Sunday, May 1, 2011

Parsing Joanna Russ (1937 - 2011)

Feminist science fiction author Joanna Russ passed away this weekend, aged 74.

This is not going to be a big post about "What Russ' Writing Means To Me" because I am still in the process of discovering and parsing her body of work. I discovered Russ only about a year ago, got a copy of "How To Suppress Women's Writing" in August, and have only just read "The Female Man" recently.

It makes me annoyed and sad  that I did not get introduced to feminist science fiction, especially Russ, as a younger SF fan. I guess she was too threatening for my 1980s small town high school and libraries. I do know I would be a different person and writer if I had known of her work and that feminist and queer science fiction existed a lot earlier.

Now I am a different person because of Joanna Russ, even in the space of a year. Whenever I'm feeling a bit down about rejections or trying to get my head around politics in the publishing industry, I think about "How to Suppress Women's Writing". It's my little whisper, the small straightening of the backbone that makes me persist.

Russ is challenging, angry, weird and out there, all in a good way. She distilled the anger of 60s and 70s feminism into her post-modern writing. I've never really studied or challenged myself with post-modern writing (hooray 1980s small town education, you sucked), so at times I find her style difficult and confronting, but that is what makes her so interesting. She took a punt, she took the knocks, she knew exactly what criticism would be levelled at her and what it would mean to her professional career, and wrote it regardless.

As I mentioned before when I was reading "The Female Man", I was disappointed in the transbigotry. However, in discussions with people on Twitter in the last 48 hours since Russ' death, I have been pointed towards interviews and academic works where she revisits some of her problematic themes and opinions over the years. The mark of a good person is recognizing your mistakes, rectifying them, apologizing for them, and becoming a better person for it, and Russ has recognized that she was a product of her generation and socialization. In this interview at WisCon in 2006 (h/t I09), Russ specifically covers what made me uncomfortable about TFM.

So far, I have come across two great write ups about Russ. The first is a prescient review of TFM by Brit Mandelo at Tor.com - "Queering SFF: The Female Man" was published mid-March, and is an excellent deconstruction of the book and touches on all the points I would have eventually discussed (I was planning writing my own review of the book, but this one says everything and more, showing up that I needed to know more about Russ before getting stuck in to a review). Mandelo also did a review of "How to Suppress Women's Writing" here. Tor also has a short tribute up here.

Annalee Newitz at I09 has written "How to remember and discover Joanna Russ", which has an in depth look at all Russ' fiction and how to approach them.

For more in depth academic reading, here is a collection of links to papers, essays etc written about and by Russ (via @strangehorizons)

I'm sorry I didn't know you as well as I should have when you were alive Joanna. May you keep pushing me to be a better writer and your words stay loud and fierce.

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