Fantastic Metropolis

An Interview with L. Timmel Duchamp

Josh Lukin

Josh B. Lukin: A professor at the University of Maryland once remarked to me that when she explained hegemony to her students, they turned out by and large in favor of it, saying “But if you criticize the system all the time, how can you be happy?” You don’t seem to share their opinion. How did you get there? To put it in comic-book terms, what events gave you your Counterhegemonic Powers?

L. Timmel Duchamp: I don’t see happiness as some permanent state of mind that is achieved under favorable material circumstances through simply ignoring all that is painful, discordant, and ugly, but as a quality that infuses one’s being in the world in bursts that range in intensity from moments of serenity to ecstasy. In my experience, love lies at the root of all moments of happiness. And I have believed that this is so since early childhood.

Children begin life wanting, needing, and demanding love from their caretakers. As the child develops — especially the female child, which statistically speaking is nursed for a much shorter period than the male child, and is touched less, and is taught from the beginning to expect less — she develops a desire for approval, because approval offers the assurance of love. The child becomes socialized and develops a moral sense as a means of securing approval. Which process, of course, is desirable and necessary. But the truly fortunate child learns to do more than seek and inspire others’ love. The fortunate child learns to engage others — the world — with love, that is, to actively love above and beyond the powerful desire to be loved.

Full engagement with the world — with others — is nothing short of rebellion, what Gilles Deleuze calls “total critique.” Full engagement refuses merely amiable subservience aimed at fulfilling the status quo, ordinary expectations, and pleasing others in the simplest way and leaps, by way of rebellion, to a positive, joyful making of the world. To engage fully (and thus critically) with someone else’s words, vision, or experiences is to accord them love and respect. When I engage fully in my own creative work I engage myself with the world with the deepest love and respect I can possibly offer: which is to say, I go beyond acquiescence, I enter an extreme zone in which my entire being comes alive. Although many of the adults I dealt with in my childhood reacted negatively to my wish to so engage with them, my most important mentors recognized and encouraged this higher form of love and respect. It is they whom I have to thank collectively for whatever “Counterhegemonic Powers” I now have.

And so for me, moments of happiness burst forth when I am most fully engaged. In the mountains, hiking, when every cell of my body is there, in the physical world, mixing with it and taking it in; when I’m sharing a meal, or good sex, or a walk along the shore of Lake Washington. What makes such moments “happy” is not their simple material pleasure, but the extent of my engagement. I have many memories of feeling profoundly unhappy and miserable while eating good food, receiving excellent service, confronting beautiful scenery, meeting rich or important people: when an experience is passive, it is, for me, always tedious, regardless of the circumstances.

Among the most joyful experiences of my life I number committing civil disobedience and engaging with a jury during the resulting trial, thereby challenging everything I amd the jury understood about justice, authority, and law; experiencing a performance of the Béjart Ballet dancing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Wolftrap in 1976; a meal (that I spent two days preparing) in Spring 1978, shared with a group of friends who’ve never had the pleasure of being together again since; beholding a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois at the Henry Art Gallery sometime in the mid-1990s that fairly made my body turn to water; engaging with Steve Erickson’s Arc d’X as I wrestled with that novel’s poignant exposition of the contradictions that lie at the heart of American sensibility.

To acquiesce is always to withhold a part of oneself — usually the best and finest part — to wear blinders and bridle one’s tongue. And because that is so, I can’t fathom anyone’s believing that “being happy” could follow from refraining from “criticizing the system all the time.” As for the primary source of my Counterhegemonic Powers: I’ve always believed they were a gift bestowed on me by my grandmother when she taught me that love was a verb best experienced in the active, rather than the passive, voice.

Josh B. Lukin: Could you tell the story of your discovery of sf? Of the sf community?

L. Timmel Duchamp: I came to sf relatively late, in my mid-twenties. I was fed up with the literary mainstream — constantly gritting my teeth at the grating, humiliating sexism of Updike, Barth, Roth, and Mailer, the dominating voices of that time. By sheer good fortune, I picked up Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection off a display table in the bookstore in the Student Union, bought it, and read it, and wanted more Though a lot of my friends read sf, I knew nothing about it. So I sampled all kinds of it, at total random. And so I read all over the sf-map, from Delany and Sturgeon to Asimov and Hoyle, from Gordon Dickson to C.L. Moore. “Whoa, that’s hardcore,” someone might say to me, puzzled by my choosing to read a hard-sf novel they assumed wouldn’t appeal to me. Eventually I found my way to Russ, Butler, McIntyre, Tiptree, and Charnas. And then once it got around that I was reading sf, feminist friends would suggest this or that book. (I specifically remember being given Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which I read immediately after Anna Kavan’s Ice.) Mostly, though, I blazed my own way through an unknown territory. That is what I’ve always done, from the moment I acquired my first library card.

As for the story of my discovery of the “sf community” — that is more complicated. In the concrete sense of becoming acquainted with individuals and groups of individuals, I can point to Nicola Griffith’s contacting me via email and then introducing me to the fem-sf listserv in Fall 1995, as a possible beginning of that story. Fem-sf was small then, about fifty people; I knew and admired the work of many of its members. I eventually met Nicola in the flesh, as well as her partner, Kelley Eskridge, and through them a number of Seattle sf people. The next spring I attended the historic WisCon 20. I don’t think I’ve ever met so many people I’d only known by mail or email at one time. I arrived at WisCon 20 as a visitor to the sf community and went home a member.

But there’s another story here, one known mostly to the fans of feminist sf. I tell this story in an essay theorizing a genealogy of feminist sf, published in Foundation and available now on my website. That’s the story of imagined feminist communities and the implied feminist sf community that I experienced long before I even started writing science fiction. I shared and discussed feminist sf with friends (many of whom did not read sf, other than feminist sf) in the late 1970s and all through the 1980s. Feminist sf and the communities it created on the page filled us with hope and helped us to critique the world we lived in and conceptualize other ways of being; and it also helped shape our relationships with each other, sometimes with painful results, since the world we were living in bore little resemblance to the fictional worlds of feminist sf community, and the people we were fell short of the powerful characters we so loved in the fiction. I’ve found, talking to people at WisCon, that many women in the sf community have had similar experiences sharing feminist sf and idealizing its imagined communities. And so I wasn’t at all surprised to hear people describing WisCon as “a weekend feminist utopia” and the fem-sf list as a “virtual WisCon.” I once observed in a post to the fem-sf list that those old ideals had so shaped our expectations of how our actual, existing community should be that members often suffered disappointment when the reality did not match. The pleasures of the imagined community, I find, don’t always come without cost.

Josh B. Lukin: Another community you’ve long been associated with is the world of political activism, which you’ve made tantalizing mention of in online discussions. How has that connection appeared in your writing? I see in Rebecca Ore’s work, for example, scathing depictions of the gender imbalance in New Left political organization: have you incorporated experience or insight from such settings into fiction?

L. Timmel Duchamp: Although the classic trajectory of politicization for second-wave feminists originates with involvement in the Civil Rights and Anti-war Movements of the 1960s, proceeds to eventual revolt against the endemic sexist attitudes and practices that prevailed within those movements, and culminates in the birth of feminist consciousness and total break-out, this was not my experience. I began as a proto-feminist in the 1960s and discovered, in the early 1970s, through the flood of feminist literature suddenly appearing on bookstore shelves, confirmation of my own observations and feelings, as well as the tools that allowed me to forge a new way of thinking and acting. In the 1970s, I worked for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the wilds of Illinois; and in the early 1980s I put my analytic skills to work on the abortion issue for the Seattle office of NARAL. Although I turned out for marches addressing a spectrum of issues, I actively engaged with other issues only in the last half of the 1980s. My belatedness in politically engaging with nonfeminist groups stemmed from my unwillingness to put up with the sexism of activist organizations that weren’t explicitly feminist, which I knew through a few firsthand experiences, through blow-by-blow, personal accounts by feminists I knew, as well as through the New Left’s continual and open denigration and dismissal of feminism. But it also, to a small degree, had to do with the course of my own politicization.

I was raised by working-class Republicans. When I left home for college in 1968, I was well-indoctrinated in Republican attitudes (which were a good deal to the left of those of the Clinton-dominated Democratic party of the 1990s). Under ordinary circumstances, I suppose the kind of person I had been raised to be would have pretty much ignored politics throughout her college years. But given the times, politics got right up in my face. First, the man I fell in love with drew a low lottery number for the military draft. (Later, he received a draft notice, and we ended up taking extreme — possibly insane — measures to resist, which I won’t go into here.) Second, in the spring of my sophomore year, tanks rolled onto my campus, and we were occupied by the National Guard. Although the National Guard killed no one on our campus, the sheer fact of occupation suddenly made me part of an “us” in a way that I’d never before been. (I will admit that the few anti-war marches I’d participated in had been psychologically awkward rather than inspirational affairs for me.) An in-your-face military occupation, even one that doesn’t drop bombs on or bulldozer civilians’ homes, hails every individual, telling them that they are a member of a collective regardless of the particularity of their identity; it forces individuals to perceive themselves as members of a collective entity under pressure. As such, we were slapped with a curfew, and one block from my dorm a National Guardsman stood on the steps of Smith Music Hall, holding a rifle. The campus went on strike and held teach-ins. We knew that students were being killed on other campuses. Mass numbers of people on our own campus were being arbitrarily arrested and held in the football stadium. For the first time in my life, I began to read the newspaper and pay attention to all things political with the critical — rebellious — attitudes that I had always applied to everything else. And when I happened on the Frankfurt School thinkers in the mid-1970s, my critical thinking took on a sharper and more coherent shape. It’d be no exaggeration to say that my first readings in the Frankfurt School at once put everything social and cultural on the table, in a way that complemented feminism’s putting everything “personal” under close and constant scrutiny. My engagement with Frankfurt School scholars rendered my critical understanding of the world not only more complex, but also edgier and more confident. I began looking at every text (whether verbal, visual, or kinesthetic) as if it were a whole broiled trout from which one could, with practice, detach and lift out the entire spine and all its bones in one neat extraction. Needless to say, that sense of mastery did not stand up in the long run. But I see it as a stage through which I needed to pass in order to get to where I am now in my thinking.

Later, in the mid-1980s, when any number of political issues struck me as urgent, I became especially focused on the US’s Central American policy and got actively involved in organized street actions. When in late 1989 the government of El Salvador began a massive campaign of slaughter against the most outspoken opponents of its repressive and murderous policies, I took the decision to engage in civil disobedience. The government of El Salvador had a history of releasing specific dissidents (whom they might otherwise have “disappeared”) under pressure of large and disruptive protests in the names of those dissidents in the US. The experience of performing direct political action, from the moment I began training through arrest, standing trial, and defending myself in court, was one of the most exhilarating of my life. I learned a great deal about power from it. And some of what I learned I’ve put into fiction I’ve written since then (although none of it has yet been published). Perhaps one of my biggest surprises was discovering that there’s nothing passive about nonviolent noncooperation that refuses to bow to police authority. I began writing a short novel called “The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding)” while I and the people I was arrested with stood trial. I would sit in the courtroom all day, and then go home and write almost feverishly; for as long as the trials went on, I drew daily inspiration from the eminently sane, joyful rebelliousness of my trial cohort. The story takes place in a corporate for-profit prison in the near-future. The most powerful character in the story is an inmate, a political dissident facing off against the near-absolute power of the prison administration. She has no weapons but her will, her imagination, and her understanding of the dynamics of power.

I had, of course, been incorporating my activist experience into my fiction all along. My five-volume Marq’ssan Cycle, which I began writing in October 1984 and completed in July 1986, originated with the question of how to get to a decent place in which every person’s thriving mattered from where we are now. (Aqueduct Press intends to publish the Marq’ssan Cycle beginning in 2005.) Later, about a year before I turned to civil disobedience, I wrote “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” I realized only after writing it that I had an urgent need to address (among other things) my experience of being interviewed by an NPR reporter. In 1987, I and a few other activists who were also artists organized a multimedia, four-day political art event focused on the US’s “Low Intensity Conflict in El Salvador,” which we subtitled “High Intensity Laboratory.” The event was successful beyond our wildest dreams, drawing an audience of people who would never have knowingly agreed to attend any sort of politically oppositional event. The Seattle media featured stories on us, and the local NPR affiliate sent a reporter to interview four of us organizers. The reporter sat with us in the café at the Elliott Bay Book Company for about an hour with her tape-recorder running. She warned us that however long we talked, the segment she produced would probably run to only three or four minutes of air-time. In other words, we knew that she would be selecting only a few fragments of our conversation to edit into her tape. Although the reporter appeared to invite us to speak to the political issue our arts event explicitly addressed, when I began to talk about “Reagan’s policies,” she shook her head at me to indicate that such talk was not acceptable and placed her hand over the microphone. Without even realizing what I was doing, I began to censor my speech — even though, as I realized only later, the reporter could have simply chosen not to use anything I might say about the Reagan Administration in the post-production process. When the segment was aired, I realized that she had managed and edited our discussion such that people without any prior knowledge of US policies in Central America would think our protest was against the barbaric El Salvadoran government, rather than against US foreign policy. What disturbed me most, however, was that during the interview, I and my fellow interviewees censored ourselves without being particularly conscious of doing so. We picked up on the cues fed us by the reporter and played the game as we were tacitly asked to do. Ever since then, this episode has represented a paradigm of how the most banal level of self-censorship works: without threat, and without consciousness. I had actually portrayed that kind of self-censorship fairly extensively in the Marq’ssan Cycle, which I wrote prior to the NPR interview, but apparently hadn’t realized that I myself was so susceptible to such tacit pressure. I have become much more conscious of its workings since the interview and continue to explore it in my fiction (as well as look for its working in my own life).

Josh B. Lukin: Reviewers, in discussing the rich historical milieux of your work, have described your writing as “scholarly” — no surprise in the case of a writer who’s read over twelve thousand scholarly articles since finishing college. Which scholars and theoreticians have had the most direct influence on your writing, fiction and nonfiction, in the past few years?

L. Timmel Duchamp: Twelve thousand? I know that I once told you that as a first-year graduate student I took my advisor’s advice to read an article a day and have maintained the discipline ever since. An article a day over the span of thirty years would put me at slightly less than eleven thousand. Although in the earlier years I often read more than one article a day, and when I’m doing research for my fiction I may read several articles a day, I do, on occasion, skip my daily reading. When I attend WisCon, for instance, although I try to read an article at breakfast, in recent years it’s become almost impossible to do so. And there’s no time after breakfast. And I missed reading an article a day the entire week I attended the 2003 Sycamore Hill Writers’ Conference.

Before I stick my neck out, let me say first that I am not an academic. People often say that I am. I don’t have an academic position and although I completed all the course work and exams for a PhD, I never finished writing the dissertation. I am, though, a trained historical scholar, which means I’ve been imprinted with a certain way of observing and thinking that has been thoroughly incorporated into my mental organization. And I spend a lot of time thinking. So if I weren’t such a maverick, I could probably claim to be an intellectual. But because my thinking is wild, alternative, and largely unbridled by or in response to the dominant discourse, I’m not an intellectual, either.

Your question about “direct influence” on my writing in the past few years is problematic. Sure, we could go through a bibliography of my published work, fiction and nonfiction, and I could compile lists for you of which scholars and theoreticians leave the footprints of their thinking in particular pieces; a woman studies professor who has been assigning my fiction in her courses for years now once told me that she could do that. Such traces of theory in my work tend to serve discrete functions — to provide the language for engaging a story’s ethical focus (as Carter Heyward’s theology does in “A Question of Grammar”), to provide a character’s perspective (as with Kleinian psychological analysis in “Bettina’s Bet”), or to lay out the theoretical basis for the depiction of a fictional society’s social psychology and gender politics (as Susan Bordo and Michel Foucault do in “Transcendence”). I assume that many sf writers call on the work of scholars and theorists to help them construct the situations, societies, characterizations, and political and ethical problems in their fiction: this has something to do with why sf is often so much richer than mundane fiction. Since the number of scholars and theorists my work makes recourse to would be very long and wouldn’t tell you much about anything except certain components of the stories (or essays) themselves, I’m going to assume you’re wondering if I see my work as a whole having been significantly affected by recent reading.

I may be wrong about this, but because every time I’ve looked back at things I wrote fifteen, twenty-five, thirty years past, I’ve discovered that although my thinking has spread out and developed and changed vocabulary along with both intellectual and popular culture, I’ve retained the core conceptual structures that have directed my way of looking at and understanding the world since the mid-1970s. So sure, although in the last ten years I’ve being reading Bourdieu, Felski, Berlant, Said, and Grosz, what I’ve taken from all my reading are the parts that resonate with, amplify, and elaborate on my longstanding intellectual formation. More important, probably, are the earlier “influences.” I’m sure that chief of these is Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. I read it in the early 1970s. Which is followed in no particular order by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence, Griselda Pollack and Rozsika Parker’s Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Teresa de Lauretis’s Technologies of Gender, and Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. There are numerous important texts I’m not mentioning, but I think the reason such texts worked so well for me was precisely because they suited my intellectual formation. For example, I engaged eagerly with Foucault’s elaborations of Nietzsche — but even at the moment of first encountering his work, it engaged me precisely because certain of its kernels spoke to ideas already at work in my head thanks to Nietzsche.

Josh B. Lukin: Aqueduct Press states on its website that “Although feminist science fiction has been thriving for thirty years, its role as an oppositional literature means that it will almost never be ‘mainstream’ enough to attract an audience that makes works best-selling blockbusters or even meets the bottom-line criterion of corporate publishers and booksellers that prevails in the industry today. As a sad consequence, the leading publishers often decline to bring fine works of feminist science fiction into print.” That’s a bold statement to make, inasmuch as it could incur the enmity of mainstream editors who either think they’re uninfluenced by ideological concerns or, having read ten thousand incompetent authors each week, each of whom thinks his/her work is getting rejected because it’s too revolutionary, habitually dismiss such concerns. What interests me, however, is your term “oppositional literature” — especially in the light of your having written a few years ago that “one is allowed to be emphatically, loudly oppositional exactly to the extent that one makes reaction against the status quo… one’s central focus” and that any “attempt to get away from the dominant or hegemonic frame of reference and develop ideas without respect to the issues already in the forefront of public consciousness” goes unperceived. So you’re not worried so much about the reception of the oppositional as that of the alternative. And the fact that oppositional culture gets suppressed more actively than alternative culture, in Raymond Williams’ formulation, is not a consolation when the benign neglect suffered by alternative culture makes it impossible to hear. Right?

L. Timmel Duchamp: I don’t see any reason for mainstream editors to be irked or offended by that statement. I tend to feel sympathy for the plight of such editors today since I imagine that most of them chose that line of work (which is in every way arduous) not because they wanted to pursue the maximization of profit for their employers, but because they love literature that’s beautiful, striking, and even challenging. I see them working hard and trying to produce the best books they can. After having read André Schiffrin’s The Business of Books, I can only assume that they’re hedged about with constraints that limit what they can do — constraints that someone who loves literature likely needs to disavow if, unlike Schiffrin, who decided to start a small press, they’re to remain in their jobs. In the past, editors aimed their lists at readers like me, who spend thousands of dollars a year on books (and almost nothing on clothing, movies, and other elastic purchases), readers hungry for subtle, sophisticated work. These days the target audience isn’t readers like me, but people who buy bestsellers and little else. In the past, the big sellers subsidized the more challenging work. The conglomerate publishers, however, would like to eliminate the midlist and market only big sellers and the books that enhance the vertical integration of their most profitable products (viz., movies and the various products developed to exploit them). So editors do the best they can under difficult circumstances.

Under the conditions of today’s publishing marketplace, editors working for profit-oriented publishers cannot acquire books that they can’t convince their marketing departments the chain bookstores will order in large quantities in advance of publication: this, after all, is a basic condition of any editor’s employment. I presume that the ways in which editors are influenced by ideology are so much a part of the taken-for-granted corporate structures in which professionalism and work are embedded that such influences must be nearly imperceptible to everybody. That’s why the question of ideological influence will never be simply that of an editor’s reading a manuscript and rejecting it in an outright act of ideological censorship. Most editors would be appalled at the very idea of vetoing publication on such grounds; people who aspire to become editors in the first place are usually liberals in the classic, Lockean sense of the word. Why did the major book publishers pass up Carol Emswhiller’s Dick Award-winning novel The Mount? Or the novel by Gwyneth Jones that Aqueduct Press will be publishing in Fall 2004? We will probably never know. But I’d be surprised if the reason weren’t based on either the publishers’ or the chain-bookstore buyers’ assumption that the books would not have a “general” appeal and thus would not sell well enough to justify their being published. Both novels assume their readers are smart, attentive, and politically progressive. Perhaps marketing “wisdom” deems that novels written for such an audience are necessarily commercially marginal. Perhaps, too, there was a problem of “intelligibility,” which I’ll elaborate on in a moment.

Rich Horton has an essay in the fourth issue of the Internet Review of Science Fiction in which he notes that the small press is taking up the slack in publishing midlist books that mainstream publishers are no longer interested in. This observation accords with my view that the diminishing of the midlist is a narrowing of choice and a preference for fiction that appeals to the lowest-common-denominator, such that the largest commercial publishers are no longer devoted to serving the more diverse spectrum of tastes the midlist has always appealed to. Consequently, work that’s more challenging — whether intellectually, emotionally, or ideologically — is likely to be viewed by mainstream publishers as appealing to a smaller audience and thus (by the simplistic reasoning of corporate marketing departments) not as viable as formula fiction with a “fresh” twist.

Anent claims made by the authors of awful mss: as someone who has read a small amount of slush, I understand well the horrors of the slushpile and the ease with which such authors deceive themselves about the quality and interest of their work; I’m also familiar with the tendency of many writers to fail to notice that the work they consider shocking and new is derivative (often because they haven’t read much of the twentieth century’s most serious and thus widely unread literature). Perhaps more important, though, is this: writers have the choice of considering themselves to be writing for pay, or for love. Granted, most writers try to do both and some may actually succeed at it, but those who are having trouble cracking the major book publishers or who have fallen out of favor with them must not expect to have their cake and eat it too. Eventually, they may have to come to a hard, clear decision: such that if they’re writing for pay, they have no choice but to get with the program and crank out whatever it is the editors currently want. While if they’re writing for love (i.e., “art”), then they’d better stop thinking they have some kind of “right” to get published and paid for it and garner favorable reviews besides. Writing for love means you’re in for the long haul, mostly alone, and often uncertain of your own judgment, which is all a writer has when she’s rejected the judgment of the marketplace. It means writing millions of words without recognition and only a handful of readers (who are more likely to complain to the writer about her not doing enough to get her work into print than to offer moral support in maintaining her independence). Sure, freedom from the marketplace may create a kind of aesthetic autonomy — but that kind of freedom entails obscurity as well. How many writers can psychologically negotiate such a situation? It’s no wonder that most of us cling to the vision of “cultural autonomy” as Bourdieu characterized the professional scene of literature in Paris in the mid-19^th^ century, even though the economic and social conditions that made that scene possible have long since vanished. We’d like to believe that good work will always merit financial reward and professional recognition. But it’s that assumption that makes writers fall into the error of thinking that if they produce good work, they’re entitled to get paid for it and see their work published, favorably reviewed, and loved by fans everywhere.

I haven’t been a contributor to the infamous slushpiles of book publishers myself. The only large publishers that are open to submissions of unsolicited mss are Baen and DAW, who don’t publish any of the several kinds of fiction I write. Tor requires a synopsis and the first three chapters of the ms as a basis for judging whether they will look at a novel ms or not. Until recently, most of the other sf publishers accepted such query packages as a gateway to the slushpile stage, but a quick glance at shows that none of the other major sf publishers are now accepting unsolicited mss or query packages. While I don’t know the story of how sf book editors came to decide that a plot synopsis supplemented with a sample of writing competence provides the best tool for screening which mss they read and which they don’t, I can see a kind of logic to such a selection process. If marketing departments and chain-bookstore buyers assess a novel’s marketplace potential on the basis of just a few sentences used to pitch it, it makes sense that overworked editors would prefer not to waste time considering novels that their authors can’t pitch attractively to them in a synopsis or summary. But since I consider plot only one of many arrows in the writer’s quiver of narrative devices (and not necessarily the most important one), I have always declined to have my work judged by synopsis and so never found it possible to contribute to the book publishers’ slushpiles. One of the reasons I took a break from novel-writing in the late eighties and began writing short fiction was that short-fiction editors neither require nor want writers to pitch to them. Imagine if I’d had to synopsize and pitch stories like “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” or “Bettina’s Bet”! How in the world could I have described what happens in those stories in terms of plot development? Most of the interesting stuff that goes on in my fiction can’t be represented in a plot summary.

Which brings me to my reasons for starting Aqueduct Press. We will be publishing fine, challenging work that the mainstream houses pass up as well as work by me (which has never been submitted to mainstream publishers and therefore never rejected). I’d long entertained the idea of starting a press, but the thought of publishing my own work daunted me because I distrusted my judgment. Physicians are advised not to treat themselves, attorneys not to represent themselves. Similarly, it’s risky for writers to edit themselves. But I have so much unpublished work, a significant portion of which my best judgment tells me I should get out there, that I’ve nerved myself to take the risk.

To answer the second part of your question — about the distinction I’ve drawn between “oppositional” and “alternative” and to elaborate on how that relates to the “oppositional” character of feminist sf — requires my laying a bit of conceptual groundwork first. Two key themes in my thinking come into play here: the problem of the “oppositional,” as Nietzsche formulated it in The Genealogy of Morals, and the problem of intelligibility.

Let’s start with the problem of intelligibility. Most people are used to thinking that there is no reason that texts can’t be absolutely transparent, provided their authors speak with sufficient clarity and plainness. This (utterly mistaken) assumption in turn results in the judgment that when a text is misunderstood, either its author is at fault for using unnecessarily “difficult” and obfuscatory language, or its reader is at fault for being stupid. While I’m perfectly willing to grant that texts are seldom as clear as they could be and that most readers are unwilling to make much of an effort to grasp the meaning of anything they read, hear, or see, such reasoning misses a much larger problem in a world where texts constantly travel outside the discursive space in which they have been produced. Take the example I ran across in yesterday’s scholarly reading. In “Bourdieu’s Refusal” (Modern Language Quarterly 58:4), John Guillory takes as his point of departure “the suspicion, even hostility” with which Bourdieu’s work has often been greeted in the US academy. Guillory finds it especially interesting that “the same field that permitted so favorable a reception of Derrida or Foucault, especially in the humanities, should have occasioned so different a response to Bourdieu.” Guillory is saying, in other words, that the widespread misunderstanding of Bourdieu’s work in the US has nothing to do with the conceptual difficulty of the texts in question, since if that were the case the notoriously “difficult” theory of Derrida and Foucault would not be so widely accepted (and understood) in the US academy. Guillory observes, “Surveying the most typical misapprehensions of Bourdieu’s theoretical positions, Loïc Wacquant reminds us, much in the spirit of Bourdieu, that the reception of any foreign oeuvre is mediated by ‘structures of the national intellectual field’.” The phenomenon of Bourdieu’s being so often misread in the US, in short, is a problem of intelligibility. The discursive spaces of the French and US intellectual spheres overlap, but are not identical. Certain ideas and the texts expressing and exploring them, considered outside their discursive space of origin, are subject to being distorted and misunderstood.

Last year I published an essay in Extrapolation that briefly discussed the continued existence of a feminist sf discursive space; my essay predicted that because feminist sf was still not fully intelligible in the larger discourse of science fiction, the discourse known as “feminist sf” would likely be around for some time to come. In saying that feminist sf is “not fully intelligible” outside the discursive space of feminist sf, I mean that because the larger, more general discourse of science fiction has not absorbed the canon, concepts, and interests of feminist sf, it cannot yet provide a sufficiently meaningful context for feminist sf. A good example of this can be found in the limited understanding possessed even by its admirers of Karen Joy Fowler’s Nebula-winning story “What I Didn’t See,” as evinced in the often contentious discussion of the story on in Summer 2002. Like much of Karen Joy Fowler’s work, “What I Didn’t See” may be characterized as “elastic”; i.e., it is open to a variety of meanings besides the one the author had in mind when writing it. (Although she has not told me so, I suspect that KJF is fully aware of the elasticity of her work and may even strive to achieve it.) And so while it is possible to enjoy “What I Didn’t See” as “literary” fiction that “isn’t really sf,” the story is only fully intelligible to readers who have been long steeped in the literature of feminist sf and who have some familiarity with the ideas found in Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions. Read out of the context of feminist sf, the story appears to be something very different from its author’s most conscious intentions. It is not, in other words, fully intelligible to readers who have not been steeped in the discourse of feminist sf. Interestingly, I have several times encountered the attitude that it is in fact better not to know all that is going on in KJF’s fiction — that her prose is so delightful that analysis (and full understanding) is an affront to its beauty. But then I’ve also been assured that an intellectual understanding of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven ruins the listener’s pleasure rather than enhances it.

By now you are likely wondering what my discussion of intelligibility could possibly have to do with the distinction I draw between “oppositional” and “alternative.” First, they are not opposites. Oppositional is not “hard” or “overt” to alternative’s “soft” or “covert.” Let’s go back to Karen Joy Fowler’s story, “What I Didn’t See.” KJF wrote this story after swimming for thirty years in the water of feminist sf. Everyone knows she wrote the story in conversation with James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” an important early contribution to what soon became the discourse of feminist sf (i.e., the water KJF has been swimming in). Tiptree’s story is oppositional; KJF’s story is alternative. “The Women Men Don’t See” writes in forceful, glorious opposition to the sexist waters Alice Sheldon swam in. Alice Sheldon’s story is almost (but not quite) fully intelligible within the broader sf discursive sphere. KJF’s story is not. KJF’s story is subtle and playful and engages intertextually with numerous feminist sf texts that I’ve yet to hear anyone not at home in the waters of feminist sf even mention in relation to the story.

Obviously in some cases it’s possible to produce alternative texts that are sufficiently intelligible to the mainstream — or else sufficiently elastic — to have no trouble getting into print. Karen Joy Fowler proves that that is so (even though fights do break out about what her texts are actually doing and saying and even what kind of texts they are). But for the most part, through their refusal to adopt the frame of reference of the mainstream, alternative texts are marginal, and getting them into print generally requires a stroke or two of good luck — stumbling on editors who understand them and are able to make them intelligible to colleagues and superiors, or a benign misunderstanding of the text (as I happen to know does happen).

I’ve long suspected that were I to produce outright oppositional texts I’d probably find it possible to pitch my novels to book publishers. But like KJF — and like most feminists writing sf today — I’ve been swimming in that feminist sf water for thirty years, too. And I decided long ago, after reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, that it is a serious mistake for someone longing to live in a different world than the one we have today to retain the mainstream’s frame of reference, which one must do when one writes in opposition. Granted, there are times when it’s necessary and appropriate to write in opposition. But my overriding desire for my fiction is to cut myself free of those terms to the farthest extent that I can in order to understand the world in a different way — and to make the world productively, rather than in reaction. I mistrust reaction. My greatest joy is in creation.

I hope, therefore, to allow some of us who are at home in the waters of feminist sf to continue producing the alternative texts that the feminist sf canon — necessarily “oppositional” in character — has made possible, without undue concern for their intelligibility within the mainstream discourse. I myself am hungry for such texts, which is why I am so thrilled to be publishing Gwyneth Jones’s refused — alternative — text.

Josh B. Lukin: Does the bulk of the historical research precede or follow the idea for the particular story? That is, did you know most of what you needed to for “The Apprenticeship of Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi” before creating the characters and narrative?

L. Timmel Duchamp: Every piece of fiction I write begins with a clear and distinct voice speaking words, usually only a few words at first, which then gather other words to them. It begins as an impulse to put down the words I hear the voice speaking. And when these first words laid down on the page intrigue me, I’m compelled to continue writing, so as to reveal the world from which they flow. That is, in a nutshell, how most stories begin for me. (Mind you, those first few words that draw me into the story may not always be the first words in the published version — and may not even, many drafts down the line, survive at all.) The dedicated research, whether of history or science or philosophy, takes place only after the world and the language of the story and at least one or two of the characters have been established on the page and in my head. It then usually proceeds in tandem with the writing of the narrative. That was the case with “Isabetta” — though I should mention that I already knew quite a bit about the practice of magic and the institution of the Malmaritate in Early Modern Italy when I began writing the story and so knew exactly where to go to do the research without doing a bibliographical search first. As a general rule, every piece of fiction I write begins with the creation of the fictional world, sentence by sentence, on the page. The world emerges from the language (syntax, choice of words, style), and the characters from the world. The sole exception to this that I can think of is “Things of the Flesh.” There I had the core idea first and only afterwards conceived the setting and characters, which in turn produced the story’s language and world. My research on microbes and the operations of epidemiological investigations, however, did not begin until the world of the story had already come into existence.

Josh B. Lukin: You know that people are inevitably going to discuss a couple of the stories in your collection as “Belonging to the tradition of Monastic Science Fiction that runs from Ladies Whose Bright Eyes through A Canticle for Leibowitz to ‘Souls.‘” Is that okay with you?

L. Timmel Duchamp: How could it be otherwise? Science fiction — which is what I write — is recognizable by its intertextuality with other science fiction texts. The density of this intertextuality is such that even when an author of a story has not read all the possible stories her own story could be said to have a genealogical relation to, her story may nevertheless be read in relation to any or all of them. (I have on occasion amused myself by drawing maps positing such genealogical relationships between stories, establishing some pretty startling connections.) Although I’m a highly conscious writer, I’m prone to noticing months after having written a particular story that it picks up on or talks back to or in other ways engages with a story I hadn’t been thinking about when I wrote mine. I sometimes even leave clues for myself in the text — even going so far as to name characters, for instance, after characters in the stories I’m referencing — without any consciousness of doing so. And perhaps I should add this, as well: even if I did not believe that the writing of sf is always intertextual, I certainly believe that the reading of it is and must be. Sf stories make sense to the extent that they are read intertextually. (Which is why it is so difficult for those without experience in reading sf to appreciate sf texts.)

Josh B. Lukin: A character in your great novella, “Quinn’s Deal”, writes that her work is to be used “after the restoration to society at large of a general sense of moral sanity.” Is that gonna happen? Will literature play a role in it? Are we indeed prophets of a future not our own?

L. Timmel Duchamp: You know me, Josh, to be a notorious pessimist. Which makes these particular questions somewhat, er, loaded. Before 1991, the US news media still possessed the capability of serving as a vector for speaking truth to power (however seldom it chose to exercise that capability). After 1991, the media became an instrument of censorship in regulating the US’s primary sphere of political discourse. I wrote “Quinn’s Deal” in 1996. That was before the travesty of the impeachment of the POTUS, before the Supreme Court’s usurpation of the democratic process in December, 2000, and before the far right wing had completely subsumed the television news media and made US political culture radically unintelligible to the entire rest of the world (I presume your question applies to the US). I’m now a good deal more pessimistic about the US’s prospects than I was in 1996; I have no hope that the sense of being under siege will lift any time soon. I don’t think moral sanity is possible when most members of a society think of themselves as the victims of the rest of the world and that same society’s leaders think of themselves as the rightful masters of the world. That’s where we are now. What we need is a different kind of vision, one that is free of both the drag of the ressentiment of people under siege and the megalomania of rulers who think the world is theirs to plunder and dispose of at will. “Literature,” as you put it, could provide such a vision. I’ve no idea, though, whether a moral vision in literature could make a difference. Certainly it has in the past. But social, economic, and cultural conditions are always changing, and at the moment, literature in our society has almost no moral gravity to speak of, particularly given its status now as entertainment (preferably providing pat lessons in the received wisdom so comfortable to those who are complacent with the current climate of moral insanity). I’m more inclined to think that literature in the 21st century US is a life-raft, keeping a few souls alive, than a flotilla of ships, leading an expedition in search of a new vision.

Copyright © 2004 by Josh Lukin.