Christchurch based author of short fiction and Clarion graduate, AJ Fitzwater was a Guest of Honour at Au Contraire 3 over Queen’s Birthday weekend recently.
AJ has kindly allowed us to publish a transcript of their GoH speech, delivered on 5th June 2016.
Kia ora koutou katoa. Thank you for joining me today, distinguished guests. I hope you’re all enjoying Au Contraire. Thanks to all the volunteers putting in the time and effort to celebrate what we love here this weekend. And thank you to the concom for inviting me as a guest of honour. It’s a privilege to be one of many women representing New Zealand speculative fiction here and overseas.
Trigger Warnings for difficult and sensitive subjects here within.
Not that long ago, in a galaxy not that far away…
An orphan stands on the precipice of reckoning, looking towards the sunset, hoping for a better life out there amongst the stars. This orphan has MAD SKILLZ. They know something about survival and rebellion. The orphan quests with a mysterious stranger who offers a glimpse of a better life, and the possibility of finding their lost family. There’s flying of space ships through narrow caverns, lots of bravado, and plenty of pew pew. Eventually our orphan takes up a lightsabre and faces off with the Big Bad.
But that’s not how The Force works. If you know anything about me, you’ll know I’m not talking about Luke Skywalker, but Rey. But somehow, Luke is The Hero in capital letters, while Rey has been dubbed the Mary Sue, an unkind appellation for simple wish fulfilment, talents unearned, backstory absent, too…female (said in Ferengi undertones). The goal posts change too – Furiosa, Katniss, Triss, Bella Swan – any woman character is a Mary Sue if they look hard enough. But so what? Like Luke Skywalker and Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark AREN’T some sort of wish fulfilment?
Meanwhile, over here in the ‘Verse. Blond, with grace, kicking the ass of the non-human race. They live, they die, they live again! Super-powered stunt machine with a rocking bod. Kind, loyal to their friends to the end, knows the power of team work, but ultimately a lost loner burdened by truth and power, and can never be with the one true love of their life.
Captain America? Or Buffy? Cap is The Hero (those capital letters again). Buffy is a Strong Female Character – and you can hear those Ferengi undertones again. You know the one: tight pants and high heels that are totally impractical when fighting, cleavage but not too slutty, athletic but not muscular, can’t be too big or intimidating. Intelligent, sassy, broken. Perfect, but not too perfect. Almost…almost like they’re written as wish fulfilment.
Thirty years ago when I first started reading speculative fiction, and twenty-five years ago when I first started considering whether I could write it, I had the advantage and disadvantage of two great guides. Anne McCaffrey and Melanie Rawn. Dragon masters, through and through. I love dragons, when they’re done right. The advantage: two incredible women writers, flipping up the tropes about angry, evil dragons into something far more compassionate, deeply emotional, and connected to humanity more than just “see knight, pick teeth with sword”. The disadvantage: JUST two women. I didn’t question it too much. I had a lot of internalized sexism to unpack. My Mary Sues. As Joanna Russ would say “She wrote it, but there’s only one of them.”
Then, Buffy. Sarah Connor. GI Jane. Ripley. Trinity. Lara Croft. Tough, no nonsense women, but ultimately within the narrow definitions of worthy bodies and emotional attitude a strong woman should have – cis, white, able. My Strong Female Characters. As Joanna would say “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly”.
My entire life I’d held feminist ideals – of course I was going to university, of course I was going to get a job, of course my reproductive choices were my own – but I was too afraid to name them Capital F. My socialization about feminists had to do with Germaine Greer, barren, dykey, ugly, short haired, fat, angry. I know now that these are NOT insults to womanhood (except Germaine Greer).
Mine was not of an oral tradition of wider women’s stories, or of people who shared education or power well. It took me so long, into my thirties, to embrace feminism wholly and truly, say proudly yes, I AM a feminist and I will fight for you to be heard too.
That slow awakening is intricately linked to an awakening to feminist speculative fiction, women and gender diverse authors and narratives, and embracing internet communities as my home to discover, devour, discuss. It was also an awakening to the idea that there are way more than just a few simple narratives allowed women and gender diverse people, and that calling an author or character a Mary Sue is a pejorative, another silencing tactic. “Ugh, why does she have to be such a Mary Sue” translates to “Ugh, why does she have to be cleverer than a man? Why does she have to be so YOU?”
And you know what? I’m so angry it took me that long. Angry that it wasn’t made plain to me Julian May, Andre Norton, and CJ Cherryh were women. Angry that I wasn’t even told Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr existed. Angry that no one thought it important to tell me women were ALREADY brilliant speculative writers. I didn’t have to reinvent fire, though that’s what it felt like starting out. These incredible, genre changing women were made invisible to me through various forms of gate keeping – a conservative small town upbringing and education, westernized media and popular culture where men dominate, the internalized silence.
I clearly remember the moment I discovered Joanna Russ. It was 2009. I’d just started tentatively writing speculative fiction again after nearly fifteen years of being a good little capitalist drone, after deciding I needed to chase a dream before I hit forty. I’d just joined Twitter and I was adding writers left, right, and centre. I got into conversation with Australian author Nicole Murphy – she of “Love and Romanpunk” fame – about women author recommendations, and she said I should read Joanna Russ. “How To Suppress Women’s Writing” and “The Female Man” later, lightbulb moment!
Russ lead me to James Tiptree Jr. More than just a lightbulb moment, Super Trooper beams are gonna blind me! Alice Sheldon’s struggle to be taken seriously in the male dominated world of 70s science fiction, creating a male life for herself which ended up deeply resonating with her gender conflict, struck a deep chord in me.
I had been wrestling with what types of stories I wanted to tell – surely there was more than conforming to the male dominated big rockets sci fi, or smushy princesses that were deemed “okay” for women to be involved in.
Joanna and Tip gave me the damn good shake up I needed.
The internet was the revolution, the sharing of women’s stories at it should be. I opened the floodgates on women speculative authors and feminist genre history. The hidden short fiction writers of the early 20th century. The second wave of Octavia E Butler, Kate Wilhelm, Sheri S Tepper, Lisa Tuttle, Gwyneth Jones, Suzee McKee Charnas, Karen Joy Fowler, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood. Even more contemporary, Melissa Scott, Nalo Hopkinson, Kameron Hurley, Nicola Griffith, Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, Catherynne M Valente. Imagine my delight at being able to communicate with my contemporaries.
Then imagine my ecstasy when I was able to learn from my two favourite contemporaries, Jemisin and Valente at Clarion in 2014. Cat told me not to get into that Mary Sue versus Strong Female double bind – she said to me: “be stubborn, and alter as little as possible. Let the market come to you.” Nora said something in a similar vein – stand up to people wanting to change my stories to make them more palatable or sexy. It was intense validation.
I’ve only been at this seven or so years, yet it feels like I’ve packed in a lifetime of reading, learning, writing. And I’m still learning. It’s fascinating how social justice and genre have evolved even in the last half decade – a proliferation of women, queer, and race centred anthologies and magazine take overs that use the foot up from their progenitors of the last century; voices amplified by the freedom from gatekeepers that the digital age offers.
As with their matching feminist waves, genre feminism and social justice hasn’t been without problems. Women authors still suffer from being labelled as Mary Sues or Strong Females. Just look at how the Puppies have thrown their toys out of the cot over the visibility of women in speculative fiction, and the Hugo debacle the last few years.
No matter how they want to dress it up their ballot stuffing and veiled threats, decrying “message fiction” and wanting to “relive the Golden age of Sci Fi” is all about denying women, the gender diverse, people of colour, and queer people a seat at the table. It’s the last roar of a dying dinosaur – all genre fiction is message fiction. The message we’re sending is hope, transcendence, change, inclusivity. Theirs sounds like the theme to Two and a Half Men.
Women are Mary Sue’d to the hilt, relegated to sections where they’re easily quantifiable, where their characters make “sense” without straying too far off the path of what men perceive women to be. Fantasy. Romance. YA. Sociological science fiction. All things “soft” and womanly. All of these are valid, and I can tell you there is nothing “soft” about some segments of social justice genre that lay bare inequities such as colonization, alien-as-other, torture porn, and ‘historically accurate” rape.
And when women do flip the story, make our narratives more important, wanted, louder, men flood back in to silence us. Just look at how YA has been supposedly “saved” by men, and fantasy is synonymous with Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings.
As women have become louder within genre, the problems of harassment online and in public, like in work settings and at conventions, have become more prominent. While accountability is happening for sexual harassers, stalkers, bullies, and institutionalized problematic people, it has been slow and bogged down by the old boys – and girls – network, as well as intersections like ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and classism.
But it is getting better! We’re showing them we’re Strong Females in many different ways. Many conventions are dedicated to comprehensive anti-harassment policies. Many authors are making the point that a good policy is an important rider to their participation. I’m one of those authors, and I’m proud that Au Contraire is one of those conventions, who were willing to improve their policy along with discussion from me and other authors and fans. I hope from our example we can be open about these problems and make it known that bad behaviour will no longer be tolerated in these communal settings we ALL come to enjoy. There’s always room for improvement.
Another problem is that genre publishing as a whole is overwhelmingly white, male, cis, and heteronormative. There are women and gender diverse people in places of power, but not enough, and not enough diversity amongst them either. It’s also a system controlled by profit, usefulness, worthiness, putting the emphasis on the end product rather than the labour to create the art. Exposure doesn’t keep a writer fed. Pay women what they SAY they deserve. And if the money isn’t there, interrogate the system that devalues art, not the woman’s demands.
If we are dedicated to strengthening the future of genre, as I am, then ways must be found to break the mould, diversity and opportunity must be found in all levels. From the consumers and fans right through to the conventions, reviewers, critics, marketers, and publishers, we must be willing to amplify other voices than our own, stand up against injustice, and when it gets a bit too much, ask for help. I’m so honoured to have a wonderful and ever growing support network: from New Zealand authors and fans like you here today, to my Clarion classmates, right through a worldwide network of editors, writers, and readers that is a brilliant web of glittering minds.
And now, more than ever before, they’re only a computer screen away.
I believe the information age is the revolution that will take genre and our stories to the next level. Already women and gender diverse people have used it to circumvent traditional capitalist and gate-keeping models. Self-publishing, social media, fanfiction, forums, the sharing of cosplay, art, and zines, education and advocating, crowd funding, awards, online media venues and so much more have allowed women to archive, experiment, twist, shape, break, and put back together their stories in many exciting ways. It gives the creators AND consumers the power to choose, compare, have more to critique. It’s not perfect, and genre publishing has still many growing pains to endure, but their voices are breaking through like they never have before. And they must be doing something right – if there was no demand for accountability, no demand for diverse stories, I wouldn’t be standing before you today.
Our history, confidence and loudness is hard won. We don’t have to be stuck between the rock and the hard place. The fight is nowhere over, but with communality it’s now easier to fight accusations of Mary Sueness and demands of Strong Femaleness. Our narratives CAN be both. They can be neither. We can be ugly, feminine, queer, masculine, have sex or not, have babies or not. We can be smart, powerful, weak, and terrible. We can be messy, in love or not, disabled, incredible. We can be sick, strong, superheroes, parents of all shades. We can have strong bindings of community, or differences that cannot be over come. Our stories can, and should, interrogate gender through its entire continuum. We are women, there are the gender diverse, and our stories contain multitudes.
I have multitudes. I have many more stories I want to tell, that MUST be told. I’ve barely touched on it here and in my work, so if you’d like to discuss more, read more, come find me. Come find other women. Come find the stories of women and the gender diverse. And if you can’t find them, demand better. Demand more. Demand our stories, and BELIEVE them.