Friday, April 29, 2011

Joanna Russ died this morning.

She had had a stroke or a series of strokes, perhaps beginning as long ago as February, announced publicly earlier this week. She was a great writer, and one who had found her chronic back problems, particularly, had kept her from much formal writing in the last decade or so...her last book of essentially new material, What Are We Fighting For?, Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism, was published by St. Martin's in 1998; her collection of literary essays and book reviews, The Country You Have Never Seen, was published in 2007 by Liverpool University Press. Word of her placement in hospice came down on my father's parents are the same age as she was, and facing their own range of medical problems...and there was some lack of confirmation of her status till this morning. I had one telephone conversation with her, two decades ago. She was very gracious.

Her The Female Man is one of the best novels I've read. She has written shorter work as good, most of it collected in three slightly overlapping volumes (The Zanzibar Cat [1983], Extra(ordinary) People [1984], The Hidden Side of the Moon [1986]), and the novella (published in its own volume) On Strike Against God, which is recasting in contemporary mimetic terms one of the most personal threads in The Female Man. A student at Yale in drama, she began publishing prose in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction with "Nor Custom Stale" in 1959; she contributed a number of other horror stories to the magazine over the next several years, branching out into science fiction and other modes and publishing elsewhere, essays and reviews for other publications as well as fiction...a favorite of mine from her career's first decade is "Come Closer" (the Magazine of Horror, 1965). She had a kinship with, and a career oddly in parallel to that of, Fritz Leiber, as her series character Alyx, an inherently feminist sword & sorcery tarnished heroine, was the subject of some of her early work, and Russ had Leiber's similar male character Fafhrd as a "guest" in one her stories, as Leiber had Alyx in one of his (Leiber, too, had been primarily a horror-fiction writer who had come from a background in academe and drama to become a key writer in all the fields of the fantastic). Likewise, she had a kinship with Samuel Delany that went beyond their being two of the best-known and probably most important writers in the fields to make no effort to hide their homosexuality.

A wit, and a passionate and analytical thinker and writer. One could only wish she'd had a less physically troubled life, and had had the opportunity to do more work if she chose to.

Joanna Russ at ISFDb
which has a grim little list on its splash page of writers who died on this date in history:
* Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841)
* F. W. Bain (1863-1940)
* Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933)
* Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)
* Anthony Boucher (1911-1968)
* Russell Kirk (1918-1994)
* "Richard Cowper" (1926-2002)
* Thomas N. Scortia (1926-1986)
* John Berkey (1932-2008)
* Joanna Russ (1937-2011)
* Peter Griese (1938-1996)
* Joyce Ballou Gregorian (1946-1991)

A recently-published interview, in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies (courtesy of Kate Laity)

The Locus obituary

Interesting reminisces and memorial chat at Making Light including a link to photos of her 1953 high-school National Science Fair activity (though the next photo in the sequence gives a somewhat clearer view of her).

John Clute's revised Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry for her includes the link to the collection of her papers at the University of Oregon, as well as mentioning Farah Mendlesohn's anthology On Joanna Russ.

Kate Laity's remembrance; L. Timmel Duchamp's Ambling Along the Aqueduct: Remembering Joanna; Kathryn Cramer's. Rose Fox at the Publishers Weekly "genre" blog.

Margalit Fox's rather inadequate New York Times obit in the Mother's Day edition.

Previously about Russ:
The Country You Have Never Seen, To Write Like a Woman, How to Suppress Women's Writing

On Strike Against God

Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts: Feminist Essays (with Sonia Johnson's Going Out of Our Minds)


Ron Scheer said...

A fine tribute. Thanks.

C. Margery Kempe said...

A terrible loss, but as Ron said, a fine tribute.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, folks.

Jerry House said...

Sad news. A courageous writer and a courageous person.

Todd Mason said...

Indeed, Jerry.

George said...

Like you, I was an admirer of Joanna Russ' work, Todd. Your tribute captures the essence of her writing career. I had forgotten her connection with Fritz Leiber, another underrated writer.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Sorry to hear this. I know how much you revered her.

Todd Mason said...

Kate had been having trouble finding too many peers willing to talk with her about Russ...but this is easily my second most popular post of the year so far (and with no cheesecake photo).