Saturday, April 30, 2011

Remembering Joanna

The impact Joanna Russ's work has had on two overlapping fields of interest--feminism and science fiction-- is incalculable. Despite the brilliance of her work, she has received a relatively modest degree of recognition for it in the way of awards: in 1973 she was awarded the Nebula for "When It Changed" (a story that burst onto the scene at around the same time that science fiction began to change for a significant segment of sf writers and fans); the Hugo, Locus, and SF Chronicles Reader Awards in 1982 for "Souls"; two retrospective Tiptree Awards in the 1990s; a Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame Award for The Female Man; the SFRA's Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement; and the Florence Howe Award of the women's caucus of the MLA.

In fact, Joanna Russ was a powerhouse. People who read this blog will be most familiar with her fiction and the importance of her work for feminist sf. But in the 1980s, at least, Joanna Russ was a significant presence in the larger world of feminism. Her essays in various feminist publications (Thirteenth Moon, Sinister Wisdom, and Quest, to name just a few) articulated important arguments much needed at a time of passionate, even angry ferment as sex, class, and race issues arose during the last phases of what we now call "Second Wave" feminism. Her famous How to Suppress Women's Writing arrived on the scene in 1983, streaking like a bolt of lightning through the winter sky, making us see clearly what had previously been only dimly visible. I can still remember sitting on my bed in a mildewed New Orleans apartment, reading it cover to cover the November afternoon it arrived in the mail from the University of Texas Press. Yes, I had read much of the work she takes off from-- Tillie Olsen's Silences, Virginia Woolf's Room of One's Own and The Three Guineas, Ellen Moers' Literary Women, and so on-- but I had not been able, by myself, to get from those texts to where Russ took us in her magnificently polemical book. Reading it, I was both enraged and enthralled at the same time (a state of mind I always find myself in whenever I read anything, fiction or nonfiction, she wrote). She made the connections, distilled the insights. She showed me the way.

Her next major work of nonfiction, What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class and the Future of Feminism was equally powerful, but failed to get the reception it deserved. Timing, alas, is everything when it comes to trenchant political analysis. She wrote most of the book between 1988 and 1990, and then for various reasons I won't go into now took years to finish a chapter needed to complete the ms. And so it wasn't published until 1998. Despite its voluminous documentation, the fact that she drew most of her data from the late 1980s allowed people to dismiss it as irrelevant (though much of the data, had it been updated, would have made her case even more strongly). The desire of so many people to dismiss the book probably stemmed from the abysmal attitude toward feminism current at the time of the book's release. The ability to make feminist connections does seem to wax and wane with more general cultural currents.

Since I heard, late Wednesday afternoon, that Joanna was dying, I've managed to sleep about six hours total. My insomnia hasn't resulted merely from my sadness at the loss of such an intellectual powerhouse, but more because my personal memories of her and the few active years of our friendship suddenly began pouring into my thoughts, and once begun, could not be halted. (And it was also, I will admit, a special pain I felt because a letter I'd received from her last December had raised my hopes about her being close to well enough to be able to write again.) Last night at 4 a.m. I got out of bed to begin the process I'd been putting off-- namely, hunting for all those personal documents that would clarify my memories, memories which were, I'm afraid, a sad jumble. I easily located letters I'd written about my first meeting with her and journal entries describing or referencing many, many conversations. I even found my own letters to her on the hard drive of my computer (in files written in Wordstar 4.0, which had to be converted). I don't, however, know what I've done with her letters to me. I'd forgotten that I even had old letters from her. But in one of my journal entries, I quote from a letter she wrote me about the draft of a political essay I'd been working on: "Joanna's letter provided me with [...] a little pep-talk on fighting tactics in nonfiction writing. This is war, she reminded me-- & advised me to avoid as much as possible making myself a target in political nonfiction essays (but not, she said, in my fiction)." At the moment, I'd very much like to read that letter. My office filing cabinets are crammed with old correspondence, and none of my filing drawers are alphabetized. It's there somewhere, I know, for I never threw out so much as a postcard or even Solstice card from her.

Along with experiencing a flood of memories, I find myself wishing to talk about her, as a person, with other people who knew her. This is a departure from my years of near-silence about the fact that a couple of decades ago we had a very intense relationship. I never thought much about why I've seldom mentioned it to anyone. I suppose, if I'd thought about it, I'd have concluded that it somehow felt too private to discuss whenever the subject of Joanna Russ came up, since discussions were always of her public persona-- the writer and critic-- rather than the private individual. And as you might imagine, for an acquaintanceship to bloom into friendship requires being able to see and focus on the private individual in all their particularities and idiosyncrasies. When I began reading the traces of that old friendship, I realized it was more complicated than that-- or rather, I should say, our relationship was too complicated to be neatly summarized.

I vividly recall my first meeting with her. Here's an excerpt from a letter I wrote to a friend, about that meeting:

I, too, was properly intimidated about meeting her. (I've heard plenty (first hand) accounts of the snubs suffered by those who've had the audacity to introduce themselves to her.) […] Impersonal, is how I'd characterize her manner with me. She talked intensely, & frankly, & never took her eyes off mine for a good forty-five minutes. The conversation flowed easily, without awkwardness. But there was a sort of wall there, too, which strange to say didn't make me feel in the least bit uncomfortable. (Maybe it's how I might imagine Margaret A. being? That kind of impersonal. It will be interesting to see if her manner is different when next we meet. Judging by her letter to me, I rather think it will be.) Despite the wall, though, I had the impression that she considered me competent, intelligent, knowledgeable about the subject of our conversation... She never once patronized me or tried to put me at my ease (the way a woman professor, say, might do with a graduate student). & I never found myself worrying about what she might be thinking of me. Granted, I had some time to warm up (i.e., get rid of my nervousness) by chatting with Cynthia, who was sharp-witted but also easy & friendly.

Joanna was sleeping when I arrived (a little after 8 p.m.). She's put on a bit of weight since I last saw her (at the 1983 writers conference, by the bye), & reminded me a little of a large shambling bear. She has tremendous authority & competence. (It was only afterward that I started remembering how unique most of her books are, each of them groundbreaking in its own way.) [...] [She] had a sinus headache. Spent several minutes fussing about the wattage of light bulbs (taking them in & out) of the light fixture over her head. (We were sitting at her kitchen table.) In the meantime Cynthia fixed her English muffins, & then went out to do some grocery shopping. (JR, I think, keeps late hours-- dinner was to be eaten after I'd gone.)

Once settled, we got down to it with great intensity & liveliness. (She really has a wonderfully authoritative speaking style-- I don't mean arrogant or pontifical, but assured & widely referential & complete-- in the way that only women can be-- dipping back into past events the way male "experts" only ever do in a one-upping self-conscious, self-packaging way.) […] She told me she stopped work on a novel she was 75pp into three years ago, because of back problems. When she finally recovered enough to begin work again, she started a nonfiction project. The novel's now cold, the nonfiction book in full swing. She doesn't know if she'll be able to get back to the novel when she's finished the nonfiction book or not. Teaching, unfortunately, takes most of her time & energy, & of course novels demand great quantities of both. So of course teaching is one of the main reasons she hasn't done as much writing as she might have. (She stated unequivocally that writers cannot make a living from their writing & at the same time escape corruption by censorship: the professionalization of the sf writer, she says, is a recent phenomenon, & a disaster.) I remember feeling as I walked & bused my way home a great grief at the thought of that unfinished book. It seemed totally inappropriate for me to express any opinions about her work to her-- so I didn't. (& anyway there's something in her manner that forbids gratuitous comments, & would make a compliment seem presumptuous.) It's depressing to think we're to be deprived of the fiction she could be writing, all because she has so much teaching to do. (It surprised me to learn that she's teaching summer school-- thus losing her the one bit of free time for such work that full-time university teaching ever allows.)

That unfinished novel, by the way (the ms of which she said she kept in the freezer, for safekeeping), she once characterized as a story of lesbian lagniappe, free of anxiety, of a beautiful, lesbian life... Because of the back problems that she spoke of, she had a tall worktable in her work room at which she stood while she wrote, on an electric typewriter. She would never use a computer, she told me, because it would make the work go too quickly. Speed and fluidity, she assured me, were the enemies of the serious writer. Several times during our late-night phone conversations she told me more about her writing process. For fiction, she said, she always knew the exact shape on the page that her sentences would take before she would put anything down on paper. Since Joanna was a perfectionist when it came to her prose, I imagine that the sapping of her energy through CFS must have made writing even harder for her than it would have been for writers with an easier, more multi-draft process.

Anyone who knew Joanna could tell you that her great joy and necessity was conversation. I notice that most of my letters to her reference a conversation we've had and look forward to the next one we'll be having. Here's an example:

Dear Joanna,

Here's the article reviewing research on CFS I mentioned to you. Looking it over again, I thought of how differently it would have been written had it been addressed to people suffering from CFS. There's a certain style & focus for all Science news articles. In practical terms, that means allotting more than two columns to discussing a researcher's not following the standard form of peer-review, & none on possible drug treatments of the disease!

I've been mulling over what you said about envy-- & realized that your envy is my ressentiment-- which I've tended to think about more as a problem for the person feeling it, causing her/him to self-destruct & distort the reality of her/his world. But of course, in the process, it twists personal relations, naturally. Nietzsche talks about this quite a lot (& directly ties it to the lumpenproletariat, too), which is how I got onto it in my early 20s (when I did most of my reading of Nietzsche). & I recently heard a Russian on the radio describing what she called "the Gulag Mentality," (she thought it came from too many people doing time in prison), which was essentially a culture of envy taken to an extreme...

I could go on for pages! But I didn't want to write a letter, just send you this article! 'Til the weekend, then.

Even when she was ill, even during a December 1992 hospitalization for severe depression, she would talk, intensely, for as long as her interlocutor had the stamina to go on. I recall one night Joanna called me (often she'd call at 11 or 12 or even later) and announced, gleefully, that she'd acquired a speaker-phone, which meant that she could lie comfortably in bed and chat, without her arm or ear getting tired (unlike mine). She was accordingly highly sociable (unlike me), and loved getting people together. Our one-on-one conversations ranged all over the map, skipping about from highly personal matters (masturbation, her long-ago marriage, her relations with her mother) to dissection of television shows and anecdotes about people in the field. As I mention in a journal entry written about my hospital visits, "one hour talking with her at any time is so intense & provocative that the impact is always considerable." That same entry is deeply anxious: "We talk about such painful things that I wonder if she'll want to wipe me from her memory once she recovers from this. [...] I only wish I could believe she is going to be fine once she gets past this depression. How to find a way to get her to feel hope? [...] God knows I'm no prophet of hope. The irony, of course, is that her work is responsible for giving lots of us-- me included-- hope. & here she is, utterly hopeless. (Which is, of course, her depression talking. But that's her reality right now.)" The next entry, a week later, notes: "Joanna's improving rapidly" & talks about her reading of books of feminist criticism & theory that I'd taken her. & mentions our talking about "literature, films, & feminism," specifically remarking that she had read Angelika Bammer's book "in one long gulp this morning & loved it."

Joanna did recover from that depression, but finally decided that because her depression was exacerbated by Seasonal Affective Disorder her best hope was to move to the desert. She loved the light in Tucson, and so it was the perfect place for her to live. In her last letter to me, this last December, after alluding to the "long list of illnesses that've been getting in my way" she writes "But medicine has finally caught up with most of them and by the time I get back on to orthopedic OKness and fix a torn tendon in my left hand letter-writing will be much easier." Her penultimate sentence is "In a few months I hope to be more ambulatory and type-competent."

If you have memories of Joanna you'd like to share, please send them to me to post. In one of my journal entries I note that Joanna had said (as she'd done on other occasions) that she wanted me to know the things she was telling me about herself because she wanted other people to know them, too. (My discretion, that is to say, was not at her request.)


Victoria Janssen said...

Thank you so much for sharing these memories.

Liz said...

I just want you to keep going and imagine there is so much more to say. Thank you for this! It adds dimensions!

Kathryn Cramer said...

David and I are hit fairly hard by her death. David was her close friend and editor, and I was her student. I wrote about the experience of sitting and talking to her on my blog: Goodbye, Joanna: On the Death of Joanna Russ.

Dr. MJ Hardman said...

Thank you, Timmel; I never had the pleasure of meeting her however much my work stands on her shoulders, just one brief correspondence exchange. I feel, for that reason, all the more bereft.