Cat Rambo, Guest Editor/Original Fiction Editor
Here’s the thing. All humans live inside a vast structure made of the flow of power and resources. All around us are the things that have grown to shape and express those flows: conventions and laws and manners and pop culture and highbrow art, architecture, religion, literature . . . even genre fiction. Everything around and within us is shaped by those flows and reflects the strongest or most immediate. And one aspect of being part of such a structure is that one’s position makes it very hard to see the big picture.
Try this experiment. Find a very large piece of art, preferably one you can stand (or sit or crouch) inside of and which you do not know well. Go inside it and from that angle, try to figure out how it will appear from a distance and where you fit in it. Have a friend take a picture of you from fifty feet away. Then compare that image with your mental one. How well do they map to each other? You’ll find in most cases there are at least a few distortions, sometimes wild or misleading ones.
Up close, you notice the fine details: scaling on a pillar, the tessellated mosaic underfoot, the graffiti someone’s added to an inside wall. From afar, you see the whole, the overall shape, the way it looks in silhouette. Two different views of the same thing.
Multiply that by the immeasurable vantage points afforded us by society, along so many axes: race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, body shape, and on and on. One of those splits (from one angle) is male/female. From another vantage point it’s more complicated than that, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
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I used to teach a class, Introduction to Women’s Studies, back in the early ’90s at the second oldest women’s studies program in the country: Towson State University, Maryland. The class was one of those intro classes that is a prerequisite for other classes in the major, and as it was explained to me by the department head, Elaine Hedges, it was supposed to give students a good background in the subject.
The problem was that Women’s Studies is less a body of knowledge than an approach to knowledge, a way of looking at things. I was a grad student at the time at Johns Hopkins, and I’d applied for the Towson position because I’d been one of the first students to come through Notre Dame’s Gender Studies Certificate Program. I’d taken some classes at ND for that certificate, but I’d concentrated on theory and linguistics. While I knew enough to convince Towson I’d make a decent lecturer, I wasn’t prepared. I knew little history, for one.
Preparing to teach the intro class was therefore a crash course in everything. I read deeply in the history of the women’s suffrage movement in America and England, from before Seneca Falls up until the Nineteenth Amendment and beyond. I read economics, art history, psychology, religion, and more, and tried to assemble a class that would help students get enough new perspective that they might better perceive the structure they’d been living in all their lives, the background radiation, so to speak, that had affected, sometimes literally stunted, how they grew.
I taught, according to my roster book, close to four hundred students while at Towson. With some of them, I was successful. They didn’t always like what they saw, but they were able to find a second perspective on the world and learn a little more about it in the process. I’m very proud of many of those students. I remember one evening class full of nursing students which was particularly lively: A student in it confided that she’d named her plants after famous suffragists because of the stories about them I’d told in class.
I loved that she’d loved the stories as much as I had. Teaching is a noble mission, one that lets us try to leave the world a little better, a little saner, a little happier than before we came to it. I loved teaching that class because I was helping people to learn how to question, to analyze, to think better. To see the structure around them. And I wanted them to question that structure because I think it is deeply flawed in a way that is responsible for much human suffering and unhappiness.
Sexism in genre literature has been documented to the point where it seems silly to question its existence. But it is important to remember that a) sometimes one is too close to the heart of the matter to see the overall shape of it and b) sometimes people have a psychic investment in that structure. Indeed, that’s part of how that structure survives, by selling itself to you in countless ways on a daily basis.
So what a joy to pick through close to 250 stories and cull the best in order to show you what a structure more welcoming of women’s voices might produce. And why these stories, out of a batch filled with so many wonderful pieces?
“The Scrimshaw and the Scream” was the first story that I decided on, and I knew that from the moment I first read it. It talks about the perils of denying the call to create—or even the call to be oneself, as becomes evident. Because it’s a heavy, sensory-laden piece, I knew it would require some lighter pieces to balance it out.
I wasn’t going to buy a fairytale, but I couldn’t resist T. Kingfisher’s “The Dryad’s Shoes,” a clever retelling of Cinderella. It was so sweet and whimsical that it seemed a natural antidote to the much darker piece. After that, I added “Drowning in Sky,” another dark and heavy historical piece that I loved for its texture. I rounded it all out with a superhero story, “Making the Cut.”
I love superhero stories and I’d specifically posted asking for submissions along those lines, so I got a slew of them. Of them all, “Making the Cut” managed to be light while asking interesting questions about superhero stereotypes.
All of these stories are about women making choices, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always unexpected. Because that is part of what the world is to me: a continuum, a rainbow, a myriad of choices, rather than the traditional binary that is such an integral part of the structure we inhabit, one that too often both assumes and imposes a monolithic culture on us, one that defines “normal” along strict and limiting lines. As I mentioned earlier, it isn’t just about male vs. female but of several different gender identities. A multiple-choice answer, rather than yes/no.
So here you have four stories in which women destroy fantasy, or rather fantasy as it has been shaped in the past. They use fantasy to entertain and to question and to provide a new vista on some pieces of the tradition. They do it beautifully, with stories that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them. They do it with stories that will make you see things in new ways.
And isn’t that why we read fantasy in the first place?
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Terri Windling, Reprint Editor
That women should be writing fantasy seems to me an entirely unremarkable proposition. Women have been a driving force in the fantasy field from its earliest beginnings in tales told by the fireside straight through to the emergence of the fantastic as a distinct literary genre. There are so many important women writers in our field that the hardest part of choosing reprints for this issue was being limited to just four of them. Where on earth does one even start? With the French salon writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? With the German Romantics one hundred years later? Or perhaps in the 1920s and ’30s, with the likes of Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and C.L. Moore? Or with Joanna Russ and the feminist writers of the 1960s and ‘70s? The mind boggles.
In the end, I chose reprints from the 1980s onward . . . for that’s when the genre coalesced into the fantasy field as we know it today, and as a result, these stories aren’t yet as dated as some of the earlier masterworks. Each reprint comes from a writer who has pushed at the boundaries of the genre over many years, and each covers a different part of the terrain: high fantasy (Bull), historical fantasy (Sherman), contemporary fantasy (Emshwiller) and fantasy with diverse mythic/folkloric roots (Hopkinson). Most importantly, each tale subverts the expectations of fantasy, and of “women’s writing,” in delightfully sly and skillful ways.
Back in the early ’80s, when I was starting out, there was a widely circulated complaint that “green girls from Vassar” were ruining the SF/fantasy field—a complaint, I should explain, that was prompted by the sudden influx of women editors and writers into what had been (with a few sterling exceptions) a largely male preserve. Thirty years later, the barriers women face are less overt—but, alas, not gone altogether. I long for the day when we no longer need “women only” issues like this one to draw attention to women’s work . . . but until that day, I feel much the same as Winifred Holtby, writing back in 1922:
“I am a feminist,” she said, “because I dislike everything that feminism implies. I desire an end to the whole business, the demands for equality, the suggestion of sex warfare, the very name feminist. I want to be about the work in which my real interests lie, the writing of novels and so forth. But while inequality exists, while injustice is done and opportunity denied to the great majority of women, I shall have to be a feminist. And I shan’t be happy till I get . . . a society in which there is no respect of persons, either male or female, but a supreme regard for the importance of the human being.”
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Wendy N. Wagner, Nonfiction Editor/Managing Editor
Writing about fantasy is hard: It’s a hugely broad genre with nebulous boundaries, and any time you make one claim, some work rises up to contradict what you said. Well, writing about women in fantasy is twice as hard. Women writers and illustrators have played incredible roles in our field, but they have also been overshadowed and underrepresented. I’m thrilled with the essays and interviews in this issue. I asked our nonfiction writers for work that would inspire and encourage the women who read and create fantasy; I wanted to look at the history of women working in the field and to shine a light on the work that is shaping the future of the genre. I think our writers succeeded.
We need special issues like this because fantasy is a genre that tends to destroy women—or if not destroy, then de-story. Our tits and asses get to appear on book covers and movie posters, while our names fall off the recommended reading lists. Women have been writing tales of the fantastic for centuries. Women have been painting and designing the images of the genre as long as there has been paint (in fact, an article in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic pointed out that close to three-quarters of the handprints in the Lascaux cave paintings belonged to women).
This is just an introduction to the fantastic work of women. Get out there and experience the destruction!