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A Tribute to Judith Merril

Élisabeth Vonarburg

When I was a little girl, the first stories I read were myths, folk-tales and legends from all over the world. And I knew what I wanted to be when I'd grow up: I wanted to be a hero.

But then again, I also knew I was not a boy. Things being what they were, I may have regretted it now and then, but somehow I managed to survive — almost all little girls do. They become teenagers, and then women, who read stories written mainly by men about men, and somehow, they manage to get their fix of heroism, by identifying with the male heroes. Of course, that doesn't go without some rampant identity problems, but at the time I didn't think much of it. It was the Fifties, in the French countryside, not exactly the cutting edge of social revolution.

At the beginning of the Sixties, however, I was beginning to feel uneasy. The universe is a well-known, well-understood, nice, cosy and limited place, they'd told me, in school and out of it. Things are what they are, they said, it is like that, it has always been like that, it will always be like that. But somehow, it didn't feel quite right. Oh please, it couldn't be right?

It was the mid-Sixties now, after all, something was blowing in the wind, and I was not immune.

That's when I discovered science-fiction. Not as a woman, but (I thought) as a more or less unsexed spirit yearning for freedom, for new, unknown, dangerous, exciting things. That's when I began feeling that, after all, I might be able to realize my childhood's dream: there was definitely a possibility for heroism in science-fiction, the old-fashioned way. Finding treasures and wisdom, saving universes, fighting dragons — and even better, making friends with them...

That's when I first met Judith Merril. Somehow. Actually, I met a story — "That Only a Mother". Later I would meet other stories, other women — Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, Catherine Moore, Katherine MacLean... But this one was the first. And it was different from everything I'd read before — even Ted Sturgeon's stories, which I loved the best. Oh, there were no fancy space adventure, no disguised knight in shining astronaut's suit, and the dragon was almost as metaphorical as they come in any other type of modern mainstream literature. There was a mother, a father, a daughter and nuclear energy. It could have been here & then. But it was different, I didn't know why, or how. Somehow, even though it was taking place in a world so like our own, it opened other spaces in my mind. Somehow it had... a different voice. And I began to listen for that voice in other SF stories, first without knowing what I was looking for, then with a heightened awareness — not so much as I came upon Judy's other stories (very, very few were translated in French at the time), but when I read some of the stories she'd helped get in print.

By then I had a very definite idea of who Judith Merril was. She was one of the very few women I could look up to in Science Fiction, as a woman reader and as a fledgling woman writer. At that time Science Fiction was very much a Man's Land — still is, although thanks to Judy and some others, we don't feel as lonely there as we used to. But Judy was there. I was proud of her... even though I didn't know much about her: like all American SF writers, she was a quasi-mythological being for me. Somehow, she was even more mythological than the other, male American SF writers: she was a woman who wrote and published and criticized science-fiction! You see, by that time, after intensive readings of all the science-fiction I could find (and there was a lot of it in France, even then), I was beginning to feel uneasy again, caged again: all those male voices, all those male stories... More than uneasy: I was feeling betrayed: To me, science-fiction was the literature which was not afraid to ask questions, all the questions in the world (and in other worlds!) — but as far as women were concerned, science-fiction only seemed to have a lot of answers, the same ones I had heard over and over again in my books — and in my life. It was like it was, like it had always been, like it would always be.


Except for women writers, of course. And that's when I really began to understand what it was that I heard in Judy's stories, and in the stories of other women who were writing science-fiction. Science fiction is about the Other, mostly — and there was a lot of that in it for me, reading all those male stories. Meeting with the Other is fine, but too much of it can be overwhelming — especially when you begin to feel that there are different sorts of Others, and that you are one! Judy's voice, and the other women's voices, where the voice of this other Other, the Other that looked like me — and I desperately needed to hear them.

That's when I left France and Europe, to come to Canada — which my imagination bred on Jack London and Fenimore Cooper saw as the land of adventure, and also the land of opportunities. Somehow, indeed, a lot of things seemed possible here. So when I heard that the fabled Judith Merril was living in Toronto (my God, she was real!), and since I was organizing a SF convention, I rashly invited her.

And she came.

And we met, face to face.

And that's it. Almost. Even today, I wouldn't presume on saying we are friends: we don't know each other personally that well, we haven't even met very often... Sometimes I feel that our essential link is of a somewhat rarefied nature: being Writers, you know, being Writers of Science Fiction, and being Women Who Write Science Fiction.

But then, I see Judy as I saw her that first time in Chicoutimi, I hear her deep, beautiful, echoing voice as I heard it then, I see her smile, I see her dance, and I know there is something else, something deeper. What Judy taught me, more than any other female SF writer I have met, and perhaps more than any woman I have met, period, it's that you can be the heroine of your own life. And when I say «heroine», especially in relation to Judith, I know, and you know, that I am not talking about some sweet pale blond helpless thing wringing her hands at the top of some tower. But I won't say «female hero». Be a heroine. That's what Judith taught me. Be all you can be, yes, and in order to know what that is, always ask questions. Always be open, but never surrender. Never stop to grow — in every direction, among as many different worlds as possible. And never stop giving, even when it's hell.

For that, Judy, for being that unwavering, demanding, generous beacon for my spirit and for my heart, as you are also for so many others, thank you.

This tribute was part of a general tribute which was given to Judith Merril in Toronto, in 1997, while she was still with us in the flesh.

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