Personal Essay: "Stepping Through a Portal" by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing women's voices, telling what it really means to be a woman reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays by women about their experiences as a woman in science fiction. Today's essay is by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam.
"Stepping Through a Portal"
I did not read much science fiction growing up. I liked what I did stumble upon: CHILDHOOD'S END; ALAS, BABYLON; A SCANNER DARKLY, FAHRENHEIT 451; HITCHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. But although these stories fascinated me, there was little in them to relate to for a bisexual teenage girl. What I read instead were YA books written for teens like me, all lacking in any element of the fantastical or science fictional: GIRL WALKING BACKWARDS; DARE, TRUTH, OR PROMISE; PAGES FOR YOU (the reading of which was a steamy secret I kept from my parents). We were taught FRANKENSTEIN in school, of course, and in one particularly resonant AP English class we were required to read Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE. The boys in the class complained; it was too liberal, too feminist, not as classic as the other dystopian novels we were exploring—BRAVE NEW WORLD and 1984. "Why did we have to read THAT?" they asked.
It wasn't until college that I stumbled upon women writing science fiction, and it was like stepping through a portal to a whole new world. No one had ever told me about these books, about these writers—Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Alice Sheldon, Kelly Link—or, for that matter, about this niche of SFF, where lived the subtle, character-oriented stories I'd always longed to read—and write. I thought I had found a haven by and for women like me. Then I started to read the comments, the critiques, follow the controversies, and it became apparent that the utopia I thought I had discovered was not a utopia after all. Like in LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," there was a darker side to paradise, a sinister presence lurking in comments sections, in bulletins and blogs, in reviews. It was just like in my high school English class, only the people who labeled these women-written stories as too feminist had bigger soapboxes from which to shout. It was a devastating blow for a young woman, one that dragged me down to a less rosy view of the science fiction world.
These days I try to see the bright side as much as possible, and there is certainly a light in the dark; more than one, in fact. Women continue to write genre-defying science fiction, which I continue to read, and magazines like TIN HOUSE (FANTASTIC WOMEN: 18 TALES OF THE SURREAL AND THE SUBLIME), the now-defunct ELECTRIC VELOCIPEDE, and, yes, LIGHTSPEED, release issues devoted entirely to women and all their glorious destruction. I am proud to be part of this, to be one of the women working to tear down the gendered walls of SFF, so that in the future, teenage girls can easily find themselves in the science fiction that they read.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam lives in Texas with her husband and two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in magazines such as CLARKESWORLD, STRANGE HORIZONS, GOBLIN FRUIT, and DAILY SCIENCE FICTION. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast program and reviews short fiction at her blog, Short Story Review. You can visit her on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle or through her website: www.bonniejostufflebeam.com.