by Ruby D’
The Lesbian- Amazon novel is never given the political respect accorded to books by political writers like Toni Morrison or Zola. Yet, this is an extraordinary new branch of writing. One that was born in the 1960s and 1970s out of the women’s community, in which the basic ground rules call for a committment to anti-sexism and anti-racism. The fact that most lesbian-amazon novels are separatist, forseeing subcultures, societies or worlds without men, undoubtedly contributed to their marginal status. The most controversial of these books were the “horsewomen” series by Suzy McKee Charnas. Some women readers objected to the total biological disappearance of the male gender from the “horsewomen” society, while other lesbian critics condemned the idea that genetically altered women would use coitus with horses as a reproductive trigger (No, this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile!). This year the fourth book in the series, continuing the saga of our heroine, Alldera the Runner, will be published. To coincide with that event, the first two “horsewomen” novels–Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines –which have long been out of print, willl be republished together in one volume. I think that this is a good time to check out Charnas’ own words, in which she explains how to her surprise women such as Alldera took over the typewriter, completely unanticipated.
A Woman Appeared
by Suzy McKee Charnas
IN THE WINTER OF 1972-3 I set about completely rewriting my first book, a science fiction novel. Written in what one editor had called a “private code,” it was unreadable by anyone but its author. Sadly I dismantled all this. What was left was a thin, familiar tale set in a post-holocaust future about a young hero adventuring with two male companions in search of his father.
Then a woman appeared.
There were already women in the story, or rather in the background. Almost at once work gangs of “fems” had entered the scene under the supervision of male overseers. These fems, debased and enslaved, were the other face of the book’s macho survival culture. My male protagonists, fleeing their enemies, ran for concealment to the town where the fems were raised and trained.
When they emerged to continue their travels, they had picked up another fugitive, a fem who stood out from the others. This fem, Alldera, was filling the place taken in so many stories, SF and mainstream, by “the girl”–she who stands for (and invariably lies down for) that half of humanity that is otherwise absent from the foreground. I know that’s what Aldera was doing in the story because I remember saying to myself, there has got to be a woman in here someplace or things are going to look awfully lopsided.
Unfortunately my reading did not give any clues about the part Alldera would play in my advanture tale: I knew why she was there, but not what she was supposed to do. There were literary models for my men, who had begun as easily recognizable stock figures–the cynical old warrior, the son seeking confrontation with his father, and the cheery young rogue. But none of the females in the war stories, Westerns, or tales of exploration and danger that I knew, helped me with Alldera. I had never read about a woman like her in these sorts of books. The men would never fight over her; she wasn’t important enough. Similarly, given her low status she could never become the haughty lady broken to harness by her ordeal.
So I had to make Alldera up, and I composed her using aspects of a friend from my school days and aspects of myself. By page 140 this lowly fem had developed a tough character, a secret quest of her own, and a point of view so strong that a portion of the story had to be told through her eyes. At first, while bowing uneasily to this demand, I regarded the actual writing of her section as a grinding chore to be finished as quickly as possible so that I could get back to the real meat of the book. Instead, writing Alldera’s part led to a series of revelations that gave the story a whole new balance of events, character and meaning. This reshaped the novel entirely, as is apparent in the finished book–Walk to the End of the World.
Looking back, I now recognize the obvious. During that same winter of 1972-3, I was doing what so many other women were doing and are still doing: reading books like Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and participating in consciousness-raising sessions with other women. As my awareness matured–and my anger at finding myself trapped in the powerless class of women–Alldera pushed her way more and more to the heart of the story I was writing.
Inevitably and almost effortlessly, the last pages of Walk grew to be Alldera’s. At that point the story had become her story. Whatever was to happen next, and clearly something was set to happen, would be up to her.
She was ready, which is to say that I was ready, or so I thought. A second book, a sequel to Walk, hove onto my mental horizon with Alldera at the helm. Her setting was to be a plains tribe of free, nomadic women, Amazons of the future. I was interested in the potentialities of an Amazon-like society unconstrained by our distorted and fragmentary notions of real, historic Amazons.
I did not know until I had begun writing that in this sequel there would be no male characters at all. The decision to exclude men was not dispassionate and political. I tried to write them in; I wanted to do more of what came fairly easily. No matter what I wrote, men would not fit. Every scene they entered went dead.
Now I was terrified to discover that leaving men out altogether was going to be “right” for the new book.
To begin with, who would publish a science fiction book only about women? Moreover, accepting at heart my culture’s definition of women as a very limited type of people doing very limited things, I did not see how to invent a sufficient variety of these pastoral female people to hold even my own interest while writing the book. I was sure that I would end up inventing male characters, pulling out their chest-hair and attaching breasts–a betrayal, not a solution.
Despite my original resolve, Motherlines did turn out to be partly about victimization. It also turned out to be about separatism as a solution to sexism–the heart of the book is the all-woman culture of the “Riding Women.” Some readers will call the “Riding Women” monsters, since many people find monstrous the idea of women living good, full lives without men. I do not, though separatism is not my blueprint for Paradise and not the only answer to sexism that I hope to explore in fiction.
I became so involved in the “Riding Women” that the part of the novel introducing them had to be rewritten countless times to make the plotline clear. My impulse was just to follow the Riding Women forever, recording what it was like travelling and camping with them, living their life–as if I were one of those nineteenth century wanderers who vanished into the wild spaces of the world for years and came back to write books with titles like My Life Among the Mongols or A Winter in Crow Camps . The shape, rhythm and daily grit of that imaginary life fascinated me, and bringing that fascination under the discipline of telling a story was one of the hardest things I have ever tried to do.
Then with the spectrum of human behavior in my story no longer split into male roles (everything active, intelligent, brave and muscular) and female roles (everything passive, intuitive, shrinking and soft), my emerging women had natural access to the entire range of human behavior. They acted new roles appropriate to social relationships among a society of equals, which allowed them to behave simply as human beings–tenderly, aggressively, nuturingly, intellectually, intuitively, whatever suited a given individual in a given situation.
From the beginning I felt that the book was potentially so full and so sprawling that maintaining control of it would require more angles of vision than my own. Partly to slow down the whole process so that my own ideas could mature, partly to test the efficacy of what I was doing, and partly to clarify questions–and answers–that were still unclear to me, I submitted the working manuscript to a number of friends (including two men) for their reactions and criticism. Their contributions of thought, time, and encouragement proved invaluable. This is not to say that Motherlines was written by a collective. But it demands an approach that I think reflects some of the thinking about work and how to do it that has come out of the women’s movement.
The editor who had accepted Walk had offered a contract on the sequel, sight unseen, and I had declined. Upon reading Motherlines ,this editor informed me that the book was unpublishable and would have to be rethought and entirely rrewritten. Other editors turned the book down too. One said to me, “You know, if this book was all about men it would be a terrific story.”
After a year or so, during which I engaged an agent to help find a publisher for Motherlines, the book was accepted by David Hartwell at Berkeley/Putnam to be published in the summer of 1979. What sort of readership it will find remains to be seen.
As a result of writing Walk and Motherlines I think I have changed my way of looking at real women in the real world. When I meet a woman for the first time now, I am less likely than formerly to see only the feminine role that our culture allows her and more likely to glimse her individuality and potentiality. Most of us have our demons to exorcise–dusty, internalized patterns of masculinist thinking and creating. Beyond the demons lie the green prospect of writing fiction about women as they really are and women as they might become.
Excerpted from Marleen S. Barr’s Future Females: A Critical Anthology. Bowling Green, 1981.