Monday Original Content: In Other Wor(l)ds: Workshops in Collective Writing of Feminist-Queer Science Fiction by Tea Hvala
As a feminist activist, passionate reader of utopian fiction and hesitant writer, I often wondered why nobody in Slovenia seemed to be interested in literary games, for example in collective explorations of unthinkable ideas and unheard-of styles. My question and a possible answer might have something to do with the fact that I am relatively young yet older than my country.
Let me explain. I come from a twenty-year old country whose official language, Slovene, is spoken by two million people. In 1991, Slovene literature was appropriated for nation-building goals as it neatly legitimized the claim for Slovene independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – even though this political demand had little to do with art and a lot to do with the rise of ethnocentrism in the region. This (and the war that soon spread to Croatia and most fatally wounded Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina) has profoundly influenced the “serious” status of literature in Slovenia. As an art form of national importance, it has been serving the interests of established authors and theorists who continue to prescribe aesthetic norms that discourage innovation and guarantee that marginal authors and genres are going to stay in that position. Of course, an alternative writing scene does exists but genres such as science fiction, fantasy or horror are barely present. And since the literary market is so small (the usual print run for works released by small publishers is 800-1000 copies for fiction and 500 copies for poetry), genre authors can forget about either commercial or critical success. I was never sure whether this was a blessing or a curse.
With the help of my friends, many of whom are musicians, comics artists and zine writers, I was able to think of it as a blessing. They often organised music and comics jam sessions where strange, sometimes humorous, sometimes poetic, sometimes scary conjunctions arose from, so it seemed, pure chance. I enjoyed these encounters very much and in 2007, I decided to invite other amateur writers to jam with me and make writing a less solitary experience. So we sat around a table and started playing the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse. Since we were less interested in automatic writing than in the points of interaction, we adjusted the technique to our needs. We decided upon a character, a setting or a plot twist and began to write. When our aching fingers forced us to stop, we assembled the pieces into a messy monster-piece, read it out loud and almost died laughing. The synchronicities were fantastic and frightening, as if our unconscious cared little for our elimination of the game’s automatic aspect. It seemed that our “emphatic repudiation of individualistic artistic value”, as Mel Gooding puts it in The Book of Surrealist Games (1993), really resulted in a “collective revelation” – one that taught us to trust our imagination and our abilities as writers.
The first public workshop took place in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) at the feminist-queer festival Ladyfest in 2008. The title In Other Wor(l)ds seemed most fitting for the occasion. It paid homage to Gayatri C. Spivak’s book In Other Worlds (1987) in which she tried to develop a methodology that would allow for non-patronising representations of “Third World women” in (Western) theory and fiction. It referred to another author whose view on the distance between – or rather, proximity of – fiction and fact is exciting for feminists and other intuitive visionaries. In the context of science fiction, Wittgenstein’s famous statement that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” seemed to suggest that it is possible to write about Others, those metaphorical aliens, in ways that change my own (position in the) world in the process. In short, science fiction seemed to be the perfect genre for people who think about otherness in practical details, rather than abstract concepts.
At the workshop, I invited the participants to write stories that relate or transform gender variant human characters to aliens, fremdsprachenmonstermavens, kiggies, dodots, levitating broomsticks and other queer creatures. We discussed examples of feminist Sci-Fi to see what has been done, what hasn’t been done and why it might be still hard to do it. For example, we asked why does the critique of Cartesian dualism in Ursula K. Le Guin’s ground-breaking novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) not automatically extend to the critique of homophobia. And why does the Other, the radically different, the hardly imaginable, often seem so monstrous? We also talked about the ways to queer the rigid conventions of gender and genre. Since ideas in Sci-Fi are often disguised as characters, we figured they are inevitably gendered, thus it must be possible to genderfuck with them in all sorts of ways. So we tried out the recipe.
In Amsterdam, we defined the characters and a plot feature. We wrote about Bo, the human, and Vlar (or Vlarrr), the non-human character. We said we’ll let them choose the setting as long as they accept to meet and run away from – or towards – something together. The stories were written by Brigitte, Anne, Sara, Diny, Caroline, Nina, Anouk and yours sincerely. The second workshop happened in Salzburg (Austria) at a conference about innovations in open-access media. Since we wrote with pens on paper, we focused on the social innovation of a very old medium indeed: language. We decided to split in a German-speaking and an English-speaking group because these were our only common languages: the group consisted of eleven people whose mother tongues were Portugese, English, Slovak, French, German and Slovene. We managed to hold hostage individual authorship for three hours and wrote about three characters – Kim, V, and 0/1 – whose gender and character were subject to rapid change. The stories took place in Salzburg in the year 2050 and were written by Cristiane, Debi, Red, Dušan, Paul, Sarah, Christian, Nikoletta, Jenny and Imre. Later, I self-published the English stories from both workshops in a zine called – you guessed it – In Other Wor(l)ds.
Since then, the concept has been used for brainstorming purposes at other independent feminist-queer events in Belgium and Great Britain to promote zine-making and self-publishing. A participant from Amsterdam, an architect, told me she and her colleagues found it useful in their profession. As for me, I finally held some workshops in my home-town, Ljubljana, in 2010. We were hosted by a radical library, an arts association and twice by a feminist-lesbian collective. The characters varied from Rx Vulgaris (a symbiotic mechanoplant), Vanja (a transgender cyborg), The Decoratives (gay activists) and female anthropomorphic cats fighting gentrification to local politicians and self-appointed intellectuals – suggesting we disguised political satire as Sci-Fi. The combination certainly worked! In addition, the hosts liked us enough to help us scrape together funds for the release of a book entitled Svetovi drugih (KUD Anarhiv, 2010).
The most recent workshop happened on February 19th 2011 at the winter edition of Lad.i.y.fest in Berlin. We played several Surrealist writing games in Sci-Fi settings with feminist-queer aspirations. For example, we collectively (de)constructed sentences like “The sexy robot slapped a strong community.” Later, we wrote several short stories, based on our favourite Exquisite Corpse sentences.
I no longer have to wonder where are all the people interested in literary games. I found them and learned that, locally speaking, “serious” literature and its inevitable identity crisis, is none of my concern. The fact that I am older than my country is an absolute advantage: I don’t even have to take myself seriously!
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