Reading Joanna Russ: The Zanzibar Cat (1983)

Released within the same year as How to Suppress Women’s Writing, The Zanzibar Cat is Joanna Russ’s first short story collection. (I’m not counting The Adventures of Alyx because it forms a mosaic narrative and is a sort of book of its own; The Zanzibar Cat is made up of unrelated, unconnected stories.) Arkham House published the collection in 1983, with a follow-up reprint by Baen in 1984. It is currently out of print. My edition is the Arkham House printing, which has some genuinely odd but kind-of-neat cover art and actually features a large picture of Russ on the back cover.

The original publication dates for the stories range from 1962 (“My Dear Emily”) to 1979 (“The Extraordinary Voyages of Amelie Bertrand”), with the vast majority of the stories having been published in the 1970s. Most of them come from anthologies, but there are a few magazines that crop up, like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

The Zanzibar Cat is, for the most part, a lighter, faster read than what has come before in this series and Russ’s oeuvre. Partially, that comes from the swiftness a short story collection inevitably encourages—the reader’s longest engagement might be a novella, an hour’s reading if that, and most of the tales in The Zanzibar Cat aren’t anywhere near that length. (Sixteen stories in 244 pages averages around fifteen or sixteen pages each, though in practice that’s often shorter or longer.) However, it’s also got quite a lot to do with the tone and range of the collection itself; in this case, many of the stories included are simply fun, not intended for serious reflection or anything more than the pleasure of reading.

I get the impression that it’s in the short form Russ feels free to enjoy the act of telling a fine story that will entertain, thrill, chill, whatever, without the weight of needing to say something in the way that her novels do. That’s not true of the entire collection—there are still some heavily thematic stories with arguments to make, and darkness, and a few gut-punches—but it is true of quite a lot of it, and somehow, that lightness doesn’t detract a bit from the book, even in the context of Russ’s other work. If anything, it added to my pleasure in reading the stories. While I may enjoy the struggle, the upheaval, and the emotional demands on the reader made by, say, We Who Are About to…, it’s difficult to read several books like that back to back. There’s room in Russ’s work for play, for the joy of writing and reading, too, and all of that is on display in this collection.

In short, most of the stories in The Zanzibar Cat aren’t going to blow you away, but they are genuinely great stories, written with Russ’s profligate technical skill and mastery of language. (There are, of course, exceptions—it wouldn’t be a book of Russ’s without something strange and true in it that makes you pause to think for a while.) Her pacing is immaculate, and her precision in description and dialogue are on no greater display than in some of the most comedic, least serious stories in the collection. One of my absolute favorites is the frankly hilarious “Useful Phrases for the Tourist,” a fake language-guide for a distant planet Earth has an embassy on. One stock-seeming line at a time, without ever actually describing the planet or its inhabitants, Russ manages to build a whole set of images in the reader’s mind, and those images are pretty damn amusing. The build-up of the situational phrases to the very end—”I am dying.”—is hysterically funny. On a craft level, the story’s impressive for what it manages to do with so few words, sparsely used.

While the stories do range wildly from the comedy of “Useful Phrases for the Tourist” to feminist surreal work like “Old Thoughts, Old Presences” to Victoriana like “My Dear Emily” or “The Extraordinary Voyages of Amelie Bertrand” to dark, frightening SF like “Corruption,” there are still common themes that align the stories into one coherent volume. Seemingly at odds with my assertion of the collection’s comparative lightness, the thread that runs through the tales is one of alienation, of outsider-hood. Characters are often misplaced, are often strangers, in the wrong land, the wrong time, the wrong society, and must either work within the frame or explode it in their own ways. This tonal resonance creates a sense of unity in the works chosen for the collection. (In the introduction, Marge Piercy suggests a theme of dialectic negation, but I don’t find that a useful framework for a significant number of the stories.)

There’s an undercurrent of queer sexuality in several of the stories, which comes as no surprise, but is still pleasantly shocking in cases like that of “My Dear Emily,” a traditional vampire tale published in F&SF in 1962 that more than just hints at bisexuality. The story also has its feminist undertones—while I found the forceful nature of the vampire(s)’s relationships to Emily to be a teensy off-putting (though part of the traditional tale, I know), the personal freedom Emily finds in becoming a vampire and her liberation from the cloistering house of her father is moving. The death of the male vampire drives her into the arms of her female best friend, who has also been turned, if she wants to take the final step, and the last scene is highly sensual, with a definite air of “the lady doth protest too much.” This volume also contains the famous (and previously talked about here) story “When it Changed,” set on women-only Whileaway when the men come back. “Nobody’s Home,” too, deals with alternate family units and queer sexalities/marriages (though its real focus is the pain of being a dumb person in a genius society).

There are also heterosexual stories, which creates an interesting balance between different sorts of narrators in the collection. Russ’s omnipresent voice, which she uses to speak to and through her predominantly female protagonists in her novels, is not present in the majority of the short stories. There are male narrators, non-human narrators, omniscient narrators, et cetera. The male narrators tell some of the intriguing stories like “My Boat,” which is as much about racial tension in the late fifties/early sixties as it is about the fantastic, and “The New Men,” a told-tale about some more old-school vampires. (The told-tale pops up regularly in this collection and Russ is damned good at it.) One of the most uncomfortable stories is “How Dorothy Kept Away the Spring,” about the suicide of a child, and it is told through a fairy-tale-like removed narrator’s voice—I suspect that’s the only way to handle such material in a way that’s affecting without being too disturbing. Russ’s narrative capabilities are as astoundingly varied as her choice of subject material.

The Zanzibar Cat is one of those rare, near-perfect single author collections—it isn’t too much the same in any story, but it still has underlying themes and resonances that make the text coherent as a whole. I found it a breath of fresh air, so to speak, in Russ’s oeuvre, a collection of really good speculative fiction that speaks to a reader’s desire to be entertained as much as it does their desire to be challenged. The stories themselves are memorable in many cases not for their plots but for their execution, the fine detail Russ employs to build her worlds, and the emotions the stories can rouse in the reader. Truly, The Zanzibar Cat is a great book—simply for a different set of reasons than I usually cite in Russ’s case.


The book that follows is another collection of short fiction, Extra(ordinary) People (1984), and its contents expand further on a few of the themes contained in The Zanzibar Cat. It also contains Russ’s Hugo-award winning novella, “Souls.”

Lee Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.


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