Author Archives: gabeechka

Book Review: Motherlines by Suzy McKee Charnas

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Suzy McKee Charnas’ Motherlines (1978), a novel published by Berkeley Books, is the second installment in The Holdfast Chronicles, a series that follows a ‘fem’ (women who were enslaved by men in a city called Holdfast) named Alldera, who is adopted, along with her unborn daughter, by the ‘mares’, a group of genetically modified women who separated from civilization and established a life in the desert long ago. The story revolves around the interaction between these two feminist separatist communities that were created in response to an extreme, aggressive form of patriarchy. It’s yet another utopian/dystopian/everything in between novel, but I think that it has some unique merits that bring up some new challenges to these concepts.

In the story, the mares take Alldera and her baby into their unique family set-up, in which several women are responsible for raising one child. Alldera learns about the mares’ way of life (i.e. their family structures and the importance of horses ). Despite this effort, however, she never quite achieves a sense of belonging, so she leaves the mares (and her child) for a camp of other escaped Holdfaster fems like herself. Throughout the story, Alldera attempts to find niches in both societies to varying degrees of success.

This book is perhaps different from other fictional accounts of feminist separatist communities in that, although both the fems and the mares consider themselves to be women, they are technically different species in that their systems of sexual reproduction are different. In fact, although it is briefly discussed, reproduction does not seem to be the primary concern for the fems, as the traditional means of reproduction would require them to interact with the men they had to escape. I think that in other stories such separatist societies have already established some alternate way to produce offspring, but this society is so new that they have to first to pursue more immediate concerns such as survival and revenge. The mares, however, do have a way to procreate. This is enough to create a great deal of animosity and xenophobia between the two groups, which was an interesting dynamic to have despite the utter absence of men. By doing this, Charnas explores some inequalities outside of the gender divide, which I think are important to keep in mind when considering feminism.

I appreciated that there were inequalities and that these societies weren’t utopian– even within each of the groups there were struggles. For example, although the mares had autonomously existed in the desert long enough to have mostly forgotten about men, every one of the fems had had personal experience with being owned and abused as slaves. As an artifact of this time in their lives, the fems are inclined toward a hierarchical societal structure. They almost seem to be subservient by nature and still feel the need to please and honor those who put themselves in positions of leadership. This proves to be an inefficient system in the conditions of the desert, which probably should have been more obvious as this was the system that had already been destroying the city of Holdfast. I think that this dynamic accurately portrays the extensive damage that patriarchy can do to a woman’s confidence and self-worth. Also, I think it demonstrates how women can be unconscious enforcers of patriarchy. I think this is especially true of one character, Daya, who easily gets attached to various partners throughout the book, including one of the harsh leaders of the fem camp.

On the individual level, the book deals with issues of identity. This theme creates a very rich diversity of characters. They all have distinct personal struggles. For example, although Alldera is capable of navigating both societies, neither completely accepts her. Daya tries to find self-worth outside of her former status as a ‘pet’ for the men by whom she was enslaved. Sheel, a mare who reluctantly becomes one of the mothers of Alldera’s child, questions the importance of loyalty to her family as they become more and more accepting of fems. The story is told from many of these character perspectives at different times. Although I thought it was great that the story incorporated such a large number of diverse characters, I still felt that I wanted to know more of their inner dialogues. They seemed a bit impersonal at times, and I found myself wanting the story to slow down at times so that I could better understand their thoughts and feelings surrounding their situations.

Nonetheless, I would overall recommend this book. I think that longer epics with women as the main protagonists are not especially common, and the post-apocalyptic, science fiction format of this book creates a way to look at older themes such as honor and heroism through the lenses of strong female characters who have been absent in more traditional epic literature. I think that anyone who enjoys the less technology-driven settings of science fiction novels such as Dune would like this book. I would probably not, however, recommend Motherlines to readers who prefer more character-driven stories. I think this story very much focuses on the events of the larger scope of The Holdfast Chronicles, and it would have to be a lot longer to really develop the characters. Furthermore, I would be curious to see whether reading the first installment of the series would change my reading of Motherlines. I think that I would at least feel closer to Alldera, so I might suggest doing that as opposed to reading Motherlines in isolation.

BONUS: Did you know that the setting of Dune was inspired by the Oregon Dunes near Florence? At least that’s what the Wikipedia page says.

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Letter to Joanna Russ

Dear Joanna,

I’m writing in response to your essay, “Pornography for Women, by Women, with Love”, particularly the views you expressed about dominance/submission and SM. It seems that your opinions are somewhat ambivalent. For example, you disapprovingly write about women’s fantasies about submissiveness being rooted in patriarchal values, such as the belief that women should not be the instigators of sexual activity. In the same essay, however, you touch on SM pornography specifically in a slightly more permissive light. Prefacing with a comment about how SM pornography is not so offensive to you, you declare that “male fantasies of violence, either accompanying sexual activity, serving as a precondition for it, or as a cue to it, are attempts to partly undo the violence in the “respectable” part of the culture, where violence has been substituted for sexual enjoyment”. Somehow you make a distinction between violence as a tool for sex and sex as a tool for violence. You seem to be of the opinion that as long as violence is not the goal of these fantasies, then they are at least tolerable, but still not what women want. Am I right?

I’m interested in where you draw the line between violence and the simulation of violence. Do you believe that even just simulation is upholding patriarchal values? Also, do you think that it is impossible for a woman who identifies as masochist or submissive to be acting purely on her own self-interest or pleasure? Also I wonder why (at least in this essay) you attribute only dominance to men and submissiveness to women. In both SM fantasies and realities, there exists the opposite (female dominant, male submissive) and everything in between (lesbian SM, for instance). I know many feminists of your time disapproved of SM in any form because they believed that it always replicated patriarchy, even when men did not participate. What do you think?

Lastly, I’m wondering about whether your views on these subjects changed after your correspondence with Mog Decarnin. From her letters, it appears that she participated in the SM community and was even a member of Samois, a lesbian-feminist BDSM organization. It looks like she’s giving you a lot of information about these lifestyles (Letters from Decarnin to Russ, 1980s). Would this cause you to write your essay differently?

Best,

G


We’re not here to entertain you

I admire writing as a profession more and more everyday. In a letter to Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany has a brief rant about SF writers who try to be entertaining. He believes that this is a mistake on behalf of the writer because writing that tries to numbly entertain the masses is making a big sacrifice in meaning. Additionally, he thinks that the work of a writer should instead be sought out by the few for whom it is deeply relevant, creating a strong bond between the writer and reader (Delany to Russ, October 26, 1971).

I assume this is a constant struggle working in the humanities, but I feel a similar way about being in the human sciences. The general public often approaches these fields with the hope of learning something novel about the human condition. This can be frustrating because they often don’t see the value in all the hard work we’re putting into the “minutia”. Research in the human sciences is a slow and abstract process, much like that of the “hard” sciences (with which, for some reason, people have a higher tolerance for being boring). I think much of what I study in linguistics would be considered esoteric or useless by the general population. The thing is, however, that we’re not trying to give people some “cute” topic of idle chit-chat for their next brunch parties. We’re trying to push human understanding of these topics forward, and this requires just as much time and patience as it does for any of the other sciences.

Letters from Samuel Delany to Joanna Russ, Coll. 261, Box 3, Folder 1. University of Oregon Archives.


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