So say we all

Going through the Hugo finalists to vote on the ballot is looking to be a strange experience this year. It took two years for the rules change to kick in and close the loophole the Puppies had exploited, so for the last two years, as the Puppies stacked the deck with a mixture of racist, sexist drivel and just plain crap, I felt like I was often simply voting to deny them a victory, instead of actually rooting for things. Meanwhile, I waited on tenterhooks to see whether the rules change would really make a difference. It did, more than I could have imagined. This year, finally, I’m spoiled for choice and dealing with the agony of deciding which of my absolute favorites to put in second or third place.

That feeling is not just about the rules change. Before the Puppies mess, there was a stretch of a decade where I didn’t bother voting for the Hugo awards because I rarely read books the year they first came out, and I hardly read short stories at all. The winner was often something I’d never heard of, and which was not to my taste; I felt divorced from the process, so why bother voting? But now, I’ve spent so much of the past three years fighting for change and reading up on what was new and important in the field that I had strong opinions on the nominating ballot, I know at least half the finalists in every category already and I am looking forward to reading the remainder and making an educated choice. The rules changed, and I changed, and together, that changed everything.

You probably see where I’m going with this.

For good and for ill, fandom is a bellwether for trends in society at large: the same problems arise, but everyone in fandom communicates much more rapidly about the issues, and we have a lot of smart people who get their kicks from both breaking systems and fixing broken systems through a mixture of technology and social engineering. And then those tactics trickle down into mainstream culture. On the one hand, this means women in gaming were complaining about Gamergaters doxxing them for two years before Bernie Bros started posting the home addresses and phone numbers of female superdelegates online for harassers to use. But fandom has also given rise to the trend of guests of honor boycotting conventions that don’t have enforceable harassment policies (and conventions having to work out practical, enforceable policies), something I think is going to profoundly affect mainstream trade shows and academic conferences in the next couple of years.

What I’ve seen in the last few years in fandom was a sudden resurgence of racist, sexist spew from a segment of the community that felt unheard and undervalued. The shock of that caused a large portion of the voting public to educate themselves, get more involved, and close the loopholes that allowed that segment of the population to dominate. And the result of all that was a ballot that still allows that segment of the population to make their voices heard, but not to dominate the rest of the (now more active and informed) voters. As this solve works its way into the larger American conversation, my guess is that the rules change is going to be about gerrymandering and voter ID laws, and my hope is that the next couple of years will bring us to a point where that bigoted segment of the population still gets to be part of the conversation through senators and congresspeople who represent their interests, but don’t get to dominate the larger (and now more active and informed) public.

 

All the might have beens

Growing up, I heard more than once about my mother’s writing teacher in her freshman year of college, the one who wrote “Stick to prose” on her first set of poems, the one who made her give up on writing for ten years. Since my mother went on to become a poet whose work was widely anthologized and translated into multiple languages, the lesson was always clear: no matter what authority a professor may seem to wield, they don’t get to tell you whether or not you can be a writer.

So when I encountered my own classroom demon in my freshman year, I didn’t let him phase me. The class rule was that he would choose which stories to read aloud for critique, and although I was one of the few students who submitted every week (and always offered constructive criticism to other students), he hated science fiction and fantasy so much that he went through the rest of the class roster twice, going on three times, before he grudgingly read one of mine or of Susan’s, the only other speculative fiction writer in the class. At the end of the year, he held a party at his house and invited all his other students, but left the two of us off the list. And since he was the main fiction professor at the school, I had no choice but to take him again the following year.

He didn’t stop me from writing. I knew better than that. But he stopped me from believing that I could trust writing teachers to see past their disgust at the genre I wrote in to actually read my work or teach something of value. He was the reason I decided to go it alone, not majoring in English, avoiding MFA programs for years, just writing and submitting my work with no feedback from more experienced mentors. Avoiding teachers who might be like him has made my path a lot slower, harder, and lonelier than it needed to be.

He died this week, in his late eighties. Calculating based on his obituaries, he completely stopped writing fiction when he got tenure, thirty years before he met me, fifty years before he died. I can’t help thinking how sad that sounds. Did he secretly hate writing? Was he blocked but felt like teaching was the only way to pay the bills? Did he feel like a fraud, or just divorced from his life? Was he taking out his insecurities on his students?

I don’t really know how to feel about his death. I hope, for his sake, that he had students who liked him, who will mourn him. But the best thing I can say about him is he taught me how not to teach.

Writing tally experiment

For the first quarter of 2017, I had a lot going on personally: recovering from surgery, catching up with missed work, and helping a friend care for her preemie twins, to name a few. So when I had a minute to read, I tended to grab whatever was interesting and close at hand. And that made me wonder: after more than two years of this experiment with changing my reading habits, has anything changed? Do I read more diversely when I’m left to my own devices, or is this still something I need to put conscious effort into doing?

The results surprised me. On the one hand, I’ve read twelve books by women, two by men, and one collaboration, which means 80% of my reading has been works by women. That’s unprecedented for me. On the other hand, 87% of my reading has been by authors who are both straight and white, which is right on par with my stats before I started this experiment two years ago. No change whatsoever.

Granted, I’m in the middle of two books by black authors right now, and eagerly awaiting two books by lesbian writers. In the last couple of years of trying new things, I’ve added several non-white, non-straight authors to the list of authors whose release dates I program into my phone so I can read their work as soon as it’s out. But that’s just a small percentage of the books I encounter every year, and the selection at the bookstore and on online review sites still slants heavily straight and white. Clearly, there’s more work to be done.

The real-life consequences of the magical pregnancy trope

In Sarah Jeong’s fantastic Star Wars critique “Did Inadequate Women’s Healthcare Destroy the Old Republic?”, she points out that Star Wars is a story written by a man who seems to lack even basic facts about pregnancy and female bodies for a target audience that also knows very little, and that this has frightening implications for women’s health issues in our own world.

That got me thinking about how the Magical Pregnancy Trope also perpetuates some really dangerous ideas about pregnancy and agency.

Although it’s sometimes used as a plot device for its own sake, the Magical Pregnancy is also used as a television workaround when a lead actress gets pregnant and can’t just randomly leave the show for a few months, and the writers don’t want to work all the complications of raising babies into their storylines for the next few years. Instead, the pregnancy is accelerated (because it’s the product of evil magic/science) to take place in only one or two episodes, and ends with the child being conveniently stolen or magically aged so the show doesn’t have to deal with babies for more too long.

Why is this problematic, aside from just being lazy writing? It feeds popular notions that pregnancy is something that just happens to women, ignoring the fact that pregnancy is usually the product of sexual intercourse and that men should take responsibility for individual pregnancies they help create, something writers would have to address if the father were part of the main cast. The men who are involved are essentially rapists, and abortion isn’t even discussed, let alone possible in these fantasy scenarios. And because these magical pregnancies can’t be explained by science, it perpetuates the notion that real pregnancies are also mysterious and uncontrollable, and just have to take their course. Which means we don’t need to fund research or health care for women’s issues and it’s either pointless or unnatural for women to claim agency over their own bodies.

The sad thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Highlander worked in a season-long arc where Anne got pregnant by another man, and Duncan had to decide whether he wanted to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood and what that might look like. White Collar hid one of Tiffani Thiessen’s pregnancies with careful camera angles and worked another into a longer storyline, and had Marsha Thomason’s lesbian character choose to get pregnant and decide what that would mean for her career as a field agent. And Firefly, had it continued, was clearly setting up a pregnancy storyline for Wash and Zoe. There are ways to either sidestep the issue or embrace it as a storytelling challenge, even on an action/adventure show.

Pop culture profoundly shapes our understanding of issues, sometimes in positive ways, as when sympathetic gay characters boost LGBT acceptance, sometimes in negative ones, like when crime shows perpetuate negative stereotypes of blacks and latinos. Changing the Magical Pregnancy Trope, showing more women and couples choosing a pregnancy (or choosing to terminate one), showing pregnancy and labor as normal processes instead of body horror fantasies, and showing the normal consequence of carrying a pregnancy to term by writing infancy and childcare logistics into storylines could have a massive effect on how our culture understands pregnancy and women’s bodies in general.

Reading Stats, 2016

Not as much progress as I’d like, but progress nonetheless. My proportion of non-white, non-straight authors has gone up to 41%, and for the first time ever, women on my list outnumber men! As usual, I’m grading on a curve that is not in my favor: I don’t do a breakdown of anthologies, so the fact that I read the Big Book of Science Fiction because it had fantastic representation of female and non-white authors doesn’t affect my tallies in any way, and I only count authors once, to encourage myself to try lots of new authors, so the twenty-odd books by CJ Cherryh only count as one entry. That has a huge impact because I’m now at the stage where, having discovered a lot of new authors that I like, there are a lot of instances where I’m reading multiple works by the same author.

My tastes are definitely changing through this process. Some of the books I’ve tried have not been to my taste, but a lot of them have moved me, delighted me, and made me less patient with certain classics that are not only sexist and racist but that revolve around the angst of middle-aged white men and suddenly feel far less “universal” than they claim to be. The process of purging my shelves of books that no longer work for me has been interesting.

This year, I’ve been aided by good recommendation sources, so I’ll pass those on: Well-Read Black Girl has been reccing excellent books on their Twitter feed, including ones by new authors, and the Australian feminist podcast Galactic Suburbia offers wonderful suggestions of SFF books, movies, and TV shows with good representation of non-white, non-straight creators from around the globe. I also made an attempt this year to read all the female Hugo winners–not easy, even for such a short list, because most of them are out of print. Some were not to my taste, but others were freaking amazing.

Some of my favorites from the second half of the year
Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom
Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies
Seanan McGuire, Every Heart a Doorway
Claudia Rankine, Citizen
Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake
Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie
Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed
Amir Hussain, Muslims and the Making of America

Final tally for 2016
32 male writers: 45%
37 female writers: 51%
3 mixed/anthologies: 4%

18 writers of color: 26%
10 LGBT writers: 14%
1 disabled writer: 1%
41 white, straight, cis: 59%

Still a ways to go, but getting there. I’d like to get to the point where white, straight, cis authors are half or less of my reading. We’ll see what the new year brings.

The body politic

In an odd confluence, I had major surgery scheduled for Election Day. As this was the third (and hopefully final) in a series of surgeries that have gone well, I kept saying I was much more nervous about the election than I was about the operation. But between recovering from the previous surgery, gearing up for this one, and making sure I kept up my responsibilities to my job, I just wasn’t capable of doing things like volunteering with the campaign. I had to put myself first and trust everything would be okay.

Because no one really sleeps in a hospital, I was awake most of the time from midnight to three AM as Trump’s victory went from possible to likely to devastating fact. I’ve felt strangely lucky the past few days, as friends have expressed their shock, grief, anger, and fear, that my body’s demands have forced me to lower the volume on my emotional reaction to the national crisis. It’s also allowed me to do a lot of listening without needing to voice my own agenda, not always the easiest thing.

Here’s what I’ve got, three days in. As my strength returns, I need to be showing up for Black Lives Matter, Bend the Arc, and other social justice movements. I need to be supporting the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, both of which are going to be on the front lines for the next several years. I need to take an active role in making others feel safe and supported. I need to figure out how many hours and dollars per month I want to spend on these causes and make sure I’m hitting or going beyond that minimum every month.

I’ve always admired the Righteous Gentiles, the ordinary people who chose to help Jews survive and escape the Nazis when so many of their neighbors turned a blind eye. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say this could very well be such a moment in history, and I want to make sure that I’m doing what I can, not just wringing my hands and becoming passively complicit.

Sorted, sort of.

I have this weird thing where I sort my Goodreads books on shelves labeled for particular times in my life so I can keep track of when I got a physical copy of the book (and delete that tag if I get rid of a book I no longer love). That way, regardless of when I joined the site or when I last reread an old favorite, I can click a button and see the books that influenced me in middle school, high school, college, my first job, grad school, etc., and reconnect with who I was at that point in my life.

Which makes it really annoying when I dig out old books to reread them and can’t quite remember when I got them. I’d swear these two anthologies were prized possessions in high school, but the first one has a story by Neil Gaiman, and I believe with just as much certainty that I didn’t start reading Gaiman until college. It’s a tiny detail, but it’s going to bother me like a mosquito in my ear, mostly because it means that the memories of childhood that always seemed so vivid have finally started to blur.

Jacob Neusner’s Legacy

Everyone warned me not to take classes with Jacob Neusner when he came to Bard. But my advisor said I shouldn’t run from a challenge.

Neusner wouldn’t let anyone take notes in class. The first time I answered a question, he gestured at me and said “Look, class! A perfectly preserved, 19th-century opinion!” He demolished me every time I raised my hand that week. And the week after.

Week three, when he realized I wasn’t going to back down, everything changed. We’d still tussle in class, but we both enjoyed it. He’d say, “I know Lisa knows the answer to this, so I’ll let her explain it,” or, “I’m sure Lisa disagrees with me on this, but…” and despite his status as professor and renowned expert, he never made me feel small or out of my weight class in our debates. When we saw each other in the hallway, he’d ask how my novel was going. He invited me to dinner. He and his wife were my own first adult dinner guests. And every semester I took a class with him, he wrote my parents a note telling them what a joy it was to have me in class.

I learned so much from him. I learned to think about my religion through a totally different framework, seeing it from the outside instead of as a practitioner. And when he team-taught with Christianity scholar Bruce Chilton, it was like watching Hendrix jam with The Doors.

He was an amazing scholar, but his lectures were the least of what I learned from him.

May his memory be a blessing.

Going Cuckoo

I’m terrible at titles. I think a lot of writers are (with the exception of people like James Tiptree, Jr. who turn their titles into total wordgasms that are sometimes more powerful than the stories they label).

But I have a very firm rule about titles: if I’m having trouble coming up with one, it means I don’t fully know what the story is about, which usually means there’s something deeply flawed at the heart of the story. A good title is one that speaks to a key moment or theme of the story, uses fresh, vivid language, and would make me curious enough to pick the book up if it weren’t mine. The working titles of my stories are often cop-outs, titles I know are bad: the name of a character, a cliched line from a song or poem, a pun.

Cuckoo was a pun, or at least a play on words: the main character is crazy, and she is caring for a child who isn’t her own. It definitely captures the themes of the book, but if I was flipping through a pile of manuscripts or perusing the shelves at a bookstore, would I pick up a book with that title by an unknown author? Probably not. And if I couldn’t think of anything better, I was definitely not ready to send it around. For more than three years, I wracked my brain and pestered my writing group, but nothing came to me.

And then today, like a gift, the perfect title unfurled in my mind. I’m going to road test it with a few friends before putting it out in the world, but I think this is it. Time to finish up the rewrites and start sending this puppy out.

Golden Anniversary

When I was a kid, occasionally my dad would wake me and carry me in my nightgown to the end of the block to watch fireworks.
One night, he woke me and said, with that same excitement and urgency, that there was something I had to see. Downstairs, he showed me my first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, starting an addiction I never outgrew.
 
Happy 50th, Star Trek.