We recently chatted with cosplayer/author TaLynn Kel about her geek journey, dealing with racism when it hits close to home, challenging allies and what she gets out of cosplaying.
Midwest BSFA: Tell us about yourself.
Kel: I’m a 40-plus, fat, Black, femme, geek, writer and cosplayer in the Atlanta area. I’m a self-published author, public speaker, online content creator and soon will be able to add podcaster to the list. All my work revolves around geekdom in some way. I can safely say that cosplay is what brought me into the geek lifestyle.
Midwest BSFA: How did you get into cosplay?
Kel: I’ve always loved dressing up and had been really getting into Halloween, but it wasn’t quite enough. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was looking for something bigger than a couple of parties every October. A friend told me about DragonCon and talked me and another friend into checking it out one night. We didn’t have passes so all we could do was hang outside the hotels and people watch. The thing about DragonCon is that the people watching goes one until the wee hours of the morning. People are dressed up and walking around at all hours. Seeing the freedom of that environment was all I needed. Within a couple of hours, I stated that we were coming back next year in costume. So we did. Over the summer, we planned a couple of costumes, got them together, and attended our first DragonCon. I was Dark Phoenix and an elf princess. That was 2005. At that time, Dark Phoenix onesies didn’t exist and I had to paint my elf ears brown myself because they didn’t make them in any other color than pale. Didn’t matter. DragonCon was amazing. We ran around taking pictures with strangers and enjoying being in costume. And just like that, a tradition was born. It changed my life…gave me a focus and direction and joy that I’d previously lacked.
Midwest BSFA: Much like other aspects of fandom, the cosplay community can be messy. What keeps you going?
Kel: My relationship with cosplay and geek culture has evolved over the years. It’s transitioned from wanting to be dressed up and party to wanting to make a space for myself and people who may be afraid to participate because they don’t think anyone will accept them. Regardless of the reasons, dressing up is something I’ve wanted to do and when I found a space where it was welcomed, I invited myself. I’ve learned over time that inviting myself has helped other people realize they can come to the party, too. That’s kinda cool, when you think about it.
But to be honest, I don’t necessarily do this for anyone else. I love trying new things and challenging myself in different ways. One year it might be working with a new material, the next it might be developing a new panel topic. Staying engaged in an activity requires some reflection and some awareness of our personal needs. I’m constantly checking in with myself and evaluating whether or not I’m both giving and taking something positive from an experience. If the negative begins to outweigh the positive, then I need to reassess and figure out next steps. Ultimately, my participation in cosplay is about me and I’m going to do what I can to keep it emotionally and physically healthy, as well as fun, for me.
Midwest BSFA: Why did you start writing about issues surrounding race?
Kel: Let’s be real. I’m a Black woman. Everything I write is about race when white people are reading it…or non-Black people of color. Whether or not people remember or acknowledge that is on them. What I did know is that I was going to write and see what happened.
I grew up in the generation of people raised by those who grew up during the fight for civil rights. At that point, integration was a new social experiment. I’d been taught to work hard and not talk about race in public. But in 2012, Trayvon Martin was murdered and the way the white people around me talked about it, showed me that not talking about racism helped nurture racism. It didn’t help that I was engaged to a white man who thought himself to be colorblind without understanding that colorblind is the lie casual racists tell themselves to feel good. Racism is always a part of my life but when you are with a non-Black or white partner, you invite it into your intimate spaces. I didn’t quite understand what I was doing and I’m still learning how to live with the after-effects.
In 2014, I realized that the racism was going to increase, and that the next election year was going to be the most racist in my lifetime. I was seeing more and more issues. More and more bullshit. And some of it was coming from the people my white S.O. was connected to. I realized that I couldn’t be patient and “safe” for him anymore. I needed to be safe for me. I started talking about in on my Facebook page, and people responded. Black people who could relate and white people who said they never knew. I started writing about these complex issues and they encouraged conversation with my S.O. that we’d not really had before. While I was never silent about racism, I became much more direct and confronted his beliefs and attitudes head on. We’d already had conversations about how colorblindness was bullshit but I needed him to really step up his understanding.
I seriously thought about leaving this relationship several times, and I learned that I couldn’t trust many people who said they supported me. We live in a culture that prioritizes the safety and comfort of men over women. They value the relationships more than the women in them. I realized that I had to trust myself and my judgment because the Black people in my life were all messed up about racism and sexism and safety, and I was farther along in analyzing the power dynamics than they were.
Then, one day in early 2016, I saw a post on Facebook talking about interracial relationships and how love is blind to color and I lost my shit. Living with all the racist shit with my in-laws, my S.O.’s friends, the election…seeing that post by a Black woman in an interracial relationship group…it was such a bald-face lie. It was an egregious commentary on interracial relationships that I just couldn’t let it go. I was so irritated at these lies and I knew I wasn’t alone with my issues. I knew other Black women were dealing with shit and then having their problems dismissed with silly ass statements like that. And that’s when I decided to share my story.
I realized that my story wasn’t out there, and it needed to be. And writing that essay encouraged me to keep writing. Keep speaking. There were things that needed to be said that weren’t being said. And that is how I started writing about race.
Midwest BSFA: What’s your writing process? Do you write to be topical or focus on evergreen topics or a little bit of both?
Kel: I write about the things that make me feel. My essays are a combination of my feelings and analysis. The analysis part isn’t always organic. Sometimes my editors push me on that a bit. But almost every essay I write is born from an emotional place, which I think many of my readers can feel as they read them. Sometimes it is topical, like my Thor essay. I sat in the theater just kinda floored by Hela and how her return so clearly aligned with the resurgence of open, flagrant white supremacy in our daily lives. I remember leaving the theater thinking “how can I NOT write about that?”
That’s the case with many of my essays. I am thinking about something and I have to write about it. If it’s just to sift through my thoughts or to convey an emotion, I need to get it down. I kind of look at my writing as a journal. In that sense, it’s always topical because I ground my essays in things that are personal. As I am constantly changing, who I am and how I observe and interact with the world changes, too. I like that.
Midwest BSFA: If there’s any topic you could go back and *not* write about, what would it be?
Kel: There isn’t. My writing is an account of my personal journey. Even when I fuck up, it’s my mistake. I hope I learned from it. I hope my mistakes make me a better person.
Midwest BSFA: How did you get involved with Safety Pin box?
Kel: I’ve been following Leslie Mac and Marissa Alexander online for a while, and when the safety pin ally nonsense started after the election, they called that bullshit out and then created something from the garbage fire. Something useful. I am impressed at what they do and their dedication to Black women. When I saw that they were going to receive an award at the BlogHer conference in June, I decided I needed to go and hoped to meet them. I brought them each a copy of my book Breaking Normal: Essays on My Fat, Black, Geek Life as a gift and made arrangements online to meet with them. It was after they’d chosen to use their platform at BlogHer to push for change in how that conference was run – a badass move that only impressed me more. I want to be as fearless as they are.
Once they read the title, they told me how they were looking for someone to do the “Allyship in Fandom” Safety Pin Box in October and they didn’t know any Black women geeks to do it at the time. They asked if I’d be interested in creating the content and I said “Of course!!!” Like, come on. I met two women whose work I admired and they asked me to work with them on a project? I was so far in. So basically, it was serendipitous. I am beyond grateful for their support and extremely proud of that experience.
Midwest BSFA: Why do you think discussing allyship on fandom In this format (giving white people things to focus on to actually make their allyship worth something) is important?
Kel: The one question I get most often from white people is “what can I do?” So here are some things they can do. They can contribute financially to the Black women doing the work to fight white supremacy. By supporting Safety Pin Box, they not only provide tangible help, they also get access to educational materials and resources that can help them expand their way of thinking.
To be honest, Black women need money. The more visible and vocal you are about racism, the more it negatively impacts your economic well-being. When you protest and get arrested, you end up with a police record, which affects the kind of employment you can find. Background checks have become a standard when it comes to applying for jobs. If you’re protesting, you aren’t at work. The Black women protesting injustice day after day are putting their lives on the line. And doing that work means that they aren’t at a paid job. They are doing the physical work of fighting for Black lives, and that Leslie and Marissa created a way to help financially support them is beautiful.
Midwest BSFA: What are your ultimate goals when it comes to cosplay?
Kel: My ultimate goal is to have fun. What that means can change over time. Sometimes fun is getting that look just right. Other times, it’s playing with a look to make it mine. It can be the challenge of making a facial prosthetic or learning that people can’t tell my belt buckle is duct tape and cardboard. I want to keep finding the little ways that cosplay challenges me and keeps me looking for creative ways to make fantasy into reality.
Midwest BSFA: What do you have coming up for 2018?
Kel: 2018 is going to be a busy year. In addition to my regular stuff (cons, cosplay, essays, all the stuff you can find on my website), I’m working on a podcast with comic book writers Dedren Sneed (Sorghum & Spear) and Robert Jeffrey II (Route 3) so keep a watch out for that. I’ll still be working on content for my YouTube channel. Some of it will be gaming, some unboxings, some reaction videos and reviews, and most importantly more creator interviews produced by Get Kysed Photography. I’ll be attending and doing panels at conventions. I’m hoping to pull together a new panel for the Atlanta Science Fiction and Fantasy Expo and MomoCon where I’ll be a costume judge and guest. I’m also planning to start vending in 2018. I’ll have books and cosplay prints but I’m looking into t-shirts and other items that may be of interest.
Midwest BSFA: Anything else you want our readers to know?
Kel: When people used to say “ain’t nothin to it but to do it,” I used to think they were full of shit. But, in some ways, that’s kind of all it takes to make something happen. I encourage everyone to think about it for a little bit, then do it. Mistakes will be made and you will learn from them. But you’ll never have any opportunities if you don’t try.
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