Hope Is a Discipline

Ruthanna Emrys in conversation with Kelly Jennings

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of A Half-Built Garden, Winter Tide, and Deep Roots. She also writes radically hopeful short stories about religion and aliens and psycholinguistics. She lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, DC with her wife and their large, strange family. There she creates real versions of imaginary foods, gives unsolicited advice, and occasionally attempts to save the world.

Author, teacher, and Interzone reviewer Dr Kelly Jennings spoke to Emrys about feminism, hierarchy, Octavia Butler, saving the world, and her latest novel A Half-Built Garden (Tordotcom, 2022).

A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys is available from 26 July wherever books are sold, and you can read a review by Jennings of that novel and many others in the next issue of Interzone.

Kelly Jennings: I taught a class on Feminist Science Fiction five or six years ago, and one of the texts we looked at was Gilman’s Herland. I thought of that novel when the alien Cytosine insists that she will only negotiate with people who have physically given birth, since only they can be trusted to make decisions for their species. It’s an old trope – the idea that because they have babies, women would be better at running a society than men – and I like how your novel responds to (or maybe I mean, argues with) that trope. Do you see your work in dialogue with these feminist works from the past?

Ruthanna Emrys: Yes, although the biggest influence from that quarter is Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, one of the few second wave feminist utopias that seriously questioned biological assumptions about gender. Piercy depicts a truly egalitarian society, and also separates gender from birth and nursing. I get very suspicious of any utopia that hangs on gender essentialism – it feeds so easily into transphobia, and that’s far from the only way it’s corrosive. We’re so used to patriarchy that it’s easy to ‘fight’ it by trying to reverse it, by saying that women (or certain types of women) are superior in some way. But power can be just as toxic to women, to mothers, to people who’ve given birth (three different circles on a Venn diagram) as it is to men, to non-parents, to people who can’t or don’t give birth.

I also like writing cultures that have very different rigid assumptions about societal roles and hierarchies from the ones we’re used to. I played with this in Winter Tide, where Deep Ones have strict traditions about gender and childrearing on land, all of which change completely after metamorphosis. 

In A Half-Built Garden, I had fun with a different set of biological imperatives – two sets, for the tree-folk and the plains-folk – what assumptions Ringer culture makes about those constraints, and the degree to which those assumptions may be just as dubious as ones about human biology. If you traveled back in time, you’d find plains-folk cultures where breeding mothers raise their children together and don’t try to maintain dominance over the ‘fathers’, and so male-ness reflects an extremely temporary state rather than an ongoing relationship – and you also might find tree-folk who handle the multi-year offset in hatching time between males and females very differently.

In the book, there are Ringers who’ve been raised with these assumptions who are clearly trans, and who appreciate the watershed networks having language and cultural practices for not identifying with the gender you’ve been assigned, by whatever method. And yet, the human cultures also all have people who don’t mesh well with their own handling of gender. I don’t think we’ll ever find a framework that fits everyone, but we can find ways to be more flexible.

Fences around what it means to be a woman, or what makes a woman a good leader, tend to leave me out. I can enjoy stories about matriarchies, but eventually I come back to the question of where they leave the rest of us.

Getting back to older feminist works, I’m most interested in those that facilitate a wider range of options for what it means to be a woman, or a man, or something else. I’m cisgender myself, in the sense that I’m comfortable with having been assigned female – but I also suspect that if I’d been assigned male, I’d be fine with that too. (One of my trans friends suggested a distinction between ‘facultative’ and ‘obligate’ gender.) At 46, my main reaction to the thought of having my gender reassigned is that it would be fun for a little while, but a pain in the ass to relearn social navigation. And I’m not a woman by many gender essentialist standards, because I’m not able to get pregnant and I’ve never nursed. Fences around what it means to be a woman, or what makes a woman a good leader, tend to leave me out. I can enjoy stories about matriarchies, but eventually I come back to the question of where they leave the rest of us.

The cover of A HALF-BUILT GARDEN with art by Mark Smith and design by Christine Foltzer

Kelly Jennings: You mentioned that you count Octavia Butler as one of your influences, and I certainly saw that in A Half-Built Garden (and not just in the sex-with-aliens part). Has reading Butler made you a different sort of writer?

Even though it’s a very Jewish book, A Half-Built Garden also reflects that appreciation for learning and loving across cultures.

Ruthanna Emrys: Almost certainly! Butler addresses hard questions around hierarchy and power that few earlier authors grappled with. She also does an excellent job of showing conflict between cultures without simplifying any of them, even the ones clearly in the wrong, and without pulling punches on the ways they go wrong. I don’t know if I live up to that, but the questions she made me think about show up throughout my writing, and I hope I can at least make a useful contribution to the conversations that she started.

Kelly Jennings: In A Half-Built Garden, I was very pleased when the characters held a seder. (I especially liked the inclusion of the orange, and of a quotation from Octavia Butler.) Can you talk a little about how being Jewish has informed your writing?

Octavia Butler does an excellent job of showing conflict between cultures without simplifying any of them, even the ones clearly in the wrong, and without pulling punches on the ways they go wrong.

Ruthanna Emrys: It honestly took me a while to figure out that I could write about Jewish people, and not just people like those in the sf I grew up with, or people with made-up religions that are secretly kind of Jewish. Not that those aren’t fun too! A Half-Built Garden is I the first thing I’ve written focused on a majority-Jewish family. Of course two Jews, three opinions, and there are three Jewish adults in Judy’s family, so it provides a good framework for arguing about big, meaty ideas.

Passover is my favorite holiday, and it’s kind of my mission to run seders where no one is rushing through the ritual to get to the feast. We have the orange on our plate, of course, along with an olive and an acorn and a Cup of Miriam. We have poetry, and chances for the kids to get up and run around, and lots of good talmudic argument. We have the page from my parents’ haggadah that’s responsible for about half my morality, with Hannah Senesch and Zog Nit Keyn Mol and… it’s not a sort of Judaism that I’ve seen a lot in books. One of the first things I knew going into this book was that there would be a pivotal scene around a seder.

I grew up as the only Jew in my town, my school – eventually in high school there was another Jewish girl, and she was also the only Black kid. I tend to write cross-cultural, interfaith relationships and communities because that’s what I’m used to. I get nervous in rooms where everyone is like me, and only really relax in places where everyone can be weird together. So even though it’s a very Jewish book, A Half-Built Garden also reflects that appreciation for learning and loving across cultures.

Kelly Jennings: I was also delighted by the number of characters who are LGBTQ, and the varieties of ways they formed families. How have your own experiences with gender, sexuality, and family led to this book, specifically?

Ruthanna Emrys: I live in a queer collective household, which is kind of a small commune and kind of a college role-playing group that decided to raise kids together. When we tell people about our family, we often tout the advantages of having the kids outnumbered! And a lot of times people say that it sounds great, and they have no idea how they’d pull together a family like that. In a culture that encourages collective households, it seemed like people would still need help finding each other – so Judy’s family is a queer collective household that needed a semi-traditional Jewish matchmaker to hook them up. 

I also wanted to write about the way that families help build larger communities, and work together to repair the world around them. We’re raising kids and doing traditional suburban family things, but we’ve also in the last couple of weeks hosted an Eid celebration for one of our members’ queer disabled Muslim group, and had a county transit club meet on our porch, and been the pick-up point for a voting rights group during the Maryland election. It’s very busy and very connected, and seems like the sort of place that would get involved in feeding aliens.

Kelly Jennings: Someone once told me all of my books are about revolutions, which was something I had never really noticed. What are all your books about?

Ruthanna Emrys: Found family, snarky aliens, and an obsession with large bodies of water. 

Kelly Jennings: Finally, many of your characters have dedicated their lives to fixing the damage done to the environment by corporations and capitalism in past centuries. Do you think this is realistic? Can we save the planet by changing the way we live our lives?

I think saving the planet does start with reframing what we see as non-negotiable 

Ruthanna Emrys: It all depends on what you mean by ‘we’. There’s been a lot of discussion lately, which I think is important, about how people are encouraged to avoid plastic straws but not to outlaw fishing nets. ‘We’ need system-level fixes, and to take away the power the 1% and big corporations have over humanity’s carbon footprint.

But it’s also true that if we change those systems the way they need to be changed, it will change the way everyone lives their lives. Adrienne Maree and Autumn Brown’s How to Survive the End of the World podcast starts by asking what you’ll miss most about capitalism. It’s a wonderfully science fictional question. And it’s a precursor to asking what will be wonderful. But both the losses and the gains come out of system-level changes – you can’t just sacrifice your Netflix subscription (or whatever your favorite capitalist indulgence might be) to save the planet. 

On the other hand, I think saving the planet does start with reframing what we see as non-negotiable, and forcing those with more power to accede to those changes. To prioritise justice and health over profit and exploitation. We need that imagination, and we can’t afford to be cynical about it. Hope is a discipline, and it’s not so much a matter of ‘Is it realistic?’ as ‘What happens if we don’t?’ ∎

Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings now lives in the Boston Mountains, where she writes, teaches about, and reviews science fiction. Her short story ‘History of the Invasion Told in Five Dogs’ appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 35th Annual Collection. Her most recent novel In the Deep, was published by Candlemark & Gleam in 2021. Follow her blog at delagar.blogspot.com

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