I'm going a little off-script here. This amazing guest interview by Katy Lees with Kameron Hurley isn't about crime fiction, but it IS about writing, and it IS about writing believable strong, badass women, and it IS full of great lessons we can all use. -R.
Kameron Hurley - award-winning fiction author, inventor of 'bugpunk', self-confirmed badass and troublemaker, and apparent llama enthusiast - is currently winning acclaim and applause for her collection of non-fiction essays, The Geek Feminist Revolution, which includes her Hugo Award-winning essay We Have Always Fought.
Before this glorious revolution, Kameron was lauded for her work as a speculative fiction author of such works as the Worldbreaker Saga
and the Bel Dame Apocrypha.
The Mirror Empire, first book of the Worldbreaker Saga, is particularly famous for its inclusion of powerful and complex women, world building both deep and broad, and uniqueness of perspective.
Kameron took some time out to tell Dirge Magazine about her feminist beginnings, the power of empathy, the best and worst parts of geek culture, and her upcoming works.
DIRGE MAGAZINE: How long has feminism been part of your life?
KAMERON HURLEY: Since my late teens/early 20’s. Growing up post-80’s, I was raised to believe that, because women were legally equal, they could do and be anything that men could. But no matter how equal you believe you are, when you go through puberty and get out into the working world, the world treats you like it treats women. I was confused about why I wasn’t getting promotions and opportunities like my male peers. I’d work twice as hard and get passed over. I’d get harassed on the street. When I lived in Chicago, I’d get harassed on public transit every day. I lost a job offer as an assistant to a stock broker because I refused to wear makeup. I remember another job interview where it became clear that the man in charge was looking for the type of secretary he wanted to sleep with, not one who could do the job. It grinds you down. When you go out into the world you can believe all you want that sexism doesn’t exist, but that won’t change how people treat you.
After experiencing all that, I went back to my mom’s books on feminism, the dusty ones she put away when she had a family. They opened my eyes this time. Whereas before I said, “Oh no, none of this applies anymore, we’re all equal,” now that I’d seen the world for what it was I recognized just how many things were disturbingly the same. Those books gave me a good grasp on feminist theory, and helped me not only make sense of what was happening to me and the women around me, but also gave me tools for understanding that world and working to change it.
How long have you been writing about feminism?
I started writing online back in 2004. My blog was called Brutal Women
, and was explicitly positioned as a feminist blog. Those were great days for young feminist bloggers; were able to find each other and have good discussions. I wrote critiques of books and other media, reviews that let me tackle not only the race and gender politics of a work, but the worldbuilding and prose, too. People call these “feminist” essays because they acknowledge the gender politics of media. The truth is, every piece that doesn’t address those things is also addressing race and gender, but in a way that upholds the status quo. That says something about the writer’s and reviewer’s attitude toward how men and women and everyone else should behave, too. Not mentioning the race and gender politics of a work is just as much of a position
as mentioning it.
Misogyny in geek culture is rampant. How best do you think it can be combated?
There’s been misogyny in geek culture since there was geek culture, because geek culture is part of our wider culture, and we’ve built a society on the idea that some people are more equal than others. It’s difficult to change that foundation.
I read somewhere that “Athens was a democracy, albeit one that did not include women, slaves, or immigrants.” I laughed because that was the exact democracy the United States was founded on. Women, slaves, and immigrants were not legally equal to white men when this country was founded, especially white men with property. We’re dealing with that legacy today. When you build a society with that assumption as the foundation, it bleeds through history and colors everything we see and do. So, to address misogyny in geek culture, we have to address it in the wider world.
Laurie Penny had an amazing essay called Why do we give robots female names?
that argues that the man-creates-female-robot story is rampant in sci-fi because it’s men asking themselves whether women are really human, or at what point women become human. The reframing of the subtext of that story – from a man’s fantasy of an emotionless woman that serves him, to this struggle men have in defining whether or not women are human – was super creepy and eye-opening to me. As long as we position women as other and opposite to men, as opposed to human beings, we will struggle with misogyny.
Solving this misogyny problem involves cultivating empathy. It’s about encouraging women and men and everyone in between and beyond to engage with stories about people other than themselves. Our media has enforced this view of heterosexual men as the default, as the “real” human, with all other stories and people as secondary. Combating this narrative involves telling other stories from other narratives, and making sure those men come along for the ride. I believe storytelling can help us change the world, and it starts with telling stories about everyone, so that we all become normal, so that we are all the default, so we are all seen as humans with agency.
What’s your favourite aspect of geekdom at the moment?
The fact it’s so easy to find each other. It used to be that, if you liked some obscure show or character, it was difficult to find other people to talk to about it. Now you can find folks who both love the same things you do and who find some of the same aspects disconcerting or worth discussion. I love these discussions about media, though I would prefer more nuance. Sometimes the narrative can become “This is good” OR “This is bad”, but most stories have aspects that are both. I enjoy aspects of many sexist stories – if I didn’t enjoy aspects of work that were also sexist, there wouldn’t be that many stories I could enjoy. I can acknowledge that a show does some things right and some things painfully wrong, and not burn it out of my life.
We Have Always Fought stands out for its commitment to the truth about women as active and important throughout history, plus your honesty in writing it. What was it like to write it?
Once I came up with the llama frame – because who doesn’t want to read a story about llamas? – the rest was pretty easy. I had a whole lifetime of experiences and research to draw on and turn into a narrative. I wrote it in a few hours, and revised it for a couple hours the next day. Maybe 4-6 hours of total work, because most of it was stuff I knew.
As for the honesty, that’s a hallmark of my writing. My parents raised me on this idea that honesty and integrity are paramount. I share a lot of data that other authors don’t, including sales and financial data
, because I’ve found that it helps other writers to understand what to expect. Having said that, I choose what I talk about online very carefully. I see a lot of writers, especially young women, writing these excruciating tell-alls for like $50 that end up on the internet forever, and I think, “Are you really sure you want to give that away for $50?” There are certain subjects I don’t talk about or write about online: sex, my spouse, details related to my day job, etc. I decided early on what was out of bounds and what I would share with others. I think that’s an important thing that every writer needs to consider, especially in this age where privacy is considered quaint.
Who is your favourite woman who fought in history?
There are an incredible number, and they are largely forgotten. I’d say my favorite group, though, are the ones who said, “Fuck it all,” dressed up as men, and went to serve in regular armies. Fighting is already a dangerous thing, but to do that knowing discovery could mean even more terrible things could happen to you was pretty brave.
What are your favourite fictional stories about women?
I grew up on the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce
, about a woman who dresses up like a man and becomes a knight. They are perfect for kids of all genders from 9-13 who are piecing together how the world could work. Peirce wrote those books in such a real and engaging way that it was a big part of why I would go on to study the role of women in combat.
Alanna was never positioned as someone who was especially gifted, and not chaste either. She was good at some things, not so good at others. What was important was that she held her own during training and earned the respect of her peers. She was not positioned as Singular Woman, which we see so much in some other stories – like, THIS woman is SPECIAL so SHE can break all the rules! She’s stubborn and really just wants to be a knight, which is the actual story of most women in history who fought. Being good and stubborn will get your far.
What’s your least favourite trope about female characters?
The “strong female character” trope: a woman who is given a gun so the reader is supposed to think that makes up for lack of depth, or that sexism in that world doesn’t exist because she has a gun, or punches somebody once.
Carrying a gun doesn’t make a character interesting or complex. I read some advice from a female screenwriter who told writers, especially men, that if they wanted to write great women characters, they should write one they didn’t want to sleep with. It’s great advice, especially for men who default to writing about their ideal woman – sexy, tough andvulnerable! There is more to being human than being seen as attractive.
Your Worldbreaker trilogy offers a vision of a culture with gender-flipped social politics; a society where consent is always explicitly and verbally sought; and a world with five politically recognised genders. How did it feel to break fantasy status quo so thoroughly and awesomely?
Writing the Worldbreaker books is a lot of fun. I wanted to create cultures that were at least as interesting as the rest of the worldbuilding. So many fantasy books will give you these amazing worlds and cool magic, then trot you through the same small pseudo-medieval villages with the same pseudo-patriarchal gender roles. It’s just boring. Total lack of imagination. Like, you’re a fantasy writer! COME UP WITH SOMETHING FANTASTICAL.
So I wrote the book that I wanted to read, one that included all sorts of different family and gender structures. Many of those structures had historical influences. Many Native American cultures had third and fourth genders, and I just read a great book about a society that had thirteen different gendered pronouns. If we can’t be as imaginative as the real world, what are we doing writing fantasy?
Guest post by Katy Lees. Katy Lees is a mental health worker and trainee psychotherapist from East Yorkshire, England. She's a fan of zombies, spooky sci-fi and wet-your-pants horror. Katy blogs mini book reviews, writing news and poetry at iamkatylees.blogspot.co.uk. You can also find her tweeting over at twitter.com/IAmKatyLees.