WisCon 42 Guest of Honor Speech by Saladin Ahmed
[A VERSION OF THIS SPEECH WAS READ AT WISCON 42 IN MADISON, WISCONSIN, USA ON SUNDAY, MAY 27, 2018]


Hello everyone 


Thank you all for coming. I’d like to thank the WisCon organizers and volunteers, and I’d like to give a special shout out to the hotel workers who on a fundamental level make a gathering like this possible.


So…a Guest of Honor speech. Guest of Honor -- it’s such an odd phrase, so loaded with weight and something pretty close to pomposity, I feel like a bit of a jerk standing up here claiming to be worthy of the title. I’ve joked before that when someone puts that title near my name, I can only hear Worf’s voice insisting  “You have no honor!”


Why is that? Is it ‘impostor syndrome’? Partially – I grew up in a factory town and because of that programming things like giving speeches about ideas in front of crowds always feel a bit like overreaching and stepping above my assigned station.


But I was also blessed with a quiet kind of arrogance that helped to counter that programming. Not type-A bravado, but that nerd arrogance that comes off to others as timidity when it’s really just you retreating into your invulnerable shell of absolute certainty that you are the smartest person in the world and that everyone else is WRONG. 


So my skepticism at standing up here as a Guest of Honor is less about impostor syndrome and more about a genuine question regarding what, in my own case, we’re honoring.  


Talent? I like to think I’m a pretty talented writer, but that’s not so rare. Lot of writers are better than I am. Most of them will never get the accolades they deserve. 


Hard work? I’ve worked hard and overcome some things, but lots of people have worked harder at this and overcome more and don’t get recognized.

 

I DO like to think that the voice I bring to this stuff is something new. That who I am and the places I come from and the people I’ve come up around and the things that I’ve experienced have equipped me to tell different stories than are typically told. But even then, and especially highlighted at a gathering like this, there is a double edge to that perspective.   


I’m a hetero cis man. However hard I might try to get away from it, my writing is always informed by the often toxic conditioning – one might say the training – straight men receive. I know for a fact that some of my most instinctive-feeling reactions are the result of that and might not ever be undone. I know that some of my work is a failure at the feminist level. I can point to the passages. I’m not going to do that now because Im already stressed as shit up here, but they’re there.


All of this is to say that while I’m profoundly thankful to be here having my work celebrated by fans and peers and especially by elders who’ve blazed trials before me, I’m not sure what to do with the ‘honor’ part of being a guest of honor, particularly at a convention dedicated to feminist science fiction.


But I *do* have some particular thoughts on guesthood.


When I was eight I was told a somewhat infeasible and almost certainly embellished family story about our Arab ancestors. 


Long ago some unnamed man of our family’s tribe was on his way back to his village somewhere on the edge of the Syrian desert. Nearly home, he came across another man who was far from his village, thirsty and struggling. Our ancestor shared his provisions and the two men began to talk about the hardships of the road and missing their families. Our ancestor invited this other man to his home, and the man accepted gratefully.


Our ancestor’s tribe throws a huge party upon his return, laying out all kinds of food and drink. Once the feast gets going, the guest begins to talk about his own family and at the mention of a certain name the merriment comes to an abrupt halt. Everyone falls quiet. For it has become clear that the guest is a obscure member of a tribe that is involved in an old blood feud with our family. Everyone waits to see what the chief of our tribe will do. The stranger worries for his life.


But our tribe’s chief says “You have brought an enemy among us but we have made him our guest. Anyone who harms this man will die.” And the party keeps on going. 


(This family story, by the way, is why the Red Wedding was even more traumatic for me than for most people. Guest rights!)


So. Are there a bunch of infeasibilties to this story? Yes, of course, but in family stories – as in fantasy – that’s not the fucking point. The point is: what is the story ABOUT? The one I just told you could be a story about tribalism and the nobility of rigid social codes. But it wasn’t told to me that way. It was told to me as a story of generosity and connection. Of overcoming long-held hostility, at least long enough to have a meal together and tell some stories.


The woman who told me that story was the same woman who read me the Qu’ran in Arabic and English, the same woman who bought me my first edition of the Arabian Nights. My sort of introduction to what I guess I’d call feminism without a name. I’d like to tell you a little about my great-grandmother.


Her name was Aliya Hassan – sometimes Alia sometimes A-lee-ya, sometimes even Ella. The kids in my family called her Haji, an honorific that indicated that she’d made the pilgrimage to Mecca. She claimed ‘Haji’ in a way that only men typically do, and that was indicative of who she was. 


My great grandmother was an almost inconceivably cool woman. She was born in 1910 in South Dakota to what may well have been the only Arab Muslim couple west of the Mississippi at the time. Married off in the Black Hills at a young age to an abusive older man, she did the unthinkable at the time and left him, striking out to educate herself and lived  everywhere New York to Detroit to Mexico, marrying and divorcing several men on her own terms in an era when that alone was a remarkable accomplishment.


But she accomplished much more. She co-founded a labor union for Egyptian seamen and longshoremen. She knew Malcolm X and was deeply involved in fostering ties between Black and Arab Muslims in New York. She Gamal Abdel Nasser, arguably the most important Arab leader of the 20th century. She studied martial arts and worked as a licensed private detective in the 1960s. In her later years, when she moved back to Detroit, she helped create a storefront immigrant legal clinic that evolved into one of Michigan’s largest social service agencies. Her work touched thousands of lives, and I suspect if she’d been born to different demographics she’d have been a celebrated, nationally known figure.


On a much less consequential side, she was also one of MY formative influences. The woman who instilled in me Arab and Islamic values. A good many Arab families are more matriarchal than stereotypes would have us believe, and my own was sort of that on steroids. When my parents needed to name me they went to Haji. She named me Salah-al-Din – the righteousness of the faith – after the Muslim ruler who kicked the Crusaders out of Jerusalem (in as gentle a manner as possible, I feel compelled to note). She would tell me stories about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions and would be tsking me right now for not fasting this month. But Haji also told me the less sacred stories of Aladdin and Sinbad and Djuha the fool as she chainsmoked and let me drink coffee at a too-young age. She taught me how to play cards as she told me stories about new york city, a place I only knew from Marvel comics.


Even now, near 30 years since she died, I am discovering new things about her influence on me. Just last month I learned that my father – the man who got ME into comics – first got into comics himself when, in 1959, Haji got him subscriptions to Green Lantern and the Brave and the Bold.


My father at 13 was a junior member of what he calls a ‘club,’ basically a street gang. He wasn’t into books but haji figured if he had exciting stories with pictures in front of him he might read. She was right. My dad was hooked! He went on to pass a love of reading on to me, and holy shit I’ve come to make my living as a writer.


Which brings me to probably the most powerful thing I’ve learned about my great-grandmother since her passing: that she was a writer and that she tried to get her work published.

Decades after her death, I’ve finally begun to go through her papers, which are now being collected and noticed by scholars in Arab American studies. They include a PILE of unpublished manuscripts. A Lebanese cookbook. An amateur treatise arguing for women’s equality in Islam. A book of folktales for children, the same sort she used to tell me. A Bedouin mourning poem translated into English to mark the assassination of JFK.


From what I’ve pieced together it seems that my great-grandmother did submit her work for publication, if timidly and intermittently. As far as I can tell, none of it ever saw print. But I suppose that in some sense I see my own work as continuing hers. Though it’s a profoundly daunting task, I still hope to use this platform I’ve built with the help of her training to tell HER story properly one day.


As I’ve said, my family growing up was deeply matriarchal, and my great-grandmother was a profound influence on my father, a factory worker who turned community organizer under haji’s tutelage. 


Very much Haij’s student, my dad -- who found himself plunged into a hands-on sort of fatherhood atypical for the time when my mother died -- taught me about building bridges and connections, learning from people, listening to what they have to say, being responsible to them. And so often this began for him by hearing their STORIES. Learning what people have been through and learning to treat each other's struggles not as our own per se, but as part of a web of struggle. 


My father was a huge influence on me as a writer, putting Dune and the Lord of the Rings in front of me when my shitty school didn’t seem to care whether I could read, just whether I showed up. But more importantly than giving me books, he brought me up to believe you could learn from almost anyone, and that you learned more if you were around different types of people. He had friends who were Black panthers, white hippies, Chicano bikers, and Lebanese communists. It was the 70s, there were sometimes drugs involved. But I was taught that we were all supposed to do the hard work together to make things better for everyone. 


For my father this came not from a namby-pamby ‘we’re all human I don’t see color’ point of view, but in a rooted sense that except perhaps for a very small handful of monsters at the very top of the food chain, most of us are struggling in this world. A sense that most of us are under siege and that we get by better when we come together to do so.


This wasn’t a glib openness that came cheaply. It’s an openness that persisted when, at 10 years old, I answered the phone and a grown man on the other end started screaming mock Arabic into the phone, calling us ay-rabs and sand niggers. An openness that persisted when white people who didn’t want us in the neighborhood burned down – not once, but twice -- the community center my family had helped create. It was an ethos that didn’t turn the other cheek, but also one that didn’t forget what it was to smile welcomingly.


I’m mythologizing my family history of course. Leaving out the intra-family feuds and prison and people stealing from each other for drugs. Just as surely as my great-grandmother mythologized our family’s Bedouin past. It’s what storytellers do. It’s what HUMANS do. Imposing meaning and narrative on events that would be incomprehensible without those impositions. 


But HOW we mythologize matters. What we valorize, which virtues our myths celebrate, who we allow to be heroes. I try not to suffer delusions as to the power writers wield but yes I think these things matter immensely. And if we can’t quite understand one another through stories, I hope that we can feel like guests in each other’s stories. That even as we respect the autonomy of our islands, we can tell stories that build bridges between them


Let me be clear, though, about what I DON’T mean. I DON’T mean building bridges to everyone. I don’t mean telling stories that build bridges to people who want to kill you. I don’t mean giving people who deny your humanity access to your island. Civility. Politeness. Bipartisanship. These are bridges built on shaky ground. Feel-good edifices disguising squatter’s shacks and detention centers. When I talk about using our stories for connection I’m not talking about these hollow stand-ins, I’m talking about real togetherness that honors reality.


And the reality is that for hard-learned reasons some of us might not feel fully safe outside Muslim spaces, or outside black spaces, or outside trans spaces. Some of us are more fully in harm’s way than others and surviving that, let alone trying to thrive In the face of it, sometimes means drawing a very small circle of protection around ourselves.


But even WITHIN our communities there are bridges that we can build. There are aisles that we can reach across. And we can always at least just TEST the edges of that circle. See who’s just outside it, and what we have in common with them. 


I really do believe that our stories can help us do that. And it means so much to me to be here, and be recognized by folks who value those sorts of stories and whose own stories have helped do this work. So again, thank you for having me here – it’s been a honor to be your guest.