In celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Alice Sheldon’s birth, and in recognition of the enormous influence of both Tiptree and Sheldon on the field, Twelfth Planet Press is publishing a selection of thoughtful letters written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans to celebrate her, to recognise her work, and maybe in some cases to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago.
Letters to Tiptree, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce, is available for pre-order from Twelfth Planet Press and publishes later this month. Below, read an excerpt from the collection—Lee Mandelo’s letter to Tiptree thanks the author for her “compelling stories, sharp critiques, and on a more intimate, personal level, a difficult and complex relationship to gender and the performance of self.”
Dear James/Alice (and sometimes Raccoona),
The two of us could not ever have spoken, given that we weren’t even close to living on this planet at the same time; I was born in 1990, three years after your death. So, I’m afraid I might be presumptuous in using your given name(s)—but I am writing with the utmost respect to commemorate a one-hundredth birthday that you are not here to celebrate. It has come around for the rest of us, though, the writers and critics and fans who knew you—or not, who read you in the prime of their own lives or grew up reading you or have, perhaps, at just this moment happened upon your work. And as one of those people who grew up with your stories—and, just as important to me, stories of you—I’d like to thank you for the things you continue to offer us: compelling stories, sharp critiques, and on a more intimate, personal level, a difficult and complex relationship to gender and the performance of self.
It isn’t all that common to write letters, for folks of the generation I happen to be a part of. We write to each other, sure, but there’s a certain brevity that’s encouraged in digital communications. However, it seemed important for me to attempt to tackle the form and offer some account of the affinity and admiration I’ve felt for your life and your work—because despite that gap of time between our respective existences, I would say that I feel strangely close to the figure of James Tiptree, Jr. &/or Alice Sheldon, even if not the real person I will not ever be able to meet or speak to. Maybe it’s the depth and intimacy of the published letters I’ve read; it might also be thanks to the biography by Julie Phillips, and it possibly also has something to do with feeling a sort of doubling myself in terms of gender, performance, and identity. Regardless, this letter feels like writing to a friend of a friend, or possibly the friend of a grandparent—from a different time, but somehow quite familiar.
On the one hand, I’ve been reading Tiptree stories since I was a teenager; Sheldon (in this case, Raccoona) too. I have a particularly vivid memory of reading “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and “The Screwfly Solution” back to back—which was certainly different for me than for readers at-publication, since I was aware from the first that both were written by the same person under different identities. There seemed to me to be a complex approach to the idea of masculinity in each piece; however, I wasn’t aware until later on that the complexity I saw there was also present in the life of the person writing those stories. Reading the Phillips biography in particular was moving for me. She argues that “Tiptree” was more than just a casual nom-de-plume but likely a valuable outlet for an expression of your (perhaps) dual or fluid or at least complicated sense of gender—something that I, as a young writer struggling with issues of complex gender identification as well, resonated with intensely.
I’m often curious—and perhaps this is untoward speculation, but if you’ll allow me to consider it: if Alice had been born perhaps fifty or sixty years later, we might have never read a story with James Tiptree Jr.’s name on it. All right. But would that shift in time, that opening up of potential opportunities, have made a profound difference in your life? I’ve read the selection from one of your letters that your friend and colleague Joanna Russ published after your death, where you say, “Oh, had 65 years been different!” and lament having never been able to share a love-relationship with another woman. I wept a little, reading that the first time. It broke my heart, and more so did reading that biography, which delves even further into the difficult and complex ways you dealt with both gender and sexuality.
I cannot imagine the restrictions that you grew into yourself under. I wonder if, were you right at this moment here with us, you would feel an affinity not just for the identity of “lesbian” but “genderqueer”—that liminal and complicated gender space that occupies the spectrum between male and female, shifting and radical and hard to pin down. I wonder if perhaps, then, we still would have seen James Tiptree’s name on stories and if we also would have seen Raccoona’s and Alice’s—if the world would have been kinder and let all those selves coexist as equal and relevant and significant to your personal being.
It is in part because of stories like yours—and life-stories like yours—that a person like me can feel less alone, or less marked out as different. The letter you wrote to Russ about identifying as a lesbian came after, you said, reading a book of coming out stories. Having the word accessible and having other people’s stories to draw on might have been, then, what gave you the courage to speak up about it—that’s something I understand, and a role that some of your work has played for me over time. I also feel a deep affinity and empathy for the difficulties you had when people discovered that James was “really” Alice—though it seems, to me, that perhaps it was the other way around at least some of the time. And all of this, too, seems potentially even prurient; the biography was written with information that became available only after your death, information that was private and personal and often painful. So I also feel conflicted about assuming a level of connection with the individual that people have speculated you might have been, being unable to ask your opinion on the matter or hear the answers.
Nonetheless, I thank you for being there—for writing, for speaking, for telling stories that mattered and for being brave in the face of a life that did not necessarily allow you to be or experience the things you wanted. It’s unacceptable for me to call the suffering of another person inspirational; but, I’d say, it isn’t the fact that you suffered hardships with your designated-female-at-birth self and your love for women that makes me admire you. It’s the fact that you made people understand what it was like to be so trapped, so complicated, so in-between. The stories that you wrote often deal with that sense of not-quite-right-ness, and while in them it might be alien or otherwise in nature, the truth is much closer to home: the space of one’s love and one’s body can be an in-between or contested space, and reading narratives that explored that affectively was important to me. Still is, even.
The courage and the cleverness and the sharp-edged critical voices of the people who came before us are vital, I think. Remembering and respecting those people for their contributions, their struggles, and their unique individual experiences is also vital. Your irrepressible talent and willingness to tackle hard social/cultural issues in your stories have been, unmistakably, of great importance—and, I would argue, have helped to change the world that I live in at least in some measure. Certainly without the complex trio of Alice, James, and Raccoona, the field of science fiction would be narrower and less challenging and less thoughtful. Ideas about masculinity and femininity in prose would have been shaken up less; people’s understanding of what makes a man or a woman came under a bit of fire thanks to your simply being who you were and writing as you would, living the life that you did. I regret that you had to go through the difficulty of losing James as an outlet and a private masculine self, if that’s what you would have considered him; I also think that, for someone like me, the fact of Alice being James being Raccoona was a deep and personal comfort. And I can’t thank you enough for that—and for the work you did, have done, and across time will continue to do.
Excerpted from Letters to Tiptree © Lee Mandelo, 2015