Friday, October 7, 2011

introducing, mr. james tiptree jr.

So there was this Scifi short story writer in the 60's and 70's who went by the name of James Tiptree Jr. His friends called him Tip, for short. Tip wrote really challenging, fascinating, disturbing and avant guarde fiction that defied the existing labels of genre and voice. He was seen as very macho, but also quite a feminist. His stories had all the space, aliens, and technology of 'hard' scifi, but were dripping with the sociological and psychological issues of 'soft' scifi (not to mention an incredibly experimental style). Things are usually pretty dark and grim in Tip's work. And a lot of times you aren't sure who's side you should be on. Or who's side he is on. There isn't a lot of faith in humanity or the future, but as a reader I find myself consistently amazed by the twist of perception that brings you to some kind of amazing, if devastating, insight into the human (and many times, female) condition. Suzy Mckee Charnas (another scifi writer) is quoted as saying, "'Tip' was a crucial part of modern SF's maturing process... [He] wrote powerful fiction challenging readers' assumptions about everything, especially sex and gender." These were the days of militant feminism and many of Tip's stories dealt with the relationship between men and women and tended to treat sex as a problem or a threat. It's difficult shit. But incredibly rewarding. Seriously, this guy will blow your mind. [check out his stuff here]

Tip himself was an interesting character. Intensely reclusive, he only had dealings with publishers, authors, and the scifi community at large through the mail. It was pretty well known that he used a nom de plume, but he hinted that it had to do with his job (top secret governement stuff) and he couldn't say much about his personal life. He became close friends by correspondence with folks like Ursula K. LeGuin and Barry Malzberg, who thought of him as a stately older gentleman. He always insisted he was very shy, but was good at courtly flirting with women and giving respect or advice to men.

But the thing is, James Tiptree Jr. only existed on paper. Well that, and in the head and heart (and, I believe, the desire) of a woman named Alice B. Sheldon. When she started writing scifi she felt embarrassed and wanted to shield her own identity, and so Tip was born. But soon it got to the point where she was interacting with people in a personal way (not just business letters) under an assumed identity. This actually seemed to suit her very well. She had many times been one of the boys in her multiple lines of work (she actually was a CIA agent for a time) and she was almost totally able to keep her flesh-and-blood identity and, for the most part, her body's gender (though there were scattered rumors) a secret for about ten years.

One of the things I love about this 'double life' is what it says about people's assumptions of gender. Especially the gender of authors. Some of Tip's close scifi friends wondered if he was homosexual. Which, given that Alice was married to a man, was somewhat true this way. And, given that she had been in love with multiple women when she was younger, was somewhat true that way, too. But when it came down to it, Tip himself was a heterosexual man who didn't act upon his desire, hiding his manhood behind a mask of flirtation and humor and at the same time stripping his authorship bare with sincere praise of others and voicing artistic insecurities in himself. This allowed him to form very close friendships with women who found him to be 'a man who understands women'. And though there were people who felt betrayed when they learned of Alice, believing her to have lied to them, they couldn't deny the fact that they cared about Tip and had been very much affected by the deeply human truth in his writing, both fictional and epistolary.

The two things I love and respect most about this writer are one, the idea of getting so far into a character that you can embody him for the purposes of writing other fictional characters. It impresses me to no end. And two, i feel kinship with Alice because I think her relationship with Tip goes beyond the actor/writer talent i've written about [here] and, as it does for me, it falls into the realm of a trans narrative. If you read their biography (james tiptree, jr. the double life of alice b. sheldon) with an eye to it, you can come to believe that Tip's masculine identity was feeding a subconscious transgender desire in Alice. Tip & Alice's biographer, Julie Phillips, does not go this far in her book. She covers homosexuality in Alice's life and what being Tip gave her in the way of comfort to a neglected part of herself, but she doesn't go so far as to mention the idea of a trans identity. I think this is because the concept of an FTM trans person existing in the world was too foreign to accept in her time and therefore could seem like an unfair analysis. Hard to identify someone as something they had never thought possible. Not in real life, anyway. (cuz tho Alice did have breast reduction surgery at one point in order to feel better about her appearance, she never could have imagined actually ridding herself of her breasts completely. So close, yet so far...)

But this introduction was all just to underline Nabokov's idea of getting so far into a character you forget who you are. And to mention that for some people, at least for Alice and myself, sometimes you start to prefer that character to your original self. Which can be rewarding, cuz in many ways, Alice found it easier to interact with people when she was Tip. But I fear it can also be treacherous. She battled with depression for much of her life (evidenced in writing by both herself and Tip), and ended it by suicide. From what I've read, I believe on a lot of levels it was Tip that kept Alice alive as long as she was. She killed herself a decade after Tip's identity was 'revealed', but her suicide note had been written a long time before she decided to use it. I kinda think once Tip couldn't exist anymore, she would have been ready to stop existing too, but she wouldn't leave her husband alone.

The lesson I come away with here is that living a fictional life can create real happiness, but it's still bounded by the strictures of that which is not real. Which seems counter-intuitive, cuz isn't anything possible in fiction? There are two answers to this:

1) it depends on how you set up your fictional world,


2) the only thing that fiction can't do is become non-fiction.

The first of these answers can instill an incredible sense of freedom, the other, a crushing despair. Cuz there is nothing that aches quite as cruelly as getting so close to the thing you want most—so close you can describe every last detail of it—without actually being able to reach into the page and grab it.

I can build an entire world to live in, and I can construct a self to make a home in it. I can fabricate friends and family to accompany this self there. I, in fact, do this in my mind and on paper. And it helps me to be able to see my possibilities, to talk to, and through, my different selves. It's still not my real life, though. It is, however, my work. My life's work. But the gap between life and work can be a tempting one to bridge.

Alice set her world up so that Tip had a life of his own, which she lived thru. I can't imagine how simultaneously freeing and tormenting this must have been. Cuz i'm pretty sure that she did lexically what I do physically [re: muscle memory]; find the right voice, stance, demeanor, and flourishes to be read how she wanted to by her audience. They then gave her the responses she was looking for—they treated her as him. Which for a time was enough for everyone. But at some point her 'audience', ie, her friends, asked more of her than she could give—they asked her to actually be him. To embody a self that was never meant to exist off the page. They asked her to make a fiction into non-fiction. And I think it hurt her quite a bit that she couldn't oblige. Him too, for that matter. How frustrating must it be to have amorous feelings for a woman and be confined to pecking them out on a typewriter? To be asked to drink a beer with a buddy and have to beg off every time because you are all head and heart without hands or mouth? A decade of this is long past any game of hide-and-seek. The pain of fearing you won't live up to the expectations you yourself instilled in others is why I love James Tiptree Jr. and Alice B. Sheldon so much. And in case this wasn't clear, this is the pain some trans people feel in their living-among-other-humans life. Every. Single. Day.

No comments: