Sunday, December 19, 2010
Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman: Dykes Outside the Box
By Kelly Jean Cogswell
One of the best kept secrets in Lesbolandia is power couple Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, the doyennes of fantasy fiction. We sat down earlier this month and talked about writing, relationships, and the virtues of operating outside the box.
They met at a Boston Science Fiction Conference in 1985 when Delia was living in Boston and shopping a novella that would turn into her first book. One of the people she was directed to was Ellen who was living in New York and had unfortunately just left her editing job. She gave Delia a hand, anyway, and when Ellen moved to Boston a few years later, they became friends. In 1992, they finally began dating.
It was a natural match. They belonged to a new generation of writers that drew from a variety of sources including pre-Raphaelite painters, Victorian novelists, and "Man from U.N.C.L.E." in addition to fantasy icons C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They broke with the old masters when they realized "we did not have in us what they had in them," Ellen said. "We're not English. We don't go for long country walks. We all kind of grew up in the suburbs and were living in our twenties in bad neighborhoods in the cities."
The result was what one reviewer dubbed "fantasy of manners," later also called "mannerpunk." The setting is urban, and like in Dickens, often seesaws between high society and the criminal class. Books may have swordfights, but the plots more often hinge on social intrigue. The wry witty tone owes a lot to Jane Austen. Ellen's 1987 novel "Swordspoint" has become a classic of the subgenre.
Associated with the movement, and with each other, Ellen and Delia are much sought after to appear as a team at conferences and workshops. They've become the traditional featured writers for the New York Review of Science Fiction's December "Family Reading." This year's event was held last Tuesday at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art.
The gallery featured digital renderings of their book jackets, story illustrations, and wedding photos, including one of an enormous wedding cake. They've actually been married twice--to each other. The second time was at Delia's instigation in 2004, so they could "become part of the problem" if Massachusetts tried to repeal the law and dissolve queer marriages.
The crowd at the gallery seemed nonplussed by the whole lesbian thing. There was a mix of ages, races, sexual orientations, the conventional, chic, and the ultra geeky. The diversity was remarkable for segregated New York, but not necessarily for the science fiction and fantasy world. One of their fans told me that he'd been attracted to fantasy in the first place because it was all about "the Other," and that's what he was, young, queer, black. As Delia put it, speculative fiction is mostly about exploring "the fluidity of human identity, and what it means to be a human being, and not necessarily just a man. Or a woman."
Gender is central to their work. After writing the cult novel, "Swordspoint," focusing on two gay male characters in their twenties, Ellen began writing "The Privilege of the Sword," a sequel set twenty years later, exploring the same society, but this time through the eyes of a teenaged girl. The description of what it's like for Katherine when she puts on pants for the first time is pretty extraordinary. Delia's young adult novel, "Changeling," sends a young girl on a quest through a folkloric version of New York that includes mythical figures like the Mermaid Queen of New York Harbor that could just as easily be a biker dyke with spiky orange hair, a black vest, and nose to tail tattoos.
But while fantasy writers may respect the hard to categorize "Other" in their literature, publishers are not so crazy about books that blur the genre boundaries. If you do fantasy fiction, stick to the conventions. Ditto for other genres like historical novels. At the same time, too many mainstream readers won't approach books in the fantasy section at all because as Ellen says, they have fantasy cooties. But label the same books magical realism and stock them elsewhere, they'll gobble them up. Putting stuff into boxes keeps readers, and books, from crossing over.
Delia and Ellen and some of their friends, have founded the Interstitial Arts Foundation to promote art that crosses genre borders, and help writers present themselves to the marketers. The point is not just to sell books, but publish good writers that have read widely and bring everything that they have read to what they're writing. "That's how literature grows. That's how art grows. By bringing things in, and making something new of it."
Delia could as easily have been making an argument for diversity in biology, or music, and even politics. The idea filters into their joint Swordspoint-set novel, "The Fall of the Kings," which is partly a critique of a political class guarding its homogeneity, and the lengths the powerful will go to preserve their privilege. If magic had been called religion in the book, and it had been set in contemporary America, this portrait of a society engaged in censorship, spying, torture and intrigue wouldn't have been categorized as fantasy at all, but pure realism.
For Ellen and Delia in the flesh, check out these videos
Ellen Kushner on Getting Married -- Twice!
Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner on Mannerpunk and Modesty