Every year, the Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize recognizes “individuals who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and who show creativity, commitment, and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change.” The prize is awarded in October, when the recipient visits campus for Grinnell Prize Week. I know the prize has gone to many cool people doing amazing things to make the world a better place, but I’ve never actually paid much attention to the Grinnell Prize Week events, until this year. The 2021 recipient of the Grinnell Prize is Victoria Jones of Memphis, who founded and is the executive director of TONE, an organization that “support[s] and uplift[s] Black artists and Memphis by incubating Black arts innovation, challenging the status quo of the Memphis art scene, and mobilizing Black land ownership, and economic independence.” In perusing the e-mail describing the Grinnell Prize Week events on campus, I noticed a panel entitled Conjuring Futures: Black Women Writers Reimagining the World. One of the panelists was Sheree Renée Thomas, an SFF author and the new editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a major speculative fiction magazine. My reaction was, OMG, Sheree Renée Thomas is coming to Grinnell?! I immediately put this panel on my calendar, along with a zine-making workshop the next day.
On Saturday, I arrived at the panel early, hoping to get a good seat. In fact, I was the first to arrive! The panel ended up starting very late because the previous event, a workshop on local community and movement building, ran over by a lot. Sheree Renée Thomas was actually the first panelist to arrive, and she asked students to raise their hands by class year before asking whether there were any faculty present. I was the only one to raise my hand, and she asked me what I taught. That said, the president of the college also attended the panel, so it wasn’t as though I was the only non-student. Victoria Jones, the Grinnell Prize winner, arrived from the workshop, and the third panelist, author Jamey Hatley, joined by video conferencing.
Jones named right off the bat that she was emotionally devastated from the previous session, and maybe that set the tone for the whole panel, I don’t know. It wasn’t quite what the label on the tin said (though Thomas talked a bit about Octavia Butler’s work and her own relationship to and friendship with Butler), but it was still good. After some readings from Thomas and Hatley, the panelists took turns talking at length, evoking the history of Black Americans and the traditions they grew up with and the present ills of our racism-riddled country. They also talked to each other: during the panel, Thomas and Hatley, who have been close for decades, discovered they both had connections to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, an independent Black community I had never heard of before. Thomas held forth about how absolutely vital it was for Black creators and movement builders to fireproof what they brought into the world because if history tells us anything it’s that the oppressors will tear down anything good they make, leaving them to start over again. There was this narrative of fitful progress, of Black success meeting with destructive backlash, making fireproofing crucial. I found the session wholly worthwhile, but it was heavy; there was a weight in that space.
On Sunday, I returned to campus for Scraps: A Workshop on Zine Making and Visual Storytelling with Nubia Yasin, another Memphis-based artist and activist. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for zines, and I hadn’t been to a zine-making workshop since the last one Isabelle and I participated in at the West LA public library. The session took place in the rotunda of the performing arts center, and this time I believe I was the only non-student in attendance, at least from the Grinnell College community. Victoria Jones, Sheree Renée Thomas, and other Grinnell Prize Week presenters also came to the workshop. Nubia Yasin, the leader of the session, first had us write down our answers to three questions: Who are you? What story are you wanting to tell? What does that story look like? Then she set us loose on the table of art supplies, though not before clarifying that our stories didn’t need to be about who we were but would inevitably be shaped by our identities.
On and around the table were markers, colored pencils, glue sticks, and bins of collage materials, including magazines, street maps, calendars, wallpaper, cardstock, scrapbooking paper, and a bin of irregular triangles cut from thin metallic gold or silver cardboard. I’d been considering making a one-page zine about how I ended up becoming a linguist, but Yasin told us that we actually weren’t going to be making the whole zine but rather just one page of a zine, which would clearly communicate what the whole zine was about. I wasn’t so sure about this, and I considered ignoring the workshop directions and just making a whole zine, but in the end I decided to just go with it.
I found a piece of folded white cardstock, like a blank greeting card, and I took some colored pencils in shades of blue, green, and purple, and I started drawing overlapping clouds in different shapes and orientations. I decided my zine “page” would be a sort of identity/geneaology piece, so I wrote the surnames of my eight great-grandparents (four in English, four in Chinese) around the four sides of the front of my card. Then I went bin diving again and happened upon a street map of the Twin Cities suburbs. What were the odds! I found the street I grew up on and carefully tore out a thumbprint-sized piece of map including that street. Then I glued it in the center of my card. I still had some time, so I opened the card and started to draw some colored pencil flowers inside. I started with a lotus, but I drew it in blue, and I was working on some forget-me-nots when Yasin announced that it was time to display our zine pages at our tables and walk around to take in everyone’s work. It was fun to see what everyone had created. A lot of people had gone with a larger format than me, and there were a lot of collages, which made sense, given the available materials. Someone, a student, I think, even asked to take a picture of my zine/card!
I’d also been hoping to talk to Sheree Renée Thomas, however briefly, over the course of the weekend, so I finally mustered the courage to approach her. I did tell her I was a writer as well as a linguist and had thus been very excited the editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction was coming to Grinnell, but after our short conversation, I realized I’d forgotten to introduce myself! Ah, well. I just need to write some new short stories to submit to her.