Feminist SF/F: on Feminist Characters

During #FeministSF twitter chat yesterday, a question was floated about what kind of women we want to see more often in speculative fiction, and what kinds of characters are feminist. Keri@Feministfantasy.com called for strong female characters: independent women who save themselves and make their own choices, and are not defined by men. This is, I think, the popular notion of what a feminist heroine should be like.

A discussion followed, and I said many things, and some people said I should write up my thoughts as an entry.* Here goes.

In the twitter chat, I said:

For me, a feminist work showcases a variety of women, not necessarily a “typical” strong female character. I feel that by limiting feminist expression to strong female characters only, we are shortchanging ourselves. If male characters are allowed to be strong, weak, broken, insane, anti-heroes – why can’t we have a range of female characters likewise? I think that writing women in a non-stereotyping way, as people with desires, weaknesses, strengths – is feminist.
I want portrayals of women that are as vivid and varied as portrayals of men.

Limiting the range of female characters to the kickass-heroine, we are saying that only one type of woman is worthy of story.

I say, that approach is helpful in a short run, but harmful in the long run.

Let me unpack.

The Warrior Woman is a powerful archetype. We are still fighing very simple battles. We live in a world where all-male Best-of anthologies are published, where women’s books are reviewed less than books by men, where all-men panels happen – heck, we live in a world where all-male groups are empowered to decide on a woman’s rights to her own body. Against these, the Warrior Woman stands tall. She is powerful and unafraid of power. She does not complain , does not bend, does not hesitate. She may grieve, but her grief will never put her in a corner. She towers above the cowing figures of those who oppress us. She lends us strength. She is an Example of how we want to be, powerful and free and unafraid. She is an archetype, a token, and we need her – we need her in life and we need her in books and movies. She empowers us. There is not enough of her, yet.

But in a way, she also undermines us.

A subtype of the Warrior Woman is the Professional. She is a scientist, a doctor, an astronaut. She is fearless, competent, and wise. She is usually alone, surrounded by male colleagues who are sometimes goofy, immature, undersocialized, or just plain wrong. But never the Professional. She is never immature, never undersocialized, never abrupt, never wrong, never makes horrible mistakes with friends. She must be polite and rational and calm. She must never, ever be impolite or offensive, because women are so often demonized and underrepresented and barred from professions for various reasons (including ascribed overemotionality) that the Professional must always guard against it, always present a flawless Example. She is always, always a Token.

In classic theories of gender and language, women are said to be more polite because women are disempowered. Robin Lakoff (1975) theorized that lack of power is a key factor in constructing women’s discourse; due to women’s subordinate position in society relative to men, women would strive to minimize any threat to the people in power (men), and would therefore come across as more polite.

“Men are power brokers in most speech communities, while women are subordinate. Men can dominate the talking time, interrupt, and use a narrower range of speech variants because they don’t need to worry about pleasing their interlocutors, especially when the addressee is a woman. Women by contrast need to be supportive and non-aggressive and must be linguistically flexible in order to survive in societies in which they are not in control” (Eckert and McGonnell-Ginet 1998, 491)

This notion of power and powerlessness is very, very basic. As sociolinguists, we’ve moved quite a ways from it, and we know now that these generalizations about women and power in discourse are not borne out by the data. The data are, in fact, extremely diverse. (c.f. the work of Cameron and Mills in particular). Still, this notion of women as powerless, however inaccurate or incomplete, “provides a powerful symbolic meaning” (Cameron 2000, 333) that affects both people’s behavior and societal expectations.

What I am trying to say is, with the Warrior Woman (and her subtype, the Professional) always and only our Story, we as women act out our powerlessness – our desire to be invincible and able to ordain our own fate (Warrior Woman), and our desire to be Impeccably Competent in order to be Allowed to Exercise our Chosen Professions.

I want women to dream their literary heroines from a position of strength. Just as we know by now (I hope) that women are not always polite, so we should be able to have heroines who do not always represent our oppression. The way to get there, I think, is through multiple, intersectional, and diverse (yet not stereotyped or cartoonish) portrayals of women. I want women to be able to be Neurotic Geniuses. I want the Amazing Inventor with bad hair and mismatched socks who yells sometimes and makes her friends upset, and sometimes forgets to eat, and sometimes forgets to do laundry. I want to read about the Magician who forgets to check her email and gets embroiled in a political struggle at her University, which she loses ungraciously. I want to read about Neurotic Creative Professionals – architects, writers, film directors, music composers – who, in throws of creativity, can be quite upsetting to be around. I want to read about a brilliant woman scientist who is also a miserable drunk. I want to read about the person in a wheelchair who loves her work, but who takes her disability really hard. I want to read about women who are child-free by choice, and women who are mothers. I want to read about mothers who decided to stay at home, and mothers who work. I want to read about women who are fat and not, women who struggle with weight and women who do not. I want to read about asexual women, bisexual women, I want to read about people who are genderqueer and trans* and questioning. I want to read about menopausal women. I want to read about a heroine who is eighty two. I want to read about women who are mentally ill. I want to read a book with a feminist anti-hero. I want to read about kinky women, I want to read about dominant women and submissive women. And note, I haven’t even touched upon the questions of racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity!

One side effect of writing a range of women is that we might not be comfortable with all of those characters, all of those women, all of those people. In real life, unless you are extremely holy, you won’t be comfortable with all the people you know. But what we often do in genre is allow men to be uncomfortable and difficult, but erase the women who are less than warm and fuzzy-making.

What I am saying is simple. As I see it, limiting women’s creativity to the Warrior archetype is limiting us in difficult ways that are ultimately bad for us, because this perpetuates our oppression. There are all kinds of men in speculative literature. There are NOT all kinds of women in speculative literature. There should be all kinds of women in speculative literature. Having all kinds of women who are human and complex will empower us to be ourselves, and comfortable in our skins. It is not easy, but I think we can get there.

* Additional and very important points were raised by Ekaterina Sedia (@esedia) and Alex Dally MacFarlane (@foxtailedgirl) among others; I encourage you to check out #FeministSF.


And ETA: Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote an excellent and important follow-up entry on female friendships. I did not want to discuss female friendships in my entry, because Alex raised this point in the original twitter chat, and I was hoping she’d write up an entry on this topic – and she did. Thank you, Alex.

“Braided to each other / beneath the benevolence of the sky”

My queer epic poem “In the Third Cycle” is a winner in the Strange Horizons readers’ poll.  I have written elsewhere about how important this piece is to me; I consider it my best poem. It is an incredible thing for me to see it recognized, and to know that it has readers.


The Making of “Between the Mountain and the Moon”

I promised to tell you about my magick4Terri Metamorphosis auction, which was won by Izzy (Hani) Jamaluddin. .  So I wrote a longish thing about my family, the never-ending quest for perfection, and folk art – but today I’m thinking it doesn’t really matter; so let me just tell you about my process.

First, the poem. When I offered the auction, I felt like writing a series of poems about metamorphosis to continue some of the work I’ve done with metamorphosis over the years. Izzy’s keywords were ‘black panther, and fire’. The poem, “Between the Mountain and the Moon,” emerged as one epic sequence, a true myth about the shape-changing moon, a black panther she turns into a human girl, and a dormant volcano (also a shape-changer), who becomes the girl’s suitor. It all came from a place of magic over the course of a week, accompanied by a not insignificant amount of angst.

Listen, girl-woman,
shining woman, still woman,
skinwild woman, dreaming-fast woman –
I will go in, where they keep fire captive
in the deceitful embrace of glazed brick.
I will gift
garnet and oystershell to your kinswomen
and ask for their unmarrigeable daughter.

At just under 1400 words, it is one of my two longest pieces; the other one would be the Cycle. Like the Cycle, “Between the Mountain and the Moon” is a queer epic poem.

Encouraged by my beta readers, I embarked upon the art portion of the project in early January.

I hit two snags, both of which I had dimly foreseen. First, the linoleum blocks I ordered were great, but… I rediscovered one of the reasons I abandoned block printing after my son’s birth. I cannot painlessly carve linoleum due to tendonitis / carpal in my right hand and arm. So after much gnashing of teeth, I reverted to soft blocks, which I have effectively used before. The look of soft block prints is virtually the same as that of linoleum prints, but soft blocks are harder to print from accurately, and they also tend to crumble with time. Nevertheless, soft blocks were a great solution. I thought the carving portion of the project went rather well.

the eight soft block prints for Izzy's book, with printing tools (baren, ink, brayer, spoon for ink, tape)

The second challenge was printing text and art on the same paper. Since there was a lot of text, and a lot of art, the paper should in principle be able to go through an inkjet printer, and at the same time take ink well; and I wanted the look and feel of artist’s paper. I discovered that some half-rag art papers would in principle go through the printer, and thanks to Jenn received a beautiful Canson Johannot, which I felt was a tad too thin for printmaking. I then purchased a lovely 150lb rag, which I felt would be better suited for the images… I cut that up, and the Johannot, which took forever. And then I started printing.

Gals and guys, don’t try this at home.

Countless paper jams, two printer malfunctions, and one empty cartridge later, I was no closer to producing a two-sided booklet print of “Between the Mountain and the Moon” on artist’s paper. And I was also out of paper. *

* The attempts to print the text at home lasted for two weeks (though I was sick for one of these weeks). I did not mention that Word would collapse every time I tried to print a double-sided manual feed booklet; my husband’s computer would collapse after printing once, so we were both constantly restarting things. I also attempted to do a transfer, with transfer paper, which kind of worked, but produced a lot of smudges. Both the ink printer and the transfer paper would work fine on a smaller project, but this was so large something always went wrong.

In despair, I went to Kinko’s, where people looked at me as if I had horns. Eventually I found a small local print shop that had nice paper choices, among them an ivory-colored 80lb bristol that was lighter than cardstock, but thick enough for double-sided printing and imagery, and within fifteen minutes my booklet pages were ready. Sometimes it pays off to be less stubborn.

Setting up the pages for block printing:

preparing the pages for printing

Pages with freshly printed images:

drying pages with block printed images

I printed a few more pages than I needed for the final product,  to make sure I could choose the best images. In a project this complex (and double sided!), quite a few things were bound to print wrong, and did. But after some work, all the pages were printed from both sides.  After the pages were thoroughly dry, I folded them into four signatures – two that I thought were excellent (one for Izzy and one  for Terri), one signature with some flaws, and one that I consider to be ‘artist’s proof’, since one image was printed backwards.

Next step: the cover. Here, too, I hit some snags, until I decided that enough was enough, and proceeded with my original plan of making leather covers. A morning trip to the Shack  of Odd Leathery Goodness resulted in a large piece of soft, dark maroon leather, which I backed with swirly marbled paper:

gluing the marbled paper onto the leather

Finally, I sewed the signatures and the cover together. Et voila: book!

title page!

One of the inner pages:

inner pages


And another inner page:

The Panther girl and her Mountain suitor from the Duet


I also added an image to the cover:


And here are Izzy’s and Terri’s copies side by side: the leather pieces differ a bit in shape. Note the mountain shape at the tie of the books!

I am really happy with how this came out.

But this is not all! I want to tell you about Jenn, in case this experience will be useful for someone. The capping image of the book was supposed to be two panthers (black and spotted) making the moon together. When I made the block print, it looked like this:

The first version of the panther moon

I sent this to Jenn, and she gave me a thorough critique of the piece, with details what needs to move where. I asked, “Do you think I need to recarve this?” She said, ” I’m sorry, but, as the final piece, I think you need to recarve it, and even on the interior I’d probably vote in favor of [keeping it].”

It was not the message I wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, I did it. I think you will agree that this is better:

The final version of the panther moon

I have sent “Between the Mountain and the Moon” out, and there’s still some leftover inspiration. Leftover inspiration from epic poems is a familiar thing by now (I had written “Held Close in Syllables of Light” on inspiration leftover from the Cycle). After the Panther poem I wrote two small poems already: a snakey poem for Shweta (“After the Mistress of the Copper Mountain,” forthcoming at Fantastique Unfettered), and a badger poem for Jenn (“Badgerwoman of the Raspberry Ridge,” on submission). But there is yet more. So here is my deal for you: if you’ve bid on my auction but did not win, and want to play, please leave me a comment with your animal and element. I make no promises, but if the inspiration/magic works out, it might result in a poem. Please note that 1) these poems are likely to be short, and 2) it might not work out, so no hard feelings, ok? and 3) the work may come out queer, so please be ready for that.

Assorted poetry news

My long poem “In the Third Cycle” received a Rhysling nomination. I am glad. The Cycle is the first queer epic piece I wrote during the epic “Ten Days in December” (2010), and to see it recognized (first via the Rannu competition win, and now the nomination) makes me feel that people really do care about the work that comes from my very core.  Not that I ever cut corners with poetry, but this one is just… if I had to choose only three poems of mine to survive, this one would be on the list. If I had to only choose one poem, this one would probably be it. Many thanks to Strange Horizons, and to Sonya Taaffe, for publishing it.

And speaking of Sonya Taaffe, I got a package in the mail from Erzebet with this most beautiful book:

A Mayse-Bikhl, Yiddish for “a little storybook”, is full of Jewish-themed speculative poems (in English 🙂 ). It is wondrous, and can be purchased at the Papaveria press website.

The next two items have been announced on my Livejournal, but not on the official blog, so here goes: my poem “After the Mistress of the Copper Mountain” (dedicated to Shweta Narayan) sold to Fantastique Unfettered, issue 5; and an interview with me about the Queer issue of Stone Telling is up at the Outer Alliance blog (thanks, Julia Rios!). There’s still plenty of time to submit your work, and we would love to consider it!

Last but not least, I now have an author page at the Aqueduct website. Yay! The Moment of Change is scheduled for May 2012.

inkscrawl, and Stone Bird Press

Some of you might remember inkscrawl, a magazine of minimalist fantastical poetry launched by Mitchell Hart in 2011. Unfortunately, it closed after just two issues, after having published some wonderful short poetry in such a short period of time. This saddened me; though I rarely write very short poetry, I have been well  aware that there is a dearth of markets for it. So after some soul-searching and waiting and more soul-searching, I wrote to Mitchell… and as of today, with Mitchell’s blessing, inkscrawl is alive again. It will edited by Samantha Henderson. The guidelines are here; please send us your stuff for the third issue. Oh, and we raised the payment to $3 from $2, and we are open to all kinds of speculative poetry, including science fiction. (Sam is reading and making decisions; I am publishing).

While I was contemplating reviving inkscrawl, it occurred to me that since I now seem to be publishing two magazines, I might as well launch a micropress. So voila – a micropress: Stone Bird Press! It is so tiny, there is nothing in it. Yet. But there will be a few things there in the upcoming months, and I will let you know when it happens.



2011 in review, and nominations/eligibility

I guess this is an obligatory nominating post for your nominating considerations; here are All the Things I published in 2011.

Short Fiction of 2011:

Held Close in Syllables of Light,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies, novelette. (If you know me, you know how important this one is to me!)
A Mother Goes Between,” Jabberwocky, short story.
“Giant,” Not One of Us, flash.

Also, I am nominating for the Nebulas this year. Please recommend works to me in the following categories: novella; novelette; short story. My novel ballot is more or less finalized. If you’re reading this, you probably know what I like to read!

Poetry of 2011:

If I had reb Yoel’s violin,” inkscrawl #1
Three Bone Masks“, Goblin Fruit Winter 2011
The tenured faculty meets to discuss the moon’s campus visit,” Mythic Delirium 25 (this is the only one not online, but I made it available on my website). Give it a try – it’s kind of hilarious!

Reap the Whirlwind,” Jabberwocky 5
Strong as Salt,” Goblin Fruit Winter 2011
Kytgy and Kunlelo,” Cabinet des Fees 2011
Thirteen Principles of Faith,” Apex April 2011. Apex took this poem down, I have no idea why. It now lives on my website.
In the Third Cycle,” Strange Horizons, the poem that won of the Rannu competition

Now, it’s not hard to guess what I am most proud of, but here:
1. “In the Third Cycle,” I keep repeating it because it is true.
2. “Thirteen Principles of Faith.” it’s Jewish magic realism. It’s my life. I love it.
3. “If I had reb Yoel’s violin.” It just happened, and it is only six lines, but I think there is something in it that is important to me.

I have no idea who of you is nominating poetry this year, if any, but hey, this is a chance for me to say – these works happened, and I am very proud of them. This has been my strongest year in poetry so far, and in fact, I am a little unsure as to how to grow from here – but I hope I will! This will be an adventure!

November-December summary

I sold a magic realist short story, “Seven Losses of Na Re,” to Daily Science Fiction – which means that I now qualify for SFWA.

In poetry news, my mythic-folkloric poem “Kytgy and Kunlelo” came out at Scheherezade’s Bequest, and the whimsical “The Tenured faculty meets to discuss the Moon’s campus visit” came out at Mythic Delirium 25;  I am now working on poetry/art for my Magick4Terri auction.

Held Close in Syllables of Light: the official announcement.

and has a ship on the cover!


Held Close in Syllables of Light,”  my clockpunk novelette set in Birdverse, just went live at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It features three queer characters, secondary world Jews, automata, magic, and a curious mechanical box.  It is a part of my novel in progress, The Earthkeepers.

Incoherent babblings about the novelette are at my livejournal blog.

Publishing news and appearances

My small poem “The Journeymaker in Kestai,” featuring two Cycle characters, has been accepted for publication at Mythic Delirium for the Spring 2012 issue. Mike Allen announced the ToC yesterday; my piece is in a very good company.

Joshua Gage has written to accept “Walrus,” the only short poem I’ve written and published in 2010, for the upcoming Dwarf Stars anthology. “Walrus” was published as a twitter poem, so I am especially happy that it will appear in print – in its quirky, walrusy form!

Not One of Us 46

Meanwhile, my copy of Not One of Us 46 arrived, featuring my short story “Giant.” I’ll put the story up next year as a sample, for the anniversary of the Giant‘s death. Meanwhile, the issue looks terrific, with wonderful work by Patricia Russo, Sonya Taaffe, Mike Allen, Jeannelle Ferreira, and others.


I will be talking about feminist speculative poetry on #feministsf twitter chat on October 23rd; for times and further details, please see this Feminist SF wiki page.

Finally, a face-to-face appearance! I am scheduled to attend the World Fantasy convention, where I will be hosting an unaffiliated open-mic speculative poetry reading (everyone welcome). I will post further details when I have them!



Table of Contents for the Moment of Change

I’m very proud of this. Putting this book together has been quite a journey. I cannot begin to tell you how much I love these poems.  You can get a glimpse from the ToC as to how diverse the contents/contributors are, but you cannot truly see it just from the ToC, but trust me:  this is both tremendous and diverse.

And I couldn’t have done this alone. Thank you so much to everyone who gave advice and held my hand through this process  (I’m looking at you, Team Stone Telling!). Special thanks to Sonya Taaffe for suggesting poems, and Shweta Narayan, Jennifer Smith, and Sharon Mock for help w. ordering the ToC. And of course, many thanks to the contributors.

Congratulations to everyone!

People who want to know about preordering: not yet, but I will let you know as soon as I can.

The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry

Rose Lemberg. Introduction.


Ursula K. Le Guin, Werewomen
Nicole Kornher-Stace, Harvest Season
Eliza Victoria, Prayer
Shweta Narayan, Cave-smell
Theodora Goss, The Witch
Amal El-Mohtar, On the Division of Labour
J.C. Runolfson, The Birth of Science Fiction
Kristine Ong Muslim, Resurrection of a Pin Doll
Lawrence Schimel, Kristallnacht
Cassandra Phillips-Sears, The Last Yangtze River Dolphin
Peg Duthie, The Stepsister
Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl with Two Skins
Theodora Goss, Binnorie
Nandini Dhar, Learning to Locate Colors in Grey: Kiran Talks About Her Brothers
Rachel Manija Brown, River of Silk
JoSelle Vanderhooft, The King’s Daughters
Lisa Bradley, The Haunted Girl
Mary Alexandra Agner, Tertiary
Sara Amis, Owling
Athena Andreadis, Spacetime Geodesics
Lisa Bradley, In Defiance Of Sleek-Armed androids
Sofía Rhei, Cinderella
Alex Dally MacFarlane, Beautifully Mutilated, Instantly Antiquated
Shweta Narayan, Epiphyte
Elizabeth R. McClellan, Down Cycles
H.E.L Gurney, She Was
Kelly Pflug-Back, My Bones’ Cracked Abacus
Kat Dixon, Nucleometry
N. A’Yara Stein, It’s All In The Translation
Sally Rosen Kindred, Sabrina, Borne
Adrienne J. Odasso, The Hyacinth Girl
Delia Sherman, Snow White to the Prince
Phyllis Gotlieb, The Robot’s Daughter
Vandana Singh, Syllables of Old Lore
Greer Gilman, She Undoes
Emily Jiang, Self-Portrait
Ki Russel, The Antlered Woman Responds
Catherynne M. Valente, The Oracle at Miami
Athena Andreadis, Night Patrol
Koel Mukherjee, Sita Reflects
Lorraine Schoen, Hypatia/Divided
Sharon Mock, Machine Dancer
C.W. Johnson, Towards a Feminist Algebra
Jo Walton, Blood Poem IV
Meena Kandasamy, Six Hours of Chastity
Samantha Henderson, Berry Cobbler
Sofía Rhei, Bluebeard Possibilities
Sheree Renee Thomas, Old Scratch poem featuring River
Elizabeth R. McClellan, The Sea Witch Talks Show Business
Ranjani Murali, Chants for Type: Skull-Cap Donner at Center-One Mall
Sonya Taaffe, Madonna of the Cave
Jeannelle Ferreira, Anniversaries
Rebecca Korvo, Handwork
Patricia Monaghan, Journey To The Mountains Of The Hag
Ari Berk, Pazerik Burial on the Ukok Plateau
Neile Graham, Dsonoqua Daughters
Sonya Taaffe, Matlacihuatl’s Gift
Ellen Wehle, Once I No Longer Lived Here
Yoon Ha Lee, Art Lessons
JT Stewart, Say My Name
Amal El-Mohtar, Pieces
Sofia Samatar, The Year of Disasters
C. S. E. Cooney, The Last Crone on the Moon
Minal Hajratwala, Archaeology of the Present
Jennifer McGowan, Mara Speaks
JT Stewart, Ceremony
April Grant, Trenchcoat
Tara Barnett, Star Reservation
Mary Alexandra Agner, Old Enough
Nisi Shawl, Transbluency: An Antiprojection Chant


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Rose Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, Tiptree, Elgin, Rhysling, and Crawford awards.

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