Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship: An Interview with 2014 Fellow Kathryn Allan

Kathryn Allan (l) chats with Jenée Wilde, then CSWS development GTF, at the CSWS 40th Anniversary Celebration in Nov. 2013 / photo by Jack Liu.

Kathryn Allan (l) chats with Jenée Wilde, then-CSWS development GTF, at the CSWS 40th Anniversary Celebration in Nov. 2013 / photo by Jack Liu.

Editor’s Note: The deadline for the 2014-15 Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship is September 5, 2014. This interview appears in the 2014 CSWS Annual Review.

“‘The Other Lives’—Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist Science Fiction”

CSWS interviewed Kathryn Allan, inaugural winner of the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship, during her May 2014 visit to do research at the UO Libraries Special Collections and University Archives. Allan immersed herself in the archives, reading the letters of Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and other feminist science fiction authors, seeking out conversations about disability and utopia, and delighting in her discoveries. The Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Society, Robert D. Clark Honors College, and University of Oregon Libraries Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA).

Q: How does it feel to be selected as the first winner of the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship?

KA: It is the best honor I’ve had in my academic career by far. Having left academia after I finished my degree in 2010, I didn’t really think that I’d have the same kind of opportunities to keep going with my research. But if I did, it was going to be out of pocket, which wasn’t going to happen for a long time. The fact that the committee chose someone who identifies as an independent scholar was astounding to me.

Q: You’re doing research in UO Special Collections and University Archives. What materials are you exploring? How do you know where to look?

KA: I’m going through Ursula K. Le Guin’s papers at my beginning. Most start in the late ’60s. I’m capping off discussion around ’74–’75, because there needs to be a cap somewhere, unless it’s with another feminist author like Joanna Russ. I’m interested in Joanna Russ and Sally Miller Gearhart and their correspondences with other writers. And if I have time, Suzette Haden Elgin. That’s my main focus right now.

The Le Guin collection is massive, with 250 boxes of information. All the archivists have been extremely helpful and patient. Yesterday, one of them helped me figure out which containers to look at. I started with Le Guin’s letters to her agent, Virginia Kidd. I think it was nine boxes, and I made it through about one and a quarter in a day and a half, and that was only from about 1968 to 1973. The amount of material is overwhelming, and it has required self-discipline not to keep reading stuff that is interesting but not necessarily what I am here for.

When I first conceived the project I thought I’d look at manuscript notes. But that’s not going to happen. I’m probably going to spend the most time in Le Guin’s archive, because she was a prolific letter writer. She must have been writing up to ten letters a day sometimes. They’re not like, “Hey, it’s raining.” They’re philosophical, political conversations that are really engaging. I’m looking at correspondences, mostly, among the writerly community. And fan letters. I want to look at Le Guin’s fan letters.

There’s no sign in any of the material that says, “Here, this is the research you want.” It requires me to skim many letters, be as strict as I can with myself not to go down what one of the archivists called yesterday a rabbit hole, where I’m just fan-girling. It’s quite a challenge because it’s my first time doing archival research. I was prepared for the non-linear nature, but it’s still another thing to actually keep to a focus. I’ve been writing reflection notes every morning from what I had looked at the previous day. Those help remind me of the most significant things I’ve discovered, but also help me work out my feelings around the ethical implications of talking about a person’s experience. I’m basically trying to download and archive for myself as much information as possible and not worry about synthesizing that information until later, because it’s not possible.

Q: The title of your research project is “‘The Other Lives’—Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist Science Fiction.” What are the goals of your research? What are some of the challenges?

KA: I’m reading with two different goals, which is part of the challenge with my project. The first overarching goal is to read with disability studies in mind. That means I’m reading for any kind of conversation with the awareness of bodily difference, whether it’s cognitive or physical—where there’s advocacy and discussion about, “We need to start including people with disabilities.” One challenge with that line of inquiry is that the writers talk about their personal ailments. I don’t necessarily record these, because I don’t feel like it’s ethically responsible, for example, to write, “Oh, by the way, in 1971, this person was suffering from this ailment.” But I do pick up on conversations where, say, they’re talking about Phillip K. Dick and his kind of situation with mental illness. That’s something that is interesting because it’s reflected in his work.

And the other, secondary aspect that I’m reading for are conversations around utopia. Much of the conversation Le Guin is having with people when she’s writing The Dispossessed focuses on what a feminist utopia looks like. I found excellent conversational threads with her and Joanna Russ. And this morning I’m going to return to a philosophical conversation that Le Guin is having with Darko Suvin, the great SF theorist.

Q: What inspired you to do research at the intersection of disability and science fiction?

KA: Personal experience was one factor. I became quite ill during the second year of my dissertation. I realized that the project I had then was not speaking to me. I changed supervisors, and I started focusing on science fiction. Star Trek, actually, was a big inspiration. I thought, “What’s going on here with all these cures and these weird things about who gets to be gendered in what ways just because they are aliens dealing with technology?” I started getting excited. Then my committee began giving me materials dealing with feminist theorization of embodiment and the vulnerable body. I began reading people like Margrit Shildrick and Rosemary Garland Thomson. I thought, “Wow, this is amazing.”

My PhD ended up being on feminist post-cyberpunk. It was definitely a feminist project, and I was reading for the idea of the vulnerable body. I was starting to look at disability studies, and there was nothing really published about reading disability and science fiction, which is quite shocking. There was an article maybe here and there, but an absence of that discussion within science fiction studies.

Allan_bookcover_WEBWhen I finished my conclusion to my dissertation in 2010, I figured, this is a gap that somebody needs to address. That really resonated with me, and I thought, I cannot wait for somebody else to do it. When you’re in the academy, there’s a lot of pressure on you to do something marketable, or something that’s going to get you funding. Because of the marginalization of disability studies and science fiction studies, I knew it would take a long time for those two things to come together. In disability studies, while there is some science fiction or genre text studied, academics are still looking at what would be considered high literature. That propelled me into doing it on my own. I still wanted to be a researcher; I went to graduate school for seven years, and I feel strongly about maintaining that part of my life. That led me to put out a call for papers to do a disability and science fiction collection of essays, which ended up in a project called Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. That’s really the first book-length work that is investigating disability in science fiction.

Fans that I’ve met were really supportive of me in the early days before I got anything going. I went to a Worldcon [World Science Fiction Convention] in Reno, and told people, “Hey I’m thinking about doing a collection on disability and science fiction.” People were telling me, “DO it.” I’ve had a lot of support from the fans, and from actual science fiction writers, and from various academics. I found a community while doing this work.

I knew that my next task, after an essay collection, would be to write a book on my own. And why not? We should set challenges for ourselves. People are excited about thinking about disability, since they haven’t really before in the academic science fiction community.

Q: Why is feminist utopian science fiction important to your current book project?

KA: I came to science fiction kind of late. I literally started reading science fiction when I was changing my project in my second year of my PhD to science fiction. When I was reading the feminist utopias, things like The Dispossessed or Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground, those were really the first works where I was seeing disability, or disabled characters, being taken up in a way that is not necessarily to cure them, or to erase them. I’m thinking of Octavia Butler’s Kindred as well; that story starts with a woman losing her arm. The way in which disability was taken up in those books in that period of literature, which is so invested in talking about sexuality, and talking about gender, there was already that idea of a spectrum of ability. In utopian SF there’s a growing awareness that all people need to be included, without this idea of being forced into, “This is what is normal.” That’s part of what impelled me to propose this project.

For the book that I am working on, I plan to do a survey about disability and the idea of temporality and cure, in terms of, “Do we have a future that is utopic because there is no more disability; or do we have a dystopia because it is rampant?” Of course, disability is socially constructed, so it can be anything. Maybe blue eyes in the future will mark you as being other and undesirable. There’s something going on in the ’70s, and to some extent in the early ’80s, with the works of Marge Piercy, where these kind of conversations are coming up. That’s what I’m really interested in, seeing if I can find the awareness that the body suffers, and that it differs in multiple ways. A lot of this is ignored in masculine-driven SF, where if a body suffers, it’s because that person is evil, or they deserved it from some kind of moral wrong-doing. Or they are kind of a monstrous thing that needs to be cured. There are not a lot of positive depictions. When I’m reading feminist utopian SF from that era it doesn’t seem to be quite as much. There is of course genetic engineering, but the possibility of a more productive and positive discussion of disabled embodiments is coming to the forefront.

Q: How do you think the Le Guin award will make a difference in your research project?

KA: It’s going to definitely inform an article, maybe several articles, and it’s basically helping support me write the monograph that I have planned, and honestly, it’s probably going to help me in ways I haven’t conceived of yet. I haven’t had time to synthesize it. But I know that being awarded as the inaugural Le Guin Fellowship winner has made me far more popular at conferences. As an independent scholar I don’t have a university affiliation. And sometimes in the academic community when people just see an independent scholar, they’re like, “uhhh….” There are more conversations that I am able to have with people. I think it’s going to open up opportunities in the future and that it’s an honor that will last, not just something useful only in 2013-2014, but something that is going to be useful in my life as an academic, or, as a scholar. Kind of a nice feather in my cap, so to speak.

Q: Would it have changed your book quite a bit to have not been able to come?

KA: It would be a different book. Even now there’s so much background that I know about the writers. How can you really ignore all this personal experience that I’ve been reading? It’s impossible. It’s going to definitely change and inflect the way I write about The Wanderground, or the way I write about The Dispossessed. The book still would have happened, but it would not be the same book. I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity to write different kinds of articles and write on my blog.

I have a bunch of places where I want to disseminate this information. I want to let people know that the fellowship is there; not only to apply for it, but I hope that people will put money into it, to sustain it, because I want to be able to give back. I’m on Twitter as my social media outlet. My followers are about half academics and half people who are involved in the science fiction community, which is its own thing. I’ve been trying to advocate through there. I’ve been tweeting this whole time. In the morning and afternoon I send out some tweets, just about the research in general, not about my direct findings. I’ve been sharing, for example, the working titles for things.

Q: You described your project as a monograph, which I think of more as an academic kind of book. But as you describe it, it sounds like you are working on more of a crossover book.

KA: I say monograph because that’s one way to say a book and make it clear that it’s not a collection. I keep going back and forth about how academic I want to make the voice, because I would really like it to be accessible to fans. When I did the collection on disability and science fiction, I tried to keep it accessible to all readers. If I talk about theoretical concepts, I want to make sure that they’re accessible.

One of the things I’ve been doing in preparation for the trip is reading and rereading texts I haven’t read in disability studies for a few years. I revisited Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body, which was published in 1996 originally. I read it when I was doing my dissertation studies—but when I was rereading it, just before I came, I was saying, “This is what I need to emulate for my writing voice, if I want people who aren’t trained by the university to read it.” Wendell talks about very difficult concepts of feminist disability theory and embodiment, and it’s so accessible. She’s kind of my road map for language. I definitely want fans, and other people who are interested, to read it. I don’t like inaccessible writing. Theoretical language, I think, can be accessible. ■

—Alice Evans, CSWS research dissemination specialist and CSWS Annual Review editor, interviewed Kathryn Allan in May 2014.