Vampires and Aliens
PAM KEESEY AND ELEANOR ARNASON
by ELISE MATTHESEN
copyright by the author, and used by permission
Eleanor (L) and Elise (R) photo by D. Lenander
talking across the table of Elise’s jewelry at the Minicon 2002 Dealers’ Room
article originally appeared in Lavender Lifestyles November 24, 1995
Eleanor Amason started out trying to get back at Jesse Helms, and wound up with a chocolate typewriter. Pam Keesey began with a fascination with vampires and ended up feeling “like Peter Cushing in drag.” But for these two local women, unexpected results like these are iust part of the usual territory for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
Arnason, a feminist science fiction writer with a strong interest in gender bending, has written five novels. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies like Women of Wonder: The Classic Years, and the new Norton Book of Science Fiction. The book that got her the chocolate typewriter was Ring of Swords,* published in 1991. The edible typewriter was part of the Tiptree Award, an award given for science fiction (SF) that questions assumption of gender. Says Amason, displaying a picture of the lifesized typewriter fashioned in dark and white chocolate, “I kept it in my icebox for a year. I couldn’t bear to eat it.”
Ring of Swords is a strong portrayal of an alien society. Amason notes, “I started the book because I was very mad at Jesse Helms. I wanted to write a culture that was homosexual and had always been homosexual, and was somewhat. prudish. They knew decent sex from perversion, and when they met human beings, they were disgusted.” Amason laughs, and then returns to a serious tone, “in 1989, with the whole NEA thing, I kept feeling that there was a flavor of defensiveness among the defenders, as if deep down there was an assumption that heterosexuality was the norm.” She shakes her head, then continues, “And I see no evidence that it is the norm. Sex serves a lot of purposes, more than simply making sure there is a next generation. Also, I wanted to write a romance. Plus, I wanted to write about men having strong feelings.”
Across the table from Amason is Pam Keesey, whose flock of lesbian vampires is definitely full of strong feelings. Keesey, the editor of two anthologies from Cleis Press, Daughters of Darkness and Dark Angels, just has got back from a book tour. “I did nine cities, twelve readings, in fourteen days … It was fun, but I feel like I could sleep for a week,” she confesses.
Keesey sometimes feels like Peter Cushing in drag, she quips, because she’s known now as “The Lesbian Vampirologist;’ a title, she does not hesitate to add, that she thoroughly enjoys. As Keesey puts it, “I like to swing wildly from academia to total camp.” Her enthusiasm for vampires has raised some eyebrows, she explains. “I have encountered the stereotype that only men like horror, and I do like to turn that around.”
Both women are philosophical about the pigeonholes in which their work sometimes is placed. Observes Arnason, “I may have worked myself into some esoteric niche–gay military space opera.” Keesey responds, “Is that as esoteric as lesbian vampire stories?” Arnason answers, “Oh, maybe more so,” and both women laugh.
While Arnason’s work has been rewarded by major attention within the science fiction community–such as winning the Tiptree Award–Keesey’s work has not found a home always within the feminist publishing community. She relates, “One women’s press thought that it was rude and pornographic.” This crossover problem is not uncommon, states Arnason. “Susanna Sturgis, who reviews SF in Lambda Book Review, says it was much easier for her as a feminist and a lesbian to deal with the SF subculture than it was for her as a science fiction reader to deal with the lesbian and feminist subcultures.”
Still, Keesey has found a happy feminist publishing home with Cleis Press, for whom she has nothing but praise. “They’re really good, ” she remarks. “One of their new tags is ‘for girlfriends of all genders.'” Besides, adds Keesey, “Cleis Press is one of the few places where you’ll hear someone yelling up the stairs, ‘Is “fist-fucking” one word or two?”‘
Being willing to talk about sexuality is essential to an exploration of the history of lesbian vampires, according to Keesey. “Vampires in particular, and lesbian vampires most of all, have a really strong soft pom history. Often, it was straight white men writing lesbian vampire movies for straight white men.” But this apparent exploitation frequently was turned to subversive ends by women, she argues. “In Our Vampires, Ourselves, a woman says that as a girl growing up in the Fifties, vampire movies showed her that there was an alternative to marriage and children.” Vampires were the women outside patriarchal norms, the women who could not be tamed. This holds true, asserts Keesey, for all bad girls and woman villains.
“For example,” Keesey recounts, “when the actress Maila Nurmi, who played Vampira in Plan 9, talks about being a young girl who emigrated from Finland in the 1930s, she tells about how the Finnish ghetto was the poorest of the poor–and how when she went to see Snow White, there was a woman who was ‘everything I wanted to be when I was growing up: strong, powerful, beautiful, intelligent, in control of her life, and dependent on no one … and that’s when I fell in love with the wicked queen,’ said Nurmi.”
Besides showing us inspiring rebels, suggests Amason, one thing fantastical fiction gives us is a look at societies that, although strange to us, illuminate our own lives. “One of the things we don’t understand today is the tendency of human cultures to be sex-segregated:’ She has explored this theme in her work, and will continue to do so. This sort of interrogation of gender and society is not new for women in science fiction, she contends. “Fairly early on, we had woman writers investigating nontraditional gender roles and also unusual societies.”
Do people who classify Amason’s work as gay science fiction and Keesey’s anthologies as lesbian vampire stories sometimes miss the point? When asked about the wider implications of this type of writing, Keesey replied enthusiastically, “Oh, yes. I think of Nicola Griffith’s work as not ‘lesbian SF’ but as anthropological SF.”
Amason, who agrees that the material draws together gender roles, sexuality issues, and general issues of humanity in interesting ways, believes this often has been characteristic of science fiction. The two writers then embark on a discussion of Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. In Amason’s view, “Here is a woman who came into SF very much exploring gender roles. In the relationship between human and Kesh, one is ambisexual but always referred to as ‘he,’ and Genly Ai is definitely male, so there is a definite kind of a gay subtext in the story.” Keesey comments, “Somebody told me they imagined Estragon as David Bowie in his glitter days,” and the two writers are off in gales of laughter again.
In the discussion of gay and lesbian characters in books, in movies, and on television shows, Keesey points out that working in science fictional genres sometimes can lead to some funny comments. After one show, she recalls, there were compliments by viewers on the program’s “realistic portrayals of same-sex aliens,” a phrase which gave her pause. “I thought, hey, a positive portrayal, yes–but realistic? Think about it. These are aliens.”
Some who write, or write about, SF say that aliens are often code for women or for GLBT folk, or for whomever the writer’s society is making “the other.” One who has been a part of the science fiction subculture for many years, and who blends an interest in aliens, monsters, and lesbians, is an unusual person Keesey met last year when she was a guest at Gaylaxicon, a gay science fiction convention. Keesey enthuses, “I met my favorite lesbian.”
Her eyes twinkle, and she reveals that her “favorite lesbian” is a man named Forrest J. Ackerman, well known to fans of monster movies and science fiction collectors for four decades. Keesey goes on to tell how Ackerman, known as Forrey or “4E” to his friends, was mentioned in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers under his pseudonym of Laurajean Ermayne, the name he used when he wrote several notable lesbian, novels in the heyday of pulp lesbian tales.
Amason, eyes wide, inquires, “Is he out?” Keesey responds, “In Hollywood Babylon his lesbian past was outed.” Ackerman, when interviewed about his lesbian fiction, drew a connection with his science fiction, positing that for someone like himself who was “waiting for aliens from outer space” with a sense of wonder, it was no great difficulty to accept lesbians as the misunderstood among us, the aliens unseen in U.S. culture of that era.
Keesey goes on, “He was a guest at Gaylaxicon. Did you know that Daughters of Bilitis [an early lesbian organization in the U.S.] actually named him an honorary lesbian? They had a party for all the lesbian writers, and he got the invitation as Laurajean Ermayne, and showed up to find out the party was women-only. He said, ‘Oh, OK, no problem,’ and turned to leave, and then they all said, ‘But we like you!’ So they named him an honorary lesbian, and let him stay for the party.”
However, the genre needs men who are not “honorary lesbians,” Amason stresses. She states firmly, “I still think there’s too small a gay male presence. There’s [Samuel R.] Delany, and that’s it.”
For aspiring writers and editors, Arnason and Keesey have some
advice. Urges Amason, “If you are going to write, and particularly if you are going to write SF, you can’t write unless you read it, and read a lot of it. And it’s probably a good idea to make contact with some of the large organized SF communities.”
Keesey chimes in, “For an editor, it’s basically the same rules: read a lot of it, and go to conventions. I never knew the conventions existed until after Daughters of Darkness was published, but now I love them. I absolutely adore them.”
Immersion in the literature is not sufficient, although it’s a necessary first step, emphasizes Keesey. “We read and learn by being critical readers. So often, when I’m reading stories I say, ‘This would have been great if…..
Amason concurs. “That’s something that doesn’t develop without a gargantuan amount of reading. After a while, you know what works, and if there’s a problem with the writing, you can notice it, and know what to do about it.” Writers’s groups, she feels, are very good for developing such critical faculties, as well as for moral support.
Amason recommends some of the local science fiction conventions to. aspiring writers seeking groups. “At Minicon, Eric Heideman holds a meeting where people can find each other. People can also reach Eric through Uncle Hugo’s bookstore; they should ask Scott Imes.” Information about Minicon, the annual convention of the Minnesota Science Fiction Society, or about other activities throughout the year, can be obtained by calling the club’s hotline at 612-824-5559.
Another local convention Amason finds useful is Diversicon, which she describes as “consciously multicultural and multimedia.” Allowing that Diversicon appeals to many different groups of people, Amason adds, “I hate the term ‘minorities,’ because we add up to a majority.”
Keesey says, “Fandom is one of the most accepting places I’ve ever found.” She notes that she never found fandom until after her first book was published. Amason observes, “There are people who are homophobic who are in fandom, but when you’re a bigot in fandom, you’re kind of in a bad position” because the whole premise of the literature and media is exploration of the unfamiliar or unnoticed.” Amason also asserts, “Clearly, a lot of people are using SF to explore gender roles.”
Readers, writers, and editors interested in this issue from a feminist perspective also may wish to attend Wiscon, the feminist SF convention, held in Madison, Wisconsin on Memorial Day weekend. Wiscon is the birthplace of the Tiptree award, the prize for gender-bending fiction that put the chocolate typewriter in Amason’s icebox.
What are Keesey and Amason working on now?
Keesey is working on “Women Who Run With the Werewolves.” Arnason is working on a sequel to Ring of Swords. She recounts, “I’ve started writing the aliens’ fiction. I have five stories so far, and am working on a sixth. I’m intending to write an alien literature, as if translated by different translators in different styles. One is a straightforward myth, and then I wrote a lying myth, and the goddess in that one is seriously weird:’ She laughs, and Keesey asks for details. Amason amplifies, “Well, the goddess meets a nice young man, and having no sexual orientation herself, the goddess gets the hots for this young man. Now, he’s a very proper young man, and would never think of having sex with a woman. So, she has to turn herself into a man:’
The story, called “The Gauze Banner,” will be coming out in the second Amazing anthology, according to Amason. She explains the name thus: “The goddess is hanging out with some people that need a banner, and so she borrows the Milky Way, and doesn’t tell anybody. She keeps it in a magic box, and at night it’s back in the sky. She tells them, ‘Don’t open the box,’ so, of course, these morons take it out and wreck it.”
While you’re waiting for their new projects, both women encourage reading outside as well as inside the genres of SF and horror. Amason summarizes, “The two great themes of literature are love and death, and that’s what gay literature has been about for the last 10 years.” She shares that when she read Paul Monette’s book of essays, “I cried straight through.” And there is much in other genres to teach the aspiring SF or horror writer and editor, declares Keesey. “Anyone dealing with the fluidity of gender roles should read Stone Butch Blues. It’s not SF, but if you really want to try to understand the complexity of gender identities, it’s excellent.”
And who knows? If you are inspired to do some wonderful work by your explorations, you just might wind up with a chocolate typewriter. –Elise Matheson
*Note from David Lenander: I transcribed this from the issue of Lavender Lifestyles as it appeared (aside from any typos that I’ve introduced). However, Eleanor received the Tiptree Award for A Woman of the Iron People in that year, along with the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for the same book. Ring of Swords was a finalist for the Tiptree award for ’93, but it did not win.