campuses and talked to South Asian students about sex. I wrote erotica
and published it online and in print. I had strangers write me hate mail,
or send me unsolicited underwear to my unpublished real address, or call
me up at three in the morning and ask where they could go to get sex.
Sometimes I felt threatened, under attack. Sometimes I would cry. I
wanted to stop, to just give up, so many times. But I believed the work I
was doing was important, and sometimes people would take the time to tell
me how much they valued it, and that gave me the strength to keep
going.

***

I did that work for ten years. By the time I turned thirty, I
felt like I had said most of what I wanted to say about sex. I started
writing around race and ethnicity, which carried a different set of
dangers. I was writing, often obliquely, about the war back home in Sri
Lanka, about the Tamil Tigers and the ongoing ethnic conflict. I
struggled with two different kinds of fear. The first was an immediate
physical fear that if I said the wrong thing about the Tigers, or the
Sinhalese government, someone might actually come after me. I might be in
physical danger, or even killed, as others had been. It didn’t seem
likely in America, but it was possible. Mostly, I dealt with that fear by
trying not to think about it.

I worried much more about the second problem — that I might get things
wrong. That if I, a Sri Lankan-American far removed from the conflict,
wrote something about the war and got it wrong, by simple virtue of my
living in America and writing in English, my words might be taken as true,
might influence people or policy in dangerous ways. That fear almost
paralyzed me, almost kept me from writing, and I still struggle with it
every time I write about Sri Lanka.

I do my research; I try to learn as much as I can so I can get things
right, as right as I can. I keep writing, but my words are often more
cautious, less bold than I would like them to be. I second-guess myself
constantly — I say things, and then retract them, soften them. I hide
the political stories in fantasy worlds that bear only a passing
resemblance to Sri Lanka. But at least I keep trying, which is a kind of
courage, I think. It’s better than not speaking at all.

***

When I was thirty-five, my partner Kevin and I decided to try to
have a child. I found myself assaulted by a whole new set of fears. I
had recently developed fibroids, and I was terrified that I had waited too
long, that I would be infertile and unable to have a child. Then, once I
became pregnant, I went through much of the pregnancy darkly convinced
that something would go wrong. The child would be ill, injured, would die
— over and over during that pregnancy I became convinced that she had, in
fact died, and that I just didn’t know it yet. I was afraid of the
childbirth too, afraid I wouldn’t be strong enough to handle the pain. I
almost couldn’t believe it when it was all over and I finally had a
healthy baby girl. It didn’t seem real.

Interestingly, I’m not sure I’d call any of that experience me
being courageous. Because once I was actually pregnant, I was just in it
for the ride. My job was to endure whatever came, hopes and fears and
everything else. Whether I embraced the experience or not, this pregnancy
was happening, this baby was coming, and my courage or lack of it was
irrelevant, sidelined by the sheer biology of it all.

Sometimes there’s nothing we can do in the face of difficulty but
grit our teeth and try to endure.

***

But what I found much harder in the end, what has been the hardest
challenge of my life, is actually parenting. As it turns out, I hate
babies. I didn’t love my daughter Kavya at first — I didn’t love her for
months. She was a screaming, weeping, inexplicable mess that wouldn’t let
me sleep and made me more than a little psychotic. I would get so angry
during those first few months with her, it was all I could do to keep
myself from shaking or hitting her — anything, if she would just please
shut up. I’m not normally an angry person. I don’t have a lot of
practice in fighting back rage. I found it tremendously hard not to
resort to violence. If Kevin hadn’t been right there in the trenches with
me, doing his fifty percent and maybe a bit more, I’m not sure I would
have made it.

It got easier when she got older and I could talk to her, reason
with her. I wasn’t nearly as tempted to hit. But I still had, and still
have, a very hard time putting her needs first, ahead of my own desires.
I had almost twenty years as an adult before I had her, twenty years of
being the center of my own universe. I’d been partnered with Kevin for
almost that entire time, but he was an adult, able to stand up for
himself. It’s very different, knowing that this small person is dependent
on me, that she relies on me to be strong, to endure whatever misery she’s
putting me through. Not hitting, is perhaps the minimum standard for
decent parenting, but some days, meeting that minimum standard isn’t easy
for me. Being a decent parent doesn’t feel particularly fun, and
certainly not heroic. And yet, I think in a way, it is. Doing the right
thing, even when it’s hard and you don’t want to. That’s a big part of
heroism.

Now, you could say that I asked for it, that I chose to have a child, and
that maybe I shouldn’t get extra credit for that bare minimum of decent
parenting. All I can say in response is that I’m guessing you haven’t
been woken up for the eighteenth time by a baby who screams and just will
not go to sleep, no matter how many lullabies you sing to it, or how long
you jiggle it in your aching arms. I’m not sure any parent-to-be has any
real understanding of what they’re signing up for — I’m not sure they
can. That’s just the nature of the beast. Some find babies easy,
I hear.
For me, they’ve been torture, and it has taken all my willpower to do the
right thing.

To be fair, I must have found some parts of parenting pretty good, because
we did decide to have a second one. Once we got past the worst of the
baby stage, Kavya actually got kind of fun. Sometimes, your heroism is
rewarded.

That’s what I tell myself now, with our second child, Anand, still
refusing to sleep. Sometimes, a glimmer of hope is all that gets you
through the night.

***

I want to talk about the kind of heroic work that so many of you in this
room are engaged in — the work of social justice, combating sexism,
racism, ageism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, etc. and so on. In my
own life, that mostly plays out in two arenas these days, gender and race.
In the feminist realm, my battles against sexism are pretty quiet, and
mostly involve things like making Kevin sit down with me and talk about
the distribution of household labor. Even though he’s a sensitive new age
guy who wants and tries to be fair, who is philosophically committed to a
50/50 egalitarian household, he’s still a man raised in a certain time and
place. There are some kinds of labor that he wasn’t taught to value, some
kinds of labor that he just doesn’t see. It’s scary, forcing those
conversations that might put our relationship at risk, but it’s also
fighting for justice, for myself, and so that our children will see and
absorb a different model of shared labor.

It helps more than I can say that Kevin is committed to fighting
sexism as an ally. It’s astonished me, realizing how even for an
enlightened, feminist man, how hard it can be on a daily basis to
consciously give up those privileges. It’s not so bad when life is easy,
when time and money are hanging ripe for the picking. But when life
starts squeezing, and every moment of free time becomes precious, it takes
a effort of will to hold back from taking more than your share.
Especially when society is pushing us both, so hard, towards the sexist
path, it takes both effort and sacrifice on his part to fight to preserve
my freedom and rights. Whether it’s being willing to follow my career, or
splitting the childcare, or making sure I get a room of my own to work —
I barely have the energy to fight society for my rights as a woman. I
don’t think I could do it if I had to fight my partner too.

***

Heroism isn’t necessarily big things. It’s being brave and doing
what you’re scared to do, doing what’s hard for you — what might be easy
for someone else. We all have to calibrate this for ourselves, calculate
the difficulty of the task, our own weariness, and how much we can bear.
It can be hard to see clearly what the heroic action is.

Right now, for me, heroism is writing about Sri Lanka and the war, even if
I have to touch on it oh-so-lightly in mainstream fiction or memoir, or
code it in the description of a fantasy world. It’s putting my children’s
needs first when they actually need me, no matter how much I resent it —
and sometimes putting my own needs first, over their desires, no matter
how much society shakes its disapproving head. Heroism is arguing with
Kevin about housework. It’s valuing my work and taking care of myself.
It’s doing what I know is right, even when it’s hard, and relying on
allies to help.

It’s resting when I am too tired to go on, so I can survive to fight
another day.

***

When I got the call from Debbie Notkin asking me to be Guest of
Honor at WisCon, my initial response was, “Are you sure you want me?”
Debbie started laughing, but I was serious. After all, I’d never
published a single book of science fiction or fantasy; I didn’t feel like
I’d earned the Guest of Honor title. All through this convention, while
people have been so kindly congratulating me on the role, there’s been a
small voice in the back of my head saying I don’t deserve it, and if they
only knew how little I’d done, they’d be furious, and take the title
away.

That’s imposter syndrome, that sense that you’re not good enough, not as
good as everyone else, that you don’t deserve the recognition that you
receive. It’s widespread — my professors in grad school told me they
felt it, even after tenure. My doctor sisters feel it too, and my
freshman students as they write their first college papers. Almost
everyone I’ve asked has experienced imposter syndrome at one point or
another — and it’s a dangerous feeling, because it gets in your way. It
makes you think that you’re not good enough to be a hero, you’re not the
one to do the job that needs doing. You minimize your own talents, your
skills and strength and accomplishments. You sit back, and let someone
else do the work, and tell yourself that they’d do a better job anyway.

***

When RaceFail happened last year, I ended up spending most of a week on
John Scalzi’s blog Whatever, trying my best to do some social
justice
work, teaching Racism 101. It was hard, and scary, but important too, for
the health and sanity of a community I have grown to love over the decade
I’ve been coming to WisCon. Many people gave me advice and help during
that week — other writers, editors, readers, and my sweetie, Jed Hartman.
In particular, I want to acknowledge Kevin’s help during that week. This
isn’t even his community, but it was his financial and childcare and
emotional support (as I occasionally burst into tears reading some of the
mean, angry comments on Scalzi’s blog) that got me through. That’s a
different kind of heroism, doing what he could to make my own work
possible. He couldn’t do the job for me, but he held me up while I did
it. He’s home taking care of our children now, not sleeping, making it
possible for me to be here.

In the SF/F community in the past few years, there have been a series of
incidents around social justice — feminist issues, race issues, more. I
think more are coming. I expect that along with RaceFail, we’re going to
see TransFail, AgeismFail, DisabilityFail. And that’s scary, but it’s
also good. We’re at a critical moment, a shifting of the social norms,
and we are the ones defining what the new norms will be, what is and is
not okay in our community.

This is a time for heroes. This is a time when we need many
heroes. It’s
too much for one person, or a few people, to do all by themselves. You
may think that these aren’t your battles, but if you love these books, the
people in this room, this community, then these issues affect you. These
social justice struggles matter. And we need your help.

It can be frightening, speaking up against a friend, or someone you
perceive as a powerful editor. It’s hard, speaking up against your entire
community. It’s particularly hard when you’re not even sure you’re in the
right. It’s upsetting when you discover that sometimes you are the one at
fault, and you are the one who has done damage with your words, your
actions, damage that you’re not sure you can heal. It can be humiliating
to realize just how wrong you were, and it can take courage to admit your
wrong-headedness out loud. But just because it’s frightening and hard,
doing this work, doesn’t mean that you can’t do it.

I think you can.

I think we need to fight through those expectations, fight against the
idea either in our own heads or imposed by others that we aren’t competent
to do the job. We have the right as writers, as readers, as human beings,
to engage with any idea we want to. Maybe it isn’t your direct lived
experience — maybe you have to make something of an imaginative leap to
get there. Maybe you have to do research to keep from getting things
wrong. You’re going to get things wrong. But you can’t let the fear of
being told that you’re wrong, or not good enough, stop you from trying.

Because here is one truth I know —

The world is in terrible danger. You have been chosen, you
are needed, you are each and every one
of you the only one who can save it, if you will just be brave enough.
And it will be hard. But heroism isn’t about not being afraid. It is
about being afraid, and doing the work anyway. Fighting for what you know
is right. And I promise you this — for every time you stand up for the
cause you believe in, every time you break down one of the walls of fear
to speak out, you will emerge stronger and braver on the other side.

I’m a literature professor now, and a fiction writer. As I grew
up, I never stopped loving science fiction and fantasy; I never stopped
loving stories, in part because good stories reveal character, and
character reveals the fundamental truths of the human heart. It takes
clear sight and courage to look at what is revealed inside us, dark and
bright, and show that openly to the world. One of my favorite writers,
Dorothy Allison, said that the best writing comes when we are terrified,
and we write the truth anyway. So I am asking you to look clearly at the
world around you, its beauty and its terrible pain and injustice. I’m
asking you to take up that flaming sword, because it is here; I am
standing on your doorstep, and I am calling you. You can be brave
enough,
you can be a hero.

The best of it is that if you lead the way, others will follow.

Deep in our hearts, I believe we all want to be heroes.