Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Excellence

[O-1 Immigrant artist petition for an individual of extraordinary ability. Please list 6-9 significant artistic productions in which you played a leading role. Include all press, awards, and prizes received by each production.]

In November of 2018, I braved subway construction, delayed trains and biting winds to make my way into Manhattan for a very important appointment. I was meeting with a lawyer.

An immigration lawyer.

In a sparsely furnished office on the twenty-sixth floor, I burned my tongue trying to meekly sip too-hot coffee while that lawyer looked over my printed CV. I’d stayed up late fussing over it, adjusting margins and commas, replacing passive voice with more active verbs in a vain bid to make my handful of publications look as impressive as possible.

I had to. The visa I was applying for demanded that I be an individual of extraordinary ability.

What makes someone “extraordinary”—as opposed to, I suppose, simply great, or good, or above-average? Your guess is as good as mine. As a writer of speculative fiction, my entire life is one long battle to disentangle my sense of self-worth from my achievements. Like clockwork, the dark clouds of awards season unfurl over our heads once a year, and my social media fills with reminders to go easy on myself. You are more than what you produce. You’re growing at your own pace. All you can do is focus on your own work.

I appreciate the sentiment. I even agree with it: meritocracy is a toxic myth, and the idea that our value is decided by our success is one of the worst by-products of late-stage capitalism.

And yet—I’m a woman of color, I’m queer, and worst or best of all, I’m an immigrant. Pleasing no one but myself is a luxury I’ve never had. I’m at war with gatekeepers every day of my life. My access to the bare necessities of a fulfilling existence is contingent on whether I can convince other people of my worth.

I have to prove myself every minute of every day. And I have to do it on their terms, not mine, and yes, that means awards, shortlists, sales numbers and all the other limited, rigid, capitalist, external markers of success that I would love to ignore.

In a lot of ways, simply existing as a woman of color is a constant catch-22: what do you do when the world systematically devalues your accomplishments while simultaneously not affording you the luxury of mediocrity? We have to be already exceptional just to get the same baseline opportunities as the most mediocre white man—but if our success is rewarded with acclaim or awards, it’s dismissed as unearned. It’s explained away as diversity hires, affirmative action, social justice run rampant. SFF publishing got a firsthand look at this in the form of the Puppies and their attempts to game the Hugo Awards; backlash to what they saw as the field being taken over by undeserving minorities snapping up awards and acclaim they couldn’t possibly have won fair and square.

And as if the constant demands of excellence weren’t bad enough, there’s the way gatekeepers define ‘excellence’ when it comes to people like me. Read enough short- and long-form science fiction and fantasy, and you start seeing patterns in how the work of marginalized people is reviewed. Such as how often the word ‘visceral’ crops up when white writers praise the work of people of color, or straight ones the work of queers. Or how often the “diverse” works that win acclaim are ones in which marginalized people delve deep into their pain, their grief, their hurt.

It’s pain and grief and hurt that is ours to write about, of course, and I’ll always unhesitatingly support any marginalized writer’s right to explore that in their art. But I chafe at the implication that my field is more likely to laud work that is “searing,” “eye-opening,” or “painful.” I resent the notion that the great, grinding machine of publishing sees only one way in which my work has value to it, and that’s when I open a vein and bleed on the page.

This irony of my existence is driven home every time some anti-immigrant rhetoric makes the news and my social media floods with variations on ‘Steve Jobs was the son of an immigrant!’ It’s impossible not to notice how often the people posting those messages are the same people who promised me I was worth more than what I produced when awards season came around.

No one seems to want to sing paeans to the immigrant who works at a bodega or does other people’s taxes. What, I wonder, about the immigrant who isn’t a STEM genius, but a writer of made-up magics and fanciful things? Is there space in your world for an immigrant who only publishes a story every couple years and never makes the award lists?

Why do I have to be exceptional to get to stay?

And why does the government’s, and the industry’s, definition of my excellence require me to perform my pain for the edification of people more privileged than I?

[Please provide the following: circulation numbers (yearly and monthly, print and digital) of the publication each story was in, number of unique page hits received, rank on shortlists and longlists, number of votes received. Did any highly acclaimed or award-winning writers mention your work on social media? How many social media followers do you have?]

I am more than what I produce, the internet tries to reassure me. That becomes increasingly hard to believe as I stare at my computer screen for hours on end, increasingly wrung out by the endless questionnaires my lawyers want me to complete. The sheer volume of information they want threatens to bury me. I feel less and less person-shaped as the hours wear by, and more like an amalgamation of numbers—my bones scaffolded together from page hits and Paypal invoices, retweets and page-refreshings of the Nebula Recommended Reading List melted down to make my blood.

It’s not for no reason that so much dystopian fiction involves bureaucracy. There’s a method to the madness, a point to the seeming pointlessness. The reams of red tape, swamps of minutiae, forms and demands for evidence are designed to dehumanize us. To exhaust us. To force us to spend our energy on constantly justifying, proving, and defending ourselves, so we have none left over to confront those in power.

I cover my desk in post-its to keep track of everything I need to do. I send out pitches, I write and sell essays, I sweat over short story drafts, I volunteer to teach workshops and do readings and speak on panels, I sign up to review books, to write an interactive fiction game, help edit a magazine, I do anything that’ll get me an extra letter of recommendation for my visa petition or an extra credit on my CV, all while working a full-time day job. And somehow, I come away from it all feeling inadequate. Not good enough. Not working hard enough. I don’t know how to reduce the value of my existence to numbers that will convince an official at the Department of Homeland Security of my worth, when simply existing in a world that wants me dead or gone or silent is a ceaseless act of resistance.

Hashtag that hustle, tho.

Not enough, not enough, not enough. Those words ring endlessly in my head as I have to get new glasses because staring at text on a screen is worsening my vision, as I have to up my dosage of Wellbutrin and Prozac, as I have repeated bouts of crying for no reason, as I start teeth-grinding so much in my sleep that I wake up stiff-jawed. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m able-bodied and not chronically ill. I’m very aware, even as I go through the process, that the system is designed to exclude disabled bodies and favor those who already come into it with privilege and resources.

And if I do give up—it won’t be dramatic. It won’t make a splash. My stories will simply…go untold. I’ll slip under without a sound, and the world won’t notice and the world won’t care.

It doesn’t matter if the rules of the game are cruel and unfair. It doesn’t matter if they’re exploitative and exhausting. I have to play on their terms, or I don’t get to play at all.

[An O-1 petition must establish that you have and will play a critical part in distinguished artistic events and productions. To this end, we must provide press, promotional materials, and letters of recommendation from experts in your field to support this claim. Please list 10-12 individuals who would be willing to provide such letters of recommendation. Preference will be given to individuals with significant awards and commercial success of their own.]

I’m one of the lucky ones.

My visa is approved. It costs me 8000 dollars, my ability to write for months, and a good chunk of my mental health, but it’s approved, and I have a three-year respite before I have to start the process all over again to renew it.

(The very thought makes me want to die.)

I try to learn to be a person again. But every time I tell myself I am loved, and valued, and that my work has meaning, I feel the numbers rising in my skull.

I watch friends and colleagues more qualified than me have their visas rejected for arbitrary reasons, and realize all over again how cruelly capricious the process is. I realize why women of color are so strong, and also how that strength is a curse, because sometimes, you don’t want to be strong. Sometimes, you want to be soft. But we don’t get to be.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve found a community that supports me, holds me when I need to be held, helps me shoulder the weight of everything I carry. I’m working in a genre that I believe can change the world. No other genre can interrogate our present by imagining better futures, transform our world by creating other ones, in precisely the way speculative fiction can. The things that make people accuse it of being escapist? Those are the things that can also make it visionary.

(And what’s wrong with wanting to escape, after all, if you’re trapped? What’s wrong with bringing delight and comfort and hope, however temporary, to the ones who need it most?)

Speculative fiction is a literature of the dispossessed, the overlooked and overwritten, the ones pushed to the margins. And so, the things that make me Other are also the things that let me ride the foremost wave of the sea change sweeping over the field.

I suppose I’ve even had some success, however you define that—you’re reading this essay, after all—even if it’s not enough, never enough.

But sometimes, in the dead of night, I find myself wishing for just a moment—just the briefest respite—of the bliss of being mediocre. But I don’t dare voice that wish, because to do so would be a betrayal of my luck, and a betrayal of all those who weren’t as lucky as me.

So I’ll be excellent, even though I’m exhausted. I’ll be excellent, endlessly.

And I am excellent. I am owed more, and I am full of spite, and I will be exceptional.

But gods, wouldn’t it be nice if I didn’t have to be?

Nibedita Sen

Nibedita Sen is a Hugo, Nebula, and Astounding Award-nominated queer Bengali writer, editor and gamer from Calcutta. She acquired several English degrees in India before deciding she wanted an MFA too, and that she was going to move halfway across the world for it. A graduate of Clarion West 2015, her work has appeared in venues like Podcastle, Nightmare, and Fireside. These days, she can be found in NYC, where she helps edit Glittership, an LGBTQ SFF podcast, enjoys the company of puns and potatoes, and is nearly always hungry. Hit her up on Twitter at @her_nibsen.

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