Nixon in China: That is your cue!

Last night I saw the opera Nixon in China and was blown away completely by its complexity and beauty and most especially for how it spoke to me as a feminist. I adore Alice Goodman‘s libretto and like to picture her fervent research and immersion process! I took notes in my lap. Her poetry is fucking awesome. It’s subtle even when she’s basically punching you in the face. Also… in general, the staging from the San Francisco Opera was gorgeous! I could go see it again and be very happy! Read on for a synopsis. Buried somewhere in there will be my reaction to Jiang Qing’s part!

The opera opens with a group of grey-coated cadres waiting for Nixon’s plane to arrive. The plane is projected on screen through mist. As the group sings The Three Main Rules of Discipline and The Eight Points of Attention, gauzy curtains lift and the mist blows away; the people become more clear, strongly declaiming “The people are the heroes now”. It was very moving. A staircase rolls up, Nixon emerges, and there is a scene of rather dull greetings and handshakes prolonged for the crew of a giant old fashioned TV camera which is wheeled around during many scene (and which I loved as a reminder of the events’ conscious political theater). Everyone goes away. Pat Nixon is doing an awesome job of faculty-wifing in her bright red dress. (Her outfits were to die for the whole time…) Did she really wear red? I want to know! It is so significant! Nixon, in “News! News!” imagines his ideal audience, his patriotic vision of small town wholesome America doing stuff while the TV shows his actions on all channels and the blue glow pours out from the curtains to the lawns and streets beyond. He recaps his important handshakes, singing passionately about history and mystery.

News has a kind of mystery;
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the whole world was listening.

Then he utterly freaks out, bad-tripping with the brilliant “The rats begin to chew the sheets!” bit where surly, scruffy reporters give him bad press. Oh noes! Nixon! Don’t get all paranoid now! The rats song is extremely catchy.

The scene changes to Mao’s living room where he is attended by a bunch of people, three secretaries who take notes on (& echo) his every word, and Zhou En-Lai. Kissinger and Nixon come in. Nixon totally fails to understand any of the cryptic things Mao says but tries to clumsily work in some references to Chinese culture and history. There is a brief interlude where Pat and Dick are in maybe her dressing room getting ready for the upcoming banquet. She gets in a lot of “yes, dear” but also her theme of “more snow before the spring” begins to develop. Then a fabulous operatic drinking song sequence set at a dull state banquet. There is a good interplay between Nixon and Pat as he sings “I was wrong” and she does a smug little 50’s wifely chortle. I loved the waiters coming in and out (and often stopping to listen to the speeches) and the use of the airplane jetway (modified) for the ridiculously tall podium. The scene and act end with people dancing on the tables. Gambei!! Cheers!!! I love a jolly drinking scene! I wished my son were there to see the choreography of the crowd!

In Act II Pat Nixon gets a lot of further development. She tours Beijing — gets a glass elephant, pets a pig, admires children at play. “It’s Christmas every day!”, she sings, and I thought “A lot of women got ECT trying to achieve your ideal womanhood, and failed”. Pat then happily suggests a picnic in a beautiful park. That last bit was one of my favorite moments of the opera as Pat admires the park (maybe meant to be the Summer Palace?) and the cadres with her fall silent. They react quite badly to her burbling; they describe the oppression that created that beauty. When they see this aesthetic landscape they see graves, starvation, torment. “It’s almost like you knew them” Pat falters. She doesn’t get it. She is sincere but terribly innocent & clueless. She doesn’t understand why they want to dwell on negative things, why they are harsh, upset, angry; why they are so steely. She doesn’t understand why their revolution needs defending, and that they are still in a war and for many good reasons. This scene had me wanting to stand up and cheer.

Pat Nixon sings a long solo aria about how this visit is prophetic. Or maybe it was the snow falling and then clearing. I loved this solo and thought the singer was amazing. A projection of her face was superimposed on a backdrop of waving U.S. flags; I was so grateful to be able to see the details of her perfect acting & emotion. I felt inspired with real respect for the real-world Pat Nixon and her wisdom, insight, delicacy.

Then we cut to a staged performance of Jiang Qing’s version of The Red Detachment of Women. I love that this opera shows her as fierce and uncompromising, shows her attraction rather than simplifying her as a villain. Anyway, we get this completely amazing Hating Tyranny ballet interlude in which a young beautiful peasant girl is being raped and beaten to death by tyrants and foreign oppressors. Very movingly danced. Suddenly Kissinger leaps up from the on-stage audience of diplomats and becomes one of the characters who is raping and whipping the girl (Ching-hua). Now while I am not sure what is going on there I liked that it was blurring the line of art and spectacle with participation in oppression and that the lines of real and play broke down. (Meanwhile I was having other meta-ish thoughts about how many stories I have read in which the real action took place during an opera but in the boxes of the important people… above our heads.) I thought during the first part of the ballet, of the ways in which revolutions including mine want to make art about the experience of oppression from the oppressed’s point of view. And how that is sneered at aesthetically by the dominant culture.

Then, from the stage-audience, Pat Nixon freaks out and tries to save Ching-hua, held back by Nixon. Oh, tender white woman’s tears! Then there was a point where the soldier guy ballet-marches up all sprightly and fresh to save her. I kept thinking, and then fiercely muttering, “Give her the gun. GIVE HER THE GUN. He’s NOT GOING TO GIVE HER THE GUN. Oh my god. FUCK. TAKE THE GUN” knowing that in these things I always mutter that — and she never gets the gun! Instead they dance a romantic little duet which made me want to spit in frustration! Oh! Take the gun, sister! Though I do love the happy-wheelbarrows-rah-rah elements in this bit and others.

Then this, Ching-hua’s song though i think it was sung by a chorus. I scribbled down the bit about the silent gun warms in my hand salving the wound made by man, and looked it up, so here:

It seems so strange
To take revenge
After so long
To find the wrong
Can be undone.
The silent gun
Warms in my hand
Salving the wound
Made by the men
It will gun down
All in good time
I shall kill them
Yes, every one
Revenge is mine.

Yeah!!! You can imagine that gave me shivers.

Now at this point my memory is jumbled as there was a scene of Jiang pressing the gun on Ching-hua (who is hanging out with the new crop of foreign oppressors now) and screaming THAT IS YOUR CUE, looking disappointed Ching-hua does not shoot. She is singing “THAT IS YOUR CUE!” to Ching-hua in frustration. I can’t remember if Jiang or Ching-hua finally shot the cringing rapist foreign oppressor (Kissinger in Mandarin costume). As I looked it up from previous stagings, they seemed quite different from what I remember! I think the San Francisco director did something very interesting! I’d like to see it again or in video. But for me it was amazing either way. Jiang stomping and strutting around so bravely and fiercely! Popping up in her handsome tailored suit like a projection from my own News! News! images of myself that I carry! I raise the weak above the strong! Okay, so, someone shot the rapist and then the Cultural Revolution was ballet danced while Jiang shakes her fist at the world and screams THE BOOK THE BOOK THE BOOK and I thought grim terrible self criticisms of my love of texts and the pitfalls of vengeance and power. (Muttering meanwhile, “Goddammit… fuck this… fuck The Book… Write my own fucking book…. “) Let me be a grain of sand! Every girl is a riot grrrl! Kill rock stars! Either way, it is a criticism of personal vengeance, which is so relevant to criticisms of Jiang… I would also like to say that when Jiang gave her the gun, I noticed a woman in front of me a few rows who had funny colored hair and was with someone my age with dreadlocks, cheered out loud and Danny says I did too. At the opera’s end the singer who played Jiang got a huge cheer from the women in the audience – it was very markedly us cheering her… Which was interesting.

I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung Who raised the weak above the strong When I appear the people hang
Upon my words, and for his sake
Whose wreaths are heavy round my neck
I speak according to the book.
When did the Chinese people last
Expose its daughters? At the breast
Of history I sucked and pissed,
Thoughtless and heartless, red and blind,
I cut my teeth upon the land
And when I walked my feet were bound
On revolution. Let me be
A grain of sand in heaven’s eye
and I shall taste eternal joy.

Food for thought there. I will continue thinking about what Alice Goodman meant in Jiang’s aria. I get that Jiang’s defense of herself at trial was that she was Mao’s dog executing his orders (or his book) But I think Goodman means more in a sort of simulteneity of ways Jiang may have seen herself and her works. As the opera is about a brief event, but stretches backwards and forwards in time and history and the future over an holistic geography; and also how its characters speak about particular things but with the librettist’s knowledge that the audience is listening in a particular way with their own knowledge — I think that much of this is about gender and women as well as Vietnam. That is to say that is what Goodman projects to be in the mind of the audience’s viewing. We don’t have to hear “Vietnam” (though we do, once) to know it is simmering in the audience’s mind as the characters sing about war and peace, as Nixon reminisces about his wartime near-death experiences and ecstasies. Best time of his life, war, but not the best time of the war right then or the war scarred listeners when the opera was written (and not in our minds either today.) Similiarly, Goodman is speaking through Pat Nixon and Jiang to the women in the audience in a way I rarely experience in any performed artwork. It was as if the opera passed the Bechdel test on some meta level. I found that satisfying yet tantalizing. Obviously the Bechdel-test-passing fanfic scene between Pat and Jiang with the secretaries in chorus still needs to be written.

I cannot remember where in the sequence of the opera there was the “burn the books” scene but it was when Nixon says (so awkwardly! so embarrassing!) “Confucius!” and Mao is like “NO!!!” and giant scrolls come down from the ceiling. We get a Koyanisqatsii sort of projectsion of bustling cityscape with neon and traffic projected onto those now-veiled scrolls which become skyscrapers as Mao speaks. I wished he (Mao) could see the present. I have also left out how much I enjoyed Nixon’s singing loudly and jovially about telecommunications satellites! That was beautiful.

About the music, I’m not the world’s biggest music critic, but I like it. A lot of bits remind me of Phillip Glass. Some of the songs are melodic and singable and catchy, while some wander around in the way opera dialogue often does. I had many moments of awe and wonder, thinking not only “this is what poetry is *for*” but also being in awe that what I was hearing was made of human voices. Truly amazing. I love the long contemplative arc of opera and the long thoughts I have during it.

During the third act the two couples reminisce about the trip and their lives in general. Pat gets in a lot more wifely Stepford agreements to Nixon’s rambling about the war with barbed intelligence behind it but some ambiguous bits on how when she read his letters she was doing her hair or cooking some chicken. I interpreted that as part commentary on her bougie-ness but partly her own frustration or criticism of being relegated to that realm of life, the domestic “trivialities” she rejects in Act Two, reading Dick’s letters from the Pacific Theatre. She seems touchingly aware of his PTSD, his being damaged by the war, in a way he isn’t able to know or articulate. Mao and Jiang talk over their lives interspersed with Pat and Dick, with the stage a pastiche of the events and scenes of the opera and their Chinese and U.S. landscapes, memory and present — present as in 1972 but I am pretty sure some of the projected scenes were of times afterward. Mao is tired. Jiang is still jumping around fiercely full of energy and sureness. He thinks the revolution is over and was for boys. (Boys!!) Jiang is like, “No! The revolution will not end!” Or maybe “must not end”. Both the Nixons’ and Mao and JIang’s interchanges are of failed communication. They completely fail to hear each other across gender, just as Mao and Nixon missed communication — and yet in both those situations, something happened and some relationship is possible.

Chou En-lai gets a great pensive monologue at the end. He has been stalking gravely about the stage during all the more florid action of the opera, thoughtful and alert. Now he emerges and steps forward as the future. He is the one who now will frame events. He frets and is a bit neurotic in a good way. How much of what we did was good? (A good companion question to the classic one of “What is to be done?” By having Chou ask this question for this visit as well as for all the events before and after it — we meaning all the characters in the play — Goodman is carefully asserting that SOME of what was done was good, is not buying into a total rejection of either the U.S.’s actions, China’s in general, or the Cultural Revolution. I appreciate that complexity.

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Feminist Hacker News

At a couple of conferences lately, Hackmeet and She’s Geeky, as well as at the feminist science fiction convention WisCon, I hosted a discussion of feminist hackers and feminist hacking. I wanted to put the idea out into the world and see what other women had to say about it. Though women are involved with Anonymous and other instances of hacker activism, they aren’t part of the story, of the myth of the hacker. If there were a particularly feminist or womanist Anonymous, women working together, what would they be doing? What or who would their targets be? What social justice or mischief making aims would they have? What would our griefing and trolling look like or what does it currently look like? What do hacker feminists do for lulz? What would Hacker Hothead Paisan do? How would our intersectionalities play out? What would a womanist or black women’s perspectives bring, Latina, or First Nations? What would our sisters of the Arab Spring do in their activism if they were to work together and independently as hackers? Would any of this be any different from what’s already happening, or pretty much the same? Simply asking those questions seemed to give people food for thought.

Here are some ideas that came up during these discussions.

feh-muh-nist.jpg

– Stuff that’s legal. Comb through existing leaks and data dumps. Highlight and expose info of particular interest to women.

– We can be in it for the lulz. We aren’t always noble social justice peace-warriors engaged in civil discourse. We are also genius tricksters, unruly angry mobs of trolls. Civil discourse can be good in some areas but can work against us and in support of oppression. Some of us like hackery mischief. The genius archetype is also a trickster, a prankster; we are rockstars and geniuses and badass.

hothead paisan.jpg

– Work with people who want to leak corporate HR data, salary info, sexual harassment data. Like the list of sexist or harassing managers that allegedly circulates among women at IBM through their backchannels.

– Essentially, NameYourRapist.com. Name and shame the perps of anything from sexist comments to harassment and sexual assault. This led to talk of various complicated reputation and voting systems. No one can report these things in public or in private without obviously identifying themselves and getting huge backlash which hurts them more than the accusation hurt the perp. This was a fertile topic of discussion. It leads to extremes of nostril flaring determination and pearl clutching oh-no-what-about-the-menz ethical worries every time I’ve brought it up in public or private. The one thing we could all agree on was that it would need to be hosted somewhere really great in order to deal with the horrendous backlash.

– Hollaback as an example of name (photographic image) and shame. This has particular power dynamics.

– Fan_wank and anon meme style communities, mostly women, definitely in it for the lulz.

– We want actually feminist reddit and stack overflow type of stuff that isn’t fucking taken over by MRAs or mansplaining douchebags.

– The example of the Being Human photographer, the woman from Senegal, and the Orthodox Jewish man. The hollaback was taken down, but feminist blogs, tumbler reblogs, documented the incident and the fallout.

– The example of geekfeminism forking MikeeUSA’s code and putting pink glitter ponies all over it to make fun of him. What other code should we be forking and how?

– Some of the stuff Tiger Beatdown has done, Sady Doyle being awesome with the twitter hashtags, Michael Moore callout, #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend callouts. Find douchey behavior, document it, then profile the perps and mock the shit out of them. One advantage of doing this is you don’t have to particularly prove something happened since you can source it, it happened in public on the Internet. Though some mentioned the importance of documenting, screencaps, Internet Archive, Google Cache, in case the douchey source is deleted.

– Testimonial. Coming out narratives. For example, there was a campaign among bloggers and social media users in Argentina, where it’s illegal to have an abortion, to put up “I’ve had an abortion” badges or posts.

– Ethical hacking vs. unethical. Feminist white hat, feminist black hat actions. What would our ethical spectrum look like?

– Concerns over the powerful, effective humor of Anon style actions and whether that can bleed over into bullying, harassment which disproportionately affects women or uses misogyny to denigrate people.

– For fuck’s sake at least edit Wikipedia more often and put more notable (to us!) women in there.

– We can perpetrate drama in particular ways that create guerrilla theater online.

– Shit Manarchists Say videos are pretty funny. Could go much further with this sort of thing.

– Games that teach people what it is like to experience oppression. We need more things like that.

– Simply documenting things that happen is powerful. The geekfeminism wiki Timeline of Incidents mentioned often in these discussions as an inspiration and model to follow. It provides continuity, and gives us a history.

– We need backchannel support for whatever we do in public. IRC, pirate/etherpad, are useful.

– Tools for security and privacy as well as for information gathering. Peer support and education to improve our skills.

– (Reading aloud of the main points of the Hacker Ethic) This is an attempt to outline a hacker ethic, which is awesome. But a strong part of actual hacker culture is violence, putting each other down, boasting, making people prove themselves, obnoxiousness, rape culture. You can’t even talk about hacking for a minute without someone going on about ass rape. It keeps us out, and it’s meant to keep us out. We can trash talk and escalate obscenity forever but we don’t necessarily want to become that person. It affects you and it’s not good. If we don’t want to be part of that we have to build something else.

– Riot Grrrl comes up a lot in these discussions, and not just because I was dragging it in. Yay!

– We will write some feminist hacker manifestos.

At WisCon I was part of a somewhat different though oddly convergent discussion about feminism and F/LOSS culture. It was so far beyond the usual unicorn talk that you may not even be able to imagine it. Instead of explaining how we are Women in Tech or Women in Open Source or how to improve gender ratios on open source projects we were just a bunch of women developers talking about our working lives, experiences, and ambitions. Everyone at the discussion was already quite educated so no explanations were necessary. I’ll be looking for for notes from this (mine or someone else’s) to post in more detail. But our basic topic was: F/LOSS and feminism, at least the sorts of feminisms we all meant in that room, share so many important ideals, processes, and methodologies, which is part of what makes us so passionate about F/LOSS; and that seems so obvious to us but isn’t to everyone; how can we bring out this point and bring them together?

I proposed this discussion as a workshop event for 28C3 in Berlin and then heard a very interesting story. Apparently the idea was quite controversial among the conference organizers, with some people pulling for it hard, and others rejecting it because “We don’t have those problems here” and “We have solved the problem of sexism in Germany, in Europe, not like in America” and “Hackers don’t see women or men”. Also that it would be “too divisive” and cause problems at the conference. And, amazingly that there would not be enough interest. I heard from other women (mostly) that the 28C3 culture was a very difficult place to talk about gender and it never got much past the stage of barely being able to assert that as women we might have different experiences than men and that sexism does exist, but even “sexism does exist” was heartily challenged. I then got a (friendly) warning from someone involved with the conference that if against all odds I did go to 28C3 and run this discussion, the backlash on me personally would be very intense and beyond anything I could imagine. Yes, right, that really makes me want to spend a couple of thousand dollars flying to Berlin in the dead of winter with a wheelchair. But I awaited the official response with interest. It was a form letter that the conference was too full to take my proposal, they just had too many proposals that year. Highlarious! I thought it was a shame, because, since it was not particularly my community other than the people who are part of Noisebridge, I could go in guns blazing and make the European feminists look like total moderates. Then a friend of mine offered to give up his keynote speaking slot to me so I could surprise-feminism-bomb the conference. I declined with thanks, touched at his offer.

I had another great conversation privately at WisCon with Elise Matthesen who listened to my elevator pitch of this topic in the Great Dane pub and in response told me a story, which of course is a very WisCon and very feminist thing to do. I don’t remember many of the exact details or people’s names, but the story was about one of the WAMM sort of groups in the 70s or 80s doing direct action chaining themselves to some fence or gate of some munitions company. One of the women in the group was the wife of a local high ranking police or military officer. Before the actions they would do a guided meditation where the facilitator would ask everyone to consider in themselves, could they imagine in their hearts being the head of that munitions factory and waking up that morning and part of himself not wanting to make nuclear warheads that day? Could they imagine him responding positively and openly to the protest, and listening to their concerns? If they couldn’t imagine that and really feel it, they should not come to participate in the direct action that day. Setting aside that space, asking that question, and asking everyone to consider it, made the way the protests went quite different from how they might have gone otherwise. The cops would come and people would cut off the chains from the protestors to drag them away but they were gentle and would do it as a sort of routine, as something that was accepted as part of the action. They were doing their jobs. They would drag people to the vans and bring them coffee and donuts. I can’t tell the story as powerfully as Elise told it, but it was exactly the kind of response I have been figuring I would hear. Some of the difference in hacker ethic between Anon and Womanist Anon or Fem Anon might be an almost internal approach, a different position or posture in relation to the world.

It should be totally clear this is merely an interesting thought experiment and I am not advocating doing anything illegal.

And by the way, for the nicer kind of hacking as in just being a kick ass developer, you might want to take a look at Hacker School!

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Imagining radical democracy, practicing feminist anarchy

At WisCon a couple of weeks ago I was on a panel called Imagining Radical Democracy with Alexis Lothian, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Andrea Hairston. We talked about political change, culture, and science fiction, leaping into mid conversation. Everyone was quite erudite so I will try to link some of the important background concepts, books, and thinkers mentioned. The title and description of the panel don’t quite describe “what we talked about”, but everyone knew what “it” was. This was the topic:

The General Assembly has become a familiar practice since the growth of Occupy Wall Street. Anarchistic and radically democratic organizing processes have a much longer history, though, including the Zapatistas, the Spanish student movement, and movements in the history of feminism. For WisCon members, a familiar feeling might have bubbled up in watching, reading about, or participating in Occupy: wasn’t this a bit like what they did on Le Guin’s Anarres, or in DuChamp’s Free Zones? This panel will discuss the possible growth of a kind of democracy other than our current party-based political systems, using the ways it has been prefigured and imagined in feminist science fiction to help make sense of radical histories and futures.

Here is a rough transcript of the Radical Democracy panel by laceblade. It meant a lot to me personally that laceblade transcribed this panel and put it up for public reading so quickly; it’s something I started doing at WisCon panels to document the conversations for the Feminist SF Wiki, but I was too exhausted to do it this year. It was beautiful not just to see many others documenting live, but to be documented myself by someone so passionate and engaged. I was touched to the core.

I felt that we jumped immediately into the conversation with the assumption that we all knew what we were talking about without having to give much background or try to explain things. We didn’t talk about Occupy or specific movements so much as we talked about “that thing we know when we see it, or are doing it.” We didn’t even really introduce ourselves, partly out of eagerness to jump into the topics, partly from assumption people knew who we were in the context of WisCon 36, and partly because of automatically killing the rock star on the stage (opposite of killing the angel in the house!) — so I’ll write a bit of an intro now!

L. Timmel Duchamp, Timmi, is a publisher who runs Aqueduct Press; a brilliant thinker and SF author of an epic science fiction work in 5 volumes, the Marq’ssan Cycle, which is about an intervention in Earth politics by alien feminist anarchists. They convene a giant consensus meeting including two women from every Earth nation, destroy much of the technological infrastructure of the military industrial complex(es), and establish anarchist Free Zones in many locations around the planet. The book centers on the relationships and complicated conversations of various women including Kay (who is from the Professional class), Elizabeth (an Executive), and Martha (one of the proletariat… a service tech or sub-exec) and female-presenting though ambiguously gendered telepathic aliens such as Sorben and Magyyt. Revolution, imprisonment, torture, being co-opted, complicated sexual relationships across class boundaries, and the exploration of false consciousness and double consciousness all make this series politically exciting and emotionally intense. Her work in establishing a feminist science fiction press has fostered many writers and amazing, award-winning books. During the panel Timmi did what she does so well which is telling a specific story but with the feeling of it being a roundabout way to arrive at a point or an impression or knowledge conveyed which leaves layers of impressions behind — and the feeling I get from her of a mind somewhat frightening in scope and power channeled through the body of a specific fragile human being, exercising her will to focus all the dehumanization she has experienced and witnessed into a scary laser beam. I’m just saying, I feel a disturbance in The Force when she talks.

Alexis a nd Timmi

Andrea Hairston is a playwright, professor, and novelist, author of Redwood and Wildfire and Mindscape. She has done a lot of analysis in understanding the history of minstrelry in the U.S. She teaches theater and African American studies at Smith. She’s an amazing speaker and storyteller, brilliant, enthusiastic, and complicated. I love when she talks and gets excited and waves her arms around with the wildest enthusiasm and keenest intellect. And reading Mindscape, I thought (dorkiest example ever) of Menolly describing what it was like to play a piece of complicated music that other people find too difficult and technical (I believe it was The Ballad of Moreta’s Ride) to Master Shonagar; like riding a dragon!

andrea hairston

Alexis Lothian is a writer and academic, a professor at Indiana University, and theorist of science fiction fandom. She is an active vidder and deep into media fandom, gender studies, digital cultural politics, and is a founder and editor for the journal Transformative Works and Cultures. She moderated our discussion. I remember on first meeting her I came to a discussion between people of color at WisCon in someone’s hotel room, an intense and amazing conversation which she recorded with permission (I was there as assistant techie person, I think) and transcribed for the inaugural issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, recording with quiet attentiveness, contributing to the opening of that space for conversation.

I felt Laura Quilter’s absence on this panel (and at WisCon) keenly, painfully. She is a huge part of this conversation.

Timmi opened the panel by talking about how her writing and her activism (feminist and anti-globalization work) feed into each other. She talked about why science fiction is important for activism:

Bad experiences create low expectations especially with social rollbacks over the last 30 years. Creates political apathy. Political apathy is a response, not just a state of ignoring the world, it’s a state of actual response. It’s not passive even though it looks like passivity. I think what’s important about science fiction is it gives us alternatives that we can’t imagine in the US even though our history is full of tens of thousands of experiments in collective communities. All around the world, all sorts of things going on, all sorts of collective groups.

“The revolution” takes place in our imagination and is a process, not a means to an end.

Then I talked about hackerspaces and Noisebridge, the hacker/maker anarchist collective I’m part of in San Francisco. Hackerspaces are an important part of what’s happening in the current political moment. People banding together to try to form alternative social structures, pool resources, make physical spaces that reflect some of the social, cultural spaces and philosophies we have made in F/LOSS culture and on the Internet and web. As part of Riot Grrrl we tried to “Kill Rock Stars”; make and be part of a story that is not about a Great Man, not about The Hero, that works from many points of view; there is no puppet master moving us around a chessboard, and there are no saints (or sainted texts) we should canonize. Difficult SF stories, difficult narratives, are important politically to teach us all how to read reality, how to construct complicated truths. I described trying to explain “Anonymous” or “Occupy” to journalists, and how because of their failure of imagination, and their assumption that no mainstream readers could understand a story without a hero, they can’t get it. They have to participate and be changed in order to know how to tell a story that draws in the reader to participate and change.

I’m not sure how long it took me to say all that, but in my remembrance of the panel I managed it in a leaping, telegraphic, holographic staccato. I felt transported by not just my words but by knowing that we were all on the same page, many of us, and that what we were about to say would blend together like a river and take us somewhere.

Andrea said her upbringing was of a very solid African American household of being a race man, or race woman. Something which happily did not need to be explained in a feminist anti-racist science fiction con, but which I will link for you here. Andrea talked about the Iqbo Women’s War, not just the “riots” and murder by the British in a particular incident but women’s war as part of Igbo culture and politics.

. . . {the] one who tells the story rules the world. Therefore, we all need to. WE all need to be agents of action, all need to be storytellers. All need to be agents of action in the story.

For Andrea the story of Women’s War is one of working feminist anarchy, of a political process that worked, of anarchy rooted in a specific place and time and culture, that came from African women and men and worked for them; an important story. Part of that story is the British shot everyone and made the Iqbo have chiefs. Back to the idea of “no rock stars”, no leaders in the sense of elected officials who represent everyone in a hierarchical structure that feeds into the hoppers of power and that support oppressive (and in this case imperial, patriarchal) infrastructures. The book Andrea is currently writing is about a woman coming to America from that time and place.

Andrea then remembered to introduce and identify herself. So I introduced myself too and said everyone should buy my book, Unruly Islands. Andrea’s two novels are published by Aqueduct Press. My book as well, and Alexis and I both edited volumes of The WisCon Chronicles, which is a series Aqueduct publishes to document the conversations at WisCon every year. Aqueduct Press for me has solidified, made real, some of the exciting public discourse that happens at WisCon, the connections that spark our thought, the utopian ideals we share, the passion that fuels our daily practice of life and activism and writing. It made our conversations more public, and I hope adds another small brick to the things we are building, the ways we are trying desperately not to lose our histories as women, as marginalized people who are aware of the processes that shape how the stories are told and what is allowed to be seen as “real”. When I first realized what Timmi was trying to do by starting Aqueduct I was happy beyond explanation. Something that was my dream was happening in the world — for real. Cultural artifacts created and fostered, nurtured, grown. Timmi is my hero for doing this, for committing her life work to this act, for making our communities visible to each other and to others, for exposing us further as public intellectuals. I am so honored to be part of it and that they publish my work. Long ago I realized that what I wanted in life was not fame, money, success, the Good Life, in the way people sometimes describe what goals should be, but instead the respect of other people I respect. It was like a little mantra for me. Whenever it became reality in a small way, I felt bolstered and comforted: a sign I was on the right track. I rather imagined (as a teenager, in my childlike hero worship) that as an embarrassingly specific little scenario: that I’d be at a cocktail party with Marge Piercy, and she’d know my work, and we’d talk about our ideals, books, feminism, and poetics as equals in the creative process even if not equals in worldly position or age. WisCon and Aqueduct have made that dream come true for me even if I have not yet achieved the particular Nirvana of wine and cheese with Marge. I admire so many people there — very deeply. Beyond the Secret Feminist Cabal, which was a joke made real in organic “slow anarchy” fashion, and which continues to spread, which describes something that (like Riot Grrrl, like Anonymous) does not exist, and which you joined by hearing the idea and declaring you were in it, too — it came true for me. I wish that dream will come true for everyone. The respect of other people you respect.

Back to the panel. Alexis asked us all three to give specific examples of “what we were talking about” — of collectivity, of collective action and what happens and how.

In response, I talked about Noisebridge some more. (Which… ironically… is light years away from feminist utopia for me as a woman.) I talked about hackerspaces.org, the history of hackerspaces, the idea of F/LOSS culture not just “products” but culture, and cultural production, and community; the ideas of patterns and anti-patterns, in software, in architecture and culture, from the book A Pattern Language which by the way is a fascinating read and which I used to explain Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing to F/LOSS geeks. (A later WisCon panel on Feminism and F/LOSS brought this in as well.)

Alexis interrupted me to remind me that I wrote about this very topic in the latest WisCon Chronicles, Volume 6, Futures of Feminism and Fandom, which she edited. “Oh yeah! Right! Read that essay, and you will understand what I mean!” I moved on to answer Alexis’ question, explaining what Noisebridge is and how it works — and some of its glories and problems.

Alexis mentioned Louisa May Alcott and Fruitlands. I then brought in, as another strand to the pattern, Alice Marwick’s and danah boyd’s excellent paper on gender and Internet drama The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics as well as my own essay with Debbie Notkin on Internet Drama from The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 3, Carnival of Feminist SF. To understand the dynamics of women and public discourse, read that paper about teenagers’ attitudes toward “drama”.

Andrea says “drama” is melodrama. Alexis adds that it is “wank”. Yes! I then said,

By making a space in which we’re trying to address one problem, we’re more revolutionary than we realized. Once you’re part of a revolution, you have to Fix All the Things. It’s very hard, very valuable it takes place in public, documenting what happens. Also really difficult and uncomfortable

Alexis added,

What wank and drama and melodrama do and why they might just not be….part of how we negotiate. We have to emerge from it. It does things that other kinds of more carefully planned politics don’t do. Even the most trivial fights can have ripples of effects that are really important to what a community does.

And Timmi pulled it together by saying,

Little drops of water evaporate in dry atmosphere, need a human environment. Not just all of internal difficulties here but thes efforts are operating in a context in which we have vast problems. We have terrible collective problems and no collective solutions or collective process. These space (occupy, hacker, etc.) are besieged by that context. They can’t address them by themselves. That’s basically the problem. We sort of, what’s happening is more and more people are seeing the horizon of what’s possible but in this current environment, it’s very hard to …you can hack out a space but you can’t put up walls, [it’s] antithetical to what you want to do.

She then talked about being arrested for direct action against globalization, and the trial process. I got kind of excited listening to this and started writing a poem about it in my paper notebook while also live-Twittering.

A lesson from that story is that the interface between what we’re building, what we’re doing, as anarchists, feminists, activists — the interface between that and the larger world is extremely important and uncomfortable.

Alexis brought us back to talking about culture, narrative, and cultural production. Writing, drama, process, and art.

Andrea then kicked into awesome overdrive.

I love live theater, I don’t know what’s going to happen, even if you have a script. I know my blocking, audience comes in, audience makes me change. Every moment is alive. Feedback between me and the audience and other actors. Have to respond. All theater is to prepare you to be ready in the moment. That’s what anarchy is about. If you just follow blocking and your lines, that’s not going to work. What am I going to do that keeps me…the audience loves it when you solve the problem, in it for the live moment. Image of anarchy as negative melodrama. Good guys/bad guys. Victor Turner: Social drama is essential to humanity. I’m paraphrasing him. Have to have dramatic process in order to perform the meaning that you want. That’s what drama is. Struggle to have lived experience turn into meaning. That is a slow process. We’re stuck on things needing to be fast. Social drama takes time. Slow money, slow food, I think we need to have slow anarchy.

For Andrea, it is about creating ecosystems. There are people who build monuments, and people who build ecosystems. That is true in writing science fiction as well.

I spouted off at length trying to cram in more holographic imprint of what I mean and what I see and know. My process of watching many channels at once for the Arab Spring and Occupy Oakland. Learning to listen and hear decentralized narratives, which are not what you think you want to hear. Book recs: Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson (with caveats); Direct Action by David Graeber; Illicit Passages by Alice Nunn. Marq’ssan Cycle; Kevin Carson. My currently developing theory that a particular current of SF today is not post-apocalypse but is Mid-Apocalypse; not first contact with aliens, not pioneering imperialist expansion, but being inside the process; the 1% are our aliens, already here, alien because we can’t imagine or access their scale of power; this is important in what science fiction is going to become.

We had some audience responses then.

Andrea Hairston talked about capitalism and the idea of “growth”. Opposed to the ecosystem of growth, diversity.

I agree with Andrea and add that it is part of the current of science fiction I’m attempting to describe, which is about deepening interconnectedness — not about first contact or “discovering new frontiers” or invasions.

Timmi talked about journalism and false objectivity.

Andrea talked at length about lland ownership, property, the degradation of the commons which is a big part of our struggle. She brought in accessibility and specifically WisCon’s and other feminist space’s struggles to be accessible, which is part of treating the commons as the commons, as being for everyone; changing cultural attitudes toward the air and smoking, for example. I felt transported all over again to a higher level of thought hearing her bring in so many strands to our central topic — and one that touches on my experience so personally as disability and access and public space.

I put in one more book rec I had forgotten in my earlier burst of book recs that do or represent “what it is we are talking about”. Tales from the Freedom Plough, edited by 6 women, stories told by 52 different women who worked in the Civil Rights movement. Individual stories, sometimes contradicting each other, brought together to represent what happened, what is history, what is truth, and thus what is possible for us to do, like a beautiful and terrifying map. I meant to bring in Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin, as another exemplar; but we were wrapping up the panel.

Timmi closed the panel wonderfully by quoting Augustine of Hippo:

Hope has two beautiful daughters, their names are Anger and Courage. Anger that things are the way they are, and Courage to make them the way they ought to be.

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My latest terrible invention

Instead of explaining about all the posts I mean to write and haven’t, about WisCon and my ankles and all the books I’ve been reading, I bring you my latest terrible invention, to go with the Catula, Elboff, the Beer Hat Neti Pot, Cat Eggs, and the Sockerchief.

You know how there are Chia Pets of many varieties? Wouldn’t it be brilliant to have… the Chia Butt?

It would be a ceramic butt, with little holes all over for the seeds to sprout, creating a fascinating conversation piece you can tend and love… a green, hairy, butt.

CHIA ABE

This made my son laugh very hard and then I further sent him into the throes of laugh-trigger asthma by explaining why underwear should have pockets. I have invented… UNDERPOCKET!

Right, so back to the semi-serious blogging about something of substance that isn’t my painful bilateral achilles tendonitis with bursitis thrown in as a bonus and sciatica and bad knees. And peripheral neuralgia that no one can explain. For the last 6 months. I miss walking, driving, bike riding and my dramatic supercrip Journey Out of the Wheelchair. Now I’m very familiar with the beeping lift things that scoop you onto buses. Though I will say that I love my electric scooter and imagining the Thunderbirds Are Go launch theme as I come out of the automatically opening garage door, scooting. OMG… yes. Scooter power!

Excellent books read recently:

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Women, friendship, social class, airplanes, Gestapo, epistolary, AWESOME. Read this immediately.

Meeks by Julia Holmes.

Dystopia! gender! social class! Kickass writing that didn’t make me want to hurl (as most “literary fiction” does) Beauty and despair.

WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi

Fabulous kids’ book about a kid in an underground survival pod with a robot named MUTHR. It has great illustrations and is very fast paced in the beginning so I suggest it as especially good for kids under 10 who get bored at exposition.

Promise of the Wolves by Dorothy Hearst

15,000 years ago, a fierce brave wolf cub watches her brother and sisters die, outcast from the Pack! OMG! Wolf Ayla! The Greatwolves are up to something and the 2 leggers or whatever they were called are sort of the companion animal they long to soul bond with (but it is FORBIDDEN.) I got this for Danny’s daughter as it looked like a better and more sophisticated Warriors style book about fierce animals, with mythology and hunting, then I started reading it and couldn’t stop till I was done.

Into the Wise Dark by Neesha Meminger

Surly psychic teenage girls! No vampires! Indian-American family complexities, mums who Mean Well, and creepy therapists who totally don’t! Female friendship and working together with MAGIC… time travel… Goddess stuff… a hot boyfriend back in time, tending the goats of the village… Very enjoyable. There was a scene it it where she was in these bubble things in space in isolated space prison cells and I could SWEAR I have read something else that was like that a long time ago. What was it? Anyway, this was great and I loved how it sneaked some space and future into what is usually focused around “paranormal” and history. Keep sticking those silver jumpsuits in there Neesha!! Yeah!

Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente.

Sex, desire, creativity, aesthetics, ummm fantasy? way out there! To get into this amazing ultimate Virconium city or Amber or Utopian weirdness world you have to have sex with someone who also has a piece of the map tattooed on them. This book has a lot of scenes of people having uncomfortably casual sex and freaking out about it. I am only halfway through and at first wasn’t sure what the hell was going on and if I was like, too far into Cat Valente’s Id Vortex to feel comfy and then I got really into it and felt the lid was off and let’s just go with the flow.

Habitation of the Blessed duology also by Cat Valente

Extremely good! Bears thinking about! Easy to read and lovely and packed with history and beauty and I especially love the bits that are the butterfly’s and the blemmye’s stories. I can’t remember their names and lent the books out already. If you bounced off the massively deep layers of nested stories (or the purpley prose) of Orphan’s Tales give this a try – its structure is more accessible. I really get blown away by how good and great and geniusy Valente’s books are. Bite on that Gene Wolfe. Stuff it Orhan Pamuk. These are the massive storytelling epics I’ve been waiting for and without the cognitive dissonanance of having to work around all the fucking heinous unnecessary sexism that I have to cope with while reading Wolfe and Pamuk.

Report to the Men’s Club – Carol Emschwiller.

Short stories which left me with the impression of first contact hermity mountain women of the 19th century; if you liked Souls by Joanna Russ you’ll like this… the little known first contact nun genre!

Redemption in Indigo – Karen Lord.
A great speculative novel set in west africa. Magic and gods and chaos – I want a Chaos Stick! I loved this book and will look for her next one. This story made me think a bunch about scoping out the parameters of woman centered hero tales.

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