Honoring Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ died today. I’m very sad. I didn’t know her personally but she was one of my feminist heroes, and I wrote back and forth with her a few times about her work. Now I wish I’d said more, written and sent the letter I was writing to her in my head these last few weeks… I had the envelope already addressed with a tiny book inside, waiting for the letter. Instead, I’m writing about her death.

I don’t know what to say. She was so important to me as a writer. I grew up reading tons of science fiction, history, literature, and poetry. When I was a teenager, I had a huge feminist awakening that most of what I read was by men, and that that wasn’t because men were just better writers. I began to go to the effort to look for women’s writing and their histories, in anthologies, in indexes of reference books, in bookstores, and when I got to college, picking classes based on the reading list gender breakdown. It was in my first year of college at University of Texas at a co-op overflow book sale where I saw a stack of Russ’s book How to Suppress Women’s Writing. I read most of it on the floor of the bookstore and then bought several copies for a dollar each and gave them away to people. I bought it for years whenever I saw it in bookstores (to give to people) and seems like I always had a few copies floating around my bookshelves. I read all her other work that I could find and was blown away by The Female Man and We Who Are About To…. Once I got to WisCon, and then even better once there were online bookstores, I read all of her work. I highly recommend What Are We Fighting For? as a thoughtful exploration of feminism and feminist practice.

book cover for how to suppress women's writing

But it’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing that means the most to me. Back when I was 17, a writer and already deep into researching and cataloguing women writers who I felt were neglected by history and literary criticism, it was absolutely life changing to come across this book that outlined *patterns*. Russ gave the methods of suppressing women names. She made them easy to recognize and name. That’s so important! From that point on I had a useful intellectual framework, a helpful bullshit-detector, that helped me identify bullshit as applied to cultural production in general. It helped my own identity, because I could detect the suppression techniques applied to myself and my work, and could better resist them. And it helped me to know how important it is to focus on, and support, other women, and to be in solidarity with them and with others in groups being suppressed by what I think of as intellectual violence, by underhanded, dishonest means. I felt like the need for choice and action, for active search, for being analytical and careful about my information feeds, what I chose to research as a scholar — so much of that stemmed from Russ’s little book. I’m so grateful for all her work, especially her funny, perturbing, weird science fiction — but I love How to Suppress Women’s Writing dearly for how it helped me when I was a young and angry woman. I built on that book and on Dale Spender’s work in writing my anthology of Spanish-American women poets from the turn of the century. And its central points motivated me to collaborate with Laura Quilter, archivist of the Feminist SF Wiki, kick-ass wikipedia editor, and really, another one of the feminist scholars who I deeply admire, with our friendship one of the mainstays of my life.

When Joanna conferenced in to WisCon, for an interview with Samuel Delany, I transcribed the interview along with Laura . We sat there feeling so emotional and I think grateful, and for me at least, I felt sad that Russ had sort of retired from the fray, but glad that she could, and happy that she sounded so happy. I am wildly enthusiastic and passionate about many things but am often in pain and exhausted and fighting to get through the day, so I feel like I understand more and more that that is just one thing that happens and probably is in my own future. I am sorry if that sounds weird or isn’t well expressed. What I mean is that I think that the expectations of all of us who love and admire her might have been a bit of a burden — when is your next book! answer your fan mail! why aren’t you writing something else! — And I am glad she put down that burden at some point and was able to enjoy the sky and reading and watching Buffy, her friends and family, and kind of kicking back. It felt like a good thing to incorporate into one’s feminism. That we can respect each others’ lives or spaces and things are not all about productivity, work, writing, fighting — what are we fighting for? The right for us all not to have to fight, really. So while I’m sorry she was ill and had chronic fatigue and other problems I’m glad she had the space just to live. I hope that makes sense.

I wrote to Joanna to ask her to copyleft How to Suppress, and let me keep it in print and put it online for free, so that it wouldn’t be disappeared out of history and young people’s serendipitous discoveries — and would be online and easily bookmarkable for feminist bloggers to use as a touchtone. She seemed to like the idea and put me in touch with her agent, but nothing ever came of it. If not me, I hope someone else will be able to keep it in print in a low cost edition, maybe Aqueduct Press or someone else who will give it the care it deserves. But I loved it that she was kind enough to write me letters and postcards and stay in touch.

It helps to read other people’s thoughts on her and how her work was important to them — I was comforted a little (but sadder) reading the long thread on metafilter today.

I know a lot of people i know are devastated by her death, when I think about it, I am middle aged now and am watching the people I grew up admiring, my heroes, grow old and die. I’m sad for us all…

Bad invention: The Sockerchief!

Imagine you have to blow your nose. You don’t have any pockets and no tissues are handy. But wait! You’re wearing your Sockerchiefs!

Sockerchiefs, the latest in my line of horrible and pointless inventions, would be a handkerchief attached to your sock with velcro.

Reach down, rip off the top half of your socks, and blow your nose. Then simply re-attach the hankie to the Sockerchief.

This is possibly even more disgusting than the Beer Hat Neti Pot! It’s extra cringe-worthy since no one would want velcro on their handkerchief. And since it’s easy enough to tuck your handkerchief into the top of your sock if you don’t have pockets (along with your money and ID) it’s also quite pointless. But I’m recording all my bad inventions because I’m still bitter about predicting the cat-ear hat trend back in 1993 or so and then failing to make millons of dollars when people started wearing animal ear hats for real. 20 years from now when the Sockerchief or Cat Egg industrial empire rules the world I can at least point here and say “I told you so”.

A new tiny book from Burn This Press

Thanks to Your Printer at Mission and Cesar Chavez and the folding-and-stapling efforts of my fabulous interns, the new tiny book from Burn This Press is done. It’s my translation of a poem called “Mala piel”, Bad skin, and is by Chilean poet Carmen Berenguer.

A few other poems of hers that I translated years ago were supposed to appear in Five Fingers Review, but after many delays, the journal folded before being able to print that issue. Some of them will be coming out soon in the next issue of Specs – including the awesome poem about the Chilean flag with difficult typography that makes the poem look like the flag. It’s a complicatedly gendered, visceral stance, or experience, of national identity under oppression.

I had to reprint the book and its covers, as I had a page order error in the first batch, and couldn’t stand the light green covers, and the first printer put the rough side of the cover facing inwards instead of putting the textured roughness on the outside. So I went back to Kelly Paper, a fantastic paper store, and got a supply of interesting cover stock for the next few books, going with a warm brown “Kraft” cardstock and paper with tiny random flecks.

Part of the point of my tiny book design was setting it up so I can print copies anytime at home from my laser printer. But once I realized I needed at least 250 copies, it seemed best to go with a copy shop, bringing my own paper.

So anyway, I went to pick up my fabulous Intern, Ellie, from high school and had to chase her down with text messages. She demanded to be taken to the drugstore to meet her “husband” who was going to mock-propose to her with Ring-Pops but I counter-proposed that we go immediately to my cafe haunt, The Grind, get some coffee and start working on assembling the books, and the Ring-Pop Bearer could meet us there. I had all my prints and supplies in two cardboard boxes — aside from the paper, I have a little kit with saddle stapler, bone folder, extra staples, tape, stickers, return address labels, pens, and scissors. I especially love bone folders because they feel so slippery and solid and strong, and it’s neat to think it’s a special tool. My mistake was in not having more than one bone folder. I wore out my thumbnail doing creases! Ellie’s friend then turned up with the ringpops and a half gallon of Rocky Road ice cream, wearing a Hello Kitty hat with built-in pigtails.

Ring pop proposal

After he proposed, I informed him that he was hired. We ate the ice cream and folded books for the next couple of hours and had a great time gossiping. I told them they might not want to read the poem because it was “inappropriate” which is what the kids say when they want to describe the generation over them being embarrassing.

It was an especially nice way for a book to come into the world. Thanks very much to Ellie and Ubaldo for the help and entertainment!

Fundraiser for the girl in Cleveland, Texas

Thank you to Sylvia Gonzalez of Houston, Vice President of the Southwest chapter of LULAC, who organized the effort to get money directly to the family of the 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas who was gang raped a few months ago and then basically got slut-shamed by her entire town and the New York Times. This post has information and links about the situation: How to help the 11 year old girl in Texas.

Logo for FM 1960 with Texas map

In the comments on my original post you can see several organizations local to this girl and her family, and you might like to donate to them to support the local infrastructure. I donated to several of them, including Bridgehaven, the Montgomery Women’s Center, and New Horizons Family Center. While I respect those organizations and think they’re important, I also think it’s important to get money directly to people in crisis. The girl’s family had to move, her mom has serious health problems, her dad was out of work for months, and I’m sure they can use all the avenues of help that are possible.

You can mail a check made out to the Cleveland Crime Victim Family directly to Sylvia (10102 Elm Knoll Trail, Houston, Texas, 77064), deposit it into any Amegy Bank. If you donate using the Chipin fund I set up here, I’ll collect that money and mail Sylvia a check next week. Any Paypal fees that get charged I will make up as my extra donation. If you want to leave a note for the family here, or email it to me privately (lizhenry@gmail.com) I’ll include those notes when I send Sylvia the check.

The story and the stories and comments that came out of it were so horrific, I needed to do something directly, so as not to feel so despairing. It was tremendously heartening to read all the comments on my first post, and I swore to follow up, so that people would have a way to contribute and respond further. When I raised money for Katrina disaster relief and flew out to the Astrodome, I ended up using that money — a couple of thousand dollars in cash — to people at moments when it made a big difference in their lives. I saw it work and have also appreciated getting no strings attached money to help me through crises in my own life. I think there is also something powerful about knowing that an individual person, even a stranger, has the faith in you to help out on that level. Thanks for reading, donating, or commenting, everyone!

Please repost the link to the ChipIn or feel free to repost all or part of this. I don’t have a lot of readers, so signal boost is definitely needed!

Bad invention: The Catula!

The Catula, or Cat Spatula, is a ridiculous invention meant to help kind-hearted cat owners to move their cats from one place to another. It would gently pick up and move a cat from a shady place on the floor to a new, sunny patch. If your cats are asleep in a cute position on a chair or the couch, and you want to sit down, just use your Catula!

cats in chair

I came up with this in 2003, picturing it as a thin sheet of plastic with handles attached. Then recently I saw this video for a motorized conveyor belt picker-upper-thingie that can move a smear of ketchup and mustard without disarranging its smeariness. The video is oddly hypnotic, as the disembodied human hands swirl the ketchup with a spoon into increasingly more messed up ways, then pick it up and put it back.

This would obviously be perfect for sleeping cats – if only it were completely silent. Not a hair out of place!

It’s really the perfect bad invention. It would never work, and having a special gadget just to avoid waking up your cat, well…

News from Burn This Press

Some of you may already have a copy of my first printing of Daylighting, a long poem in a tiny book, published under the Burn This Press imprint in January. I mailed out about 80 of them, gave away more, and now have done another batch. They are small square books covered in cardstock, with nothing fancy but the linen-textured paper.

It was exciting to change the name of my press and re-think how to do things. The new books will be poetry, translations, and perhaps some rants, manifestos, or whatever feminist or political/cultural/technical polemics come my way.

Plus, what could be more inspiring than Yet Another OMFG WordPress Install?! Also, I made stickers extremely cheaply from an online address label service !


I tried to make the switch from pasteup to printout, and might go a bit further with that process now that I have Cheap Impostor, which is shareware that does imposition. You know that thing where you do a zine, and you have to make a mockup to plan out what pages go where in your xeroxable originals so that you can fold the zine correctly, and the double sided copies match up? I never knew that was called “imposition”, but it is, and if you search on that, you can find awesome software that takes a PDF and makes your zine or book with signatures of however many pages you like.

“Daylighting” is a poem about the imaginary and real, historical, past, and future of one of San Francisco’s buried streams, Islais Creek. It will turn you inside out! I’ve read it in public a couple of times now. How happy it made me! People laughed with pure outrage and disbelief!

Islais Creek Promenade

My book for March is Bad skin, my translation of Carmen Berenguer’s “Mala piel“. The book is still tiny, but includes the original poem in Spanish, my translation on facing pages, and some notes on the translation as well as the history of Chilean indigenous ocean-going people and on ecriture feminine. I also added in some illustrations taken from historical texts about the Alcalufe people and their boats. The poem has interesting political dimensions but what you will notice about it first is that it’s a cataloguing poem, one of those poems that describes all the parts of a woman’s body. Rather than driveling on about someone’s alabaster brow and eyes like stars, Mala piel gets realy, really into the skin; pores, spots, hairiness, texture, crinkliness, tightness, stretchmarks, wrinkles, well, everything. It’s incredibly down and dirty. It may have actually made me blush more than once. I also felt a deep sense of happiness at it, as I thought of my own Bad Skin and all it means. How about yours?

It was an extremely difficult poem to translate, and I’m sure the translation has heinous errors of judgement and misunderstandings. I tried to convey various layers of meaning, neologisms, changed words, and general feminist awesomeness as well as the deep meanings I felt were there. Many are missing! Corrections, illuminations, explanations, and arguments are welcome, as always.

March book

Carmen was very patient with my questions. Take a look at her Facebook fan page and give her a thumbs up.

I’m going to do the next book for April soon, and lay it out for final printing in Cheap Impostor.

After that I plan on printing up my epic poem about the utopian technohippies of California, “Whole Earth Catalog”, and then “Companion to the Doctor” which is about women in science fiction television shows. I say that recklessly, as neither of those are finished. No pressure!

Then translations of either two to three short poems also by Carmen Berenguer, or “Carta de viaje” by Elvira Hernandez, or something else to be determined. My hope is for smallness and density, tiny portable books, not great lumps of intimidating virtue, but mindblowing awesomeness – like carrying a speck of antimatter around with you in your pocket. Poetry is quite pointless these days in the U.S.. It’s so smug. Or it’s song lyrics, which are great, but… Maybe you need a little mind-bending dose, a reminder that language is a weird powerful beast with political power. Oh, language! And I don’t mean L=A-N=G either, I mean the sort of thing you wrap your tongue around. Carry a poem with you to look at!

If you want to be on my mailing list for tiny books for Burn This Press, let me know in email: lizhenry@gmail.com.