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Heroes & Heroines

Élisabeth Vonarburg

The other day, while reminiscing with a friend, I remembered I had played at make-believe until I was fifteen, acting out various fantasies in my parents' garage — mainly reenactments of the Alamo! I had seen the John Wayne movie ten or fifteen times and hated the way it ended. So I kept replaying it with a happy ending. The heroes survived. Travis and Bowie, the enemy brothers, struck a truce and finally became friends. I even rewrote the ending — it was one of my earlier essays at writing fiction; before that, I wrote poetry! Mind you, it was the very beginning of the Sixties, I lived in the deep French country where it was still the beginning of the Fifties, I was an only child and very solitary. When I was not playing at make-believe, I read voraciously — anything, everything — and I studied almost as earnestly, since going to school was a relief from my rather lonely life at home.

Perhaps, if we'd had a TV set, and if I had seen "Star Trek" then, I would have played at Kirk & Spock, (not McCoy; too «womanish» with his emotional fits...) but I'm not sure. I only met SF at sixteen anyway, and through the literature, fortunately — which allowed me to encounter Star Trek much, much later, and to be able to appreciate its deliciouly kitsch qualities.

Anyway, when I remembered this teenager's games, in the light of my latter feminist conversion (very late, I must confess, I was 25 or so), I first wondered if I ought not to be ashamed. But then again, you can't very well «play at Virginia Wolfe», can you? As for playing at Emily Brontë, any intensely cerebral, very lonely fifteen year old girl worth her salt is Emily Brontë. And on the other hand, those people (and Simone de Beauvoir) were authors whose books I read, they existed on another plane altogether; in one word, they couldn't be make-believe heroes. (And anyway, at fifteen, I definitely preferred Durrell's Alexandria Quartet to Beauvoir's Memoires d'une jeune fille rangée. So, make-believe heroes it was, then — why not «heroins», by the way? But I've been told a few years ago that «heroine» as a feminine form of «hero» is not politically correct — I suppose it evokes too many pallid females wringing their hands at the top of a tower with their long hair streaming in the wind. I thought then, and I still do, that I can't see why we shouldn't reclaim the word for ourselves — if we don't do it, who will?

What I knew then, at any rate, was that I liked playing at being a hero. A male hero. I loved reading stories with male heroes in them; the fact is, male heroes were almost the only kind there was... I loved reading folk-tales (from Rumania, Bulgaria, Greece, wherever), not the watered down fairy-tales, but the mythic, epic, grandiose stories — and there were not many female heroes in them either; or there was the occasional disguised female: I still remember vividly the tale of Ileana Zimziana, a younger daughter who masquerades as a man to help her father, and finally, magically, becomes a man, which solves all her and her father's problems. Of course, in fairy tales there were strong, potent female figures, but they were all bad — the Wicked Mother and/or Witch. Except for the occasional Fairy Godmother. I never wondered why poor oppressed female orphans didn't have fairy godfathers... And only much, much later, when I began re-reading all this with a more seasoned eye, did it occur to me that all those potent and mostly bad females in fairy-tales were certainly the remnants of much older stories, female deities whose strength and power I began to glimpse here and there through the somewhat Disneyesque trappings in which the masculinist revolution had smothered them over the millenia.

But at that time, I was innocent; I read fairy tales without a clue as to a possible and very ancient «male revisionism»; I also read «young adults literature» or what passed as such in those times in France — not many female heroes in there either: the only two occurrences I remember are a story about a handicapped girl whose beautiful fiction finally wins a contest, and the story of five teenagers who rent a sailboat for one year and go cruising around the Mediterranean by themselves, wow. Other than that... well, there was Pippi Longstockings (Fifi Brindacier in French), which was really more of a comic-book character — but delicious ! And there were Racine's and Corneille's passionate, wily, cruel and doomed heroins... Also, from twelve to fifteen, I read the adventures of Angélique, Marquise des Anges (some of it was published as a serial in a French newspaper; both my mother and I were addicts): a beautiful, sexy, intelligent, courageous and passionate young woman, an outlaw at one time, who lives in the XVIIth century, fights a number of villains (among which Louis the XIVth), travels to the Middle-East, loves and is loved by (and has a lot of sex with) several very interesting men (among which Louis the XIVth), has several children, and ends up in Quebec reunited at last with her first love. But in the main, let's say that the female heroes could not really compete in quantity with the male heroes in the books I had access to in those most formative youthful years.

And that's mostly why I played at being a male hero when I played at make-believe, I suppose. I especially loved stories about the Noble and Mysterious Enemy who ends up being the Long Lost Brother of the Hero and a Hero himself, of course: the meeting, fight and ultimately reconciliation of opposites... I felt that kind of thrill again, years later, while watching Star Wars II — I am your father, Luke. Of course. Isn't that what it's all about, really, fathers? Girls have fathers too, after all, and the problematic relationship with the father is far from being the exclusivity of boys. (Sheri Tepper's Raising the Stones has some very pointed things to say about all this, I can't recommend that book too highly.)

The question of heroes, male or female, is very much on my mind these days, as I am between two novels, and much given to recapitulate, systematize, and always try the hell out to make sense of all I have written, could write, will write. A vast majority of my characters are women today, but I suppose I don't quite feel I'm a totally legit feminist, what with these shady beginnings — playing at Cowboys and —, and having only male writers' name to offer when asked about my literary influences, too — Pascal, Chateaubriand, Hugo, Dostoïevski, Camus, Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, the Surrealists, Proust, Joyce... Except for Ursula Le Guin. But I encountered her work when I was a budding SF writer, not as a reader-only (there's a difference) — in fact, my literary tastes had been molded much earlier, were all set when I encountered her; and she came after I'd read and loved Sturgeon, Clarke, Stapledon, Simack, Asimov, Van Vogt and a flurry of others SF Greats (Male Writers...) of the time. Catherine Moore too, yes, but I didn't like Northwest Smith that much, and Jirel's flamboyant romanticism annoyed me. Andre Norton and Leigh Brackett were very hard to find in France at the time. There was Judith Merril — only one story, guess which ("That Only a Mother", of course ; I knew her more then as a great anthologist of others' stories). And Russ' Alyx came later — but I can't say I really liked her, even if I liked the book (of course: Russ has a very disquieting take on female heroes). I did love Shevek, or Estraven & Genly Ai, or Ged... All male heroes — more or less — but with a difference. (Tenar? No. I confess I didn't quite see Tenar before reading Tehanu.... But that's another story). I didn't quite know what that «difference» was, but that book, The Left Hand of Darkness, made me read what I had written until then with a different eye. It was the end of the Sixties too, and a timid feminist awareness was beginning to stir inside me. I suddenly realized to my shame that in the sprawling, 1000 pages + SF saga I had kept writing and rewriting for several years, there was not one central character who was a woman. That all mothers were dead (preferably at childbirth). That the two adult female characters who had any importance were there to help the guys — although they could do it only because they were much more adult than the would-be heroes, but this didn't strike me at the time; as it only slowly dawned on me that all fathers in my stories were wounded, somehow weak individuals whom their sons had to save (I am your father, Luke ...). But I was not able, not ready, to change anything in that once and future attempt of mine at SF writing. I obscurely felt that I would be betraying something fundamental if I tampered with it in a reckless, politically correct feminist way (I did it later, not PC, but... grown-up). So I set up to write something else entirely, short stories with mostly women as main characters, and a very deliberately «feminist» agenda, which for me meant asking a lot of questions about what it means to be female, or a woman (still is).

That's also when I began wondering why I had chosen SF, a very predominantly male literary field at the time (still is...). As years went by I came up with various answers — all containing a little bit of truth. There was, of course, the Romantic Answer: I did not choose it, It Chose Me. There was the Science/Fiction Answer: left brain/right brain, reality/dream — the realized oxymoron, the para-taoistic reconciliation of opposites — being allowed to be/to do everything at the same time, «without the constraints of Mainstream Literature» (at the time, Magic Realism was neither as known nor as fashionable as it is today; nevertheless, seeing SF as an unfettered literary field was pretty naive!). There was the Literature-of-the-Future, SF-As-A-Philosophy, What-If Answer: to exercise one's mind, to inure oneself to change and thus have a chance not to panic when it occurs. There was the Writer-As-God Answer — how better to be a God than by creating whole societies, planets, empires? There was the Renaissance-Woman Answer: Mainstream Lit. was limping on one leg (psychological or social realism, it was all «the-world-as-is» to me), whereas the kind of literature I wanted to practice was more... like a centipede, was not «only» literature but philosophy, ethics, economics, all kinds of knowledge, for God's sake, and that which is changing because of knowledge, too. There was the It's-Le Guin's-Fault Answer: reading The Left Hand of Darkness had brought me back to SF just as I was beginning to be fed up with its macho-in-space antics, but she'd showed me that Something Else Could Be Done, something which struck a chord in me none of the other, male writers had really struck (even Sturgeon or Simak). Not very far from there was the Feminist Answer: SF is the only literary field where women can imagine different answers (and as far as I am concerned, different questions). There was also the Serendipity Answer: I happened to encounter SF at a time when the rest of literature felt more and more irrelevant, and I stayed with it because it happened that way for various biographical reasons (I also call it the Rolling Stone Answer). There was, from time to time, the Frog-in-a-Pond Answer: I'd rather be a moderately known writer in a small but energetic field (French/Women /SF/Writers) than no-one in the Big League of Mainstream Lit. — with the hidden belief that I was not and never would be "good enough for the Big League". And there was also its reverse, the Underdog Answer: SF, as a literary field, is an underdog, and I have a tropism toward underdogs; which would have something to do with the adolescent revolt against authority... and the Father, there he goes again.

As I said, all those answers are still partially true — for me anyway; I don't know what they can be for other women SF writers. But these days I think that my writing SF — and my continuing interest in writing SF — has a lot to do with heroes. And perhaps with reclaiming the word «heroin». When I look at female characters in SF written by women, I don't find many «heroes» in the usual (traditional) sense of the word... What about Fantasy, with its female warriors or magicians? Well, I do like to read it, and I see some of its potential dividends, rewriting the familiar myths with a changed focus, for instance, like Bradley has done with the Arthurian cycle (or Parke Godwyn, for that matter), or what is being done in the "Fairy Tales" series by Datlow/Windling, etc.; but for the time being I don't see myself writing Fantasy for adults (I've written a tale for children, though, which is a somewhat twisted fairy tale), even though it has covered a lot of ground in the last ten years (I'm thinking of Barbara Hambly, for instance, Elizabeth Scarborough or Sheri Tepper again, among others — and Le Guin's Tenar, in Tehanu...) SF is my thing. Perhaps because SF, in my idea, can survive a modicum of «fantasy», — imagination gone wild — whereas the contrary is not really true (the "Science Fantasy" label notwithstanding). Perhaps also because having «heroes» in SF poses a much complex problem than in Fantasy: it's one step further removed from the mythic, and the writer has to deal with a very different kind of verisimilitude... Of course, in SF written by women, there are the competent, tough-but-resilient ship captains, engineers, scientists, political leaders-as-heroes — what I would call the C.J. Cherryh's school of SF, which I like a lot and which has done wonders for many women SF readers (and writers). But after reading Russ' The Two of Us, one can hardly forget how much wish-fulfilling fantasy there is, somehow, in that kind of more or less space-operatic stories... I like them, of course, but the female main characters, the heroins, who impress me today are more along the lines of Tepper's Maire in Raising the Stones: mere human beings, more preoccupied with the daily business of living than with extraordinary, romantic, self-aggrandizing deeds. The reluctant hero(in)s. I've been told that it's a very Canadian thing (that and The Bumbling Hero). I'm not not so sure it's not a female thing. (Or perhaps, deep down, Canada is a "female" country, has a "female" collective psyche — who knows?). We women don't grow up being taught that heroes are what we must aspire to be... and growing up we find out that a lot of important, if unglamorous, things have nothing to do with killing Dragons. Perhaps there is something deeply unreconcilable here between men's and women's imagination: the Lonely Gunfighter riding out into the sunset versus the Woman (usually with children) who wave him goodbye and then goes back into the house (one imagines) to clean up all the mess left by the battle (there might be biological explanations here, the Rover vs. the Nurturer and so on, but I won't go into them). The fact is, for years, I rode away with the Lonely Gunfighter, and to tell the truth, something still stirs inside me when I watch him go. But it seems I have finally outgrown him, up to the point where sometimes I can barely manage to feel sorry for him anymore.

I will be forty-five this year. Better late than never, Daddy.

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