I have a week with more deadlines than capacity to fill them. A tried and true way to meet these deadlines is to make them just a little easier. When I came across a short piece I wrote 11 years ago (30 April 2011) I re-read it for memory’s sake and then I thought, “This is perfect for the Treehouse series on books.” I also thought, “Next Monday is impossible. Will it help?” And it does and it’s very appropriate for this year. We all need more tools to help us deal with this dangerously-developing world, after all. Not all books we read at this time need to be comforting.
I originally posted this to Even in a Little Thing, my blog at LiveJournal.
“This morning I can’t stop thinking about Joanna Russ. I am one of the many who was deeply influenced by her without actually really enjoying her fiction.
It’s funny, but I had been reading Russian writers for several years before I discovered Russ. This doesn’t mean I was at all old when I discovered Russ’ writing. What it means is that Dostoievsky and Chekhov were easier reading for a fourteen year old than Russ was for a nineteen year old. Dostoievsky and Chekhov matched my assumptions of person and of narrative and of who benefited by what behaviour far more closely. They still do. Chekhov writes about my family, I think.
I didn’t have any guidance in reading any feminist writer. Some don’t need it, but Russ is really not one of those. Her works stand alone, but, in standing alone, they’re not easy. I discovered her by chance and have never had a proper conversation about her writing with anyone. They made me angry and edgy and I wanted to talk about this and find out why. No-one around me was reading her. No-one was interested in a conversation. In my late teens, my friends’ idea of intellectual freedom was Isaac Asimov and Gene Wolfe and Ursula le Guin. This was the Le Guin of the late seventies and early eighties, before she realised that women could be wizards.
It was hard for Russ to deliver her message in that environment, and it was hard for me to see what she was saying. This is why I didn’t enjoy her writing, even as I read every word. It pushed me far beyond places I knew and showed me that the world didn’t have to look that way. It’s easier for feminist readers these days, I think, but that challenge and the wonder when I realised what she was doing and that it was possible to change paradigms when writing fiction, and the loneliness when there was no-one I could talk to about it – all that was the good fortune of my growing years.
Since then, I’ve always put the challenges Joanna Russ taught me into my fiction, my non-fiction, my teaching, my life. I’m not her, however, and I try to make them unobtrusive. I believe that it’s possible to change paradigms without it hurting so much.
I must be very naive, because I also believe (thanks to Russ) that it’s possible to change paradigms without forever going back to the simple: feminism #101, cross-cultural understanding #101, crowing about being clever for getting something that should be understood rather than saying “Right, I know that – time for the next step”. I don’t expect rewards for it because of that silence in my late teens – that emptiness alerted me to the effects of writing change. The presentation of the simple and the crowing of how clever one is attracts more notice, but it doesn’t do the job.
Joanna Russ didn’t present me with the lure of material rewards. She taught me about living in a world which is different.
Her writing made me uncomfortable because it touched so closely on what hurts.
I’m not at the stage yet where that discomfort can leave me. We still accept the gender bias in novels and in the book industry almost unthinkingly. Some of our assumptions have been eroded or have crumbled or have been torn down, but our Berlin Wall is still standing, for the most part. Russ carefully cut a door in that wall, however, and it’s possible to walk through that door and see the universe differently.
I really have to revisit Russ, as an adult. The world is a lesser place without her.”