L. Timmel Duchamp’s most recent books are Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, and Tsunami, the first three in a five book series, The Marq’ssan Cycle. (The first two were reviewed here in March.) She has also written The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding), Loves Body, Dancing in Time, The Grand Conversation, and A Case of Mistaken Identity. She has published well over thirty short stories. She is also the editor of two anthologies, Talking Back: Epistolary Fantasies, and The WisCon Chronicles, Vol 1. Some of her stories and many of her essays and criticisms can be found at here. She is the founder of Aqueduct Press, which publishes feminist science fiction.
Sean Melican: In Alanya to Alanya, you use the term “feminist” without irony or cynicism. Reading the term, I had two impulses. The first was a feeling of historical quaintness, as if it were equivalent to “abolitionist”,—not that feminism objectives have been achieved or abolished, only the term itself feels archaic—and the second was a feeling that using the term as you do, and freighted as it is, it has the potential of driving away readers. Would you give us both your historical view of feminism and your perspective on feminism today?
L. Timmel Duchamp: The popularity of WisCon, the only specifically designated “feminist” sf convention in the US, has been growing at such a pace that in recent years it reaches its cap of 1000 months before the con. Nonetheless, I’ve noticed that people born shortly before, during, or after I wrote these books have been powerfully affected by the media-assisted backlash of the late 1980s that played the usual language games with terminology as a cheap way of discrediting and smearing large groups of people. While many young women agree with all the objectives of feminism and also with the assessment that they haven’t been fully achieved, they have apparently bought into the misrepresentations of the anti-feminists and despise the word “feminist”; others (usually in their late teens and early twenties) believe that feminism is no longer needed (and then change their mind by their mid-thirties); while still others agree with the objectives but see the problem more narrowly, as one that each individual must solve for herself.
Over the centuries, feminism and proto-feminism has more often been advocated by near-lone individual voices (usually of “exceptional” women) than by broad-based movements. Its broad-based movements have marked the high points of feminist history, but that is not to say that the lone voices speaking out during the times in which feminists are ignored or ridiculed haven’t been important to feminism. The fact is, feminism is as much about figuring out the operations of sexism and how to negotiate power as it is about mounting massive challenges to the system. Although feminism in the US is currently in an ebb-cycle (in contrast to third-world feminisms), I was reminded, reading Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Sheldon, that we’re not yet as bad off as feminists were in the fifties, when they were reeling and helpless following the post-war backlash explicitly designed to privilege white males in the workplace. Unfortunately, though, we’re pretty much back in a place where women (like pretty much everyone else in this culture) are atomized, and I suspect that that’s why “feminist” sounds so quaint to you. Can feminism exist in a world where it’s every woman for herself? That’s really the question new generations of women must grapple with.
SM: Though the series is set in the future, you also use the terms “hysteria” and “hysterical” in the very old etymological sense: a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. What particular value or meaning do you assign to inserting a seventeenth century term in a future setting?
LTD: Forgive my pedantry, but applying neurosis to “a dysfunction of the uterus” is a bit anachronistic. (The concept of neurosis doesn’t go back that far!) Hysteria, though, is a concept that’s been around for more than a millennium. And it’s one of those really important words and conceits that allows one a way into putting one’s hands on persisting, apparently anachronistic (and therefore slippery) ideas, and it came in for a lot of attention from feminist theorists in the 1980s. But before I talk about that, I should perhaps note that ten years before I started writing the Marq’ssan Cycle, as a young, “maverick” (the characterization wasn’t intended as a compliment) graduate student, I undertook a research project that entailed my reading dozens of European gynecological and obstetrical texts dating from the classical Greeks through the eighteenth century. Although pre-modern models of sexual physiology varied, just about everyone agreed that the principal problem with women was seated in the womb, or hyster (or, in 17th century England, the matrix, aka “the Mother,” which is perilously close to the designation “maternal environment” used by some people today when they find it necessary to objectify and remove agency from pregnant women). Some, like Plato, believed that the womb wandered around the body, sometimes choking the woman and rendering her breathless. The most common view, prevalent in the later middle ages and early modern period, followed Galen in holding that women were humorally inferior to men-men, that is, burned hot and dry, while women were cold and moist. The prescribed cure was orgasm or (for peasant women) hard physical labor. “Widows and maids” (i.e., unmarried women) were most susceptible. This presumed weakness in women takes on particular significance when one considers that physicians and moralists were constantly declaring that women were sexually insatiable.
Flash forward, to the early 1980s. Translations of work by French feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément were flooding the US, as well as work by a lot of Lacanians and post- and anti-Lacanians. The subject of Ida Bauer’s resistance to Freud’s patronizing misreading of her hysterical symptoms (labeled by Freud “The Case of Dora”) was hot. “Hysteria” in this later historical sense was all about repression and rebellion in young bourgeois women and girls trapped within tightly prescribed roles and unable to express anger and dissent except through increasingly bizarre and extreme physical symptoms. Many of the theorists took the hysteric as an emblem for the way in which women are trapped in male discourse and claimed the hysteric as a proto-feminist figure of revolt. Although I found their theorizing fascinating, such an unconscious, masochistic, and passive-aggressive tactic as hysteria struck me as a sign of defeat and an emblem of damage, rather than a beacon for some essence of woman that even when forced underground persisted indomitably over the ages, as some of the theorists would have it. From this perspective, hysterics were subversive of the partriarchal order even as they accommodated it: a view I could not support.
Hysteria as a medical (including psychiatric) diagnosis didn’t persist much beyond the turn of the twentieth century. And yet the idea of it lingers (just as the adjective “hysterical,” when denoting crying or laughing uncontrollably and by extension being irrational and unreceptive to reason, still tends to be applied to females more than to males) in all sorts of atavistic and deeply reactionary forms. I would submit that there’s no woman in our culture who is immune to being characterized as “hysterical” when a man wants to shut down a conversation. When I was growing up in the 1950s, married women (most of them mothers) were subject to a variety of problems because of their “female trouble,” ranging from “cracking up” and “nervous breakdowns” to bitchiness to every sort of bad judgment and always, always buckling under stress. Women were universally declared unfit to hold power and unfit for military service. Later, “hormonal imbalances” succeeded “female trouble” as the source of instability in women. In fact, my own mother (who had a career and held positions of considerable responsibility and power in her job) told me time and again (even while I was writing the Marq’ssan Cycle!) that as a woman I needed a superior man “over” me as my husband because of my inherent emotional instability as a woman. You may think that such ideas have vanished, but I assure you, they haven’t! The language has changed, but not the basic idea of inherent physiological weakness in women because of their reproductive functions.
Given that executive men in the Marq’ssan Cycle base their sense of superiority on having shed their sexuality and constantly express the opinion that executive women are emotionally unstable for still being sexual (dogma that is congenial with the Early Modern European view of the sexes), “hysteria” struck (and continues to strike) me as apt. And I regret to say that until our culture ceases to regard the male as the standard and the female as a deviation from standard, the belief of a particular, inherent emotional instability in women will prevail.
SM: Your last statement raises a host of questions. I’ve read that some textbooks are changing the drawings of the vagina and two ovaries so they look less like an outside-in penis and scrotum. Wimbledon announced the women would earn equal prize money. The NFL is sponsoring a football camp for girls. Is it possible to have two legitimate equal standards? Would it be better to regard the standard as a pair, which raises the linked issue of heterosexuality as the standard? Or is there another option?
LTD: The conundrum you sketch here calls to mind the related dispute between “difference feminism” and “equality feminism.” Basically, this dispute centers on the problem that equality that does not take difference into account implicitly subordinates one sex to the other, while the call for separate but equal, as we know, never results in genuine equality. Theorist Joan Scott has written at length on the dispute, which seems hopeless of real resolution, since each position implies a perspective and set of assumptions and facts that overlaps and yet clashes with the other. In the case of sports, separate is probably necessary simply because physical differences between the sexes are so important to athletic performance, though as an sf writer I have to say that it wouldn’t surprise me if sometime in the next few decades body alterations in those who’ve dedicated their lives to sport manage to eliminate some of those differences through surgery, drugs, or genetic engineering. For most areas of our lives, though, I would argue that we need a third option: we need the human option. The problem now is that the particularities of the male are taken as the paradigm of the general, where male=human and female=a deviation from the human to the extent that differences from the male are perceived (nearly universally and often unconsciously) as faults and weaknesses. What we need is a model in which “human” necessarily accepts differences-not just sex (and gender) differences, but ethnic differences, age and other physical differences, and so on. Interestingly, the Americans with Disabilities Act has forced institutions to work practically toward that end vis-à-vis able-bodiedness (which, like maleness, is taken as the standard). While I don’t know how such a shift in redefining “human” might come about, I do know that we’ll be living in a significantly different world when menstruation or menopause or pregnancy cease to be considered illness or deviations from “normal.”
SM: Also, as of this writing (late February to early March 2007) we finally (as you point out, South America has been way ahead of us) have a woman potentially running for president. In addition, for the first time, women have been named presidents of Harvard, Princeton, and Colgate Universities as well as Mercer County Community College (where I teach), as one example so that it doesn’t appear to be an issue only for the elite. Yet at the same time, we see a greater sexualization of young women, which many otherwise intelligent women (mothers as well as daughters) not only passively accept but actively encourage. My wife says that when she was a teenager less than twenty years ago, she would have been horrified to have her bra-strap showing, never mind her underwear, although from my own adolescence I can remember during a sort of town hall for students entering middle school and their parents, one mother asked if girls could still wear short skirts even though shorts were forbidden. The answer was yes, of course. What do such extremes mean for women and feminism? Is the hyper-sexualization of some women—particularly young and attractive—a response to the business, political, and academic successes some women have had?
LTD: The issue of the sexualization of women is a complex one for feminists. To answer your last question first, I’d say: yes, of course, but it’s more complicated than that. A lot of it has to do with the increasingly pervasive influence of the media on our lives, particularly on the lives of the young, who are more steeped in it than people of my generation, and the unprecedented importance of commodification in general and consumption as a means of social definition in particular. One of the most appalling aspects of the Jon Benet Ramsay case (and there are many of them) is the deliberate sexualization of that little girl, probably to make her more competitive in kiddie beauty contests. All we have to do is start thinking about all the components necessary for supporting such a situation, and we realize that it is almost impossible for young women not to become invested in that aspect of the gender system of the early 21st-century US. Of course sexualization, per se, is not at all new; we are, after all, hardwired to seek out sexual partners for all our biologically fertile years, and for many of the cultures that have come and gone in the world, it has often (though not always!) been females who have been sexualized. I’d note also that while some young women and girls are being hypersexualized, we’re seeing more and more sexualization of young men. I first noticed a few instances of this in the late 1980s; I recall hearing some women thinking that this was a positive development in gender politics, but even then I had my doubts. I can’t, myself, see anything positive in the objectification and commodification of bodies, regardless of who they belong to.
SM: In the afterword to Alanya to Alanya, you write, “I decided that I would begin from a dystopian baseline to keep my experiment from becoming an easy fantasy of wish-fulfillment.” But one potential criticism is that setting the events in the future allows you to build a straw-man or -woman world. Someone might say, “Well of course the Marq’ssan and Free Zone methods are preferable or superior; after all, you’ve built the Executive world to order. But you’ve escaped an obligation to critique actual historical periods.” How would you answer such a criticism?
LTD: First, I didn’t conceive myself as under an obligation to critique actual historical periods: my chief obligation was to write an effective story. Second, creating a dystopia required that I work with the tropes that already existed and endow my own version with as much interest and meaning as I was able. And third, my readers have been telling me that far from being a straw-man world, the Executive world is frighteningly close to our own. (The one thing I missed was global warming: and from that point of view, I suppose the future I imagine is impossibly rosy.)
SM: Several characters are revealed to be black but issues of racism seem to have disappeared. Is it possible that the problems of race will have been solved before those of sex and gender?
LTD: Yes, in theory it’s possible—but I wouldn’t say that issues of racism have disappeared from the world I depict in the Marq’ssan Cycle. What has happened, instead, is a full-scale adoption of a social censorship of confrontation with the issue (somewhat analogous to what has happened over the last half-century with class in the US, such that people who were once “working class”-conscious now need to be middle class and see themselves as unmarked by class (even though they of course are). Strong, activist characters like Jo Josepha, of course, would call people out for racist statements and behavior; but someone like Ann Hawthorne, who while she clearly identifies instances of racist treatment is socially very conservative and careful, would find talking about it embarrassing, largely because there are few polite openings for such discussion in the social conventions of the (mostly white) circles she moves in. You might say that I imagined, evolving from the language coming out of the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, a widespread denial that racism continues to exist. And indeed, Reagan and Bush’s having made high-profile appointments of black conservatives who opposed affirmative action and talked “bootstrap” individualist claptrap and accused anyone daring to draw attention to race, gender, or class discrimination as “politically correct” have imposed a pretty widespread denial that institutional racism continues to be a problem. (Indeed, you would swear it is a social crime to draw attention to an instance of racism, given the outrage with which such attention is typically met.) I simply extrapolated from that. Of course it’s a good deal more complicated than that-the complications having to do with executive, professional, and service-tech cultures, the Executive’s control of Birth Limitation technology (which, you may recall from Alanya, resulted in the shrinking population of the nonwhite minority), and my sense that the powerful level of race consciousness that has been imparted to black children by their families in the US from the time of slavery might under certain social circumstances cease to be taught in that way, such that race consciousness could become more similar to gender consciousness. (Ann Hawthorne, by the way, is a viewpoint character in Stretto.)
The Free Zone, of course, is a different matter. The various activist groups that came together to form it at the end of Alanya included several nonwhite groups. That, of course, is key to fighting institutional racism. (Alanya also offers a lesson on what not to do: as exemplified by the US Free Women making a deal with the Executive without consulting non-US Free Women.)
SM: Your writing has always been more aggressive, or more naked, than many contemporary feminist speculative fiction writers—such as Carol Emshwiller, Karen Joy Fowler, Nalo Hopkinson, Kelly Link, Maureen McHugh, and M. Rickert; and I’d include Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing, though neither has published under any genre imprint and Doris Lessing is as aggressive and naked in her fiction as her non-fiction—who couch or clothe or disguise their feminism in more popularly agreeable terms, to varying degrees. When being too nakedly feminist, there is a risk of alienating readers, while too much disguising risks a loss of recognition. How would you characterize the state of feminism in speculative fiction today?
LTD: Sf today is reaping the benefits of thirty years of feminism in work by both feminists and nonfeminists in our field. Most obviously, feminist sf of the 1970s has exercised an enormous impact on the field; moreover, many of the questions raised and the values promoted by second-wave feminists have changed the parameters and dimensions of our collective imagination (notwithstanding the backlash against feminism that arose in the late 1980s and remains with us in US culture today).
As for specifically feminist sf: I think that some of the writers you mention—particularly Fowler, Hopkinson, Link, and McHugh—don’t consciously seek to disguise their feminism as much as they feel free to take it for granted and build critically and artfully on the accumulated body of thirty years of feminist sf. Fowler calls this “swimming in the sea of thirty years of feminism.” These writers do not concern themselves with what feminists commonly refer to as Feminism 101 (i.e., teaching others the rudimentary elements of feminism). In this sense, their feminism is not so much disguised as unfamiliar (and therefore unrecognizable). Which is to say, this is an exciting, promising time for feminists to be writing (and reading) sf.
SM: Are there good feminist writers working outside of genre?
LTD: Certainly! Just to toss out an eclectic few names: Elflriede Jelinek (who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature), Carla Harryman, Carol Maso, Sarah Schulman, Emma Donoghue, Kate Horsley, Stacey Levine, Gloria Naylor, Lynne Tillman, Leslie Dick…
SM: Though Sedgewick has been ‘fixed’ like all executive men, so that he’s capable of but not interested in sex, he still has a physical, if not nakedly sexual, obsession with Zeldin. Are you suggesting that sexual interest or sexual obsession of heterosexual men towards women is as much about power as desire?
LTD: By “desire,” here, I presume you’re referring to what I’d call sexual chemistry and raw physical attraction. Surely power and desire are likely inextricable in human sexual relations. Every person’s first experience of love (i.e., as an infant) is shot through with profound issues of power, and the way in which those issues play out in the individual’s psyche and erotic organization varies tremendously. Though Sedgewick has lost the ability to experience genital pleasure, I would nevertheless characterize his obsession with Zeldin as sexual.
Sexual pleasure is supremely, marvelously physical, yes, but as it has been famously said, the brain is an important sexual organ. Which is to say, executive men in Sedgewick’s world may have had their sexual nerves deactivated, but their brains retain the old patterns of desire laid down and reinforced over all the years before they were “fixed.” (Which is why they must endure extreme behavioral conditioning after they undergo the surgery that deprives them of sexual pleasure and is also the reason that later generations are “fixed” at younger and younger ages.)
As I see it, Sedgewick’s obsession with Zeldin reflects a couple of factors. First, the conditioning didn’t completely “take.” Second, because sexual pleasure constituted such an important part of his personal life, he was reluctant to undergo the surgery and put it off for as long as he could. And here perhaps I should note that I’ve never thought of Sedgewick as “heterosexual,” precisely. First, he was bisexual before his surgery; and second, his sexual relations with women were never exactly “vanilla.” I’d also note that his sexual history suggests that it wasn’t merely the exercise of power over his partners that excited him, but the explicit play of power between himself and his partners, regardless of who played the “bottom.” (More of Sedgewick’s past life emerges in the fourth book, Blood in the Fruit, by the way.)
Your question, though, is not about Sedgewick per se, but is implicitly asking me if I intended through my depiction of Sedgewick to make a generalization about all heterosexual men. I certainly didn’t intend to make Sedgewick (“a deranged alcoholic,” in the words of one reviewer) an exemplar for heterosexual men! If Sedgewick represents any group, it is men who have chosen to put ambition and the quest for power over others above every other value in their lives. And yet, having said that, I’ll reiterate what I said above: that in human sexual relations, power and desire are nearly inextricable. And for some people, sex is more about power than the pleasurable sensations of the body; and in the most extreme such cases, sex amounts to rape (or in Sade’s case, sometimes even murder). I see this as falling out along a spectrum, rather than as a binary of either about pleasure or about power.
SM: In the Marq’ssan books, I was struck by the complexity of various sexual relationships. Zeldin and Sedgewick’s heterosexual relationship is more about power and control than physical gratification, but Zeldin’s search for her husband is evidence of a reasonably healthy heterosexual relationship. Many sexual relationships cannot stand ideological differences, particularly between Martha and Walt, between Martha and Louise, and between Allison and Elizabeth. My initial impulse was to reduce them to pairs of unhealthy/heterosexual and healthy/lesbian, but after a moment’s thought, the complexity doesn’t allow such a simplification. Can you describe how you view the (im)balances and intersections between sexual, ideological, and power-structural relationships?
LTD: Throughout all five books the narrative attends closely to the operations of power in all relationships of every sort. While ideological differences certainly cause Martha and Louise to split, I think Martha and Walt and Allison and Elizabeth split up not because of their ideological differences but because they are unable to harmoniously negotiate the operations of power in their relationships. I don’t think I can make any blanket generalization about the balances and intersections between sexual, ideological, and power-structural relationships-these must always be complicated by an enormous number of variables. Trust and commitment can accommodate a host of differences (including ideological), but personal history and social and institutional alignments are also important. As for Zeldin’s heterosexual relationship with her husband: let me just note that in the Marq’ssan novels, professionals and their social relationships are about the only ones likely to strike readers in our world as “normal”-Zeldin’s marital relationship is familiar and therefore easily comprehensible. Is that why you call it “healthy”? To put it another way: I’m not sure I would be willing to privilege Zeldin’s marriage in that way.
SM: This may sound hopelessly naive and romantic, but I can’t recall an instance where one character told another than she or he loved her or him. In a series that so thoroughly dissects interpersonal relationships, it struck me as unusual. Would you comment on your view of love?
LTD: Now that’s a tough question! In one sense, love would seem to be pretty simple, but really, once you start thinking about it, it’s incredibly complicated. Many of my characters are driven by the desire for power, but probably all of them are deeply motivated by love and the desire to be loved. Right there—the distinction between loving and wanting to be loved—it gets complicated. Sedgewick, of course, sees himself as loving Kay, but what he really wants is to be assured of her unconditional love. And yet even back when she was willing to give him that, he could never quite get enough. Certainly Kay loves Scott Moore, and he loves her, where love is a verb that is respectful rather than demanding. Some readers might, of course, think that her lack of candor with him about her past relationship with Sedgewick damages the credibility of her love for Scott Moore, but in fact her dishonesty extended to herself. Other characters are “in love”—sexually infatuated—with one another. Being in love is exciting and beautiful and wonderful. And always, ultimately, painful, since being in love is a sort of misrecognition. Being in love means being in love with an idea of a person (as well as being absolutely awash in sexual chemistry). How one moves from being in love with the beloved to actually recognizing and loving the beloved is a mystery, I suppose. Some people just can’t do it, perhaps because it involves coming to terms with a certain sort of disillusionment that inevitably occurs when one begins to see the beloved as s/he actually is. Do Elizabeth and Allison get past that point of disillusionment? To a certain extent, they do, even though their sexual relationship ceases. At the end of Tsunami, of course, one of the questions pending is what will happen to Elizabeth and Hazel’s relationship. Martha and Louise’s relationship is more complicated than either of these, because although they did get beyond the infatuation phase, Martha was deceived (maybe even self-deceived) on a very important aspect of who Louise was.
And then of course there are nonsexual forms of love-friendship of various sorts as well as mentoring relationships. (And of course the lines often blur with these, too.) In the early books, for example, Martha wants to be loved and mentored by Beatrice, but hasn’t herself yet come to actively give Beatrice love. Many adults still need to learn to love actively (though others, of course, learn to do this as children). Often they learn to do this with someone they’ve fallen in love with or when they become responsible for nurturing a child.
As far as characters speaking the words “I love you,” I didn’t purposely omit these words. (In fact, I could have sworn I had my characters uttering them, but perhaps not.) These words have become such a cliché that after the first few iterations (which are performative utterances, as a linguist would say), they have a tendency to become either a habit or a significant demand (for continual proof that nothing has changed for the person speaking them). The words lose their innocence, so to speak, and their meaning becomes fraught with a lot of unintended implications. (The declaration’s loss of innocence is the sort of thing nongenre literary stories like to explore.)
SM: Also, many relationships in the executive class (or caste) are lesbian but none of the women desire, even secretly or unconsciously, sexual relations with men. In Renegade, Allison says, “… when everyone knows heterosexuality is loathsome and perverse-” Are sexuality and sexual orientation so elastic? (As a possible counter-example, many incarcerated men engage in homosexual behavior, but only as a temporary substitute for sex with women.) Does this elasticity give credence to the belief of some that today’s gays and lesbians can be “rehabilitated”?
LTD: I would certainly hope that no one would interpret the elasticity I ascribe to sexual orientation as giving credence to the belief that gays and lesbians can be “rehabilitated.” (Horrifying thought, that!) First, I didn’t intend readers to assume that all executive women are sexually active lesbians, though your question makes me realize that I didn’t offer any counterexamples in the first three books. (Emily Madden, an executive who makes her first appearance in Tsunami, is actually a conscious bisexual who occasionally takes male partners, but she doesn’t become a viewpoint character until the fifth book. And it would be a spoiler to mention another instance of bisexuality in an executive woman that emerges in the fourth book.) Second, since executive women are not only heavily conditioned in childhood to find men sexually repellant but also socialized to view heterosexual relations as déclassé, any heterosexual relationships they engage in with non-executive men will be closeted to the extent that they see themselves as “executive” and look down on “sub-execs.”
Although I did not intend to suggest that the sexual desires and identifications of adults can be substantially modified through conditioning or therapy, I did, though, wish to suggest that conditioning from childhood has a great bearing on sexual orientation for most people-most people, but not all. Throughout childhood I knew kids who were, from the age of five or six, gay or gender dysphoric or both; and I understand well that attempts at their “rehabilitation” even by that stage could only have harmed them. The scientific evidence is still not in as to whether sexual orientation is strongly determined by genetic factors (which I suspect that it might very well be in some cases). The complexity of sexual “wiring” as well as my own bisexuality (from childhood) has long inclined me to presume a certain “elasticity” (as you put it) in early childhood. But I certainly don’t imagine that many adults retain that elasticity (since they tend to be inelastic in most other preferences and habits). On the other hand, it does seem that quite a few people may be inherently bisexual, given how frequently sexual partnership are formed in same-sex institutions (including both men’s and women’s prisons).
SM: In the Marq’ssan books, sexuality is tightly controlled. Executive men are fixed, as mentioned above. Executive women see heterosexuality as a perversion but are forbidden from sexual relationships with other executive women. However, sexual relations between executive women and service-tech women are encouraged, to the point that executive parties have service-tech women as prostitutes. Executive women are taught self-defense skills that service-tech women are forbidden from knowing, so that they remain sexually docile: “… defenseless for the sake of preserving the executive system.” There certainly is no end to the historical precedents. Is power over sexuality and reproduction so intrinsic to governmental and social power structures that women not only accept it, but actively endorse those prohibitions?
LTD: I see two issues at play with these prohibitions. On the most fundamental level, it’s a matter of preserving privileges. Every class system requires that the majority of its members feel a sense of privilege that gives them a stake in its stability and preservation even when they’re getting the thin edge of the wedge. If all women were to enjoy the absolute right to bodily privacy—to determine absolutely who will touch their bodies and how, and to what use their bodies are put, including bearing children—the one privilege that all men enjoy would be lost. I recall being outraged in the early 1980s at discovering that attempts to introduce self-defense in girls’ PE classes were being fought tooth and nail. When I discussed this with friends over dinner one night, they shed some light on the issue by noting that because their son had been taught in day care that he had the right to refuse kisses and touches that he didn’t like, he had refused to kiss his visiting grandfather (who was a stranger to him), and my friends were tensely divided on whether the child should be forced to kiss his grandfather goodnight.
In the case of the executive women, part of the point of their enjoying privileges that other women don’t have is to ensure their identification as executives, to ensure they understand viscerally where their own interests lie. And the thing about such privileges is, once people have them, they feel entitled to them—and they are likely not to question their entitlement and will find all sorts of ways to rationalize it.
More generally, though, the answer to your question is that women have always acceded to such control over sexuality and reproduction publicly and done their best to skirt and defy it privately. It’s only with the rise of feminism that women have openly attempted to contest these structures of control.
SM: I mentioned Zeldin’s search for her missing husband, which is a reversal of the usual women-in-jeopardy, or women as merely a plot device. Was this a deliberate choice or an organic outgrowth of the story?
LTD: It was an organic outgrowth of the story. At the same time, once that thread of the story was underway, I appreciated its reversing the convention.
SM: In the afterword to Renegade, you mention rewriting from chapter thirteen onward. It’s not difficult to imagine other stories—something akin to the barricades of Les Miserables or the high-octane chase scenes of The Bourne Identity comes to mind—but it would have been artificially imposed rather than a logical, organic narrative. What issues made it difficult to write and what other story did you have in mind?
LTD: Let me warn readers that if they don’t want to read a major spoiler for Renegade, they would do well to skip down to the next question.
The ending was not the one I had planned to write when I started the second book. I expected that Kay would be able to manipulate Elizabeth and in fact turn her. It never occurred to me that Elizabeth would be so entirely seduced by power or that Kay would be unable to withstand her ordeal. (At the outset of my writing the book, I didn’t understand two things: first, the extremity of psychological torture, which looks mild compared to physical brutality; and second, that although Kay has a forceful personality and powerful mind, never having been a political activist before, she lacks the resources that the most famous dissident prisoners have possessed. And in fact her past experience working for SIC is the lever Elizabeth uses against her.)
The alternative ending I contemplated would have involved preparing a means for Kay’s escape, presumably with help from someone working inside the Rock. Apart from everything else, I decided that Kay’s return to the Free Zone as a hero would fall pat into the classic story of the forging of a great leader: she would emerge wiser and charismatic and full of ineffable moral power based on her personal triumph of resistance and survival. And that was a story that had no place in the Marq’ssan Cycle. The lessons of great change must be collective, not taught and instilled by a new Moses; the kind of change I’m interested in isn’t brought about through the brilliance of a unique individual.
SM: Why did you choose science fiction as the narrative structure, particularly the familiar first-contact story? Are the anarchic methods proposed so antithetical that they must be taught, initially at least, by aliens?
LTD: Actually, the Marq’ssan don’t do any teaching per se. Their role is mainly that of facilitation. They hold the view that the methods and structures of change must emerge from the collective process itself, not be learned and applied like an algorithm. I needed the aliens in my narrative structure not to lead and teach but to open up spaces in the narrative that I couldn’t otherwise create-spaces absent weapons and capital and existing power structures. Interestingly, the Marq’ssan’s presence allowed me to see that once those things are cleared away, simply removing them isn’t enough to bring about desirable change. Unlike many, I do believe that however engrained (and even hardwired) oppressive arrangements might be, humans have the capacity to change themselves.
SM: So anarchism, or negotiation, is possible not only on a small scale but also a large scale?
LTD: Yes, I believe it is. But it would require major changes in our educational system, in the distribution of information, and in how we live as active, responsible subjects in the world. It would require, in short, that as a species, we mature and leave childhood behind (i.e., that we metaphorically speaking develop the part of our pre-frontal cortex that is able to see past the moment and think beyond impulse, as the medical literature tells us happens when individuals mature into adults).
SM: While the writer often doesn’t have much to do with the cover of her book, why is there a picture of Emma Goldman on the front cover? If I understand correctly, she advocated violent anarchism, which is fundamentally not what the Marq’ssan advocate. (I’m not familiar enough with anarchism to name another viable candidate.) For our readers: the covers also show a defiant female prisoner, hands raised though her wrists are cuffed, which is entirely appropriate, especially for Renegade.
LTD: Lynne Jensen Lampe, who designed the covers, consulted me at every stage of the process. Though her design was not even close to what I had imagined, it worked for me, and I approved it. (I especially like the way the covers successively light up with color with each additional volume.) A photo of Emma Goldman was my own suggestion, for one of the Free Zone’s holidays is Emma Goldman day, when the whole city parties-spouting quotations from Emma Goldman’s writings and dancing, dancing, dancing the night away.
Emma Goldman has been an icon for feminists since the second-wave, and given her general philosophy (her advocacy of violent revolution notwithstanding, which I’ll return to in a moment) of life and political activism, no one could have been more appropriate as an icon for the Pacific Northwest Free Zone. Among feminists, her most famous words are probably those she spoke to a male anarchist who rebuked her for frivolously staying out all night dancing: “If I can not dance,” she told him, “I want no part in your revolution.”
Emma Goldman didn’t identify herself as a feminist because the feminists of her day were middle-class, concerned mainly with getting the vote, and for the most part uninterested in challenging capitalism, the church, and the state, and ignored the situation of working-class people. But she worked fearlessly to bring information about contraception to women and to oppose the military draft (and was frequently jailed as a result). The photo used on the covers of the Marq’ssan Cycle shows her speaking in Union Square in 1916 to a crowd of garment workers, both men and women, about contraception. Goldman characterized suffrage as an evil that “has only helped to enslave people, that… has closed their eyes that they may not see how craftily they were made to submit.” She noted that nothing had been done to change the conditions of women and children in countries where female suffrage already existed. She did, however, advocate equal rights for women (which, as we know, women in the US have still not achieved) and that women take control of their own bodies and sexuality, assume responsibility for themselves, and act to change their situation.
This attitude, of course, lies at the heart of what the Co-op in the Pacific Northwest Free Zone is all about. As with Emma Goldman, revolution isn’t simply a question of political discipline, but includes valuing every aspect of life and refusing the compartmentalizations and objectifications that characterize the executive approach to life and politics.
Now, as for the issue of Goldman’s advocacy of violence. I suspect that were it possible to transport Goldman into the Pacific Northwest Free Zone as I depict it, she would align herself not with Louise’s armed contingent but with Martha Greenglass. The fact is, until Gandhi’s exploitation of the tactics of mass nonviolent direct action, such methods were unknown to Westerners. (I exclude civil disobedience like that practiced by Thoreau or the Quakers because such CD [as activists refer to “Civil Disobedience”] was restricted to individual acts of individual conscience.) Until that time, mass activism, particularly working-class activism, always involved a willingness to use violence as necessary (since violence was always, inevitably, used by the state and employers to crush strikes and other actions of opposition). The anarchists of Goldman’s day got an unfairly bad rap, largely because bomb-throwing became an icon of anarchism that just about summed up most people’s understanding of anarchism. Most of the Free Zone activists are working-class women who embrace a philosophy of life and politics very close to Goldman’s (including an understanding of the vote as a tool of the state). And we see them enacting in their day-to-day existence what Samuel R. Delany has called “the repoeticization of life,” which is a vital aspect of the kind of change the Marq’ssan Cycle envisions, a change which is about bodies living together in the world, rather than arid ideology. And that was exactly the kind of change Goldman strove for in her life and activism.
SM: As the vote is a tool of the state, and the state is largely a male structure or institution, is it possible for the United States as it is currently constructed to achieve some of feminism’s goals?
LTD: In theory—if it were possible to imagine a state formation that allowed democratically negotiated relationships without favoring the interests of one small group of people-though it’s unlikely, since it’s very hard to imagine a version of the state that would not exist largely to serve the interests of the economic elite. We’d have to see a major shift in values and a large-scale development of democratic practice. Can you imagine an online city newspaper reporting on the context, content, and goals of an activist rally rather than mentioning it only in a “traffic alert” on their front page? Just this morning I read on the Seattle Times website the headline 11:00 AM downtown rally may clog traffic followed by a long sentence telling people to be prepared for detours near Westlake Park as “hundreds march toward the Federal Building to focus attention on proposed immigrant-rights legislation.” The newspaper, of course, had no interest in advising readers (say, yesterday) that a rally and march was scheduled and what its purpose was. Obviously, policy issues are only of importance when they are discussed by government officials!
If we saw a major development of democratic practices, we would probably see some of feminism’s goals implemented, though certainly not all. In the process of writing the Marq’ssan Cycle, I lost faith that full-scale democracy could co-exist with government, for the dominance of the state implies the continual consolidation and accumulation of routinized, institutionalized power. If you could show me an example of a state that did not assert dominance over the society it serves/rules, I might believe that full-scale democracy could co-exist with government.
SM: You call the series the Marq’ssan Cycle, implying a circularity rather than a linear progression: a revolution or evolution. Without giving too much away, was there a reason for choosing the word “cycle” over, say, “series”?
LTD: Yes. I definitely did not want to imply a linear progression, which would be antithetical to the ideas expressed in the books; but rather than imply circularity, I wanted to gesture toward the reflexive process that the books demand of the reader. I constructed the cycle so that each successive book casts new light on the events—and likely, also, the reader’s understanding—of the previous books. If our collective, public forms are ever to work, it will require a willingness to rethink what is taken for granted and written in stone, a desire to look both forward and back, instead of living (as the world does now) only in the present tense. As for the books themselves, I know from those who’ve read the Cycle several times that each reading is different, just as each succeeding book changes the meanings of the preceding books.
SM: Three other questions about word choices. Where did the term “Marq’ssan” originate, and did you pattern the naming system of the Marq’ssan on any human naming systems? Also, you are one of the founders of Aqueduct Press, an imprint focusing on publishing feminist fiction. Why did you choose Aqueduct as the name of the imprint?
LTD: The term Marq’ssan simply came to me, the way just about everything else in that first volume did. One evening while my partner was at a conference in Barcelona, I sat down at my computer (a big old Sanyo with two 5¼” floppy disk drives and a green phosphorescent screen) and began writing. The people and names came out of my fingers as I typed. I wrote the first three chapters in one sitting and printed them out. And then I sat down with pen and paper and worked out the Marq’ssan’s naming system—which was totally naïve, linguistically.
Aqueduct, though, was a deliberate choice. One summer afternoon over wine, a few years before the actual founding of Aqueduct, my partner and I kicked around possible names for a press. (We’d had a fantasy of starting one for years.) Aqueduct was Tom’s idea: aqueducts are conduits for transporting a vital fluid to those who need it; our aqueduct would be a conduit for texts, and our focus would be on texts that would not otherwise see print. Life by Gwyneth Jones and Mindscape by Andrea Hairston are perfect examples of the kind of texts Aqueduct is intended to bring to readers. These texts may not appeal to everyone, but for some people, they are vital. So I loved Tom’s idea for a name and wrote it down in a notebook. A few years later, I dug out the notebook and found the name, and voilá! Aqueduct was born.