Thursday, December 6, 2007

Speculating Gender: an Interview with Kelley Eskridge

by Jesse Vernon

The captivating stories in Kelley Eskridge’s Dangerous Space were my gateway into the wonderful world of Aqueduct Press. A good pal of mine, who works at Bailey-Coy Books in Seattle, handed me a copy and insisted I read it immediately. Being a former bookseller, the first place I glanced was the copyright page to discover the publisher. I was delightedly surprised to find that not only was the publisher local, but focused on feminist science fiction. I’ve been a feminist since I understood what that meant and an avid reader since the age of three but only newly converted to the worlds of sci-fi and even more recently to the genre of speculative fiction.

After re-emerging from this collection of literally personified cities, gender queering actors, and music that flows through your body and encircles your heart, I emailed L. Timmel Duchamp, one of the editors at Aqueduct. Though I had dabbled in editing throughout college and worked at a bookstore for a couple years after, I have only begun to come to terms with my need to be constantly surrounded by books. So I asked if could help out at all and here I am, the new editorial assistant at Aqueduct.

The following interview was conducted for the upcoming release of The Aqueduct Gazette. Throughout the many enthralling dimensions of Dangerous Space, the character Mars was particularly intriguing to me. Three of the seven stories in this collection are told from Mars’ point of view. They are tales of tangible desire, theatrical visions becoming real, tumbling bodies, and creative collaboration rife with tension and connection. After the individual publication of some of the Mars stories (most of them have been published individually, the oldest dating back to 1990), a peculiar thing started happening in reviews. Some reviewers used the pronoun “he” for Mars, while others used “she.” You see, Mars, being the first-person narrator, never uses a third-person pronoun as a self-reference. And none of the other characters explicitly say, “Mars, you are a man” or “Mars, you are a woman.” But very few people picked up on this fact until the publication of Dangerous Space, when Kelley began discussing this aspect of the stories in her publicity materials. So, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kelley over a pint and ask her some questions about gender as well as other experiences that had influenced her telling of these stories. The following is that conversation.


How has your own experience with gender/your gender identity influenced your writing? And conversely, how has the creative space of speculative fiction influenced your experience of gender (your own or others’) in everyday life?

I see them as an endless feedback process. So my response is a) not so much and b) completely. What I write comes from who I am, and to me almost everything is an issue of identity. It's why all my stories start with character and build out from there.

So, I’m intensely interested in notions of identity. But I don’t go through the world thinking of myself as a woman, or as white, or as 47, or as…I don’t know, fill in the blank. I think of myself as Kelley. I identify as a writer, and as Nicola’s partner, although I don’t necessarily identify myself as a lesbian.


In fact I don’t identify as a lesbian. I’m bisexual and that’s how I identify myself when I find it necessary, which is very rarely because who cares?


I believe, for writers or readers, fiction informs identity. We look for text that interests or challenges us, that we connect with in some particular way. We look for things that tell us stories about what we long to be or what we’re afraid to be.

My parents were activists in the south during the civil rights era, including helping black activists get out of Florida when things got a little too hot. So we always had people in and out of the house – black, white, gay, straight, rich, poor, people who owned slum tenant houses, and the people that lived in them, sometimes at the same party. I knew black men who spoke seven languages and white girls with dreadlocks who were always stoned out of their minds. So my notions of identity in general were pretty flexible.

All the stories that I loved as a child were stories specifically about girls who did transgressive things – things that girls in the 1960s in Florida certainly didn't do. Girls didn’t dress up as boys and take off across the English moors, or run around the neighborhood and spy on their neighbors. The whole list of things that girls didn’t do was a very long one. I loved those transgressive books. The first story I ever tried to write was about girls having adventures.

Gender is a completely real thing in the world. The world is gendered; culture has notions of gender that limit both men and women. The culture is very confused about differences between gender, sexual expression, biological identity, etc. I wish people well if they want to struggle with those distinctions, but I tend to take people as I find them. I hope I make fewer assumptions than I used to.

Because I had confused you with someone else that I had met, when we continued exchanging email and arranged this meeting, I had no idea whether you were a woman or a man because your name is gender neutral.

Yeah, I thought about that.

I imagined you both ways and I just thought, well, we’ll see. It’s not important for the purpose of the conversation. It’ll just be interesting to see who you are, and your biological identity will be a part of that.

Uh-huh. Context.

So, I had early exposure to the idea that identity is fluid and that, in fact, culture doesn’t determine identity. People can step outside the lines of what’s acceptable or what’s appropriate in their own culture. And when I started reading science-fiction and speculative fiction in particular, that was reinforced in many, many ways. Speculative fiction is the perfect territory for anybody who wants to explore the power of difference and it’s fertile ground for any writer who enjoys metaphor the way I do. I like to say that speculative fiction is the place where we can make metaphor concrete. I don’t have to be J.D. Salinger and write from the perspective of an alienated youth, I can write about real aliens if I want to. I can put the reader into the head of the alien or the head of the person who represents the norm, or I can even turn all those paradigms on their head.

I started seeing [authors doing this] – and I saw all kinds of [it], because I read everything: Heinlein, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Suzy Charnas, Vonda MacIntyre, Ursula Le Guin, the list goes on – and I thought, well this is amazing. It made me understand that in the same way it was possible, although not always easy, to step outside the boundaries of cultural identity, it was also possible, although not necessarily easy, to step outside the boundaries of "literature" [said with a British accent].


I was at dinner recently with some friends, one of whom had read Dangerous Space and one of whom had not. And the person who had not read the collection couldn’t understand the fact that Mars is not gendered as a character. And said to me “But…but…but…whether someone’s male or female is the first thing we notice. The first thing we ask about a baby is, you know, is it a boy or a girl. And if you’re going to meet someone you want to know, if you can’t tell from the name, is it a man or woman. How can you possibly create a setting or a situation in which none of those cues…where people don’t talk to someone as if they’re a man or a woman? When it's so important! How can you do that?!” [This person was] pounding on the table and I finally got a little irritated and said, “This is speculative fiction – I can do whatever I want.”

Exactly! (laughing) That's great. It's perfect.

And then we changed the subject…

These things go deep.

They do go deep. I understand that there are folk in the world who walk around with biology and gender so closely intertwined for them that they are inseparable. I know it’s true, but I don’t get it. I don’t have a hard time imagining a fictional character doing that, but I certainly have a hard time imagining me doing it. And I have a lot of behavior and presentation that people will regard as gendered – my hair is colored, my body is waxed, I wear make-up when I go out for nice dinners. I do that stuff. And I’ve also been through significant periods in my life where I did none of those things – I had very short hair and wore big boots and had my labrys and shocked the hell out of everybody in Atlanta with my hairy legs. But I didn’t do that to shock them and I don’t do this to pass. I do what I want. I do what feels good to me and what I think best expresses me. So I don’t have a problem with people having a gender or expressing gender along expectation lines. I think people should do what they want and be who they are.

That's one of the biggest myths about feminism, which I've never understood – that feminism calls for androgyny or that feminism is against any gender expression. I've never understood that misconception. It's about choice.

Exactly. It's about informed choice.

Yes, exactly.

You’ve said elsewhere that some readers view Mars as a puzzle to solve, as if somewhere, hidden within mannerisms and conversations, is an authentic gender identity. You’ve responded saying,

By refusing to create a gender context for Mars, and by doing my best to remove any cues in the story that support assumptions about Mars' gender, I was trying to create a character whose experience any reader might be willing to access. It's too easy for people who subscribe to expected gender norms to then use gender as a way of denying that a certain experience is possible to them.*

Will you explain more of this process? Are there many subconscious cues that you find yourself including when writing a gendered character? Intentional cues that you add later to gender a character? Like, when you wrote Mars, did you need to later go back and take things out that might gender Mars? What was that process?

I’m hearing it as a two-part question, so let me answer the first part first.


The conversation with my friend at dinner brought home for me in a very real way how much we – the cultural ‘we’, the generic ‘we’ as readers – want to hang labels on characters. We want to codify a character so that we understand how to respond to that person, so that we understand whether that person is being appropriate or inappropriate, if they’re being a rebel or if they’re going right along the party line, etc. And I get that. That’s what we do. Human beings make assumptions about the world in order to get through the day. But it's too easy for people to conflate cultural expectation and human possibility.

I believe no emotional experience or human intention is denied to anyone because biologically they’re female. I probably will never have a morning erection, but that’s a biological experience that’s hard-wired into the body, the same way that most men will never have the experience of menstruation. (I say “most” because I like to leave a little door open…) My ability to be human isn't compromised by my chromosomal make-up. I don’t think anybody's is.

I had an experience when I was in my twenties and living in Chicago. A man I worked with asked, “What are you doing for your vacation?” and I said, “Well, I’m going to drive to Florida to see my mom.” He said, “You can’t do that.” I just didn’t understand. I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You can’t do that, it’s dangerous.”

So I said, “Of course I can,” and he said, “No, you can’t,” and I finally just had to say, “Watch me” and get in my car and drive to Florida. This was one of my first direct encounters with the idea that somehow because women didn’t do ‘x’ that I was literally incapable of doing it.

I had another of these conflation experiences with a very lovely, very religious, straight woman who told me that she had gotten to grips with the fact that my partner was a woman, and didn't hold it against me, but she was so sorry that I could never have children. And I said, “Well, thanks, and you rock, but this part of my body works fine. If I want to have children there are many ways in which I can.” And I could literally see her brain rearranging itself – because for her it was an absolute truth that if there was no man involved in a romantic way, then I couldn’t have children.

So, my process with Mars is to not get into those kinds of conversations. I create a context where people are accepted for their skill or talent, for fitting in to the world in which they find themselves. They're not accepted because they conform to cultural expectations of men and women, per se, but because they meet the cultural expectation of Can you do your job? Can you hold your own? Can you be with us? That’s how I’ve always approached my own personal experience, so being able to do it for Mars is a joy – to find the reality in which it really doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time having gender-norming conversations.

Honestly, the hardest part of writing Mars is when there’s any kind of sex involved. And mostly that’s just a question of not naming body parts: of focusing on emotional responses to sex, or finding the ways of describing the physical experience that don’t turn into gendered cues. So we don’t talk about breasts, we don’t talk about penises.

I really believe that human experience is possible to everybody. If a human being does something, it’s a human thing to do and it’s possible to any of us. It just is. I resist notions of norming, that there’s this group of us who are normal and then there are all these other people who aren’t. The human pond is big, and I think it ought to be. I think that we’re all swimming together here. And that’s the pond I’m trying to swim in with Mars – the human pond, where the point is “What kind of person, what kind of human being does it take to have the experiences that create this story?”

And it doesn’t matter what kind of body the character is wearing. We all live in our bodies, absolutely, but the big moments in life – love, death, sex, joy, fear, loss, being given everything you’ve ever wanted – those moments of feeling too big for the world or feeling too small for the world – those are all human moments. And it doesn’t matter whether we are a boy or a girl. Everybody feels those things.

So writing Mars is not that hard to do. I appreciate when reviewers talk about the skill or the difficulty, but for me it’s really not that hard. It’s just a question of balancing. In “Dangerous Space” in particular, which is the longest of the Mars stories, I made a very deliberate effort to balance anything that might lead people down a gendered path. So, for example, Mars is introduced as a sound engineer. That’s a typically male profession. But at the same time that we learn this about Mars, we also see Mars being attracted to a man on the stage...a rock-and-roll singer, so everybody assumes a boy/girl dynamic and now maybe Mars is a woman. Except then we see Duncan Black [the rock star] kissing a man as well as a woman, so now who the hell knows what’s going on? Mars is a character who ends up against a wall with a man’s hand in his or her pants at one point, and has a bar fight at another. So now do you hang a male tag or a female tag on this person, based on your own experience of the world? Based on my experience of the world, I can see it going either way. That’s really how it is for me.

And it’s not a game. It’s not a game. There is no right answer except that Mars is human. And hopefully anybody who is adventurous can slip into Mars’ skin for the duration of the story and just feel what it’s like to go there.

Yeah, that was, in some ways, the experience that I had reading these stories. And now I'm understanding it a lot more because it's not necessarily absence of markers, it's balance...or this amazing...I can't quite figure out the word. This wonderful confusion. Confusion without any negative connotation. Like this great freedom of humanity.

It's absolute freedom.

Because it's that back-and-forth, back-and-forth and if you keep searching for [gender markers], then you find that you have to step away and just experience [the story] and not be like [making air tally marks] tally, tally, tally.

If people are consciously searching for cues throughout the story, then either the reader is really not the right reader for my work, or I haven't done a good enough job as a writer. The reader ought to be pulled right into the story and go there with Mars. And based on how the reader is choosing to read Mars, at some point they’ll come up against a place in the story where they go, “Whoa...whoa, okaaay.” But hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, they’ll just go with it because they are already connected to Mars on an emotional level, a human level, that has very little to do with, “Well, a boy wouldn’t do this” or “A girl wouldn’t do that.”

What other kinds of feedback have you received about the perceived gender (or lack thereof) of Mars?

People simply read the character however they want, as male or female. And proceed from there to look at the more obvious explorations of gender or contravening of gender convention. In the first Mars story [“And Salome Danced”], the antagonist literally changes gender in the beginning of the story, so reviewers focused on that and were interested in the fact that no political point was made about it. In “Eye of the Storm,” Mars is part of a group of four people who are all fighters, men and women who sexually pair off with each other in whatever combination they happen to. The assumption in the world-building is that this is common; nobody makes any remark about it. Feedback often focuses on that, and also on the coupling of sexual expression with violence and aggression – which I think is why most people assume that Mars is a man in that story. As if a woman is incapable of being violent and finding violence sexually exciting. Go figure.

I want my stories to be emotional experiences for people. I want them to fall in love with the characters and care about what happens to them. I would love nothing better than to have readers leave the Mars stories with a sense that some space inside them is opened up a little bit more. Something that says, “Well, okay, if I’m a woman reading this story and Mars is a woman, what does that mean for me? If I’m a man reading this story and Mars is a man, what does that mean for me? How could I bring that character into my world and into my identity?” I would like nothing better than to touch people that way.

How has creating Mars affected the way that you gender the rest of your characters?

I’m not really sure that it has. Mars is the only character with whom I consciously check for gender cues. I’m very happy writing about characters who have gender identities and who are gendered in their behaviors in ways that are appropriate, or not, to their biological sex or class or race or age.

We’re skirting the edges now of a question that Timmi [L. Timmel Duchamp] asked me. I’m paraphrasing now, probably reducing it a little bit more than she would, but it's the question of whether or not a writer writes in a gendered voice. She talked about quotes from both [Joanna] Russ and [James] Tiptree[, Jr.] which had to do with writing more truthfully by finding a “male” voice, given the time and place in which they were writing, and who they were as people. Timmi asked about my response to that. And my response is that I acknowledge that gender has a huge influence on the way that we respond to each other. Gender expectations and the choice to conform or not to conform to those expectations is a decision that affects everyone who makes it in one way or another.

But, having said all that, it’s not important to me as an "issue." I don’t write about issues or themes. I don’t write about gender. I don’t write about politics. I write about people. Everything to me is character and that character’s human experience in the world. If that experience is gendered, then that’s what I write, but I’m not interested in educating anybody about anything. I will leave that to people who are better equipped to do it. I find theme fiction uninteresting to read, and I don’t write it because I don’t know how to shape a character to the needs of cultural debate. I do know how to articulate the layers of debate that go on within our private selves. That’s what I do.

I don’t worry about gender role of characters being correct or incorrect. I don’t feel a lot of responsibility or compunction to explain why character are or are not acting "masculine" or "feminine," and I don’t feel any need to apologize. As long as it’s understandable in the context of what the character is experiencing, then it should work. And if it doesn’t, then that’s my failure as a writer.

The next fiction project that I’m working on, probably my project for next year, will probably be a young adult novel.


Those years are so much about identity and fluidity. And worrying, of course, about what’s appropriate because that’s a huge time of being subjected to peer pressure. And at the same time, it’s also understood that in high school there will always be people who fall outside of what’s expected. You have the example of difference all around, people trying on different sets of images. I’m interested in exploring that in ways that are both very gendered and very much not gendered.

Wow, that sounds really exciting. I love young-adult novels.

I'm really excited about it.

Have you ever heard of Born Confused?


It's a really good young adult novel by Tanuja Desai Hidier. It's about an Indian-American girl that grows up in northern New York state and her best friend is this skinny beautiful white girl – it's all about growing up and dealing with her family and different cultures. It's amazing. The epigraph is by Nietzsche. It's a really rich young-adult novel. It was one of my favorite books to recommend [while working at a bookstore].

I love young adult novels; I've been reading a huge amount of them. There's a novel called Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson…

I remember seeing the cover.

An amazing book about – and I'm not really spoiling it because it becomes pretty clear early on – a girl coming into high school who has been raped at a party and can't talk about it. She doesn't know how speak about it. Now there's a gendered experience. Anderson does an amazing job of writing a girl's story, and at the same time she's anybody. I have to believe that any man who loves character-based fiction who read Speak would identify with the experience of being hurt in a way that he couldn't talk about – because it was too unexpected or frightening and it turned the world inside-out.

It goes right back to what you were saying earlier about what it means to be human. That's exciting. ::sigh:: I just want to read all the time.

So, going back to the idea of conflations: many people tend to conflate sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation – i.e., a biological male will necessarily identify as a man and will necessarily be ‘masculine’ and therefore attracted to women. Your characters tend to challenge these assumptions across various lines of identity. Can you talk more about encountering these assumptions (in readers and perhaps yourself) and what it’s like to play with those boundaries?

Boy, it's a big question.

Some of us like to live out on the edge, but most of us, I think, like to operate from our zones of comfort, and categorization of other humans is a very comfortable thing to do because then we know how we’re supposed to behave with them.

I found pretty early on in my own life that I got tired of people making assumptions. I got tired of people assuming that because I didn’t have a boyfriend, I was a lesbian. I got tired of my lesbian friends assuming that because I didn’t have a girlfriend, I was straight. I spent a lot of time alone before I met Nicola, so I got very tired of people assuming that I must feel lonely. Sometimes I was, and sometimes I really wasn’t. I found out that making assumptions about what people will or won’t do with their feelings or their bodies is pretty much a fool’s game. It really is. Because we never know. If we’re open at all to the world, we just don’t know what we’ll do. It’s nice to have rules and feel safe and to have a sandbox within which we play, but I’ve learned that most of those limitations are self-imposed. If one were going to characterize my life, one way to characterize it would be that I have crossed categories in so many ways. I’ve jumped [economic] class. I’ve been identified as straight, as lesbian, as bisexual. I like to drink beer in pubs and very expensive wine. I travel well between various cultural groups – I’m good at picking up cues, and at participating as fully as I can within different cultures. And because that’s been my personal experience, I tend to write about people who do that. Because I think it’s fun.

So what’s it like to blur those boundaries? It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s freeing. It feels naughty sometimes. It feels transgressive. And I like being transgressive. And I don’t do it for its own sake, but if I can be myself and raise someone's eyebrow, that’s fine with me. I enjoy confounding people’s expectations. And I hope I’m enough of a grown-up that I won’t just do it for its own sake, but I also hope I’m enough of a grown-up to say, “Yes, this is who I am right now. This is what it is.” And to no longer feel compelled to apologize. And so I’m having enormous fun with my fiction – to cross boundaries, to push back on assumptions.

I’m writing a commercial script right now, and Hollywood’s very, very, very antediluvian about these things. It’s just astonishing to me, actually. I’m working very closely with a producer who I really like. We have an intense creative relationship, and I’ve learned so much from him. He, and the people who read for him and give him feedback, have some very serious notions about what men do and what women do, especially in the movies. It's been interesting to push back on these boundaries with him, and the thing I like about him is that he listens.

An example of this is: I wrote a scene in which a woman is arguing with her boyfriend, trying to make a point that’s important to her, a point of identity, a point of self. The feedback I got from my producer was, “Well, the readers think she’s awfully tough and aggressive, and he seems a little weak. So maybe we can have him have the last word or tell her strongly to calm down.” And I said, “Okay, let me just make sure that I understand correctly. You’re saying that it’s okay for him to yell at her, but it’s not okay for her to yell at him?” There’s was a silence on the phone, and he said, “Huh, point taken. Never mind.” And off we went to the next thing.

That's great. That's a good producer.

It is great and it's why I like working with him.

I wasn’t writing a scene where a woman was being aggressive, I was writing a scene where a person was pissed off at another person. And then here come these assumptions about gender… I thought, okay, I’m not going to have the gender argument. I’m not going to say, “A woman can do anything she wants.” I’m going to say, “Are you telling me that it’s okay for one human being to do something but not another? Because you’re going to have to help me understand why this is the case.”

I like that approach. It seems that initially he or the readers saw it as you being the one that gendered [the situation]. And to pull that back on him, ya know?

Exactly. I'm sure they think I'm this right-on lesbian feminist writer pounding the table… I've tried to explain over and over again that I have no agenda about this. I need the character to be strong because she's the hero of the movie. She needs to act like a hero. Another one of my arguments when we get into these conversations is to say, “Okay if this were Tom Cruise in this role, wouldn't you expect him to do something like this? So why can't this character do it if she's the hero?”

I’m just not interested in fighting for “the cause.” I would rather model the behavior.

It sounds like everything that you do is really grounded in experience – personal experience and, more generally, human experience.

Personal experience is the wellspring of identity. I grew up relatively poor. I grew up as an only child. I grew up in a house where all different kinds of people were welcome based on who they were as people, how they behaved, what they did, what they brought with them, and it wasn’t about anything else. I learned pretty early on about the effects of racism because the little girl whose grandmother lived across the street suddenly wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore because there were black people in my house. It wasn’t the same kind of experience for me as it was for the black people, but it was my doorway into the experience. And it was the beginning of the opening up of my imagination as to, “Well, okay, so what must it be like for these people?”

But I really do have a horror of the co-mingling of art and politics. A lot of people do it and they do it very successfully, but it’s not part of my process at all. I think that conscious theme is the death of good fiction and good music and good art. But that’s just me. Mileage varies hugely in this regard.

My work is for me. The things that I want to explore and express are about freedom. I want to take a reader, metaphorically, by the shirt, pull them up close and say, “Imagine…imagine a world where it wasn’t about who was normal and who wasn’t, it was about the spectrum of experience – here’s one experience of love, here's a different one, and here's something else….” If we can find doorways into all those different experiences because they are all human experiences, maybe at the end of the day we can sit down and think, “Holy shit, those people are so different from me and, you know what? I get them. I am not them, but I get them.” Or even, “I don’t get it but at least I see what is. I don’t get it but, wow, isn’t that an interesting way to be human?” Even if there’s just that amount of connection… and so I’m not about polarizing. I’m not about the lens of harsh reality. I think there’s enough harsh reality in the world. I’d rather just look at human experiences: how are they congruent, how do they flow together, how can I relate to that?

There is a place in our world, a need in our world for people who make the argument on a global scale, who fight for the cause, who proselytize, who take the issue out to the people, and god bless those people. Actually, I don’t believe in god so I shouldn’t say that. Bless those people. But I’m not one of them. My way is through relationship and personal experience, through making connections with people and asking them to re-imagine the things that they do.

Have I answered your question?

Oh, yes.


For more information about Kelley Eskridge, check out her website. To purchase Dangerous Space, go here.

*Kelley Eskridge, “Identity and Desire,” Women of Other Worlds: Excursions Through Science Fiction and Feminism, ed. Helen Merrick and Tess Williams (Australia: University of Western Australia Press, 1999),


Anonymous said...



steadycat said...

The story and the character sounds exciting. Thanks, Kelley.

Kelley Eskridge said...

Thank you. Mars is certainly exciting to write, and I hope exciting to read as well.