NC Mermania 2017, part 3 - Social Events & Panels February 1, 2017 00:00

From Jess: 

There was so much more to NC Mermania than just swimming at the Greensboro Aquatic Center! The convention's organizers also planned multiple social events, classes and workshops, and panels so attendees could have fun, make friends, and learn something, too.

Friday Night Mixer
As soon as Chris and I checked in at the Sheraton and had a chance to freshen up after our cross-country flight and drive from Raleigh, we ventured downstairs to the first event of the weekend: the merfolk mixer! There, we were delighted to see people we'd only ever spoken to online, like Raina, as well as introduce ourselves to a host of friendly new faces. As vendors, we set up a table stocked with copies of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist" and other "Rescue Sirens" goodies for sale, and we had an absolute blast meeting other attendees.

I'll write more about the mixer in my next post! For now, here's a photo, courtesy of Venessa Lewis:

The Sheraton's pool, which closed to other hotel guests at ten PM, was open to NC Mermania attendees from ten until midnight, tails allowed. Chris and I intended to go -- I hadn't been swimming in my tail in months, and I was so excited after the mixer! -- but I laid down "for just a minute" and was out like a light. Whoops!

Mers of Color Diversity Panel
One of the highlights of NC Mermania, for me, was Saturday morning’s Mers of Color panel discussing diversity in the mermaid community… or, more accurately, the current lack thereof. It’s a topic that I was grateful to learn more about from the people who are directly affected. Well-known mermaids in popular culture have had a major influence on society’s idea of what a mermaid “should” look like, to the unfortunate detriment and exclusion of anyone who doesn’t fit that specific mold. The stories the four panelists told of being passed over for jobs because they didn’t have red hair or pale skin were sad and frustrating, as were anecdotes shared by people of color in the audience.

Raina took some photos during the panel.

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I feel very passionately about the strength and necessity of diversity in the media we’re exposed to; I don’t think anyone, regardless of what they look like, should be told, “You can’t be a mermaid.” Especially in a world that can be, at times, negative, frightening, and uncertain, I think it’s important as people to find hope and a safe harbor in fantasy, in the stories we create and share, and it’s absolutely ridiculous that a child playing pretend in a pool or an adult working as a mermaid performer might be told that they’re the wrong skin color, hair color, gender, body shape, or anything else to be a mermaid -- these are mythical creatures, so imposing those kinds of limitations makes no sense to me. Why on earth would you restrict someone’s ability to dream?

That’s one of the reasons, when I first began developing “Rescue Sirens,” that I knew my characters would be different sizes, shapes, and races: I wanted all girls (and boys, once we introduce mermen in later books) to look at these characters and see something of themselves, to imagine that they, too, could be a Rescue Siren.

But I need help to do that. While Nim and Maris are Caucasian, like myself, Kelby is Latina, Pippa is African-American, and Echo has an Asian heritage. As a white woman writing characters of color, I want to do so responsibly and authentically. During the Mers of Color panel Q&A portion, I asked a question that’s always on my mind: how do I make sure that I’m doing this right? I added that when my husband and "Rescue Sirens" co-author, Chris Sanders, co-wrote and co-directed “Lilo & Stitch,” the crew consulted with the Hawaiian community to ensure that the film was respecting the people it portrayed.

One of the panelists, Whitney, responded that I’d actually answered my own question -- that consulting with people from the races and cultures that I’m depicting is always the right thing to do, that no one I approach is going to say, “You want to know more about me and my culture? No way; get outta here”… and if they do, she said with a smile, I probably don’t want to be basing my book on them.

Whitney reiterated that encouraging diversity and overcoming some of the obstacles that people face today begins by starting a conversation. All of the panelists agreed that they are always open to answering questions and to helping anyone who’s interested in writing or creating art that represents someone from a culture outside the artist’s own. That kind of representation is so crucial when it comes to making everyone feel seen, heard, and valued. We’re all in this together, after all.

Eric, Arielle, Whitney, and Kenn. Photo courtesy of Raina.

I want to thank Eric, Arielle, Whitney, and Kenn for taking the time to discuss race and diversity as it relates to the mermaid community, for being so open with their own life experiences, and for answering everyone’s questions with honesty and kindness. That took bravery. The Mers of Color panel was so thought-provoking and informative, and I’m really glad that the panelists, moderators Raina and Venessa, and the rest of the NC Mermania team put in the work to make it a part of the weekend’s schedule of events. For a convention revolving around fantasy, this was something very real, and very important.

Group Photo
At around 3:30 PM on Saturday, everyone at the GAC found a spot on the edge of the pool for the group photo. Chris and I weren't at NC Mermania last year, but we've heard that 2016's attendees took up one side of the pool, while this year--well, see for yourself!

In the following video, Chris takes a walk around the three sides of the pool where merfolk perched for the photo, which just goes to show how many people showed up. That wasn't even everyone! Special thanks goes to Joey Kirkman Photography for the awesome overhead shots.

(The video also includes a few photos from the Fathoms Below ball, plus a clip from the after-hours swim in the pool back at the hotel.)

This year, it was impossible to fit everyone into a ground-level shot! Attendance more than quadrupled from 2016. Holy mackerel!

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Dinner and Fathoms Below Ball

After a long day of swimming, what do you like to do? I like to eat. Man, there's no hunger like post-swimming hunger! Remember when you were a kid and you spent all day at the pool and you were starving when you got home? That's how I felt on Saturday after four hours in the water at the GAC. I was tired (and my feet were a mess after being in a monofin for that long), but I was really grateful that NC Mermania was providing dinner and dancing at the Fathoms Below ball.

The theme of the ball was the deep sea, so many people showed up in incredibly creative dresses and costumes evoking the bioluminescence of the creatures who call the darkest depths of the ocean "home." So much brilliance was on display! Blacklights made even the humblest outfit (like my ocean wave-themed dress) glow brightly, and lent the ball an appropriately otherworldly feel.

But first: dinner! Not only did we have an opportunity to talk to our fellow attendees during our delicious repast, but the staff had arranged for entertainment, too: Captain Jim would be providing music and doing magic tricks, while Mermaid Glimmer, AKA Fire Pixie, would put on a dazzling light show. It was mindblowing! Glimmer wrote a great blog about her experience that includes photos and videos, although you really have to see her in person to appreciate her art. So cool!

Chris and I were too busy dancing the night away to get many photos during the ball, but we took a few!

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For an even better glimpse into those mysterious Fathoms Below, watch this terrific video from Mermaid Glimmer highlighting some of the crazy creative costumes spotted at the ball:

After-Hours Swim
As the ball wound down, people began heading to the hotel pool for another after-hours swim. I wore my tail (of course) and also, for the only time during the weekend, sported my gorgeous custom Merbella top.

Mermaid Kaitey of Kate Hall Photography took some great underwater shots, including this one!

Workshops, Story Time, and Kids' Swims
Although I spent all my time at the GAC swimming in the dive well, there was a lot more to take advantage of, and, if I hadn't been having so much fun in the water, I would've been interested in doing it all.

There was an underwater posing class, workshops about water safety (yay!) and merwrangling (the term used to refer to the jobs done by a mermaid or merman performer's assistant), and events for kids, too. The kids' story times and swims were so popular that they sold out even after more slots were made available!

Expert Panel
By the time Sunday afternoon rolled around, I was even more appreciative of the Mers of Color panelists’ participation when it came time to appear on a panel, myself. Eep! Chris has taken part in panels at comics conventions in the past, so this was nothing new to him, but this was my first time, and I was definitely a little anxious. I was surrounded by such a varied collection of professionals, and I wanted to do a good job!

The Expert Panel assembled an eclectic group of people with expertise relevant to the mermaid community: Joseph McGarry, an accountant (and author of “Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident”) who was there to answer financial questions related to running a mermaid business; Chris and myself, discussing the development, co-writing, and self-publishing of “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist”; Marla Spellenberg, a former mermaid performer at historic Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida's “City of Live Mermaids” that really popularized the practice of swimming in mermaid tails; Merman Christian, sharing his experience as a professional merman performer; Abby and Bryn Roberts, full-time tailmakers and twin owners of Finfolk Productions; Charles D. Moisant of Silver Phoenix Entertainment, a comic book writer and creative partner of the final expert rounding out the panel: Philo Barnhart, one of the animators from Disney’s animated classic “The Little Mermaid.”

Photo courtesy of Karsten Shein (Mountain Mermaid Photography).

Honestly, between the exhaustion and the nervousness (and, now, the passage of time), the whole thing is a bit of a blur, haha! Raina and Venessa took turns moderating questions from the audience, and I remember discussing what goes into character development and whether anyone has challenged the lore that I wrote for “Rescue Sirens” because it’s so different from “traditional” mermaid mythology (the answer, at least so far, is blessedly “no”!). Chris and I also talked a little bit about the process of collaborative writing as well as what’s in store for the future of “Rescue Sirens.”

I was really proud to be a part of the Expert Panel, and very pleased with the set-up. Even though I didn’t ask any questions of my own, I learned a great deal from the questions posed by the audience. I wish the panel had been twice as long -- I wanted to hear more stories from my fellow panelists! Given my fondness for the attractions of “Old Florida,” I was especially intrigued by Marla’s time as a mermaid for Weeki Wachee. Each and every panelist had something unique and valuable to offer, and my hat is off to the staff for assembling such a swell line-up.

Closing Ceremonies
NC Mermania wrapped up with closing ceremonies that paid tribute to staff, guests, and attendees who helped make the event the smashing success it turned out to be. Chris and I were so honored to receive certificates of appreciation and a beautiful custom mermaid scale necklace for our part as special guests and panelists -- the pleasure was all ours, and we'd do it again in a heartbeat! We're so grateful to Raina, Sean, Venessa, Dan, and everyone else on the staff of volunteers who was so kind, hardworking, and dedicated to creating a magical weekend that none of us would forget.

On that note, my fourth and final blog entry in this series will highlight some of my favorite moments from NC Mermania!