GUEST POST: An Interview with Mary Anne Mohanraj

What was your first experience at a SFF con like?

I was ten years old, and my dad, after I'd begged for some weeks, finally agreed to let me go to a Star Trek mini-con.  He dropped me off around lunchtime, and picked me up a few hours later.  I watched some blooper reels, wandered around the dealer's room, and eventually ended up sitting on the floor next to a dealer's table, reading the zines stacked beneath his table.  Which, it turned out, were fairly explicit Kirk/Spock slash stories.  It was a memorable introduction to fandom.

What makes a convention special to you? What makes you want to go back?

I'm always happy to see friends again -- for conventions I've been going to for years, that's the biggest draw.  But for a new convention, the main thing I look for is interesting, thought-provoking programming.  After twenty years in fandom, and hundreds of conventions, you'd think I'd have been to every possible panel -- but there are always new topics, new books and shows to discuss, and new people to discuss them with.  It's invigorating!

When you go, do you prefer being an audience member, a panelist, a moderator, or something else?

I am afraid I have been accused (gently) of 'panelling from the audience.'  If I'm not on the panel, I'm the person in the front row, with her hand up in the air, saying "Pick me! Pick me!"  In my natural state, I'm the Hermione Granger of panels.  These days, I've been a teacher long enough that I do, at least consciously, understand it's important to make space for the quieter people to speak too.  So sometimes I sit on my unruly hands.

Any tips for first time con attendees and/or shy fans?

Volunteer!  Sitting at the registration table is a great way to start meeting people -- your fellow volunteers, certainly, but also everyone you're registering.  Volunteering in green room is a great way to meet pros.  Attend panels that interest you, and don't be afraid to raise your hand and join the conversation.  Sign up for programming!  Hang out in the lobby and bar area if it seems like there's an open area where people are congregating, and join those conversations.  Usually it's easy to tell the difference between a private conversation and an open discussion.

What projects are you excited to share with FOGcon fans and participants?

I'm director of the Speculative Literature Foundation, and I'd like to encourage writers to apply for our various grants, which give from $500 - $750 each to support your work.  We currently offer a travel grant, older writers' grant, working-class writers' grant, and are adding a general diversity grant.  We're also working on developing a small press co-op: www.speclit.org.

I also founded Strange Horizons, and while I haven't been involved with it for many years, I still think it's one of the best magazines in the genre.  It's free to read, pays pro rates for fiction, and is updated weekly with terrific new fiction, poetry, articles, essays, and art.

For my own writing, after twenty years writing erotica and mainstream lit, I've finally published my first science fiction book, a slim novella titled The Stars Change.  It set on a South Asian-settled university planet, on the eve of the first interstellar war; when bombs threaten the alien ghetto, a small group of humans and aliens must decide where they stand. It's based in part on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the country I was born in -- in the '83 riots, bands of thugs slaughtered many Tamils (member of the minority ethnic group, the group I belong to) in the capitol city of Colombo.  Many of the majority ethnic group, the Sinhalese, gave refuge to their Tamil neighbors, at risk of their own lives.  Somehow I find it easier to write about such terrible events at a step or two removed, through the lens of science fiction.

Mary Anne Mohanraj, author of a dozen books, also founded the World Fantasy Award-winning and Hugo-nominated magazine, Strange Horizons. She was Guest of Honor at WisCon 2010, received a Breaking Barriers Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women for her work in Asian American arts organizing, and won an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose. Mohanraj has taught at the Clarion SF/F workshop, and is now Clinical Assistant Professor of fiction and literature and Associate Director of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She serves as Executive Director of both DesiLit (www.desilit.org) and the Speculative Literature Foundation (www.speclit.org). Recent publications include Without a Map, Aqueduct Press. She lives in a creaky old Victorian in Oak Park, just outside Chicago, with her partner, Kevin, two small children, and a sweet dog.

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