Personal Essay: "Stocking Stuffers" by Anaea Lay
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 Anaea Lay.
It's Christmas of 1998. I'm thirteen, in the eighth grade, and hate just about everything.
I'm supposed to get Confirmed in the spring, but have deep theological concerns that I want resolved first. You see, I'm very serious, very snobby, and commitments to omnipotent deities are not a thing I'm inclined to take lightly. Instead of getting answers, I'm warmly invited to stop coming to CCD.
That's upsetting, but there's more. I have to spend most of my time with other thirteen-year-olds, and they're busy doing the adolescent sexual awakening thing. None of it makes any sense to me since the amount of cheating via illicit hand-holding going on makes it pretty clear that exclusive relationships are a recipe for heart-break. I'm reeling with horror after a conversation with another girl wherein she confessed that she had a crush on two different boys and was sincerely worried that made her a slut. If being a slut is that easy, I'm convinced we're all doomed.
On top of that, all my peers think fart jokes are the funniest thing ever, and that finishing your classwork in ten minutes and spending the rest of the time reading is a social faux pas. Also, no matter how much I practice the flute, there is no overcoming the fact that I couldn't keep a beat if the fate of the universe depended on it. So, basically, being thirteen sucked for me just like it did for everybody before or since.
This Christmas is special, though. I go downstairs at my grandparent's house to pillage my stocking and in with the usual socks, lip gloss and nail polish is a book. A weird book with cover art of carefully posed naked people swimming underwater. I give my Dad a LOOK. A "Dad, are you nuts?" look. He disavows all knowledge of what the elves were up to. I put the book at the bottom of my massive stack of Christmas-gift-books and figure I'll get to it if I run out of things to read before my birthday in June brings more.
Spring comes, and with it the eighth grade English class project on persecution. This is the unit where everybody reads one of four books: THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, 1984, ANIMAL FARM, or FAHRENHEIT 451. I do not want to do one of those books. I also don't know how to pick out a book about persecution without having read it already. "Do you still have that book I gave you for Christmas?" my dad asks when I lament my conundrum at the dinner table. "Have I ever lost or given up a book?" I reply. "Read that book," he says.
I was not the first person to read STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and have my mind a little bit blown. In fact, I was so far behind the curve there that only the cannibalism would cut it as a scandalous idea anymore. But it was the first time I ran into something that said, "Hey, you can be a good person without being Christian," and also said, "Monogamy is a bit messed up, don't you think?" These were things I really needed to hear, not because they were my introduction to those ideas, but because they were my introduction to the idea that I wasn't alone for having them. I wasn't even so weird that my dad couldn't notice what was going on and slip a message into my Christmas stocking.
Or maybe Dad just wanted us to have a literature canon in common and that was the Christmas I was finally old enough that the sexual content of later Heinlein wasn't too mature for me. It could have been an accident that he handed me the perfect book at the perfect moment. I've never asked and don't plan to; that'd risk ruining a really good story.
Story has been the lens I use to interact with the world for as long as I've been a conscious being. There was never a question about whether I'd be a writer, even as my dreams of becoming a rock star and concert flautist fell apart on me. From Christmas of 1998, there was never a question about whether I'd write science fiction. It was my first hint that I wasn't alone, that if I just gritted my teeth and waited, then I could go find the parts of the world that would make sense to me and then I could make them mine.
If that means I'm destroying SF, oh well. Someday I'm going to have nieces and nephews, and they're going to have to be thirteen, too. You'd better believe I'll do whatever it takes to make sure the perfect book for them winds up in their stocking.
Anaea Lay lives in Madison, Wisconsin where she sells real estate under a different name, writes, cooks, plays board games, spoils her cat, runs the STRANGE HORIZONS podcast, and plots to take over the world. Her work has appeared in a variety of venues, including STRANGE HORIZONS, LIGHTSPEED, NIGHTMARE, APEX, and DAILY SCIENCE FICTION.