Friday, March 16, 2007

James Tiptree Jr: the Secret Life of Alice B. Sheldon* Julie Phillips

As a little girl I was addicted to historical fiction. I loved to imagine myself as the honorable knight, the fearless pirate, the courageous explorer. It wasn’t until I was quite a bit older that I understood I could never have been any of those things. As a woman I would have been miserable in nearly any time before our own. Even in my dreams, is there any historical era I can imagine living in as a woman? Maybe one of those early matriarchal societies. Maybe Elizabethan England, but only if I could somehow arrange to be Elizabeth. Or I could do like Mata Hari and dress as a man….

Julie Phillips’ latest book, James Tiptree Jr.: the Secret Life of Alice B. Sheldon, tells the story of an intelligent, beautiful, and slightly unhinged woman who ended up writing some of the most inventive science fiction stories ever…. as a man.

Phillips’ compelling biography follows the long, meandering life of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote early groundbreaking science fiction stories in the 1970’s under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. Phillips tells how Sheldon was waltzed around Africa and India by her explorer parents at the age of six. She then had a briefly successful career as a painter, before joining the military during World War II in one of the few female brigades. Sheldon worked for the CIA, married an older operative, quit to run a chicken farm, earned a PhD in Psychology, and finally began writing Science Fiction as James Tiptree Jr.- a name she stole from a jam jar. Among other things, the book is remarkable for its exploration of America’s changing attitudes towards women.

Reading this book it struck me as patently obvious that Alice Sheldon was transgendered. As Tiptree she wrote inventive science fiction stories where gender was all mixed up- women preferred aliens to human sexual partners, men fell in love with inanimate objects, and the sex itself is often frank and threatening. As herself, in a drunken scribble on the margin of a youthful sketchbook she wrote: “…I want to ram myself into a crazy soft woman and come, come, spend, come, make her pregnant Jesus to be a man to come in coming flesh I love women I will never be happy…”

Good God this is sad stuff. And it raises some thorny issues about gender and sexuality and art. Would coming of age in a time when it was relatively easier to talk about issues of gender and sexuality have allowed Alice to be more comfortable with who she was? Maybe. Would she ever have written the incredible stories she eventually did, had she not had to struggle so mightily within herself? Who knows?

Unfortunately, Phillips doesn’t really delve into these issues. After that heartbreaking quote above, Phillips simply moves on with Sheldon’s history. That’s not to say that this biography is a boring chronology- it’s anything but. The stuff of Sheldon’s life is compelling enough to rival with the plots of the best novels. And Phillips does a wonderful job of letting Sheldon shine through and speak for herself. Perhaps it is better to let the reader wade into the sea of questions themselves. Perhaps it is not the biographer’s job to wonder what might have been. Still, she must have wondered. I would rather not have been left alone with my questions.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner* Bich Minh Nguyen

I thought my name singled me out. But try growing up with a name like ‘Bich’ in Grand Rapids Michigan in the ‘80’s. The new memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, chronicles this and other difficulties faced by Vietnamese American author Bich Minh Nguyen. Nguyen has a light, charming voice- at once funny and sad. She obviously has a great appreciation for the inherent absurdity of growing up in the 1980’s.

Nguyen’s family emigrated from Vietnam in 1975, settling in Michigan when she was only 8 months old. Her story is filled with the classic immigrant’s paradox: preserve your own cultural heritage, or assimilate at all costs. Salad bowl, or melting pot?

For children, of course, the pressure to fit in is that much stronger. What little kid doesn’t know the shame of pulling out a bologna sandwich when all your friends are eating PB&J’s? Indeed, for Nguyen, this pressure to conform manifested itself most strongly in the arena of food. Nguyen longed to be eating the Twinkies and Spaghetti-O’s of her peers. She kept her grandmother’s pho and bahn mi a secret. She begged her parents to buy Chef Boyardee and Pringles to stock the cupboard. A trip to Ponderosa Steakhouse was something to be celebrated.

In one heartbreaking scene, Nguyen relates the moment when she discovered the concept of homemade when her neighbor gives her half of a cookie her mother had baked: “I had thought all American food came from a package and some mystical factory process. The idea that a person could create such a thing at home was a revelation. And then, a desire.” Meanwhile her grandmother’s laboriously created dishes were brushed aside.