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Notes of a Border Crosser
Long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away -- which is to say the women's community of Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s -- I started reading fantasy and science fiction by women. I was already reading poetry, essays, and histories by women, biographies and autobiographies of women, all kinds of other fiction by women, so expanding into reading fantasy and science fiction by women did not seem like a big deal.
Little did I know.
Within a few years I was working in a feminist bookstore. I got to decide what books the store stocked. Dream job, right? Before I arrived, the store carried a few science fiction and fantasy titles by women. Ursula Le Guin was there, of course, and Kate Wilhelm, Anne McCaffrey, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. But much was missing, for a variety of reasons.
Joanna Russ's Female Man was going out of print. To find Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time you had to look in general fiction. News of Tiptree's gender had not yet reached the feminist part of Washington. Nor had the names of the many new writers who were using fantasy and SF to create interesting female characters and explore a variety of feminist themes: Vonda McIntyre, Elizabeth A. Lynn, Marta Randall, Suzette Haden Elgin, Phyllis Ann Karr, to name a few.
Unfortunately, this was not all. I smelled trouble the day I extracted the inventory card for Motherlines from the out-of-stock box. At the bottom of the card my predecessor had written: "Customer says don't order; too violent."
Well. I considered smoking out this anonymous customer by recommending Motherlines to everyone who walked through the door and seeing who accused me of foisting violent fiction off on feminist readers. But the opportunity had passed: by then Motherlines could only be found in used bookstores and the collections of discerning readers who required a notarized pledge of prompt return before they'd lend their copy out.
Instead, I encouraged feminist fiction readers to try this or that fantasy or science fiction writer. Astonishing! Some people stared at me bewildered, as if my English had become incomprehensible. Others gazed with a complex mixture of pity and contempt, or they murmured, "Oh, I don't read fantasy or science fiction."
"Why not?" I would ask, and hear in reply: "It's all about spaceships and elves."
"No elves in The Left Hand of Darkness," I say, "and the spaceships are strictly deep background."
"I don't read fantasy or science fiction" -- a little louder this time. "It's just about guys."
"Left Hand of Darkness has a interesting take on gender -- plus it's a mass-market paperback, only $1.95."
"No, thanks. Besides, I was never any good at science or math."
"Do you have to be a cop to read Agatha Christie?" I retort, unwilling to give up. "Hell, you don't even have to be English!"
By this time the customer is looking right and left for a chance to escape. "It's just too unbelievable," she says, ducking past me and heading for the back of the store.
A few minutes later there she is at the cash register, plunking down three nine-dollar romances, each one about two women, one independently wealthy, the other getting a divorce from her husband, who fall in love and have simultaneous multiple orgasms on the first try. "I hear this one's really hot," the customer says shyly.
It's an attempt at reconciliation, I can tell. "Check out page ninety-four," I advise, in the same spirit.
But I didn't get it. We feminists, or at least we customers of feminist bookstores, saw ourselves as adventurous, tolerant, open to new everythings, from sexual arrangements to political ideas to literature. Why this resistance to feminist literature that happened to be fantasy or science fiction?
I still haven't found any really satisfying answers, but I did discover plenty of evidence that other feminists were finding the role of chronic interpreter and translator frustrating. This is from Kate Rushin's "Bridge Poem," the title poem of the pioneering anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa.
I've had enough
I'm sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody
Can talk to anybody
I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends' parents . . .
Then I've got to explain myself
To everybody (p. xxi)
Anyone who goes from one place to another may become a bridge -- unless, of course, by choice or necessity they retain no connection with the place they left. Bridges do a lot of explaining: to start with, you have to explain to your new neighbors all about where you came from. You have to explain to your old friends and family why you haven't gone crazy, at least why you aren't making a terrible mistake.
Being a bridge is exhausting. Even when the people mean well -- and sometimes they do -- you can wear yourself out answering those questions. The same question from a hundred different people. Or the same question from the same person in a hundred different guises: "Why do you read this stuff?" "Are you sure you're really a lesbian?" Some questions are asked to obtain answers, and some questions are asked to make a point, to insult, to wound. Confronted too long and too often with the latter kind of question, you may decide to pull up the bridge and move on. To burn your bridges, as it were.
Separatism is a controlled form of bridge burning. It doesn't sit well with a lot of people. It's parochial, it's defeatist, it's elitist and undemocratic. If a feminist wants to make herself acceptable in polite company, she'd better dissociate herself from those fanatical, buzz haircut, jackbooted, man-hating separatists.
Except for one thing: separatism makes sense. In Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain some human beings -- who, like you and me, require at least a few hours of sleep every day -- use genetic engineering to create children who require no sleep at all. Gifted with several extra waking hours every day, these Sleepless children grow up to excel at whatever field they put their minds to.
Many of the Sleepers freak out. Following an ugly American tradition, they persecute in ever more violent ways the objects of their fear. The Sleepless, in ever increasing numbers, separate from the Sleeper society. Who could argue with their decision? And who, at the same time, could fail to see the dangers?
I don't need to pitch Beggars in Spain to you guys, do I. You aren't going to tell me that it's too unbelievable, or that you don't want to read about spaceships?
Of course not. Not at WisCon. When I first came to WisCon, in 1990, the heavy burden of explanation dropped from my shoulders. No one had to be persuaded to read Motherlines. No one in my hearing began a sentence with "I'm not a feminist, but . . ." In the outside world, both feminism and science fiction are often suspect. Supporters of either -- if we choose to disclose our political and literary proclivities -- find ourselves explaining a lot, and defusing numerous misconceptions, like elves and spaceships and burning bras. Not at WisCon. Over the years WisCon's heroic organizers have created a space that takes for granted the worthiness both of feminism and of fantasy and science fiction. In particular it honors -- honors by taking seriously ‑- feminist fantasy and science fiction.
And look what happens when we don't have to continually explain the significance of what we read, write, edit, and review. The James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award happens, for one thing. And look at the panels, films, and discussions you've taken part in since Friday afternoon. To name a few, chosen because I especially like their titles: "Would a woman invent a sleepless child?" "Jane Austen is as alien as Mars." "Crones, sages, and silly old women." "The family: threat or menace?" "Is resistance futile?" "Male gender as a construction in SF&F." And "Narrative transvestites."
Do you know there are still cons in this country that offer one -- count it, one -- panel called something like "Women and SF," which is stocked with -- can you guess which gender the panelists are? Right: women. Because who else wants to talk about women and SF. And that panel is supposed to cover in fifty minutes a topic that we collectively can explore intensively for three days and barely scratch the surface of.
If this be Separatism, make the most of it!
But there's more to it, of course. What do we do with the ideas we discuss here, the stories and novels and essays we conceive here, the resolutions we make here? One of my favorite essays, one I've been rereading for almost fifteen years, speaks to this point. It's called "Coalition Politics: Turning the Century"; the author is Bernice Johnson Reagon, cultural historian and long-time activist whom many of you know as the founder and leader of the great vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. It was originally a speech given at a women's music festival. WisCon takes place in a climate-controlled hotel with indoor plumbing, but it still has something in common with women's music festivals. And that's why Bernice Johnson Reagon's challenge to her listeners seems appropriate here. "What really counts," she said, "is not what you do this weekend, but take what this weekend has meant -- try to digest it. And first thing, Monday, Tuesday morning at work, before twenty-four hours go around, apply it. And then do it everyday you get up and find yourself alive." (In Home Girls, ed. Barbara Smith, p. 368)
How do I apply WisCon to my life at home? Day after tomorrow, I'll take two planes, a bus, and a ferryboat home to Martha's Vineyard, where I live. If the past years are any guide, this is what's going to happen. My friends and colleagues will remark I seem particularly high-spirited and ask what I've been up to.
"A science fiction convention," I'll reply, and if their eyebrows don't immediately shoot above their hairlines, I'll add, "a feminist science fiction convention."
Something in my expression tells them that they better not laugh out loud, but their eyes go blank and start darting from left to right to left. What language is the woman speaking? Has Susanna lost her mind? It's that old feminist bookstore scene revisited.
But I've matured, somewhat, since those days, and besides these are my friends, the people I see day to day, week to week, at work, at the grocery store, hiking in the woods. "It's sort of a literary conference," I tell them, and leave it at that.
Going home after WisCon would seem like driving down a road that dead-ends without warning -- if it weren't for the fact that I carry on a flourishing e-mail correspondence with a variety of people who write, read, and otherwise know about the literature we've been discussing here.
Most of us -- probably all of us, at least for part of our lives -- live in more than one world. At some point, when we're kids, we realize there are some things we can't tell the adults, because they just won't get it. And they'll bend over backwards to stop us from doing it. When I was a kid, my brother and I and our friends liked to ride our bikes to the top of the steep hill we lived on, then tear down the hill so fast your eyes watered and make the sharp left turn into our driveway just before we hit the main road. Without using our brakes.
A couple of years later, our secrets had to do with cheap paperbacks with titles like Campus Lust and bizarre anatomically incorrect cover art. A year or two after that, it was smoking cigarettes. The hardest thing about that was getting through your first time without anyone knowing it was your first time.
This was early '60s suburban stuff. But kids still keep secrets from adults. They learn a lesson that will last them all their lives: that some of their peers can be trusted and some will go running to their parents at the first whiff of the forbidden. The latter soon find themselves, as we say now, "out of the loop." They are shunned as tattletales if they are kids; as scabs, traitors, or whistleblowers if they are adults.
As long as the world divides neatly into us and them, it's pretty easy to figure out where you stand. Everyone is either for you or agin you, and you treat, and trust, them accordingly. But us and them tangle pretty damn quick as soon as you crawl out of your burrow -- and sometimes way before then. I'm white; I'm a woman. Never mind all the other stuff I am. Just being white and woman at the same time sets up enough rips and cross-rips to keep my little boat rocking. Imagine what tides we might have to contend with, with two big moons in the sky instead of one.
Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich has been exploring this shifting but fertile terrain for several decades now. These lines come from her 1977 poem "Natural Resources":
Could you imagine a world of women only
the interviewer asked. Can you imagine
a world where women are absent. (He believed
he was joking.) Yet I have to imagine
at one and the same moment, both. Because
I live in both. Can you imagine,
the interviewer asked, a world of men?
(He thought he was joking.) If so, then,
a world where men are absent?
Absently, wearily, I answered: Yes.
(The Dream of a Common Language, p. 61)
When I lived in Washington, D.C., there were certain places where lesbians congregated. The feminist bookstore, the women's center, concerts by certain performers, Gay Pride Day, various restaurants known to be lesbian-friendly, a couple of lesbian bars. I expected to see lesbians in those places; I expected to see lesbians I knew, and I expected that most of the new faces would be lesbians as well, at least potentially. But how strange and wonderful it could be to encounter a lesbian friend, or a probably lesbian stranger, on a subway platform in the Virginia suburbs or crossing Lafayette Park. We were like undercover agents passing in broad daylight, anonymous among the tourists from Georgia, Nebraska, or Vermont, the somber-suited lawyers and government workers.
Moving to Martha's Vineyard was an education. At least half the women I met dressed like urban dykes: jeans and khakis, flannel shirts, button-downs, and turtlenecks, sensible shoes and sneakers. Who were they kidding? What totally blew me away was that they'd ask me if I'd been married (no ring on my left hand -- it was a safe bet I wasn't married at the moment) and whether I had kids. What an unsettling experience! It had been so long since I'd had to tell anyone I was a lesbian -- didn't I give off lesbian vibes? -- that I'd forgotten how. It was really hard to say, and it got harder because when I did get the word out, most people acted as if they hadn't heard me. On Martha's Vineyard in 1985, the word "lesbian" was rarely spoken out loud. Not because there were no lesbians on Martha's Vineyard in 1985; there were, but even they rarely uttered the word "lesbian" in public places.
I had forgotten, during my women's community years, how risky coming out can be, how difficult, and how exhausting. Saying something significant and receiving no response. Did I say anything? Was I heard? What does it matter if I'm a lesbian or not?
I mulled it over for a while and finally proposed to a lesbian journal an essay on coming out in a small town. "Coming out has been overdone," said the editor.
Overdone? Then why had I come across nothing that discussed coming and being out in a small town? Everyone I knew who had come out in a small town wound up moving to Washington or New York or San Francisco or Chicago. Presumably no one in her right mind would do it in reverse. I had decided that getting out of the big city was more pressing than living among lesbians and feminists, but deep down I expected to have it both ways. With a few exceptions, my city connections dwindled and atrophied once they were no longer nourished by regular, casual contact. I wasn't close enough to keep up. From a distance, some of the lesbian community mores I'd taken for granted, or at least learned to co-exist with, seemed downright nasty, self-deluded, or wrong.
Martha's Vineyard was no more on the lesbian-feminist road map than science fiction was. You can't get there from here. I didn't burn my bridges exactly, but I crossed them less and less often. Brambles grew over them. They became harder to find, and not worth the sweat and scratches to cross over.
When you move between worlds, and especially when others have power over you -- even when that power derives from no more than your desire to be accepted -- learning how much to tell whom and in which situations is a crucial survival lesson. Learning whom to trust and how far is another. Whether you are a child, a woman, a person of color, a gay person, a citizen of an occupied country, an employee, or simply a science fiction lover in a milieu that treats genre fiction with contempt -- there are times to speak and times to be silent.
But when are those times? When do we speak, and when do we keep silent? How do we know? Can we know, when for so much of our lives, speaking has placed us in trouble, or in danger, or at least in the position where we have to defend, word by word, everything we say?
As Adrienne Rich put it, this time in the essay "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying":
"Does a life 'in the closet' _- lying, perhaps of necessity, about ourselves to bosses, landlords, clients, colleagues, family, because the law and public opinion are founded on a lie_-does this, can it, spread into private life, so that lying (described as discretion) becomes an easy way to avoid conflict or complication? can it become a strategy so ingrained that it is used even with close friends and lovers?"
(On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, p. 190)
You bet it can. And it applies not just to lying -- saying things that aren't true -- but to concealing parts of the truth, the parts that get lost in translation. The parts that I'm too tired to explain. Like many a bright kid who grew up in an alcoholic family, concealing things comes easy to me, especially things that will either cause conflict or involve me in tedious explanations.
But over the years, unerringly if unconsciously, I've placed myself in positions where constant explaining is required. Leaving my rather staid hometown to immerse myself in the antiwar movement. Leaving my entirely white hometown to live in a city that was at least three-quarters black. Leaving the United States to study in England. Leaving the world where women were largely absent to live in a world of women only. Leaving that world to live on an island off the coast of Massachusetts where most of the lesbians I met hushed me if I said "lesbian" out loud. And all the while going back and forth from wherever I lived to works of SF and fantasy.
The universe, I suspect, is trying to tell me that explaining is my raison d'être. So I explain what Martha's Vineyard is about to people who know it only from its occasional appearances in the national news, like when the president came to visit or James Taylor and Carly Simon throw a reunion concert.
I explain what feminism is about to people who know only the mass-media version. To my straight women friends, I explain how my assumptions and experiences as a lesbian sometimes differ from theirs -- while wishing sometimes that they could do a little more, well, extrapolating on their own. I explain to anyone who will listen why I read SF.
But most friendships don't lend themselves to much explanation. When you meet, you're too busy getting the job done, or catching up on recent news and good gossip to branch off into freewheeling discussion of cosmic questions, or even make sense of where you came from.
So I write. I have been writing, and seeing my work in print, for a long time, almost twenty years. Two things have characterized most of my writing to this point: one, it was done on deadline. If I didn't have a deadline, I found it hard to get motivated. And two, most of it involved interpreting or translating something from one world to another -- often in the process interpreting it for myself. Reviewing is most obviously an act of interpretation, and much of my reviewing has been part of a long-running attempt to introduce fantasy and science fiction by women to feminist, lesbian, and gay audiences. Essays serve a similar function, responding not to a book or theatrical production but to certain experiences or ideas.
In recent years, writing has taken on an urgency it didn't have before. Finally I'm managing to persevere at work that doesn't have a deadline. I've attributed this to being older, in my mid forties, and the sense that my time is not unlimited. But there's more, and it didn't come clear in my mind until the day before yesterday: The only place I bring all of my selves, all of my past, is to my fiction and play writing. Do I feel whole? Not entirely. But I am definitely less fragmented.
My life feels like a horse meandering through a pasture, grazing the grass here, drinking water there, jumping a fence and grazing some more. Could the universe have had a plan for me that I'm finally getting into my thick skull? Or is it just that everything is compost and nothing is wasted? True, I've done many different kinds of writing in my life, most of them pretty well, all of which I draw on in writing fiction.
But there's more.
From my bookselling days, from giving readings, and from places like WisCon, I have met my audience. I know whom I'm writing for. From this, and from my own experience, I know how important the written word can be to people.
From reviewing, and from interviewing people for newspaper stories, I have learned to listen, to let what an author or a speaker is saying take shape in my mind, without jumping to conclusions. Often these days the voice I need most to listen to is my own, and I'm getting better at translating what's in here to the keyboard at the end of my fingers.
And finally, first from the feminist community and now from this incredibly fertile place where feminism and science fiction meet, I have learned that with words borders can be crossed, terrors confronted, and new worlds created. I am privileged to live in this world we are creating, and I thank you for your inspiration.