ICFA 39

ICFA 39 proved to be an interesting and enriching experience for me. It was my second ICFA. For those who don’t know, ICFA stands for International Conference For The Fantastic In The Arts. It is organized by The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. Held annually at Orlando, Florida, it is a cosy and small-scale conference for academics, writers, publishers, editors and attendees who are interested in the fantastic, folk lore and speculative fiction. Unlike bigger conventions and conferences, you get the opportunity to talk to people. The hotel lobby seems to be an awesome place to sit and form small comfy niches where you chat, share experiences or just chill (as I found out throughout the conference).

There are two tracks: the academic track and the writers’ track. The academic track includes panels and presentations from academics and writers. The writers’ track consists of writers reading from their current works-in-progress or published stories and interaction with attendees. I find that as I progress as a writer and reader, I become more confident. True, you get butterflies in the stomach and I have to confess I did. I imagined myself back in the classroom, teaching history – and it was an enjoyable experience.

For my reading, I selected a few pages from Water Into Wine. I also had the opportunity to listen to my fellow writers: Judith Berman and Nick DiChario. The topics ranged from diaspora (Italian, Asian) to Indigenous/Native American voices. We talked about diaspora experiences, Nick as an Italian-American, me as a Southeast Asian Chinese – and how it affects our writing and being bilingual. The session was fruitful in a sense that it made us think about migrations and how migrant experiences would affect families. There was a feel of poignancy and regret as we discussed how second and third generation migrants had no proper access to learning and speaking their mother tongues, that the choices made by our ancestors (great grandparents etc) so that we could assimilate and integrate into the new land/society/culture were ultimately harmful.

I also got the opportunity to listen to Jaymee Goh read from her emotional story about indentured Chinese coolies in the Caribbean. Would their spirits rest in peace as they were murdered or killed on foreign land?

I met awesome and inspiring people like Nisi Shawl, Ann Leckie, Eileen Gunn, Sheila Williams, Charles Vess, John Chu, Ted Chiang,  K. Tempest, Usman Malik, Shaun Duke, Julia Rios, Rebecca Kuang (R.K) and countless many. Forgive me if I missed out names. All of you showed me compassion and kindness, beautiful gifts I truly cherish. I had awesome room-mates: Jaymee Goh, Emily Jiang and Brittany Roberts (female werewolves for the win!). I braved the dawn chill and enjoyed the sunrise swim. I had fried gator (yum!). I watched hawks spiral on thermals. I had IHOP. I also learned about the existence of a particular convenience store called the WaWa.

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The conference stirred up the ever-present impostor syndrome and self-doubt. Surrounded by such illustrious people with big book deals, award nominations and prestigious SFF writing workshop creds, I felt lost and at times isolated since I am not all of the above. I felt like a pretender who snuck in. Like high school (which  wasn’t a pleasant experience for me either), I again lurked at the fringes, feeling like a fool. I cried in my hotel room, crushed and defeated. Why was I even at ICFA? Why did I even bother? Confronting these demons was part of my ICFA experience. In the end, I just said to myself: fuck it, enjoy the rest of the conference! I write books and I have the experience. So, impostor syndrome can sod off.

Protip for people who want to attend SFF conferences and conventions: You need to wear a thick skin. Have a good support structure  (friends, self-care routine, learning how to say ‘no’) around you. It will be an extremely lonely experience if you don’t have these two things. If you are shy, like me (yes, I am shy – I only wear a game face when I am attending such things), you have to put yourself forward and out. Don’t be afraid to speak and don’t be afraid to go back to your room to rest. Conferences can be harrowing for introverts.

So, there you go, my ICFA experience. A bit short – I am still processing stuff!

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