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Joanna Russ Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1937. Education: Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, B.A. 1957; Yale University School of Drama, New Haven, Connecticut, M.F.A. 1960. Career: Lecturer in Speech, Queensborough Community College, New York, 1966-67; instructor, 1967-70, and assistant professor of English, 1970-72, Cornell University; assistant professor of English, State University of New York, Binghamton, 1972-73, 1974-75, and University of Colorado, Boulder, 1975-77. Associate professor, 1977-84, and professor of English, 1984-94, University of Washington, Seattle. Occasional book reviewer, Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1966-79, The Village Voice, The Washington Post Book World, The Feminist Review of Books, and others. Also essayist for Science-Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, The Village Voice, Ms., and others. Awards: Nebula award, 1972, 1983; O. Henry award, 1977; National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, 1974; Hugo award, 1983; Locus award, 1983; Science Fiction Chronicle award, 1983. Agent: Ellen Levine Literary Agency, 432 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10016.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Picnic on Paradise. New York, Ace, 1968; London, Macdonald, 1969.

And Chaos Died. New York, Ace, 1970.

The Female Man. New York, Bantam, 1975; London, Star, 1977.

We Who Are About to.… New York, Dell, 1977; London, Women'sPress, 1987.

The Two of Them. New York, Berkley, 1978; London, Women'sPress, 1986.

Kittatinny: A Tale of Magic. New York, Daughters, 1978.

On Strike Against God. New York, Out and Out, 1980; London, Women's Press, 1987.

Extra (Ordinary) People. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1984; London, Women's Press, 1985.

Short Stories

Alyx. Boston, Gregg Press, 1976.

The Adventures of Alyx. New York, Pocket Books, 1983; London, Women's Press, 1985.

The Zanzibar Cat. Sauk City, Wisconsin, Arkham House, 1983.

The Hidden Side of the Moon. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987;London, Women's Press, 1989.

Play

Window Dressing, in The New Women's Theatre, edited by HonorMoore. New York, Random House, 1977.

Other

How to Suppress Women's Writing. Austin, University of TexasPress, 1983; London, Women's Press, 1984.

Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts: Feminist Essays. Trumansburg, New York, Crossing Press, 1985.

To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1995.

What Are We Fighting For?: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.

*

Critical Studies:

Article by Marilyn Hacker, in Chrysalis, 4, 1977; article by Samuel Delany, in Science-Fiction Studies, 19, 3 November 1979; In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction by Sarah Lefanu, London, Women's Press, 1988; Feminist Utopias by Frances Bartkowski, Lincoln, University of Nebraska, 1989.

* * *

The work of Joanna Russ is thematically unified and formally, generically, and stylistically diverse. She has written a number of novels that fall under the rubric of speculative fiction; she has written brilliant short stories; she has written what is called mainstream fiction (On Strike Against God). She has written in the genre of thematically related tales along the lines of Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps and John Horne Burns's The Gallery (Extra[Ordinary] People); she has written a fantasy, verging on lush fairy tale (Kittatinny: A Tale of Magic); she has written a closely reasoned and scholarly book, How to Suppress Women's Writing, and the very personal, peppery, and opinionated essays of Magical Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts: Feminist Essays.

Russ's underlying theme in all these works is empowerment: empowerment and powerlessness; aggression and negation. Other concerns that run through the body of her work include survival, alienation, loneliness, community, violence, sex roles, the nature of oppression both external and internal, the necessity and the nature of further civilization and what is gained and what is lost by its progress.

One advantage of working in a genre is that the plot must move along, and that discipline keeps Russ's springy intelligence anchored. If she resembles another writer, it is Swift: she is as angry, as disgusted, as playful, as often didactic, as airy at times and at times as crude, as intellectual. Appreciating the quality of outraged, clear-sighted pained intelligence at once incandescent and exacerbated, is one of the major experiences in reading her work. Her critical essays are often witty and savage. She has started frequent controversies with her criticism, partly because of her habit of saying what others may think but will not dare publish.

Russ gives a sense of speed in her narration. She is a master of pacing and often eliminates intermediate steps and decisions. She has the habit of starting in medias res and in a place and time the reader will simply have to deduce, whether we are on earth or elsewhere and what essentially is going on among all these articulate people. Sometimes she uses a jazzy style that gives a feeling of clever and controlled improvisation. This is not to suggest that the novels are, in fact, improvisations, for they are put together intricately in all their parts.

Another characteristic of Russ's style is the combination of serious, even dark concerns with wit. The Female Man, is studded with jokes, vaudeville routines, addresses to the reader, instructive vignettes, catalogues. Her short piece "Useful Phrases for the Tourist" is a stand-up comic routine. At the core of her humor is the perception of incongruity, absurdity.

She is precise in her characterization. In a sense, the four protagonists of The Female Man, Jeannine, Joanna, Jael, and Janet, are the same woman in four social contexts. Jeannine lives in a New York City where World War II never happened and which is only slowly emerging from a generations-long Depression. Joanna lives here and now. Janet lives in Whileaway, an all-female society far in the future after a plague has carried off the men. Jael is an agent and assassin from the near future, part of the "plague" that gives birth to bucolic Whileaway. They are all "the same woman," yet each (with the exception of Joanna) is sharply flavored and unmistakable in habits of thought, words, and movement. Alyx, a Greek thief from Alexandrian times, is the heroine of Picnic on Paradise and a number of short stories, extremely sharply etched. From the sexually ambiguous Victorian traveller of Extra (Ordinary) People to the brave and pragmatic young girl of Kittatinny: A Tale of Magic, Russ's works present a gallery of fully fleshed-out women of great diversity.

Russ is one of our best novelists of ideas because she possesses the traditional fictional virtues. She creates characters full of quirks, odd memories, hot little sexual nodes that make them believable. She embodies ideas in a fast-moving arc of action. Finally, she has wide emotional range, from savage indignation to broad humor, from the bleak to the lush, from extreme alienation (as in We Who Are About to …, where the protagonist fights and kills for the right to die) to a warm and powerful projection of community (as in "Nobody's Home").

What Russ does not create is a world in which love conquers all—certainly not for her women. The push toward freedom, appetite, curiosity both intellectual and sensual, the desire to control and expand their own existence, figure far more importantly in the lives of her female characters than does traditional romance. In The Two of Them her protagonist Irene enjoys a long and satisfying emotional and sexual bond with her mentor Ernst. However, Ernst, besides being Irene's lover, is her limiting factor. As their goals diverge, he begins to use his power not to free but to confine her. Ultimately in order to save a young girl she has rescued and to preserve her own ability to act in accordance with her own values, she kills Ernst. A theme that Russ identifies in her own work and that of other contemporary feminist writers is the quest for the lost daughter, or the quest to save the daughter or young woman who will be true posterity.

One aspect of Russ's work that sometimes shocks is the place that violence holds in her fiction; not so much violence against women—a commonplace of our fiction as of our society—but violence by women. Russ is concerned with what price freedom and autonomy may exact. In her works violence is never glorified and never without consequence, but neither is it for long absent. Her women are as apt as her men to consider the full range of alternatives open to them in carrying out their will or their duty as they see it. Certainly nobody saves them unless they save themselves, which is often not possible. Hers are worlds in which there is frequently a wide range of nasty consequence to action, as to inaction.

Russ is a writer equally serious and entertaining. Although themes recur, she never repeats herself. Each book represents a new intellectual and literary voyage into darkness and light. In her collection The Hidden Side of the Moon, only a few tales (for instance, one about a unique solution to overpopulation and retirement) fall under the category of science fiction. Time is, however, quite elastic and variable in these stories. Many of them are fantasies on themes of family history and identity. A woman picks up a strange dirty little girl at the supermarket who turns out to be her own childhood; a woman tries to talk her mother out of marrying and giving birth to her, and rocks the same mother to sleep in an infant's body. George Sand encounters her literary destiny; Oscar Wilde rejects a second chance at respectability (long life as a nonentity). These stories from three decades are rich, varied, and an excellent introduction to a fascinating talent.

—Marge Piercy

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