Friday, June 29, 2007

But You're A Girl!

Remember that revolting discussion about women and achievement on Asimov’s forum a couple of weeks ago? I thought of it just now when I read Boing Boing’s report on instances of sexist discrimination by Disney recruiters in 1938 and 1997. It’s not likely that they were the only such instancesthough we can take comfort, at least, that the 1997 “but you’re a girl!” response got the recruiter fired.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Girls Are Meaningless in Afghanistan

[cross posted on In This Moment]

That's what NPR correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson told me this morning in a report on Morning Edition. At one point, she covered a group of women all giving birth at the same time. The doctors didn't immediately tell those who had girls about the child, giving them time to rest before they gave them the bad news, Nelson said.

Many of the women were giving birth to their eleventh or twelfth child, she reported. It seems that in Afghanistan, sons are the old age plan. Daughters are useless unless they can be "sold" -- exchanged for a dowry.

Nelson, who wears a burqa when she travels in areas outside of Kabul, said that it's very hard to be a woman in Afghanistan.

I am haunted by the image of a woman mourning because she has given birth to a girl. In 2007, when women can do (almost) everything, there are still women mourning because they think girls are useless.

And I am depressed to know that many people still live such precarious lives that the only plan they can make for old age is to have lots of children in the hope that some will survive to take care of them. For most of human life, this was everyone's plan, but in our current state of world overpopulation (one of the key elements of global warming) it just creates bigger problems. In my essay "We Aren't Civilized Yet: Reflections From the WisCon 30 Panel on Women Warriors" -- published in The WisCon Chronicles: Volume 1 -- I pointed out that "it took all of human history up to 1830 for the world population to hit 1 one billion, a 100 years to hit the next billion, 30 years for the next billion, 15 for the next, and so on up to our current 6.5 billion."

With modern medicine -- which has greatly reduced maternal and infant mortality -- and technology, too many people using children as their retirement plan create a huge problem (though if you're a poor person in Afghanistan, it still may be the only option you've got).

In my essay, I argue that feminism is one of the solutions to overpopulation: "Feminism addresses the problem of overpopulation by giving offering women other purposes in life besides childrearing." But in places where women have virtually no rights -- places where they cannot take economic steps to ensure their own survival -- what can they do besides have children?

The situation of women in Afghanistan -- who mourn the birth of girls -- emphasizes once again that feminism is not just a means of resolving the fundamental unfairness of discrimination on grounds of gender, but an integral part of addressing the major problems of the world.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

And One More

And here's another review of Dangerous Space, this one by Gwenda Bond, who "highly, highly recommend[s]" the title novella as well as the "entirety of the collection."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Handful of Reviews

  • Nancy Jane Moore reviews Kelley Eskridge’s Dangerous Space for The SF Revu

  • Ilana Teitebaum reviews Dangerous Space for Strange Horizons

  • And Heather Lee Schroeder discusses The WisCon Chornicles in her column, Literary Lunch, in The Capital Times

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Susanna J. Sturgis

Timmi: Some scholars of utopia draw a clear distinction between "the utopian impulse" and the "utopian project." They regard the "utopian impulse" as an engine firing the imagination for social and political change and the "utopian project" as the attempt by a government or would-be government to follow a blueprint for the "perfect" society. (The Stalinist regime is often taken as an example of the "utopian project" in action.) Would you agree that 1970s feminist sf was all about the "utopian impulse" and not the "utopian project"? Can feminists today really afford to consign the utopian impulse to the dustbin of history? What would you say to younger feminists who believe that utopia, tout court, is an evil totalitarian dream that aims to demolish both individuality and individualism?

Susanna: "Consign the utopian impulse to the dustbin of history"? Don't do it! And don't buy into the dichotomy that posits the individual on one hand and society -- utopia, dystopia, and everything in between -- on the other. Without some kind of society -- family, clan, tribe, community, state -- the task of survival severely circumscribes, and maybe precludes altogether, the potential for individuality. How a society is structured influences who gets to be an individual and who remains part of the undifferentiated mass. Until recently the privilege of individuality was reserved to a few, nearly all of whom were men. Each man's individual aspirations were predicated on having a mostly female support staff -- a woman, or a household of women -- to cook, keep house, raise the children, and generally enable the man to do his work in the wider world. This work was, and is, rarely done in isolation either: to realize his individual aspirations, the man has to join or create some kind of organization -- like an army, a government, or a corporation -- that can provide a comparable support staff. Whether these support staffers can aspire to the privilege of individuality depends on where they fit in the hierarchy, which in turn is greatly influenced by such factors as gender, social class, and economic need.

No matter what socioeconomic class we're born into, most women don't get a support staff, or even the option to create one. Usually we're tracked into being other people's support staff. Small wonder that when women start thinking about liberation, our attention soon turns to the social structures and institutions that limit the potential of women as a class. No sooner do we recognize the constraints than we start envisioning alternatives. Those solutions almost inevitably involve structural and institutional change.

No kind of fiction is better suited than f/sf to experiment with social structures, and none offers more scope to the imagination. As the women's liberation movement gathered strength in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many feminists were drawn to f/sf, as readers, writers, editors, and critics. In the real world, feminists were forcing change in existing institutions and inventing new ones: women's centers, shelters for battered women, feminist bookstores, publications, and publishers. In f/sf they were creating worlds that never were and worlds that might become.

Joanna Russ outlined the challenge in "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write":

Culture is male. This does not mean that every man in Western (or Eastern) society can do exactly as he pleases, or that every man creates the culture solus, or that every man is luckier or more privileged than every woman. What it does mean (among other things) is that the society we live in is a patriarchy. And patriarchies imagine or picture themselves from the male point of view. There is a female culture, but it is an underground, unofficial, minor culture, occupying a small corner of what we think of officially as possible human experience. Both men and women in our culture conceive the culture from a single point of view -- the male.

Now, writers, as I have said, do not make up their stories out of whole cloth; they are pretty much restricted to the attitudes, the beliefs, the expectations, and, above all, the plots that are "in the air" . . . Novels, especially, depend upon what central action can be imagined as being performed by the protagonist (or protagonists) -- i.e., what can a central character do in a book? An examination of English literature or Western literature reveals that of all the possible actions people can do in this fiction, very few can be done by women. Our literature is not about women. It is not about women and men equally. It is by and about men.(1)

Feminism is the politics of putting women in the foreground, at the center of the story. Patriarchy is organized on the premise that men come first; it says women are innately, biologically, theologically, and every other way support staff for men. Putting women first is like breaking the sound barrier: it takes a lot of momentum, and it makes a big noise. Manage it, even for a few moments, and assumptions crash on all sides. Feminist fiction writers of all kinds took up the challenge of expanding "what can a heroine do." Feminist f/sf writers could go further, inventing might-have-been and never-were worlds for these female protagonists to function in. This often proved harder than expected. In theory, imagination could go anywhere. In practice, it was tethered to our bodies and the world we lived in. Fantasy and science fiction turned out to be a particularly powerful tool for feminist writers to discover the limits of the imagination and then to expand them.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's relationship with feminism and feminists was, to say the least, contentious, but her Darkover novels offer a remarkable chronicle of an expanding feminist imagination. In a 1986 essay, "What's a P.C. Feminist like You Doing in a Fantasy like This?"(2) I discussed at some length how Bradley was challenging and changing the internal logic of her own creation. Given that the Darkover novels started appearing in the mid-1960s and that the sf audience was assumed at the time to comprise primarily adolescent boys, it was no mystery that Darkover was a patriarchy; "the marvelous mystery," I wrote, "is the appearance of the Free Amazons."

According to Bradley, the first Free Amazon "walked out of my subconscious mind as a problem"(3) for the sexist protagonist of what became the first Darkover novel.

The options available to Darkovan women are so limited that marriage is one of the more attractive. But women who want something else can join the Free Amazons, formally the Order of Renunciates, who "renounce" economic, physical, and emotional dependence on men. Bradley's subconscious, I believe, wouldn't accept a fictional world where a woman of resourcefulness and independent spirit -- like Bradley herself -- couldn't exist.

The Free Amazons did not take center stage in a Darkover novel until almost fifteen years later, in The Shattered Chain (1976). The decade that followed saw an veritable explosion of Amazon activity, including Thendara House, City of Sorcery and the Friends of Darkover anthology Free Amazons of Darkover. Hawkmistress! offered some backstory: its independent female protagonist joins the Sisterhood of the Sword, a forerunner of the Guild of Renunciates. Over time and several books, Marion Zimmer Bradley successfully challenged the internal logic of Darkover: she brought the Free Amazons into the foreground of Darkovan history. She did the speculative fiction equivalent of the work of feminist historians: uncovering and believing in evidence that according to the internal logic of patriarchy cannot exist.

Few of us can travel in one great leap from our world to one in which women are unfettered by even the memory of patriarchy. Nevertheless, feminism, even the most moderate feminism, contains within it the dangerous possibility that women can function quite nicely without men, thank you. No matter how mildly and moderately a feminist speaks, most men -- and not a few women -- immediately zero in on this dangerous, but usually unspoken, possibility and start bashing the hell out of it.

Interestingly enough, within patriarchy most women do much of their work with no men in sight, a paradox that was eloquently described by Adrienne Rich in "Natural Resources" (1977):

Could you imagine a world of women only,
the interviewer asked. Can you imagine

a world where women are absent. (He believed
he was joking.) Yet I have to imagine

at one and the same moment, both. Because
I live in both. Can you imagine,

the interviewer asked, a world of men?
(He thought he was joking.) If so, then,

a world where men are absent?
Absently, wearily, I answered: Yes. (4)

Women can bear, raise, and teach children with men nowhere in sight; they can sow crops, nurse the sick, organize PTAs, and do whatever their societies expect them to do -- performing tasks that require considerable strength, intelligence, courage, and other heroic qualities -- without causing a blip on the patriarchal radar screen. The trouble starts, of course, when we start horning in on what the men think is their turf, and especially when we decline to observe their priorities and answer their questions. In patriarchy an individual woman may get away with telling an individual man to piss off, but if women as a class tell men as a class that women control spaces where men cannot go -- then the foundations of patriarchy start to shake. Phrases like "ball-buster" and "man-hater," words like "lesbian," "dyke," and "separatist," are frequently heard.

Works that envisioned "worlds of women only" were not numerous in feminist f/sf of the 1970s, but they loom large among what we now think of the classics of that decade, and of f/sf in general. With good reason: they pushed the frontiers of the female imagination into territory that even feminists found troubling, if not downright dangerous. In James Tiptree Jr.'s "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" the women of a women-only world gradually come to the conclusion that men born and bred in patriarchy are too dangerous to let in. This poses a disturbing challenge not only to feminists but to liberals, who are asked to entertain the possibility that some kinds of "diversity" may not be tolerable.(5) Near the end of Joanna Russ's "When It Changed" (1972), men arrive on the all-women world of Whileaway. Even today I finish the story with foreboding, unable to imagine that this change could be anything other than disastrous for Whileaway. Tellingly, in Russ's The Female Man (1975), one of whose protagonists is a Whileawayan, men don't, and apparently can't, get anywhere near the women's world. Whew!

In The Conqueror's Child (1999), the culmination of her Holdfast Chronicles, Suzy McKee Charnas breaks this "imagination barrier" by creating a scenario where reconciliation between women and men takes root and might even manage to grow into something other than Patriarchy Redux. The Conqueror's Child stands on its predecessors, Walk to the End of the World (1974), Motherlines (1978), and The Furies (1994), each of which broke a few feminist sound barriers.

In Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines Charnas created three distinctly different women-only worlds. The first, the world within a world ruled by the fem elders, the Matris, in Walk to the End of the World, is almost as dystopian as the extreme patriarchy that surrounds it. The Matris' rules are ruthless, and ruthlessly enforced. But the Matris' objective is the survival of humanity, and humanity will not survive if the Holdfast men manage to exterminate every being capable of bearing children. In a situation so dire, with a goal whose achievement is so desperately important, the end may well justify the means -- at least for the moment. Later, in The Furies, when the situation is less dire and extermination less likely, the rage of the Free Fems is directed against the Matris as well as the men. Once they're well under way, revolutions usually don't deal kindly with the transitional figures who made them possible. Once survival is assured, collaboration looks less like a survival technique and more like a form of treason.

In the second women-only world, that of the Free Fems, men are physically absent, but the Free Fems unwittingly and unwillingly (and, I'd argue, inevitably) carried men in their heads when they escaped from the Holdfast. They tell stories of their oppression; they dream of conquering the Holdfast, but they take no practical steps toward making their dreams come true. They're in a rut, and by endlessly repeating the same stories and fantasies they're digging themselves in deeper.

The Riding Women, the women of the third women-only world, have never known either men or oppression. They tell very different stories. Like those of the Free Fems, their stories reach into the past, but they're also open-ended: each woman adds her own adventures to the tale, and thus the stories carry the past into the future.

Charnas's main theme might be described as the interaction of three stages of utopian impulse, and she embodies them all in Alldera, one of the great heroes of feminist fiction. True, there's nothing utopian about the iron-fisted rule of the Matris. But the utopian impulse is an achievement of the imagination, and in their desperate situation, to believe and act as if humanity can survive is about as utopian as you can get. It is the Matris who groom Alldera for her "walk to the end of the world," setting in motion forces that will eventually bring about their own bloody destruction. Like the poet of "Natural Resources," Alldera lives simultaneously in a world of women only and a world where women are absent, a world of men and a world where men are absent.

Significantly, the third volume of the Holdfast Chronicles, The Furies, was not finished during the 1980s, a decade that saw not only an anti-feminist backlash but also a waning/diversion of the utopian impulse among grass-roots feminists. "Heroines" could do almost anything in 1980s f/sf, f/sf by men as well as women, f/sf by feminists and f/sf by those who recoiled from the term. But the limits of the imagination were obvious to anyone who looked carefully. Most of these strong women were solitary. They rarely had peers or partners or long-term relationships with either men or women; if they did, the partners and partnerships usually remained offstage. Women in community were, not surprisingly, few and very far between. Of the exceptions, the best -- Pamela Sargent's The Shore of Women (1986) and Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988) -- illustrated the limitations of imagination even as they kept alive the hope of more full-blooded feminist work to come. The all-women cities in Shore of Women are static, in continual reaction against the horrors of the past, and repressive to nonconformists and iconoclasts. Most of the action takes place outside the walls, and the story focuses, tellingly, on men.

The same is true of The Gate to Women's Country. The hierarchally organized and pugnacious men live on the outside perimeter of Women's Country; nominally the women are keeping them out, but they're also keeping the women in. Interestingly, the primary movers in the plot are all men: without the men, nothing would happen. There would be no story.

Since we're reading these books in the real world, it's hard to ignore the between-the-lines suggestion that women without men -- just for the hell of it, call us lesbians -- are static, unoriginal, and downright repressive. Compare The Gate to Women's Country to Whileaway, or to The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women, by Sally Miller Gearhart. First published in 1978, and by a lesbian press, The Wanderground grew in the dynamic confluence of feminist movement and lesbian community. Like Gate to Women's Country, it posits as necessary some interaction between women and men: the all-women Wanderground is safe only as long as a certain percentage of women risk living in the male-dominated cities. But in Gearhart's vision this is on the women's terms. The women keep secrets from the men, but in their own society there is no hierarchy based on who knows the truth and who doesn't.

So yes, the "utopian impulse" was strong in feminist f/sf of the 1970s, and in feminist f/sf of subsequent decades as well. But before we reject the "utopian project" as inevitably totalitarian and stifling to the individual, let's subject the idea to a little feminist re/visioning. How likely is it that a feminist utopian project would look like Stalin's USSR? Not very. First of all, the Stalinist regime had more progenitors than utopia, and one of them was imperial Russia. We can debate which genes it got from which parent, but it can't be denied that some of them didn't come from anyone's idea of utopia. While we're at it, Stalin's Soviet Union was as patriarchal a project that ever hit the planet; it may have offered women options that weren't being offered elsewhere, but the guys were still running the show. A feminist utopian project probably wouldn't be perfect, but it wouldn't be patriarchal either.

Whether you're writing a novel, building a house, or implementing a utopian vision, dogmatically following any blueprint will get you into trouble. Here feminism has an advantage: it resists the very idea of blueprints. (In a different light, this looks like a distinct disadvantage, but that a subject for another essay.) There is no feminist bible, no feminist equivalent of Das Kapital. Feminism is implicitly, and often explicitly, concerned with process as well as product, means as well as ends. What blueprints it comes up with are always evolving as more women join their experiences, visions, and energies to the great confluence that is feminism. When feminist blueprints are mistaken for feminism itself, feminism becomes static and exclusive. Feminism encourages multiple utopias and doesn't expect any of them to suit everybody. What all this suggests is that the feminist utopian project is plural, and decentralized, and often very small. Looked at in this light, Virginia Woolf's room of one's own and £500 a year is a blueprint for a utopian project.

In the 1970s, feminist f/sf created a room of its own. It still exists, and it's called WisCon. WisCon is a feminist utopian project, and a very brief review of its significance to feminist f/sf should persuade anyone that we junk the utopian project at our peril. WisCon's relationship with feminist f/sf is both symbiotic and synergistic. It was born out of the expansive and exuberant surge of the 1970s, and it helped foster that surge. Through the retrenchment of the 1980s, it played a key role in keeping feminist f/sf alive, by inspiring writers, connecting writers with readers, and above all by enabling us to live one weekend a year in a place where feminist f/sf was important -- or at least to dream of getting there next year. But it's hard to keep the energy up in hostile or indifferent times. When I first attended WisCon, in 1990, WisCon -- like feminist f/sf -- was flagging. Would it continue? Did it matter?

In 1991, in her WisCon guest of honor speech, writer Pat Murphy announced the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award -- a feminist utopian project if ever there was one. When it was announced, it didn't even exist: the announcement brought it into being. The Tiptree may have been the brainchild of two individuals -- Murphy fingered sister writer Karen Joy Fowler as a co-conspirator -- but if WisCon hadn't provided the podium and the audience, would it have taken off as it did? As it turned out, the feminist imagination was on the cusp of a resurgence. The Tiptree didn't singlehandedly cause it, but it did provide a focus for it, and thus visibility and the energy that crackles in the air when excited people come together to create something new.

Nicola Griffith's Ammonite (1993) was the first fully realized "world of women only" since the late 1970s. Suzy McKee Charnas's The Furies appeared in 1994, and The Conqueror's Child five years later. In 1996, WisCon threw a huge party to celebrate the previous twenty years. The achievement -- both WisCon 20 and the two decades that preceded it -- was so gloriously obvious and so obviously necessary that it was easy to forget how tenuous everything had looked five years before. I don't think it's an accident that this resurgence coincided with the resurgence of WisCon. The publishing and bookselling landscape has been transformed since the 1980s, and generally not in ways that support the independent, iconoclastic, and marginal. WisCon helped feminist f/sf create an ongoing and ever-evolving presence on the Internet, using e-lists and websites and blogs and such Web-based projects as the feminist f/sf wiki.

The feminist utopian impulse is indeed an engine firing the imagination for social and political change. When it flags, feminism flags. But fired-up imaginations aren't effective in isolation, and though social and political changes may be inspired by individuals, individuals alone don't make change happen. Let's redefine the "utopian project" so that it can embody feminist values and meet feminist needs. Let's say that a feminist utopian project is an organization or other structure devised to channel the feminist utopian impulse in ways that make feminist social and political changes happen. We know from experience that our notions of what's possible -- never mind what constitutes a "perfect" society -- expand as we make headway, so whatever blueprints we have will be subject to continual tinkering and maybe the occasional overhaul. To be sure, some will leap to call whatever we're doing Stalinist, fascist, or otherwise dystopian; they may claim that a "secret cabal" is at work and say that this isn't their idea of utopia. That's OK. It doesn't have to be. Tell them to fire up their own utopian impulses and create their own projects.

(1) Joanna Russ, "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write," in To Write like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 80–81. "What Can a Heroine Do?" was written in 1971 and first published in 1972.

(2) Published in the spring 1986 issue of Lesbian Contradiction. It can be found on my website at The discussion of Darkover that follows draws heavily on that essay.

(3) "Introduction," Marion Zimmer Bradley, ed., Free Amazons of Darkover (New York: DAW Books, 1985), p. 8.

(4) Adrienne Rich, "Natural Resources," in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974-1977 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 61.

(5) "Houston, Houston" might be compare-and-contrasted with Tom Godwin's celebrated "The Cold Equations," in which a female stowaway must be jettisoned for the spaceship to survive; "Houston, Houston" suggests that three men must be quarantined for the planet to survive. Both stories consider the possibility that the survival of the whole may require the sacrifice of an individual or two. Whose sacrifice is required and who gets to decide are the key questions, and any reader's response is likely to be influenced by whom s/he identifies with.

Timmi: Thanks very much, Susanna. I'm particularly pleased to see you bring to bear a history that's all but forgotten, especially when so many people now believe that the Late Capitalism is the only possible way to live in the world.

I Love Grumpy Women.

The other day, I was at a theater event for the amazing San Jose Repertory Theater. If you live close enough, and have enough money to get tickets, I strongly suggest that you support them. They present consistently good work that borders on genius at least a couple times a season. Their new work, particularly, is often striking; for instance, they produced the world premiere of my favorite play, Las Meninas, which was a historical speculation on a possible love affair between the wife of France's Louis XIV and an enslaved African dwarf who was brought to her at court. I don't see evidence of it having been produced since, which is, in my opinion, a travesty. The Rep has really good deals on ticket prices for students and teachers, too, by the way, so check it out.

I arrived early for the show. My fiance and I went to the bar to have drinks with some acquaintances of his from his hometown, who I'd met before, but only briefly. We were also joined by a woman who owns a vineyard in Northern California, which she works herself. I knew her a little bit through the memoir poetry she publishes occasionally online under a psuedonym, and we'd exchanged emails, but I'd never met her before.

She -- let's call her Joanne -- was glorious. She was six feet two inches tall, tan and broad-shouldered. She wore a hand-made coat, pieced together from scraps of bright fabric, over black slacks. She held her head down at a forty-five degree angle, which made it easier for me to look her in the eye. My fiance said that it made her look a bit dismissive. Her mouth had a natural downturn. When she greeted us, she skipped the conversational niceties about the weather and the play we were about to see, and started talking immediately about the sexual subtext in a book of poetry written by a mutual acquaintance.

I liked her immediately.

Now, my fiance's friends are good folk, and I've enjoyed talking to them the few times that I've seen them, but when the conversation turned to feminism, I wasn't surprised to see the male half of the couple start to stir in his seat. He crossed and uncrossed his arms, and spent a lot of time clearing his throat. Joanne spoke very bluntly about something that had been running through the feminist blogs -- I think it was the video of the honor killings that was featured on I Blame the Patriarchy, and which I linked to the other day.

Toby set down his drink with a loud clatter and said, "You know what really bothers me is we never talk about how men are affected in third world countries. Men are circumcized too, you know."

My fingers froze around my glass. Likewise, my smile froze.

It's not that I'm non-confrontational in person, but well... it's never fun. I have a whole set of submissive behaviors which I learned to emulate in college, because I found it made people more likely to listen to me, and less likely to get angry at a woman with opinions. I smile and I say "umm..." a lot, and I generally act like a ditz while I ramble through a complicated political thought, as if to suggest -- hey! I just thought of this, and if it's coherent, then it's probably a fluke. I do this with most strangers I meet. It's like the heavy makeup and frilly dresses I wear, partially in apology for my large body. There are a lot of ways in which I don't conform to femininity's norms, being fat and opinionated and - frankly - smart. I have survival strategies to compensate for that.

My smile frozen, I cut my glance over to Joanne. She met my eye and laughed. She threw up her hands. "I can't handle this," she said to Toby, with a tone that suggested 'this' translated to 'your assininity.' "I'm going to stretch my legs."

I smiled and ducked my head and started in with my, "Well... you know, it's just that if you really look at the surgeries of female circumcision and male circumcision... umm... it's kind of misleading to call it circumcision at all, you know? Some anthropologists call it female genital surgeries, because it's pretty different. The thing is..."

And the shy thing, the break-it-down simply thing, the I'm not threatening see-my-head-tilt thing -- seemed to make the information non-intimidating enough that Toby accepted it. I even heard him repeat the argument to someone else later, which is usually a good sign. So, score one for that.

But me, I was developing a healthy admiration for Joanne.

"I really like her," I said to my fiance as we drove home.

"Hm," said my fiance. "She's kind of... grumpy."

"Really?" I said. "She didn't strike me as grumpy."

"Maybe she's kind of grumpy with men."

I thought about it. "I think she's just grumpy with 'what about the men?!'"

"Not just then. I felt like I had to watch myself with her."

"Huh," I said.

We got home. We went about dinner and television and work and whatever else. I kept chewing on the afternoon's events. Later, I phoned an activist friend of mine who lives in NYC. As I repeated the incident, I figured out why I'd been thinking about it so much.

"I really love grumpy women," I said. "I love it that she can just throw up her hands and walk away. I love that she doesn't NEED his approval. I love it when feminists can say 'screw you, we're working for ourselves.'"

"Repeating yourself is part of being an activist," said my friend.

"Oh, I know," I said. "But... I just really respect women who are sick of it."

"Why? Is it because it suggests she's already done it a lot?"

"No... I'm not sure..." I considered. "It's because..." I trailed off, thinking.

This is what I wanted to say to my friend on the phone, if I could have found the words in time:

It's because we're women. We're supposed to be tolerant, and submissive, and kind, and to be willing to reanalyze every goddamned thing because a man has questioned it. It takes real strength to be able to just say 'fuck it.' It takes a willingness to throw out every piece of training you have, to risk disapproval and dismissal and marginalization.

And isn't that every bit as important as making a point about female circumcision to a man who has probably heard the arguments before, and who has no power in and of himself to stop female circumcision? Sure, it's important for someone to tell Toby that he's making an ass of himself when he compares two non-analogous procedures in an attempt to undermine feminism and recenter himself on the stage of conversation. But it's also important to show him that women are not what he thinks we are.

It's important for women to be strong, and grumpy, and important, and conceited, and walking out, and fed up, and confident in themselves. Women are what we are. Toby needs to see that.

And more -- we women need to see that. Feminism isn't just about showing non-feminists what sexism is, it's also -- to borrow a phrase from a man I saw speak at Wiscon -- about decolonizing our minds. He was talking about decolonizing black minds, but it's important to decolonize women's minds, too. The feminist conversation isn't just about external change, but also internal possibilities. When I see Joanne walk out with her hands thrown up, I thrive.

I thrive on reading Ginmar and Twisty and Amanda Marcotte, all women who brook no crap from the anti-feminists who are enraged by the presence of strong women. Amanda Marcotte laughs at them. Ginmar rages at them. Twisty brushes them aside with sly dismissal.

Don't get me wrong. I have great respect for feminists like -- say -- The Happy Feminist (may she someday return to us) who argue quietly and calmly with each incoming interlocutor, assuming that they argue in good faith. I respect that, and I support that, and I think the Happy Feminist was an inspiration.

But let us never turn this into some kind of zero sum game, where there's a right answer to how feminists should act. We should act in many different ways, and there will be both value to and problems in all of our different actions. I am a woman who frequently, in real life, uses femininity as a way to make myself heard and tolerated. And I am a woman who is strongly inclined toward certain aspects of femininity, such as community-building, and yes, even skirt-wearing since I hate the physical sensation of wearing pants. And of course, I'm masculine in other ways, even if I would probably not feel comfortable enough to throw up my hands at a valued acquaintance and walk out of the room. There's room for me, and also room for acknowledging the awesomeness of women who are more comfortable either in more masculine or more feminine roles. Acknowledging them should never threaten my sense of my own value, because there is room for all of us in our own diversity. That's what it means for women to be full people; there will be myriad ways to be a 'right' woman.

I admire grumpy women. I admire grumpy women even when they make men uncomfortable, or perhaps especially when they make men uncomfortable. In a way, I even value the men's discomfort, because of what it means -- it means that here is a woman who does not prioritize men's comfort. How transgressive is that? How wonderful is that?

This is true when the men have done something unintentionally assinine, as Toby did. It's also true when the men haven't done anything particularly assinine. If it makes a man uncomfortable to hear a woman say "I hate men," then fair enough. There is still value in the transgressive act of a woman who has chosen not to make male comfort her priority.

Again, this is part of life not being a zero sum game. The woman may have done wrong. I may disagree with what she did. I may think it was a big problem that she pissed this particular man off, in this particular way. And at the same time, there will still be a value -- whether outweighed, or not -- in her simply existing for a moment outside the frame of her gender role.

I value black people who make me uncomfortable for the same reason. My discomfort is important. It is part of shaking the system. As a white woman, I am often discomfitted by men; why should they never be discomfitted by me? As a white woman, I am sure I often discomfit black people. Why should I be sheltered?

Grumpy women are transgressive. And important.

And I love them.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Why Would Any Sane Woman Want to Live in Jane Austen's World?

Writer Shannon Hale's new novel, Austenland, creates a theme park where Jane Austen fans can find their own Mr. Darcy -- or some other romantic equivalent.

I find the idea of the book almost as appalling as I would find such a theme park. I confess I have not read it, but only heard the report about it on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, so perhaps I'm not being fair. But the tone of the radio report makes me think Hale has written yet another romance-centered book that completely misses the point of Austen's novels.

I did not find it a selling point when Hale said she'd dedicated the book to Colin Firth, the actor who played Mr. Darcy in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Firth may have done an excellent job of bringing Mr. Darcy to life, but he's an actor playing a role. And actors bring their own interpretation (as well as that of the screenwriter and director) to a part, one that may or may not be the one that Austen intended.

(I recall when I saw the movie version of Sense and Sensibility, I had trouble seeing what Marianne Dashwood saw in Willoughby, the supposedly romantic choice, when she had the fascinating Colonel Brandon, played by Alan Rickman, also seeking her hand. "Why doesn't she like Alan Rickman's character?" I whispered to my sister, a thorough Janeite. "He isn't Alan Rickman in the book," she replied.)

But what really bothers me is that some women -- including Hale, apparently -- are so fixated on the romance in Austen's books that they're blind to the whole world she wrote about. Haven't they noticed how many women in Austen's novels are forced to make compromise marriages, or live in straightened circumstances, depending perhaps on the charity of a brother-in-law? Hasn't it occurred to them that the culture so limits Austen's women that their only real opportunity in life is a good marriage -- and that a good marriage is not necessarily the most romantic one?

Austen was a brilliant writer. In the guise of writing love stories -- a suitable occupation for a woman -- she gave us a stunning critique of her society. I rather think Austen would be appalled by the idea that people crave the romance of her times -- a brief experience that only few could experience -- in lieu of the many opportunities of our own.

But then, I find it hard to even read Jane Austen, much as I admire her wit, her beautiful sentences, and her powerful evocation of her times. I cannot get through any of her books without wanting to throw the book across the room because I see woman after woman trapped in a society that doesn't really appreciate her skill or worth.

Truth is, I think Jane Austen wrote horror novels. And personally, I wouldn't choose to spend my vacation in a horror theme park. Or to read a book about women who would.

Friday, June 22, 2007

US VP No Longer a Part of the US Government?

An editorial in the San Diego Union--- titled “Is he vice president? Or king?”---quotes the Associated Press:

Cheney's office -- over the objections of the National Archives -- has exempted itself from a presidential executive order that seeks to protect national security information generated by the government, according to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Under the order, executive branch offices are required to give the Information Security Oversight Office at the archives data on how much material it has classified and declassified.

Cheney's office provided the information in 2001 and 2002, then stopped. Henry Waxman, chairman of the committee, said Cheney's office claims it need not comply with the executive order because it is not an "entity within the executive branch."

This story is actually getting some play in mainstream news venues in the US, with a focus on Waxman’s revelation that Cheney’s staff tried to have the Information Security Oversight Office abolished altogether. What I’m wondering, though, is whether the vice president considers his office a part of the US Government at all. What other branch of government could it belong to besides the executive branch? Surely not the judicial or congressional branches. And these are the only branches of government set forth in the US Constitution. The title of the San Diego Union’s editorial is facetious, but I’ve got to wonder why Cheney is characterizing himself and his office as no longer a part of the government.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

An Update on Oaxaca

Here’s a link to an update on Oaxaca. The Mexican Supreme Court has ordered an investigation of the assassinations of activists last year, and the teachers have set up another encampment in the zocalo. Most promising, though is, Nancy Davies’ report that

civil society proceeds with publicized meeting after meeting, organizing the people. For example, the Dialogue for Peace, Justice and Democracy work-table on Water and the Environment met on June 20. It issued a plan to protect the Sierra Norte and its inhabitants in a process which would involve the inhabitants themselves. (That’s a departure!) The problems include the opening of an access road, with consequent land speculation, as well as a proposed large government-sponsored dam.

With thanks to Wendy Walker, who provided the link.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

SF and Sexism

I checked out the Asimov's discussion of women and SF. I'm trying to decide how seriously to take it. One thing the 20th century should have shown us is -- it's always possible to go backward and lose gains. That being so, we should always be alert for people who want to push us back.

However, Edmund Cooper -- the start of the Asimov's discussion -- is a minor writer, who has been dead for 25 years. According to his pretty darn brief Wikipedia entry, he is not known for much, except possibly his controversial opinions about women.

Should we care about his opinions?

What difference does it make that there has never been a female Beethoven? There has only been one male Beethoven, and you don't get to share in his genius simply because you have a penis.

There has never been a male Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Chrissie Hynde, Georgia O'Keefe, Louise Bourgeois, Barbara McClintock, Lynn Margulis...

The discussion, as far as I followed it, seemed typical. Some guys were clueless; some were trying to be modern; and there were some fierce, indignant women. I was glad to see the women. My inclination is to ignore discussions like this, but someone has to jump in.

One thing checking on this controversy has done is show me how much is happening in the on-line SF community. I am torn between a desire to join in, and a feeling that I could waste a lot of time reading live journals.

I'm finding my current regime -- maintaining my own blog and taking part in two group blogs -- takes a lot of time already. I am a slow, over-careful writer, and I revise nonfiction more than fiction. A blog post can take a long time for me. Even reading the two group blogs takes time, because I have to check links, and that takes me into the seductive on-line SF community.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Cultural Appropriation in Fantasy Writing: Learning to Laugh with Each Other

Within western fiction written by whites, there is always the problem of writing about other cultures. I don't mean writing about people not of one's own race, although that sort of diversity poses its own problems.

I mean, writing about other people's cultures and not falling into the many, many traps that await the unwary writer. These problems are especially acute in science fiction and fantasy, where most writers trade in describing places distant in time and space. Some of the goals of the informed writer should include:

  • Not sucking

  • Not including incorrect information

  • Not reducing incredibly complex cultural formations to bite-sized, simplified versions that have no resemblance to the original except that they include whatever Westerners find sensationalistic

  • Not sucking

  • Not being racist

  • Not exacerbating colonial power structures any more than is inherently unavoidable in the process of a privileged person making money off of a non-dominant culture

  • Not making your characters into marionettes that wander around reciting a westernized understanding of their cultural values (e.g. a Chinese character who enjoys proclaiming, "I care a lot about family and duty, more than I do about my own individual identity!")

  • Not lazily playing into historically damaging stereotypes, such as portraying African women as not caring about their children

  • Generally not reducing the other culture (or its people) to a westernized caricature

  • Not sucking

That's not a complete list.

My own preference as a reader often leans toward the slow and imagistic. I like things with careful, precise language, things that feel beautiful. However, I've recently begun editing for a podcast (see adendum). This has shifted the way that I'm reading stories. I've found myself yearning for things that are more fun -- things that grab me and make me laugh.

I also hope to find and publish a good number of stories that are set in times and places other than the generic European setting filled with generic European characters that The Angry Black Woman aptly titles Blandy McWhite.

My slush pile has thus far included a few fun medieval stories, in which Whitey McBread characters duke it out with swords, while Whitey McPeasants and Whitey McMilkmaids go for a tumble in the totally-not-English pastures. These stories are great. I've put a few of them on hold, and we inherited a few from Escape Pod's stock.

My slush pile has also so far included several beautiful, carefully detailed stories that take place in non-western settings, stories that are written with a respectful, perhaps even reverent gravity.

But so far, I've seen very litte funny work that takes place outside of the default fantasy setting.

Now, I don't want to criticize the stories in my slush pile. I have lovely slush. I'm mostly looking at reprints, so the stories I get have already been deemed excellent by more experienced editors than I. I'm also getting subs from some of my favorite writers, from established masters like Peter Beagle to newer writers whose fiction is funny, moving, and startling in turns. My slush is less like dirty snow than it is like a bed of pearls. In any case, the problem is with no one individual story, but with the overall pattern. The problem isn't the excellent stories that are present; it's the stories that are missing.

The near absence of comedic non-western stories is not a unique feature of my slush pile. It's also a pattern that I've observed in many different kinds of media. Fantasy novels, especially, but also television shows and mainstream books.

When I went to the Book Expo in San Jose last weekend, I heard a variety of writers whose books were set "against the tapestry of war-strewn foreign lands." I am sure these books contain moments of humor, but the framing is about the seriousness of life outside the west. This emphasis on understanding the social and economic problems of third world nations is a first step toward anti-racism. However, it's also a variety of orientalism, exoticism, and/or romanticism.

Binyavanga Wainaina describes this effect in an essay that was published in Granta, "How to Write About Africa."

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.


Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

I've often framed the debate about cultural appropriation in terms of respect and knowledge. A writer must have respect and knowledge of the culture sie's writing about. These things are not sufficient, but they are certainly necessary.

I think many white, western writers have learned how to write respectful, knowledgeable pieces. Not all writers. Not all their work. But I think this is a step that the science fiction community, and the community of writers in general, is aware needs to be taken. The definitions of "knowledge" and "respect" vary from writer to writer, of course, and even stories that are respectful and knowledgeable have their problems. But I think we acknowledge the necessity for these two traits. (Or damn, at least I hope we do.)

But most westerners seem to be so nervous when they treat other cultures that they put on kid gloves before entering them. We render other cultures grave, and somber, and beautiful.

The mood of these stories is so similar that they often seem to blend into each other, one into the next, even though the characters, plots, and settings differ. The tone with which they are told has the same cast. A lovely cast, frequently, but the same cast. Individually, the stories are respectful and knowledgeable and frequently excellent. Taken together, though, the trend of them feels orientalist and appropriationist -- because, as a mass, they present such a one-dimensional and skewed version of an amalgam of non-western cultures.

Exoticism is not just fetishizing and commodifying cultures. Its treating them as sacred, incomprehensible objects. Its handling them as if they might break.

It's easy to see why western writers frequently handle stories of non-western cultures in this way. We're afraid. As Nisi Shawl writes in Writing the Other, the most penetrating fear of many white liberals is to be called racist. Similarly, most westerners, white or non-white, don't want to be called appropriationist. In our fear*, we become overcautious. And most Americans, white and non-white, have been exposed to a steady stream of exoticism throughout our lives, which we internalize, and which ends up in our writing unless we are very careful (and likely, to some degree, even then).**

In contrast, one may look at Nalo Hopkinson's adaptations of Carribean legends. They are fun and playful. The people are real and loud and messy. There's no sense that the author is treating them delicately, or that she fears her characters may break. The author trusts herself to be fun and funny.

Of course, Nalo's working within a culture with which she is intimately familiar. But still, I think authors who don't have that luxury have to turst ourselves to be funny and playful.

Certainly, there are stories in western settings that are grave and reverent. Grave and reverent stories are necessary. I favor them, personally. As a writer, I will write many grave and reverent stories; as an editor, I will certainly buy many grave and reverent stories, about both western and non-western cultures.***

But grave and reverent stories, wonderful as they are, represent only a fraction of the range of possible stories. When worrying about representation, it's not enough just to get other cultures on the page. The other cultures have to breathe. They have to be not just sad, but happy; not just rendered beautifully, but full of chaos and motion; not just careful and lovely, but messy and playful. We don't just need to see non-westerners on the page. We need to see non-westerners having fun.


*The appropriateness, or inappropriateness, of this fear is a topic for another post.

**Western writers of color may be less likely to exoticize non-western cultures, but it certainly seems to happen.

***Rephrased: Please keep sending me grave, reverent stories!



The Podcast I'm editing is called PodCastle. We're the fantasy imprint of Escape Pod. We publish mostly reprints, but we'l look at original fiction. Our pay rate is $100 for fiction from 2-6,000 words, and $20 for fiction under 2k. We're not yet officially open for business, so we don't have a website, but you can read some extremely basic information at our Podcastle livejournal.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Necessary Conflict

When a passage of text densely encapsulates an idea that strikes me as profoundly significant, every time I return to it, it retraces old connections even as it draws new ones that the shift in the context in which I’m reading it demands. One such passage is Lyn Hejinian’s “Who Is Speaking?”, an essay I return to periodically because it eloquently and forcefully reminds me that writing words on a page can never be an isolated act, however lonely writing may seem. The essay begins

Invention is central to the private as to the public life of a writer, but it is of the latter that I want to speak on this occasion. At stake in the public life of a writer are the invention of a writing community; the invention of the writer (as writer and as person) in that community; and the invention of the meanings and meaningfulness of his or her writing.

Almost every writer is faced with the relentless necessity of inventing him- or herself anew as a writer every day, and the task of considering the terms in which this can be accomplished is an ongoing one.

But the invention of oneself as a writer in a community is only part of a larger question; it should be accompanied by the necessity for inventing that community, and thereby participating in the making of the terms that, in turn, themselves play a crucial role in making invention possible (or, in bad scenarios, impossible). One must think about the invention of the community in and as consideration of the politics, ethics, and psychology of speaking in it. And one must do all this even while addressing the question of how the community and one’s way of being in it influences one’s writing.

Among other things, Hejinian’s talking here about the social, intellectual, and ideological construction of discourse. I have an idea that writers who ride the edges of larger discursive communities have no choice but to be conscious of the terms of participation and the difficulties involved in inventing oneself within the discursive community. Feminists writing science fiction necessarily contest “the terms in which this can be accomplished” even as they must in some fundamental sense accede to them if they want their writing to be meaningful. It’s a constant dilemma, a never-ending struggle.

This conflict, you know, has something to do with the uproar over the place of work by women in the f/sf genre. It’s not the whole story, but it’s certainly an important subtext.

Hejinian continues:

The question of community and creativity is not one issue but a whole complex of interrelated public and private issues, and as one brings the pressure of one’s attention to bear on one of them, another of them rises up, requiring that one adjust one’s emphasis. But this adjusting of emphasis is essential to keeping the relationship between oneself and the community viable and productive.

Doing so is not easy. There is an inevitable conflict between community and creativity, and writers very often feel torn between the possibilities of solitude and the requirements of the social. Caught in such conflicts, one might ask why one would want to invent a community in the first place. Do we need community? Do we want one?

My answer to these questions is blunt: yes, we do need community (whether we want one or not). Fiction is neither written nor read in a vacuum. This is true for the f/sf genre as a whole---and is true, too, for the smaller sub-community of feminist sf, which I’ve been arguing for the last few years continues to be essential for the development of the set of ideas and meanings that are explored and produced in feminist sf uniquely. And just in case it needs to be said: feminist sf’s viability is contingent on its relation to the f/sf genre. It can’t exist in isolation. And that’s why this conflict over our “place” in the genre is absolutely vital.

Hejinian’s answer is this:

[W]ant [community] or not, we have it. And this is the case not just because the world is with us. To the extent that humans know about humans, community occurs. A community consists of any or all of those persons who have the capacity to acknowledge what others among them are doing. In this sense, even solo sailors and hermits living in total isolation in desert or mountain caves belong to communities---communities, in the broadest sense, consisting of the persons for whom solo sailing or hermetism is meaningful.

These communities do not, as such, preexist the solo sailing or the hermit’s retreat. In a profound sense, the person setting fort alone to sail or entering his or her hermit’s cave, in doing so summons into existence the community in which to do so makes sense---even if, as will sometimes be the case, it is not a present but a past (though not, strictly speaking, preexisting) or future community, consisting of those whose past or future capacity to understand, that is being invoked.

Any characteristic act---whether it is a sailor’s sailing or a hermit’s withdrawal or a writer’s writing---is an act of reciprocal invocation. It activates a world in which the act makes sense. It invents.

Writing---even when it’s "only" about someone else's writing---is active. It helps make the world. And because it does that, it means that the very act of writing it is in some sense a public rather than a private act. (I think I might also argue that every act of writing, whether it results in public dissemination of a text, is a performance that implies the presence of an audience, a notion of writing that I explored in the paper I presented last month at WisCon.)

Hejinian also touches on what I noted above---that “The community creates the context in which the work’s happening happens. It does so by generating ideas and work that might not have come into being otherwise, and, in the best sense, by challenging everyone involved. In this last respect, a community presents a more difficult milieu than that of the support group.” She also notes that “communities are mobile and mutable, and they are not always easily habitable… If, as a member of a community, one is flourishing, one may not be inclined to ask questions of it. But if one is not, it is crucial to do so, in order to discover and accomplish what is to be done.”

Isn’t that the conflict being waged, in a nutshell?

For those interested in reading the whole essay, it can be found reprinted in Hejinian’s collection, The Language of Inquiry (University of California Press, 2000).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Feminist SF Luvin'

I have taken a couple days almost completely off the internet! One thing this means is that I did not keep up with my livjeournal friends list.

Sometimes, not keeping up with my livejournal friends list (which is mostly composed of SF writers) means that I miss a few witty anecdotes and announcements of great sales. Sometimes it means that I miss horrible, horrible explosions of sexism in science fiction.

Alas, the last few days have been filled with detonation. The stupid: it hurts, it burns, it is all over me, it is all over everything, possibly we'll have to scrap this internet and buy a new one.

I have given all this some thought, and after much deliberation, I have this to say:


Now, that's out of the way.

Rather than link to the debates, or discuss their validity, what I would like to do is this. I would like to create a short-list of allies that people -- say, feminists and anti-racists -- might like to support with subscriptions, submissions, and positive word of mouth. I want to feel positive about the SF world. There's a lot there to love. I want to create and form community networks of support. I think there's power in that, as well as fulfillment.

I'll start out with a few -- not meant to be representative or comprehensive, just the first few to get things started. Please add more in comments.

  • Matthew Kressel of Sybil's Garage has impressed me greatly with recent comments.

  • Sean Wallace of Fantasy Magazine is really thinking about issues of diversity. At Wiscon, he told me (paraphrased) that he's interested in finding stories with voices we don't often hear.

  • Nick Mamatas of Clarkesworld is right about 99% of everything, and he's right about issues of representation in SF short fiction, too.

  • Sheila Williams publishes stories that center on communities; recent issues have featured astonishing work by feminists like Nancy Kress and L. Timmel Duchamp. She's mentioned that she doesn't always get kudos for her work toward representation. Here, I'd like to give her some kudos. Kudos!

  • Kelly Link and Gavin Grant of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet are publishing work that interacts seriously with race, such as the recent story about the passive complicity of all first worlders in the death and pain of people from the global south.

So far, folks on my LJ have already added:
  • Paul Jessup at Grendel Song

  • Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts

  • John Klima at Electric Velocipede

No knocking any market or editor on this thread, please. This is for positive endorsements only.


UPDATE: The list so far


List so far:

Clarkesworld (first suggested by: me)
Asimovs (first suggested by: me)
Lady Churchills Rosebud Wristlet (first suggested by: me)
Fantasy (first suggested by: me)
Sybil's Garage (first suggested by: me)
Grendel Song (first suggested by: squirrel_monkey
Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts (first suggested by: Gwenda Bond)
John Klima at Electric Velocipede (first suggested by: Gwenda Bond)
Strange Horizons (first suggested by: M. K. Hobson)
Fantasy & Science Fiction (first suggested by: Kate Schaeffer)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Different meanings of 'strong'

Among the many issues raised by the Wiscon panel on feminist foremothers in sff, one that resonated with something I had already been mulling over was the one about the 'strong woman character'. Quite often there seems to be a segue from the idea of a strong character in the sense of one who is written in such a way as to interest and engage the reader (sense A) to the notion of a character who has to manifest some (rather stereotyped?) notion of 'strong' (sense B).

What is meant by 'strong' anyway? I'd been thinking for some time about the tendency of writers to put in 'strong woman characters' in sense B, who are very far from being strong characters in sense A. These are usually women in some non-typical female role (leatherclad ninja amazon bodyguard, daring guerilla fighter, ship's captain): but they don't actually do anything. They're just set-dressing. Or, if they do do anything it is simply for plot purposes to facilitate the endeavours of a central male character(s).

The whole question of 'strong woman characters' generates troubling questions about what is strength in women - is it only women-in-roles-traditionally-conceived of as male who can qualify, and does strength in more traditionally female forms, for example as a matriarch, simply replicate longstanding stereotypes, or get dismissed as the kind of stock trope that figures in female and/or domestic fiction.

When women in sff are depicted in more traditional roles they often have a distressing lack of agency: this tends to be excused on the grounds that 'that is what it would be like for women in a society like that'. The remedy for this is to go away and read some history, both biographies of specific women of the past and works such as Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter, Norma Clarke's several studies of networks of women writers and intellectuals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a whole range of works both recent and older (Alice Clark's and Ivy Pinchbeck's pioneering studies are still worth reading) that demonstrate the fallacy of simplistic notions of 'separate spheres'.

There are also issues about what constitutes a strong character in sense A: are fictional characters who are already shining exemplars of certain qualities particularly interesting, does the reader empathise and engage with them? More flawed, less perfect, conflicted, struggling characters who make mistakes or fail to do the right thing at the right time, characters who are questions rather than answers, are surely 'stronger' in this sense because more vivid, more interesting.

Literature is full of characters who remain in the memory even if the author is not setting them up as models to be imitated. Sometimes, indeed, they are meant to be an awful warning. But they are memorable because even if they are not the hero or the heroine, they are written in such a way that they have lives of their own beyond any plot-function they may be serving. They are not just a reward for the hero's quest or a self-sacrificing sidekick.

Perhaps we need another word than 'strong', with its potential for blurring the boundaries between these entirely different things, to describe this?

Saturday, June 9, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Eleanor Arnason

Timmi: I seem to recall your describing yourself as a Red Diaper baby. (Correct me if I'm wrong, please!) And I think I recall your saying that your father was an art historian. Did he think that art has a political dimension in the sense that Rachel was talking about when she said that all writing is political (meaning, of course, not that all writing is a conscious attempt to propagandize, but rather that the political infuses everything we do, even when a writer or artist imagines their art is "pure" and free of the taint of the political)? Did his ideas about aesthetics influence you? Or did you develop your own ideas about aesthetics?

Eleanor: I don't think I would call myself a red diaper baby. RDBs are people who went to left-wing youth camps in Upper New State. I grew up in the midwest and have always hated camping.

My father was an art historian -- and close to apolitical, except he liked avant garde artists, and they tended to have progressive politics.

My mother and her sisters were passionate feminists, who believed that prejudice of every kind was evil. I certainly got that from them, along with a belief in unions and collective action.

I have dim memories of calling myself a socialist or an anarchist in high school, not knowing what I was talking about. I discovered real politics in college in the early 60s and continued to develop my ideas through the 60s, as the Vietnam War rolled on and American cities burned.

What I got from my father (and mother) was a rich cultural education and exposure to a lot of interesting and humane people, who were often artists and often political.

Could you talk about what you think is the relation between the political and art in general and science fiction in particular?

Eleanor: I am very much a fiction writer, most comfortable when telling stories and speaking through a mask. So what follows is being written by someone who is thinking, “This sounds like pompous hooey. Why not just tell a story and let other people figure out what it means?”

You referenced Rachel's argument that all art is political. “Meaning, of course, not that all writing is a conscious attempt to propagandize, but rather that the political infuses everything we do.”

Back in the early days of the second wave of feminism, we used to say “The personal is political.” The truth of this is clearly evident now, when we look at the right's two big political issues: abortion and gay marriage. What is more personal than one's own body, one's family and the people one loves?

I'd argue (like you and Rachel) that everything is political. In the end, every aspect of human life deals (to one extent or another) with the relationships between men and women, castes and races and ethnic groups, workers and bosses, the people with wealth and power and those without.

This is a specific definition of political I'm using here. It does not mean the business of the polis or “the science or art of political government.” I would say I'm talking about power relationships as they exist throughout a society.

How can you write anything, without dealing with sex and money, violence (toward whom and why?) and power?

Jane Austen's novels are always about sex, money and power, which is probably why I love them. Dickens' novels are in great part about wealth and poverty, the unequal and unjust distribution of money. Moby Dick is about working on a factory ship for a boss who's crazy. Huckleberry Finn is about trying to escape the power relationships of slavery and a society that is comfortable with slavery.

What does this have to do with science fiction?

SF is a fiction about the relationship between people and technology. I don't think it could exist until the rate of technological change became so rapid that people could see change happening within their lifetimes or over a handful of years. It helps if there are scientific ideas such as The Evolution of Species in public discussion, available to everyone with any education. Wells drew heavily on Darwinism. Verne drew on ideas of future technological progress that floated through late 19th century European society. Once we have trains and transatlantic steamers and the pneumatique, who can say what wonders are next?

This is where things get complex, and I may have trouble explaining myself.

I think Marx and Engels are right when they say that technology and the way work is organized shape human society. A society based on stone tools is different from a society based on bronze or iron. Hunting and gathering societies are different from societies that depend on farming or manufacture.

I also think they are right when they say that ideology is shaped by experience. People's ideas - their art, religion, political theory, you name it - come from what they learn living day by day. But this does not happen in a simple manner.

Because human cultures are transmitted from generation to generation, our ideas often derive from the experiences of ancestors. As Marx wrote, “The traditions of all the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” These traditions may or may not be relevant to our contemporary lives.

Because societies are complex, comprising at least two kinds of humans (men and women) and often many more kinds, experiences within a society differ. This should lead to different ideologies, though the ideologies of subordinate groups are often only partially formed. As a rule, the dominant ideology of a society is that of the rulers.

(Here we are on the verge of Antonio Gramsci and his theory of cultural hegemony. The synopsis in Wikipedia looks good to me. Read it if you want to.)

Okay. Technology shapes society; and social experience shapes ideology, including art. And there are conflicts within any given culture - between past ideas and modern experience, between the experiences and ideas of different social groups.

I think science fiction is a contested area. It's not the only one. It seems to me that all the popular arts show evidence of more than one set of experiences and more than one set of ideas. Much pop music begins in poor communities, among working people, often minorities. The African American community has an astounding history of creating great music. As the music becomes popular, the music companies take it over and smooth the edges and eliminate the messages they don't like.

Authentic popular music keeps emerging, and the corporations keep trying to turn it into a safe commodity, something that can be bought and sold, rather than something that tells the truth and maybe tries to change the world. (If Gramsci is right, the truth has the potential to change the world, since it breaks through the ideology imposed by the ruling class and says there is another reality besides the official reality. It is a first step toward change.)

SF is about changing technologies, changing societies and changing ideas. By its mere existence, it challenges the idea of permanence, the end of history, the status quo as in any way inevitable or fixed. For SF the status quo is always contingent and subject to alteration. More than one kind of society is possible. There will be a future, as Isaac Asimov said, and it will be different.

So it has the potential to be a critical and visionary art form. But it can also be an art form that expresses despair. It can give us escapes from reality, adolescent wish fulfillment fantasies that lead nowhere, except to more escapes from reality, more bad SF. Or it can defend the status quo. It can tell us the future belongs to white men and capitalism and war.

Our job is to create authentic SF, which criticizes the status quo and imagine alternatives.

Margaret Thatcher has been credited with two famous quotes. One is “There is no such thing as society.” The other is “There is no alternative (to capitalism as it exists now).”

I think we need to argue that there are societies and they have a huge influence on individuals for good or evil. We also need to argue that there are alternatives to the societies we know and the world as it is. We can create new and better societies. It is possible to build a new and better world within the shell of the old.

Timmi: Thanks for answering my question directly, Eleanor. It sure didn't sound like "pompous hooey" to me!

Some Thoughts on Khaled Hosseini, reading from A Thousand Splendid Suns

I went to a reading by Khaled Hosseini last night, at the bay area Book Group Expo. Khaled read from a section of his new book A Thousand Splendid Suns, which someone described as being the history of Afghanistan viewed through the eyes of two women.

The reading was fascinating/frightening: it detailed the search of a pregnant woman and her surrogate mother for a hospital that would take them in while she gave birth. Women had been banned from all the hospitals in Afghanistan, bar one, and that one lacked water, electricity, and basic medical supplies. When the woman's baby turned out to be in the breech position, the doctor apologized for the lack of anasthetic, and then continued to do a cesarian section anyway.

Khaled Hosseini is a physician who has worked internationally; consequently, the medical details had a frightening heft. He described the way in which the pregnant woman's mouth stretched back and frothed with pain.

As he passed into this description, the audience, which was full, began to shift. The demographic was mostly women, but with more men than last year (I'd make a guess at 25-30%). Everyone was uncomfortable. As Hosseini described the doctor's whispered apologies, I heard people exclaiming to each other "There isn't going to be any anasthetic...!" Everyone appeared to find the idea shocking, unthinkable. Hosseini himself said that when he had gone into Afganistan as a physician, hoping to lend aid, he'd been shocked to hear from doctors that the sheer number of injuries that had been incurred by the war when the warlords entered Afghanistan meant that physicians were constantly running out of basic supplies. A doctor told him that it had, during the war, become expected to perform cesarian sections, and even amputations, without anasthetic. "As a doctor from the west," said Hosseni, "the idea was wild..."

Thursday, June 7, 2007

International Patriarchy Sez:

I'm recovering from a cross-country move. In the meanwhile, I invite you to contemplate this remark, overheard across international boundaries, wherever men seek control and that control is not yet absolute.

International patriarchy sez:

Women's deaths are a useful goad for keeping other women in line.


Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Pretty Girls Are Gullible (aka Cosi Fan Tutte)

To Glyndebourne last night, where Peter had secured last minute standing room tickets for the acclaimed production of Cosi. I don't actually like this particular opera, and nor do I like dressing up (which is de rigeur, in the exquisite Glyndebourne setting, jewel of an opera house, nestling among lush, perfect gardens in the bosom of the South Downs). I had hoped I wouldn't have to don the antique Laura Ashley, and sheer hose (or tights, as we say over here) until September. Still, I went along, if only for the picnic. Why don't I like Cosi Fan Tutte? Two fifteen year old girls, notionally sisters, basically camp-followers, are passionately attached to their two soldier lovers. The young men have a mentor, Alfonso, who convinces them to pretend to disappear, reappear disguised as Albanians, and attempt to seduce their faithful little floozies. Will they succeed? Well, of course, because no woman can be trusted and, plus, the young women's "maid", Despina, is thoroughly corrupt, and cheerfully aids the plot. But it all ends happily, albeit with a switch of partners, because after all, what's the difference. All women (if willing) are equally serviceable. It's not the callous behaviour that annoys me (why should not stories of callous behaviour be told?) Nor is it Alfonso's lesson. Romantic love is a daft, delightful delusion, a drug experience, and only children (like Dorabella and Fioridiligi) believe it will last; or place any moral value on the stuff. Nah, it's the way everything the characters sing, every note, including the bits where the young men are parroting Alfonso's older-man cynical "lessons in love", they're either lying or they're deluded. No one ever reaches an honest realisation about the human heart. For me that interferes with the music.

And out in the lush gardens, among the privileged, the young girls are on parade. As richly dressed as they can afford, which in some cases is very rich indeed. In spike heels, in falling-out decolletage, in flighty handkerchief skirts, and those excructiating, tightly-panelled satin numbers, so ugly in the thirties, still ugly and so much in vogue right now. Dear me, who sold you that one, love? Did you take a good look in a long mirror? Young girls are so piteously trusting. And young men think cynicism is so clever. And to think, when I was Fioridiligi's age, I believed all this was going to be swept away, spike heels were about to crumble into dust, & the girls and boys meet each other frankly, on level ground. Ha.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Saturday, June 2, 2007

More thoughts on the Romance of the Revolution panel

Before I leave town for an intense week with the Rio Hondo Writers Workshop, I’d like to address an issue of the Romance of the Revolution panel that has emerged in the commentary on the panel as well as in the comments posted on the commentary. (The Feminist SF Wiki is keeping track of this .) The specific point around which most of the commentary has focused is Chris Nakashima-Brown’s “Pol Pot comment.” Laura Quilter took notes and has posted a partial transcript, but it isn’t verbatim (as a transcript from an audio recording would be), but an on-the-fly distillation (with some verbatim material). Her transcript gives us this:

aud (F): i was wondering if you could talk about revolution in non-am non-european countries and how that works.

chris - i like the pol pot revolution - scraping everything clean. kill all the people and start from scratch.

LP - i hope you're not serious.

chris - well of course - i'm serious sort of - no it's a horrible thing. but i'm serious in that you can't retrain people, you have to start from scratch. it has a sort of sick cogency to it.

My own memory of the panel is seriously jumbled by now, but I had the impression at the time Chris made that remark that he was addressing my earlier elaboration of the need for people to change how they think: as a collective process of trial and error that must be ongoing with no fixed endpoint in view. When I posted my report on the panel earlier this week, Chris replied to my question of what he meant to convey by his remark:

Thanks for mentioning this intentionally provocative comment of mine. My point was that, if the purpose of a movement's revolution is to completely expunge all traces of the former society, the literal approach to accomplishing that implemented by the Khmer Rouge has a certain sick logic. One that is self-evidently evil, devoid of any trace of humanism, and inherently doomed to failure. But also one that merits intellectual vetting as an extreme example of how one might actually try to accomplish a utopian aspiration of creating social conditions in which the better nature of humankind might more explicitly manifest itself. Please let me know if that gives you a better idea of where I was (am) coming from. Thanks!

It is Chris’s explanation of his intent that I’d primarily like to address here, but I feel it’s important also to discuss what some might dismiss as a mere matter of style. Chris says that he was being “deliberately provocative.” Because the Khmer Rouge’s genocide (and by “genocide” I mean not only the massacre of huge numbers of people of a single ethnic group, but also an attempt to extirpate and annihilate a culture), is among the worst atrocities in recent history, it (like the Nazi Holocaust) requires being treated with care, rather than as a rhetorical hand grenade. I don’t believe that exempting certain subjects from flippancy is simply a matter of “good taste.” (I tend to think the whole idea of “good taste” and “bad taste” is a cover concealing insidious underlying assumptions, but that’s a subject for another day.) I’m not saying that such subjects can’t be treated satirically: only that off-the-cuff flippancy is insidious and contagious and worst of all, superficial; rather than provoking anyone to think more creatively or seriously about the subject, it most often helps to encourage flippancy in others (simply because most people are desperately eager to blow off distressing subjects). You may of course disagree with this. (I’m sure that Chris does.)

Moreover, Chris’s remark was a response to a question from an audience member, asking the panel to include non-European revolutions in its discussion. Given that context, and given the longstanding racist stereotype of non-Europeans as not valuing human life (the way the masterminds of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo supposedly do), such flippancy is bound to carry powerful racist overtones, regardless of Chris’s intent. This offers us another strong reason for exempting certain subjects from use as rhetorical provocations.

As for Chris’s intent re the Khmer Rouge’s method: [It’s] “also one that merits intellectual vetting as an extreme example of how one might actually try to accomplish a utopian aspiration of creating social conditions in which the better nature of humankind might more explicitly manifest itself.” This is what I actually suspected lay beneath the remark, and this is what I’d like to take issue with now.

All through the second wave of feminism (and by most reckonings, we are currently in the “third wave” of feminism) feminists had to struggle with the rhetorical tactic employed by people distrustful or hostile to feminism of throwing worst-case scenarios in feminists’ faces every time they proposed any sort of change to the status quo. With the ERA, for instance, it was unisex bathrooms and the military conscription of women as well as men. (Yes, my friends, those were the Phyllis Schlaffley-promulgated Horrors of Horrors that convinced legislators to oppose ratification of the ERA in the mid-1970s.) With the development of tactics for dealing with sexual harassment, it was the possibility that men would constantly be under attack for just being men. With the arrangement of separatist cultural spaces, it was the fear that everyone would be branded as man-haters (or would naturally become man-haters simply by hanging out in a woman-only space). More generally, we’ve seen the right wing use this tactic to discredit the entire idea of providing universal health care to everyone in the US.

People buy this tactic. And buy it. And buy it. In the US, at least, it’s inevitable. And the algorithm is painfully simple: since nothing is scarier than change (not even the wretched outcomes we have reason to believe we’ll face if we don’t change), merely alluding to the worst possible outcome of a proposed change (however unlikely), and all serious discussion of a desired changeincluding discussion about how to prevent such bad outcomeswill vanish.

Perhaps this is a generational thing. In second-wave feminist sf, “utopia” was about creating not a blueprint, but a method of thinking about what kind of world we’d like to live in and what we might do to get there. Now “utopia” is a dirty word. When the worst-case scenario is all anyone can think of, the unstated assumption is that “utopian aspiration” automatically leads to dehumanization and totalitarian regimes and slaughter of massive numbers of people. It doesn’t matter that the assumption isn’t stated or even intended: it will be read as given.

I read constantly that in these postmodern times, “history” is dead. Maybe that’s the problem. See, when you pay attention to history (which is what one-off flippant remarks emphatically don’t do), you have to agree with Jameson: “History is what hurts. It is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis.” That is to say, we aren’t merely individuals living independent of all that humans have been and over time become: we are a product of our collective history. All those wars, all that oppression: the very thinking and habits and “instincts” that generated all those horrors, that’s inside of each of us, like a collar around our necks attached to a leash, leading us on. You ignore history, you ignore the leash. (Isn’t that what everyone prefers to do: to imagine they’re independent of the past?) But just pretending our history isn’t in charge of where we’re going isn’t enough to get free of it. To do that, we have to challenge the hold the past has on uswhich means consciously working to change how we think and live. Is doing that dangerous? Sure. But it makes a hell of a lot more sense than repeating the horrors of the past. And who can deny that at the beginning of the 21st century, awash in a swelling tide of fanatical religious fundamentalism, we’re doing just that?

Look. Conversation is hard, especially when it's not conversation between intimates (who can talk in shorthand). It’s not just that we misunderstand one another constantly. But there’s all this other, subliminal stuff that’s constantly getting in the way of serious considerationdeflections from the painful, hard-to-think-about things; defensiveness; slowness to make connections; and above all hidden assumptions we might not agree with intellectually but are emotionally pushed by nonetheless. That’s why the conversation has to be ongoing and reflexive. And if it’s uncomfortable? Well hey. That just means we’re getting warmer.