Ursula LeGuin, who writes science fiction stories and novels that consider issues of gender, community, geography, history and justice across the planet-she's been translated into scores of languages and film scripts for half a century-told a recent Fishtrap audience that some cave man with a big club who brought back a big bloody mammal and the heroic story of their encounter highjacked storytelling.
Ursula, who has been a friend and supporter of Fishtrap for half those fifty years says that there are other stories, stories of seeds saved in baskets for winter's food and next year's planting, stories of tricks and tricksters, "snares and delusions, missions that fail and people who don't understand." Hard stories to tell and sometimes to hear, but true stories that are not hero stories, killer stories.
Novelist Molly Gloss followed Ursula-the weekend theme was "learning from women"-with her own story of growing up reading westerns. Most of them involved bad guys doing bad things to unwary townspeople, a new hero coming to town, reluctantly strapping on his six-guns once again, taking care of the bad guys, then riding off into the sunset. Molly wanted a place for herself and for women who were not shrinking violets or barstool floozies in these stories, wanted strong women who "moved the action."
But when she set out to write her own first western, she couldn't find models in the "public" record, the stories written by government bureaucrats, historians, newspaper editors and popular novelists of the day. So she went to "private" records, diaries and letters written by women homesteaders, women on the Oregon Trail, women schoolteachers and travelers. She also found a mentor in Ursula LeGuin, a spirit like her own looking for true stories that were not restricted to spear-toting, gun-toting, bomb-dropping, "Shane" to "James Bond" named savior heroes, but stories that included the wide range of human interaction and emotion and stories that saved, built and sustained people rather than romanticized and glorified male heroes.
Gloss's "Jump Off Creek," the story of a woman homesteader (her research told her that in fact one of six homesteaders was a single woman) who finds herself and community on a fictional ranch in fictional northeast Oregon, became an instant classic, hailed by men as well as women readers and writers. LeGuin's explorations of real humanity in unreal places distanced from here and now by space and time, are loved across the world.
I can't help but mention another writer friend, Teresa Jordan, who explored her family's ranching past in "Riding the White Horse Home." Teresa's hardscrabble grandfather, who portrayed himself as a rugged individualist growing a ranch, was, she found, helped along the way by critical loans from relatives back east. She says that rugged individualists in the old West were often found dangling from a rope thrown over a tree branch and held by "cooperating townspeople."
Listening to these strong, smart women makes me wonder how in this age, when women are writing, going to school and occupying professions and seats in government legally denied them in most countries just a few decades ago, the true stories of violence against women seem to be on the rise. In the former Yugoslavia and in many African countries, rape was and is used and advertised as a tool of war-impregnate the enemy and make them ours. In "Half the Sky," New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, write about sex trafficking, forced prostitution, honor killings and mass rape. In American colleges, one of five women are sexually assaulted. In Iran and Pakistan, where women's rights were expanding rapidly in the 50s and 60s, fundamentalist Islam seeks to curtail and reverse them. And, while main stream Christianity is finding more significant roles for women, fundamentalist Christians invoke scripture and history to support male dominance.
Why? Whitman College historian David Schmitz says apartheid laws came to South Africa in 1947 and Jim Crow laws to America in the post -reconstruction period after the Civil War, as old orders-the British Empire, American slavery-were coming to an end. It is almost as if now, at the cusp of recognition and freedom, women world-wide must undergo one huge round of physical, social and sexual abuse by the hero brothers, husbands and governments who might be sheltering and growing with them.