So, I come to you tonight, on the evening of the World Fantasy Awards, to congratulate the winners--and to talk a little bit about Howie's Head.
First: Congratulations, winners! I'm thrilled for every one of you! And congratulations, nominees! You get to feel almost as smug.
And now on to the controversy, and my completely personal take on it.
For those of you who don't know, the World Fantasy Award statuette is a wonderfully grotesque Gahan Wilson caricature sculpture of H. P. Lovecraft. It's fondly known as "the Easter Island Head," which should give you an idea of what it looks like, if you haven't seen one.
It definitely has a bit of the Innsmouth Look, if you know what I mean, which is probably only appropriate.So, there are people in the community who would like to see the statuette changed
, because it honors somebody (H. P. Lovecraft) who was in his work and his life undeniably racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic*. And not any garden-variety systemic racist, either: this was a person whose vicious and frankly nauseating racial determinism and belief in genetic "degeneracy" serves as a foundation for his entire body of work.
It's existential despair and visceral horror of "miscegenation" all the way down, like a stack of turtles descending into the abyss.
When it comes to the statue, I... have mixed emotions. I personally would love an ugly stumpy Howie head in my living room, whether it were to be me or that boy I like who were to bring it home. My reasons for this are personal and illogical and completely subjective:
First, frankly, I love Gahan Wilson. I have a complicated relationship with Lovecraft, but his work was formative for me back in the day, and arguing with his racism did
win me a Hugo. More objectively, he is one of the people who created the foundations of fantastic fiction and the modern genre of fantasy.
And... the World Fantasy Award is something I've aspired to for decades. I'd love to create something that was found worthy of this recognition someday.
In short, I have a deep personal affection for the ugly old thing. I covet it, the way I once coveted a shiny rocket ship. (I kind of covet a cube of lucite with some planets in, too, but I've never been nominated for one of those.)
What other major genre award comes with a dead-serious warning not to put it in your fishtank? (It kills the fish. Which is, again, only appropriate.)
But...here's the thing. I consider Nnedi Okorafor a friend, and I also consider her to be one of the best writers in the genre today. And she's a recipient of this award. (Interestingly, the year she won, the best novel nominees included two other black female writers.) Her essay on the topic is here.
Go read it.
Whatever my personal affection for the ugly little lump of fish-poisoning pewter is, my feelings can't compare with the conflict that people like Nnedi feel when honored for groundbreaking work like Who Fears Death
(Go read that, too, but finish this first, there's not much left.) with a statuette that is a constant reminder of, in her words: "The fact that many of The Elders we honor and need to learn from hate or hated us."
My attachment to the current statue can never be as important as that.
I understand from twitter that the WFA committee stated this year that changing the statuette is under consideration. scott_lynch
and I had a conversation about this in the car not long ago, and one of the things we talked about is that one way to resolve some of these conflicts between tradition and attempting to be decent human beings would be to establish a rotating stable of heads, as it were.
I'm a huge fan of the brilliant Octavia Butler, but I'm not sure she's a good choice for this particular honor: not only was she predominately a science fiction writer, but she's a terribly recent loss to the field and remains a much-beloved and mourned friend of many.
But even if we continue to honor writers who have been gone for at least twenty years--or longer--there are a number of people who could be recognized: Fritz Leiber, C.L. Moore, Scheherazade, J.R.R. Tolkien, T. H. White, Hope Mirrlees, and Sutton E. Griggs, to name a few.
Gahan Wilson's still around, you know.
*He was also mentally ill, and I suspect some of his incredible churning fear of the Other stems from that mental illness. Which is not an excuse in any way for things like the poem Nnedi quotes.