Stone Telling Roundtable: Women and Science
by Julia Rios
This issue is especially exciting to me. The theme of science and science fiction is great, but what I love is the way that these poems explore how science affects women, and vice versa. In this roundtable, Mary Alexandra Agner, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Sofia Samatar, Na'amen Tilahun, and Tori Truslow joined me to discuss the ever changing boundaries and definitions of women, science, and bodies.
Julia Rios: Alex, you have one woman telling the story of another woman with a fascinating juxtaposition of old traditions (epic tales of warriors and vengeance, customs reminiscent of Tibetan sky burial and Greek choruses ) and more modern and progressive ideas (feminism, post-colonialism, space travel ). How did this poem develop, and why did you choose this particular voice?
Alex Dally MacFarlane: Warning: You have opened a can of longcats.
I've been imagining and re-imagining a science fiction setting since I was 11, which has been scrapped and begun almost entirely anew many times. The basic premise is this: in the unspecified future, humans have colonised a different star system, and in this star system is a war. Pretty standard. There's even a plucky group of heroes. Over the years the setting has changed drastically, the characters have changed drastically and I've started to shift the focus away from the major players of the war. As I've studied war (literally: I have a BA in War Studies) and seen it play out on the news, I've got a lot less interested in the narratives that make war sound really exciting. Space opera and military SF continue to be guilty of this; only this month I saw a call for reprint submissions that talked about "the ultimate enemy" and the future lying in "the hands of the warriors who use the weapons". Fairly recently I actively decided that I want my stories and novels in my SF setting to focus much more on the regular people, the ones who actually have to deal with the consequences of the war; and when I made this decision, something clicked in a way it never had before. I still have a lot of details to work out, but I'm quite confident that there aren't any more major overhauls to come. (She says, hopefully.)
Because this setting has been with me for so long, I spend a lot of time imagining it and its characters, in all sorts of scenarios kind of like fanfic of my own work. Every now and then, one of these public-transport or late-night ideas sticks. And one was that my character Tal would come from a nomadic desert society. This continued morphing in my head over several years. The landscape is Mongolian, what I saw on the fringes of the Gobi Desert; the sky burials are inspired by reading about Tibetan burials; there are stone markers, a tradition among some native Arctic peoples. Many other details I made up. For instance, the nomads write the stories of their favourite ancestors on a band around the outsides of their caravans. Then there's the alsar, burnt in mourning fires, which is halfway between made up and inspired by real world practices. About a year ago, I wrote a short story (as yet unsold) in this specific part of the setting, about Tal: a prequel of sorts to the novel I will eventually start writing again. It was so much fun. When Rose and Shweta specified a SF theme for this issue of Stone Telling, I knew I wanted to set it here and explore this part of the setting more, especially as I'm planning to soon write a novella about one of the women in the story.
One of my original ideas was that it would be a matriarchal society. What's developed (and on this specific detail, is still developing) is a bit more complicated than that, not quite egalitarian as we understand it but not matriarchal or patriarchal either suffice to say that if there is a slight unconscious bias among these people, it is towards women instead of men. (There is also a recognition of people who are not cisgendered, which is one of the areas that requires more thought.) One of the reasons for this bias actually got lost in the various drafts of this poem. Originally it was a man who brought the far-off people to the nomads, not realising how disastrous it would be, and then it was a woman who had to deal with the mess. I thought that if this is the kind of story being repeatedly told, as a message of warning and triumph, then no wonder there is an ongoing bias in women's favour. As the poem developed, it became a smaller story: one encounter, two women's vengeance. But that bigger story is still in my head. (And no, I am not arguing in favour of gender biases.)
The issue of more powerful entities carrying out their business in other people's land, whether actively colonising it or harming it mostly as a by-product (which is the dynamic at play here), or any other pattern of harm, is unavoidable in the world today. As mentioned above, I've become much more interested in focusing on these consequences. But it just so happens that, while writing this poem, I read Maureen F McHugh's Mission Child, a novel of colonialism's insidious effects (and wonderful questioning of binary gender) set on a distant world in the distant future. I already knew that I wanted to write this kind of story; Mission Child reinforced, as I read it, how necessary these stories are in our grand narratives of space warfare and colonisation.
The voice is the result of about 5 or 6 attempts to write this poem. I originally tried for something that would feel like a song or a chant, with a specific number of beats per line. It was terrible. If I want to write that kind of poetry, I think I need a few years of practise; lacking those, I looked elsewhere for ideas. I recently wrote a short story, "Feed Me The Bones Of Our Saints", which has a very alive voice. It opens: "Jump up! Take arms! Bare teeth!" I wanted that kind of vibrancy to this poem. This eventually led me to: "See me! See me! Falna the fierce / with my son on my back, tenth child, battle-charm;". It is a different voice to my story, which was the intent; it is alive in a way that none of the previous drafts were. Another important change as I wrote this poem is that Falna is now telling her own story (through the voice of another woman, wearing Falna's mask), rather than a third-person narrative. I think this makes it a lot stronger; it makes Falna present in her own story. As for the other singers, chorus-like: I had a few lines from an older version that I couldn't bear to do away with. And I thought that, while one woman has the honour of taking on Falna's role, the other people of the group will want to join in: this is a group song, around a fire, simultaneously triumphant and grieving.
JR: Tori, your poem also involves women, space travel, and the juxtaposition of old with new, but in this case the old comes straight out of mid-twentieth century science fiction: your women are terraforming Mars. The layers in this poem are so rich and complex. Terraforming is likened to dressing the planet up to please men, but the narrator notes that, " slowly, in these thrice-stretched summers, it Marsforms us." Later you mention the women's desire to be multiformed, " to put our bodies on each day, in shapes to fit our hearts". How does this reflect your experience and/or perception of the roles women have and have had prescribed by Earth cultures throughout human history?
Mary Alexandra Agner: I wanted to jump in and say how much this line (" slowly, in these thrice-stretched summers, it Marsforms us.") really got to me.
The concept of Marsforming changes the women, who dress up for men, and yet the word "Mars" is buried in that term, which brings up all these connotations of masculinity, adrenaline, war, somehow turning the women's dress-up into dressing-up as men while at the same time rooting the concept of dress-up, which is stereotypically female (but war totally involves dress-up, in my opinion), into a masculine endeavor. It's really wonderfully brimming with epiphanies and juxtapositions. (And not to leave out the "thrice-stretched" which brings in maiden/mother/crone imagery.) Wow!
Tori Truslow: Ooh, I need to try not to write an essay here! I'm glad you were both struck by various references to bodies, as that's one of the things I'm trying to unpuzzle here: the way women so often get defined by them and not just in the past and present, but apparently the future too? You get these shiny high-concept worlds where everyone's flying around all transformed; skin can be armour, limbs weapons, consciousness expanded and networked but there are still only two sexes, and gender is still a role-defining binary (there are notable exceptions to this, of course, but they are exceptions). And yet, isn't one of the reasons we love the idea of space because it's so big and full of things we don't know about, and we could be anything, out there? And can't that include having fluid bodies to fit fluid identities?
Mars, as our next big stepping-stone to the universe, felt like a good place to ask those questions, and the more I looked into the relationship between us and our neighbouring planet, in science and fiction, the more I saw parallels between the way people and planets are assigned roles, and are moulded to fit them. In stories of (and real-life plans for) space colonisation, the science is concerned with making other planets into Earths. If you look at artists' impressions of how terraforming would look, it's like Earth being superimposed, bit by bit, onto Mars. Dressing it up. And because planets are assigned genders the idea of Mars being in any way male is something we've imposed on it, as we've tended to impose a female identity on our own planet this creates an interesting in-between space. When one overthinks these things, as I may have done, the Mars of space colonisation fiction becomes rather a gender-fluid figure. No longer a warlike 'male' world, not yet a fertile 'female' one, but a queered planet, a place of change and possibility.
To bring this back round to the actual question, experience has taught me that as a woman I'm supposed to want, and to be, certain things and not others, while too much of my reading has told me that this is still going to be the case in the far future. I wanted to kick against that with a positive, if not utopian, vision. It's a very personal vision, in a way (I've always secretly wished I could choose what kind of body I had upon waking up each morning), but if I did it right it leaves room for more visions than just mine. The women in my poem hope that they'll be pioneers for others that yearn after space and its potential for different ways to be, but not that their transformations or their dreams are some kind of blueprint.
JR: Many of the poems in this issue explore the way women are defined by their bodies, and by their prescribed roles. Sofia and Mary take us from stars to computers with their explorations.
Sofia, your poem is about Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a woman who discovered a way to measure stellar distances while employed by the Harvard College Observatory in the early twentieth century. How did you learn about this particular woman, and how might her contributions have changed if she'd been allowed the same working status as men in that time and place?
Sofia Samatar: I came across Henrietta Swan Leavitt's name in a newspaper a couple of years ago. I can't remember which paper it was, but I know it said she discovered "three hundred stars that change their brightness." Right then I knew I wanted to write about her. At first I thought it would be a short story, but later I changed my mind. I was going to write a poem that ended: "on the blue night emblazoned, blameless, blightless/three hundred stars that change their brightness."
When I finally got around to trying to write the thing, I read George Johnson's book on Leavitt. Surprise! Her great discovery was not really the stars, but the way the relationship between their luminosity and the periods of their brightness could be used to measure stellar distances. That was the beginning of our current understanding of how big the universe is. Also, Leavitt recorded 2400 of these variable starsnot three hundred. There went the end of my poem!
How might Leavitt's contributions been different if women had been allowed to use the Harvard Observatory telescope in 1908? There's really no way of knowing. What moves me so much about her story is how little of it is available to us now. Even her biographer winds up writing about lots of the other people Leavitt worked with, because there's so little information on Leavitt herself. There were "human computers" who resented the fact that because they were women, they had to do all the busywork, the number crunching, not the Real Science. There's no record of any such complaint from Leavitt. There's no bitter letter, no sad or angry diary. From what we know, she was a woman who wanted to work and she did as much work as she could for as long as she was able. We know very little about how she felt, except that sometimes her health kept her away from the observatory, and it was very hard for her not to be able to work.
In my poem, I was interested in redeeming the idea of "Girl Hours"in taking something that was a joke, a sneer really, and emptying it of that meaning of "the hours messing with the details so that I, the Real Scientist, can do my Real Science." I wanted "Girl Hours" to carry a different meaning. And I wound up writing a poem about intellectual labor.
It's also about how elusive we arehuman beings. That's why the middle section focuses on the mystery of bodies, both human and celestial. Like you, Tori, I was working with the way we are defined by our bodies, as Leavitt surely wasand the way we can never be defined by them. As a poet looking at a photograph of Leavitt's body, what do I know about her? Not even enough to write a poem without calling attention to the fact that I'm writing a tribute for someone I can't define
JR: Mary, your "Lovelace Nocturnes" addresses the themes of women and computing in a different way. You explore the dynamics of family interactions through the language of computer programming, and follow that with the assertion that "every metal daughter" decides "just what it will mean to her to be her father's girl". Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, and a computer programmer, so this is an interesting blend of the logical mathematical side of her with her poetic inheritance. How did you build it, and what do you imagine being "her father's girl" did mean to Ada Lovelace?
MAA: I'm unsure what the "it" is in the first half of your question. How did I build the blend? I have no idea. Jeannine (Hall Gailey) encouraged/challenged me to write a haibun about Ada Lovelace on my journal entry for 7 October, which is Lovelace's birthday. But I couldn't just write a haibun which included only one verse, because I'm ornery, so I decided to do one verse as a code snippet and one as a rhymed and metered quatrain with the requisite haibun prose bits linking them. How did I build the code? I very much wanted for the Ada code to be poetic and luckily Ada (which I hadn't programmed in before) is very much a language that lends itself to English phrasing so I was able to use the variable names and Ada syntax to continue the story of the poem. The code sort of sets up the problem statement for the final prose piece and quatrain to resolve (if you choose to see the poem as resolving itself). I did a number of drafts that were English versions of the code snippet in order to figure out what it needed to produce in order to move the poem forward. But I intend the code to be read without viewing the output literally as part of the poem because I put just as much thought into choosing the words there as I did the remainder of the poem.
I honestly have no idea what being her father's girl meant to Ada Lovelace. By the time I had gotten to the code in the poem, I wasn't concerned with Ada anymore but all the women whose passion is to do something outside the box of stereotypes allowed to women and, partially, those who may follow in their father's, rather than mother's, footsteps (and what that means). If your life is a Lovelace nocturne, you have to choose whether to sing it. And clearly I have an opinion, expressed in the poem, on what you should choose :)
JR: Mary, I'm sorry I wasn't clear! The "it" I meant was the poem itself, so your answer was perfect.
Na'amen, your poem takes the themes of women being defined by their bodies a step further. Instead of computer programs expressing emotions, you show us a woman built of machinery. With " traces of steel in her bones, gears that twist shoulders and hips," this woman is defined as a woman by her shape and form, which was, presumably, designed by others, but she is not a passive construct; she changes the narrator over the course of the poem. What led you to use that imagery in this way?
Na'amen Tilahun: Part of my poem was in response to steampunk, a genre that I feel celebrates a culture without bothering to talk about the colonialism, rampant misogyny and other problematic elements of the time that it's emulating. A lot of the language of that era (and through to today) represents conquered lands or lands thought less-than as the body of a woman, particularly a woman of that land and thus mostly women of color. At the same time in more Western nations we have medical science moving in a direction that uses "undesirables" for experimentation and learning. So we have this perfect storm of women's bodies at home being used for medical experimentation against their will, especially women of color. Then abroad you have the conquering of these lands that are represented as women's bodies as they're altered and changed against their will.
So the she in the poem is both of these things, both a conquered land and an experiment, changed against her will with this steampunk imagery. She's changed for a purpose that's never talked about because she doesn't get to know, she's not important enough to know what is being forced upon her from the perspective of those changing her.
The narrator "discovers" this woman, part-machinery part-human, and does his best to help her in some way but even his help is patronizing because she is not allowed to participate in this healing. So while the narrator is more sympathetic than the ones who've done this to her he is no less at fault for refusing to acknowledge that she is just as valid a being as he.
The changes she wrings out of those she comes in contact with are about the inability to destroy her or control her completely no matter how much they alter and harm her. She changes them simply by virtue of existing, she alters the space she is in because of her sense of self. She knows who and what she is, this woman, this land, and though others may try to change her, her core is somewhere they can never reach. She is damaged and whole at the same time. In the same way that society, culture, politics and media tend to damage and malign women, people of color, GLBTQ, non-native folks, etc any who is "other" yet claim they are doing no harm and represent that person as somehow whole. It's about having to function in a world that is actively angry and at war with you despite the fact that no one sees it. And it's about surviving the alterations placed on you by others and making yourself into something new.
SS: Thank you, Na'amen! I see huge potential in steampunk for the kind of work you're doing, but people need to get in there and do it.
JR: Sofia and Na'amen, I definitely agree with you about steampunk, and heartily recommend the SteamPowered anthologies. They're lesbian steampunk stories with a big focus on diversity and the examination of how changing technology affects all kinds of people and societies. As a bonus lure (in case that description wasn't enough), Alex has a lovely story in SteamPowered II.
Finally, for the whole group, I've really loved your answers so far, and I'd like to hear more of your thoughts about women and the way they are perceived and defined by their bodies, either in your poems, or in the world at large. Have you seen these attitudes and definitions change over the course of your lifetime, and how would you like to see them change in the future?
ADM: I would like a lot of things, but most important to me is still one of the core issues that feminists have been fighting all along: that assumptions not be made about our capabilities, our interests, our identities, based on the body we walk around with. And, related to that: that certain capabilities, interests, identities be disentangled from the body we walk around with. I loved Shira Lipkin's poem in the previous issue for so perfectly encapsulating how so many of us feel like Changelings, given a body and associated assumptions about our identities and having to spend the rest of our lives negotiating that body and how society interacts with it. Because I'm female, I wasn't given a games console; my brother was. Because I'm female, it was funny at school that my reaction to being pissed off (usually by sexist jokes) was hitting people. Because I'm female, I can't do so-called "girly" things, or else people will dismiss me entirely, because we can't be intelligent AND feminine. Before puberty set in, I spent roughly 2 years pretending to be a boy short hair, jeans and t-shirt, Alex instead of Alexandra and I've spent the next 15 years or so trying to figure out where the hell I fit in society's "either/or" approach to gender. Boy? Girl? Fuck if I know. I realised at age 10 I could be myself and have long hair, that feature still identified with the feminine. More recently, age 24, I'm growing comfortable with the idea that I could learn to use a spindle and still be me, even though society at large might have different ideas.
So, as you can see, I can't disentagle my thoughts on women from my thoughts on gender as a whole. I hope that in my lifetime this "either/or" approach, and all its attendant assumptions, disappears.
SS: It's hard to say how much ideas on gender have changed, because so much depends on where you live. Right now I live in Madison, Wisconsin, a lovely and liberal city, and things are very different (and much better) here for my daughter, who's nine, than they were for me when I was nine, in Richmond, Kentucky in 1980. (Although what I remember from those days is less about being a girl, than about being mixed-race. Good times.)
I live in a wonderful community, where my girl AND my boy can really be themselves. But even within my city, depending on who you are, there are places you'll feel comfortable and places you won't. In general, I think the more you travel, the more you notice differences in how you are defined, different reactionssometimes very striking onesto the body you're in. That's when you realize how powerful those attitudes are and how unless you are EXTREMELY VIGILANT they can run your life. I've lived in South Sudan and Egypt as well as the U.S. and I've been a different person, socially, in each place.
That's part of what's made books and writing such an important part of my life. For me, writing has been just what Annie Dillard called it: "life at its most free."
I'm with Alex (and lots of other peopleso many that I think we ARE slowly making a difference). I want to see less of the kind of thinking that assumes people come in packages, that defines the whole person by one part. Group identities are important, but we should be able to belong to many groups based on what we share with a whole range of other people. I'd like to see not just openness, but more genuine interest in who other people really are. More readinesseven eagernessto be surprised.
TT: God, yes. I get a real kick from the few friends who think to ask, "so how do you identify these days?" It's so refreshing it hurts, because most interactions with the world still involve being told what I am, what I should be, by external voices and representations. We should define what being women means to us if that's how we want to identify ourselves and it can mean infinite things. Imagine, if our daughters could grow up in a world where being a girl doesn't define the things they can be, the things they can do (and where, if they aren't actually girls, that's fine too). I'd like to see these things talked about more, represented better in media and culture it feels like it's a small corner of my life where I can talk freely about what being a woman means to me, and about my own sense of gender being a fluid thing, without much 101'ing and gnashing of teeth. I'd like to be able to have these conversations without getting eye-rolled. For people to not derail or shut them down just because the subject matter's a little out of their (often cis-male-privileged) comfort zone. 'Cause I don't know if I've ever even had a comfort zone to be in.
JR: Thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts, and for helping to change things for the better with your words. Here's to a future with more diversity, more acceptance, and more amazing advances in science.