Monday, December 7, 2015

Report on the Tiptree Symposium

I spent last weekend in Eugene, Oregon, attending the Tiptree Symposium, which was hosted by the University of Oregon Libraries in honor of Alice Sheldon's centennial. In case you haven't heard,the University of Oregon Libraries' special collections include the papers of James Tiptree JR/Alice Sheldon, Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, Kate Wilhelm, Suzette Haden Elgin, and other feminist writers who are so critically important to our field and its history. I say I attended, but Aqueduct also attended: Kath presided over three tables with generous help from attending Aqueductistas. We sold several dozen books of our own, plus a variety of Tiptree-related books from other publishers and Tiptree Award tee-shirts.

During the welcome speeches made at the opening of the symposium, Senior Vice Provost Doug Blandy quoted from the introduction to Octavia's Brood in order to emphasize the importance of speculation and "visionary thinking" and declared that the symposium "advances our academic mission." This was a particularly nice touch, I thought, especially since none of the programming carried even a whiff of what most non-academics dislike about academic presentations. (As someone at home with academics, I'm always especially happy to find such harmonious blending.)

The first afternoon featured keynote speaker Julie Phillips, who gave a frequently funny and always moving account of two important correspondences, between Tiptree and Le Guin and Tiptree and Russ. These correspondences record, among other things, how Alli Sheldon spent the last ten years of life--following the disclosure that Tiptree was also, somehow, Alice Sheldon--"trying to find out who she was." After the revelation, she often felt that she didn't have any self at all, that she was caught up in "an animated puppet show." The value of the correspondence in these archives, Julie noted, is about refusing splitting things into compartments and labeling them (something Joanna Russ's letters talk about explicitly).

Following Julie's talk, students of Carol Stabile's Feminist Science Fiction course read selections from the correspondence, and Ursula read her letter in response to Tiptree's disclosure of Alice Sheldon. Many of us cried.

Karen Joy Fowler then introduced an audio production of "The Women Men Don't See," complete with sound effects. The actor reading Don Fenton's narration and dialogue was perfect. I've read that story men times, of course, but I found I couldn't bringing myself to leave the auditorium before it was finished. (Two tours of the Titpree Exhibit and Knight Library began as the tape was playing.) I did get to see the exhibit anyway, though, thanks to Julie Phillips doing the honors for me and her family members, who attended the symposium.

That evening, the Tiptree Motherboard hosted a party, full of conversation, with great refreshments and decorated with gorgeous flower arrangements and posters of Tiptree Award winners lining the walls.

Next morning began with a panel that was originally conceived to be on the subject of "feminist sf publishing." (Somewhere along the way, and without my noticing, "feminist" got dropped.) I was on this panel with Jacob Weisman, publisher of Tachyon Publications (who has done a lot of feminist sf publishing, including three Tiptree Award anthologies), Lisa Rogers, assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Gordon van Gelder, the publisher of , who was also Julie Phillips' editor for her life of Alli Sheldon. We were all a bit gobsmacked when moderator Prof. Phil Scher began by asking us about whether the mainstreaming of sf movies had significantly changed the status and fortunes of sf publishing. When my turn came to respond, I noted how vexed an issue sf film is for women: that films representing women well are considered "flukes" when they're successful, because Hollywood assumes "people" want to see stories about white men only. 

We talked about more interesting subjects, though, when the moderator asked us about "aha" moments when reading mss. (I chose to describe my exhilaration when reading the ms of Andrea Hairston's first novel, Mindscape.) And when the audience entered the discussion, it became promiscuously wide-ranging. This is the only way I can account for the introduction of the subject of "transparent" prose. I think it may have stemmed from a thread provoked by Eileen Gunn; I do recall that Eileen noted that some people don't seem to recognize certain styles of writing as styles, and that it takes a good deal of effort to write in such styles. And Ursula Le Guin, seated in the front row, provided a pungent remark that scotched the notion that "transparent prose" is "journalistic." The conversation was moving too fast for me to insert some of my own concerns about the use of the term "transparent prose"; these relate, of course, to my ongoing reflections about intelligibility-- that intelligibility is neither obvious nor "natural," but always a consequence of the stories, labels, words, etc that are generated by dominant, mainstream (dare I say "hegemonic"?) culture. Some stories, some identities, are simply invisible to those who don't venture outside mainstream culture. While any socially marginalized person is intimately acquainted with this problem and it seems to me to be an important issue that belongs in any discussion about "sf publishing" (feminist or otherwise), that's a minority view, I know, and requires connecting dots that are likely to go unnoticed by most people. Toward the end of the panel, though, Carol Stabile asked about whether the internet and social media had had an impact on sf publishing. And here I was able to note that these had made presses like Aqueduct possible--allowing the amplification of voices that are usually inaudible to the mainstream and the telling of stories unfamiliar and therefore otherwise unintelligible to mainstream publishing. 

I thought about the issue of intelligibility of non-mainstream stories again, when on the next panel, moderated by Karen, featuring Ursula, Suzy Charnas, and David Gerrold, Suzy talked about her first sf convention in 1976, in Kansas City, where she discovered "a community of women writers and readers, coalescing and beginning to create the world of feminist sf." The men at the convention, she said, didn't want to discuss sf by women or stories written from a woman's pov--and yet were outraged that women would want to meet separately simply so that they could discuss such sf (without being told how boring and awful it was and being constantly interrupted, as they were whenever they tried to say anything in the presence of men). Suzy said she'd been "taught that a woman's pov is too constricting and boring. But emerging feminist voices challenged that attitude." Ursula noted "It was a man's world. Feminism had been tried and abandoned earlier in [the twentieth] century. I thought literature was written by men, about men, for men." And so she wrote as a man-- "until I started to feel it wasn't right. Vonda [McIntyre] kept pinging me gently on the head." And: "I wanted to learn how to write as a woman. (But I was happy being a woman.)" And here followed a flurry of discussion affirming that writing like a woman had to be learned, and that it took hard work.

This made me remember how dissatisfied I was with some of the attempts of men writers to write a woman's pov in the 1980s & 1990s & of how Samuel R. Delany has more than once noted that for 19th-century European novelists, being able to write well from a woman's pov was an index of the quality of their art. Since writing from a woman's pov became declasse with modernism, of course both reading and writing stories by women, at least to begin with, takes an effort. And so it is for other marginalized identities. Remember Octavia Butler telling an interviewer that for a long time she thought her protagonist and pov character had to be a hard-drinking, chain-smoking 30-year-old white guy? We write not only from life, but from models. It's something we always have to keep in mind when we're thinkining and talking about gender issues in fiction.

After lunch, Jeff Smith very kindly submitted to questions about his friendship with Alli Sheldon/James Tiptree from Carol Stabile's students and then the audience. This was vivid and often poignant, a very fine reminder of how important oral histories are. And I have to say I'm fascinated to hear that for a while, Sheldon had a living tree growing inside her house. (Surely that's even more remarkable than her feeding a raccoon oatmeal cookies in her kitchen every afternoon?)

Next we had the pleasure of listening to Alli Sheldon's voice, by way of three audio recordings dating from the 1970s. One of these talked about Robert Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil, another about the play of gender differences in marriage, and the third about pain. 

And finally, the last item on the program was a panel discussion of the James Tiptree Jr Award, moderated by Joan Haran (now a professor at the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon), featuring Jeanne Gomoll, Margaret McBride, Pat Murphy, and Heather Whipple. Pat began by telling one of the "many versions of the birth of the award," in which Pat's GoH speech at WisCon announced the award as a spoof but the audience insisted on taking it literally and making it real. Heather, who is the award's archivist, talked about the materials documenting jury discussions etc. When Joan asked the panelists where the award was going now, I think the response that most interested me was Pat's observation that "what 'exploring or expanding the sense of gender' is different now than when we started the award," and that that meant the award would necessarily always be changing. Oh, & I should also perhaps mention that a request was made that new nominations for the Award not be submitted until after the new website design had been implemented (which will, I gather, be fairly soon).

At the end of the panel, Nisi Shawl, having insisted that music was part of the award's tradition, joined the panel as Pat led the room in a rendition of a song sung at one Tiptree Award Ceremony.

Finally, Carol Stabile made the stunning announcement that more Tiptree Symposia would be held-- next year with a focus on Joanna Russ, and the following year with a focus on Suzy McKee Charnas.

All in all, it was a stimulating weekend. I do have one reservation, though: it is that Nisi Shawl could remark that perhaps only one other black person attended the symposium. Obviously, this strikes me as a blindspot, given that all three Aqueduct authors who have been honored with the Tiptree Award are black women, that Jeff Smith identified Alli as a "social justice warrior," and that the newest Tiptree and Le Guin fellowship awards have gone to black women. 




No comments: