It was like suddenly being wrapped up in a warm, damp blanket. Dressed for a Swedish March morning, my first jet lag resolutely on its way, I stepped out from Ft. Lauderdale International Airport, hoping to be found by the hotel shuttle. Not for the first time this trip, I began to wonder whether this whole ICFA business was a good idea (already leaving home in the icy darkness that morning had made me doubtful, and getting ridiculously lost at Frankfurt Airport had not helped in any way). What was I doing in Florida, pretending to know something these respectable scholars did not?
For those of you who are less familiar with the Swedish mentality and just believe we are cold and reserved: we are not. But we are fostered in the tradition of Jante (pronounced YAN-teh), a concept made famous by a Danish-Norwegian writer, and one which we tend to embrace wholeheartedly (though we claim not to, of course). It is very simple: no one should believe him-/herself to be special or better than others. Lights under bushels, please! Your own trumpet is not to be blown. (Thinking back on this first trip, I’m pretty sure that I had neither light nor trumpet in any case.)
I spent most of Wednesday feeling rather uncomfortable (I have been told I looked cold and aloof, but trust me, I felt quite the opposite). Wanting to see some of Ft. Lauderdale, I asked at the front desk how to get downtown, only to be told that I would not want to go there. Apparently, one does not go “downtown” in Florida. Instead, they sent me off in a taxi to what seemed to me to be a rather long tourist trap, called Las Olas, where I failed miserably at opening a mailbox. Going back, the taxi driver denied the existence of any Airport Hilton. Only when he disavowed knowledge of any “airport” whatsoever did I realize that he failed to understand my accent. Switching to a vague approximation of American English, I could not help but wonder whether this would be a problem during the entire conference.
When I finally got back, the hotel was teeming with people greeting old friends, and each conversation I overheard consisted of intelligent comments on authors I had never heard about. The evening reception was a scary affair in a dark room full of all these people who seemed to know each other. Brian Attebery (who had suggested I come to the conference, and who was the only IAFA person I knew at this point) did his best to introduce me to some people, and, when I slunk away to hide shyly by a pillar, apparently sent people over to talk to me. (Thanks, Brian! If you hadn’t, my first ICFA would quite probably have been my last.)
Presenting my first conference paper similarly turned out more grueling than I had suspected. As I expected, I had to fight my Jante heritage and inborn stage fright (which not even a decade of lecturing, conferences, and acting has managed to cure). I was happy to see that Brian had come along-knowing at least one person in the audience made a huge difference. Having presented my Earthsea paper, I began to feel better. That lasted for about thirty seconds. Chip Sullivan, also with a paper on Le Guin, introduced his reading by saying that “Of course, it’s always daunting to present a Le Guin paper with Brian Attebery in the audience.” Apparently there was another reason to be nervous about my paper which I had blithely ignored. I immediately compensated by worrying for the remaining fifty minutes about why I should have been daunted. (One of many pieces of esoteric knowledge required of anyone involved in fantastic scholarship.)
Despite this, however, it was soon clear to me that I would keep coming back. The book room was a cornucopia of delights, and the weather was wonderful. And in fact, not everyone was old friends, and even people who had known each other since way back when generally let a shy Swede into the conversation. But most important of all, I did not have to defend my fascination for fantasy or explain why scholarship on the fantastic was necessary. I did not have to say “Fantasy – you know, like The Lord of the Rings” (and still meet blank stares much of the time). In and out of paper sessions, there was a wealth of interesting thoughts. I learnt more about scholarship in the fantastic during that first conference than I had picked up over my total time at university so far. I found out that there was much more research being done than I had dared hope.
And finding people to discuss these things with helped. Already at the end of the reception (I seem vaguely to recall that it ended in the wee hours in the hot tub), coming to Ft. Lauderdale seemed like a good idea. Waiting to board my plane back home, I idly wondered what it would be like to have attended ten conferences like this.
Now I know.
It feels great.