Monday, April 30, 2007

Political Narratives: Shaping How We Think

Hello out there,

This is my first post on this blog. My name is Rachel Swirsky, and I'm just starting out as a science fiction writer. My bachelor's degree is in Anthropology; within the field, I focused mostly on sex & sexuality, and the anthropological critique/analysis of literature.

I'd like to write a little bit about my analytical and political relationship to literature.

Collective Unconscious

My anthropological theory of literature, basically, is that through reading a large sampling of a culture's literature, it's possible to deduce some of the basic concerns and narratives running through that culture's subconscious. This is especially true when a subject becomes trendy in science fiction.

For instance, the way that we (as science fiction writers) explore virtual reality as a social space reflects our anxieties about social spaces in the "meat" world. Depictions of virtual reality tend to cleave to older cultural dialogues about cities. They're seen as freeing, a place for people to move beyond mundane concerns -- much as the theorist Simmel saw cities -- or they're seen as oppressive places where human interaction is traded for fetishization -- much as the theorist Durkheim saw cities.

I see art as our culture's roiling subconscious. Our beliefs and anxieties bubble to the surface. Especially in the fiction of ideas.

Narrative and Society

I think that one of the strongest effects of culture on the human psyche is to shape the narratives that we use to dissect the world. These narratives give me a lens for interpreting what happens to me. I, as a western woman, am likely to interpret my choices from an individualistic perspective. I decide things. I make them happen. In Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal, Laura Ahearn discusses the ways in which Nepali women will talk around the concept of agency; saying, for instance, that they were forced to make a love match because of a magic spell, rather than that they chose to make a love match.

Narratives obviously shape our interpretations of gender as well. The ways we view the actions of men, and the ways in which we view the actions of women, are subtly but importantly different. This is one of the major reasons, I believe, why people are so disturbed by gender ambiguity. When presented with an individual who does not visually present as male or female, people have trouble figuring out what narratives to apply to that person, and thus how to interpret or interact with hir.

Cultural narratives are shaped in manifold ways, of course. Nevertheless, I think it's important to look at novels and short stories (and plays and television shows) as direct ways in which we shape our narratives. When The Simpsons presents an image of a boorish, stupid husband who is too stupid to be trusted with simple tasks, and his competent housewife who is content to be his helpmeet -- they are tapping into those narratives. At times, they manage to use the narratives to mock themselves, in a complex weave of upholding and subverting the paradigm.

Roseanne, on the other hand, presenting complex individuals who do not so easily fit into the standard narratives of male and female, breaks the paradigm for a moment. It pries open our narrative space just long enough to give us a framework for talking about fat, bossy, but extraordinary women, and men who are both involved in manly work and not always in control. (Hat tip to Myca at Alas, a Blog for those examples.)

In literature, we see this with something like Delany's Trouble on Triton, which poses some alternate methods for categorizing sexuality. Rather than gay and straight exclusively, we see people categorized by whether they prefer younger or older partners, their inclination toward sadomasochism, and so on.

The Political Potential of Narrative

In his collected essays, Salman Rushdie writes, "Description is itself a political act," and "Redescribing the world is the necessary first step towards changing it."

I believe that it is impossible to make political progress unless there are narrative spaces opened up for that progress to take place in.

I look at this as a process that happens on several levels. For instance, Joanna Russ's Female Man looked at gender in a radical, frame breaking way -- a way that was able to reach many feminists and intellectuals. Ursula Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness is less radical -- in many ways, it seems traditional from a modern perspective -- but it was able to take some of the furthest, most radical ideas and, through grinding off a few of the edges and spurring them on with adventure-driven storytelling, bring those ideas to a less radical public.

Twisty Faster of I Blame the Patriarchy writes that any depiction of an oppressed class is a political act.

I would go farther. Any depiction of anyone is a political act.

Writing -- any type of art -- is taking something which inhabits three dimensions and flattening it. How one chooses which information to represent, and in which ways, is inherently political. It will exclude some information. It will exaggerate other information. And that's even before the elements of imagination and speculation are mixed in, which involve more distortion. The ways in which that distortion happens are inherently political.

In most literary workshops I've been in, people have a tendency to get bogged down in discussions of whether or not it's "realistic" for a character to do a given activity. Reality is stranger than most fictions. Believability itself is -- as Ben Marcus argued in Harper's last year -- a way of fitting reality into little boxes, for what he called middle class acceptability (I would probably call it monitoring content to make sure it toes the line of comfortable cultural narratives).

When women are excluded, that is political. When transmen are excluded, that is political. When transwomen are excluded, that is political. When the future is white, that is political. When the future is abled, that is political. When the future is western, that is political.

When women are included, that is political. When transwomen and transmen are included, that is political. When we see people of color and disabled people and people from the global south, that is political.

All writing is political.

Science fiction, by depicting the not-real, has great potential to break our comfortable cultural frames. As a political writer, I aim to create narrative spaces for people who don't fit into the dominant narratives. Literature reflects how we think of the world. It's a recursive, but terribly slow relationship. Books may have less of an effect on popular culture than television shows -- but, just as Joanna Russ broke the ice and Ursula Leguin popularized the message -- there's room for us all to work at the slow, arduous, important task, of opening the political dialog to unacknowledged stories.

Bush Administration Sex Scandal: So Very Victorian

Many of the Bush Administration’s policies blatantly seek to force a patriarchal regime on not merely the US but on the world at large. The policies of Bush’s “Abstinence Czar” Deputy Secretary of State Randall L. Tobias, director of US Foreign Assistance and head of the USAID (US Agency for International Development) are a case in point. He resigned last Friday because so-called “D.C. Madam” Jeanne Palfrey said that she intends to call him (among other powerful officials) as a witness to testify at her prostitution-ring trial. Tobias, it seems, made frequent recourse to Central American women for “massages.” The news media seem to consider the unmasking of Tobias’s hypocrisy a delicious, salacious irony. But surely this irony is such a tired old cliché that it can barely raise a smile of schadenfreude. More to the point, Tobias’s policies have had considerable negative impact, beginning with his attack against the most effective methods for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and going on from there to doing his best to sabotaging family-planning programs around the world and exposing third-world world women to the deadly hazards of illegal abortion.

And yet, there is an irony in Tobias’s being felled by the crackdown on a prostitution ring that the US media are unlikely even to notice. Sharon Groves reports in the Summer 2005 issue of Feminist Studies:

In May 2005, the Brazilian government made the historic decision to refuse $40 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for HIV/AIDS funding. They cited as the reason for their refusal the Bush administration’s insistence on a public condemnation of prostitution. Pedro Chequer, director of Brazil’s AIDS program and chair of the National Commission that decided to refuse the U.S. grants was reported by Michael M. Phillips and Matt Moffett in the Wall Street Journal (2 May 2005) as saying “We can’t control [the disease] with principles that are Manichean, theological, fundamentalist, and Shiite.”

We thought that Brazil’s decision was significant and surprising in that it placed the health of sex workers at the center of an international debate about how best to fight HIV/AIDS.

. . . .

According to [Adrienne] Germain [president of the International Women’s Health Coalition], Brazil’s decision sheds light on the Bush administration’s repressive policies toward countries and organizations working to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Germain sees the Bush administration as imposing “a moral vision of the world that recognizes only heterosexual sex in marriage and that takes a very punitive position toward anyone that deviates from that stance.” Indeed, along with conservative member of Congress, the Bush administration have been able to impose (or is working toward imposing) a number of repressive restrictions on non-profit organizations working on HIV/AIDS, which are staggering in their implications. Concerning prostitution, they have required all organizations taking funds from USAID (even if their work has nothing to do with sex workers) to make a written pledge opposing commercial sex work or risk losing funding. [Note: prostitution is legal in Brazil.] This measure which was put in place in 2003 followed on the heels of “the Global Gag Rule”—a policy that bans USAID funds from going to any foreign-based organizations that support needle exchange as a form of prevention are being challenged as well. The result of such policies is not only disastrous for sex workers but, as Germain points out, is a “death sentence given the way in which AIDS is spreading throughout the globe.”

Brazil’s campaign against HIV/AIDS, which Groves calls “one of respectful engagement with the people most at risk since the 19802," has shown a "clear record of progress." For more on sex and reproductive issues, visit the website of the International Women's Health Coalition

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Book Recommendation: Samuel R. Delany, Dark Reflections

Samuel R. Delany, Dark Reflections. Carroll & Graf, 2007. 295 pages. $15.95

Delany’s Dark Reflections is now out and available. Delany’s twenty-fifth novel offers a literary narrative about the black gay poet Arnold Hawley, written in a deceptively simple, elegant style that evokes a profoundly lonely soul’s powerful emotional experiences over a lifetimeembedded, of course, in a subtle and insightful depiction of his social and economic reality, just as one would expect from Delany. It’s a surprisingly fast, smooth read; I gobbled it down in two days, knowing as I did that I’d be returning to it soon. Though it ended just as it should, I wanted it to go on and on because I so loved inhabiting its language and ideas and texture.

Besides the novel’s texture, what I liked best was the sense it gave me of Arnold Hawley: he became so real to me that I feel as though I know who he was and what it would be like to be in a room with him. I loved the effect the novel creates by working backwards in Arnold Hawley’s life, by which every moment of the life acquires a complex historicity. Here Delany captures not only the difference age makes to one’s consciousness and understanding of the world, but also the difference in tone and style of the three historical settings he depicts; this novel’s 1972 matches my memory of what 1972 felt like more closely than do many of the novels actually written in 1972. (The section set in the mid-1970s, “Vashti in the Dark” has some of the feel of Dhalgren though it is definitely not Dhalgren. But then Dhalgren, for me, is the quintessential novel of the mid-1970s.) I especially loved the novel’s thematic use of certain details that continually resurface to take on different meanings at different times, as well as the poignancy of the role confusion played Arnold Hawley’s his sexual loneliness.

Dark Reflection gets my highest recommendation.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Welcome to Ambling along the Aqueduct. Now that Aqueduct Press has reached the ripe age of three years old (and I wonder: who can tell me what small-press years are in human years?), we at Aqueduct have decided it’s time for us to have our own blog. So here it is.

Ideally, I’d like Ambling along the Aqueduct to be a forum for discussing all things Aqueductian. Conversation, of course, has been a theme with us at Aqueduct almost from the beginning, derived from the notion of feminist sf as a conversation, which I earlier explored in “For a Genealogy of Feminist SF: Reflections on Women, Feminism, and Science Fiction , 1818-1960” (reprinted in The Grand Conversation, Vol. 1 of the Conversation Pieces series and available online at my website). I hope to entice other to join me, so that the discussion here won’t simply be me posting announcements about Aqueduct’s books and authors and offering up my thoughts on various subjects. Please, if you are interested in making a guest post here, write to

If you’re wondering what “all things Aqueductian” could possibly be, well, to be honest, it’s anything that interests me. Although I’d be thrilled to have Aqueduct become an independent institution, for the moment, anyway, Aqueduct c’est moithough with lots of help from other people. This is less a desire to be autocratic à la the Sun King on an absurdly minute scale than it is a practical strategy. Part of Aqueduct’s raison d’être is to create a space that wasn’t there, a space inviting other writers in to play. So, too, with this blog. Given the range of the work Aqueduct has been publishing, the elasticity of the adjective should, I hope, be obvious.