The author of “Tinderbox” on the untold story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire, which until the Orlando shooting was the worst mass killing of gays in history.
This speech by Sarah Schulman is a must-read for queer writers
As we make our work, we also have to model behaviors and ways of having personal and social relationships that can facilitate a whole new and completely different way of living, a kind of – to be old-fashioned – liberation way of living. And you know that for me, as I expressed in my most recent book, Conflict Is Not Abuse, part of liberation means a community ethic to stop shunning, pick up the phone and talk about your differences, get together in person with the people you’re in conflict with instead of enlisting your clique or community or religion or corporate shield or race or nation to obliterate them. Stop being mean to a person or a group because someone you identity with told you to hurt them. Instead, ask the contested person what they think it going on. Why do they think this is happening? And whether that is your friend’s ex-friend, or people excluded by the Muslim ban, hear what the excluded person is experiencing. And we have to stop calling the police as a way to cover up our own unjust anxieties. Because what we have got in America right now is a system that is just cruel, in which the people in power are criminals, and people’s basic needs are ignored, and lives are ruined at whims of political game playing. So, any queer individual making it in that system is not a signifier of actual change. It’s great for that person, which has its own value, but it’s not enough.
Sarah Schulman, Publishing Triangle Award Speech
Blistering critique followed by uplifting hope.
Read the whole thing!
She never expected to be read the way we read her, gulped down as escapist historical fiction, fodder for romantic fantasies. Yes, she wanted to be enjoyed; she wanted people to feel as strongly about her characters as she did herself. But for Jane a story about love and marriage wasn’t ever a light and frothy confection. Generally speaking, we view sex as an enjoyable recreational activity; we have access to reliable contraception; we have very low rates of maternal and infant mortality. None of these things were true for the society in which Jane lived. The four of her brothers who became fathers produced, between them, 33 children. Three of those brothers lost a wife to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Another of Jane’s sisters-in-law collapsed and died suddenly at the age of 36; it sounds very much as if the cause might have been the rupturing of an ectopic pregnancy, which was, then, impossible to treat. Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband—her money, her body, her very existence as a legal adult. Husbands could beat their wives, rape them, imprison them, take their children away, all within the bounds of the law. Avowedly feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and the novelist Charlotte Smith were beginning to explore these injustices during Jane’s lifetime. Understand what a serious subject marriage was then, how important it was, and all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.
No more than a handful of the marriages Jane depicts in her novels are happy ones. And with the possible exception of Pride and Prejudice, even the relationships between Jane’s central characters are less than ideal—certainly not love’s young dream. Marriage mattered because it was the defining action of a woman’s life; to accept or refuse a proposal was almost the only decision that a woman could make for herself, the only sort of control she could exert in a world that must very often have seemed as if it were spiraling into turmoil. Jane’s novels aren’t romantic. But it’s become increasingly difficult for readers to see this.
My favourite paragraphs from Helena Kelly’s fantastic essay, The Many Ways in Which we are Wrong about Jane Austen
The Books that I Loved
Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)
Twenty years after a devastating flu epidemic wipes out most of Earth’s population, a band of actors and musicians, known as ‘The Symphony’, travel the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic North America, performing Shakespeare and classical music for the surviving communities they encounter. The novel’s title refers to a mysterious graphic novel treasured by Kerstin, one of the young actors in The Symphony. As the story moves back and forth between ‘Year 20’ and the time before the plague, and the characters’ stories slowly unfold, Station Eleven becomes the lynch pin holding it all together. I loved this evocative, powerful story about the ways in which our lives are shaped by history and circumstances. Station Eleven is a speculative novel about science fiction in which a line taken from an episode of Star Trek, Voyager (“Survival is insufficient”) becomes profoundly meaningful.
Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014) `
A young woman called Rosemary takes a job as a clerk aboard The Wayfarer just as Captain Ashby and his dedicated crew of wormhole builders receive the offer of a lifetime. A lucrative but risky job. There is an adventure and peril ahead, but really this is all about the characters and their relationships with each other. If you’re sick of grim dark, look no further. The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is a lovely space opera with good people doing their best in difficult circumstances. Plus it has bisexual aliens and that queer family of choice dynamic that so many of us find irresistible. The aliens in particular are wonderful. I think my favourite is the Grum, Dr Chef. It does have a first novel feel and there were places where I thought things could be more developed, but overall I loved it and have already bought the next in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit.
Emma Newman, Planetfall (2015)
Renata Ghali is an engineer in charge of maintaining the 3D printers that supply her colony with all its material goods. She has a severe anxiety disorder and still grieves the loss of her beloved Lee Suh-Mi, the woman who led them to this distant world over twenty years previously. The community believes that Suh Mi has disappeared into the strange alien structure that looms over their town and that one day she will return. But then a stranger appears at the borders of their world, a young man who claims to be Suh Mi’s grandson and the sole survivor of a group of colonists who were lost in a terrible accident during Planetfall. This young man comes with the power to destroy everything and reveal the lie upon which the life of the colony has been built. Planetfall is a compelling and desperately sad book about secrets, grief, loss and the inability to change and let go. It is also a book about materialism and the way that things can come to own us and prevent us from seeing the truth of our situation.
Nnedi Okerforar, The Book of Pheonix (2015)
Pheonix Okore is a ‘Speciman’ created in the laboratories of a corporation known as the “Big Eye”. Pheonix is intended to be a terrible weapon, a creature with the power to burn up and consume everything in her path, only to regenerate and return to life again within a few days. With the help of her fellow specimen, Pheonix escapes from her creators, and sets out for Africa where she finds community and love. But Pheonix is not left in peace for long. Like Mary Shelley’s monster years before, what Pheonix learns about the world soon sets her on a destructive course. The Book of Pheonix is an allegory for our times. It is a highly literate and richly intertextual, post-colonial SF fantasy full of references to history (slavery, medical experimentation on women of colour), pop culture, religious texts, science fiction (Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau), mythology, and theory (Roland Barthes makes an appearance at the end). It left me wanting to read all of Nnedi Okerforar’s books. This novel is a prequel to Who Fears Death?, so I’m looking forward to that.
Women often resist being described as “women writers,” and with good reason. The need to prefix “writer” with a tag suggests that writer really means male writer (or perhaps, more specifically, white, straight male writer). It implies that readers need to be warned; that women are intruders on the default terrain — which, in the pages of many magazines, they are. Similarly, the idea of “women’s writing” provokes ambivalence precisely because it implies that women are writing only from, and about, their experience as women (unlike men, who are asking the big universal questions of interest to all, in their great American novels-to-be). The implication is that women are trapped within their particularity, unable to speak to those who don’t share it, while the writing of (straight, white) men is universal rather than particular. But everyone is shaped by their experience of gender, whatever that experience is; there is no view from nowhere. Men’s experience is no less specific than women’s; it’s just that we fail to see it as such.
Katherine Angel, Gender, blah, blah, blah