Astrolabe Gaiden: "How a Spark Became a BonFiyah" by Iori Kusano and Vida Cruz
Last month, Adri Joy joined me to discuss CoNZealand Fringe—a programming offshoot of CoNZealand that centred fan voices and provided an alternative to official convention programming.
"With the idea spearheaded by Claire Rousseau, the first Booktuber—that’s the community of book reviewers and fans on YouTube—to make it to the Best Fancast ballot for her (excellent) channel," said Joy, "it was an obvious choice for CoNZealand Fringe to be hosted on BookTube, with 11 different channels hosting various Fringe streams and panels dedicated to BookTube itself and to popular BookTube video topics. Our panels were built from the premise that fans of colour, queer fans, fans with disabilities and other marginalised folks have vital things to say about every fandom topic, and given the genesis of the Fringe concept, ensuring a diversity of expertise was a fundamental part of our responsibilities."
Now, I've caught up with Iori Kusano and Vida Cruz to discuss the origins of BonFiyah—a fan-run program that went from fringe project inspired by CoNZealand Fringe to an official offshoot of FIYAH Magazine's FIYAHCON convention.
“What will we do with twelve hours? That’s so many hours. That’s an entire day of programming.”
Iori would like to acknowledge that the birth of BonFiyah (previously known as FiyahCon Fringe) was, at least partly, kind of all a big misunderstanding.
Deep in the wilds of summer 2020, Vida Cruz, Iori Kusano, Nicasio Reed, and Neon Yang heard about FiyahCon and agreed upon two things: that it sounded like an awesome event, and also that if we had to wake up and get dressed to appear on one more panel in the unreasonable predawn hours of the morning due to time zone fuckery, we were going to scream. We reached out to FiyahCon to ask if some additional content would be welcome, planning to propose two or three panels to run in late-night USA hours. None of us were particularly sure that we had the bandwidth to handle more than that. Two to three hours sounded like a reasonable commitment.
“You can have twelve hours,” L.D. Lewis, a paragon of generosity, told us.
“Twelve?” we hissed amongst ourselves. “What will we do with twelve hours? That’s so many hours. That’s an entire day of programming.”
We fussed. We pitched each other concepts. Some of us also had anxious thoughts over how they had zero conrunning experience ("Me? Organize? Me???"). Others of us had anxious flashbacks to previous con staffing experiences that ended in tears, regional infamy, and a lifetime ban from the Jacksonville Riverwalk Wyndham. Neon and Nico dropped out eventually due to life exploding in everyone's faces in 2020. And at last we came to the conclusion that if we did not jump on this chance and charge through to the finish line, when was another con ever going to give us the opportunity?
The truth is that, no matter how much the U.S.-based industry will try to include international authors, readers, and fans, they themselves cannot do it because they do not have the frameworks that inform whether or not we can attend cons at all, virtual or physical. Iori is based in Tokyo and Vida is based in Manila. We have both experienced being up at ass o'clock to be on panels because we're eager to further our careers and because some organizers completely forgot (or ignored) that they have panel participants on the other side of the world.
“Yes,” we told L. and the Fiyah team. “We’ll take all twelve hours, please.”
The first iteration of our plan involved a CoNZealand Fringe style guerilla broadcasting program via Twitch or YouTube. L. took one look at this and said, “But you’re going to be on our platform.”
Iori and Vida have never met in person, but they share many things in common, including a simultaneous bracing-for-impact reaction whenever it seemed like we needed to negotiate for what we think our program needed, whether it was requests for captioning or the need to make the ticket price more accessible to attendees from the Global South. U.S. cons have treated us poorly in the past when it came to accommodations, whether that was the intention or not. FiyahCon's team made sure that our fears went to bed.
We cannot thank FiyahCon enough for how they collectively stepped up for us. Between the provision of broadcasting platforms, live captioning services, technical support around the clock, and constant Discord moderation, we were supported through every aspect of both planning and implementing the Fringe program.
But, most importantly, FiyahCon understood and empathized with the barriers to convention attendance for international participants. It wasn’t just about time zone accessibility. Even a virtual con can be prohibitively expensive when exchange rates and local standards of living are accounted for. The FiyahCon ticket, priced at $40 USD, can also buy you two weeks' worth of rice, fish, and vegetables for a three-person household in Manila. Less dramatically, that’s six takeaway curries from Iori’s favorite Thai restaurant, or two dental cleanings, or nearly a week of groceries for one person. Asking an attendee in the Global South to pay a $40 USD entry fee demanded a level of scrimping and sacrifice that we were simply not on board with. SFF should be for everyone. We wanted people to have a seat at tables otherwise inaccessible to them.
“We can get them in for free,” L. said. (Can you tell yet that L.D. Lewis is perhaps one of the most radical advocates for accessibility in SFF? Aren’t you jealous that we get to work with her?)
This was, for us, the turning point. We’d gone in feeling that the ticket price was our hill to die on; if we couldn’t get the Global South in for free, we’d just have to jump ship and pirate-radio a program together somehow. When FiyahCon stepped up for us and our audience, everything became Real.
Vida and Iori began canvassing their friends for panel ideas. Vida tapped her social networks to find out who would be willing to present and moderate, while Iori made a massive spreadsheet to organize the schedule. We realized that neither of us were savvy enough to handle the tech support alone, so FiyahCon assigned us Eddie Louise (who stayed up super late to help), Teresa Chan, and Kate Elliott.
Slowly, the spreadsheet filled up as people agreed to participate. We collected their consent forms for recording, added them to the official schedule, and connected them with their panelmates and moderators.
We were both up early the day of the event. Panels started at 7 AM in Vida’s time zone, and she had to attend the opening ceremonies beforehand. Meanwhile, Iori sent out a pep talk to the panelists and got ready to debut as one of the top batters, as they were scheduled to appear on Heroes Around the World at the start of the lineup.
From the first panel we were overwhelmed by the positive reception. The Discord chat moved so quickly that we could hardly keep up with everyone’s enthusiastic comments and interesting questions. Our hashtag on Twitter filled up as people discussed the panels they were watching and posted screenshots. And with every panel successfully completed, we DMed each other, “We’re doing this, oh my god, we’re really doing this!” And at the end of our event, we even learned that attendees didn't want FiyahCon to end, so a few of them made their own Discord server as a sort of "support group" for the aftermath of FiyahCon and its fringe event. We think that a community growing around what we've built is one of the biggest compliments we can ever receive.
Every one of our panelists, cognizant of FiyahCon’s generosity in letting us hold our event at a time when we were properly awake to enjoy it, brought their A-game. Our one-hour time slots didn’t feel long enough, and several people in the chat praised the higher level of discourse produced by holding an event by and for BIPOC. Our theory is that the higher level of discourse was made possible at the event's panels because we completely did away with any topics and questions that were basically Diversity 101—and as many of our panelists know, we get such questions and topics far too much at other cons. When you do that—frame a panel for a curious majority demographic audience (read: too often white cishet able-bodied male)—you get too caught up in explaining racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and all the other "isms." You don't get to talk about craft (or how to deconstruct it) like white authors do. You don't get to show other ways to move around in the world. You don't get to talk about your vision of a more just, post-colonial world—at least in your writing. Because you're too busy educating an audience that, all too often, just wants permission to take from your culture and patch it up into a story made palatable for a white audience.
We were only about three, maybe four hours into the program when we started talking about how we wanted to improve next year: more panels, more people, more topics. Whether we would do it never came up for discussion; it was all about how. And this year, we hope to bring an even better BonFiyah experience to the international community with two full days of panels populated with BIPOC authors from around the world. (And to be honest, as we were building the panel list for the 2021 event, Iori was also like, "we can save this idea for next year," a few times.)
Although we know we are producing valuable content for our peers it’s hard to encourage other people to take on this kind of community-building work. To be honest, a disproportionate share of community-building, particularly when it comes to building safer spaces for BIPOC, falls on the shoulders of marginalized people. This takes away from the novels, short stories, poetry, essays, art that make up our real work. Time spent on community organizing is time taken away from our art, deadlines pushed back, submission windows missed entirely. And while we were happy to serve our communities and bring delight to others, the reward for this work often turns out to be… requests to do still more work at other events, largely uncompensated.
However, it’s clear that we can’t just leave community-building to mainstream concoms. In order to build the most inclusive convention experience possible, BIPOC cannot count on majority-white concoms to consider their safety, needs, or general well-being. How can we ask mainstream conventions to think about providing us with an enriching convention experience when most of the time they can’t even pronounce our names correctly, even when given a pronunciation guide?
On that note, we hope that other events with the same goals as BonFiyah will sprout up as we move into a world where hybrid conventions will become a thing. We never meant to be the One and Only. (We desperately hope to stop being the One and Only in the near future!) That in itself is a very colonial concept. We want more events, more BIPOC authors the world over, more stories and experiences—we think this is the key to building a truly diverse SFF scene. We are eager to see a world in which experiences like BonFiyah are the norm rather than outliers, and we hope that other people will join us in working towards that goal.
BonFiyah will take place from Sept. 17-19 everywhere in the world. We look forward to seeing you there, so bring some smores.
Note: You can even join our team! We need volunteer tech support for Pacific, Asian, and European/African time zones. Please drop us a line at email@example.com with the subject line "VOLUNTEER TECH SUPPORT".
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