Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Women and SF Reloaded

Once again I am using one post on two blogs to save time and energy, so I can get some fiction writing done. This comes from my personal blog...

delagar notes in the comments to my previous post on women and SF that it's common to find almost no women in the big name SF magazines; and it's common to find anthologies with 27 men and 3 women. I always count the women vs the men in Best of the Year anthologies, and the women are always a minority.

So I agree. But I also notice that I am more likely to read women than men SF writers. I currently have Andrea Hairston's novel and Nalo Hopkinson's new book and feel as if it's my birthday. So many goodies!

When I moved the last time, I went through my books and got rid of books I didn't want to pack and unpack. There are now no male SF writers left except Delany, Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain M. Banks and one book by Avram Davidson.

I wonder if it's possible that SF may divide the way mysteries have. "Cosies" (mysteries in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers) are mostly read by women. Thrillers are mostly read by men. Obviously, some mysteries have a mixed audience. But I have noticed that I tend to read mysteries by women writers; and I avoid anything that looks like a thriller. I suspect it will be full of pointless violence, most likely directed toward women. Who needs that crap? At one point, the Star Tribune had two mystery reviewers, because the audiences were so different. And I suspect the woman reviewer didn't want to read thrillers; and the male reviewer didn't want to read cosies.

There are some fine and intelligent male SF writers, but too much SF by men strikes me as obsessed with hardware or violence or intellectual games; and too much of it does not seem to deal with the big and real issues that humanity faces.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Stepping through the Looking Glass

Now this is scary: finding myself agreeing with conservatives like Bruce Fein and Richard Viguerie (of all people) about important issues. Yesterday John Nichols noted in his blog at the Nation that

The Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch and MoveOn.org have launched a vital campaign to put restoration of the Constitution on the agenda for Democratic presidential candidates -- just as the conservative American Freedom Agenda movement has done for Republican candidates.

Fein, Viguerie, and other prominent Republicans worried about Bush/Cheney’s expansion of executive power are asking Republican presidential candidates to take a very specific pledge to restore the Constitution:

* Prohibit military commissions whose verdicts are suspect except in places of active hostilities where a battlefield tribunal is necessary to obtain fresh testimony or to prevent anarchy;

* Prohibit the use of secret evidence or evidence obtained by torture or coercion in military or civilian tribunals;

* Prohibit the detention of American citizens as unlawful enemy combatants without proof of criminal activity on the President's say-so;

* Restore habeas corpus for alleged alien enemy combatants, i.e., non-citizens who have allegedly participated in active hostilities against the United States, to protect the innocent;

* Prohibit the National Security Agency from intercepting phone conversations or emails or breaking and entering homes on the President's say-so in violation of federal law;

* Empower the House of Representatives and the Senate collectively to challenge in the Supreme Court the constitutionality of signing statements that declare the intent of the President to disregard duly enacted provisions of bills he has signed into law because he maintains they are unconstitutional;

* Prohibit the executive from invoking the state secrets privilege to deny justice to victims of constitutional violations perpetrated by government officers or agents; and, establish legislative-executive committees in the House and Senate to adjudicate the withholding of information from Congress based on executive privilege that obstructs oversight and government in the sunshine;

* Prohibit the President from kidnapping, detaining, and torturing persons abroad in collaboration with foreign governments;

* Amend the Espionage Act to permit journalists to report on classified national security matters without fear of prosecution; and;

* Prohibit the listing of individuals or organizations with a presence in the United States as global terrorists or global terrorist organizations based on secret evidence.

The CCR, HRW, and Moveon.org are asking Democratic candidates take a more general pledge. As far as I’m able to tell, none of the candidates of either party would be willing to take the specific pledge (since it would mean opposing policies and practices they at least tacitly support).

Federal officials in the US are required to take an oath promising to uphold the Constitution; but for all intents and purposes, that oath has become virtually meaningless. I seem to recall reading that at least one of the White House staff under scrutiny recently in the Justice Department scandals remarked that staff take an oath to faithfully serve the president, not the Constitution, which rather surprised me. I wonder if that's always been the case, or if it's another innovation by the Bush Administration...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Call for Ideas and Materials

Were you at WisCon this year? Was there a particular panel, discussion, or speaker that especially fired your imagination? If so, Aqueduct Press, publisher of The WisCon Chronicles, would like to hear from you.

We are seeking suggestions and submissions for volume two of the series, which will deal with WisCon 31 (2007). We want this volume to continue and extend the discussions that took place at the panels.

So far, we are considering articles that derive from the following panels:

The Future of Feminism: How does feminism need to change? Is it time for a reassessment of what feminism means? How can we take more action? Some people attending the panel felt that it was too much about white, middle-class, middle-aged feminists worrying about passing the torch to the younger generation. How would our thinking change if we looked forward to the issues likely to challenge us in the near and middle future, or if we looked laterally to the organizational strategies and tactics of the many feminist movements that are so vibrant and active in the third world today? As readers and writers and critics of feminist sf, surely we can expand our view of what feminism could be in the future!

The Romance of Revolution: This panel was rife with controversy. When a person of color in the audience asked the panelists to include examples of non-American, non-European revolutions, one of the members of the all-white panel said he “liked the Pol Pot revolution” and suggested that you can’t “retrain” people and thus have to “start from scratch” if you want to change a society. He later said that he wanted to make a point about the dangers of “utopian aspirations.” In addition, some audience members were outraged when another panelist asserted that the Indian Revolution was successful only because the US pulled Britain’s loans after WWII. This question remains: why in sf circles is the romance of revolution always so white, when in real life, postcolonial revolutions are so common? For more about this, see two posts at Ambling along the Aqueduct: http://aqueductpress.blogspot.com/2007/05/post-wiscon-report.html and http://aqueductpress.blogspot.com/2007/06/more-thoughts-on-romance-of-revolution.html

Unfair to Middle-class White Guys: This was a discussion that quickly moved beyond its satiric but misleading title to address issues of increasing racial, cultural, and gender-based diversity in the field. Can editors transcend their own cultural limitations to publish works that appeal to the diverse world of science fiction readers? Are the ones who can’t doomed? Or is it the genre itself that will end as bleached bones kicked to the roadside of literature?

What if You Don’t Want to Have Kids: Is not wanting kids the last feminist taboo? For more about this, see the discussion on Ambling along the Aqueduct .

If you were on or attended one of these panels and would like to participateto offer ideas or to submit an essayplease get in touch with us. Don’t be shy. We may want you, and we don’t necessarily have your email.

If you were blown away by a WisCon panel that we haven’t mentioned and would like to see its ideas expanded upon in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 2, please let us know. Tell us the name of the panel, which participants (including audience members) most engaged you, and what was valuable to you about the discussion. If you’re interested in writing an essay on the topic or contributing to the book in some other way, please mention that as well.

Please respond with ideas and suggestions by September 1, 2007. We will follow up with a request for submission of articles and essays on the topics we choose. To receive a list of topics (to be announced September 10), please send a request to wiscon-chronicles@aqueductpress.com.

Since the editors will be choosing specific topics to be considered, please query before writing an article. If you want to submit an article or essay, please send a proposal by October 1, 2007. (The earlier the better.) The deadline for the submission of finished essays is November 1, 2007. We’re looking for essays of 1000-5000 words. Payment will be nominal.

Email or postal submissions/responses are both acceptable.

Send email to wiscon-chronicles@aqueductpress.com.

Send postal mail to PO Box 95787, Seattle WA 98145-2787.


L. Timmel Duchamp
Eileen Gunn
The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 2

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Brilliant Post on The Angry Black Woman Blog

Nojojojo, who writes science fiction and fantasy under the byline N. K. Jemisin, is guest blogging at the Angry Black Woman blog. (Readers may be interested to know that Nora has a story in the all female-authored issue of Helix that I wrote about a few days ago.)

Nora writes about the recent supreme court blows against desegregation. She looks at segregation through a lens rarely discussed.

The bulk of my reaction is this: fuck it. Just let all the schools in the US re-segregate. Black students did better academically before integration anyway. It’s a lot easier to achieve when you’re not bombarded with negative cultural messages and social isolation if you do well. When I was in elementary school, I knew a few black and Latina kids who tested into the gifted program around the same time that I did. Most turned it down. I couldn’t understand why — until the day I walked into my first gifted class and realized I was one of only two people of color there. (There weren’t even any Asians; this was Alabama, remember. Though I hear a good-sized Asian population has developed down there in the twenty years since.) The next year I was the only one; the other kid dropped out. I stayed and did fine — academically, at least. Socially… well, there were consequences. My decision to stay in the gifted program branded me a sellout, because I didn’t do what the other kids had done. I was accused of “trying to be white” and worse. I had no black friends until late middle school. Some of the white kids were friendly, but it was a superficial kind of thing — there were certain things we just couldn’t talk about, and there was some inherent objectification that came with being “the black friend”. I got a lot of “Can I touch your hair?” and “Wow, I didn’t realize black people like to read!” Even for the handful who might’ve become true friends, their parents weren’t all that happy when they brought me home (to be fair, neither was my mother, when I brought white friends home). So while I did well in middle and high school, I often wonder how much better I could’ve done if I hadn’t been a treated like a freakish aberration.

Nora adds that she's not "seriously advocating an end to integration. Too many people, black and allies, have shed too much blood to get this far. And there’s lots of evidence to show that Tatum’s model of education does work — I wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. It just takes time, money, and persistence."

Still, like most things, the effects of racialization and segregation are more complicated than they appear at first glance. Nora refers extensively to Beverly Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? as she examines how the formation of race identity interacts with segregated, and unsegregated, environments. Tatum starts with the notion that "all Americans go through predictable patterns of awareness and internalization about race." Nora draws on Tatum's structural support, and moves to talking about her own experiences in education.

[At the end of the predictable pattern of awareness and internalization abotu race, is people] “becoming black”, “becoming white”... the pattern of development is relatively similar in whites vs peole of color — for example, both start out in a state of racial unawareness. For white people this is a general sense of racelessness — not so much being willfully “colorblind” as simply not noticing people of color as anything other than background noise. For black people (and Tatum does spend some time on Hispanics, Natives, recent immigrants, and Asians, but her expertise is clearly with African-American non-recent-immigrants), the initial state is called pre-encounter — they’re aware of race because it’s impossible to not notice if you’re black in this society, but they haven’t yet experienced any of the consequences of being black...

The breakdown of the “racially unaware” state for both whites and PoC is usually some kind of triggering event — a sudden, undeniable confrontation with the inequities of race. For PoC, this is usually their first encounter with racism. By the time black kids get to high school, they’re usually in another phase of identity development — immersion, in which they feel compelled to band together with others of their culture in order to survive an environment newly understood to be hostile. This small group then begins developing a collective sense of identity about what it means to be black. This group sense serves as a kind of protective shield until the individual is ready to develop his/her own personal definition of blackness. After that the group definition can safely be shed.

Tatum confronts the unspoken assumption of the “Why are all the black kids sitting together” question, which is “…and what can we do about this problem?” She explains that it isn’t a problem; that after being slapped in the face with the trauma of racism, kids of color need support to recover from that trauma, and the best people to help them do that is other kids who are going through the same thing. This way, they can reject the wrongness of racism and develop needed defenses against it, such as a stronger understanding of their own culture and its benefits. Because most white kids haven’t yet progressed beyond the raceless stage at this point — they typically don’t until closer to college — they’re no help even if they mean well, because their natural reaction is to dismiss or downgrade the traumatic experience (”Are you sure it was because you were black?” or “But I’ve eaten there all the time, and they’ve always been nice to me…” and so on). So the black kids seek solace from each other.

But here’s the thing. Immersion is, in its own way, incredibly superficial. Kids in immersion have no real clue how to be black; they’ve been whacked with a societal interpretation of blackness as “bad”, but they’re not yet sure how to counter that interpretation. So they cobble together their own definition of blackness, drawing on what they know and what society tells them about themselves. If they’ve been exposed to positive knowledge about their culture, they embrace positive manifestations as the norm. But when they’re bombarded with stereotypes and negativity about their culture, they end up embracing that as their standard. This is what I fell afoul of as a child — the kids around me had absorbed the racist notion that black people weren’t smart, were lazy, didn’t “talk proper”, etc. Because I rejected this, I was deemed insufficiently black.

I saw a different example of immersion when I went to college. Tulane was a predominantly white school, but it had a large (for a white school) black population, mostly because New Orleans was majority black and the school accepted a lot of bright local kids. Apparently that population reached a kind of critical mass, because the instant all of us stepped on the yard it was like some kind of racial Singularity — we were somehow all drawn together into a weird gestalt consciousness. There was a series of benches in front of the student center, and this one corner bench suddenly became “the black bench”. Everyone knew it and gathered there between classes. In the cafeteria — yeah, it happened in college too — one black person couldn’t just sit by herself. It was as if her solitude triggered some kind of disturbance in the Force; suddenly a dozen other black people would just appear and come sit with her. One time I was walking through the experimental psych building, humming “Summertime” by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and I heard the same humming from the labs on either side of me, and two other black students poked their heads out and said something like, “Whoa, I was just thinking of that song.” And they became my study partners.

When I was reading this, I tried to understand what Nora was saying by analogizing through the imperfect tool of my experience. I'm a non-practicing Jew who is ethnically Ashkenazic on my mother's side. Culturally, I'm distant from any religious practice of Judaism -- my grandfather was raised as an orthodox Jew, but became an atheist as a young man.

Still, I found that many of my friends when I was growing up were Jewish-derived, like me. Most of them were atheists, or Jews who practiced a reform variant of the religion. We (especially me) were isolated from the history of what it meant to be Jewish, and were left with certain tatters that we'd picked up from our parents, or from media stereotypes. What we created out of those experiences were remarkably similar. We saw ourselves as intelligent, academically oriented, interested in high art and culture, well-read, unathletic, calm and rational.

As Jewish children, we were able to create these good stereotypes for ourselves because it's what we saw of ourselves reflected back at us. Jews were brainy, but not brawny. We didn't get much of the penny-pinching thing, but most of us were from upper-middle class backgrounds.

In college, I found a mirror of this, except that the stakes now included some level of support for Israel (at least in my social group). I went to two colleges with large Jewish populations. In one, I found a group of Jewish friends who later ended up forming a pro-Israel group (I left the college before the group was formally begun, but later learned that it became quite extremist). In the other, I sought out a pre-existing group and went to work for the Jewish newspaper (which I eventually left due to its extremist position).

These cultures were something of a respite for me, particularly as a child, because I didn't cope well with mainstream expectations of what children were supposed to be. I preferred books to running around, and was more interested in theater than pop music (which I've never gotten into) or the kinds of television my peers were watching. I was permanently lost on the concept of fashion, and tended to be yelled at for using large vocabulary words which were presumed to be curse words. Also, I was fat, and this study rings very true to me.

I wonder what kind of culture fat children would make for themselves. Would they segregate by gender? How would they reflect back the negative stereotypes of the media? Would they become consciously gross? Would they eat the way that the media suggests they do? Would the heterosexual boys act like Chris Farley while the gay boys and most of the girls traded tips on how to get away with bulimia or extreme diet plans?

And how would that culture evolve in college? I have no idea.

OK, that's just where I go when I play with these concepts of grouping. To return to Nora's brilliant essay:

Tatum makes the point that what I experienced at Tulane is common in HBCUs like Spelman, and in other environments in which a sufficiently large population of black students come together and are encouraged to positively express their blackness. This kind of thing used to be common, in fact, before integration. Once upon a time, academic achievement was as much a cultural ethic in the black community as it still is in the Jewish and some Asian communities. (Note that this hasn’t faded in more recent African immigrant communities, either.) It’s the sense of community that’s key. Many Asian communities seem to achieve this through the reinforcement of the extended family; many Jewish communities do the same, plus stuff like Hebrew school. But when integration ended, black communities fragmented; we stopped living in black neighborhoods, stopped patronizing black businesses. Black families, already fragile, fragmented as well, for a whole other set of reasons that’s a different rant for a different day. But perhaps the greatest loss was black schools, because that meant a whole generation of black children — my generation, and the ones just before and just after — grew up with no clear sense of who they were or what they were capable of.

Which is a tragedy, particularly since the model replacing it (integration) hasn't been allowed to flourish long enough for its benefits to really take hold. The supreme court decision is a particular insult to Nora's generation, who had to sacrifice the positive tools that were already in place in hope of something better. They and their parents gave up something important, but the primarily white folks who sit on the supreme court decided the rest of us white folk were sick of doing our part.

I urge you to read the whole of Nora's essay. And add The Angry Black Woman to your daily reading too, if you haven't. Their entries are always thought-provoking -- and often funny or beautiful, too.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Samuel R. Delany's Clarion West Reading

Tonight I had the pleasure of listening to Samuel R. Delany read from his new novel, Dark Reflections, at the Science Fiction Museum, the last of this year’s Clarion readings. The auditorium was packed to near-capacity with respectful devotees, and that heartened me, considering just how small turnouts to literary events can be here in Seattle. Before he began his reading, Therese Littleton presented him with a “glass brick” etched with his image, in honor of his membership in the Museum’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame. The image sat on the podium as he read, from my perspective looking like a static white miniature of his head (complete with wild beard) just below the real thing. He did not really notice the image before him until after he’d finished reading and put his glasses back on and announced he would be fielding questions. Then, before answering the first question, he frowned at it and said that he couldn’t talk with that thing looking at himand reversed it, so that the image now looked out at the audience.

Delany read four short selections from the first and third parts of the novel. The first selection was an exquisite extended image of (black gay poet) Arnold Hawley at sixty walking through in a shower of dogwood petals. The next selection recounted Arnold Hawley’s first fraught encounter with Bo’muh and the third selection Arnold’s telephone conversation with his Aunt Bea, hinging on the question, “Aunt Bea, do you know anything about sex?”; Delany’s rendition of these two passages made me shake with silent laughter. In the fourth selection, Arnold, now sixty-eight, walks in the fog on wet pavement and realizes that he’s wearing shoes with a crack in the right sole.

I can’t recall a reading flying by as swiftly as this one did. The genial warmth and humor Delany puts into his voice when reading narrative, the perfection in his portrayal of speech in dialogue, held me raptthough I, of course, knew how the story turns out! (During the Q&A someone asked him about that, and I was delighted to see him hold up a copy of the book and suggest she shouldn’t have much trouble finding one for herself.) Interestingly, Delany remarked before he began reading that one of his reasons for writing this particular book was his wish to show the creative writing students he teaches what the life dedicated to writing is actually like.

Some of the questions during the Q&A were predictable, though since Delany doesn’t give the same canned responses at every reading, the whole of the Q&A kept my interest. Here are a few of the dozen or so he fielded (questions and answers both paraphrased, not verbatim):

Did “sci-fi” have an influence on how you wrote Dark Reflections?

Science fiction, Delany replied, focuses on and analyzes the object. He noted that he brought an analysis of the object to bear in places in Dark Reflections and suggested that that is the kind of analysis that is native to science fiction.

What does science fiction do best that other fiction can’t do?

Science fiction, Delany replied, critiques the object, shows it in a different focus, distorts it, and by doing that teaches us about it. His answer was more expansive and elaborate, but that was the gist.

Why calloused feet and bitten fingernails?

This was a non-question, and was thus to my mind obnoxious. Delany replied shortly that he had a sexual thing for those characteristics. The guy (who was seated two rows behind me) pushed it, asking Why? What was it about those thingsat which Delany treated him to an amusing little spiel about all the straight men who after reading his autobiography just had to tell him about their sexual fetishes for women with this or that particular characteristic. Delany remarked that it might be a good thing for women to know how many different particular characteristics appealed to heterosexual men: that one type did not fit all.

Do you find the current political situation discouraging, with so many of things that had been accomplished being lost?

You have to expect that progress will be uneven, Delany said. Sometimes we move things forward, sometimes things slip back. But something important happened around 1968. Until then, mostly black people had been working for civil rights, and then the civil rights movement morphed into the fight against racism that was taken up by a wide spectrum of society; similarly mostly women had been working for women’s rights, and then the women’s liberation movement morphed into the fight against sexism that was taken up by a wide spectrum of society; just as the gay rights movement morphed into the fight against homophobia, also embraced by a wide spectrum of society.

Because this was the last question of the night, Delany didn’t unpack the implications he sees in this shift. He did remark that he had a set lecture he sometimes gives in reply to this question, but that there simply wasn’t time for him to give it tonight.

All in all a delightful, stimulating evening. If Delany ever reads in your city, I highly recommend going to hear him.

Women's Work

Timmi has a post on spelling bees in school and girls being better than boys, which meant (to the boys) that spelling wasn't important. She ends:
Because that was the way the world we lived in worked: the work women did wasn’t important, and so it was fine for women to be better at it than men.

This reasoning is so familiar that though I can just about mange to laugh wryly when I hear such an anecdote, it almost makes me want to cry. The Russ-ian literary equivalent would be: If women are good at writing a certain kind of story, it must not be either profound or interesting and is certainly not worth reading.

Of course, that was exactly the attitude toward novels in the late 18th and early 19th century England. From the Gothic novels on, novels were a women's art form, and considered frivolous, trivial, possibly immoral and so on. Serious people -- men -- read collected sermons or poetry.

Jane Austen, who loved novels and wrote some of the greatest, has scenes when men -- guys like Mr. Collins, that idiot -- sneer at novels.

At some point, probably with Dickens, men became dominant in the writing of novels, and they became a serious art form. Though Dickens was madly popular and kind of trashy. True seriousness for the novel probably came later. At that point, women writers tended to disappear from discussions of The Novel. My friend Ruth mentioned a book she has just read, which is about ideas of The Frontier or some such thing. The author did not mention any women writers, not even Willa Cather.

(I may revise the above, after checking with Ruth. I'm not sure I'm remembering correctly.)

The same thing happens in discussions of hard science fiction. Women rarely make the lists of hard SF writers. I think there is a double prejudice operating here. One is a prejudice against the life sciences as opposed to physics and engineering.Women tend to write about biology. If you don't think biology is a real science (in this era of biotechnology and genetic manipulation) then books by Joan Slonczewski don't make the list. However, there are women who write about machinery. C. J. Cherryh and Melissa Scott come to mind at once. If they don't make lists of hard SF writers, then I think we are looking at the idea that hard SF -- real SF, serious SF -- is and has to be male.

I prefer to call hard SF "very large, hard machinery SF." I think this captures much of what is going on.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Mysteries of Novelty and Irony

Here in the Pacific Northwest, cool humid weather is common. But every now and then, a weather front dubbed “The Pineapple Express” pushes up from the south and a deluge of rain, rather than clearing and cooling the air saturates it. Around here, warm humidity is a novelty. So yesterday, when I was out on the Kitsap Peninsula, picnicking with friends on a little beach just east of the Hood Canal, I kept thinking that any time now I would have to put on the long-sleeved shirt I’d brought thinking I’d need it on the ferry. (Which I didn’t.)

Since last week’s news featured a high incidence of acts of despotism by the Bush Administration, as we munched goat cheese and blueberries and raspberries and drank a delicious dark beer, we couldn’t help but review a few of them. As my special contribution to the conversation, I offered the Oregonian’s revelation on Saturday that a member of Congress from Oregon, Peter DeFazio, who sits on the House’s Homeland Security Committee, had been denied access by the White House to view “the classified portion of a White House plan for operating the government after a terrorist attack.” The paper quotes DeFazio as saying “I just can’t believe they’re going to deny a member of Congress the right of reviewing how they plan to conduct the government of the United States after a significant terrorist attack.” According to the article, Conservative legal scholar Norman Ornstein said he “cannot think of one good reason” to deny access to a member of Congress who serves on the Homeland Security Committee. “I find it inexplicable and probably reflective of the usual, knee-jerk overextension of executive power that we see from this White House.” The article closes with this sentence: “Maybe the people who think there’s a conspiracy out there are right,” DeFazio said.

As I noted to my friends, I couldn’t decide whether that last line was meant as a joke. It’s the times we live in: without a baseline for judging what is appropriate, irony becomes supremely tricky. My friends, though, convinced me that the most likely reason the White House denied De Fazio access is because there’s no real plan for him to review. Remember Heckuva job, Brownie? they said.

Upon further discussion, we came up with our own plan: send the POTUS up to the Space Station. He’d be safe there. He could take his Attorney General with him, and maybe the Supremes as well. They’d all be safe, happily ruling from a celestial altitude, with never another thought about subpoenas and congressional hearings much less hurricanes and public opinion polls to disturb their peace of mind again.

While we were talking, I cast several admiring glances at the lovely wildflowers growing in the rocks near the water line. I couldn't identify them or even remember ever having seen them before. As we were packing up to leave, I wandered over to read a placard displayed on an informational kiosk only a few yards from our picnic table. It displayed ten plants, most of them flowering, that it identified as noxious weeds threatening Puget Sound habitats . The plant with pretty yellow flowers growing only a few feet away from the kiosk was one of them.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

When refusing to compete looks like winning

In a conversation in which I was fondly reminiscing about the pleasures of my grade-school spelling classes and classroom spelling bees back in the 1950s, my partner Tom said, “I bet you were one of those girls who was really good at spelling.” I admitted that I had been, though I noted that a couple of boys were close rivals and on more than one occasion beat me. The girls in his class, he said, had wiped the floor with the boys when it came to spelling. And because of this, the nuns used to pit the boys against the girls in the classroom bees. [The Catholic school he attended did not segregate boys from girls until the sixth grade.] The nuns, he said, actually imagined that the boys would be shamed into learning their spelling words so that they could beat the girls. But that was a big mistake, Tom added. The nuns, he said, didn’t understand our world view. We just thought that if the girls were good at something and the boys weren’t, then it meant it wasn’t something that mattered. Because that was the way the world we lived in worked: the work women did wasn’t important, and so it was fine for women to be better at it than men.

This reasoning is so familiar that though I can just about mange to laugh wryly when I hear such an anecdote, it almost makes me want to cry. The Russ-ian literary equivalent would be: If women are good at writing a certain kind of story, it must not be either profound or interesting and is certainly not worth reading.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Conversation with Nicola Griffith--part two

Timmi: I’ve been interested in the post-composition stage of writing for a long time. So when I read Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, it particularly provoked me into thinking about this aspect of the writing process. In his opening essay, “Emblems of Talent,” he uses the German term Begeisterung to designate the passion that is needed to drive the writer to the heights of achievement, and he roughly translates this term as “inspiration.” Now most people—especially those who aren’t artists—conceive of “inspiration” as what happens in the moment that one has an idea, rather than as the passion to take that idea and the work it is based on past the initial rough stage to its ultimate realization. In effect, Delany’s use of the term insists on the primary importance of that second stage of work, where the artist is reshaping the material that she has already brought into existence. Does this way of talking about it make sense to you?

Nicola: It makes sense only if 'inspiration' means vision--not just a clear vision of the work but of self. I'm committed to the notion of brilliance, of never letting a mediocre piece of work past my door. Flawed, yes, inevitably so; mediocre, never. I see myself as a great writer. I have to live up to that vision. I will draw on whatever it takes: will, drive, hope, psychotic self-belief. I understand The Yellow Wallpaper much better now. Am I willing to stare into the abyss yet again with another novel? No! Except, well, yes, of course, because why be a writer if you're not willing to go all the way to make the best possible book?

Timmi: Does the work of composing prose feel more immediate to you than the work of rewriting?

Nicola: Often rewriting is original composition: new scenes with new characters, employing new metaphor systems in the service of new emotional depth. It's just doing it inside a previously explored framework.

However, if what you're asking is: does doing the first draft feel different to subsequent drafts the answer is yes, it does, absolutely (see my answer below).

Timmi: Do you consider the rewriting and reshaping part of the process as vital and important as the immediate composition of the prose?

Nicola: Vital, yes, important, yes. Different, yes. The first draft is the first time with an idea, and it's all about the thrill of the new: discovery, challenge, uncertainty, ecstasy, delight. On some level, a first draft is also deadly serious, exploratory play, it's where you find out if it's going to work, if it's going to be worth developing a long-term relationship.

Big structural rewrites are like those discoveries of something different with a long-term partner: wow, who knew?! Mind-blowingly different and yet strangely familiar. Vastly rewarding.

Intending only a first draft is like a one-night stand. It's fun, and it has its own rewards, but I wouldn't want to take it home to my mother, y'know?

It occurs to me that building a sequence of novels around one character, as I've done with Aud in TBP, Stay, and now Always, is not dissimilar to rewriting in this way. With each novel I re-examine Aud, dig just a little deeper into a woman I already know.

Timmi: Does the knowledge that the first draft may be substantially changed when you’ve finished it make you feel freer to follow your intuition wherever it may lead you? Or do you think the way you write the first draft would be pretty much the same?

Nicola: It's all necessary. I can't imagine any part of the process without the other parts.

The notion of 'intuition' in writing doesn't please me. The first time, yes--I think we all start out writing beyond ourselves--but at this stage I'm far happier thinking about the non-verbal understanding of where I need to go and how as 'expertise'. Intuition is for beginners.

Timmi: And finally, how do you decide when you’re actually, absolutely, done?

Nicola: I think there's a crossing point: where book and author reach an equilibrium, and understanding, where I'm ready to let it go, and I know it can stand on its own. I won't let a book out of the house until I know I can look it in the eye year after year. Twenty years from now, any fault I let by because of impatience will be magnified. For me, a book has to be as close to perfect as humanly possible.

Books, however, come from people. People change. If you start changing in the middle of writing a book, then all bets are off, because if you're changing, what you want from a novel changes. Then you have an awful decision to make. My desktop (and desk drawers) are littered with dozens of abandoned projects. Ideas are cheap. Some are not worth pursuing.

When it comes to being 'done', writing is unlike anything else. Unlike a relationship with a person, when a novel is done it's not over; it's not broken; it's ready to begin, ready to venture into the world.

Timmi: Thanks, Nicola. The next time we drink wine together, please remind me to make a toast to all writers who choose, like you, to risk writing a flawed novel instead of taking the more usual path of writing a mediocre one.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Helix SF Magazine Publishes All Female-Authored Issue. Verdict: Cookie Allotted.

The science fiction magazine Helix SF, which describes itself as publishing "controversial" stories, has posted an issue featuring all women writers.

It features fiction by authors such as Esther Freisner, Eugie Foster, Yoon Ha Lee, and Samantha Henderson. There's also a nice selection of poetry by authors including Jane Yolen and Joselle Vanderhooft.

Sanders wrote an editorial about his decision to make this an all-women authored issue. I appreciated this bit: "Certainly it's not intended to prove that women can write SF, or that they can write it well. That's something that doesn't need proving; it's been proved over and over again — anybody who needs further proof by now is beyond hope."

I was also interested in his discussion of the motives: "The truth is that all of the stories you see in this issue had already been accepted before I decided to do this. In fact that's where the idea originated: I was looking over the stories I had in stock, choosing which ones I wanted to use for the next issue, and I noticed that I had quite a lot of excellent stories by women — and had in fact already picked several of them — and suddenly the light bulb went on and I said to myself, "Self, you ugly old son of a bitch," (myself understanding this to be in the spirit of good-natured bandinage)**, "why not an all-women issue?"

And indeed, why not?

He adds, "But you know, in a way it's a pity that this should even be worth talking about. Really, if things were as they should be, nobody should think it surprising or remarkable that an SF magazine should publish an all-women's issue — any more than if, say, all the contributors were from Illinois, or all their last names began with R, or they all had red hair...Or if they were all straight white guys. That happens all the time, and nobody seems to find it strange."

When I first read that last line, I was cheering it, but then I realized that its meaning is ambiguous. It could mean that the editor acknowledges that straight white men are the default state, and that no one finds it odd when issues are all straight white men because the assumption (pre-feminism and anti-racism) is that everything everywhere will be all straight white men. He could be referring to the phenomenon whereby a group of people that is less than half women will be perceived as "all women." He could be referring to the recent study about conversation in which it's demonstrated that if women and men are forced to speak for equal lengths of time, both parties perceive the women as completely dominating the conversation.

However, it's also possible to read the statement another way: which is that no one pays attention to straight white male authored issues because feminists and anti-racists want special rights, and whites and men have "no one" arguing for their interests.

The more I think about this comment, though, I have trouble sustaining my second reading. In order for the second reading to work out, Sanders would have to believe that there are as many all-women tables of contents as there are tables of contents filled with authors who are straight, white, and male. But that doesn't seem to be the case, since he acknowledges that an all-female TOC is still worthy of comment, while TOCs of only straight white men happen all the time.

However, an editorial by Helix guest editor Melanie Fletcher reveals an unambiguous example of the condescending attitude I'd feared: "it's not a big deal that the Summer '07 issue of Helix is pretty much all female — like the almost all male Hugo ballot this year, it just shook out that way. And yet there was much hue and cry across the land about the 2007 Hugo nominees' preponderance of testosterone, so we're probably going to catch some shit about the clouds of estrogen wafting about this issue. Frankly, both complaints strike me as pretty damn stupid because it shouldn't matter what flavor of gonads a writer is packing; what does matter is whether or not they can tell a cracking good story."

Fletcher appears not to understand what is meant by systemic sexism or unconscious bias, from the way that she mischaracterizes the feminist critique of Hugo awards. She appears to be offering this issue as an example of how sometimes things "shake out" to female benefit -- but she's countered by the very fact that there was a conscious effort to put together an all-female table of contents. There was no conscious effort to skew the Hugos. Unconscious gender bias did that all on its own, as it does monthly in the table of contents for magazines like Harper's.

I am inclined to give Sanders the benefit of the doubt and say his heart was in the right place when he orchestrated it. It's harder to believe him when he says this isn't a publicity stunt since he complained about the lack of attention he received for doing it. But I'm inclined to forgive publicity stunts; he's trying to grow the audience for a small magazine.*

However, the editorial by Fletcher makes it clear why an effort like this isn't usually greeted with open arms. It's hard to tell what kinds of concealed motives people have for these kinds of actions. In this case, Fletcher seems to have been trying to hide a GOTCHA under her coat, even if it was a particularly ineffective one.

While I remain cagey, I'm going to go ahead and say this: Good on you, Sanders. Cookie allotted.

But you know what's better on Sanders than an all-women issue? The fact that (if we are to go by the statistics listed in his editorial) of the 28 stories he published in his first year, 13 were by women. Sanders, and editors like him who publish an equal or near-equal gender ratio, are definitely part of the solution.

There's one more net result that's unambiguously positive: seven female short story writers, and six female poets, have sold their work. They will be paid and their work will be read. I urge people to read this issue, and throw in a couple of bucks to the authors if they think the stories are worthy.

UPDATE: Sanders points out that there are a lot of people of color who have written stories for this issue, also, such as Eugie Foster and Yoon Ha Lee. The name that jumps out at me is N. K. Jemison who I was fortunate enough to see speak last year at Wiscon. She’s brilliant. You can find her at her personal blog, but she’s also got the keys to Angry Black Woman’s place, where she’s recently written aa guest post or two. There may be other writers of color on the TOC besides these talented three, but those are the only three I know of for sure.


*And hey, complaining worked. I wouldn't have written about this if he hadn't complained. Of course, the fact that my health issues have been mostly cleared up! meant that I now have time and attention to write, which I didn't have when the issue initially came out. (I did consider writing about it then.)

**Sanders also gets a musical-theater-related cookie for quoting Ruddigore.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Conversation with Nicola Griffith--part one

Timmi: The other night at your party, Nicola, when we were talking about how writing fiction just gets harder and harder the longer one does it, you mentioned to me that in working on Always, the Aud novel that has been recently released, you wrote more than a million words that you eventually reduced to 175,000. In fact, you have always done extensive—often architectural—rewrites of your novels, which I take as a testament to your artistry. Artistry, of course, begins with talent, but talent that isn’t backed by passion and ambition results not in artistry, but in mediocre work—that is to say, in writing that is good enough to be published, hyped, and even critically praised but which at base does not live up to its potential. At writing workshops I frequently run into the attitude that if an editor can be found to buy a piece of fiction pretty much as is, a light line-edit of a first draft is good enough. And indeed, when many writers finish the first draft of a novel, they consider it in some essential sense “finished”; the very idea of doing what you do would appall them.

Nicola: It appalls me, too, if I stop to think about it. My guess is the actual Always word count is about two million, if you include the stroking and smoothing and so forth of ordinary rewrites. However, if we're talking about brand-new architectural restructuring, with new characters, new scenes, new metaphor systems, then two-thirds of a million is probably closer to the mark.

I feel for all those young (career-wise if not chronologically) writers who still regard publication as the magic bullet. Being published doesn't make you a good writer, it just makes you published. There is no magic bullet, no funny handshake, no secret decoder ring. There is nothing but talent and hard work and patience. This hard truth is one I think most artists try to dodge, for a while. We are, after all, profoundly lazy. (For me, one of the necessary components of art is elegance. Elegance requires simplicity--the fewest strokes, the most direct step, the least complicated solution. Lazy people work so hard to get things just right because that's how we learn to make things easier next time.)

Writing, funnily enough, doesn't work like the rest of life. It never gets easier. I can give personal examples of that. So settle in, get comfortable: I'm going to tell you of the unfurling of each of my five novels, with a focus on the rewriting.

My first voluntary fiction was a short story I began when I was twenty-two or -three, called 'Women and Children First'. It was meant to be witty and ironic: a spaceship hurtling through the void, an accident, a lantern-jawed hero-captain who says, 'To the lifepods. Women and children first!' The women say, 'Okay', and merrily abandon the ship, ending up on an uninhabited planet and founding a woman-centred society, where everything would be beautiful and perfect. But a funny thing happened on the way to utopia. When I started to write, with my fountain pen on my lined paper, I started to think, and that's When It Changed.

That is, I changed; my assumptions disintegrated, as soon as I started imagining specific people in specific situations. Specificity is the ultimate anti-cliché tool. I got specific and, phhtt, no more lesbian feminist paradise.

The story became a novel. By the time I finished it (and called it Greenstorm (after the planet it was set on, Grenschtom's Planet), I thought I was the second coming: a novel! I had fantasies of televised black-tie events where the glitterati applauded in awe as I collected my Booker Prize. I knew, flat out knew, I was Destined for Greatness. But first I had to get the damn thing typed.

Eventually it went off to publishers. After much trial and error, it found its way to Malcolm Edwards at Gollancz and to Jen Green at The Women's Press. (For more on some of this, see And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer's Early Life, my kinda sorta memoir.

Jen Green explained in three closely typed pages what was wrong with the book but that she believed I could fix it. Malcolm Edwards said if I cut it by a third, he'd consider publishing.

This, of course, was tremendous response to a first fiction but all I saw was rejection. I was so beside myself with shock and a deep, focused rage that I destroyed the bannisters of the flat I lived in: kicked them out, precisely and deliberately, one by one. They crack had crack rejected crack me. Too crack many crack words! I thought I was cross at them; really I was appalled that despite all that effort, I'd failed; that they wanted me to work.

I got over it. (I got drunk.) Then I sat down and started rewriting. Half way through I stopped: I saw just how awful and amateurish the novel was, and I couldn't face the almost total destruction and rebuilding it would take. I had grown and changed; the book was too small. I couldn't integrate into the old book the (absolutely spot-on) criticisms I'd been given by these editors because those criticisms had fundamentally changed me as a writer.

I put the novel in a drawer and wrote another. This one was set on the same world but many hundreds of years later. By now there were two societies on the planet: the women-only side of the planet, and the mixed-gender side. I spent more time destroying the notion of essentialism. In a fit of irony I titled it We Are Paradise and then read it through and found it far too science-fantasyish for my tastes. Also, it was a love-conquers-all story. It just wouldn't do. I stuffed it in a drawer without showing anyone (though if you want to read the first four pages, see ANWAGTHAP).

I resolved to learn to write by doing a few short stories. I reasoned that being able to complete a story arc in a month would teach me faster than throwing away a novel every year or two.

I sold my fourth short story attempt, 'Mirrors and Burnstone', to Interzone. It was a solid skiffy novelette about the rescue of a human security officer by an alien native. After it was published I was invited to attend Mexicon II and to be on a panel about gender and aliens. The moderator, Sherry Coldsmith, asked me a question about the aliens in 'Mirrors and Burnstone', and I opened my mouth but what I'd been about to say was blotted out by a sudden huge revelation: the aliens in M&B were women. And the plot of what was to become Ammonite dropped into my head like a screen menu as I sat mute before a hundred people.I spent the rest of the convention in a daze.

I would write this novel, I knew.

But I wasn't in a rush. I let the ideas accrete. I moved to the US. I wrote some other stories, and had an idea for another novel (that became Slow River). I got a letter (this was before email) from Malcolm Edwards, now the Editorial Director at HarperCollins/Grafton, saying, essentially: been reading your stories in Interzone, do you have a novel? Why yes, I said (lying), I'm working on two. And I wrote a paragraph about Ammonite-to-be and Slow River-to-be. And as my reply wended its way to London via the mysteries of international mail, I sat and wrote furiously the first few chapters of Ammonite.

Ammonite unrolled like a rug kicked open before an emperor: inevitable, unstoppable, luxuriant. Soup to nuts it took me less than a year. It came out whole. The reason it was so fast and easy was that it was set on the same planet--Grenchstom's Planet, GP, Jeep--as that first story-then-novel, and some of the characters (Marghe, Thenike, Vine, Uaithne) were familiar to me from the second novel. So another way to consider Ammonite is as the book that took eight years to make.

Meanwhile, Slow River was growing in the back of my mind. I was terrified of it; I knew I didn't have the skill to translate my vision. I was right. Thirty thousand words in, I knew it wasn't going to work. I had become hopelessly muddled with flashbacks piggybacking on flashbacks, and dizzily escalating dream and nightmare sequences. Each time I sat down to work I felt queasy. The more I tried to consciously wrestle the book into shape, the worse everything got. It wasn't until I'd given up--or thought I'd given up--that I found the solution.

Kelley came home from work one night and found me sitting in a heap on the living room floor. How did your work go today? she asked. 'It's crap. I'm crap. I can't write. I've given up. I'll have to find a job.' I meant every word; my life, as I understood it, was over. Once Kelley saw that I was utterly serious, that I could not be consoled, she disappeared into the kitchen and after a long moment re-emerged with two frosty Dos Equis. 'Okay,' she said. I looked up. She held out a beer. 'This is a magic beer. When you reach the bottom of the bottle everything will be better. You'll find out how tomorrow.' I stared. 'Trust me,' she said. 'Just drink the beer. It's magic.'

I drank the beer. About one swallow from the end, I felt a stray thought break my brain surface and arrow into my subconscious. I didn't pursue it. I was trusting the magic.

I woke in the middle of the night, thinking 'Brazzaville Beach', William Boyd's brilliant novel set in the Congo and written from two different points-of-view, though both from the same character. And the solution lay there, whole and perfect, in my mind. The next day I deleted those thirty thousand words and began again.

I don't remember how long it took me to write. Not long, I suspect. I was moving through an ecstatic dream. I printed the draft. Gave it to Kelley. She read it and burst into tears. 'Oh, honey, it's brilliant!' I smiled through my own tears and told her she gave good beer. 'Oh, god,' she said, 'I was so scared that day, I didn't know what to do, I'd never seen you like that before. The magic beer thing was sheer desperation.'

I have since learnt that despair, the feeling of being in the middle of the Gobi Desert--nothing before me but dust, nothing behind me but dust--is just part of my process.

Ammonite took one year to write (or eight, depending on your perspective), Slow River took two and a half (or perhaps four). The Blue Place took ten months--

--or perhaps six years. The idea of Aud--a dream of a woman who could kill without hesitation--occurred to me in 1991. I settled down to write in 1996. I was done, whap, ten months later in 1997. Like writing Ammonite, it just unfurled. Like Ammonite, like Slow River, I had no publisher edits. Unlike the two SF books, with TBP I regret this. The Blue Place is a good book, but it was a new genre and there are one or two things, just little things, line edits and metaphors--and one awful error-of-fact--I'd change today.

But I knew it was good, and I knew it would do well, and I thought the time might be ripe for me to tackle Stay, a novel about grief. My little sister had been dead eleven years. I thought I'd healed sufficiently to examine grief in fiction. So in 1999, I began, and it was hard, but it was good. In early 2001, I was halfway through the first real rewrite when my elder sister died.

I rewrote Stay thirteen times. Three of those were far-reaching changes, all in the service of my struggle to understand grief through the lens of a fictional character. There were times when rewriting felt like ripping off a scab off, over and over, or pounding a bruise with a hammer. It made me ill, physically and emotionally. Twice, I vowed I would stop, cancel my contract with Nan A. Talese, tell my editor there, Sean McDonald, that I wanted to write something else, something easier. Each time, my pride, my sense of who I am as a writer, made me go back to my desk, grit my teeth, and do it again. (I've written about this, from a slightly different perspective, in an essay, 'Doing the Work'.

And then it was time to have fun, to write a novel that wouldn't hurt, that would be nothing but a blast, a big, burly book, all excitement and rollercoaster ups and downs.

So I sat down to write Always. I knew it was going to be big. (The proposal itself was more than fifty pages long; if you're a devotee of process porn, you can read an excerpt here.)

I imagined it as a dual narrative, one in Seattle in the narrative past, one in Atlanta in the narrative present. The Atlanta narrative would take the form of self-defence lessons; the Seattle narrative would be more traditional novel chapters.

The proposal was accepted by Sean McDonald, now at Riverhead, in 2003. I wrote the first three chapters of each narrative strand, easily, fluidly. I was excited. I wrote some more; this was fun.

Then I became less excited. I began to get tense.

Physical tension is a clue that something isn't right. The body knows. By now, every time I sat at my computer my stomach closed and I couldn't get my breath. Perhaps I was becoming ill. I decided to rest. I set the book aside, did other things (joined the board of a non-profit, thought about teaching, pondered moving house), and felt fine. When I went back to the book, I couldn't breathe.

I printed out what I had and read it with a cold, clear eye. The individual scenes were good, better than good, but the whole was not going to work. For one thing, to say everything I wanted to say in the way I was saying it would take about a quarter of a million words. For another, the double narrative was fighting itself. The metaphors were not in synch; the emotional arcs were working against one another.

I threw away all my delicious work and began again, this time with a single-strand narrative. Fifteen months after my initial beginning, I had a novel. It was 140,000 words, longer than anything I'd published before. I thought it was pretty good; actually I thought it was lovely: nuanced and fun, witty and stately, plotty and character-driven. I sent it to Sean and concentrated on the non-profit I'd joined, on moving house, and on a short story collection. But I began to get very, very tense again. Whenever I thought about the book, I couldn't breathe. The body knows; the book wasn't right.

Four months later, I still hadn't heard anything from Sean and I was going crazy. Then he came to Seattle, and we went out for dinner. I was on my second kamikaze when he said, How come you didn't send me the book you outlined? And I explained that it didn't work, that it was impossible, that, anyway, it would be very, very long. Long doesn't scare me, he said. No, I said, really long. Our entrees came. So tell me what didn't work, he said. Everything, I said. I couldn't make the timing thing make sense, I couldn't get the resonance between Seattle and Atlanta. He chewed thoughtfully. So--and he was quite diffident--have you considered setting the Atlanta events before Aud goes to Seattle, rather than after?

Tumblers clicked and dropped in my head. I sipped my kamikaze. Well, I said eventually, that might work; I'd have to think about it. And then we chatted for another ten minutes, and then I said, 'So, Sean, you know you're asking me to throw away 140,000 words and begin again on a really huge, really emotionally and structurally complicated book and do it in less than a year?' He nodded. 'You know that's impossible, right?' He looked at me and said, 'Well, if you did manage it, I think you'd have an excellent book, and I and Riverhead could try to break you out.'

To a mid-list writer the phrase 'break you out' is magical. It means publicity, attention, print runs, co-op money. I told Sean I needed two weeks to think about it, and then went home in a daze. The thing was materially impossible. I was tired, and sick--viscerally and emotionally--of working so hard. But 'break you out...' Perhaps Aud would finally reach her audience.

I took every minute of the two weeks. What I would be attempting--to write, essentially, a non-fiction instruction manual as fiction, then nest that fiction inside another fiction, and make it all unbearably tense and exciting--would be a literary highwire act, one I'd have to do so well it would look easy; I'd have to half kill myself to write something so good no one could tell it was good.

Then I said yes. A week later, my MS reared up and crashed over me; I went numb from the armpits down. I stayed that way for nearly two months.

The body knows. In this case, the body quailed. Since I couldn't type, I spent my time thinking. I persuaded myself of my ability to achieve the impossible, and eventually I recovered enough to sit at my desk again.

I threw away the beginning and the end and many chunks of the middle of my lovely, heartbreaking novel, and I hollowed out the scenes that were left and began to work on the simultaneous novel-within-a-novel writing that gradually refilled the barebones scenes with different emotions.

And I had an absolute blast writing the self-defense lessons. I invented ten new characters and banged them together joyously and at speed. I was eager every morning to get up and at it. In fact it was all going so well I threw in an extra layer, so now it was a three-ply novel: well over 200,000 words.

I could go on and on and on, but at this point I'll just say I ended up cutting out one layer and slightly reconfiguring the other two to balance the whole, and left thirty thousand words on the cutting room floor. The Always you can read now is not the Always I originally wrote. The first one was very much A Novel. The final one is, well, I'm not sure what it is, A Bustling Slice-of-Life Thriller, an Action Meditation, a Rollercoaster-with-Philosophy Ride? And, believe it or not, I'd love the chance to go through it one more time. The copyedit and proofreading stage was knocked off the rails by my mother's death. There are simple errors (some actually inserted by the proofreader, to the degree that one sentence doesn't make sense). But I'm proud of it. My hope is that most readers will zip through it and simply not understand how much work it was. My hope is that all they'll get is joy, a seamless experience that will, ultimately, change their life.

Because that's the point. To change the reader's world.

Now I'd like to take a moment to backtrack a little and clarify this notion of 'how writing fiction just gets harder'. What's really getting harder for me isn't the writing, it's what happens after the writing. This falls into two parts: shepherding the novel through the publishing process, and then trying to survive on the proceeds.

Trade publishing is a deeply stupid industry. The individuals who work in the business aren't stupid, but the prevailing corporate business model is. International publishing conglomerates are trying to operate in a culture at odds with itself: gentlemanly literary hardcover publishing, whose basic goal, historically, has been the promotion of art and culture and personal prestige, rammed up against cut-throat commercial fiction, whose aim has been to sell product. Both cultures have of course mutated considerably over time but, still, it's like watching Disney try to sell R-rated films; there's an obvious dissonance. In addition, the big houses' long-term profit goals are unrealistic, in my opinion. To achieve these goals they would need to adjust (perhaps 'destroy' is closer to the mark) their models: returns policy, marketing and publicity process, approach to sales, handling of the author, understanding of the reader, relationships with allies and critics... Everything. But this is an old, old complaint. I don't want to bore readers (or, frankly, myself) by rolling around in the grubby details.

The end result of all this is that the ecosystem of the working novelist is becoming increasingly precarious. At first glance my literary lake appears serene, but fewer and fewer things live in it; its underpinnings are being eaten by the zebra mussels of bestseller-focused publishing, and by exotic media. The original habitat is dying. There's very little left for a midlist writer to live on.

I don't know how my life looks from the outside, but lately enough people have made enough off-the-cuff comments in my presence that I can only assume it looks more easy and affluent than it is. I don't have a trust fund, a steady-income-producing spouse, a sideline writing articles for Harper's, or a teaching job. The only money I earn is through novels and very occasional short fiction. As I've never appeared on the NYT or PW bestseller lists, this is less than you might think; it takes me a long time to get a book to the stage where I can look it in the face, year after year.

Don't misunderstand me: I love what I do. It's a joy and a privilege. I'd like to do it forever, but those striped mussels are munching up everything their path. I don't know how much time writers like me have left.

What makes the creation of a great novel possible--and, yes, as I've said, I believe I write great novels--is time. What buys time is money. Those bestsellers who bring out a book a year have an army working for them: privately hired people to do their research, answer their mail, run their websites, cater their parties, do their publicity, even edit their books. (I recently exchanged email with a man in California who makes a comfortable living editing a dozen or so of the biggest names in crime fiction, on their dime.)

I don't have an army, and so it takes more time. I could have published that long-ago first novel, Greenstorm, I think, and my path would have been set: a writer of sub-genre feminist potboilers. I think I might have become rich. I doubt I would have won the Tiptree or Lambda. I wouldn't have readers come up to me (as one did last year) and say, in all seriousness, Your book saved my life. That is worth the time.

+ + + + +
[To be continued...]

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Recommended Reading--PoC SF Carnival and the SFS Afrofuturism issue

I recommend checking out Painted With A Bitter BrushPeople of Color SF Carnival #1, a significant collection of links posted by Willow. She writes, in her prologue:

I am never not black. Ever. Other people see me and react to me and force me to see myself as black first, a woman second, usually an immigrant third and then as a human being. And that's supposing I'm not holding another woman's hand and then a sexuality label gets pushed past my humanity. There are only a few very short options I've found to deal with it - be ashamed and apologetic and try to hide who I am, ie disappear. Or be proud of my heritage as part of the diaspora and look for myself in the world's art, literature and music so I can nod and smile and say 'There I am. I count'.

SF, SciFi & Fantasy are the slice of the world I look at to see myself reflected. It's where I go to feel a part of the myriad ideas about life, love, the future, space, life on other planets, magic and folktales and myth of old. But there's a decided lack of people like me in this slice of the world and that needs to change. I'm hoping this Carnival gives a chance to pull together discussions and experiences so we can work towards change.

I’ve just, by the way, received the new issue of Science Fiction Studies, which is devoted by Afrofuturism. I’ve only read the first couple of pieces, but these have been interesting.

Mark Bould’s introduction, “The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF,” not only critiques multiculturalism as “a disavowed, inverted, self-referential form of racism, a ‘racism with a distance’,” but also declares that “It is not the intention of this special issue to incorporate Afrofuturism into sf…In the era of digital samplingand the shift of emphasis from the diachronic to the synchronic encouraged as much by late capitalism by the linguistic turnit is easy to lose track of history.” He did not, in other words, perceive his editorial mission as one of putting out an issue that simply adds authors or characters of color to sf criticism and stirring.

Isiah Lavender, III’s’s “Ethnoscapes: Environment and Language in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and Samuel R.Delany’s Babel-17” introduces the illuminating notion of “ethnoscape.” Here is the author’s abstract: “In this essay, I start from some of the central concerns of Afrofuturism to investigate the ubiquity of race in sf. I map out a novel way to think about the various environment that sf provides as well as a way to think about characterization in sf semblances. I argue that social interactions, technology, and physical surroundings all contribute to the systematic nature of a racialized environmentwhat I term an ethnoscape. Sf ethnoscapes can both fabricate racial difference and reconceive it. The concept of the ethnoscape helps us unpack the racial or ethnic environments that sf can posit or assume. I explore Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), a marginally sf work, as a fabulist ethnoscape; Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1990) as a counterfactual ethnoscape; and Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 (1966) as a linguistic ethnoscape.” I find that the idea of “ethnoscape” makes particular sense for sf, given that sf functions primarily in the objective than the subjective register. (For more about this characteristic of sf, see the second half of Lance Olsen's interview of me on Now What.)

Essays by Darryl A. Smith and Nabeel Zuberi look equally interesting, and there's a piece on Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber by Jillana Enteen and a review essay by Sherryl Vint on Thomas Foster's The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Of Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh

I'm pleased to announce that Aqueduct Press will be publishing a new novella by Vandana Singh, Of Love and Other Monsters, as a volume in our Conversation Pieces series; we'll be releasing it in October. Vandana read a portion of it last weekend at Readercon (as mentioned by The Mossy Skull).

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

That Definitional Thing

It's very hot here in Seattle, & somehow iced tea and the fan running on high just isn't cutting it. Sad to say, I'm a weary zombie from lack of sleep. Nevertheless, I thought I'd note that a certain perennial subject came up last night at Kelley Eskridge’s reading at the Science Fiction Museum. Kelley read an excerpt from her story "Alien Jane" (which closes Dangerous Space) and longer excerpts from the new title novella, "Dangerous Space." She took care to leave about half an hour for the Q&A typical of Clarion West readings, during which she fielded a wide variety of questions about her work. Among these included a request that Kelley explain how “Alien Jane,” a story without any fantasy or science fiction elements, came to be included in a collection labeled “science fiction” and whether she had had any problem getting it published originally in genre publications.

Kelley began her response with a review of the story’s genre history. In sum: "Alien Jane" debuted in the first issue of the prestigious, beautifully produced Century edited by Robert K.J.Killheffer; it was a finalist for the Nebula award and won the Astrea Award (for lesbian literary fiction); it was reprinted in Nebula Awards 31 (ed. Pamela Sargent); and finally, the SF Channel then based an episode of Welcome to Paradox on the story. The story, Kelley noted, was treated within the genre as sf, and that was all that mattered. The label is just a label. She’s happy to have the label of being an sf writer (and herself chooses to call her work “speculative fiction”), but she doesn’t care about definitions.

On reflection, I think “Alien Jane” offers a good example for the argument that sf is not identifiable through a set of definable parameters but is, simply, what people who edit sf choose to publish and what people who read sf choose to read. “Alien Jane” is, in fact, less “speculative” than Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See.” For some reason, this didn’t provoke the sf Border Police back in the mid-1990s the way Karen’s story did in 2002. And for some reason, the SF Channel made it into a television drama. I could, I believe, make a comparable argument about “Alien Jane” to the one I made about “What I Didn’t See” in “Something Rich and Strange: Reading Karen Joy Fowler’s `What I Didn’t See’.” “Alien Jane,” like most of the stories in Dangerous Space, is in conversation with feminist sf. Like “What I Didn’t See,” most of Kelley’s stories can be read with pleasure as literary fiction: but how much richer and deeper they are for those engaged in the conversation of feminist sf!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Kelley Eskridge Reads from Dangerous Space

Aqueduct author Kelley Eskridge will be reading from her collection, Dangerous Space, tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle as a part of Clarion West's "Six Summer Evenings of Science Fiction & Fantasy" series. Kelley is currently teaching at the Clarion West Writers Workshop.

The Seattle Times review of Dangerous Space, "The alien territory of the human heart," characterizes the book as "a unique kind of science fiction, wherein the alien land we are enticed to explore is the human soul itself. Eskridge invites us into its strange, inhospitable terrain and urges us to peer at the disfigured, imperfect creatures that live there — jealousy, loneliness, yearning. Under Eskridge's watch, each emotion becomes a monster, complete with its own personality, that then preys on her human characters."

For those who've never been to the SF Museum, it's located on the east side of the Seattle Center at 325 Fifth Avenue N.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

UPDATE to post on Egyptian Ban of Female Genital Surgeries: Ban Intended to Salve Westerners, Not to Prevent FGS

I wanted to include this information in the other day's post on Female Genital Surgeries, but my googling failed to provide the source. Enormous thanks to Ampersand for turning it up, based on my vague description.


Recently, I wrote about the many ways in which western intervention on the topic of female genital surgeries has backfired. Circumcision has been practiced on younger and younger girls. It has been forced into ever more covert circumstances, increasing the risk of fatal bleeding and HIV infection. Female genital surgeries have become, in some places, a badge of African pride, a defining part of African identity -- and this is clearly traceable to ham-fisted Western efforts to eradicate it. Groups which never practiced female circumcision have taken it up, putting thousands more girls and women at risk.

On the surface, the Egyptian ban looks different. After all, the ban isn't being imposed by colonial forces. It's been internally generated.

Sort of.

First off, the ban is not what it has been advertised as. It is not a ban on "female genital mutilation." It is not illegal for parents to seek their daughters' circumcision. What has been made illegal is for FGS to be practed by doctors, in public or private hospitals.

The original form of this ban was conceived in 1996, after an incident two years earlier in which CNN showed footage of a thirteen-year-old screaming as her clitoris was cut out by a barber. Egypt was embarrassed by the footage, which outraged westerners, who in turn threatened to withdraw foreign aid.

In its original form, the ban would have forced physicians to educate any family that came to them with a request for female genital surgeries. Doctors were to apprise families of the health risks that make such procedures an enormously bad idea. If families insisted on carrying out the procedure, they would be taken to a hospital where the girls would be given proper anasthetic and surgical care, managing the enormous pain of having one's external genitals removed and also helping to prevent the high rates of infection and death that result from amateur surgeons wielding non-sterile equipment.

American groups such as Equality Now rebelled against what they called the "medicalization" of clitoridecomy, and said they would give no foreign aid to hosptials where hte procedure was performed.

This led to a reconception of the ban, which prohibited clitorodectomy in public hosptials, although it was still permitted in private ones. Eventually, the ban was extended to include all licensed medical practitioners, although it left an out for "extreme circumstances." This ban enabled Egyptian hospitals to retain foreign aid, at the expense of Egyptian girls' health. Remember: this is a country in which 97% of women are cut. Even among the educated upper and middle classes where the incidence of FGS is reduced, the men who authored the ban almost certainly have modified daughters, wives, and sisters; the women were likely to have been cut themselves. They were aware that demand for the procedure was unlikely to lessen, a fact which they had attempted to address by building in educational and safety measures into the original form of the ban.

In 1997, this ban was challenged in a religious court which landed it back in the news. (All the scholars I've read agree that FGS is not required by Islam. However, there remain interpretations that suggest that FGS is part of a decent, observant Islamic lifestyle.) The ban managed to stand.

The newest form of the ban, the report of which on Pandagon and Feministe is what triggered this conversation, came recently in response to the death of a 12-year-old girl whose death (according to the Yahoo article) may have been linked to misuse of anasthetic. The new ban eliminates the "extreme circumstances" provision that remained in the previous ban. I do not have enough information to say whether that specific change will put more girls at risk.

This ban is not an internal attempt by Egyptians to try to change their own culture. It does not appear to be a response to a changing sentiment in which feelings about female genital surgeries have changed. Instead, it appears to be a ban made in the mold of the earlier colonial bans, in which westerners attempt to impose their feelings about female genital surgeries on a population over which they have (economic) power, without first examining the consequences of that ban.

Egytptians themselves first tried to implement a solution which is closer to the solutions that the activists who are involved in actually trying to change conditions on African soil have discovered to have a real, measurable effect on the practice. However, westerners prevented them from enacting legislation that would have ameliorated real world conditions, in favor of demanding an impressive, symbollic ban.

In demanding an immediate and complete solution, instead of acknowledging the reality that will involve years of hard work and moral ambiguity, westerners have unwittingly played into the hands of those who wish to continue female genital surgeries. The current iteration of the ban was never intended to actually eliminate female genital surgeries. It does not ban the common procedures wherein barbers wield razor blades on girls who lie prone, without anasthetic -- even though it was a barber who conducted the mutilation that shocked the west when it was caught on video in 1994.

No, the current ban is intended to appease westerners, and is remarkably effective at doing so. A ban sounds like it's accomplishing something. It sounds good when it is on the headline of a newspaper, or coming from the lips of a TV news reporter. It sounds decisive and impressive. It makes a good blog link. It creates a feeling of progress. We can say FGM is banned, and we can feel hope about the situation in Egypt. Enthusiastically, westerners continue to provide foreign aid because we feel that our activism has accomplished something.

Meanwhile, 97 out of 100 Egyptian girls will have their clitorises cut out. Most of these procedures will happen in unsanitary conditions, without anasthesia, with equipment wielded by unpracticed hands. The imposition of this ban, instead of the earlier form favored by the Egyptian government, ensures that those surgeries will be brutal and dangerous.

On this side of the ocean, one of the most pernicious side effects of this ban is that it creates a sense of accomplishment in armchair western activists, because it gives off the air of a job well done. FGS is banned in Egypt -- keep giving them money. Don't look at the ways in which this ban fails to stop any female genital surgeries, and in facts makes the actual surgeries worse. Only look at the big, symbollic law.

This ban gets in the way of effective activism, because it appears to be doing something while doing nothing. It offers us a black and white solution, while conveniently hiding away the shades of grey that we we would have been required to face if the initial Egyptian proposals had been enacted. Westerners -- perhaps all people -- have a great liking for black and white thinking. We enjoy symbols. This is the kind of thinking that makes us think we can pound terrorists into submission with bombs. Drop bombs on them and they won't dare to resist us! But of course we know that's not the way things work. When you pound people with bombs, even the ones who were sympathetic to you become terrorists. You make the situation worse. This is true even when the goal is more feminist -- you don't get people to stop using burkhas by dropping bombs on them either. Instead, you end up with a lot of women who are wearing burkhas and terrified for their lives and their families. And you also end up with women who are veiling to show their solidarity to the women who are being bombed, just as you end up with women who practice female genital surgeries to show that they defy colonialist power. Via colonialism, the western world has treated Africa really shittily. They are understandably wary when we tell them something is "for their own good." Why should they believe us if we're willing to threaten to defund their hospitals and treat them like moral infants, instead of treating them like rational actors who we need to convince?

As liberals, we are supposed to be better trained in detecting these fallacies. After all, there have been studies showing that liberals are better able to conceive of ambiguities. We know enough about our culture to pick them up when they're happening in our society. What makes us look at a foreign culture and suddenly see in two dimensions? It's a bad habit, supported by racism and colonialism.

Using the threat of withdrawing foreign moneys can be an effective tool, as famously exemplified in divestment from South Africa. I'm not sure that it's as reasonable to threaten to withdraw charity money as it is to withdraw business investments, but leaving that aside for the moment -- probably there is a way to deal with our financial involvement in Egypt ethically, and to try to pressure their government to do something about female genital surgeries.

But we have to be smart about it, not act like big stupid bullies. Demanding that they do things exactly our way, instead of listening to their more knowledgeable ideas about how to change their culture -- that's stupid. Demanding that they change everything immediately and accepting no intermediate steps, thus putting them in a situation where it's impossible to actually make productive change -- that's stupid. Dictating an end point instead of convincing people of your point of view -- that's stupid, too. And all of these things just complicate the post-colonial relationship between America and Egypt, and make it less likely that our word is going to count for anything. "STOP PERFORMING FGM!" means less than a statistic that shows clitoridectomy kills 15% more mothers and infants than intact childbirth. If we really want to accomplish our goals of worldwide health and prosperity for women, rather than just congratulate ourselves on meaningless and shiny symbols, then we're going to have to stow away our arrogance for a while and actually look for practical, efficacious measures.