The Nerds Of Color: Political Engagement In And Through A Racialized Fandom Space

My time as a contributor to the Nerds of Color was definitely a blessed one. The story of how I was recruited is a story in itself. From a professional standpoint, being a contributor led to some excellent opportunities. Everything from networking, to receiving gigs, projects and other opportunities. More than that I gained some amazing friends. For all of that I am truly appreciative.

One specific highlight was when myself, N.O.C. Founder and Publisher Keith Chow, several other N.O.C. colleagues as well as Black Girl Nerds Founder and Publisher Jamie Broadnax were interviewed by Ama Uytingco for a research paper she penned for a class at New York University.

To say I was honored and humbled to be interviewed would be a major understatement. But more than that, this paper reminded me that speaking truth to power can have a  ripple effect in unimaginable ways as well as make an impact.

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The Nerds Of Color: Political Engagement In And Through A Racialized Fandom Space

By Ama Uytingco

 

In March 2014, educator and self-proclaimed nerd Keith Chow posted an article to communal fan-run website, The Nerds of Color, suggesting that Marvel Studios cast an Asian American lead for their Netflix adaptation of Iron Fist. Some background: comic book Iron Fist is Danny Rand, the white son of a wealthy businessman. At a young age, he accompanies his family and his father’s business partner on an expedition to find K’un L’un, a civilization inspired by the actual Kunlun Mountain of Chinese mythology. The mission goes awry and Danny finds himself alone in K’un L’un with both his parents dead at the hands of his father’s partner. He trains under K’un L’un’s immortal martial arts master and becomes the most skilled Iron Fist, after which he returns to America to fight crime and seek revenge against the man who killed his father.

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On the one hand, Chow’s article sparked severe backlash from some comic book enthusiasts, whose criticisms ranged from barbs against the visual disparity between a blond Danny and an Asian Danny… to assertions that an Asian American Rand would eliminate the cultural alienation the original feels when he first arrives at K’un L’un… and even to fear that the suggested casting would perpetuate the all-Asians-know-martial-arts stereotype (see Comic Book Resources’ Albert Ching on #AAIronFist).

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Keith Chow, Founder and Publisher of the Nerds of Color

On the other hand, Chow and other contributors to The Nerds of Color built up considerable support among fans and non-fans alike, culminating around the Twitter #AAIronFist, wherein participants included high-profile industry insiders like actor Ki Hong Lee and filmmaker Lexi Alexander. Another form of mobilization included an online petition started by Asian American activist group 18 Million Rising. After the publication of the first article, Chow and other #AAIronFist supporters refined their stances through conversation with other fans; every time a counter-argument was raised, they came up with another point to debate against it.

“You can’t have an #AAIronFist because Danny Rand has blonde hair!” @MarvelIronFist @netflix @BROADUSpic.twitter.com/Fx12t2zBIU

#AAIronFist https://t.co/bvKRyLNuGB

Rich blonde white guy learns ways of the Orient, returns a superhero. @MarvelIronFist @netflix @BROADUS #AAIronFistpic.twitter.com/Ohsvm7iybQ

“Why do you need #AAIronFist when there’s Shang Chi? Isn’t that enough?” @MarvelIronFist @netflix @BROADUSpic.twitter.com/5KgOC54cH6

“This movie’s full of Asian stereotypes. What to do? Let’s erase the Asians!” @MarvelIronFist @netflix #AAIronFistpic.twitter.com/axxQ9BTGXW

Online fandoms, facilitated by the growth of decentralized social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, have seen only more widely circulated instances of fannish civic engagement over the years. This travelogue investigates The Nerds of Color (N.O.C.) as a multi-platform fan community performing Jenkins’ model of fan activism. Through interviews with N.O.C. contributors, as well as N.O.C. published content, I explore the ways that these self-proclaimed nerds of color engage civically and politically with their media texts through the culture of fandom itself. I touch upon the potentiality of fannish affect to be harnessed individually and communally toward promoting civic engagement.

 

Methodology

I approached this ethnographic project from a combination of emic and etic perspectives. I am someone who has, in an academic setting, learned about and engaged in discussions of representation in American media. I am also a self-proclaimed nerd who watches and reads many of the same source texts that those on The Nerds of Color watch and read. I am familiar with a wide range of fan practices, and even more familiar with feelings of love, passion, and frustration toward the source texts with which I choose to engage. However, I’m not a direct contributor to the N.O.C. community. I read and follow their accounts, but I’ve never commented, tweeted to them, or written for the site. I conducted research both through in-depth interviews (Skype video or e-mail chains) with 4 contributors, including the founder, and through observation of N.O.C. activity on their Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and website.

Racializing Nerdiness

What does it mean to be a nerd, especially a “nerd” fan?

Historically, the term “nerd” has been associated with being on the fringe of society, often hinting at a degree of social ineptitude. When asked what it means to be a “nerd,” N.O.C. contributor Monique Jones summed it up as “feeling like you are just a little left of everyone else because you don’t fit into what folks say is ‘mainstream’ or ‘normal.’” Another N.O.C. contributor, Constance Gibbs, also added that being a “nerd” includes exhibiting passion for a subject, such as being able to “talk about a piece of fiction… for hours on end.” She traces that passion to love, which, in the case of fandom, is usually love for the source material, but often also expands beyond the entertainment into love for other fans and fan works. In this vein, although being a nerd connotes social deviance, it is not necessarily a negative deviance to one who identifies as being one, but rather a proud claim to a special group identity. To complicate the definition of “nerd” even more, N.O.C. writer Christelle Gonzales ascribed a certain intellectual quality to “nerdiness” by describing a “nerd” as someone “who passionately and purposefully seeks out the way-more-than-necessary knowledge about a strangely specific subject.” In short, the picture below:

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Thanks to N.O.C. Dennis Upkins for this wonderfully succinct photo!

Recent years have seen the “nerd” moving into mainstream spaces, what with the global success of Marvel superhero franchises and of “nerd-centric” shows like The Big Bang Theory and King of the Nerds. However, just as the Marvel movies lack a racially and sexually diverse cast of superheroes, the portrayal of nerds onscreen lacks diversity, and reflects a socially normalized conception of the term “nerd” itself. Mel Stanfill argues that heteronormativity is racialized as “white” behavior, and that white nerds and fans are constructed as “nonheteronormative varieties of whiteness.” However, their deviance is also constructed as correctable, fully able to be “salvaged into normative white, heterosexual, masculine self-control” (Stanfill), which further reinforces privilege as natural to whiteness and emphasizes whiteness in fandom. Hence, the default “fanboy” is “white, middle-class, male, [and] heterosexual… with perhaps geek or nerd identities that are simultaneously embedded in… whiteness, and increasingly certain kinds of class privilege,” (Gatson and Reid). To drive the point home, writer Jamie Broadnax from Black Girl Nerds recalls a telling moment when she stumbled onto a Yahoo! Answers question asking, “Do black girl nerds exist?” The inquiry speaks volumes to the production of fandom as white, and in retaliation, Broadnax created the online publication Black Girl Nerds on that same day.

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From left: Jamie Broadnax, Founder of Black Girl Nerds, Arturo Garcia, Editor At Large at Racialicious, and Keith Chow, Founder of the Nerds of Color

In addition to the lack of representation or visibility of nerds of color in an online or onscreen space, nerds of color in fandom find a dearth of stories written for and to them in that space in which they partake. Keith Chow, founder and editor-in-chief of N.O.C., loved the G.I. Joe comics as a child, and especially admired a character named Snake Eyes, who appears as a faceless, voiceless, and nameless ninja warrior. For years of his life, Chow imagined Snake Eyes as a dark-haired Asian—that is, until the one point in the comics when a panel portraying Snake Eyes from behind reveals a head of bright, blond hair. In retrospect, Chow recalls being genuinely traumatized by the revelation.

“This character that I thought I had a connection to was also… part of the world that I wasn’t a part of.”

During a panel at the 2015 San Diego Comic Con, Chow cites the story as what inspires him to “make sure there [are] rosters and a universe full of Asian American superheroes… [that those characters] can actually be Asian American and not ‘pretend’ Asian American.” This sentiment is what led him and a group of fellow Asian American comic book enthusiasts and creators to publish Secret Identities, an anthology of Asian American superheroes.

 

As a person of color occupying “nerd space,” one feels racialized flows of culture in a multi-layered fashion—online, onscreen, and off. Although not associated with fandom explicitly, Broadnax referenced Mary Bucholtz’s 2007 study of African-American youth culture’s effect on Euro-American youth culture. Bucholtz observed a high school, wherein there existed one group of white kids not engaging in African-American youth culture. These kids identified themselves, and were identified by others, as nerds. Bucholtz paid attention to the language used by this group of nerds, observing that they spoke with “hyper-articulate pronunciation… [and] hyper-formal vocabulary” to distance themselves from the elements of African-American youth culture in which their other peers were participating. Of course, Bucholtz’s definition of “nerdiness” is not necessarily white (phenotypically or behaviorally), nor does it apply to all who identify as nerds. Bucholtz herself asserts that her subjects’ deviance from youth culture is not uniquely white. However, she does note, “when anybody does it, it is understood as white,” and in fact, a “hyper-white,” deviant form of “whiteness” similar to Stanfill’s classification of whiteness in fandom. Nonetheless, as Broadnax observes, Bucholtz’s study provides a basis for “nerdiness” to be thought of as in opposition to blackness.

When one sect of nerds is the normative “the fanboys and nerds… become the bullies. Now they have this perceived power within the nerd space because they’re white… straight… male” (Chow). N.O.C. contributor Dennis Upkins recounted a memory of buying Black Panther comics in honor of Black History Month. He was the only non-white person in the comic book store, but didn’t think much of it at first. When he made his way to the register, however, he noticed that all eyes turned to him and his selections, and conversation ceased. When describing how uneasy the cashier looked, Upkins’ vivid words cut a clear image: “You would’ve thought that entire scene was out of an episode of 24; those books were C4 explosives; and I was a Muslim terrorist holding those white folks hostage.”

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If, indeed, “producing culture is political” (Aymar Jean Christian), then fans of color occupying nerd space are always subjected to—and cannot opt out of—the politics of race that flow in and through the pop culture texts with which they choose to engage. Fantasy spaces are influenced by real-life, and have real-life implications.

From Fans to Fan-Activists: Politicizing Pop Culture

Traditionally, activism is understood as an “intentional action to challenge existing hegemonies and provoke political and/or social change” (Brough and Shresthova). Recent years have seen a unique form of activism—fan activism—arise in the intersection of culture and politics, wherein the line blurs between traditional civic and political activism and cultural participation. The term “fan activism” has most often been associated with active fans advocating purely for non-political, content-related change (though they may employ strategies normally used for political purposes), but this definition becomes problematic considering overlaps between cultural and political concerns. Fan activism can therefore also be understood as “fan-driven efforts to address civic or political issues through engagement with and strategic deployment of popular culture content” (Brough and Shresthova).

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In the case of Keith Chow, the experience of being marginalized in an already marginal space pushed him to create The Nerds of Color, where fans of color can vocalize a counter-hegemonic perspective not only on popular media texts, but also on fandom, particularly “nerddom,” itself. Nerds of Color are “creative activists,” people who not only “often [speak] to each other through images borrowed from commercial entertainment… remixed to communicate their own messages,” but also “[deploy] social media tools and platforms, sometimes in ways that challenge corporate interests… and [forge] communities through acts of media circulation” (By Any Media).* Adding race to the to the name of the site was, according to Chow, a deliberate and inherently political decision. It is an effort to make visible a segment of fandom not normally made visible, and if “visibility is closely correlated with legitimation” (Gabilliet cited in Scott), then, following Scott’s conclusion regarding female comic book fans, the efforts of the Nerds of Color suggest a desire to legitimate their fan identities.

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This desire also underscores the central role of affect as the impetus behind N.O.C. Although N.O.C. contributors are often critical of their subjects, interviews with the writers revealed more complicated politics motivated by more than just dissatisfaction with current industry and social inequities—they were also driven by respect, love, and passion for bettering it and its texts. As the “About” page of the site reads, “We are a community of fans who love superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy and video games but are not afraid to look at nerd/geek fandom with a culturally critical eye.” Chow firmly believes, “You can love something, but still criticize it. The whole reason we do these things is because we love them, and we want to make them better.” The reasons behind Chow starting N.O.C. are not dissimilar to the generally cited reasons for blogging: “documenting one’s life; providing commentary and opinions; expressing deeply felt emotions; articulating ideas through writing; and forming and maintaining community forums” (Nardi et al. cited in Lopez 425). Nerds of Color harness their fannish love and passion for the source texts into affective labor.

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When asked whether or not they identified their work for N.O.C. as activism, there were mixed reactions. Chow himself considers N.O.C. a form of activism, positing that talking about issues like white supremacy in what are supposed to be fantasy spaces is activism because fantasy spaces are influenced by the real world. “It’s a fantasy for white people! We as people of color also want to be a part of this fantasy in such a way that we don’t feel excluded” (Chow). Contributor Dennis R. Upkins also identified his writing for N.O.C. as a form of activism because whenever he writes, it is usually with three objectives: to empower, to enlighten, and to entertain. His perspective is similar to Lori Kido Lopez’s characterization of Asian American-centered blogs as activist—that they “convert academic knowledge into vernacular language… giving their audience access to the kind of information one might gain” (Lopez 423-24) in, for instance, a Media Studies class.

However, not all N.O.C. contributors were so firm in their identification of N.O.C. writing as activism. Monique Jones does consider it activism, but she also distinguished her writing from what seems to be a more traditional practice of activism, or what she terms as “true activism, [which] does require that, at some point, you get from behind your chair and do something in the real world.” That being said, Jones did admit she approaches her writing work from an activist lens. She echoed Upkins when she said, “I do want people to be able to learn from what I have to say, and seeing people take something positive from my words is what keeps me going and keeps me striving to be the best at what I do.” Contributor Constance Gibbs is even more hesitant call it so, stating that “activism” “seems like a term for work higher than [hers].” She did acknowledge, though, that activism is “an umbrella that holds many things and, definitely, calling out misrepresentation fits under that umbrella.”

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Regardless of the writers’ personal perspectives towards the specific term “activism,” they recognized the potentiality for their work on N.O.C. to elicit social change, either directly or indirectly, on a large scale or a small scale. Gibbs particularly pointed to a unique moments of potentiality in her writing work when she wrote a post on the lack of black sitcoms on streaming sites. Since the article, a few black sitcoms have debuted on Netflix and Hulu. About the situation, Gibbs stated:

“Do I think [my article] affected whatever distribution and contract negotiations are involved in getting a TV show streaming? No, but I think it… made a lot of people go ‘Yes! That’s so true! Where are they @Netflix/Hulu?!’ Giving people, even those on your side, the feeling that someone else thinks the same can be a form of activism. It’s definitely a form of community and esteem building, and that gives people boldness and a voice. These are things that lead to activism moving offline.”

It can then be said that N.O.C. engages civically and politically with and through popular culture—it addresses purely political issues through their manifestations in or intersections with popular culture. Case in point: the earlier discussion of #AAIronFist. Wanting to cast an Asian American actor in this canonically white role was more than just about Orientalism in the comic or Asian representation in mainstream American media. Chow reminded, “This is also in the context of a history of Asian culture being appropriated to be told through the lens of a white person… There’s a context beyond just this one particular character.”

In August of 2014, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson protests, N.O.C. contributor and artist John Jennings shared a self-made fan illustration of Marvel Comics’ black Captain America, Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon).

This image is a politically charged statement delivered through the manipulation of a pop culture text. For Jennings, it represents “a failure on many levels,” particularly what he interpreted as President Obama’s lack of outrage toward Ferguson. To background the cartoon, he commented:

“Even with that well-meaning attempt at diversity in mainstream comics… Captain America has a criminal record and he is black… Forty-five years later and the character still represents a performance of false diversity in the comics industry that merely seems to camouflage the deeply [entrenched] systemic racism that still pervades in all facets of our society.

Representative John Lewis compared the events in Ferguson to what was happening almost 50 years ago in Montgomery, AL… It’s no small coincidence that Emmett Till lost his life to racialized violence 59 years ago in this very same month. Like a superhero in a comic book, it doesn’t’ seem to change. It just pretends to.”

Beyond the politicization of content itself on N.O.C., another point of intersection between fan activism and a more traditional sociopolitical definition of activism is the overlap between expressions of fan discontent and those of social protest. In their study of fan activism, Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport argue “at the same time that fans were becoming more active, protest was becoming an increasingly common way to express grievances, leading fans, among others, to adopt protest tactics when they had concerns they wanted to express” (224). When the Internet becomes involved, it enables protest tactics to be diffused even more widely than standard mass media does. Take, for instance, the online petition that was circulated for #AAIronFist. Petitions are a traditional protest tactic, yet supporters of #AAIronFist used it to mobilize movement around an issue that was not solely political.

Moreover, although the WordPress-hosted website is the main hub of N.O.C. activity, it also performs on multiple online platforms. N.O.C. shared all of its #AAIronFist-related articles on Facebook, including the petition, and used the network as a means of circulating relevant messages beyond the regular reach of the website. On Twitter, “#AAIronFist” was mostly used to engage in direct, spontaneous conversation with others. Day-to-day discourse on the issue lived, and still lives, in that hashtag. N.O.C. even creates video content on YouTube, where, during the heat of the #AAIronFist campaign, Chow dedicated a video podcast to talking about not only a potential Asian American casting for Danny Rand, but also racism in Hollywood’s representation of minority ethnic groups, as well as systemic racism in Hollywood’s casting practices. Even in offline settings, one can find N.O.C. at fan conventions like Comic Con. Most recently, N.O.C. presented its own panel called “Fandom Diversified: Changing Dynamics of Geek/Nerd Journalism,” which featured three contributors to N.O.C. By spreading the N.O.C. across different platforms, each of which serves a different purpose for the community, N.O.C. demonstrates a certain media proficiency that allows it to cater to a wider and more diverse range of audiences.

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One of the drives behind being as “public as possible” (Chow) is the importance of communicating a message outwards so “other people [outside of the N.O.C. community] hear… and hopefully change [their] minds and [their] attitudes” (Chow). This practice can be identified as a form of transmedia mobilization, wherein the N.O.C. identity and narratives are dispersed across multiple media platforms in order to create “a distributed and participatory… ‘world,’ with multiple entry points for organizing and for the purpose of strengthening movement identity and outcomes” (Costanza-Chock cited in By Any Media).* As Lopez observes, fan activities can also be seen to “facilitate the development of a set of skills that are particularly suited to political activism in the era of Web 2.0” (437).

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Community and Fan Work

Regardless of the diverse factors that initially motivated individual N.O.C. contributors to transition from private engagement with pop culture to public, political engagement, community is a common factor that pushes them to maintain the latter type of participatory practice. Through communal discourse, N.O.C. contributors form a visible counter-public of nerds of color, wherein participants talk openly about their experiences and their concerns, and challenge the normative silencing treatment of marginalized groups. In this way, community can also be thought of as a strategy through which N.O.C. conducts its cultural-political work. In her study of fan activism surrounding the casting for live action film Avatar: The Last Airbender, Lopez outlines two important, effective skills that fan activists sharpen through being members of a fan community: “honing their arguments through community discussions… and relying on their trusted networks to provide a database of information” (432).

For instance, in response to Jennings’ black Captain American fan art, another N.O.C. community member J. Lamb critiqued:

“Just for the record – if by some metaphysical alchemy Sam Wilson violated the no-fly zone in the skies over Ferguson as Captain America, I’d hope he’d have more to offer the civil liberties debate there than a worthless solidarity selfie.

Of course, there are no wrong ways to express one’s disillusionment over the aftermath of Mike Brown’s murder, but for me, this comes awfully close. Just a fail on so many levels ….”

In response, Jennings embraced Lamb’s notion of “failure,” and argued that his cartoon represents exactly that, which garnered the following praise from Lamb:

“I just have to say – this was the most powerful comment I’ve ever read on this site. Well done, Mr. Jennings. I really wish that more comic creators and interested people would respond to political criticism with such substance. I can’t pretend that I agree wholeheartedly, but you make a well-reasoned argument here. Seriously, well done.”

Just as N.O.C. has the power to change the minds or garner the support of those who are initially ignorant of, skeptical of, or even against the community’s causes, the contributors to N.O.C. also have the power to shape each other, and therefore N.O.C. itself. In fact, the interviewed contributors all cited that one of the most rewarding aspects of their affective labor is the connection to community created not only between writers and other writers, but also writers and readers, fans and non-fans, etc. Upkins wrote, “Most of the lifelong friends [I have] today are courtesy of blogging or publishing pursuits. When you meet like-minded souls who are trying to leave the world better than they found it, they tend to be keepers.”

Owing to the decentralized nature of online social networks, these friendships can also span a wide distance. Gibbs mentioned her transnational friendship with fellow N.O.C. Christelle:

“I write Arrow recaps and she writes The Flash ones, so we’ve become #Superfriends. We live on opposite coasts, but I know that if we lived in the same place, we’d hang out and watch superhero shows or go to Disney together.”

Chow admitted that N.O.C. could have been a space purely for Asian American nerds. However, he wanted more diversity, more varied perspectives in the community; after all being a “nerd of color” does not affect only Asian Americans. He reflected:

“Seeing these other places [aside from N.O.C.] for people of color to come together and talk about these things… [It] has been eye-opening for me, knowing that we are a diverse group of people. This community of other people of color who are in this nerd space [has] been one of my favorite takeaways.”

Reflection

As Chow mentioned, The Nerds of Color is but one community of self-identified nerds of color that speaks publicly about representation in American media—and representation is not limited to racial representation, although this form is the most overtly talked-about on N.O.C. (and what I chose to focus on). Contributors notably do intersectional work, promoting nuanced portrayal of gender/sexuality, mental/physical disabilities, and so on, so forth. Many contributors also run their own blogs or write for other websites, such as Jones with JUST ADD COLOR or Gibbs with ConStar Writes.

My purpose in doing this work is to explore the ways that N.O.C. contributors illuminate the racialization of media and fandom spaces by claiming non-heteronormative racial identity and then negotiating a counter-public space for related discussion. I posit that N.O.C.’s work, whether live-tweeting Arrow or circulating an article on whitewashing, is a form of what Henry Jenkins terms “fan activism”; it is inherently political because the community’s origins and very existence are steeped in cultural politics. From textual analysis of N.O.C. content and from personal interviews with contributors, it seems that affect and community play a huge role in their work. Furthermore, because N.O.C. is online and multi-platform, community members are able to practice media savvy to reach wider audiences, as well as foster varied forms of interaction among each other. A more detailed examination of the ways in which N.O.C. behaves differently on its platforms, yet somehow weaves those differences into cohesive messaging, would have supplemented my project.

Ultimately, I want to emphasize the importance of fan activist efforts, like those of The Nerds of Color, to creating visibility for normally marginalized groups and their concerns. It is also an opportunity to reconstruct fans as more than just affective producers and consumers who operate within the realm of the source texts, but as civic participants who harness that passionate emotion to push for social change. Fan communities, therefore, can offer a space and means for shifting conversations from fictional texts to the realities they impact and are impacted by.

Works Cited *not including hyperlinks
Earl, Jennifer, and Katrina Kimport. “Movement Societies and Digital Protest: Fan Activism and Other Nonpolitical Protest Online.” Sociological Theory 27.3 (2009): 220-43. Web.
Lopez, L. K. “Blogging While Angry: The Sustainability of Emotional Labor in the Asian American Blogosphere.” Media, Culture & Society 36.4 (2014): 421-36. Web.
Lopez, L. K. “Fan Activists and the Politics of Race in The Last Airbender.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 15.5 (2011): 431-45. Web.

 

Author:

Speculative Fiction Novelist. Author of Hollowstone, West of Sunset and other cool stories. Wordsmith, activist and nerd seraph. Saving the world and/or taking it over. http://www.dennisupkins.wordpress.com