Sunday, June 5, 2011

Commemorating Joanna Russ at WisCon 35

As I mentioned in one of my early posts about WisCon 35, in addition to honoring Nisi Shawl, who was Guest of Honor, and celebrating Carol Emshwiller's life and work, this WisCon offered a special tribute to her, organized at the very last moment.

At the reception Thursday evening at Room of One's Own, Candra Gill gave a thrilling reading of "When It Changed."

On Saturday afternoon there was a panel on her work (which I couldn't attend, because it conflicted with the panel on Carol Emshwiller, to which I contributed).

And on Sunday evening, preceding Nisi's Guest of Honor speech, a statement about Russ's importance, sent by Farah Mendlesohn, who could not attend, was read, and Eileen Gunn, Amy Thomson, Geoff Ryman, Jeanne Gomoll, and I spoke about Joanna. I led off with the speech you can find below. Just as I arrived on the podium, Kate Schaefer handed me a vase of iris that had been culled from the yard of Joanna's house when she lived in Ballard, a neighborhood of Seattle. This strangely undid me, and left me so choked up I could hardly deliver my speech. I didn't actually break down, but I was in such an emotional state when I left the podium that I forgot to introduce Eileen, who followed me. Eileen stressed Joanna's geekiness. Amy recounted the time when Joanna stood up in the audience at a panel on "Future Crime" at Norwescon, "tearing Afie Bester a new one" for "declaring that for every criminal who wanted to commit a crime, there would be someone who wanted to be a victim. If you wanted to commit a murder, they'd pair you up with a suicidal person. For every rapist, they'd find someone who wanted to be raped." Jeanne described her astonishment at discovering, as she was publicly reading her "Open Letter to Joanna Russ" to find Joanna in the audience, and her intense pleasure in spending hours talking with Joanna afterwards. Geoff spoke of the brilliance of We Who Are About To... and its compassionate exploration of its narrator's thoughts as she approaches death.

WisCon's tribute to Joanna mattered tremendously to me. I am so glad the folks at WisCon brought it about.

Here is my speech, which is an only slightly altered version of the appreciation I wrote for Locus (published, along with appreciations from Eileen and Amy, in the June issue).

When I first met Joanna Russ, she was younger than I am now, though she had already written all the novels she would publish in her lifetime. Because, at the time, she had a novel of which she had written 75 pages on hold (storing it in her freezer for safekeeping, which is what one did with typescripts), I expected that when she had finished the nonfiction book she was working on—what would eventually be published as What Are We Fighting For?—she would go on to finish that novel.

When I first met Joanna Russ, I regarded her as a goddess of wit and perspicacity whose feminist theorizing always seemed to articulate perfectly problems I'd been grappling with myself, a revered member of the pantheon of creative feminist writers who had made possible the person I was and would become. Reading her shapely, scathing litany—“She wrote it, but...”—I at once recognized its kinship with other canonical feminist work. In my heart, Joanna Russ was the Virginia Woolf of our day.

Joanna was a goddess, but all too human. A great advocate for consciousness-raising, she was the first person to raise my consciousness about ableism. When I first met Joanna Russ, she had recently recovered from a back injury that had immobilized her for months. To write, she stood at a tall table in her workroom. While sitting at her kitchen table, where we talked, she always occupied an ergonomic kneeling stool. She also suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. But it was depression that kept her from writing. She continually tried new drugs, each of which had horrible side-effects, including memory wipes that would result in her not remembering some of our conversations. One terrible December she spent two weeks in the psych ward of a hospital two blocks from my house. There's not much light in Seattle in December; when Joanna left the hospital, her talk about moving to the desert grew serious.

What I remember most vividly about Joanna was her powerful physical presence—her great height, her piercing gaze that maintained an extraordinary degree of eye-contact, her gleeful laughter and screeches of pleasure—and her particular personal qualities: lightning understanding and compassion and the sizzling power of her intellect—yes, even during her hospitalization for depression.

Though she had for several years declared herself “retired,” in her final 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." The penultimate sentence was "In a few months I hope to be more ambulatory and type-competent." The tone of her letter was strikingly cheerful and energetic. It made me hope that she would begin writing again.

Joanna is gone, but her work remains, every bit of it still important and powerful. And we are all the richer for it.

ETA: Since seeing Amy Thomson's obituary in Locus, I've corrected the portion of my summary of her tribute characterizing Bester's declaration about murder and rape victims.

No comments: