Sat
Feb 22 2014 9:00am
Dear Joanna Russ: A Letter for an Inimitable Writer

Joanna Russ birthdayWhile researching for We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling, I developed a passionate engagement with Russ’s astounding, provocative body of work—and I had intended, at the time, to write her a letter upon completion of the project to thank her for her contributions to feminism, science fiction, and queer scholarship. Unfortunately, on April 29th 2011, Joanna Russ passed away; I had not written or sent that letter.

So, I go back to that initial desire now, to celebrate Russ’s birthday and the imprint her writings left on me, the SF genre, and the wider community of scholars and critics in which she participated.

 

Dear Joanna Russ,

I wanted to offer my admiration and respect for the contributions you have made to all of the fields in which I—and so many others—read, work, and create. Reading the span of your bibliography, from poetry to fiction to nonfiction and back, has been a gift that I will treasure; you were one of the finest, the most visceral and honest, voices I have ever had the pleasure to encounter. You have left your mark on all of the fields in which you worked, and have forged paths between them that to this day are useful and provocative. The connections between queer feminism and SF, between the academy and feminism, between SF and the academy: these are all roads that you helped to pave.

From the late ’50s to the late ’90s, you cast your immense shadow over every genre in which you wrote. Your inimitable mix of talent, insight, intensity, and craft made you impossible to ignore. Even today, though your name has faded from conversation in some quarters, the challenges you issued, the changes you wrought, and the ideas that you laid to paper continue to resonate. The impact of the New Wave movement alone, of which you were a key figure, is hard to quantify—let alone the concurrent and continuing effects of feminism on the science fiction field.

As a scholar, your incisive wit and brilliant scope brought together one of the most cogent and coherent criticisms of misogynist, heteronormative hegemony in the arts (How to Suppress Women’s Writing). Your critical attention to the field of science fiction, too, with its queer feminist slant, offers to this day a vocabulary and genealogy of the genre’s didactic and productive functions. When asked in the academy why I focus on speculative fiction—and asked, I am, so often; that hasn’t changed much—I still reflect back to your arguments for the primacy and power of the question, “what if?”

Your nonfiction works—To Write Like a Woman, What Are We Fighting For?, and assorted essays and reviews—have given me the tools to begin my own projects, to envision what is possible. Generations of critics in the genre (and outside) have looked to you as an inspiration and a model for how to do the job of a critic right. The balance of sharpness, humor, and insight that you brought to your critical work is something I envy with real delight and strive to emulate. I would not be the critic that I am without your example—and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I’m hardly the only one.

Of course, this barely touches on the astounding contributions you made to the field of science fiction itself with your own stories and novels. We Who Are About to… is haunting and harsh; The Female Man dispenses rage and wisdom and clarity; The Two of Them is like a punch to the gut. I’ve written extensively about your books and your stories, and yet I always feel there’s more to be said, more packed into your lean and powerful prose, more left unremarked but lingering, ghostly, in the mind. You had the drive; you made of it further and further gifts that survive you, that continue to speak your fury and your knowledge.

While I regret not writing this and sending it to you in good time, late is better than never. Thank you for your determination, your grit, your anger, and your skill: without your work, the world would have been a shallower and less vital place. As you have said, “One moves incurably into the future but there is no future; it has to be created.” And this future, the future that I inhabit, that I write in, that I think in—the one where I do, despite the odds, have a place—is one that you have helped to create.

Sincerely, your admirer,

—Brit Mandelo

 

This article originally appeared February 22, 2013


Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

6 comments
Kathrin
1. Kathrin
A beautifully written, moving letter. Thank you for this celebration of Joanna Russ and her work, Brit. I too honor her and gratefully accept my debt for this future, the one where there is space for us to breathe and write and think and read (and be angry, and hopeful); and for the yet unforged future that we must first create in our minds, I am grateful for the strength of both Russ's and your writings and insights that we might imagine a good future to bring us home.
Kathrin
2. Eugene R.
It is hard to balance the roles of author and critic, yet Ms. Russ did it so wonderfully well. As have you, Ms. Mandelo. Keep up the good work!
Kathrin
4. firstgentrekkie
I've read and re-read "When It Changed" several times, and it always gives me chills as if it were the first time.
Kathrin
5. Denise Rogers
I still have the copy of The Female Man that a friend sent me when I was maybe 18 or 19. I consider it one of the signature texts of my young reading life, and perhaps my life in general as a female science fiction reader (I am not much a fan of fantasy as I am of speculative fiction). I am sorry to hear that she has died; your letter is a fine tribute to and summary of the value of her work.

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