#tiptree16 and science fiction for transformative change

So long has passed since I last wrote here (I have been finding that so much of the labor of faculty life takes the form of writing that I have few surplus words left over) and the political world is so overwhelming that I can neither fail to acknowledge it nor say anything meaningful about it. I have been thinking and talking much about the rise of the new American fascism and its kindred movements globally; about the small lights of fragile hope that appear in the recent Dakota Access Pipeline ruling, in the energies that people are turning toward protest and to transformative change in so many places, in the little patch of left government that exists in my own not-quite-country. And, always, in what we can build with the radical work of the imagination. I’ve just spent a weekend embedded in that last.

It was the second Tiptree Symposium at the University of Oregon, a two-day event organized to honor Ursula K. Le Guin, with the Gearhart Lesbian Lecture (by me) to kick it off the day before. Le Guin was present, though she could only make it for the first day of the Symposium proper, at which students and writers spoke about her work and about the importance of feminist science fiction more generally. It was the third time I have been in the same room as her, and every time I find myself surprisingly overwhelmed: that so many of the ideas that so profoundly formed my ethics, my politics, and my writing could have come from this small, unassuming-looking human being. This time, for the first time, I had the opportunity to speak to her and could not resist taking a picture. But the only way I could have told her what her work means to me would have been to offer up all of my own, my writings and my life all together, and lay it before her. And I dare say she’s often confronted by people trying to do that. She knows what she has created; the work, in the end, is enough.

I wished that Le Guin had stayed for the morning of the second day, when two panels were gathered that crystallized, for me, the tools and the possibilities her work gives us for thinking and working and living in and through this terrifying, complicated now.

The first was the panel I organized. I brought together three trans scholars and artists who engage with speculative/science fiction: micha cárdenas from University of Washington Bothell, Aren Aizura from University of Minnesota, and Tuesday Smillie, an independent artist based in New York. I asked them to think about the importance and legacy of Le Guin’s 1969 novel about a society in which there are no men or women, only people whose reproductive biology does not rely on stably sexed bodies. The result was, I think, the most compelling panel I have ever attended or been a part of; it felt like a conversation I have been waiting to join for more than half my life. The panelists shared their papers with me afterward, but I wanted to write up the talks from memory to preserve my impression of listening to them, so there may be errors in the descriptions below

Smillie spoke first, focusing on her series of paintings, Reflecting Light into the Unshadow. She spoke of Le Guin’s imagination and its limits, how we can see The Left Hand of Darkness as a proto-transfeminist text and must also look to the ways that Le Guin returned to and rethought her ideas in response both to formal critiques and to her own reflections. Smillie used the passage from the novel in which Genly Ai and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, on their way across the Gobrin Ice, find themselves amid a desert of endless snow in an endless dispersed light. Without shadows, you cannot see; this kind of light is called the unshadow. You take a step and do not know where your foot will fall; it may land in a crevasse. The fear of falling paralyzes. Yet to move anywhere you must step, must feel your way, must step back from the edge and try again when you slip. So it is, said Smillie, with the work we do in our political imagining, in our activism. We will fuck up. We cannot stop.

Aren Aizura spoke next and he began with a scene that’s vivid in the novel many times: of a body huddling, shivering in icy cold, unable to get warm. The body was his at the time when he was pregnant, reading feminist science fiction in preparation for teaching a class about it, and finding in The Left Hand of Darkness a landscape whose gendering looked most like his own life. He moved from the lived reality of being a pregnant man to the social realities of care and reproductive labor that are so powerfully reimagined in Le Guin’s world where any person can become pregnant, where everyone takes off several days each month to have sex. Aizura spoke of his household’s desire to share care equally and of the impossibility of dividing the labor and love of care into measurable shares. And of the fact that living in non-normative gender as individuals isn’t enough to escape from the uneven distributions demanded by the oppressive structures of a gendered, racialized, capitalist society. We need transformative change for the world and the universe, not just a new view of gender; and that transformative change must attend to the embodied labor of care.

The last speaker, micha cárdenas, began by asking us to think about the non-fictional, non-alien transgender lives being lived while Le Guin was writing The Left Hand of Darkness, and while the novel was being lauded for its treatment of gender. She offered some historical context, reminding us that hormonal and surgical transition was fairly well-established by then, though Le Guin’s reflections on the novel don’t mention it. And she reminded that the people who experienced such transition, then and now, have insights about gender that are too rarely attended by cisgender authors and critics. Challenging the audience to seek out science fiction by trans women, she mentioned writer Jessica Salmonson as just one example. Cárdenas then went on to share some of her own work as an example of the speculative knowledge about gender that comes out of trans women’s lived experiences navigating a hostile medical-industrial complex. Returning to the focus on bodies, reproduction, and care in Le Guin that Aizura had highlighted, she talked about the difficulties trans women face in accessing reproductive rights. Her series of poems and videos, Pregnancy, uses the experience of coming off hormones in order to bank sperm to explore this through the speculative first-person image of a pregnant trans woman. I think it was in the q&a session that cárdenas asked us to think about how we can create science fiction that has as its goal keeping trans women of color alive; that sentence has been bouncing around in my mind ever since.

The second panel on that second day took The Dispossessed, Le Guin’s 1976 novel of an anarchist utopia in which a scientist-philosopher becomes a revolutionary (without stopping being a scientist or a philosopher). I took my notes for this panel on Twitter, so I will share them below. I haven’t processed the powerful insights I took away from this panel sufficiently to write them up in more depth yet, but I came away feeling transformed.

The first speaker was adrienne maree brown, the coeditor (with Walidah Imarisha) of the magical and magnificent anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. She’s based in Detroit but is this year’s Le Guin Fellow at the University of Oregon. Grace Dillon, professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State and  spoke next, emphasizing the ways that Le Guin’s imagined worlds and ways of knowing resonate with Indigenous ways of being. I’ve put the tweets together because the two talks felt so integrated for me; my fewer tweets for Dillon are not because her talk was less interesting but because I shifted from sharing to listening mode as she spoke.

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