Thursday, May 31, 2012

Impolitic! by Andrea Hairston and Debbie Notkin

Now that we're back from WisCon, Aqueduct is ready to offer the latest book in our WisCon Guest of Honor series, Impolitic!, to those who didn't make it to WisCon this year. We always wait to offer this because we print only 175 copies. (They are also numbered.) Impolitic! is 180 pages. In a long essay, Debbie samples her incisive blog posts on body politics, examining the narratives told about our bodies and how we are told to live in and think about them, inciting her readers to the most profound rebellion. Andrea offers us a short fiction, “Griots of the Galaxy,” that enacts that profound rebellion in all its visceral, thrilling drama. Her essay, “Prophetic Artists,” grounded in the early twenty-first century, looks to Octavia Butler and others to illuminate the immanent possibilities of the here and now, reminding us of why sf/f is so necessary to us in 2012. And finally, Debbie and Andrea interview one another. Impolitic! is, throughout, an exemplar of what Hairston in that interview calls the “theatre of the mind,” where “lived experience is transformed into meaning and performed.” 

You can purchase it here. Just fyi, the GoH books are the only books we allow to go out of print when their runs have sold out.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The most democratic forms of literature

WisCon is over, and as you all can see, I failed to continue posting after the single report I made Friday. I just never had time to sit down and write another. I never retired to my hotel room early enough to do that, and I never left my room late enough. My body, in the hours between, craved sleep, and I surrendered to the imperative. I'm hoping that I and other members of the blog who attended may be writing about WisCon over the next week or two, as we've done in past years. In the meantime, there's the following, which I wrote yesterday morning-- and then found myself without time enough to post:

As I write this, I have about an hour before I'm due to take the shuttle to the airport to begin the trip home. I'm sitting at a table in Michelangelo's with Tom, who's begun composing an exam he needs to give tomorrow, while I read a few of the reviews in the latest issue of The American Book Review which I intend to finish reading on the plane. One review particularly interests me (and seems apropos, given all the discussions about democracy that I've participated in this weekend. Donald McQuade, writing about The Best American Essays 2011, remarks:
Of all literary genres, the essay has remained, throughout its distinguished history, and especially in this country, the most egalitarian form of literature: in its subject matter, structure, voice, and readership. The essay's accessibility--for writers and readers--exemplifies the art of democracy.
That accessibility remains both its most distinctive and problematic features. The essay is one of the most readily intelligible and attainable forms of self-articulation and individual power in contemporary writing. So, too, virtually anyone can write an essay marked by recognizable literary merit. This may well be one reason the essay as a literary genre has been marginalized for so long in literary "canons" and in the academy, which privileges the exceptional and the seemingly unattainable.
This assertion fascinates me. I myself am a voracious reader of essays-- if I'm browsing in an interesting bookstore, I'm almost certain to end up purchasing a book of essays. The shelf holding collections of essays is the shelf in a bookstore I always go to first. I'd never thought of the essay as a particularly "democratic" form of literary expression, but now that I consider his assertion, I'm certain McQuade is right.

It occurs to me to wonder if it's not the case that it's easier for a writer to avoid cliches when writing essays than when writing fiction. How many people, after all, sit down to write an essay for a general readership when they don't actually have something to say that fascinates and compels them to articulation? So much fiction seems not to be driven by a passionate fascination with the subject of the story as written because its writer is a writer and that is what he or she does, such that the story is the end product that must be marketed to justify the time spent writing it. Passion-driven writing, it seems to me, is less likely to produce tired, lackluster prose, regardless of the technical skills of the writer.

McQuade continues:
In "The Modern Essay," Virginia Woolf offers an incisive assessment of the state of the essay as a literary genre at the turn of the twentieth century as well as a prescient forecast of its near demise in the decades that followed. Woolf points to the emergence of expository writing-- in the ascendancy of the magazine article in an era fixated on a systematic measurement and generalization-- as the source of the "common greyness [that] silvers everything." With the widespread application of Frederick Winslow Taylor's principles of scientific management far beyond corporate enterprise, reading habits shifted from pleasure to information. The "gentle reader," long assumed as the primary audience for such established periodicals as Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly, and The Century, was soon lost amidst the crowd's pressing need for new information about the world and seeking advice about how to manage and succeed in it. More and more magazines surfaced to address the increased demand for timely and specialized information from impatient audiences as well as to capitalize on the pervasive fascinating with consumption. Popular magazines quickly evolved into the informational counterpart of the retail department store.
The end result of the shift is the "voiceles dullness of utilitarian prose" replacing the essay. McQuade quotes Woolf's propsal of an antidote to this dull prose essay writing that "has for backbone some fierce attachment to an idea...and thus [employs] compelling words to its shape..." He notes the shunning of teaching the essay as literature in the academy, "relegating instruction in essay writing to the margins of the university-- to first-year 'service' courses in composition."

Not surprisingly, McQuade hails the "democratic spirit of the essay" for serving as "an especially important portal for self-expression among writers in post-1960s America-- particularly women and people of color--whose voices weren't featured nor even heard in most literature courses well into the 1980s." Reading this, I am struck by the realization that this must be why I am so addicted to essays. (And I will admit it here, that this addiction was part of my compulsion for starting the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Essays and poetry were essential to me in the 1970s and 1980s: they gave me much of what I needed to sustain and nurture me as a feminist in a hostile world. They helped me to go beyond my own experience-- and to connect my own experience to that of others. Essays and poetry, over the years, have repeatedly assured me at my loneliest moments that others are thinking about what I am thinking about and willing to spend the time to give me the benefit of their insights and the pleasure of their company in print. (We don't, after all, having WisCon more than a few days a year.)

So here I am, linking poetry with essays, essays with poetry. It feels right to do that. They're both under-appreciated forms. They are both, in McQuade's terms, "democratic." And they are both forms that, like the best fiction, bring us to our senses. We need them all, don't we? And as much (if not more) than we ever did.

Friday, May 25, 2012

WisCon 36!

Last night, taking the stage in the back room of Room of One's Own Bookstore in Madison, Debbie Notkin and Andrea Hairston launched WisCon with considerable panache. Debbie opened by reading a piece, both poignant and funny, on her mother. Her tone, reading, was understated and matter-of-fact, creating a striking and highly effective contrast to its intense emotional content. And then in a wild change of pace and tone, exuberant and crackling with energy, Andrea, accompanied by Pan Morigan, filled the room with the drama of excerpts from Redwood and Wildfire. Andrea's performance was interpolated by songs from the novel, which Pan (who composed the music to go along with the songs) sang. (Pan's banjo also created a distinctive atmosphere as Andrea read.) Andrea's reading culminated with one of those songs in which Pan's voice soared, and into which Andrea drew the audience to join. The audience's applause was absolutely thunderous.

All of this was part of the WisCon tradition. Debbie's reading nonfiction and Andrea's theatrical performance with Pan rang interesting changes on the tradition. Isn't that part of what we love about WisCon's traditions? That they offer forms that can be flexibly stretched to accommodate so many different approaches and kinds of creativity?

I do love this traditional Thursday evening opener that Room hosts. It's a wonderful bookstore to start with, and becomes even more wonderful when it fills with people most of whom haven't seen one another for months or in many cases for an entire year. Granted my travel day yesterday, which started at 4:30 a.m., was unduly protracted (including about an hour spent in an airplane without ventilation much less air-conditioning, parked at the gate, apparently waiting to have its auxiliary power supply restored). All of that fell away from me as I immersed myself in WisCon sociability. Before the reading, which starts at 6:30, Room always offers a spread of wine and cheese and veggies, which people sip and munch while moving among the book displays (so many Aqueduct Press books! Yay!) and hugging and chatting in a terrific crush of bodies. The trick is to make it into the back room in good enough time to snag a chair. (There are lots of chairs, but somehow, every year, quite a few people end up standing or, sometimes, sitting on the floor.) When I first started coming to WisCon, I'd arrive on Friday. Only later did I realize what I had been missing.

I took some photos of Debbie, Andrea, and Pan, but they didn't come out. (I've never managed to take a decent picture in that room yet.) So I apologize for not being able to offer you visual images of the event. But I'm hoping to report in, maybe even later today, perhaps with pictures.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Infamous federal legislation declared unconstitutional

Here's some good news: U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest, in a 68-page opinion, ruled last week that the infamous Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which President Obama signed into law on Dec. 31, 2011, is unconstitutional. The fact that two branches of the US Government saw fit to perpetrate such legislation meant that such a ruling was never a sure thing. Here's journalist Chris Hedges, who was one of the plaintiffs:
It was a stunning and monumental victory. With her ruling she returned us to a country where—as it was before Obama signed this act into law Dec. 31—the government cannot strip a U.S. citizen of due process or use the military to arrest him or her and then hold him or her in military prison indefinitely. She categorically rejected the government's claims that the plaintiffs did not have the standing to bring the case to trial because none of us had been indefinitely detained, that lack of imminent enforcement against us meant there was no need for an injunction and that the NDAA simply codified what had previously been set down in the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force Act. The ruling was a huge victory for the protection of free speech. Judge Forrest struck down language in the law that she said gave the government the ability to incarcerate people based on what they said or wrote. Maybe the ruling won't last. Maybe it will be overturned. But we and other Americans are freer today than we were a week ago. And there is something in this.
The government lawyers, despite being asked five times by the judge to guarantee that we plaintiffs would not be charged under the law for our activities, refused to give any assurances. They did not provide assurances because under the law there were none. We could, even they tacitly admitted, be subject to these coercive measures. We too could be swept away into a black hole. And this, I think, decided the case.
"At the hearing on this motion, the government was unwilling or unable to state that these plaintiffs would not be subject to indefinite detention under [Section] 1021," Judge Forrest noted. "Plaintiffs are therefore at risk of detention, of losing their liberty, potentially for many years."
The government has 60 days to appeal. It can also, as Mayer and Afran have urged, accept the injunction that nullifies the law. If the government appeals, the case will go to a federal appellate court. The ruling, even if an appellate court upholds it, could be vanquished in the Supreme Court, especially given the composition of that court.
We still live in a police state, but this ruling offers hope. In theory at least, the bill of rights is still in effect. And the theoretical, especially in this case, matters. Without it, we'd be hopeless.

This seems an appropriate moment to quote Augustine of Hippo: “Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cultural change and the human skeleton

The May 4 issue of Science reports on a study of "more than 2000 European skeletons" from over the last 30,000 years tracing how cultural changes like switching from hunting and gathering to farming and herding, from "life as nomads to settling in urban centers; from eating meat, nuts, and tubers to consuming grains, sugars, and dairy products" has altered the human physique. Over this time, the study documents a significant drop in strength in leg bones, the loss of asymmetrically larger right arms as compared to left arms, and fluctuations in weight and height. (The loss of resistance to fracture, according to the article, declined by 25% from 27,000 years ago to 1900 C.E.) 30,000 years ago, apparently, the average European male was as tall as the average European male today. With the onset of agriculture, height and weight both dropped. (Agriculture, apparently, provided poorer nutrition than hunting and gathering did.) I'm not clear, from the article, who exactly conducted the study. The article quotes a few paleo-anthropologists and bio-archeologists who attended the meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists last month in Portland, but offers not a single reference to the title of the study, its place of publication, or its authors. (Presumably some of the people quoted are authors of the study...)

Interesting to imagine what differences might be seen in the human skeleton, say, 1000 years from now...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry

Aqueduct has just taken delivery of another book in its spring list: The Moment of Change, edited by Rose Lemberg. The contributors to this anthology include many fine poets, among them Ursula K. Le Guin, Delia Sherman, Theodora Goss, Amal El-Mohtar, Vandana Singh, Nisi Shawl, Greer Gilman, Sonya Taaffe, Athena Andreadis, Jo Walton, and Catherynne M. Valente. The cover art comes to us courtesy of the fabulous Terri Windling. Rose Lemberg writes in her introduction that “Literature of the fantastic allows us to create worlds and visions of society, origins, social justice and identity,” but notes that “even though we are in the world, our voices are folded into the creases. We speak from memory of stories told sidewise. We speak from pain; is that serious enough? The world has not been welcoming, but what other world is there?”

“In these pages,” Rose summarizes, “you will find works in a variety of genres—works that can be labeled mythic, fantastic, science fictional, historical, surreal, magic realist, and unclassifiable; poems by people of color and white folks; by poets based in the US, Canada, Britain, India, Spain, and the Philippines; by first- and second-generation immigrants; by the able-bodied and the disabled; by straight and queer poets who may identify as women, men, trans, and genderqueer.” Rose reminds us, quoting Audre Lorde, that "poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence." I published this book because I thought we needed it. 

Copies are available now from Aqueduct Press here; we'll of course be selling it at WisCon, where Rose and several of the contributors will be launching it at a reading. And by the end of the month, it should be available elsewhere.

Superlatives for Gwyneth Jones's fiction

Lovely to see Ian Sales's review of Gwyneth Jones's Universe of Things at the Daughters of Prometheus website.
This is one of the strongest collections of genre short stories I have ever read. There is not a bad story in it – even the single-page ‘One of Sandy’s Dreams’, originally written for The Drabble Project in 1988, manages to do more in 100 words than China Miéville’s BSFA Award nominated short story ‘Covehithe’ did in several thousand.
If that is not praise enough, consider Sales's conclusion to the review: "Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction who is currently still writing that this country has produced. Highly recommended." Indeed.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kiini Ibura Salaam's Ancient, Ancient

It's May, and that means a bouquet of new publications from Aqueduct Press-- viz., the rest of her Spring 2012 list. The first of these has just arrived here in Seattle, and so I'm pleased to announce the release of Kiini Ibura Salaam's Ancient, Ancient. For many sf readers, this is a new name. But her stories have been appearing in a variety of anthologies over the last few years-- in Sheree Thomas's Dark Matter and in Nalo Hopkinson's Mojo: Conjure Stories, to mention only two. I had read and taken special notice of her stories, myself, so when she sent me a manuscript, I was excited at the prospect of becoming better acquainted with her work. (She will, by the way, be attending WisCon later this month.)

I asked Nisi Shawl to write an introduction to the collection. Her brief essay remarks particularly on the sensuality and erotic power of Kiini's prose. “Sexuality-cum-sensuality is the experiential link between mind and matter," Nisi writes, "the vivid and eternal refutation of the alleged dichotomy between them. This understanding is the foundation of my 2004 pronouncement on the burgeoning sexuality implicit in sf's Afro-diasporization. It is the core of many African-based philosophies. And it is the throbbing, glistening heart of Kiini's body of work. This book is alive. Be not afraid.”

"Salaam treats words like the seductive weapons they are. She wields them to weave fierce, gorgeous stories that stroke your sensibilities, challenge your preconceptions, and leave you breathless with their beauty."   — Nalo Hopkinson, author of The New Moon's Arms and The Salt Roads
"Kiini Ibura Salaam's collection of short fiction, Ancient, Ancient, demonstrates that she deserves to be considered as one of today's most promising contemporary genre writers. With writing that challenges assumptions on gender, the nature of fantasy, the uses of myth and much more, she offers the readers stories that they will not soon forget. A marvelous introduction to a marvelous writer."
  — Jack Womack, author of Random Acts of Senseless Violence
"Kiini Ibura Salaam is a natural-born storyteller and a gorgeous writer who chooses her characters and words with the care and skill of a poet. Her stories are transformative, wise and vivid with the quality of fantasy and fable. I loved reading this!"   — Sheree Renée Thomas, author of Shotgun Lullabies: Stories and Poems and editor of the award-winning Dark Matter anthologies

"My favorite piece is one of three original to this collection, “Pod Rendezvous.” A long and entrancing look at the last libertine hours of a future female who must dedicate her remaining life to selfless nurturing, it swoops on gossamer contrails from crèche to club, from finger-shoveled cafeteria food to bars dispensing star juice. It is the book’s final story. At its end the heroine disappears, a bright spark flying out of sight, and the story is done but not over, or over but not yet done. The pull, the sometimes literally visceral attraction of what Kiini does with words, continues on beyond them."   — Nisi Shawl, author of Filter House, from her introduction to Ancient, Ancient

Ancient, Ancient received this review from Publishers Weekly:

"Salaam's collection of 10 reprints and 3 original stories introduces readers to alternate worlds built around magic, sensuality, sexuality, and the search for emotional comfort, however tenuous. A lusty god temporarily bestows his sexual spark on a worn-out and unappreciated young woman in ''Desire.'' The world of mothlike aliens who feed on the heated ''nectar'' of human sexual energies is explored in three linked tales. A young man's grandfather sends him time traveling into danger as a punishment in ''Battle Royale,'' while ''Rosamojo'' is a straightforward revenge story about a young girl who uses magic to punish her rapist father. Unearthly magics frame ''Ferret,'' an intriguing snippet about a space colony ship guided by animal divination, and ''Marie,'' in which a pregnant Creole woman is willing to sacrifice anything to feel at home in New York City. Salaam's unusual settings and lonely characters will call to readers who hunger for sex, identity, or just a place to belong."

You can purchase a copy from Aqueduct Press here

Project for funding a feminist speculative fiction anthology

Everyone who reads this blog probably knows already about the kickstarter project to fund a speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, & horror) anthology devoted to feminist themes, to be edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Here's a reminder that this is a project that will likely be dear to the heart of anyone who reads Aqueduct Press books. Check it out here, and if you can, do contribute!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Rebecca Ore's Alien Trilogy

I'm happy to announce that Aqueduct Press has just released e-book editions of Rebecca Ore's Alien Trilogy: Becoming Alien, Being Alien, and Human to Human. I remember, on first reading Becoming Alien, running around from one Seattle bookstore to the next, in desperate, needy search of the other two. There'll be no need to do that now! The trilogy was first published in the late eighties and has been out of print for a long time. Aqueduct Press is selling them here for $7.95 each.

Aqueduct will, by the way, be releasing e-book editions of more of Rebecca's backlist in the near future.

ETA: It occurs to me that I should mention, this trilogy features a protagonist who thinks of himself as "a country boy" (which others call "hillbilly"), and offers a lot of insights into class relations from a view that's not middle class.   

Friday, May 4, 2012

Learning to feel unsafe

Kirstyn McDermott has an interesting post-- Girls and Consequences-- delving into her childhood revulsion for femininity and one of the possible sources of that revulsion. The post was inspired two other posts, one by Stina Leicht on why boys court risks more than girls and by and the other by Kate Elliott, on how, at the age of twelve, she completed a sentence beginning "I wish..." as "I wish I was a boy." The expression of this wish didn't come from a sense of gender dysphoria. "What it meant to me," Elliott writes, "was that it wasn't worth being a girl." How many of us could find that feeling in our own emotional history? I know that I certainly could. The bit from Leicht's post that McDermott quotes resonates powerfully:
It’s because girls run head-long into consequences much, much sooner than boys do. They are barraged with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place for them specifically at an early age. I have memories of such information filtering down to me at age eight through ten. So much so, that I went through a phase of denial. I took on male behaviors, thinking that would make me safe. (I was a tomboy.) I also went through a phase of not wanting to be female — not because I thought I was mistakenly born a girl, but because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females. In fact, society at large might even hate females.
As it has probably done for any woman reading the post, this sent my thoughts back to my pre- and early-teens. I never told anyone I wanted to be a boy. But I did want, oh so much, to be Beethoven, and everyone around me let me know that it wasn't possible to be Beethoven unless you were male. And though I wasn't a tomboy, I did things like cut my hair short (shorter than I ever wear it now-- something not much more than a buzz cut) at a time most of the girls in my high school wore their hair long and ironed it, making myself the Complete Freak, got myself a boy's cap (never worn by girls back then), and often passed as a prepubescent boy when I was wearing a jacket or coat, and wore pants whenever I could (though girls were never allowed to wear pants to school back then, not even in sub-zero weather). McDermott writes
Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who I can’t ever remember saying that I couldn’t/shouldn’t do something or like something or be something just because I was a girl. (Once or twice, when I was being particularly gross, she might have expressed an exasperated admonishment that I wasn’t being very ladylike. Huh? Who cared about being a lady!) I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. And the consequences stuff? Although I didn’t think I ever consciously took that on board when I was a kid . . . I reckon it did manage to seep in. And I reckon I reacted to it just the way Stina Leicht did, by rebelling against everything girlish.
These days I’m constantly unpacking my thoughts about the colour pink, and my newly rekindled love of cooking, and whether or not to keep shaving my legs, and so many other things. Trying to work out how much of what I love and/or hate comes from a genuine personal response rather than a habitual reaction to/against The Feminine. (A process which, of course, is complicated by the recognition that those anti-feminine reactions are really just as “genuine” or otherwise as anything else I feel.)
McDermott then goes on to pose disturbing questions thinking about what all of this raises for her anent her preferences in footwear. And she arrives at this gut-wrenching conclusion:
Because, in my head, wearing spiked stiletto heels isn’t safe. Because being a girl isn’t safe. And that’s precisely the sort of unconscious internalisation I’m talking about. Now, it’s not as though I go about my days with ears pricked and eyes darting about like a gazelle en route to the watering hole, but this is a genuine psychological underpinning that has helped define my choice of footwear as much as it has influenced my decision never to accept an invitation to an otherwise all male NFL drunken victory party.
Because being a girl isn’t safe.
Reading this suddenly made me remember not just some of the occasions when I definitely didn't feel safe "being a girl" (particularly in my teens), but also how I was taught to believe that. You see, I flashed on something that I'd totally forgotten-- something that sort of shocks me now, because in a way it's a strange and jarring memory that I don't think I've ever before consciously recalled. The memory I flashed on was of one of the black and white short films my (small) eighth-grade class were specially shown. Very occasionally the whole school (small, parochial) would be shown moves in the gym-- movies that were in some way instructional-- about, say, missionaries in faraway lands, fire safety, how to give first aid, and so on. On one such occasion, all the students were sent out except for those in the eighth grade. There were about 30 of us. We were shown at least two additional films that the rest of the school didn't see that day. One was on the dangers of smoking pot and taking drugs (yeah, something like Reefer Madness-- it could, actually, even have been Reefer Madness), the other on the dangers of sex. Only, though they didn't say so, it was really on the risks of getting raped and getting pregnant. (I.e., the dangers were for girls only.) Mind you, we hadn't had any sex education in my school. It was a fundamentalist Lutheran school, after all... In high school we had sex education, which was at least partly about the dangers of pregnancy, and partly about venereal diseases, which not only girls, but also boys were at risk for. This film was basically about what terrible things kissing boys could lead to. (Just as pot was the first step to becoming a "dope addict," so kissing was the first step to getting raped or pregnant.)

I obviously don't have a really distinct recollection of all that was shown (though I do, oddly enough, remember the girl who got raped wearing bobby socks for godsake-- though I suppose, given that this was the 1963-64 school year, the film could have been made as much as ten years earlier). But I remember being really upset by the violence of it-- because it showed the girl in a situation, basically, of date rape (though it didn't show the rape itself-- only showed her afterwards, with her clothes ripped, crying, and then the consequence of pregnancy supposedly following her rash behavior in kissing this boy in the first place. What strikes me half a century later is that this little "instructional" film had an effect on me that rippled through the next five years of my life-- even though the showing of the film was never framed by discussion or reinforced through mention at any time afterwards by my teachers or peers (any more than other such "instructional" films ever were). With all that silence surrounding it, I'm sort of shocked to realize that it nevertheless lurked in deep memory, with just a few images burned into my brain. In hindsight, I'm sure it heightened my fear of a scary boy in my neighborhood a year or two later, a boy with whom I had several really scary encounters and who was notorious because it was "known" about him that his father constantly beat him, his parents sometimes made him sleep in the garage, and finally, because he was a runaway who had a juvie officer checking up on him. (Now that I think of it, I recall that that juvie officer was the father of one of my brother's friends (a boy who, himself, was something of a delinquent creep.)

The cues telling them they're not "safe" are always there for girls, regardless of whether they are explicitly warned. (And of course now, any child who grows up with 21st-century television can't possibly escape the din of the constant subtext about violence against children, girls, women.) I'm sure if I began looking for more traces of this education (socialization), I'd find them.
Interestingly, this remembering-- the process McDermott plunged into with her boots-- reminds me of a marvelous book that Verso published in 1987, in translation from the German, Female Sexualization, ed. by Frigga Haug, recording the work of German feminist collective doing what they called "memory-work." Here's Haug:
The book records a collective's attempts to analyse women's socialization by writing stories out of their own personal memories: stories within which socialization comes to appear as a process of sexualization of the female body. In the first chapter on what is called 'memory-work' (Erinnerungsarbeit), the reader is introduced to the method of collective work undertaken by the group. Described as a method for the unravelling of gender socialization, this involves choosing a theme connected with the body--legs, hair, stomach, height--and calling on members of the group to write down their memories of past events that focus on this physical area.
In the second chapter, we pursue the process whereby the stories are circulated amongst the group, discussed, reassessed and rewritten. The group searches for absences in the text, for its internal contradictions, for cliched formulations covering knots of emotion or painful detail.(13)
Theirs is a complicated process (and fully theorized). But the key, as Haug says, is that "we looked everywhere for traces of situations in which we had either voluntarily submitted to our own subordination, or, conversely, in which we had developed early forms of lived resistance."(50) Perhaps most interestingly, this collective saw writing (rather than speaking) as key to their process, because of what happens when we write down memories as personal history (as opposed to informally telling them as anecdotes). I think also, as someone who writes fiction, that this difference also shows up when delving into a memory by using it as a moment in a fiction-- it gets separated from the ego (to use both general and Freud's parlance) in a way that frees it for a less-emotionally fraught consideration. Anyway, thank you, Kirstyn McDermott, for such a provocative post. You've left me with much to think about.

Go: For a Winning Anarchist Strategy


Roy Jovana

Written in Fall 2010 for a local anarchist Go meetup in Seattle.  Thanks to everyone for your feedback.
A year later, after the Arab Spring, after the American Autumn, who would have guessed the hint of potential in the air would have exploded so abruptly and raised so many questions about our strategy going forward?

Throughout history, people have joined together to fight exploitation and injustice.  A thread of resistance can be traced from ancient Egyptian slave revolts to the WTO protests in Seattle, continuing in our present day struggles.  Though we’ve had setbacks and losses over the millennia, we’ve also made many gains.  As the powerful have adapted their strategies and tactics to hold onto their power and influence, we’ve been successful when we have also adapted, building on and learning from past successes and failures.

The game of Go is another struggle for power and influence, a strategic game where opponents try to expand and hold onto their areas of power and use them to limit the other’s.  We can learn from and apply strategies from the game of Go to adapt and make our struggles more effective.

21st Century Anarchism
With the failure of authoritarian communism and the recent petering out of the anti-globalization movement, the 21st century is a time for a new beginning.  Just as in 1910 few people could have predicted the upheavals that lay in store for them, this century will no doubt bring times where the unthinkable, impossible future suddenly becomes an undeniable present.  This changing battle requires us to develop new strategies and abandon failed ideologies—without mindlessly reenacting past battles, but also without each generation starting anew and rejecting history.  Instead, we need to develop a strategy of challenging power, honestly applying lessons from past resistance to the realities of our present day struggles.

In all the work we do, we need strategies for campaigns such as tenant/landlord and workplace struggles or fights targeting other institutions.  We also need to connect these campaigns to large-scale, longer-term strategies and ultimately to a strategic framework for the entire revolutionary project of overthrowing the ruling class and establishing a free, just, and equal society.
In developing these strategies, we must remember that theory not grounded in practical struggle is sterile and useless, while action without strategy and reflection is an ineffective dead-end.  This requires that we refuse to let our political ideology color our practical judgment.  We must not believe that a tactic will be effective simply because we would like it to be or because our ideology tells us that it must be.

Instead, we must look at the playfield honestly, judging the strengths and weaknesses of ourselves as well as our adversaries.  As the struggle unfolds, we must analyze the effectiveness of tactics based on direct experience.  And to be effective, we must train ourselves and others to have the skills necessary to achieve our objectives including strategic thinking skills.

The Game of Go
Centuries before written history, a game was invented to help the Chinese aristocracy practice strategic thinking.  This game is now commonly referred to as “Go”, from the Japanese name, or “Wei Qi,” the modern Chinese name, meaning literally, “the surrounding game.”  Based on simple rules that have changed little over thousands of years, Go is a complex game.  The style of play has constantly changed, with expert players building on the lessons from past players and constantly analyzing current and past games for insights into new strategies.

So what is the game of Go?  Go is played on a board with a 19×19 grid (13×13 or 9×9 for beginners).  Two players take turns placing black and white Go “stones” on the intersection points on the grid.  Once placed, the stones cannot be moved.  Each point has between two and four “liberties,” represented by the lines leaving the point.  A stone with one or more liberty or connected to stones of the same color with liberties is considered “alive.”  If a player fills in the liberties of their opponent’s stone, that stone is “captured” and is removed from the board.  But capturing is not the most important aspect of the game.  At the end of a game, each player will have surrounded different parts of the board in a way that their stones cannot be captured.  These surrounded portions of the board are their “territory”; the larger determines the winner.

Go As a Revolutionary Tool
But Go is more than just a game.  It can be a valuable tool for developing revolutionary anarchist strategy.  Go has lasted for thousands of years because it is the boiled-down essence of real strategy, simple enough to move beyond transitory historical details, instead reflecting many general strategic concepts.  At the same time, it is not so simple as to be irrelevant to real-world strategic problem solving.  This allows us to map complex real-world problems to Go concepts and to use Go techniques to see fundamental strategic flaws or strengths.  Go provides a language and a framework for discussing core strategic and tactical issues.

Compared with other games, we can see why Go can map better to real world struggles.  In chess, the goal is to corner and kill the opponent’s king.  In modern struggles, whether war between nations, political power battles, labor struggles, or the revolutionary struggle in general, opponents never have a single head or point of power.  Instead, their power is determined by their political, economic, military, or social influence, and this power can change dramatically over time.  These different spheres of influence can be mapped to points on a Go board, with success being determined by expanding territory.  Capture can be important, but more as a tactic to gain territory than as an end in itself.

In the book, The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy, Scott A. Boorman presents one such mapping.  The edges of the board correspond to the lowest caste of peasants in feudal China.  Towards the center, points correspond to higher positions in the social caste system, with the very center being the urban political class.  While other factions fought directly for the single center point, Mao used the standard Go strategy of building territory first in the isolated corners, then along the edges.  While others focused on one point, Mao and the communists focused on building territory, ultimately dominating the board.

For our purposes, a less precise mapping is likely to be more useful, just enough to provide a bridge between Go strategic concepts and the practical issue we’re addressing.

Go Proverbs
One of the ways that Go strategy has been passed down from generation to generation is in the form of simple proverbs.  Each proverb summarizes a technique or idea.  They are meant to suggest likely good moves but are not to be followed blindly.  Once you start using Go to think about strategy, you will find that many Go proverbs can give insight into our struggles.

Lose Your First Fifty Games as Quickly as Possible
One such proverb for beginners is “lose your first 50 games as quickly as possible.”  Many beginners play slowly, over-analyzing their moves, but with no experience to draw on.  Rather than playing quickly and learning from their mistakes, they are stuck in a paralysis that prevents them from gaining the experience they need.  The fact is that if you don’t know what you are doing, you will lose.  The important thing is to learn from it, and not take risks larger than you are willing to lose.

Don’t Throw an Egg at a Wall
Another that is especially relevant for anarchists, almost literally, is “don’t throw an egg at a wall.”  This Korean proverb is more commonly known as “play away from thickness” and cautions against playing stones too close to your opponents’ strength, as well as playing a useful distance away from your own strength.  In Go, if your opponent has a strong wall that you have no hope to cut or capture, playing close to the wall guarantees the capture of your stone and actually strengthens your opponent.  The same can be said for misguided anarchists tossing an egg against a wall of riot cops only to be knocked to the ground and arrested.  The converse is also true: playing too close to your own strong group is a wasted “safe” move that does little to gain territory.

Strengthening Your Own Weak Group Makes Your Opponent’s Weaker
Stating the strategic advantage of solidarity is the proverb “strengthening your own weak group makes your opponent’s weaker.”  When targeting your opponent’s weakness for attack, your own weaknesses expose you to counter attack.  If you can strengthen them first, your attack will be more successful.  In the labor movement, this lesson appears when you have divisions in your ranks, with vulnerable workers exposed to attack.  If you can strengthen the vulnerable workers before the fight, the boss will have less ability to fight back, ultimately making your offensive more successful.

Connecting Groups
A core strategy in Go is to start in the corners and edges, and then jump out to the center to connect separate groups of stones.  It is easiest to create solid territory in the isolated corners.  Next, territory can be made on the edges—but it is more difficult.  Finally, especially if a group of your stones is weak, jumping out to the center can allow them to connect with others, increasing the chances for survival.  As in the previous proverb, connecting your weak groups strengthens them, putting them in a better position to attack their common foe.

In the real world, small isolated groups, like weak groups of stones on the board, must establish a base or coordinate with other groups to survive and be effective.  A base is an organizational and social network capable of sustaining itself in spite of attacks and setbacks.  In addition to being self-sustaining, the network would allow expanding the fight to new territory.  But even with a solid base, there is a risk of “living small”, or staying isolated with just enough structure and support to keep going but with no ability to go on the offensive.  Keeping groups connected and working together can prevent this.

In the real-world this could apply to many situations, connecting groups across race and gender lines, connecting a variety of groups in the same city where struggles intersect such as class struggle and environmentalist groups targeting the same corporation, or connecting demands such as feminist groups endorsing labor struggles for shorter work hours and childcare benefits.

A Poor Man Must Pick Quarrels
One proverb that is especially interesting in light of the asymmetrical nature of our fight is “a rich man should not pick quarrels.”  The parallel is that if you are a poor man, then you should most certainly pick quarrels.  As you play a game, if you notice that you are well ahead of your opponent in territory, you will want to avoid complicated fights and instead solidify your gains.  Meanwhile, if you are behind and playing safe moves that solidify the status quo, you are bound to lose.  The only way you can win is to make bolder moves, attacking your opponents’ weaknesses in an effort to deny them the opportunity of solidifying their gains.

In Go, a handicap is used to balance games between players of differing ability.  The better player plays white and gives their opponent enough extra stones to compensate for the difference in ability.  Black starts out with stones already placed at the key points on the board.  They start out a rich man, and their job is to safely and simply hold onto everything they began the game with.  White, matching the asymmetry of our struggle, begins the game as a poor man who has no choice but to pick quarrels.

Unfortunately for us, while our struggle is asymmetrical, it is not because we are coming to the game with greater experience and natural ability than our adversary.  Still, in many ways, the powerful are slow to respond to new tactics.  Their strength is the stability of the system they control.  As marginal activists organizing from scratch, we are approaching an opponent who is firmly entrenched, seemingly in control of the whole board.  Our task is to disrupt that stability and expose weaknesses that give us further openings.

The game of Go is based on simple rules and is easy to learn, but as you play and improve your skill, it becomes a complex game with great depth of strategy.  As 21st century Go players, we have easy access to a wealth of information, built up from countless generations of players, each generation building on the accomplishments of previous generations and devising new patterns and styles of play.

Likewise, as anarchists we have much to learn from present and past struggles, though we often lack in objectively evaluating past strategies and devising new ones.  Go gives us an opportunity to look at strategy boiled down to its bare essence and to apply the lessons we learn to our revolutionary praxis.

The Go proverbs and strategies mentioned above are just a beginning.  In print and online, there exists a wide variety of resources on Go strategy, much of it useful for general strategic thinking.  We can combine these concepts with our practical experience and knowledge of historical struggles to gain insights for practical strategy.  As we improve as Go players, we will continue to develop a strategic intuition and a language and framework for analyzing real-world strategy.

Go: An Introduction – by Andreas Fecke
A comic providing a simple introduction to the game of Go: here
The Way to Go: How to play the Asian game of Go – by Karl Baker
A more thorough introduction to the game: here
A free 9×9 Go game – play against a computer: here
KGS Online Go Server – play against other people: here
Online Go problems: here
Go proverbs: here, here, here, here, and here

This guest post originally appeared at

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A podcast you'll want to listen to

Check this out: Julia Rios interviews Andrea Hairston about her Tiptree-winning novel Redwood and Wildfire (particularly about early cinema and the work done in early 20th-century film by people of color), Shira Lipkin about her poem "Changeling's Lament," and Cat Rambo about her story "Clockwork Fairies." She's an excellent interviewer, is Julia Rios. And Andrea, of course, is always enthralling and inspiring. Consider it a preview for WisCon...