Here I am at the end of my first Sirens conference, sitting in the lobby waiting for my shuttle bus. And I figure if I don't blog about the conference now, it will probably slip down my priority list during week. (Note: parts of this were written at the airport later.)
I decided to come to Sirens with an even mixture of excitement and trepidation. A literary-oriented conference focused on women in fantasy? Totally my jam! And several people whose taste and sense I admire said wonderful things about it. But the trepidation came from how clear it was that it was a small tight-knit community with a defined culture, and I'd be showing up knowing nobody (well, ok, I did know Kate Elliott and we said hi when we bumped into each other) and uncertain how and whether I'd fit into that culture.
I'm going to give a spoiler here and say that I sufficiently enjoyed myself that I have definite plans to return and potentially add Sirens to my regular list of events to attend.
I loved the focus on thinking about literature and themes and tropes, and the conference's focus on women in fantasy (either as characters or as authors) pretty much defines my core reading and writing interests. I'd say that I woud have enjoyed attending 80% of the programming (which, of course, was arranged in tracks so I could only attend 1 out of any 4 at a time). I loved how the schedule was structured to include a lot of plenary-type events (the GOH speeches, readings, etc.) including group meals with "ice breaker" conversation starters.
Knowing I was coming into the event with a cloud of social anxiety hanging over me, I made a lot of pushes to get out in front of that. And it was necessary, because even though the event structure directly addressed the potential for social isolation of newcomers, and even though I was far from the only person willing to admit to social anxiety regarding the close-knit existing community, there was still a lot of potential for isolation for those who didn't come in to the event with an existing social circle. The conference took a lot of steps to address this, and it made a big difference.
I never ate a meal alone, though I always had to fight through a panic attack when the dinner hour approached and I didn't have any invitations. There was a designated place to meet for spontaneous dinner groups (and the limited number of walking-distance dinner spots meant that joining an existing group at one of them was also an option). The breakfasts and lunches (catered and in the main conference room) simpy involved picking a table to sit at, so although there was a certain amount of wandering around the room hoping someone would actively invite me to join them before picking a space at random, there was a clear expectation of mingling and one of the first meals even had assigned randomized seating to get the mixing going.
The big masquerade dance Saturday evening I knew was going to be a bust for me in terms of socializing due to my issues with ambient noise (and my lack of dancing), but there were a few refugees from the dance hanging out in the reg/bookroom space next door. And that space was a general hanging-out space throughout the event. So, all in all, my concerns were valid but I worked through them, and the social atmosphere created an expectation that people would be welcoming if you plunked yourself down.
The primary time when I felt uncomfortably isolated was on the shuttle bus going between the airport and the venue (a couple hour drive). The seating wasn't crowded enough to fill all the seats and for that same reason I think people felt uncomfortable sitting down next to someone unless they were together already. On the trip out at the beginning, once I realized I was starting an anxiety attack, I stood up and announced that it was my first Sirens and I didn't know anyone and I hoped to change that before the end of the bus ride. This generated a round of introductions, but didn't immediately carry over into actually getting to know anyone. (I did get included in a conversation later in the trip.) On the trip back today I was sitting alone again, but I didn't have the energy to do anything about it so I just worked on marking up my sample ballot. But once at the airport I posted about looking for dinner company (given a 3 hour wait before boarding) and enjoyed a great time with several other people in the same spot. So the socializing was ups and downs but mostly all good in the end.
For those who worry about the "graying of fandom", you would get an entirely different impression if you came to Sirens. I couldn't calculate what the age distribution was, but definitely skewing to the younger-than-40, maybe younger-than-30. My wild-ass guess is that maybe there were half a dozen members my age or older. This, along with the strong presence of library professionals was probably a factor in the significant presence of young adult fiction in the scope of the material. The age thing did make me feel a little out of step, but at the same time it made me very happy for the vibrancy and energy of the conference.
In addition to the group guest of honor events, there were three main types of programming: papers, panels, and round tables. The first two are what you might expect from the labels. The round tables were moderater-led group discussions of around 20 people. (My contribution to programming was a round table on the topic of "Finding Books, Finding Readers, the problem of communicating lesbian content in fantasy" which was enthusiastically participated in.) Some of my favorites among the programming were a paper on the gendered nature of villainy, and a panel on how the bildungsroman narrative often doesn't fit the shape of women's lives and what a late-life female bildungsroman might look like. There was a panel on historical fantasy that looked intriguing but had a panelist missing which made it feel a bit thin. I'm already brainstorming programming ideas for next year (theme: heroes), though the requirement for panels that the proposer come up with the list of panelists in addition to the topic is a bit of a hindrance. But I've jotted down some notes...
Oh, and yes, I plan to go back next year.