Celebrating IWD: Kameron HurleyBy
Today’s International Women’s Day Post is written by Kameron Hurley, hope you all enjoy!
I’ll Make the Pancakes: On Opting In – and Out – of the Writing Game
I’ve been loudly asserting my opinion on the internet and in print for fifteen years, and it never gets any easier.
It gets better.
Not the treatment, no– there will always be trolls, shitty emails, digs at appearance, calls for sources and “evidence” to back up your expertise (which only counts if it comes from dudes), folks who assume you write genres you don’t; there will be fewer opportunities for reviews; colleagues on panels who start conversations with “I don’t want to be sexist but…”, and covers for your gritty SF book that come out looking like a Tampax ad. Those things are going to be there for some time, to some extent. And every few years, you’ll fight for respectability and a voice from a new generation of folks who don’t know your work or credentials and thus judge you exclusively on gender and appearance as determined by whatever the media machine says you are. And you’ll have to prove yourself all over again.
It sucks. It’s hard. If you stay in the game, though, I promise you’ll get very good at it. You’ll get pretty good at writing, too. And business. Those are the parts that get better. You get tougher, and more jaded, and angrier as you become a better, more vocal and more respected writer.
But you’ll also get pretty tired
I don’t judge women who leave this game. I knew a lot of feminist bloggers from the early days of blogging who closed up shop after wave after wave of abuse, stalkers, threats, and real life incidents where “internet threat” became “in your fucking face threat.” I know women who wrote hard SF or epic fantasy who threw in the towel, or went to genres like urban fantasy or romance that were far more welcoming to women authors. I know women who shrugged and just went through buckets of male and gender-neutral pseudonyms, and then snickered at everyone behind their hands.
So I’m not going to tell you to stay in this game.
Instead, I’m going to tell you I know it’s hard.
And I’m going to tell you why, despite that bullshit, I’m still here.
I was at WisCon, a big feminist SF convention, in May 2006 when Joanna Russ did what I believe was her last public interview. Russ was in ill health, so did the interview over the phone with Sam Delany. By this time, Russ was one of my heroes. I found her to be the most angry and vehement of the feminist SF writers I’d read; compared to Russ, LeGuin was boringly conservative.
Russ expressed the white-hot rage I felt at realizing the game was rigged against me from the start, and that no matter how equal I believed I was, the world was going to treat me like a woman, whether I liked it or not. The Female Man is so raging, teeth-gnashing nuts that I couldn’t get through it the first couple of times I tried. The title also gave voice to something I felt all the time – that I was a human, a man – not in the sense that I felt disassociated from my female body, but in the sense that I, too, had bought that women were somehow “other” and I wasn’t “other” so I must be a man, a real human too, right? I’d internalized an astonishing amount of misogyny growing up that I didn’t even recognize until my early 20s
I bought a lot of divide-and-conquer politics when I was younger, putting women into camps: here are the butch, strong women. Here are the weak, feminine, useless women, the kind they showed on TV as always needing rescuing. I was never Willi; I was always Indiana Jones. I strove to be part of the “human” camp of women, the strong, butch ones. But because my body was coded female, I was never, ever assumed to have the kind of knowledge or credibility that a man would have. To those who didn’t know me, no matter how much I butched up, or tried to “prove” my geek credentials, or masculine sensibilities, I was always just a woman on first blush. I got passed up for raises. I got relegated to admin jobs. I got money offers less than that of male colleagues.
What I learned was that I had to work harder than the guys. I had to assume that when people looked at me, they’d automatically give me crappier offers. They’d assume I was stupider than I was. They’d pay attention to me less. They’d judge me by gender, by looks, by weight, before anything else. I automatically started every interaction at a disadvantage.
In some ways, realizing this made things easier. I no longer worked on the assumption of equality. I always assumed I was starting ten steps behind. I learned I had to fight harder, shout louder, and demand more just to get five extra steps ahead, so I wasn’t starting quite so behind in the eyes of those who passed judgment on me, from bosses to colleagues to new friends. Even in my writing career, people made certain assumptions. I remember being asked at a baby shower once if I wrote children’s books. I found it difficult to even respond to that, because I’d just published a science-fantasy noir book about a bisexual bounty hunter who lops off people’s heads for a living. There is of course nothing wrong with writing children’s books, but I couldn’t help but wonder what that person would assume I wrote if I presented as a dude.
For a while I became smitten with the idea of “power feminism” or the popular “lean-in” culture that passes for mainstream white feminism right now. We just needed to be smarter, faster, better. We needed to ask for raises, demand better treatment. Sexism was our fault, for buying into the misogyny ourselves, and operating like we were at a disadvantage.
But what much of that “lean-in” culture doesn’t acknowledge is that we do, in fact, operate at a disadvantage heaped on us by the assumptions of people in power, and thus some are able to “lean-in” more than others. If I’m working a retail job and demand $10.50 an hour instead of $10, in most cases they’ll be happy enough to let me go and replace me with some other hard-up person for $10 an hour. No contest. That’s the game. That’s how it’s rigged. And this doesn’t even touch on how someone will react to this assertion if you’re also a person of color, or gay, or trans, or an immigrant, or acting “too uppity” for how they believe someone of your “kind” should behave. In some cases, “acting uppity” will be met not with mere job loss or scowling, but violence.
You can fight all you want for individual wins, and fight to be the “exceptional” woman, but so long as there’s institutionalized oppression, bias, and unregulated, out-of-control capitalism that treats people as disposable objects, you’re an exception, not a rule. So long as the people with the power – to hire and fire you, approve or deny your loan, or write up your speeding ticket – look at you through the lens of institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other –ism they’ve learned from stories, videos, media, and other biased individuals, a single win means nothing.
We cannot effect true change alone.
Every writer is an island.
Often, we get tangled up in thinking our experiences are somehow singular, that no one before us walked this road or tackled these problems or felt this kind of angry woe at the state of the their chosen profession as a writer of fiction, or anything else. One of the things reading Russ gave me was a sense that I wasn’t on my own. When I read The Female Man or On Strike Against God I saw myself as part of something far bigger than myself. I wasn’t the only person angry. I wasn’t the only person who faced bullshit assumptions about who I was, what I wanted, what I wrote. And I wasn’t the only one often confused by society’s expectations versus what I actually wanted.
The more women writers I read, from Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler to Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Toni Morrison, the less alone I felt, and the more I began to see myself as part of something far bigger than myself.
It wasn’t about one woman toiling against the universe. It was about all of us moving together, crying out into some black, inhospitable place that we would not be quiet, we would not go silently, we would not stop speaking, we would not give in.
Joanna Russ died in 2011, the year my first book, God’s War, came out.
I remember sitting and staring at the computer and thinking, “Oh God, now what?” because it hadn’t sunk in yet – oh, I could certainly admit and process the news of her death, but I didn’t know what it meant yet. Russ hadn’t really published much work since the late 90’s, due to illness and, I expect, exhaustion at this bullshit game. It’s hard. It’s brutal. It’s no fun.
But even though she hadn’t been in the game for a while, there was some safety and security in knowing she was still alive. That her voice was there. It existed. Her work was available. She wasn’t going to be shut up.
With her voice there, I realized, I didn’t feel as much pressure to step up.
She was there to do it.
I didn’t have to.
But in that moment, I looked at my book on the shelf, which hadn’t moved many copies yet, or won any awards. It was just my little niche feminist SF book. I expected it would sell 3,000 copies and disappear.
That did not happen.
But I didn’t know that at the time.
All I knew is that there was no more Joanna Russ, and I was going to have to find another angry, truth-telling, no-bullshit voice that I could count on to rage at the world.
It’s easy to pass this buck, when it occurs to you. It’s easy to point to other writers and say, “Hey, you should do/be that voice.” Or “Hey, why don’t you take up this mantle?” or “You should really…” or “Writers X, Y and Z already have this covered,” but the fact is that this is a hard gig, and a lot of people drop out of it, and you never know how long they’ll stick around.
I realized I could continue passing the buck, and just point to other writers speaking truth to power, because there were indeed a lot of them.
But there was another option.
Instead of just telling other people to step up…. Well… I could be the one to step up. I could be one of those voices.
Because, shit: I’ve been screaming on the internet for ten years. What’s forty more?
I don’t have a lot of spoons for handling this bullshit game, some days. I’ve got a chronic illness. I have a day job. I have book deadlines and marketing calendars and convention appearances. But one thing Russ’s death taught me is that you can’t rely on other folks’s voices always being there. Sometimes it needs to be your voice. Sometimes, if no one else will speak truth to power, or risk speaking out against Big Dude Author X, or say “Fuck my career,” then it has to be you.
There are some days indeed feel like I’m screaming alone on an island, the way a lot of young women writers might feel every time they read the latest bullshit about how they’ll be reviewed less, stocked less, and passed over for more awards than their dude colleagues.
But the fact is I’m not alone. And they’re not either. There’s a huge, angry, passionate group of people who aren’t happy with the status quo, and who actively speak out against it, over 300 of which I follow on Twitter alone. There are massive communities of feminist writers, and no-bullshit writers, men and women and everybody along and outside that continuum, who are speaking up and speaking out.
They are also a lot easier to find today than they were twenty years ago, because the there’s Twitter and Tumblr and Youtube and easy blogging platforms. Access to venues where we can be heard is easier. It no longer feels like it’s just me lying in bed with a Joanna Russ book, trying to pretend I’m not alone and writing angrily in a notebook. It’s me engaged in active dialogue with like-minded folks – even if we’re often arguing with each other on Twitter, and calling out each others’ shit arguments and blind spots and bullshit.
And just as I take comfort in their voices, sometimes, I realize, it’s my voice that needs to be the comforting one, too. When I can afford the risk, it’s my responsibility to step up. Because if enough people pass the buck, and pretend this is somebody else’s problem, then suddenly it becomes no one’s problem, and we slide backwards, and we go back those ten steps, and we go back to square one.
Sometimes they take the risk; sometimes I do.
We do it together. We support each other. We argue with each other.
What’s important is that we realize we’re not in this alone.
That’s why I’m still in this game. Because I understand that much of the internet trolling, the shit-flinging, the active and passive acts of oppression, are about pushing me and people like me out. It’s about creating a sandbox narrative that doesn’t include me or people like me. And I call bullshit.
I can’t guarantee you, young women writers, that things are going to get better. I’m not going to pretend you won’t get trolled, harassed, threatened, or stalked.
But what I can promise you is that you aren’t in this fight alone. You are not speaking out alone, and you and your work and your voice and your passion exists on a long continuum of voices just like yours, who had to fight the same battles you fight, and who are still here, and still in this.
Just like you.
I don’t blame you if it’s too much. I don’t judge you for telling this genre or any other to fuck itself. But if you stay in this, next to me, and next to all the other women and men and all the fabulous plethora of otherwise-identified folks engaged in rewriting the narrative of what science fiction is, we’ll support you, and champion you, and we’ll fight with you.
That’s what I have for you.
Some days, it won’t be enough.
Some days, it’ll be all that gets you up off the floor.
So you pack the guns. I’ll make us some pancakes.
And let’s get back to work.