I’ve been reading short nonfiction lately, for a range of reasons: my boredom at a lot of the short fiction I was reading, my interest in reading more of a form I am currently writing for Tor.com (I would like to get a lot better), my acquisition of a new phone that runs Pocket (which is great for reading short fiction, with the exception of Strange Horizons where the titles of books/etc in the text are inconsistently omitted for what must be some very exciting back-end formatting reasons). I’ve caught up on nonfiction I intended to read years ago, as well as enjoying newly published pieces. These are some of my favourites of the past month or so.
Brit Mandelo wrote a two-piece article — part one, part two — for Stone Telling about the poetry of Joanna Russ, which was uncollected and a form that Russ abandoned early in her career. Unsurprisingly, given my historical and poetic interests, this especially jumped out at me:
The last of these three poems, “Queen at Ur,” appeared in The Cornell Writer in April ’57, presumably after the 11th Festival reading of a different, less polished version. This is a historical/speculative poem, about “The Lady Shub-Ad, lying Dead in Sumer/Five times a thousand years, brick-tombed to dust,” who speaks to the reader about the ways in which she is “filled with all events” and “could stretch out a hand to the farthest star.” The imagery of space and eternity, of the smallness of time, are stunning in this poem. The poem itself is short, but each word is ultimately necessary and perfect. The ultimate culmination of the young Russ’s experiments with diction and a developing precision in her work, “Queen at Ur” is fabulous and resonant. It ends: “Daughter, train your soul for the amenities/That come finally with death. Emulate my corpse.”
I certainly want to read the rest.
Still in poetry, I also enjoyed Emily Jiang’s article “When Flowers Bloom, When Flowers Fall” about the Tang Dynasty poets Xue Tao and Yu Xuanji: the different ways both women engaged with the poetic conventions of their time.
Speaking of historical women, the recent research reported on the National Geographic website about Amazon women’s names being revealed in Greek transcriptions on pottery is very interesting! I can’t get at the academic article with my KCL alumnus access, but as soon as I get my Uni of Oxford access — either by JSTOR or the library stacks — I’ll be reading it. Better academics than I will surely weigh in on the strength of this research, but it looks non-stupid to me. Women called Worthy of Armour, Hot Flanks and Don’t Fail — yes, please.
Jeff VanderMeer’s piece “My Wilderness Year” stuck with me as an impression, rather than a direct memory, as I read it while tired (in an airport? on a plane?) — an impression of the inextricable relationship between fiction and landscape. VanderMeer has talked elsewhere about the real-life inspiration for his Southern Reach novels, and I thought also of Nicola Griffith’s Hild, where understanding of the movements of the countryside is intrinsic to Hild’s ability to see what is likely to happen, and I remembered walking down Cairn Gorm last year and seeing the biome change around me (and, on the hill behind my hostel in Aviemore, walking through woodlands and suddenly emerging into treeless windswept alpine/sub-tundra(?) land at the top). I’m aware of how much better I ought to know my countryside, after growing up in it, and I’m drawn to fiction — like Hild — with that awareness. I like regular buses and shops and all that, but I miss the countryside every day.
I also liked Jeff VanderMeer’s conversation with Bronson Pinchot about audiobooks and a lot more.
I read, in Strange Horizons, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay’s “Recentering Science Fiction and the Fantastic”, which talks about the differing uses of separating different groups of SFF (eg: Desi SF) or striving towards a greater understanding of SFF that encompasses non-Anglophone works and multiple approaches to SFF across all languages. As Chattopadhyay says at the end: “A non-Anglocentric understanding of science fiction and fantasy would look like a study of science fiction and fantasy, but it would be the result of a different consciousness and have different purposes…” How we talk about marginalised aspects of SFF is of great interest to me, unsurprisingly, but my thoughts on that will wait for another post.
Via Liz Bourke, “Unbalanced Academics, Scribblers, and an ‘Odd Christmas’” is rather a comfort: academics who are also writers.
And, last for now, “Grandma’s Misplaced Recipe for Cultural Authenticity” by Pear Nuallak, a personal piece about food, family and recollection.
I was on holiday for over a month! It was very needed. Highlights of the holiday: time spent with excellent friends, eating endless tasty food, being covered in cats, 1,500km road trip, rocks. Not highlights: so many long flights. Now I’m living in Oxford where I’ll soon be starting the Masters in Classical Armenian Studies. I’m in college-owned housing, in a room on the top floor where I can see the sky and leaves (on deciduous trees, sadly, turning to brown like the death of the sun and warmth), and it’s going to be a good (and hard, and rewarding) year.
For now, a cute snake-warning sign on the Southern Ocean coast of Western Australia:
I’m quickly discovering the pointlessness of reading boring books. It’s one thing if I’m planning to engage with a bad book re: gender for Tor.com, but not if I’m just reading for fun. I lost interest in Alison Morton’s Inceptio a bit over halfway through (interesting premise — a Roman nation surviving to the modern day led by women — let down by flat writing, with barely any time spent talking about that nation and its gender politics because the main character is too interested in her boring by-the-numbers heterosexual romance), while I read the opening story of Peter F. Hamilton’s Manhattan in Reverse (free at WFC 2013), went “Mehh” and decided I had many better books to read instead.
On to the better books!
Jonathan Strahan, ed. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 8 (Solaris Books: 2014)
Like any Year’s Best, this is a mixed bag. I particularly liked Yoon Ha Lee’s “Effigy Nights”, M. John Harrison’s “Cave and Julia” (I hadn’t read any M. John Harrison in a few years and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy the way he writes the subtly, devastatingly weird in the real world), Lavie Tidhar’s “The Book Seller”, Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Fade to Gold” and Karin Tidbeck’s “Sing”. Others were enjoyable, if less memorable. Others were not. There’s a definite presence of non-conservative stories here, a variety of voices, but not enough, and then the second-to-last story — Ian McDonald’s “The Queen of Night’s Aria” — is a retro-style adventure on Mars where women are retro-style sidelined, and it’s so irredeemably backwards-looking that I don’t see the point, what is this for? It speaks to a conservative thread that runs through this anthology alongside the forwards-looking thread. It’s apt: the tension between conservative and forwards-looking in SFF was a significant feature of 2013 — and 2014, too, and 2015, I don’t doubt — but I really just look forward to leaving this tension behind.
Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad (Fixi Novo: 2014)
I love Zen Cho’s writing! It’s funny, comforting and clever. Spirits Abroad collects some of Zen’s short stories, which are often about families or friends — not always living, not always human, not always on Earth — but always important, if often difficult. The characters are so down-to-earth (that’s… a bad pun for the earth spirit and Liyana, sigh), no matter who they are and whatever they’re dealing with, whether an unexpected forum attendee or a difficult grandmother or moving to the Moon. I had a really great time reading Spirits Abroad and I hope other people will too! Zen has helpfully listed where you can buy the book. (I also like that the publisher’s manifesto at the front of the book says “italics are a form of apology” re: italicising non-English words.)
Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu (Tor: 2014)
I got an ARC. I’m glad: it’s an interesting science fiction novel. It has several narrative threads. Young scientist Ye Wenjie falls afoul of political upheaval in the 1960s and is assigned to a mysterious base where she works for the following decades. In roughly the present day, scientist Wang Miao receives mysterious, scientifically impossible threats if he continues his nanomaterials research. In the game of Three Body, Wang observes — and contributes to solving — the problem of sustaining life on a strange planet with three suns and periods of atmospheric chaos and stability.
The game segments most interested me, as well as Ye Wenjie’s career: she’s a compelling character, even if I strongly dislike the conclusion that humans will never redeem themselves and require outside intervention. It shifts responsibility away from us. It denies the possibility of hard work and change. Ye’s experiences are pretty awful, so her conclusion is not that surprising, and fortunately the book points out the biggest problem with the idea of benevolent intervention. Back to the game segments. They, like the rest of the book, involve a lot of science! It’s no surprise that they involve the titular three-body problem, which is especially fun when there’s a planet added to the system and life has to evolve on the planet. I liked this aspect the best. It’s incredible to imagine life surviving in such harsh conditions — the sort of what-if I want in science fiction about space. (De-hy-drate…) It’s a bit sly in places (the in-game personae of at least two prominent Western scientists are played by Chinese gamers — one of them Wang), and fun to follow to its conclusion(s), which helps to compensate for Wang’s lack of personality.
The prose is nothing to remark on and while there are varied female characters, there are also unnecessary moments such as a young woman being described as “so soft that the bullet hardly slowed down as it passed through [her body]“. Right then. It’s very het and binary-gendered. Some of the footnotes explaining cultural references are cringingly obvious, but I’m sure this is an impossible balance to strike. Fortunately the unnecessary moments are only moments, not the tone of the book: it’s scientific/hard science fiction that doesn’t think science/the future is 100% white men! More than just that, it’s fun science and I liked a lot of the story. I look forward to the second and third books in the trilogy.
Kaaron Warren, Walking the Tree (Angry Robot: 2010)
Free at WFC 2013. A secondary world fantasy novel I enjoyed sinking into: lots of worldbuilding (bones! ghosts! creepy tree!), a good story and a gender set-up that’s not out of a privileged man’s erroneous wet dream about the past.
Communities called Orders live around the Tree that takes up almost an entire island. Almost all children go on Schools: walking around the Tree, learning as they go, for the five years it takes for a full circumnavigation. Their teachers are young women, who each typically stay in one of the Orders along the way, ensuring genetic diversity. Men rarely move between Orders after school-age, instead enjoying power within their Orders, such as choosing the young women to be teachers. Women move between Orders as teachers, enjoying a privileged welcome into each Order and the freedom to choose where they stay (for the most part). Often, older women walk too. In all but the worst Order, women have access to contraception, their consent is respected and they are free to stay or move on as they choose.
This set-up does a decent job at disrupting the gendered assumptions of most secondary world fantasy, although it doesn’t quite dismantle and rebuild. The (most) women = mothers thread was strong, although a mother can walk away around the Tree without her children. Men hold what I’d generally call ‘political power’. There’s an echo of our gender imbalances. The echo isn’t strong enough to put me off. There are gay/lesbian characters (though the main character is relentlessly heterosexual), but I wish the book had reached the Order where many of the gay and lesbian people of the island live (or, say, normalised non-heterosexuality more so they don’t have to go to that one Order). It’s thoroughly binary-gendered. Walking the Tree isn’t everything I’d like to see in secondary world fantasy, but it’s a decent read and I’m glad I got it.
The weekend (this weekend!) before Loncon, where I’ll be on some panels, I’ll be at Nine Worlds, where I’ll also be on some panels! I am really looking forward to both of these, as well as hanging out with friends in the bar/elsewhere.
Rule 63: Gender and subversion in history, popular culture and fandom
Saturday: Connaught B, 10am – 11:15am
Rule 63 states that for every fictional character, there is an opposite gender counterpart. This popular rule has obvious power for subverting male-dominated media and potential for introducing trans narratives. In its positioning of ‘opposite’ genders, it is also potentially troubling from trans and non-binary perspectives. This panel will discuss Rule 63, from real historical examples of people inhabiting ‘opposite’ genders to contemporary fanworks, through queer and feminist lenses.
Panel: Tab Kimpton, Zen Cho, Alex Dally MacFarlane, more TBC
Writing Historical Fiction and Fanfic: is RPF okay when the person is dead?
Sunday: County B, 11:45am – 1pm
How do we write about historical characters? Is historical fiction a form of Real Person Fiction if it features people who appear in the historical record? A panel of authors and fans discuss techniques of writing historical fiction and how writing about the dead differs from writing about the living.
Panel: Alex Dally MacFarlane, Tanya Brown, Elizabeth Bear, Aliette de Bodard, Kieron Gillen
Looking at the year so far, I realised I’d read almost no novels for fun. The year before that, I was doing my MA and then reading for The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women: short fiction was the majority of my reading material. I love short fiction, but I love novels too. I love sinking into a bigger sea. I’m enjoying my Tor.com column about Post-Binary SF, but there’s a definite difference between reading to engage with the text and reading for fun, even if the fun involves minor blogging — as below — to talk about what I’ve been reading, the books I liked and the books I didn’t. I have a few months until I start my second Masters, when I suspect I’ll stick to short fiction, so I’ve decided that I’m going to spend the summer reading (mostly) novels, clearing my to-read pile (the concept of a to-read pile annoys me) and (hopefully) having fun!
Here are the first few reads, including one or two from a bit earlier in the year.
Nalo Hopkinson, Sister Mine (Grand Central Publishing: 2013)
I didn’t finish this one. Partly because gods-are-just-like-bickering-humans is a trope faar beyond my personal preferences. Partly because the relationship dynamics in the family – specifically towards Makeda – were too emotionally abusive for me to stomach.
Genevieve Valentine, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (Atria Books: 2014)
A breezy read with a bit of bite. I liked it. I don’t know the fairytale it retells (Twelve Dancing Princesses), but it has a bit of a fairytale feel: a certain neatness to some events, the image of twelve sisters going out dancing. The love of dancing suffuses the book, as does the tense relationship between the sisters and the prison of their father’s house.
The focal point of the book is Jo, the oldest sister and “the general”: her role in organising her sisters’ false freedom, in keeping them safe — in complicity — and, ultimately, her realisation about what real freedom is. That tension — complicity, support, freedom — is deftly done and really quite remarkable: it’s an approach to an oppressed life rooted in real complexity.
I found the book in some ways a little too quick. I wanted to see more of the lesbian sisters, in particular. I wanted a bit more examination of the ending, particularly marriage-as-freedom. But, overall, I’d recommend it.
T.M. Wright, Blue Canoe (PS Publishing: 2009)
Free at WFC 2013. I read it in one sitting and laughed at bits like “I must protect my orgasm. Grab cock and spin.” (ACTUAL QUOTE) but, really, this is a bad book: it’s steeped in misogyny — every single woman is described through the lens of her sexual appeal, even the narrator’s mother, with my favourite adjective being “consumable” — and it keeps calling attention to the fact that it’s presenting an unreliable reality, as if the reader can’t be trusted to notice.
Leena Krohn, Datura, translated by Anna Volmari & J. Robert Tupasela (Cheeky Frawg Books: 2013)
Datura is another book about unreliable reality, but it’s far better! It’s about a woman who works at a magazine that publishes articles about “strange” phenomena, who meets the people for whom the “strange” is real, and who experiences her own reality grow ever-more-uncertain as she consumes datura seeds to help her asthma. Reality is questioned, asserted and undermined in a light, tongue-in-cheek way, a little too fond of the people in the book to out-and-out mock them, a little too uncertain about the true definition of reality to disbelieve them. I found it fun, although there were one or two moments (describing a woman’s beauty as “exotic”, an unpleasant description of an obese woman, casual, meaningless use of “yin and yang” — a drinking game all by itself at this point) that it could have done without.
It also made me reflect on the pleasures of short novels. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Blue Canoe and Datura can all be read in a single sitting (although I was interrupted before the end of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club and read it over two nights), and there’s a particular pleasure in doing so: digesting the book as a single object, experiencing its characters, its plot, its voice all at once, interconnected. It all sits in the mind, coherent, viewable from multiple angles. All three books are non-linear, to a certain extent, which makes the single-sitting read especially rewarding: viewing the pieces as they slot into place. I like a long novel that I can return to over a longer period of time (I read Nicola Griffith’s Hild over several months), but a short, single-sitting novel is a definite treat.
I’ll be at Loncon 3 this August! I’ll mostly be milling about, meeting friends, but I’ll also be on 3 panels talking about unsurprising topics. I look forward to seeing many of you at the con.
Rewriting Gender Defaults
Thursday 18:00 – 19:00, Capital Suite 9 (ExCeL)
Several recent novels, including Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice”, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2312″, Kim Westwood’s “The Courier’s New Bicycle”, Deb Taber’s “A Necessary Ill” and Kameron Hurley’s “God’s War”, have tried to imagine futures with increased gender diversity, or changed gender defaults. This panel will discuss how writers in English approach the technical aspects of challenging and disrupting gender binaries: how do issues such as narrative voice or structure affect our impressions of the worlds created? What are the strengths and weaknesses of different choices?
Roz J Kaveney (M), Alex Dally MacFarlane, Julia Rios, Geoff Ryman, Mary Talbot
An Anthology of One’s Own
Friday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 6 (ExCeL)
Thanks in large part to the efforts of publishers like Aqueduct and Twelfth Planet Press, and the increasing use of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, we are in the middle of a small wave of feminist SF anthologies — including the Twelve Planets series and the Lightspeed Women Destroy X special issues, and with Alex Dally MacFarlane’s Mammoth Book of SF by Women and the VanderMeer giant anthology of Feminist SF still to come. Such anthologies are part of a tradition stretching back at least to Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder anthologies in the 1970s. How have they helped to shape contemporary understanding of SF? To what extent have they been successful at rewriting the narratives of SF history (and breaking what are often cycles of discovery and elision)? And have they left any blind spots of their own?
Julia Rios (M), Jeanne Gomoll, Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Ann VanderMeer
The Biology of Sex and Gender
Saturday 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 5 (ExCeL)
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness the Gethenian people change gender and sex naturally as part of their lifecycle. Le Guin knew that many Earth creatures undergo a similar process in changing sex. What is the science behind these sex-changing animals? Could humans do it, or be modified to do it? What would this mean for our understanding of gender?
Alex Dally MacFarlane (M), Lucy Smithers, Howard Davidson, Helen Pennington, Keffy R. M. Kehrli
Not one, but TWO covers for anthologies I’ll be in this year.
Haikasoru has released the cover art for Phantasm Japan! It’s gorgeous, as is the TOC.
Zachary Mason: “Five Tales of Japan”
Gary A. Braunbeck: “Shikata Ga Nai: A Bag Lady’s Tale”
Yusaku Kitano: “Scissors or Claws, and Holes”
Lauren Naturale: “Her Last Appearance”
James A. Moore: “He Dreads the Cold”
Nadia Bulkin: “Girl, I Love You”
Quentin S. Crisp: “The Last Packet of Tea”
Seia Tanabe: “The Parrot Stone”
Jacqueline Koyanagi: “Kamigakari”
Project Itoh: “From the Nothing, With Love”
Tim Pratt: “Those Who Hunt Monster Hunters”
Alex Dally MacFarlane: “Inari Updates the Map of Rice Fields”
Sayuri Ueda: “Street of Fruiting Bodies”
Miyuki Miyabe: “Chiyoko”
Benjanun Sriduangkaew: “Ningyo”
Joseph Tomaras: “Thirty-Eight Observations on the Nature of the Self”
Dempow Torishima: “Sisyphean”
Neil Clarke has likewise released the cover art and TOC for Upgraded, his anthology of cyborg stories (edited by a real cyborg!) that looks really great.
The TOC is a longer one, so I’ll link to the Upgraded page rather than reproduce it here, but it includes Yoon Ha Lee, Genevieve Valentine, Elizabeth Bear, Xia Jia, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Seth Dickinson and many others.
I’m looking forward to reading my contributor copies of these (which I don’t always do).
The third volume of Lavie Tidhar’s excellent anthology series The Apex Book of World SF is now available for pre-order. The page includes bundled deals with the first and second volumes. Lavie notes that the full set contains 58 stories, from 34 different countries. I highly recommend taking a look at these anthologies, if you haven’t already. They’re strong and important collections of SF.
The Table of Contents for XIII, ed. Mark Teppo, has been posted. It reprints my story “Feed Me the Bones of Our Saints” among many new works. It is due out in March 2015.
Speaking of anthologies, I’ve recently seen a preview of the cover art and a PDF of the page proofs for Phantasm Japan, ed. Nick Mamatas & Masumi Washington. It looks very attractive. I can’t wait to get my contributor copy later this year.
A cool thing I saw on Twitter: manuscripts used as dress linings.
A less-cool thing I read: my post about Ice Song by Kirsten Imani Kasai is live at Tor.com. It’s a really unfortunate book, terrible in so many ways that I couldn’t find a single positive thing to say about it. I got it for the gender-change and the possibility of interesting conversation about bodies/gender/fluidity. Instead I found… that.
I didn’t even mention the dire quality of the writing. Or some serious problems: the house of forced sex and manpain, where a bell tolls daily to commemorate the moment Chen’s ex-partner left him. (If you do decide to read this book, TW for rape. I decided I’d be far happier if I skipped some chunks, and I was.) The non-animal woman who decides to lead the animal-people for their own good, because they’re too disorganised without her guidance. (She’s also a bit of a quirky object of male desire: a manic pixie white saviour?) The herbalist who finds herself pregnant, a condition that could kill her due to an irreparable bone condition, but doesn’t even consider abortifacents. Or, on a far lighter note, the house of waterlogged marble that the main characters intend to set alight. Good luck!
There’s a sequel. I won’t be reading it.
I’ve spent parts of today re-reading Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr. The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (I’m up to the 1950s so far, pre-Tiptree). It remains an incredibly interesting read, but also a very discomfiting one, because Phillips is very committed to the idea of Sheldon as a “woman writer”. Compare this line of Phillips’ narration in Chapter 9:
“Yet her life does have a pattern, the pattern of a woman writer.”
to Sheldon’s own words, written in a sketchbook, quoted in Chapter 10 as “probably drunken” in Phillips’ assessment:
“goddamn I want to ram myself into a crazy soft woman and come, come, spend, come, make her pregnant Jesus to be a man to come in coming flesh I love women I will never be happy.”
“they say it is ego in me I know it is man all I want is man’s life. [...] my damned oh my damned body how can I escape it I play woman woman I cannot live or breathe I cannot even make things I am going crazy, thank god for liquor.”
“I am no damned woman wasteful god not to have made me a man.”
It’s an absurd contrast. How can you read Sheldon’s words and not consider that Sheldon might not have been a woman? Sheldon certainly experienced a lot of life as a woman, sought (and struggled to find) solidarity with women, including in women-only spaces, struggled with the tension of achieving success in a sexist culture by acting in “male” ways, struggled with sexuality and what to do about desire for women (and desire for men). It is a complex set of factors in a complex life — not an easy narrative, not an easy conclusion, especially as the sense I get from Sheldon’s very varied writing about women and being a woman is that Sheldon was conflicted, confused, unsure. The closest Phillips gets to addressing this (so far) is later, in Chapter 17:
“She never explicitly identifies with men, but she doesn’t feel like a woman either. She often seems to be trying to get free of gender entirely, as if her ‘scientific’ inquiry is a way of climbing out of her own skin.”
Pages earlier, in the same chapter, Phillips writes:
“…when she wrote objectively about ‘women’ she was always also writing about herself.”
Phillips writes about the alienation Sheldon felt, but seems to root it in Sheldon being a woman — which isn’t to say that Sheldon didn’t identify with female identity (going by the writing quoted in this book, I think Sheldon did), but that a person who is assigned female at birth and is not female may feel alienation both from sexism and because they are not actually female. I think it’s very telling that Phillips opens the book with two epigraphs, one of female alienation in Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See”, the other of Joanna Russ writing to Tiptree, saying, “To learn to write at all, I had to begin by thinking of myself as a sort of fake man.” The possibility that Sheldon may have been a real man is not the narrative Phillips seems to be telling. It is a narrative of female oppression — a fine and important narrative, and one of relevance to Sheldon’s life, but not the whole truth.
I’m not the first person to notice this. In 2006, Farah Mendlesohn reviewed the book at Strange Horizons and flagged up the problem, saying: “Julie Phillips wants Alice Sheldon to be a woman. … Based entirely on the evidence presented by Phillips, I am unconvinced that Sheldon ever so wanted.” I know friends of mine (including trans friends) have wondered about this too. Mendlesohn makes a useful point in saying:
“None of her careers, however interesting, lasted more than five years. In 1976, when Tiptree was outed, his career had lasted almost a decade: had Sheldon not become so engaged in Tiptree as self, Tiptree’s career might well have ended at about the same time anyway.”
Taking a man’s name, being perceived male, is no more a universal experience than any other. I cannot say that it means x or y about Sheldon’s gender, nor that a life of brief careers can never have a longer career without it being super, specially important, but I can say that a person dedicating a lengthy part of their life to living (partly) as a man — a person who earlier wrote of longing to be a man, a person who had breast reduction and expressed bodily discomfort — is a person whose female gender ought to be considered an uncertainty. There is a neutrality in being male, in a male-dominated culture. There’s also maleness in being male. If Sheldon wanted to escape gender entirely, it may have meant a significant confusion. If Sheldon found it easier to write as a man, it may have been because of significant cultural sexism and because Sheldon’s own gender was masculine-leaning.
I’m uncomfortable declaring that, yes, Alli Sheldon was a man. (Only Sheldon could have said that, and — it seems — didn’t in as many words, although “to be a man” and “I play woman” is more than suggestive!) I’m equally uncomfortable saying Alli Sheldon was a woman. I’m profoundly uncomfortable with prioritising the difficulties of a “woman writer” over the consideration of possible trans/queer gender.
Sonya Taaffe has a beautiful rebuff of the idea that gender in ancient cultures was bereft of trans*, non-binary and other gender identities beyond the modern “cis”, as if non-cis gender was invented recently. Here is a snippet:
You read Frazer, so you must have a smattering of interest in comparative religions; are you familiar with the diverse gender identities of the gala/kalû of Inanna/Ištar, who were sometimes men who took female names and wrote hymns in the exclusively female eme-sal dialect of Sumerian and had sex with men and married women and fathered children and were sometimes women? And that this is a rudimentary and almost certainly misgendering way to discuss this priesthood, because as the above description implies, the gala were not defined on a gender binary? Aṣûšunamir the assinu of Ištar’s Descent is another gender-crossing figure of Mesopotamian myth. Often assumed to be a eunuch. Maybe. You can find lots of literature describing the assinû as homosexual cult prostitutes, although since Aṣûšunamir’s explicit function is to delight and distract and soften the mood of Ereškigal, Queen of the Underworld . . . The kurgarrû are likewise ambiguous in gender.
It prompted me to dig up Kathleen McCaffrey’s article “Reconsidering Gender Ambiguity in Mesopotamia: Is a Beard Just a Beard?” in S. Parpola and R.M. Whiting (eds). Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East, which I photocopied during my MA and never got around to reading. It’s a useful article that covers some of the same ground as Sonya’s post, but suffers from a lack of the idea that gender can be “neither”. It’s worthwhile to look at gender through the lens of role rather than genitals: the possibility of changing gender by changing role without any modification of the body, possibly? (eg: women entering the male role of “king”, thus beginning to be depicted iconographically as men, with features including weapons and beards, which raises the question of whether they grew/wore beards in reality; the example given is a 9th C BCE Assyrian “bearded queen” represented at Nineveh, notably only c.50 years distant from Šammuramat). But, but, this system of gendered roles becomes just as rooted in the binary as the gendered bodies of the Western system, this crossing between male and female without leaving the two genders, whether partially or totally. (It reminds me of reading Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, which I wrote about on Tor.com: the troubling of male and female by “both”, sort of, without strongly considering the possibility of “neither”.) And, really, gender beyond the binary and beyond aspects of a binary-defined “both” seems, to me, to be there. The bigger (and perhaps un-answerable) questions are what “neither” might have meant for people in the past, what the relationship/s with male and female was, what fluidity was possible, what relationship/s it had with bodies, roles, and so on.
(There’re things I want to say about performance and gender and how talking about, say, a woman taking on aspects of male performance and therefore queering her identity, really frustrates me when it’s talked about in a certain way, but I think that’s a post for another day. I need to pin down my thoughts better.)
I want to talk about gender in the past on Tor.com, because I think it’s important to talk about history. As I said elsewhere: our history is often visible between the lines of what we write about the future. (What we write about the present, too.) Many SFF writers struggle to depict people of all genders as people of the future, not men and women of the past — based on a flawed understanding of the past. The supposed “newness” of queerness is an oft-used excuse for dismissal.
I recently re-read B’s essay “What “queer” could look like in Hindi: translated poetry and queerness in regional tongues”, which talks about the tension between trying to look to the past for our queer history — through which lens/es? — yet how important it is to see the queerness. There are always lenses, there is no objectivity, considering the possibility of gender identities that can be usefully termed “non-binary gender” is not (in my opinion) an overactive modern lens, but the how of approaching gender in the past is always important.
(This isn’t my research area — sidenote: it darkly amuses me when people assume my academic work is gender-related, as if I cannot possibly have other interests — but it’s something I intend to keep reading about, where I can, and I can, because I GOT THE FUNDING TO GO TO OXFORD TO DO A MASTERS IN CLASSICAL ARMENIAN STUDIES.)
Out in late 2014
Aliens: Recent Encounters
"...this [anthology] blew us away more than any other. Mostly because of the sheer volume of greatness contained in these 32 stories... These are classic stories of alien encounters, from some of the best science fiction writers working today."
- io9.com Best Books of 2013