|Either this is the soundcheck or no one came to my paper|
Sleep deprived, overfed and overstimulated, I've just returned from the annual conference of the IAFA (International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts) in Orlando.
I was this year's Guest Scholar, which meant that I was picked up at the airport; handed an envelope of cash, a previously unknown thing called a per diem (it is so unexpectedly exciting to be given money in an envelope that I have been fantasizing about being bribed so that the tingle returns); participated in an opening panel on the monstrous with China Miéville, Kelly Link, Veronica Hollinger and Gary Wolfe; got to sit at a special table during China's lunch and lecture; was feted at a luncheon in my own honor, after which I gave a talk, "Undead" (mostly about zombies, but also ecology and fantasy); was interviewed live by the inimitable Edward James (a medieval historian also well known for his work in science fiction); participated in an invigorating seminar on "The Promise of Monsters"; during the conference banquet, was compelled to sit atop a raised platform with the guests and IAFA leadership, apparently because people in the room enjoy watching other people eat; and received an award for my scholarship that included both a handsome plaque and the downpayment for my next laptop. More strange even than any of these things (and here indulge me, or skip the next paragraphs, or in fact stop reading this blog post now because what follows lacks proper scholarly modesty) -- more fantastic than any of these things was that when I received the award and thanked the conference for its bestowal, the room erupted into applause so enthusiastic that, well, I was stunned. The room seats well over two hundred at those tables, so the reaction was loud, and gave me an out of body experience, and a profound feeling of gratitude. Professors get [extraordinarily unfair] jeers these days, not commendation.*
|drainage pond, sans gator|
|the view from the platform|
Getting to know China Miéville was certainly a conference highlight. He is among the smartest writers now composing in English, and I will add to this list he is also among the wittiest, the kindest, and most charismatic. It's fun to converse with him, and supremely entertaining (as well as provocative) to see him present. But it's not so great to be the featured speaker on the conference's second day, after China Miéville has on the previous one brought down the house with a fantastic talk.
A few other conference highlights and observations:
- Though isolated from much of anything besides chain restaurants (did you know that Friday's has exactly zero vegetarian entrees?), the conference hotel did have a palm-lined pool. I began each morning with a run followed by a plunge: inevitably the pool was empty, and watching the sun rise from the water was a perfect start.
- Like much of Florida this part of Orlando emerged from the strategic draining of swamps, and the swamp wants to come back. There's a large drainage pool behind the hotel filled with egrets and rainwater. It also has an alligator, often spotted lurking at the small pier that juts out from the poolside bar. I think it knows that most of us were one tropical drink away from becoming a meal.
- The conference attracts almost as many writers as scholars, so that academic grandstanding is not an option and creativity is constantly foregrounded.
- The meeting has a friendly, welcoming vibe: it is easy to feel at home right away. Hot tip: next year's guest author is Neil Gaiman, if you want to start your planning now. The guest scholar is Constance Penley, and the theme is adaptation.
- On Friday night Tison Pugh was kind enough to invite me to his house in downtown Orlando and we walked through his neighborhood and out to eat. I must admit that I always have thought of the city as a place of theme parks and hotels. Seeing it inhabited -- and seeing how charming some of the residential areas are -- was welcome. So was departing the conference for a bit, and not being "on" (Tison knows how boring I am so I didn't even try to speak with him; we ate and we walked).
- Several students from GW were in attendance, and although I saw them less than I expected, we did have dinner together one evening (that's how I ended up at Friday's, where vegetarians are welcome to get the chicken caesar salad without the chicken, and where my question of "lettuce leaves and toasted bread cubes make a good meal?" was answered with an enthusiastic "It sure does!"). GW's Haylie Swenson was named the runner up for best graduate student paper; GW's Mark DeCicco won the award last year. I'm proud of both of them.
- I also got to catch up with a former GW student, Justin Roby, who finished his PhD several years ago. I was happy to see and listen to the papers of many other people I've met through the years, such as Derek Newman-Stille. And I got to meet many, many more.
- Several people I knew only through Twitter are now real to me. Thanks @cameronmcnabb and @lizz_angello for driving to Orlando just for my talk! The backchannel for the conference was very active. If you are on Twitter, check out #ICFA.
- I'd never met Edward James before but have long admired his work (if you've read this book you know why). He's wonderful. He asked me to sign his copy of one of my books, and then challenged me when I inscribed it "To my favorite medievalist..." I assured him that at that very moment, he was.
- Though I had been eagerly looking forward to seeing Jeffrey Weinstock, my very first PhD student and the real reason, I think, I'd been invited as guest scholar, unfortunately a family emergency called him away from the conference shortly after arriving. That was the only sad part about Orlando.
- The conference has a disproportionate number of medievalists in attendance, and many early modernists as well. My guess as to why is that we know, as the time periods we study knew, that fantasy in its various forms is a powerful mode of sounding out the possibilities of the real.
- I've never had so many handshakes, hugs and warm conversations with strangers.
So my thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make a conference on the monstrous fantastic so monstrously fantastic. Though I did not get much sleep, I found the five days profoundly rejuvenating. And it is good to be home ... until I depart this weekend for Chicago, and thence to SAA in Boston. Think I'll just leave my suitcase packed.
|best part of coming home after a long 5 days|
*note that I link to Dean Dad's analysis of the article, rather than the lazy and under researched piece itself; I'm afraid the op ed is getting so much traffic that the Washington Post (which is owned by the for profit online education machine Kaplan) will be encouraged to do more along these lines.