Tag Archives: science fiction

Neo-fascism trounced in sci fi, 2016

Last year I posted an essay about neo-fascist goings-on in the science fiction community. To make a long story short, a racist, misogynist troll who calls himself “Voice of God” and owns a publishing house in Finland used Gamergate tactics to hijack the ballot for science fiction’s prestigious Hugo Awards.

At the time, I was shocked and alarmed by the blatant neo-fascist rhetoric used by the troll and the normalization that had taken place in the science fiction community. (He had run for president of Science Fiction Writers of America even after using an outrageous racial slur against N.K. Jemisin, and a stunning ten percent of people had voted for him.)

In hindsight, I see that the racist far right has made inroads everywhere. Because about a fourth of the U.S. electorate voted in someone who is looking to be an actual fascist.

But here’s the good news: the science fiction community organized and the science fiction community won. Whatever else happened in 2016 that sucked, a bright spot is that he was roundly defeated. You can read more about that in the IO9 blog article “Hugo Awards Celebrate Women in Sci-Fi, Send Rabid Puppies to Doghouse” by Beth Elderkin.

Science fiction represents the dreams of our community. And dreams are powerful. If science fiction fans can come together to defeat neo-fascism with their own community, then everyday people in the U.S. can defeat white supremacy, actual fascism, and all the rest of that garbage.

We can win.

I’ll finish up by a quote from N.K. Jemisin:

. . . all this anger and discussion reflects a struggle for the soul of the organization, which is in turn reflective of a greater struggle for the soul of the genre, and that overall struggle taking place globally. . . .

Diverse voices are here to stay.

Spaceship_Kawaii

Advertisements

On reading Orson Scott Card

I was a diehard fan of Orson Scott Card from maybe 1987 until the time I got to the end of his novel Treasure Box, sometime after 1996, and then I suddenly wasn’t. I gave my reasons in a previous blog post, which you can search for if you like, but this post isn’t about that.

It’s about what it was like to be a reader of his work between 1987 and 1992. In 1987, I was in high school, living in Utah as a non-Mormon with mostly Mormon friends. Utah, well . . . back when the Mormons first settled it, it was supposed to be a theocracy. The State of Deseret, with the church and business leader Brigham Young at its head. By 1987 a lot had changed, of course, but the LDS church had quite a bit of influence over business and government.

Non-Mormons were (and still are) in a strange place culturally. I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the world. If you want a little taste of it, see this review of the play Saturday’s Voyeur, a parody of Mormon culture and politics that has been put on by the Salt Lake Acting Company since the late 1970s.

Part of the strangeness was that we were a minority culture subordinate to and in opposition to another minority culture. In many places outside of Utah, Mormons were looked upon skeptically. In Utah, though, they were the political power.

Another part of the strangeness was that many non-Mormons were ex-Mormons. They had belonged to the Church, and maybe their whole family and all their friends belonged to the Church, and then they had left it. That meant leaving a whole community, but still living in the same place.

Our family was kind of like that. My mom had been Mormon and had left the church because of, well, some stuff. And my dad had some Mormon roots as well. I am the descendant of Mormon converts, polygamists, “Jack Mormons,” ex-Mormons, and anti-Mormons. There’s a history. And a complicated cultural divide. My parents had their own stories to tell, and the occasional frustrated “Oh, those Mormons!” comments.

Orson Scott Card bridged the cultural divide, and he did it well. He was enjoyed and respected by Mormons and non-Mormons alike — including my dad and me. He put out quality work.

What did we read? Well, everything we could find. We blazed through the Ender’s Game series. And we read the Alvin Maker series. And the novel Saints, which had as its protagonist a polygamous woman from the early days of the church. We both felt she had done a good job of conveying a woman’s point of view and that the historical information was really compelling. On my own, I also read and loved his novel Songmaster and his short story collection Folk of the Fringe.

Around that same time I had an on-again, off-again Mormon boyfriend, also a big fan of Orson Scott Card. He told me stories about how the top leadership of the church would come to him saying, “Well, we heard about such-and-so in your book, and we’re concerned about it,” and he would point-by-point defend his works. I was duly impressed.

Within the broad science fiction and fantasy community, outside of Utah, I would have guessed that his Mormon identity would be a liability. But I don’t think it was. Actually, he was pretty mainstream.

How mainstream? Well, check out this list I found while going through old papers.  (I’m tidying.) It’s an article that appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1989, titled “Books to Look For” by Orson Scott Card.

I only have the first half of the article, but here were his selections:

  • Cyberbooks by Ben Bova (TOR)
  • Imago by Octavia Butler (Warner)
  • Nemesis by Isaac Asimov (Doubleday/Foundation)
  • On My Way to Paradise by Dave Wolverton (Bantam)
  • Tourists by Lisa Goldstein (Simon & Schuster)
  • Eva by Peter Dickinson (Delacorte)
  • The Golden Thread, Suzy McKee Charnas (Bantam)
  • The Jedera Adventure by Lloyd Alexander (Dutton)
  • The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson (TOR)
  • The Divide by Robert Charles Wilson (Doubleday/Foundation)
  • Castleview by Gene Wolfe (TOR)

Back then, I looked at this list and thought, “Wow, what a lot of great books!” I didn’t see then what was obvious now: only three of ten of the authors are women, and only one is black. I didn’t think much about the gender of authors or protagonists, and I didn’t think about race at all. (I probably wouldn’t even have noticed that Octavia Butler was black, unless I had read her book and looked at her picture.) That was the mainstream, or maybe to the left of it. Those were the kind of demographics you’d see even now from a lot of reviewers.

Well, that was then. A lot of things happened in the meantime. I took eye-opening feminist theory courses from Katherine Stockton, learned a lot about racism and sexism, joined the Mormon church, left the Mormon church, left Utah, went to graduate school, and learned more about racism and sexism, and then found Octavia Butler (WOW!), then learned more about systemic racism, misogyny, rape culture, collective liberation, and intersectional feminism.

I’m an entirely different reader.

Meanwhile, the science fiction and fantasy community is different, and so is the publishing landscape, and the demographic makeup of authors and readers. There are some people who have made the same journey as me, and some people (supporters of Theodore Beale, for instance) who have moved in the opposite direction.

And then there are the people in the middle. People who think, as I used to think, that demographics don’t matter, that there is some universal standard that makes a book excellent or mediocre. Such people can change. They can go in one direction or the other, or they can stay put.

If I were to start fresh, right now, and reread all those same books for the first time, I would probably say they were damn fine books with some seriously problematic elements.

The same, though, could be said about quite a few of my best beloved books. Rereading favorite children’s books to my daughter, I have to gag and skip over some of it. Other parts I have to explain. (“Well, it used to be considered acceptable to hit children.”) Or (“Well, back then, some people thought black people weren’t human.”) Or (“That’s because women were considered men’s property.”)

Would I ever reread any of Orson Scott Card’s books? Likely not, with the possible exceptions of SongmasterSaints, or Folk of the Fringe. But I am going to give him cred for recommending Octavia Butler.

Here’s what he says:

“Butler caps the series that began with Dawn and Adulthood Rites with this story of human beings struggling for species identity in the face of a genetic challenge from ruthless-yet-compassionate aliens. Which is more important, asks Butler, what we were or what we are becoming?”

Onward to the future.

Spaceship_Kawaii

Do Women Destroy Science Fiction?

Spent last weekend at the wonderful and thought-provoking Potlatch convention (http://www.potlatch-sf.org/). It’s a con for readers of speculative fiction, and I’ve been going to it for years and years.

Instead of a “Guest of Honor”, Potlatch has a “Book of Honor”. This year’s book was the anthology Women Destroy Science Fiction, produced by Lightspeed Press. It’s a response to the all-too-frequent claim by men that women writers are DESTROYING science fiction! Ever since H.G. Wells wrote the first sci fi book! (Actually, though, he wasn’t the first. That honor goes to a woman, the author of Frankenstein.)

The book is great! Where else can you read stories about dystopias where everyone lives in a mall? Genetic and cybernetic modifications that turn people into mermaids and spaceships? Or watch a corpse decompose in a spaceship after the artificial gravity system disappears? Who can resist an essay titled “How to Engineer a Self-Rescuing Princess”?

It was also wonderful to be able to have conversations about the book, in the form of audience-participation panels, and outside the panels — in the halls, in the hospitality suite, in restaurants, and afterward in blogs.

The conversations, though, seemed to lack focus. We’re in the middle of change — women are respected science fiction authors in some contexts, but not in others — and I don’t know that anybody was able to come up with a clear and coherent vision about the exact nature of the problem or how to handle it. So it seemed like we were talking about all different kinds of problems.  And we were. Some people were talking about respect, some people were talking about the disproportionate publishing and reviewing of men’s work, and some people expanded the conversation to include the difficulty of publishing in general.

You can see some of the comments here:

“Notes on ‘Women Destroy Science Fiction: Not Again'” — posted on the Aqueduct Press blog

The focus that conversation lacked can be found in Nisi Shawl’s Lightspeed anthology essay “Screaming Together: Making Women’s Voices Heard” —

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if . . . women’s genre stories and poems and genre-related nonfiction being published and read and noticed–happened every single day?”

She goes on to give a bunch of solutions, such as:

  • reading books by women
  • talking about books by women on social media
  • nominating women for awards
  • helping one of the many organizations that support women’s writing
  • for editors: repeatedly asking non-assertive women to participate in creative projects
  • for editors: issuing women writers public deadlines
  • supporting women who are writing
  • publishing women who are writing
  • for writers, using alternate publishing resources such as Book View Cafe, Indiegogo, and Kickstarter

This particular conversation, though, didn’t make it into the panel. Nor did a conversation about how far we have come, or maybe more important, what we are aiming for. We want women’s genre writing to be heard, but by whom? Is our goal equal representation in the Big Five publishing houses, and if so, why? Is it just women’s writing we want, or do we care about race, class, ability, gender, and more? Do we need a Combahee River Collective Statement  for genre writings?

Well, this explains why the conversations seemed to lack focus. They’re tackling a big topic. Why not make it just a little bigger by introducing publishing problems faced by men and women alike? Here you go:

“Notes on ‘What Dreams May Come'” — also from the Aqueduct Press blog.

That panel, which drew its inspiration on a speech Ursula Le Guin gave at the National Book Awards about authors, publishers, capitalism, and freedom. However, many of the audience members (including myself) hadn’t seen it, and the conversation dissolved into a conversation about big publishers and Amazon.

Where to next?

I left Potlatch mulling over a couple different concepts, so here they are, in their preliminary form.

1) It’s about building power. The question of who is published and reviewed, and who isn’t, has a little to do with quality and a whole lot to do with power. A group of people working together to read, edit, publish, and review each others’ works will build power.

2) Is it about competing with money, trying to get into the top publishers? I don’t think so. Money is a form of power. A noxious one. It’s a form of power best countered by striving for freedom. Whatever that means. Again, Ursula Le Guin’s speech is worth watching.

3) Is this a problem best solved by the individual, or the community?  Is it about what the individual wants to read, or write, or edit, or publish, or about what our communities need to hear and say and dream?

4) Speaking of community, Potlatch itself is a community-building con. It’s a place for readers and authors to meet each other and support each other. Over the years, it’s exposed me to a diverse range of authors, and it certainly has supported me as a woman author. Part of the solution, that.

5) Do women destroy science fiction? No. Science fiction is indestructible. Here — bring me some rockets and robots and TNT, and I’ll show you what I mean.

Image is from the Minecraft "Let it Blow" youtube video

Image is from the Minecraft “Let it Blow” youtube video

Year’s Roundup: 2010

For the past several years, I’ve been contributing to the series Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening at the Aqueduct Press blog. What’s that? Well, it’s a bunch of blog posts written by Aqueduct Press authors showcasing shows, music, and what-have-you that we enjoyed. Want some fine recommendations from geeky, smart, creative, well-read feminists? Check it out. In the next few days, I’ll be reposting my essays on this blog.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010

(originally posted here)

This year, I absorbed a lot of works that upset my understanding of the world around me. If I ever thought my identity – or anything else, for that matter – stood on solid ground, I was mistaken. On what does it rest, then? An abyss, the roll of a die, or a cantering horse? I’m really not sure.

 The Short Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz

http://www.powells.com/biblio/9781594489587

Okay, so the author made up fukú – the deadly curse wrought by the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, after the interference of Europe and America in the country’s affairs. It doesn’t matter if it’s made up, doesn’t matter if you believe in it. It’ll get you just the same.

But on the other hand, there’s also a counterspell: zafa. And Oscar Wao is zafa. He exists in the intersection of oppressions, at home nowhere. He is a Dominican immigrant / refugee in the U.S. and also a nerd and overweight. The Dominicans in his community won’t acknowledge him as their own because he is a nerd. The nerds are embarrassed because he’s overweight. And yet . . . he’s wondrous. In a small but important way, and with geeky panache, he resists a dictatorship.

Oscar Wao suffers. He suffers a lot. But when he takes damage, he takes it Dungeons and Dragons-style, with hit points from the funny-shaped dice. Roll that die. Ooh – maximum hit points.

I can relate.

The Hearts of Horses

by Molly Gloss

http://www.mollygloss.com/hearts.html

Meet Martha Lessen. She’s the Western hero that you’ll never see in a Louis L’Amour novel or a spaghetti Western – she’s unassuming and she doesn’t shoot people. Instead, she rides into town and gets a job “breaking” horses. She’s learned horsebreaking from a “horse whisperer,” winning a horse’s trust rather than forcing it into submission through violence and fear. She fits neither the stereotype of horsebreaker or woman, but she gradually finds a place in the community through her quiet competence and love of horses and people alike.

I read this book after hearing Molly Gloss give a profoundly thought-provoking talk on the myth of “Shane,” the gunslinger who rides into town, saves the townfolk by shooting the bad guys, and rides right out again. That’s our great the Western myth that has done incalculable damage to the world. But, as Gloss argues, it’s a total lie. The true story of the West was about ordinary people homesteading and ranching, making home and community.

Her essay on Shane, “Desperado,” appears in Serving House Journal. (http://servinghousejournal.com/GlossDesperado.aspx)

The Tao Te Ching

by Ursula Le Guin

http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Index-LaoTzu.html

Le Guin spent hours on end reading her father’s copy of the Tao Te Ching, and is grateful to have discovered it so young so she could live with it for her whole life. Most versions are written to emphasize masculinity and authority, but she makes this one “accessible to a present-day, unwise, and perhaps unmale reader . . . listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” It’s practical and funny, and it will teach you to be like water. I get the biggest kick out of her commentary on Chapter 53, “Insight” – “So much for capitalism.”

Cheek by Jowl

by Ursula Le Guin

http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Index-CheekByJowl.html

This book surveys children’s chapter books with animals as characters. But not the kind of animals who are really humans prowling around in a lion suit – animals who genuinely act and feel like animals. It’s a reminder of what humans have lost as we’ve set ourselves apart from the rest of the natural world. After I put the book down, I couldn’t feel superior any more.

The Man Who Lost His Shadow and Nine Other German Fairy Tales

by Gertrude C. Schwebell

http://openlibrary.org/books/OL5069919M/The_man_who_lost_his_shadow_and_nine_other_German_fairy_tales

There’s nothing like going into a used bookstore and finding a great collection of fairy tales. What happens to a man who sells his shadow? Does a boy with no morals ever get a second chance? These are rich, meaty, and imaginative, and the characters all get their just desserts.

Pippi Longstocking

by Astrid Lindgren

http://www.powells.com/biblio/9780670062768

If my young daughter walks into my neighborhood independent bookstore and heads toward the children’s section, she’ll come across a couple of book spinners. They’ll be irresistible. Who cares that there are other books just a few steps away? Because these spinners have great books for girls, just the kind she craves, the kind you find at the school bookfairs and the Scholastic catalogs, the kind you even get as a prize for completing the library’s summer reading program. Yeah. Disney princesses and Barbie.

But soon . . . maybe one more year . . . she’ll be ready for Pippi. Strong, quick-witted, and owner of a large chest of pirate gold, Pippi could beat Walt Disney with one arm tied behind her back.

And then go back home, gobble up a bag of candy, and fall asleep with her head under a blanket and her feet on the pillow.

Logicomix

by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou, and Annie Di Donna

http://www.logicomix.com/en/

This graphic novel tells the story of the search for truth in the foundations of pure logic, intertwining the lives of famous mathematicians with the mathematical quests and political turmoil of the early- to mid-twentieth century.

Logicomix centers on the story of mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell had madness in his genes and parents nobody would talk about. Lacking stable foundations for his identity, he sought them in mathematics. Euclid’s geometry gave him “the promise of certainty in total rationality” and a “dream of a perfect cosmos.”

It was a lovely dream, the Enlightenment belief that mathematics pointed the way to a final and absolute truth.

Only thing was . . . Euclid’s geometry was based on axioms, which were unprovable. Russell set about trying to rectify it, spending ten years trying to prove the obvious, that 1 + 1 = 2.

He failed. And to the shock and horror of not only Russell but also mathematicians everywhere, his failure led to an even crazier mathematician, Goedel, mathematically proving that truth is not provable and that every system based on arithmetic is incomplete.

Who cares? What did this quest do to Russell? His wife? His son? And what does it have to do with World War II, the rise of Hitler, and anti-Semitism?

Usually, after you finish a book, you know more than when you began it. But if you dare to crack open this most remarkable book, you’ll know less.

Catching the Moon

by Myla Goldberg, illustrated by Chris Sheban.

http://www.carolhurst.com/titles/catchingthemoon.html

When an old fisherwoman casts her net all night long, the Man in the Moon is intrigued and decides to pay her a visit. But he accidentally lets in the tides and upsets her tea set.

“My heavens,” cried her guest. “I’m afraid I’ve caused a mess.”

This picture book is short, sweet, and lovely.

One Book that I Didn’t Read Because It Didn’t Exist

by nobody

Wouldn’t it be great if somebody wrote a book about Lily Potter? After all, it was her magic that defeated Voldemort – twice! Were they just magically bestowed on her because she is a Woman and a Mother, or did she get busy sneaking around in the invisibility cloak with her gang, reading ancient magical history, having conversations with Dumbledore about how to keep this Snape guy in line? Yeah. Somebody write that.

The Polymath, Or The Life And Opinions Of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman

directed by Fred Barney Taylor

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1014771/

This documentary grabbed my attention off the video shelf with the most basic of hooks – sex. Rent me, it said, and you’ll find out how novelist Samuel Delany managed to have 5,000 partners in his lifetime. Exciting? Extraordinary? No, to listen to him talk, that’s just what life was like for him in the seventies. “You felt like you were having a very ‑ a fairly interesting life,” he says matter‑of‑factly. And just as matter‑of‑factly, he shows us the world we live in, a world we think we know but don’t.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Were the porn theaters romantic? Not at all. But because of the people who used them, they were humane and functional, fulfilling needs that most of our society does not yet know how to acknowledge.

The easy argument already in place to catch up these anecdotes is that social institutions such as the porn movies take up, then, a certain social excess, are even perhaps socially beneficial to some small part of it, a margin outside the margin. But that is the same argument that allows them to be dismissed and physically smashed and flattened. They are relevant only to that margin; no one else cares.

Well, in a democracy, that is not an acceptable argument. People are not excess. It is the same argument that dismisses the needs of blacks, Jews, hispanics, asians, women, gays, the homeless, the poor, the worker, and all other margins, that, taken together ‑ people like you, people like me – are the country’s overwhelming majority ‑ those who, socioeconomically, are simply less powerful.”

I could listen to him for hours on end.

Doctor Who, Seasons 4 and 5

The tenth Doctor, a rather Shane-like figure, blows it toward the end of Season 5, turning into an anti-hero. (I loved this moment so much I wrote an essay on it for Strange Horizons: “The Fall of the Superhero: Doctor Who and the Waters of Mars” at http://strangehorizons.com/2010/20100301/king-a.shtml)

Fortunately, the Doctor can regenerate into a new body and personality – sort of reincarnating without having to go through childhood again. But at the beginning of Season 5, the eleventh Doctor takes a Tigger-ish moment to relive childhood. He turns up at the house of seven-year old Amelia Pond demands an apple, takes a bite, and spits it out. Yogurt, beans, bread and butter all go the same way – thrown or spat. Finally, just as Tigger finds his favorite food in Kanga’s Strengthening Medicine, the Doctor finds fish fingers dipped in custard. Perfect.

The eleventh Doctor’s companion, grown up Amy Pond, is the epitome of what the media requires out of girls and women in twenty-first century. She models empowerment by looking sexy, dressing in miniskirts, and having a voracious sexual appetite. Something about this is worse than, for example, the Wonder Woman who fought bad guys while satisfying the urges of the male gaze. I think it’s because Amy Pond has internalized her stereotype.

Still, Amy Pond has her moments, and my favorite is at the end of “The Beast Below” when she thwarts the Doctor, and forces the Queen of Starship Britain to abdicate.

And a Weekend of Revelations

In February I attended the Fishtrap Winter Gathering in Oregon, with a weekend of talks, readings, and workshops by Molly Gloss, Ursula Le Guin, and Tony Vogt. I wrote a little about it on the Aqueduct Press blog (http://aqueductpress.blogspot.com/2010/02/fishtrap‑winter‑gathering.html) but there’s a lot more to say and think about. I’ve been absorbing what I heard all year long. Just a few takeaways:

  • White people are largely unaware of the ways that white privilege shapes everyone’s day-to-day life. Go to the store and get a box of flesh-covered band-aids. You’ll see.
  • We need to dismantle the myth of Shane.
  • Human beings are animals who use technology. (Does this make my computer part of the natural world?)
  • Technology makes us human, and capitalism makes technology destructive by forcing it to be always bigger and better. (I have to wonder, though: isn’t capitalism just one of our technologies? And what does that mean?)
  • The words that we use matter. It’s time to ditch the war metaphors.

pencil and notebook3

 

 

Year’s Roundup: 2009

For the past several years, I’ve been contributing to the series Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening at the Aqueduct Press blog. What’s that? Well, it’s a bunch of blog posts written by Aqueduct Press authors showcasing shows, music, and what-have-you that we enjoyed. Want some fine recommendations from geeky, smart, creative, well-read feminists? Check it out. In the next few days, I’ll be reposting my essays.

Due to time constraints, I’m reposting without links or images, so I’ll also add links to the essays on the Aqueduct Press blog. Here’s the one from 2009.

A Sampling from 2009

Here is a small sampling of the books and shows I’ve enjoyed this year.

 Stories that Love Stories

In Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling, after the planet Aka joins the intergalactic community, all storytelling is forbidden. What happened? Suty comes as galactic observer and cultural anthropologist to find out. What follows is a quest of mystery and discovery that ends up on top of snowy mountains in a labyrinth of “books, thousands of books, in leather and cloth and wooden and paper bindings, unbound manuscripts in carved and painted boxes and jeweled caskets, fragments of ancient writing blazing with gold leaf . . .” Suty is trying to understand their banned religion, the Telling, which seems to come out of fragmented bits of unrelated stories, but finally comes to understand that the Telling is irreducible, that it is story itself.

Another book about the love of books is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

Italo Calvino learned about narrative from his experience of Italian cinema, where it was common practice to enter the theater in the middle of the movie, and maybe stick around to catch the beginning or maybe not, seeing the films all out of order. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler has ten beginnings to novels, interspersed with the reader’s pursuit of the true story and of the woman Ludmilla. It is full of story, tales told in the darkness. As in the Telling, all the fragments of the story come together to make a grand narrative that defies rational explanation.

Doctor Who is a television show that has been an endless source of story since 1963. Like a book, the Doctor’s time machine, the Tardis, is bigger on the inside than the out. It can take you anyplace, to tell any story that can possibly be told. The Doctor defeats villains with his wits or, in the best of the stories (such as Hugo award-winning “The Doctor Dances”), through healing. The episode “Silence in the Library” is set on a planet that is a library, containing all the books that ever existed in the universe. It’s a treasure horde guarded by a dragon, the Vashta Nerada, devourers who live in the shadow – not every shadow, but any shadow. There, the Doctor meets one of the strongest female characters he’s ever encountered: River Song, an archaeologist who has her own adventures, knows his future, and in that future, has learned his true name.

 Stories About Borders and Bridges

A shy girl with glasses and a love of books, I learned in first grade that I didn’t fit. I’m white, and so I can “pass” as not-other, but only by lying, by holding back parts of myself that matter deeply. And so whenever I’ve become part of a community and realized I don’t quite belong, I’ve been quick to blame myself. But how I understand my identity and my part in the world has been changing, and it’s thanks to writers such as bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa, women I read back in 1995 and whose thoughts have been growing in my mind all these years. From Gloria Anzaldúa, I learned the concept of the border crosser, the nepantlera, who becomes a bridge between worlds, and the Borderlands, a transformational space that crosses a geographic, metaphorical, or spiritual border.

I recently picked up The Gloria Anzaldua Reader, ed. AnaLouise Keating and I’ve been slowly reabsorbing her ideas. In “La Prieta,” she writes about herself as a border person:

“Think of me as Shiva, a many-armed and -legged body with one foot on brown soil, one on white, one in straight society, one in the gay world, the man’s world, the women’s, one limb in the literary world, another in the working class, the socialist, and the occult worlds. A sort of spider woman hanging by one thin strand of thread.”

Hers was a painful life. As a child she labored as a farm worker near the Mexican border, had an adolescent’s body at the age of three and a hysterectomy at the age of five, and was so sensitive that the pain of others hurt her too. Too white, too brown, too gay . . . But, she asks, why? “Growing up,” she writes, “I felt that I was an alien from another planet dropped on my mother’s lap. But for what purpose?”

She has an answer to that question, which brings me to Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler. The main character, Akin, is a half-human, half-alien hybrid. He fits in neither place, and he suffers for it. Not only do the human and alien (Oankali) worlds reject him, but he is also torn from an all-important sibling relationship; it’s a loss that can never be repaired.

But why? His suffering makes it possible for him to bridge the gaps between the human and Oankali worlds and bring possible salvation to humanity. The Oankali believe that humans suffer from a deadly genetic contradiction of intelligence plus hierarchy, and that it will necessarily lead the human race to destroy itself. And so, after humanity has all but wiped itself out, the Oankali are not prepared to save them. But at the end of the book, Akin is ready to take on the work, and it’s because he’s traveled between both worlds.

Like Akin and like Gloria Anzaldúa, Octavia Butler suffered greatly for her differences. She was too big, too black, too dyslexic. But for what purpose? Going back to Anzaldúa’s question, perhaps it is to build El Mundo Zurdo (the left-handed world), where “the queer groups, the people that don’t belong anywhere, not in the dominant world nor completely within our respective cultures . . . can live together and transform the planet.”

It is a tragedy that both Gloria Anzaldúa and Octavia Butler died much too soon. And so in the middle of an essay on pleasures I have to add a lament, for the troubles of their lives, for our loss of their imaginings.

 Stories About the Underworld

Perhaps it’s time to make a border crossing from our physical reality to the world of the soul, the underworld. So here are a few underworld stories.

“The Beads of Ku” by Nisi Shawl is an underworld story with humor and charm. The heroine, Fulla Fulla, has a head for business and the ability to move gracefully between our world and the Land of the Dead. When her husband grows jealous of her connection with the underworld, he breaks the rules, and it’s up to her to save him, using her wits and her skill at wrangling to outwit the king of the dead. It’s one of my favorites in her collection Filter House.

Humming The Blues by Cass Daglish is a translation of an underworld story written by the first person ever to sign her name to a text. Her name was Enheduanna, and in 2350 B.C., she wrote a poem about the goddess Ananna, who descended to the underworld and, with the help of her female friends, emerged triumphant. The exact meanings of the cuneiform text are impossible to know now, so Cass Daglish did her best by making a “jazz translation” of the text, delving into different possible meanings and using them to create a work of poetry.

 Stories in Picture and Chapter Books

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula Le Guin is a defense of animals, fantasy, and children’s literature. In “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” she writes, “To throw a book out of serious consideration because it was written for children . . . is in fact a monstrous act of anti-intellectualism. But it happens daily in academia.”

It’s all part of a general disrespect for children in our culture. It took being a mother for me to understand how seriously dysfunctional it is to marginalize and silence children. After all, a child is at the core of every one of us. Until you have paid serious attention to children, you can understand very little of the human soul. Children are alien, other, and so are we. So go ahead, find a children’s book you loved as a child, and enjoy it all over again. You know you want to.

Here are a few children’s books that will cheer you up in the dead of winter.

bell hooks’ Homemade Love is about Girlpie, a well-loved child. She breaks something special, and the break is devastating – has she lost the right to be loved? But her parents help her fix it. This is all about forgiveness and mending ruptures.

Shibumi and the Kitemaker by Mercer Mayer is a beautifully illustrated story about an emporer’s daughter who, on seeing the squalor of the city below her palace, goes aloft on a kite and refuses to come down until the city is as beautiful as the palace. The ending is exactly as ambiguous as it ought to be. In the beginning of the book is a poem about “authority without domination,” which I wrote down on a scrap of paper and then lost on my desk. So you’ll have to get the book if you want to read the poem.

Boo and Baa Get Wet, by Norwegian authors Olaf and Lena Landstrom, is part of a series about siblings named Boo and Baa, who have the innocence of children, the autonomy of adults, and a clearly loving relationship. They have little adventures that go wrong but always end up okay. Ants on a picnic, a cat stuck up in a tree, a cabbage that rolls down a snowy hill. In Boo and Baa Get Wet, they leave their croquet set outside and have to go get it in the middle of a thunderstorm. My favorite part is when there is a flash of lightning and the text says, “Now what? What happened?” In this silence, I can stop in my reading and talk to the children about what is going on. And the series is full of these little moments.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren is the anti-Bartleby. Bartleby’s refusal was passive and led only to his death, but Pippi’s “won’t” just means she has better things to do with her time. Luckily, she can back up her “won’t” with brawn, wits, and a pirate chest full of gold. While Bartleby let the police carry him off, Pippi led hers on a merry chase on her rooftop, letting them down only when they asked nicely. Hurrah, Pippi! Hurrah, humanity!

 And A Movie

My favorite movie from this year is Not One Less, about a thirteen-year-old girl who takes the job as substitute teacher in a remote Chinese province for an entire month. She has no qualifications and seemingly little to teach, but she’s the only one who volunteered. How could she possibly take charge of a class? When one of her students leaves the school to find work in the big city and then gets lost, she knows she has to find him. It’s impossible. But she is stubborn, determined, patient, and strong. Can she bring him back? This is a good counterpoint to the travesty of No Child Left Behind.

pencil and notebook3

The Polymath – Samuel Delany

I have been watching the documentary The Polymath about the life of Samuel Delany – a great American novelist that few people have heard of because a) he writes in SF and b) he is black. I first heard of him when his book was the Book of Honor at a Potlatch convention, and somebody read some of his work out loud. It was incredible, a multisensory experience, rich in so many dimensions. The documentary – even more so.