"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.

Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the foor like an antique harem girl."

If the opening lines to Kameron Hurley's new book, God's War don't draw you in, then perhaps you're just not ready for a hard-boiled queer heroine who drives a car powered by bugs.

Years and years ago, Hurley's blog, Brutal Women, was one of the first blogs I read with some regularity. It had explicitly feminist meanderings, but it was also a blog about how Hurley was learning to box, and how that was affecting her life. From time to time, she would write about a book or story she was writing, so when her book came out, I was curious to read it--with a blog like Brutal Women, I expected the book couldn't help but have feminist threads woven through, and I wasn't to be disappointed. It's refreshing to read a book with subtle feminist underpinnings, with a tough heroine that's realistic (even if she exists in a world full of interesting magic). Even more of a wonderful surprise was that there are multifaceted men in this book, and queer folks, and world-building worthy of the complexities of all of those people and more.

But mostly it was just a fun, action-packed romp of a read. And that's quite an achievement. So go buy it, please. And when you do, send me an email (FeministAllies@gmail.com) so I can let Kameron know that the community here at Feminist Allies appreciates her taking the chance on writing some great fiction with feminist underpinnings.

Kameron was kind enough to allow me to interview her, and to ask her about some of the more feminist aspects of the book. Sadly, marketing any fiction book as "feminist" is probably not (yet?) a good idea if you want to sell more books, or at least that's the conventional wisdom. But Kameron bravely agreed to answer some questions about the book and its feminist threads that haven't been asked about in some of the other interviews she's given. Here's a snippet:

Ultimately, I wrote this book to be a fun, mad-cap adventure novel. Sure, it's got lots of interesting stuff in there about race, class, gender, and religion, but it also has bugs and magicians and shapeshifters and people getting their heads chopped off. If you're not having fun with it, what's the point? I wanted to write the kind of adventure novel I wanted to read, and this is definitely it. Hopefully it will be for lots of other folks, too.

Read the full interview below.

But first, some links!
Kameron's Personal Site
The God's War site
Read the first chapter FREE!
Night Shade Books , which took a chance that some other publishers wouldn't. (I'm going to be buying from them a lot now!)

And now, the interview:
Feminist Allies: I started out reading your stuff way back in the early days of your blog, Brutal Women, when all I knew about you was that you were writing about learning how to box. Of course, you were already deep into the writing of God's War by that time. There seem to be intersections between your life/personality and that of Nyx, your protagonist/anti-heroine in God's War. What did you pull from yourself to create Nyx?

Kameron Hurley: This is always a tricky question to ask an author, because it’s sort of a given that every character you create has little bits of your life in them. Generally, you take a situation and twist it, so the emotion from that time you got beat up in high school becomes the emotion behind the story about a raging street battle on some distant planet. It all comes from somewhere.

I was taking boxing lessons when I first started writing this book, and I definitely wanted to incorporate that in some way. That, and the personal sense of physical power I experienced once I felt like I wasn’t going to trip over my feet. When you’re a not-terribly-fem woman who’s about the height and weight of the average guy, you’re not really sure what your body’s good for. Knowing I could hit something and make it fall down made me aware of my own personal strength in a way I hadn’t considered before. I figured that unless I was skinny and therefore attractive, my body wasn’t good for much. Intellectually, you may know this is a load of crap, but until you find out what it is you can do outside of that narrowly prescribed notion of a “real girl” object, it isn’t very tangible.

I’ve noted elsewhere that I also wrote this book the year I was dying, and that affected a lot of what came through. I didn’t realize just how much whiskey drinking was in the book until after the fact. I went through whiskey while writing this book the same way a lot of writers go through coffee, and it shows.

FA: One of the feminist threads in God's War for me is the simple fact that Nyx is not only her own person, but she is the organizer and leader of her team. She not only has a "room of her own", she's stocked that room with guns, whiskey, and good, brutal people who work for her. Not to mention that working for her isn't always the most healthy lifestyle choice. How important was it for you to have a protagonist who is such a leader?

KH: I wanted a protagonist who was her own person, certainly. To achieve that, though, she has had to become rather monstrously detached from people in a way that you generally see being encouraged in men, at least in our society. She struggles a lot with her people disconnect, but that’s just something that’s going to happen when you raise folks to be killers, whether they’re male or female. One of the sad side effects of being a butcher is… well, you’re a butcher. In order to achieve the life she wants, she has had to give up a lot. That said, her physical strength has given her more freedom than other folks in this world might have. If she wasn’t as good at what she does, she’d have been pulped awhile ago. And, again, that’s simply a result of how this world operates. Nice, passive people just aren’t going to last very long.

Before I created these physically and politically powerful women, I had to create a world where that kind of thing was possible from the get-go. Note that killing people doesn’t have to equal power - and I do want to explore a society where power is not synonymous with brutality and exploitation - but this time around I was more interested in writing something that went against the cliché that every woman-run society is going to be full of peaceful, nature-loving hippies who spend all day winding flowers in their hair. Societies built on the exploitation of either sex are not going to be happy places.

FA: Gender and sexuality are weaved pretty intricately throughout God's War. While Nyx doesn't seem to subscribe to identity politics around her sexuality, the fact that she likes to fuck is pretty central to her character, and she fucks folks of various genders without apology. And many of your supporting cast have what some might call complex sexualities, in a kind of queer and/or genderfucking kind of way, which was refreshing. Can you talk about what you wanted to accomplish with those aspects of characters, aside from simple character development, if anything?

KH: One of the flaws I’d see in otherwise well-developed worlds is that there was a big failure of imagination when it came to social mores, family groups, and sexuality. It was all Ray Bradbury’s Martians sitting in their living rooms with the newspaper while wifey made tea and commented on the neighbors. It just didn’t make any sense to have an alien world where everyone acted like idealized white, middle-class Americans circa 1952.

When I developed these countries, I tried to build them from the ground up. If you don’t have a lot of protein animals, well, you’re going to eat a lot of bugs. If you’re fighting a war that women need to produce children to fight and who also produce the arms and support structures to fight it and govern the country, you need to come up with some fascinating technology and alternate family structures. And in a world where women are all around and nobody sees a guy between the ages of 16 and 40 (if ever – most boys grow up on the coast and go straight to the front – “house boys” can be fostered by some folks, and occasionally a woman does choose to raise her brood herself outside the compounds), well, I just don’t buy that all women are going to be sitting around at home all sexually frustrated (though some certainly will). Especially in a world where you don’t have to worry about stuff like STD’s or pregnancy, women are going to find that they have a lot more interest in being sexual.

I’ve actually had some folks annoyed with the “highly sexual” women in the book, which I find funny. Folks don’t realize that when you remove STD’s and pregnancy from the equation (let alone culture stigma!), women, in particular, are going to be far more interested in sex.

There’s some stuff to be said in there about the overall Nasheenian interpretation of their holy book in regards to sex, too, which is obviously not the interpretation of their neighbors (or of some of the more conservative factions in their country).

FA: Is there any way anybody could read the first line of this book and not think it's a feminist novel?

I’ve been surprised at the number of folks who kept reading after that first line, myself…. It really does tell you exactly what type of book you’re getting!

FA: I generally have an aversion to religious stuff in my sci-fi and fantasy--Battlestar Galactica got boring for me exactly when Starbuck became some sort of savior angel, for instance--but you manage to infuse religion throughout God's War in a way that is intriguing without being heavy-handed. If I understand it correctly, there are two factions at war, and both are descended in some way from current day Islam, with some aliens that actually appear to be (perhaps?) Christians from Earth. I know that you've left some of that ambiguous on purpose, but could you tell us a bit about why you chose to create things this way, and what affect the religious threads have had on the women on your world?

KH: As for who the Nasheens and Chenjans originally were or who the aliens are, that’s very much open to interpretation. I will say that this is so far future I don’t think anybody’s ever heard of a place called Earth.

At its core, the religions in the book are loosely based on Abrahamic religions, which are notorious for being rather bloody, misogynist types of religions, if you look at the history books (and the Old Testament itself!). That said, the books themselves sometimes get a far worse reputation than they deserve - some of Jesus’s most fervent followers were women, and Islam gave Middle Eastern women more rights than European women up until the 19th century. But the interpreters of these religious books have picked up a bad reputation for misogyny over the last couple thousand years. That was one reason I picked them to play with. If you look at the evolution of religions, it’s not the holy books themselves that are neccesarily the issue (many were downright progressive for their time) – it’s who’s doing the interpreting, and for what purpose. With Nasheen, I wanted to look at what would happen when women were given an opportunity to interpret their holy book themselves.

“Adultery is bad” is one of the ten commandments, but I don’t see churches out stoning parishioners who cheat on their spouses. When slavery was no longer seen as a moral and humane thing to do, people stopped quoting the Bible passages that supported slavery. We interpret books based on who we are, not who the people who wrote them were. Because let’s face it – the past was a pretty brutal place. And the more misogynist we are, the more we're going to look for things that support that misogyny.

Every religion we make up in any fantasyland is, by definition, going to be based on some kind of belief we currently have or know about, whether it’s an existing one or one we cobbled together from other sources. I think where most stuff goes wrong is when it tries to fully mirror modern-day religions in some other time and place. It feels hackneyed, tacked-on. And that makes it feel like you’re being talking down to, or preached at. The religions on Umayma certainly have roots in the old Abrahamic religions, but at the end of the day, they’ve evolved into something uniquely… Umayman. That’s what made these novels so interesting to write.
And, you know, with the SF element to the whole thing, it just doesn’t make any sense for me to just slap some kind of belief system whole cloth onto any of these people. The Islam and Christianity and Hinduism and Shinto and Judaism practiced today look very little like the same practiced millennia ago. Thousands of years in the future, they may have the same taste and color and feel of the original, perhaps, but they shouldn’t be like holding up a mirror. Religions are about people, first, and when people change, interpretations change. You can’t throw people into space for a few thousand years and expect them to practice Christianity just like some small Southern Baptist parish down in modern-day Mississippi.

Someone actually asked me once why I didn’t just “make up” the religions in the book, which I found a bit mind-boggling. If you think the Nasheenian or Ras Tiegan or Mhorian belief systems are lifted whole cloth from a modern-day religion, you need to learn a lot more about modern-day religions.

Which also brings up another thing: there’s no such thing as a mono-religion here on earth, and assuming there is in future is also annoying. So there’s no “one” Nasheenian, or “one” Chenjan religion. There are various sects, martyrs, false prophets, interpretations, and plenty of believers and non-believers and everything in between. I was always annoyed by books and films that just assumed everyone believed exactly the same thing. That has certainly affected the women in the book as well – it’s given them a lot more choices.

Something folks miss when it comes to Nasheen is that it’s actually a secular-governed country. Things is Chenja and Ras Tieg are a bit different. I don’t know that that fact has much bearing on how women are treated – Tirhan has a national religion and a form of religious law, but men and women are starting to gain some tenuous equality, which is something folks will read about in the next book. Mostly, I think this is because Tirhan is rich, and can afford not to control its citizens as brutally as everywhere else.

When you want to control a people, you start by controlling women. I’d hazard a guess that you can measure just how “free” a place really is by looking at the health and education level of its women. It will tell you a lot about what that society actually values.

FA: Another feminist thread that I loved in the book was the fact that there are all kinds of different men in the book as well. You've got a somewhat traditional patriarchal villain in Raine--he's a tough guy who thinks he knows better than everybody else. But you've also got Nyx's team, which include a big-labrador-type of guy who can literally shift into a dog, and you've got Rhys, who is reserved and, in some ways, weak and broken; while he has his strong aspects and certainly comes through for Nyx a lot, he's not a traditionally "strong" man. It's great to see such complex masculinity portrayed in fiction--was this a conscious choice, or simply a result of strong character building in general?

KH: One of the things that sometimes gets lost in the “all the men are dead” woman-only worlds is… well, the men. Though Nasheen is a matriarchy, it’s actually pretty obsessed with its boys. How to raise them. Protect them. Mourning them. You can’t build any kind of society where you oppress one half of it and then not mention them again. I did work very hard not to make them taken-for-granted accessories like women are in some 30’s pulp science fiction. The women themselves might treat many of the men as if this is so, but it was important to me to show how this society worked for all the folks in it, not just the ones with the political power.

I initially imagined Rhys to be Nyx’s opposite. A believer where she was an atheist, Chenjan to her Nasheenian, compassionate to her indifference. But he evolved into his own person, with his own complex past and reasons for doing things. It was the same with Khos. I knew that there weren’t a lot of men in the book as spear-carriers, and I wanted to show how somebody physically intimidating would negotiate Nasheen. It turns out, he ended up being quite literally a big puppy dog instead, so there weren’t a lot of Khos vs. female enforcers scenes. I think that turned out to be a good thing, because it went against type. “Oh, of course, the big guy is going to be very brutal and violent!” In fact, he is more often simply very confused and unsure of how to be appropriately affectionate.

Steering clear of stereotypes builds better characters, whether they’re male or female. Sometimes you have to watch yourself, though. It’s very easy to start with a stereotype and keep it the whole way through. I go through a LOT of revisions.

FA: I've seen this asked in various ways on various interviews, but I have to ask: How in the hell did you get this thing published? It's got so much in it that is fascinatingly not-traditionally marketable, or at least it would seem so. You say "fuck" a lot in it, and lots of heads are cut off, so it can't skew toward the younger crowd. It's genre-defying in lots of ways, even though in some ways it's a straight-up hard-boiled-ish assassin's story. It's got lots of religious stuff, queer characters, a bad-ass woman protagonist who isn't shaped like a video-game character (physically or psychically!). Just the fact that the novel takes as a given a culture where the women are the boxers would seemingly freak out lots of publishers. Did you just get lucky? Or did sticking to your guns have something to do with it?

(I'm going to buy some other books from Night Shade, your publisher, just to thank 'em.)

KH: The answer, of course, is that it very nearly didn’t get published. For just the reasons you named. The book was rejected quite a lot for being “not very marketable.” Nobody knew what to do with it. Some of that was the genre mixing – it’s a science-fantasy, or fantastical science fiction, and it’s not really steampunk (in fact, the first time we sold this book steampunk hadn’t even had its resurgence yet). And, yeah, it’s feminist. People told me back at Clarion 11 years ago that I’d be lucky to sell anything that was obviously playing around with feminist ideas.
We initially sold the book to a larger publisher, but they cancelled the contract during the economic bust in `08. Mine wasn’t the only one to get the pink slip, but I suspect one of the reasons were that nobody could figure how to market it. With a big publisher, a book that sells 10,000 copies is a disaster. But if you sell 10,000 copies with a small publisher… you’ve got a hit.
Night Shade picked up the book without much reservation. I was a fan of their work before, which was why I was pretty happy we partnered up. They are willing to take risks are slightly weirder books than the mainstream folks do, and they always have great covers. Not only did I get to have a non-white heroine on my cover (good luck with that elsewhere) but she also got to be a not-skinny one (skinny white girls still end up on most covers, and most authors have no say in it).

To be fair, I did go through the editing process with the larger publisher first, and they didn’t bat an eyelash at all the swearing, which I got to keep in. I didn’t delete a single instance of “fuck.”
If Night Shade or someone else didn’t pick it up, the book would likely just be in a drawer right now and I’d be working on my space opera. You can “stick to your guns” all you want in publishing, but at the end of the day, it’s the publishers’ money on the line, and if they don’t think they can make money on it, it doesn’t matter how good, interesting, or crazy your book is.
Just business, and all that.

FA: io9 and Nightshade offered up your book as a free ebook for a few weeks--as a person who worked for 15 years on a book, how does that feel? Does it feel like an investment in future readers (as it surely is)?

KH: To be fair, I didn’t work for 15 years on *this* particular book! I started concepting this one back at the end of graduate school, so, 2004 or so, and did most of the actual writing in 2006/7. So really, only 7 years…. Heh.

Numbers aside, I don’t mind giving away free books at all. It’s considered a marketing expense these days, and it really does pay off. You get a greater awareness of the book, more folks talking about it, and all that. It’s nice to see so many people reading it, and so many others picking up hard copies after getting the free version. Of course, handing out a bunch of free copies also only works if you have a book people are willing to talk about. We’ll see how things turn out.
But for the record, no, I’m not one of those people who thinks that free copies of a book are going to kill future sales. Giving away thousands of copies of something for free is one of the oldest marketing techniques around....

FA: Are there any other feminist threads that I haven't asked about that you'd want to put out there explicitly? The books certainly speaks for itself, but part of the fun of reading a good book, especially in the age of so-called social networking, is deconstructing and enjoy the book on other levels. Anything in particular that you think feminist-identified readers would be interested in?

Ultimately, I wrote this book to be a fun, mad-cap adventure novel. Sure, it's got lots of interesting stuff in there about race, class, gender, and religion, but it also has bugs and magicians and shapeshifters and people getting their heads chopped off. If you're not having fun with it, what's the point? I wanted to write the kind of adventure novel I wanted to read, and this is definitely it. Hopefully it will be for lots of other folks, too.


Billie said...

Just letting you know that my copy of God's War arrived a couple of days ago. It's sitting on my desk taunting me as I won't be able to start reading for pleasure until the end of semester...

jeff said...

Yaaaay! I hope you like it. Please let me know what you think! Maybe if folks like it, we can do a little read-along for the sequel....