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Ignyte Interview Series 2021: Clarion West

Clarion WestThe Ignyte Ember Award celebrates the unsung contributions of people in the speculative fiction community. Nominated in this year’s Ignytes, Clarion West has served the community as an iconic educational program focused on speculative fiction. We are honored to count Clarion among our finalists and have interviewed the team here about their work.

Clarion West has been taking place for many years. Will you tell our readers how the work got started? 

In 1970, Vonda N. McIntyre attended the last Clarion workshop held in Clarion, Pennsylvania. The following year, with the blessing of Robin Scott Wilson, the founder of Clarion, she held a Clarion-style workshop in Seattle, called Clarion West. The workshop was a success, so she did it again in 1972, when J.T. Stewart was one of the students, and again in 1973. In 1984, the current incarnation of Clarion West was founded by J.T. Stewart and Marilyn J. Holt, with Vonda’s advice and inspiration. The workshop has been run as an independent nonprofit organization since 1986. 

How have things shifted over the last several years, particularly in light of COVID-19, for the work that you all are doing? 

The pandemic shortened our timeline for launching more online content. Once it became clear that we would not have an in-person summer workshop (cancelled last year, run online this summer, and intended to be in-person in 2022), we pivoted to an entirely online program of classes, community events, panels, etc. We offered a lot of free programs and workshops early in the pandemic. We found that, for many, the ability to write and learn together made living through crisis sustainable.

We’re a global community, but we’ve been niche until last year. Now, we can potentially serve all people with internet access, and we’re working to better serve those outside U.S. time zones.

What are your favorite things about running the summer workshop? 

The people, of course. 

From the perspective of the workshop staff, we love seeing the students bond as a class and grow in their craft each week. The connections between classmates and with each of their instructors are truly special, and the discoveries they make each week are often pivotal to their writing careers.

And from an even wider lens, seeing those connections happen on the larger community scale. We are only able to meet the unique challenges every year presents—digital or in person—with the help of our generous community of alumni, instructors, and friends. Whether the resources are time, labor, money, or just a listening ear and heart, this broad and diverse group comes together to make sure participants have what they need to focus on their writing and help them access the weekly parties and events. 

Six-week workshop alumni remain a part of our larger community forever, united by this experience.

What are the things that you’re doing that might be “unsung” that you’d like to take the opportunity to highlight? 

Clarion West has pledged to make our public events accessible to the widest available audience. This includes moving to ADA compliant spaces, hiring ASL interpreters and/or closed captioners, and staff training around inclusivity, as well as recording live events when possible to post for folks in different time zones. Our website has also been revamped with accessibility in mind.

This year’s workshop culture committee, led by IDEA (Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility) consultant Rachelle Cruz, met to brainstorm and test out alternative workshop models to give authors more agency in their critiques during the six-week workshop and other long-form workshops. We are still fine-tuning these, but the 2021 six-week workshop staff, instructors, and students took elements of them in stride this summer, and we all saw the difference it made in how the class interacted and responded to one another’s work.

We’re working to provide more content for teen writers, and they come with their own strengths as well as their own needs. 

Our Write-a-thon may have begun as our largest fundraiser, but it has become an opportunity to give even more writers the resources, encouragement, and space to grow their craft. Participants are invited to interact in a large and energetic Slack forum, and folks have come out with new critique partners and stories!

Last but not least, our spring Nerdlesque online gala (a burlesque show featuring performances based on speculative media) was a mature-audience event, which is quite unusual for us, but it was an opportunity to participate in sex-positive discussions that centered queer, trans, femme, and POC experiences and bodies within fandom.

What do you hope that Clarion West is doing for the SFF community?

We hope we’re empowering the people blazing new trails in the field, and especially BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, disabled, and neurodiverse writers. There may always be those who have a more limited view of who belongs in publications and conversations, but we choose to focus our efforts on uplifting the folks changing the conversation and the landscape, refreshing our community with new viewpoints and experiences. That means doing our part to make the SFFH community far more welcoming and safe than it has been.

Where do you hope the speculative fiction community is headed in the next several years?

Let’s embrace more genres and media—comics, video games, tv, and film are all media that can benefit from talented new and diverse voices. This includes more perspectives outside of America and Western Europe, as well as a diversity of narrative structures. In addition to seeing more BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ voices, we hope to see more work by disabled writers and better representation of disabled characters. These stories and storytellers have always been there, and they deserve to be recognized and respected as part of the field.

What does it mean to your team to be nominated for this award? 

It means we are moving in the right direction. To be nominated for this particular award at this con and by this community means we are making progress toward the goal that fewer writers (and readers) are left out of the conversation created by our field. Our work has just begun, but we appreciate the recognition of the steps we’ve taken so far that come to being nominated for this award. 

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