Vonarburg, Élisabeth 1947-
VONARBURG, Élisabeth 1947-
(Sabine Verreault, a pseudonym)
PERSONAL: Born August 5, 1947, in Paris France; immigrated to Quebec, Canada, in 1973; daughter of Rene (a military officer) and Jeanne (a pharmacist; maiden name, Morche) Ferron-Wehrlin; married Jean-Joel Vonarburg, December 15, 1969 (divorced January, 1990). Education: University of Dijon, B.A., 1969, M.A. (with honors), 1969, Agregation de Lettres Modernes, 1972; Universite Laval, Ph.D., 1987. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, music, movies, cats, skiing, good food, and bad puns.
ADDRESSES: Home and office—Chicoutimi, Quebec, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: High school teacher in Chalon-sur-Saone, France, 1972-73; Universit' du Quebec a Chicoutimi, assistant lecturer in literature, 1973-81; Université du Quebec a Rimouski, assistant lecturer in literature and creative writing, 1983-86; Université Laval, Quebec, Quebec, teacher of creative writing in science fiction, 1990. Worked as a singer and songwriter, 1974-82; Aluminum Co. of Canada, technical translator from English to French, 1976-77; Radio-Canada, weekly science-fiction columnist, 1993-95. Editor of Quebecois science-fiction and fantasy magazine Solaris, 1976-91, contributing editor and literary editor, 1999—.
MEMBER: SFSF Boréal, Science Fiction Canada, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), Writer's Union of Canada (TWUC), Union de Écrivaines et Écrivaines Québecois (UNEEQ), INFINI (France).
AWARDS, HONORS: Grand Prix de la SF francaise, Prix Rosny Aine, and Quebec's Prix Boreal, all 1982, all for Le Silence de la Cité Canadian Aurora Award, 1991, for Histoire de la Princesse et du Dragon; Canadian Aurora Award, 1992, for Ailleurs et au Japon; Canadian Aurora Award, Grand Prix de la SF quebecoise, Prix Boreal, Philip K. Dick Special Runner-up Award, and Tiptree Award finalist, all 1993, all for Chroniques du Pays des Meres; Philip K. Dick Award finalist, 1995, for The Reluctant Voyagers; Grand Prix de la SF quebecoise and Prix Boreal, both 1997, both for TyranaelI&II; Quebec's Prix du Conseil du Statut de la Femme, 1998.
Lœil de la nuit (stories), Editions du Preambule, 1980.
Le Silence de la Cité (novel), Denoëel (Paris, France), 1981, translation by Jane Brierley published as The Silent City, Press Porcepic (Toronto, Ontario), 1990, Bantam (New York, NY), 1992.
Janus (stories), Denoel, 1984.
Comment écrire des histoires: guide de l'explorateur (title means "How to Write Stories: An Explorer's Guide"), Editions La Lignee, 1986, 3rd edition, 1996.
Histoire de la Princesse et du Dragon (children's novella), Quebec/Amerique (Montreal, Quebec), 1990.
Ailleurs et au Japon (stories), Quebec/Amerique, 1991.
Chroniques du Pays des Meres (novel), Quebec/Amerique, 1992, translation by Brierley published as In the Mother's Land, Bantam, 1992, published as The Maerlande Chronicles, Beach Holme, Victoria, British Columbia, 1992.
Les Voyageurs malgre eux, Canada Quebec/Amerique, 1992, translation by Jane Brierley published as Reluctant Voyagers, Bantam (New York, NY), 1995.
Les Contes de la Chatte Rouge (young adult novel), Quebec/Amerique, 1993.
Contes et Legendes de Tyranaël (young adult novel), Quebec/Amerique, 1994.
Reluctant Voyagers, Tesseract Books, 1995.
Le Jeu de la Perfection, Editions Alire, 1996.
Le Reves de la Mer, Editions Alire, 1996.
L'Autre Rivage, Editions Alire, 1997.
La Mer Allee Avec Le Soleil, Editions Alire, 1997.
Mon Frere L'Ombre, Editions Alire, 1997.
Le Lever du Recit: Poesie, Les Herbes Rouges, 1999.
La Maison au Bord de la Mer (stories), Editions Alire (Quebec, Canada), 2000.
Slow Engines of Time (stories), Tesseract Books (Edmonton, Canada), 2001.
Author of the screenplay Le Silence de la Cite. Contributor to anthologies. Contributor to periodicals, including Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, Solaris, Estuaire, Faerie, Arcade, Stop, XYZ, Le Sabord, Moebius, and La Presse.
Tanith Lee, La Tombe de naissance (novel; title means "The Birthgrave"), Marabout, 1976.
James Tiptree, Jr. Par-Dela les Murs du monde (novel; title means "Up the Walls of the World"), Denoël, 1979.
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Fausse Aurore (novel; title means "False Dawn"), Denoel, 1979.
Ian Watson, Chronomachine lente (stories; title means "A Very Slow Time Machine"), Lattes (Paris. France), 1981.
Jayge Carr, L'Abime de Leviathan (novel; title means "Leviathan's Deep"), Albin-Michel (Paris, France), 1982.
Tanith Lee, Le Jour, la nuit (novel; title means "Day by Night"), Albin-Michel (Paris, France), 1982.
Jack L. Chalker, Le Diable vous emportera (novel; title means" And the Devil Will Drag You Under"), Albin-Michel(Paris, France), 1983.
R. A. Lafferty, Le Livre d'or de Lafferty (stories), Presses Pocket (Paris), 1984.
Jack Williamson, Le Livre d'or de Jack Williamson (stories), Presses Pocket, 1988.
(And editor) Marion Zimmer Bradley, Le Livre d'or de Marion Zimmer Bradley (stories), Presses Pocket, 1992.
(And editor) Anne McCaffrey, Le Livre d'or de AnneMcCaffrey (stories), Presses Pocket, 1992.
Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe: Une biographie critique de Jack Kerouac (title means "Jack Kerouac: A Critical Biography"), Quebec/Amerique, 1994.
Guy Gavriel Kay, La Tapisserie de Fionavar (title means"The Fionavar Tapestry"), Quebec/Amerique, Volume I: L'Arbre de l'Ete ("The Summer Tree"), 1994, Volume II: Le Feu vagabond ("The Wandering Fire"), 1995, Volume III: La Route obscure ("The Darkest Road"), 1995.
Marion Zimmer Bradley, La Chute d'Atlantis (title means "The Fall of Atlantis"), Presses Pocket, 1996.
Guy Gavriel Kay, Les Lions d' Al Rassan (novel; title means "The Lions of Al-Rassan"), L' Atalante (France), Alire (Quebec), 1999.
Guy Gavriel Kay, La Mosaïque Sarantine (novel; title means "The Sarantine Mosaic"), Books 1 and 2:Voice vers Serance ("Sailing to Sarantium") and Le Seigneur des Empereurs ("Lord of Emperors"), Buchet-Chastel (France), 2000.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Reine de Memoire ("Queen of Memory"), a two-book uchronic fantasy.
SIDELIGHTS: Élisabeth Vonarburg began writing science fiction in 1964, and since then has become one of the genre's leading female contributors and spokespersons. She organized the first Quebecois SF convention in 1979, before publishing her first novel, Le Silence de la Cité (The Silent City), in France in 1981. A story about a doomed world, and a city in which only a small number of humans still survive, Le Silence de la Cité tells of Elisa, a unique child born with powers of rejuvenation. When the human race faces a virus set to render the male gender extinct, Elisa must make a choice about her future, and the future of humanity.
In Chroniques du Pays des Meres (In the Mother's Land; The Maerland Chronicles) Vonarburg again depicts a world in decline where survivors come together to create a new social structure. During this time, Lisbei, a young thinker, begins an archaeological dig and unearths a historical artifact, one which she uses to challenge the new establishment in an attempt to initiate change.
Les Voyageurs Malgre Eux (Reluctant Voyagers), Vonarburg's third novel, is about a Montreal woman who stumbles on to the trail of an underground revolutionary movement. Like her first two novels, Les Voyageurs Malgre Eux depicts the world we know, but not quite as we know it. As Vonarburg once told the Financial Post, the book features "a mythical Quebec where history developed very differently."
In addition to these and other novels for readers both adult and young adult audiences, Vonarburg has published short stories and poems in collections, anthologies, and periodicals, and often translates the work of other French and French-Canadian authors. Vonarburg herself is one of only a few SF writers in Quebec to have had work translated into English. She once told the Financial Post that, having immigrated to Quebec from France, she believes her work offers a unique take on Quebec's regional perspective. "I don't see Canada/Quebec as they do, as it relates to my history," she commented. "Quebec [in my books] doesn't really exist, it's a phantasm. That's a very individual way of seeing Quebec."
Élisabeth Vonarburg contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
A BLUE HOUSE
Way back then, in the mid-Eighties, at a Canadian SF convention taking place in Vancouver, there was a panel on "what is a professional writer?" The Important American Guest Writer told us in no uncertain terms that a Professional Writer was a writer who had an Agent, published many Books, and above all made Money with his writing. I was seething at the back of the audience, with a Canadian friend and colleague. Sotto voce, delinquently, we agreed that a true writer was someone who had organized her or his life in order to write, period. Now, some fifteen years later, I still agree with us, of course. Making choices in one's life, accepting the consequences of those choices, and living with them day in day out, yes. In another universe, I am a professor at some French University, or in Chicoutimi, or elsewhere; I teach Literature, I publish learned, opaque articles, I have a car, I vacation in Cancun, Greece, or wherever, I worry about having enough money for my retirement—I mean, I do have vacations and reasonable prospects of retirement. And I have never written a word of fiction, that type of writing having been a fad of my silly youth. In this other universe, as I see it from this one, and as far as I (only I) am concerned, I am dead. A writer is someone who's organized her life in order to write.
But is it not potentially the same for any artist who is passionate about what she's doing? And not only for any artist but for anyone who is passionate, etc.? So what specifically makes a writer?
Two years ago, I was teaching again, as a temp, at the Chicoutimi University, "Creative Writing." Thirty-six twentysomethings, two or three of whom perhaps did want to write, some of whom had never written a personal letter in their life, most of whom had been forced to write a three-page story in three hours in high school—and none of them had a clue. They were so lost they didn't even have questions. After teaching that course twice, I had a lot more questions than before, which is good because I don't have many answers about writing. If any, they are of the biodegradable kind, subject to change without much notice.
Still, one answer did coalesce at the time: A writer is not someone who has ideas, imagination, a unique point of view on the world. These, everyone has. A writer is someone who has a certain kind of relationship with words—not the written word only, but all words. Someone who loves words, the very concept of words, their forms, sounds, rhythms, history, mutable meanings. Someone for whom words are not merely tools but exist in their own right, like living beings. But even more than that, it is someone who, through some quirk of her circumstances, has come to channel her whole being-in-the-world through words.
And stories. Someone who tells herself stories all the time, who feels the impulse, the desire, need, obsession, perversion, to tell stories. Someone for whom the whole universe is a story, and herself a part of it, engaged in a constant dialogue with it, at once telling and being told. Not for "money, fame and the love of women," as Balzac once said—women or men, same thing: that deep impulse to tell needs neither the love of others nor their acknowledgement, it just needs to be.Itis there.
We humans are storytellers anyhow—some of us more than others, that's all. And when I ask myself (as I have been asked so many times) "among all the things you could write, why do you write science fiction, fantasy or poetry?," what comes naturally to me is a story.*
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a box. It was small, but it was nice. Mommy and Daddy lived there too. They worked at their Store but they came to see the little girl now and then during the day, because the Store was just on the other side of one of the appartment's doors. The store was a Pharmacy. Mommy was a Pharmacist—that meant she talked nice to a lot of people who came to tell her things about themselves, and she concocted magic potions for them in the back of the Store. Daddy had been a soldier in three wars, and now he helped Mommy with the Pharmacy, but everybody thought he was the Pharmacist, which Mommy didn't like much but she said nothing because she loved Daddy. And at bedtime, they told the little girl wonderful stories.
In a way, both Mommy and Daddy were stories that the little girl told herself during the day, waiting for them to appear. Mommy came from a very, very far away place, a lost place, called Indochina, where she had been born from the daughter of a native Princess and had lived until she had somehow escaped from it and her nasty adoptive father just before the Second War. She had brought some strange and wonderful things from there, like ivory and jade little women who played the flute; sometimes she prepared weird but mouth-watering meals which had nothing to do with chicken and fries, the Sunday's usual fare. And sometimes she even spoke in the tongue of that place, a funny, sing-songy language. She'd taught one word of it to the little girl: it sounded like O-Zoï-Oï, and it meant something like "The Sky is Falling !"
Daddy was a different kind of story. For more than a year, after the little girl was born, the box had been elsewhere, in another, less far away country called Germany, and only Mommy lived in the box with her then, although the little girl did not see her very often either because Mommy was an important person there, with the Oc-cu-pa-tion Ar-my, and a lot of soldiers and other people were doing her bidding all day. But every night, before going to sleep, Mommy showed the little girl a picture of a man whom she told her was "Daddy," and she made the little girl say goodnight to the picture and kiss it. One day, Mommy took the little girl away from Germany. When they arrived in Paris, at the train-station, there was a man waiting for them, and Mommy told the little girl: "There is your Daddy, say hello to him!" The little girl was quite disturbed: this man was obviously not the real Daddy! He had way too many dimensions, and he moved on his own! And he talked to her!
After a while, the little girl let herself be persuaded to talk back, in German first, then in French, for she then spoke both; and she ended up loving the three-dimensional Daddy very much—he played with her more than Mommy did, because he had a little more time. But at the back of her mind, from then on, there was always some vague distrust, or at least some wonder, about what was real, and what was not.
She was two, three, then four, going on five. And she was very lonely when Mommy or Daddy were not with her. She saw little of the other children in and around the appartment block, and she did not go to school yet. All she had were her few toys, the stories she told herself all day long, and the ones her parents told her at bedtime. She knew those by heart, she could almost read them too—but not quite. She just knew that those small, regular squiggles on the page were words, like the ones people spoke, but better, because these ones told stories. She also knew there was something called writing, that transformed sounds in those strange images that were words—but that kind of magic was still beyond her.
Until one afternoon, when she was entertaining herself alone, as usual, in the big bedroom she shared with her parents. She was playing with her wooden cubes, the ones Mommy had given her, with the letters and numbers and images on each brightly colored face. Mommy had been teaching her the letters and numbers. They had one-syllable names (except Double-You) and were somehow supposed to be like the image on their face of the cube but were obviously not, since there really was no resemblance whatsoever between M and the house, "maison," pictured on M's yellow face.
And so the little girl was playing with the cubes, in various arrangements. The combinations she preferred were the ones in which the images told a sort of story, the longer, the better.
What happened that day? I really don't remember. But at some point, the story goes, while she was chanting the sounds of the letters to go with the story, something . . . clicked. No other way to describe it. Click. She got it. The way the letters and the sounds played with one another to make words, and she could take the letters and make them make words. She could write words. And she did. She wrote "Mama" and "Papa," and then at some point she wrote her first story, and it was sheer fantasy, (and horrible spelling), because with her wooden cubes she wrote the equivalent of maison bleue, blue house.
I had never seen a blue house. There were no blue houses where we lived, only all shades-of-grey ugly cement buildings, or all-shades-of-dirty ugly red-brick houses. Blue houses simply did not exist. And yet one existed there, somehow, in front of me on the carpet, one that had not existed before—and I was the one who had made it.
I too could do magic!!!
I do perfectly remember the exhilaration, the sense of incredible power—and the wonder.
"How could I not become a writer after all this—and a writer of SF and Fantasy?" I rhetorically ask myself with forty-forty hindsight.*
But nothing is as simplistically cause-and-effect in life, and it would be downright bad in a story, wouldn't it? Those things should be treated more like . . . genes: a predisposition to become this or that, which the environment plays upon. And boy, did the environment play! But we can skip ahead a few chapters, since that part of the story is quite typical: lonely childhood, picked upon at school, books my only friends—and there were lots of books at home, every kind but science fiction and fantasy (if one excepts romances, but what did I know of that then?). Anyway, it was not a question of reality versus fantasy. I lived among words, period. Words were life.
Was I determined from then on to become a writer? Noooooo. Not at all. But I did notice my parents' ooohs and aaahs every time I wrote something. I learned quickly which side of my toast was buttered—especially since the oohs and aaaahs were much less enthusiastic when I drew or painted something, although I liked that much better. So from about my seventh year on, the drawing and painting fell slowly by the wayside, and I wrote . . . I wrote poetry, the rhyming kind. But at fifteen I realized I wanted another relationship with space and time than the one allowed by the poetry I had been taught. I played a while with free verse, but it seemed awfully . . . soft, amorphous—and way too emotional and personal. Without being aware of it, I wanted more distance. I wanted to tell real untrue stories.
Concurrently with my poetry, I had already begun dabbling in fiction, actually. For instance, I rewrote the ending of the Alamo story: I loved the John Wayne movie, but I wanted Bowie and Travis to survive and become pals. Also, at long last, I had a friend at school, a girl as crazy as I was: we encouraged one another, and at fifteen or so I did begin to write a novel. No preparation at all, just paper and pen, let's go! And it went well, although from the very first sentence the narrator who told the story of the me-character did it first person, past tense, said he was a boy, and he took a lot of place in the story thereafter. Still, it was fun to see oneself through him and him through what he saw of the me-character; I could revisit some cherished moments of my adolescence, try to capture sensations and feelings and places, and yes, it did work for a while. Somewhere near the last third of the story, though, as I was beginning to tell myself I should think of how it would end, my main protagonist, the girl whom everybody loved, still perversely insisted on being unhappy and border-line suicidal. In fact, the only way it could end was for her to kill herself. I was furious. I had confusedly thought writing would give me some sort of control, at least over my imaginary life, and it was turning out to be the other way around! I buried the unfinished, contrary, terrifying thing in a drawer and swore off writing main-lit. forever.
And as chance, serendipity, fate, destiny and/or the Author would have it, this is when I discovered science fiction, fantasy, and all these interesting, not-quite-legit literary beasties that roamed outside the box. That's when the little girl escaped the boxes—increasingly bigger, but still boxes—that she had inhabited after the one with the wooden cubes. Especially her teenage girl's box, this gloomy, narrow space that filled her with inchoate despair because it continuously exuded these words, silently uttered day after day by everyone and everything around her: "It is like this, it has always been like this, and it will always be like this."
But it was not true!
Science fiction was showing me that the Universe was much bigger, wilder, and wondrouser than I had been taught by my beloved teachers, and even by my beloved books. It was like this, yes, and it had been like this for a very long time, but it did not have to be like this forever.
Oh brave new world!
I do not mean I became a science fiction writer right then and there. But the fix was in. The next year, I would leave home to be all by myself for the first time in my life, a student at Dijon University. It would be the mid-Sixties, and a lot, my friend, would be blowing in the wind.*
I would also have been writing science fiction in my closet for a year, ever since the Big Meaningful Dream from which had sprung, almost fully-dressed, a galloping, multigenerational science fiction saga which would become the five books of my series "Tyranaël" more than thirty years later. It was a very simple dream. In the daily diary I kept that last year at home and dropped after a few months at the university, utterly bored and depressed by my so-called real life, I wrote only two lines about this dream, and to this day I have no recollection of its images: words are all that are left of it. "A huge planet, entirely covered twice a year by a universal tide, during a universal eclipse, but nobody dies."
Though my journal says nothing of that dream afterwards and I don't remember exactly how things evolved from there, I very soon had a canvas of stand-alone but interlinked stories all contributing to an over-arching storyline—from the very beginning, I thought big. I began to draw maps and invent various languages, creatures, societies, and two whole planets.
The entire story was there from the beginning. Details changed over time, of course, as I came to understand more and more about it, myself, and the craft of writing. Of the two thousand pages I wrote and rewrote obsessively for ten years, only two hundred have passed without modifications from one draft to the next. But the basic impulse never changed, the original design, the original need. And in some way, everything I have written since (and will ever write, I am beginning to suspect), is inscribed in that ur-story.
During the mostly horrid university years, while I went to the required classes, wrote the required papers, passed the required exams and got the required degrees, I lived there, on my Tyranaël planet. Writing was breathing, was freedom, and, at last, power—writing Science Fiction, which was so not about boring and ugly little me (as my first abortive mainstream novel had been)! Wondrous creatures, magnificent landscapes, fateful destinies, deep mysteries, and world-shattering revelations, a whole cosmos was mine, entirely of my own devising. I was, let's not mince words, God.
From sixteen on, I learned writing with that grand, multigenerational story. That is, I learned to read what I had written, and then rewrite and reread and rewrite....Ten years later, after writing the fourth version (all two thousand pages of it), having left the motherland and living in Chicoutimi, I would be able to admit at last that however far away in space and time, that story was and always had been all about me, my past and present life—what else could writing be about than what we know or think we know best, ourselves? But I also knew by then that this was much more than the mere, me-myself-and-I of the here-andnow. That "I," my Self, was Legion—touched by and always touching others, family, friends, my society, my time, the whole world, present, past and future, and all its places and cultures and stories, and on and on to the wonderfully endless, the endlessly wonderful Cosmos—the one I had not created but that I could recreate as I pleased and, doing so, could endlessly question.
That is the inquisitive little girl in me, and she will never stop being curious. I put her, again and again, in my stories, either as a child or as a grown-up, but always, my characters are asking why, or how, or what for. There were so many mysteries in my childhood! So many strange happenings: one day I learned that I had three half-sisters, much older than me, as they came to visit. My father had had other children, another family, another life of which I knew nothing! I learned later that my mother had also been married before. And I was told many colourful family stories, on both sides. My parents were for me heroes in a novel—both their lives had been tortured, adventurous, and romantic, vaulting two or three continents and, for my father, two centuries (he was born in 1898). But those stories were not fixed. They changed subtly over time, and above all they were full of holes that no one ever volunteered to fill and that I was discouraged to ask about—a far-away look, an averted face, the length of a silence, oh I was exquisitely atuned to those, like all children. I learned not to ask—and to make up stories instead to fill in the gaps. Trusting that someday, somehow, all would be revealed at last. But it never was. And I will never know what is real and what reinvented in what I was told. Not "lies"—different versions of one forever elusive tale.
My parents are dead now. And so they will forever be characters in a story of which they were the unreliable narrators. But their stories now belong wholly to me. I can ask all the questions I want and give all the answers I need—since I have learned, sometimes with painful and sometimes with glorious results, to refrain from not asking questions.
It must be one of the main reasons why science fiction rang such a resonant chord inside me when I discovered it. The main drive behind science fiction is a question: "What if . . . ?" What would happen if one of the tame givens of our consensual reality were different? And that key, for me, opened everything. It was not about "escapism" or "a good read" or Being Wonderfully Weird and Marginal (although it certainly helped: I was sixteen, after all). I read some of those books with the same exaltation as I read Camus or Kierkegaard or Sartre at the time: it was about life, my life and human life, here and now, in this world, in this time; it was about humans become as gods through science and technology—and whether they were worthy of it. It was about what "being human" could mean. It was about change, metamorphosis, transcendance—and the price to pay. And it was about the Other who is not always Us. Yes, all that was disguised, sometimes so exotically that I could lose myself for a moment—and that was fine!—but mostly the metaphors were strong enough, clear enough; the meaning always came through.*
I have always been a voracious reader, since I was six or seven years old. In high school, I took to literature like the proverbial fish to water. I am talking about the pre-Sixties in France here, before mass education kicked in. I got a classical education in a girls-only lycée that catered mostly to the "future elite of the nation" (that's what the female principal reminded us of during the trimesterly reviews). Small groups, devoted and stern teachers (all women), and long days of work, five days a week. I do not regret it one bit. The social interactions were hell, but I loved learning. And there was some narcissistic pleasure to be derived from my scholarly successes, especially in the writing department. Lit. teachers usually love students who love reading and writing. And did I read! Some teachers even thought I read too much, and too indiscriminately. Not because I was reading science fiction—I wasn't then—but because at fifteen I devoured Simone de Beauvoir's, Camus' and Sartre's philosophy even more than their fiction. The keepers of the box worried about their little inmate—with the best intentions, certainly. Somehow, I have trouble understanding why, I had been pegged as a "difficult" student, a troublemaker. Poor little me, who wanted nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who was so apt at conforming—I mean, I could write alex-andrines in my sleep! But I couldn't quell my damnable curiosity and my logical contrariness: "Yes, but . . ." or "No, but . . ." had somehow become my mantras somewhere along the line in high school, and have remained so ever since.
When SF happened to me, I read it with the same voracious appetite as I'd read the Classics and Moderns. In 1963, a French book tangential to the genre lent to me by an older male friend had brought it to my awareness. It was Dawn of the Magicians, by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. They argued very convincingly that science fiction was the only literature of the future. To find more about the authors they quoted, I rummaged through used books bins, I spent all my monthly allowance on SF books new and old, and when I had gone through all I could buy in French (around 1965: not as many translations then) I brushed up on my English, a lot, in order to read books in the original.
Science Fiction and the folksingers of the Sixties—Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen: to them I owe being able to speak and write in two languages—inhabiting two different realities at once, a very science-fictional (we say "sfnal") experience. But I loved knowing other languages anyway. After some shaky beginnings in my first high school year, I delighted in learning English, Latin, and then Greek; to this day I regret not having learned Spanish. In our circle at school, my friends and I spoke and wrote a private sabir made up in equal parts of all those languages. This was magic. This was power. It certainly gave me a peculiar point of view on the linguistic problems in Quebec and in Canada when I came to live there! But it also made me very aware of the importance of language in the building of one's world-view—and even more so when inventing a whole new world, be it human and dominantly female in the future as in In the Mothers' Land, or humanoid but alien in "Tyranaël." It also made me appreciate science fiction even more: where else would have I found such concerns in the mainstream fiction of the time? (Or even elsewhere: at the University, later, we were not told about Chomsky or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis....)
Still, by the end of the Sixties, I was beginning to feel vaguely disappointed, not really understanding why, by the science fiction I still read as intensively as ever. It seemed more and more to be about cowboys and Indians in space, shootouts, conquest, war, and destruction—in space. I was still writing my own stuff, though, the Tyranaël stories; it was a kind of addiction by then. Actually I didn't as much write the stories as explore and build the world around them in more and more minute details, with maps and dictionaries and repertories and what not. I was in grave danger of no longer writing, just . . . doodling. But There Came Ursula Le Guin.
Oh, I'd loved Sturgeon, and Simak, and Cordwainer Smith, and Jack Vance. And around 1968 I discovered with joy and awe and glee the two Harlan Ellison's New Wave anthologies, Dangerous Visions, which broke new ground both thematically and stylistically. And there had been a smattering of stories by women: Catherine Moore, and especially Judith Merril—not so much her own stories, except "That Only a Mother," but the SF anthologies she edited and that I found now and then in secondhand bookstores. I had indeed begun to hear new voices, but I was not really aware that their newness for me, their deep resonance, was somehow linked to their femaleness. So I can say that the one who really gave me permission to write what I wanted to write was Ursula Le Guin with The Left Hand of Darkness. (Me and about a zillion others women writers in my generation. But I was the one and only freak in the whole world who loved and read science fiction at the time, of course.) However, the two others who gave me permission were men, which only reflects the realities of the genre then. Frank Herbert, with Dune (1970): hey, it is allowed to write a big, more than two hundred page long SF novel! and Tolkien, a bit later (1972): hey, it is allowed to build a world by playing with invented languages and names!
With its beautifully grim and provocative depiction of the planet Winter and its potentially ambisexed inhabitants, its deeply human characters (both alien and human) engaged in strange but meaningful relationships, its effortless merging of science and myth and its elegant prose, Le Guin's book was a revelation. Yes, this was what I had wanted to read. Yes, this was how I wanted to write: with total committment to both writing and subject matter, not for facile entertainment, testosteroned power trips, or conformity to the dominant world-views but for beauty, for self-exploration, for knowledge, for wisdom. And not for answers, but for questions. New ways of asking old questions—and if I was very, very lucky, new questions.*
The feminist aspect of this new awareness became more specific after 1970. It was not the birth of my political conscience, I already had acquired one, especially after the events of 1968, a turning point for me as well as for many young adults in France and elsewhere. But from then on feminism would orient my political awareness in all domains. I was now married, to begin with—to my own surprise. Love, a husband, all that relational stuff, I had thought very early that it would never be at the center of my existence—or even at its periphery! I had resigned myself to and found many pleasures in being a loner, as most girls do who are not pretty enough to be forgiven for being bright—even today, alas. But even the experience of being married in 1969, in the midst of the counterculture thing, was not the prime cause of my becoming a feminist. Science fiction was.
For there was an explosion of female science fiction authors in the Seventies: not only Le Guin but Joanna Russ, Suzy McKee Charnas, Pamela Sargent, and many, many others. (An "explosion" for me because I lived in France until 1973; there was a very definite timelag in translations then, and the original books were hard to get.) I became a feminist more through their science-fiction than with the texts of the Grand Old Canonical Feminist Mothers, which I read much, much later. Women writers of SF, yes, those were the ones who wrote what I wanted to read, asked what I wanted to understand. Even though there was that American author who was getting in his stride at the time, James Tiptree, Jr., the one man who allowed me to entertain some hope for male SF writers.
In 1978, with the rest of the SF world community, I learned that a woman was James Tiptree, Jr. and had been deliberately playing the alias card for ten years. Witness to the sometimes quite unpleasant upheavals provoked by this revelation, I gathered all the Tiptree stories I had on my shelves and reread them all. And suddenly, gee, it was so obvious that she was a woman!
"When It Changed" is a striking feminist short story by Joanna Russ. Well, for me, that's When It Changed forever. For I had had no inkling whatsoever before that a woman was James Tiptree, Jr. All I knew when I read the stories as they were published under the Tiptree alias was that they resonated with me much more deeply than most stories written by other male writers at the time. I could only compare their effect on me to that of Ted Sturgeon's stories—but even stronger. After all, Sturgeon's main body of work, what I had read of it, dated back to the '40s, '50s and '60s; whereas Tiptree wrote now, with a sensibility more directly linked to the world I was experiencing as a young adult. That they in fact belonged to the same generation (Sturgeon born in 1918, Tiptree in 1915), I didn't know at the time; their life stories were very different—and Tiptree, indeed, had begun writing and publishing quite late in her life. At any rate, what the Tiptree Incident changed for me, the lasting cognitive dissonance it introduced in my thinking, was that feminism and related subjects ceased once and for all to be possible answers for me. Going far beyond the old saw of "feminine" and "masculine" writing, it all became another huge question mark—and a new way of approaching science fiction's fundamental query, "What is to be human?"
I was still a closet writer in 1978. I still did not see myself as a writer either, did not dare think of myself in that way. The mystique was still very much alive. Still, there was a glimmer of something to which I secretly clung in spite of myself. A French writer I admired, a man I admired, Pierre Versins (author of the first French encyclopedia of SF and Utopia), reading the final version of "Tyranaël" circa 1976, had told me: "You have in you many stories to tell yet." He had even wanted to get the novel published at the time by L'Age d'Homme, a then prestigious Swiss publisher—thank God it fell through. But his comment, and his friendship, were a tremendous boost whenever I had the blues. We do have several fathers in our lives.*
So I was a closet SF storyteller, at least. But no longer a closet SF afficionada. In 1974, I had linked with the then-nascent Quebecois SF community, gathered around the fanzine Requiem. Despite its title, it published SF as well as what we call "Fantastique" in French. I was then a temp teaching literature at the Chicoutimi University; Requiem's editor and publisher, Norbert Spehner, who was a very busy full-time teacher in a Longueuil college as well as a busy family man, was quite willing to unload most of his literary editing job on me about 1976; I would become the official literary editor in 1979, as the fanzine would change its name to Solaris. In 1976, I had finished the fourth and what I thought to be the last draft of "Tyranaël". People had read bits and pieces of it, a few (Norbert among them) the whole thing, and they were quite enthusiastic about it. It had become a sort of running gag among us: the great SF novel sitting in a drawer. Dared to produce a short story after writing at such unconscionable lengths, I did manage to write something short—still linked somehow to "Tyranaël," although as in a parallel universe, independently of the novel's storylines. In 1979, it was translated as "High Tide" in a Maxim Jakubowsky anthology published at the same time in the UK and in France—my first professionally published story was also a translated one, perhaps a harbinger of things to come but I certainly did not see it that way then: it was more like a fluke, or at least a most excellent joke.
OK, I could apparently write short stuff. Requiem organized an annual short story contest. My first try in 1977 was the first version of "Le Pont du froid," later translated as "Cold Bridge." The members of the Requiem jury found the story interesting but too opaque and too long. I rewrote it—adding about six or seven pages. Upon which Norbert exclaimed: "There, you see, now that you've shortened it, it works great!" A priceless lesson in narrative strategies . . . and I was so proud that it was not related to "Tyranaël"! It came from a conversation with my then husband, a physicist whose master's degree has been about vacuum (an endless subject of hilarity between us). To make a vacuum in a laboratory, you must reach very low temperatures. At very low temperatures, the dance of the atoms slows down. From there on to speculate that at cold enough temperatures movement would cease altogether, there was a step easily made by a sfnal mind. But as I recall, what immediately came to me was a sort of oxymoronic impulse: the movement of matter would stop, and so the mind would somehow be free to move anywhere across the universe. (I was still a dualist at the time—hard not to be when one is born in Descartes' country. This would become a question too, which I tested in "Cogito.") How I went from "across the universe" to "across the universes" plural, must have been linked to "Tyranaël": the parallel universes motif was already in there. The brainstorming specific to science fiction then took over, and I ended up with the idea of a machine (unexplained, really), the Bridge, and Voyagers who are trained in monastery-like Centers to jump from one universe to another.
The theme was not original, of course: it's been one of the staples of science fiction for decades, the source of endless variations. I love it because it is an apt image of life as well as of writing, and a useful trans-generic device. My variation was the idea of a universe-hopping process that is completely unreliable, and thus "useless," unexploitable in capitalistic terms, while somehow dependent on the individual Voyager's inner evolution—a metaphor both of dreaming and psychoanalysis. Or of writing. Megalomaniac as ever, I immediately felt I had a frame for several Voyagers' stories there and I wrote a list of stories-to-write, among which that of a "reluctant Voyager." Then I put the list in a file with other outlines and forgot it.
My second try at the Requiem prize, in 1978, "L'œil de la nuit" ("The Eye of the Night," not translated) won that year. To my relative dismay, it also had its origin in "Tyranaël"—was in fact the very last story of the series, although one of the stand-alones that could really stand alone. As synchronicity would have it, a colleague of Norbert, who owned a small publishing house, Le Préambule, asked him then to become the chief editor of a new SF line, "Chroniques du Futur." Norbert began making the rounds of would-be authors. Suddenly motivated, I trotted out my stories-to-write file and began churning out one story after the other—none about the Bridge, though. One was even not SF but "fantastique." They were published as a collection, my first, and well received by critics in the field and out of it. Gee, it even won a regional award; what I liked best was the $500 check, I confess.
I was pleased, of course. But I still didn't see myself as a writer. It was all a fluke, or a game—it still is a game, fortunately, since I have learned in the meantime that games are serious business in which you don't take yourself seriously. Besides, about 1978 and for a few years after that, I was almost more interested in being a singer and a songwriter: I had been at it since the early Seventies, on an amateur basis, but it was suddenly becoming more than a lark: I had won a singing contest, I was on the local, then the national, radio, I got gigs in various places around Quebec.... I see now that writing songs was a way for me to keep on writing poetry, which I had stopped doing altogether a few years before. It filled a deeply-felt need. I am often told I write very visual stories, and I guess it is partially true, but the last editing is always done for the ear, not for the eye or "the message"—and so is my poetry.
Still, fiction-writing-wise, I hadn't been idle after "finishing" "Tyranaël" in 1976. I had been working on and off on another SF project, mostly after reading a novel by Charles Maine, Alph (1972): five hundred years in the future, only women having survived and still surviving quite well, they discover a cryogenized male and basically fall over themselves in order to have his baby, which will be the beginning of a New, Better, Heterosexually Reproductive Era. I am being unfair to Charles Maine, it's slightly more complex than that—but not by much, and anyway it's how I read it then that impelled me to begin what would in time become In the Mothers' Land. I was incensed by Maine's book, as I recall. First, the verisimilitude of the whole plot seemed shaky to me from a sfnal point of view: after five centuries of homoeroticism, homosociety, and parthogenesis, why would one woman immediately fall in love with the reborn male (a male baby is created from the man's DNA) and then want to mate with him in the antique manner? And how could one male be, so to speak, up to the task afterwards for a whole society? Second, and more to the point, the unexamined subtextual masculinist assumptions of this plot were just too much for me. At about the same time, 1978, I had read Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World and its sequel, Motherlines, which also posits a postapocalyptic world, with on the one hand women's enslavement and abuse and on the other separatist groups of Amazonish Free Women—much harder-hitting and more thought-provoking books for all their unrelenting grimness. Each writer writes with other writers in her field, an endless, fecund conversation: all this, the Tip-tree Incident and what I was experiencing as a woman at the time, coalesced into another big project, a trilogy, no less, that would explore my own version of a women-only, or a women-mainly, postapocalyptic future, the postapocalyptic setting being the usual expedient tabula rasa.*
A Lot Was Revealed at the end of the first book, but I still didn't want to do the grand boring explanation tour. I decided to go visual, cinematic even, and splice in short takes of a larger story, in the form of bursts of images seen on a screen by the main protagonist. I at least had to know what the larger story was, didn't I? It was around 1981 then, my collection had been published, several people were pestering me for a short story. . . . I thought that writing one as a stand-alone would neatly serve a dual purpose and I set out to do just that.
After a week, I had about eighty pages. OK, it wanted to be a novella. After two weeks, I had twice as many pages—I knew I had a novel on my hands. Unexpected, uninvited, infuriating in some bizarre way because I still believed much more in writing as control than as a dance between control and trust. But I wrote it, sometimes letting it write itself, and learning a lot in the process—as always. After a month or so I ended up with a three hundred page novel, Le Silence de la Cité—later The Silent City.
Now what to do with it? My then-husband, who had always been very supportive of my writing, told me to send it to various publishers in Quebec, and in France. Of the three publishers I sent the MS to, French Denoël answered "yes" the fastest (a telegram!). They had "Présence du Futur," the grand old SF line that had given me so many great SF books to read. What a thrill that my first novel should be published there! The editor at the time was Élisabeth Gille, whom I had met in various SF conventions in France and who, intrigued by pieces of "Tyranaël" I had sent her, wanted to see something else, more publishable, that is, shorter. Well, there was something else, and she wanted it. We negotiated some changes—we saw eye to eye on all of them—and the book was published in 1981. It won the French Grand Prix de la SF in 1982. Two books, two awards: I lived a charmed life. I was beginning to think that I would keep on writing, and perhaps being published.
I did write several versions of the new SF trilogy, or at least of the two first books. But Élisabeth Gilles, and I am forever grateful to her for that, kept rejecting them with cogent arguments which always echoed the misgivings crowding in on me just after I'd sent her yet another version. But as publishing was not my main goal, this wasn't too much of a downer. I felt I was learning the craft. Then ordinary life got the better of me, and the writing took a back seat. After almost fifteen years of marriage, and despite remaining good friends, my husband and I had changed a lot, and we had drifted apart. I acknowledged that fact in 1982 and called it quits. I was by myself again, with a part-time university job that was becoming less and less reliable as a source of income—and absolutely no desire to embark on a serious academic "career" (I am not good in hierarchical power structures where I have no say about who will have direct power over me, and how). The Eighties were going to be rough, on every account.
Around 1984, another story collection was published by Denoël, Janus. There were a few stories belonging to the "Bridge Cycle" and others were set in Baïblanca, a fictitious city in a world predating that of Silent City, complete with both metamorphs—shapechangers—and "artefacts": artificially created organic "statues" that are really a new breed of people. It got good reviews again. I decided that a way of surviving financially while still writing would be to go back to school: try for a Ph.D. at Laval University, in Quebec City. Not to get yet another degree to further a career I neither had nor wanted, but simply because I had good prospects of obtaining several respectably sized grants for at least three or four years running—and that just to think about writing and science fiction! At first it was to be "Women and Science Fiction," then a new program was launched at Laval U. in 1985, Creative Writing. I did qualify for it and switched with secret glee since I would be studying . . . my own writing.*
One had to write a theoretical thesis and a fiction that somehow illustrated the ideas and theories put forward in the first part (what an odd concept!). I would do both in one fell swoop: a fictional character from another universe, a young woman studying to be a Voyager, would undergo her final test in a parallel near future of our world. She would choose as her cover identity that of a student working on her master's at Laval University, a study of the fiction of Élisabeth Vonarburg, an obscure SF author presumed dead in a political riot during Quebec's turbulent Nineties. She would keep a journal, in which she would enter her various academic essays and articles on Vonarburg, each using a different critical approach—narratology, psychocritique, sociology, semiotics, and whatnot, all the academic sacred cows of the day. In the end, since we all have doubles in other universes, she would understand that Vonarburg was her double in that particular universe and by doing so she would pass her final exam with flying colours.
I was fortunate enough to have a really good supervisor, who didn't know much about SF but had no literary preconceptions, liked the kind of SF I wrote, and let me mostly run amok, only intervening exactly when and where necessary. She barely complained while I sent her, machine gun like, about two thousand pages of text over six months. She read it all and just said in the end: "Now, make five hundred pages out of it, with a bibliography." I did, concocting a very serious-looking and partially bogus bibliography, containing stories or books I or others had not written—yet. Oh, it was fun.
Or was it? A dark, savage kind of fun, mostly. I remember that period as one of terrible angst. The usual questions, made mandatory by the exercise itself, were killing me: What is writing? Why do I write? Why do I write science fiction? What kind of a writer am I? Will I keep on being a writer? What use being a writer? Who am I? At some point, I had the impression that I had stopped writing fiction altogether, until I realized that over a three-year period, I had published almost a dozen short stories—perhaps one of the most prolific periods in my life.
There was another reason yet for the angst: I had pulled a Tiptree on myself, sort of.
In the early Eighties, I was still temp-teaching on and off, and sometimes teaching creative writing, in various universities. I was experimenting along with my students. In 1985, I tried a neo-surrealist collage technique. Diverse poems or texts are cut into words, or lines, pinches of them are put in small plastic bags, then later spread right side up on the desk, one after the other, and you wait for the not so random electricity of meaning to zap them together (I should say "magnetism," as in Philippe Soupault's "Les chants magnétiques"; the source lines, or combinations of words in poetry, are of course always heavily reworked afterwards.) It's a bit like Tarot cards, or the I Ching. Or the ink blot test! I came to use it on an irregular basis to get a deeper reading of my inner states—and thus to write my poetry.
In 1985, it produced a story that resembled nothing I had done before ("Ailleurs et au Japon," not translated) but in which I thought I saw absolutely everything my writing was about—influences, styles, themes. Yet, the friends who read it unanimously told me it was something completely new. Half-jokingly, one of them suggested sending it under a pseudonym to the editor of the other Quebecois SF magazine, imagine . . ., who had systematically rejected every story I had sent him, even those Denoël had published later in Janus. I tended to suspect less than good faith on his part: we didn't get along well personally, and Solaris and imagine . . . were, despite various lip services by all, rivals as well.
I sent the story, under a pseudonym—a female one, though: "Sabine Verreault," an anagram of my name less the letters b-o-g, which meant God in Russian—I chose to see it as a sign!—with an accompanying letter establishing the kind of bogus identity I thought would entice him: an academic (he was one), a rather cerebral lit. professor dabbling in fiction (he was one too).
He gobbled it up. He loved it. Still, he wrote me back, it was a bit too complex and experimental a story for his usual readers; could I do something more mainstream SF?
Sure. I churned out another story, not using the random method, ("The Sleeper in the Crystal," very loosely derived from a song of mine, itself vaguely linked to "Tyranaël") and sent it almost by return mail—I, who never could fill a writing order! He loved it again. He was obviously delighted to have discovered a New Author, and a woman to boot, who could jump through hoops on demand. Now, how about a novella, something around eighty pages?
I proceeded to do so, using the same collage technique as in the first text, and wrote "Mané, Thékel, Pharès" (not translated). The friends who were my trial readers had already been worried with the second story; even more so with the novella: to them, it was so obviously from Vonarburg that it would be recognized at once, and then what? But no: the editor's enthusiasm didn't wane. He published all three stories, saluting a new, formidable author; and Sabine Verreault was nominated for that year's main Quebecois SF award.
I couldn't do that to my friends on the jury, so I outed Sabine to them. And to imagine . . .'s editor. To this day his argument has been two-pronged; (a) those texts were not Vonarburg's kind of stories, and (b) even if they were for those in the know, the effect of the para-text (the pseudonym and the letters we exchanged) naturally made him read them as different.
And to this day I can't decide otherwise: after all, isn't that what Tiptree pulled on the whole SF community—and on me?
But then, I thought anxiously to myself at the time, if I can write differently just by using a pseudonym—who am I, really? As a writer and as a person? Fortunately, the work I did for the Ph.D. helped me solve those questions, at least for a while. Sabine was, in many ways, the return of the repressed; she was less eager to seduce or coddle her readers, more "literary" in her style, less encumbered with plot, darker and more openly violent in her themes and writing. Finally, in 1987 (the year I obtained my Ph.D.), Sabine and I wrote a story together, ("To Die, a Little"), which we co-signed; after that, Sabine reintegrated my self, having taught me a priceless lesson and helped me get out of a box of my own devising.*
The thinking I did for my Ph.D. had two other major consequences. First, it reconnected me with Tyranaël. Rereading parts of it to study them, I could feel that something was still responding in me; the magic was still there; the landscape, the characters, the stories, all still talked to me. It was not merely a narcissistic, guilty pleasure to indulge in secret and never let out in the light of day. It was central to my writing as well as to my understanding of myself; it was a matrix. And perhaps, just perhaps, I would one day be able to write it as it deserved to be written, without betraying it. Sometimes, in the innocence/ignorance of youth, you find truths that you rediscover again, the hard way, when you're older. It's also true of writing: when you don't know you're not supposed to do something, you just do it, and it works, and you don't ask why. Later, you don't know why it worked: you have to learn, painstakingly, to do in full awareness what you did effortlessly, unself-consciously, way back then. Still, eight years would pass before I tackled "Tyranaël" again, once and for all.
Another consequence of the Ph.D. was to show me what was wrong with the feminist SF trilogy I had tried to write from '78 to '85. I now knew how to write it! But I didn't then. Ordinary life and its demands, again. Survival. I was relying more on translations than on teaching now to keep me afloat, and although translating is the next best thing to writing for a writer (especially translating works that you like), it eats up the time one would otherwise dedicate to writing. The impetus for writing—writing novel-length fiction, I mean—came from another quarter entirely.
Some time in the first half of the Eighties, I had received a phone call from a Montreal translator, Jane Brierley. Asked to translate some Quebecois short stories for an anthology published in Toronto, she'd been given free rein as to whom she would translate, she liked my stories, could she translate a few of them?
As I said: I live a charmed life. When one knows how difficult it generally is to find a good translator! (There are translation grants in Canada, though, which helps a lot once you have a publisher.) I gave Jane the go-ahead, gladly, and there began a friendly and fecund collaboration that greatly changed my literary trajectory. From then on I would be published in English. For a non-English-speaking SF writer, that was and still is a kind of Holy Grail. SF, for better and for worse, speaks English (and especially American English). Unless you've been translated, you have no chance whatsoever to be included in the collective creation that is science fiction (and I am not even talking about making a living at it!). Your work doesn't register. It simply doesn't exist. Which I could have lived with quite easily since I did exist after all in the little box of French-speaking SF, both in Quebec and in France. But serendipity, again, would have it otherwise.
In 1979, I organized the first Quebecois SF convention in Chicoutimi. Unchastised, I went at it again three times, in 1982, 1988, and 1999. In 1982, it coincided with the International Francophone Convention. International meant there were people from Europe, from the States, and from Canada. I knew that the fabled Judith Merril, SF writer and anthologist extraordinaire, lived in Toronto. This was the New World, the Land of Opportunity: I invited her. She accepted. She came. She danced all night. I fell in love. With luck, you may also have several mothers in your life, women who bring you into a new world. Le Guin certainly was one. Judith was another. I still am not sure what she saw in my writing or in me—I had only one translated story at the time, "High Tide." But when she edited the first Canadian SF anthology, Tesseracts, in 1985, she asked me for a story. It didn't have to be an original one. Jane Brierley exquisitely translated "Home by the Sea," one of my favourites—the first story in which I had been able to portray a mother and a daughter. And Judy gave it the lead in the anthology. Because she really liked it, she said. I was thunderstruck. Being acknowledged by a living legend sometimes does that to you.
The story was well received. And the people at Press Porcépic, the Tesseracts publisher, asked me if I had anything novel-length. Well, I did have a novel—which Jane then proceeded to translate as The Silent City. That was in 1988. In 1990, it would be published in the U.K. by The Women's Press. I was thrilled. At last it would be available in English to the readership I most wanted to reach: women.*
Then, in 1991, by some twist of fate I haven't elucidated yet, I found myself with a high-powered American agent and a three-books contract with Bantam—without having done a thing to get them. The Silent City would be the first book, in 1992; did I have anything else in the works? I said "yes," although strictly speaking it wasn't true; but there was that postapocalyptic feminist novel I'd floundered at during the early Eighties, and I was ready now to write it—or it was ready to be written, same difference. It took a year, with a peculiar effect of feedback since Jane Brierley was translating it as it was written, part by part, and I changed things after revising the English version, and so on and so forth—Jane was getting rather frazzled in the end! But In the Mother's Land was published at the same time in English and in French, a first ever in Canadian SF, I was told. The third book I didn't worry too much about: something would come to me. And it did: a dream I had in the basement bedroom my friend Norbert Spehner kept for me at his Montreal home. Cross-pollinated with those Bridge/Voyagers story outlines I had put away in a drawer in the Seventies, several other dreams I had kept for years and some already published stories which I put through the grinder, it would become what I consider half-jokingly my "post-modernist quebecois novel," Reluctant Voyagers (1995).
Then, as suddenly as my "American career" had begun, it ended: Bantam dropped me (as many other, bigger writers) due to savage reorganizations in the wake of its takeover by a German megacorp. After that, about a dozen of my translated short stories were still published in Canada, in the yearly Tesseract anthologies, and also in the States, in Amazing and especially thanks to the editor of Tomorrow, Algis Budrys (another of my living legends!).
I still regard the whole episode as another kind of fluke, a wonderful learning opportunity, but above all I am grateful that it connected me—at least potentialy—with the audience I craved, the women readers and writers. For among the awards bestowed on In the Mother's Land (for instance, the Philip K. Dick Jury's Special Award), the novel was short-listed for the Tip-tree Award. "It's an honor just to be nominated" is supposed to be a hypocritical cliché, but I swear it wasn't for me. Considering the influence Tiptree had on my life and writing, it was an almost unimaginable happenstance. I remember thinking half-jokingly: "Well, I can die now!" In the wake of that acknowledgement, I connected with the community of women SF writers in the States by attending the twentieth anniversary of their annual convention, Wiscon—where I met, or met again, with my heroes: Le Guin, Merril, Charnas, et al.
Science fiction and fantasy are not like other genres: they can be intensely personal in that writers, readers, publishers, editors, reviewers, artists, and just-fans constantly have opportunities to meet and talk and argue and speculate. Somehow, science fiction and fantasy are like one huge story collectively told, infinitely mutable, almost like a living organism. It is also true, of course, of the rest of literature, but this essence is concentrated in sometimes dizzying densities in the science fiction microcosm. I know this because I am also part of "the rest of literature," through the various writers' associations I belong to in Canada. Nowhere have I felt a sense of camaraderie comparable to the one I feel, even after all this time, among the SF community. It can be explained away, of course, by the Ghetto Syndrome—something the SF afficionados either rail against or proudly defend. But part of it also comes from deeply-shared world-views and quirks, be it relentless questioning, distrust of consensual reality, the quest for the Other, or the good old "sense of wonder" when looking at the Universe.
I call myself a writer now—a female writer (écrivaine, which is linguistically iffy in French, even today. Ah well. Being a feminist is having a pebble in one shoe you can never take off anyway). I am a woman-whowrites, even though I still don't really know what that means. But it's OK. If I knew this, or anything else for that matter, I would not write. A writer is also, it seems, someone who writes because she or he does not know. How nicely Socratic. I do not know what is reality or fiction, reality or dream—I'm quite happy circulating from one to the other and back without having to flash a passport every time. I do not know what a woman or a man or a human being is, what is Same and what is Other, but I am quite happy to explore and entertain some fancy ideas about what they could be.
Now, is that creating what wasn't there before or discovering what is there for all eternity? I do not know. Either. Both. Why not? Who's to judge? I'm not sitting in the lap of Ultimate Reality. None of us are. We fumble around, in creative misunderstanding at best, trying to dance, to keep a balance. I am a dreamer whose dreams become words, become books, whose books go in some readers' hands and then in their minds, and some readers tell me, or write me, that they dream of my words, of my worlds. What the heck is happening here? I am not sure—but I like it.
Now something has happened in the world that has made me question my craft once more in anguish. Another Fall. We humans keep falling and falling again. Which means we get up again and again—some of us do, at least. I stopped writing—I was in the last part of a two-parts fantasy novel which I had been writing in pure bliss during the whole summer of 2001 when the towers fell in Manhattan. But we must do what we can and know how to do, each in one's little space-time, each with one's little talent. For various accidental reasons, I became a writer and I must write, it is as simple as that. Writing is breathing to me and I must breathe—it is as simple as that.
For a while, I didn't breathe much, just passed words to and fro, the words of others mostly, to console, educate, enlighten, renew bounds. I hoped my own words would come back to me. I would breathe again, I had to believe that. I am a creature of words, I must believe in words. And now they're back—I'm back in the blue house. It's as simple as that.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 1, 1996, review of Les Voyagers Malgre Eux, p. 1126.
Financial Post, May 20, 1995, Shlomo Schwartzberg, "Winning the Battle of Strange Worlds," p. 28.
Lettres Quebecoises, fall, 1997, review of Tyranaël III, p. 35; spring, 1998, review of Tyranaël IV, p. 33; summer, 1999, review of Silence de la Cit' p. 31.
Lurelu, spring-summer, 1995, review of Contes deTyranaël, p. 40; December, 1997-March, 1998, review of Contes de la Chatte Rouge, p. 78.
Nuit Blanche, summer, 1997, review of Reves de laMer, p. 17; fall, 1997, review of Tyranaël II and Tyranaël III, p. 11; fall, 1998, review of Tyranaël IV, p. 13.
Prarie Fire, winter, 1995, "Going Home to Baiblanca: Homage to Élisabeth Vonarburg," p. 88.
Saturday Night, December, 1999, "A Strange Trip into Tomorrow," p. 76.
SF Chronicle, April 1997, review of Tesseracts 9, p. 74; June, 2001, review of Slow Engines of Time, p. 39.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 3, 2002, review of Slow Engines of Time, p 10.
Utopian Studies, spring, 1999, Philip Abbott, "Northern Dreamers: Interviews with Famous Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers," p. 325.
Video-Presse, June, 1995, "Élisabeth Vonarburg," p. 22.
Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Utopia Web site, http://www.feministsf.org/ (July 4, 2002).
Official Élisabeth Vonarburg Web sitehttp://www.sfwa.org/ (June 9, 2001).*