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The 2015 book Letters to Tiptree (ed. A. Pierce and A. Krasnostein) is a remarkable volume. It suggests many responses. This is mine.

Dear Dr. Sheldon,

I’m not sure how to address you, but I’ve known you all my life.

I first read your stories when I was so young I didn’t understand them. They were on the shelf near the old front door, in Dad’s small but rather wonderful science fiction magazine selection. I had no idea about your gender (and was too young to know about other matters) for this was the late 1960s, but your voice spoke to me and, when I faced my own decisions, it influenced me. I read you from the moment I was old enough to read the words, which means the moment you were first available in Australia. Your influence upon my life has been as profound as it has been subtle. Trying to unpack it is difficult, but I need to try.

At various times in my life I’ve had a very clear choice between visibility and invisibility, between duty and self. Invisibility was safe: for me as a Jew, for me as an intellectual female of the species, for me as someone who was too intelligent for other people’s comfort. Duty was also safe, and self was unsafe, for related reasons. My life was expected to be a choice between service and personal discovery, and I was expected to prefer service, always.

Your stories taught me that I’d have to manage these choices my way. That visibility and invisibility, duty and self, were mere aspects of a more complex reality. Your stories also helped me understand that reality includes most of my life being hidden from view, no matter what I do. I’ve never been happy with this. I’ve always fought it and I shall continue to fight it, for myself and for others. I don’t have to give up duty to become visible. I don’t have to always live in the shadows. I don’t have to be alone. I do, however, have to fight. Your hidden women taught me I didn’t want that particular solution. They also taught me to recognise a particular kind of unhappiness.

This unhappiness began when I won a couple of major awards at school, then the same at university and the usual announcements about them were somehow made silently. I was not the person who had been expected to win them. I did not fit the profile. I am still not listed for some of them.

I never will fit the profile. I’d love to say, with insouciance, that this doesn’t matter, but it matters. It matters in so many ways, especially in career ways. Dr. Sheldon, you faced this too. I’ve always suspected that you handled the situation with more grace than me, and more sarcasm. You wrote it into your fiction, and I return to that fiction when I am too alone. In this respect, your work is neither comfort nor consolation, but it reminds me that I am among many who must pay the intersectional price.

It’s just as well you wrote these matters into your fiction, for there was no one to advise me for a very long while. From my late twenties, in fact, I revolted so very hard against invisibility that I became an activist in the women’s movement and I taught other women skills and knowledge that would help prevent them being put in these uncomfortable places. I did things like co-found Women’s History Month for Australia, teach grassroots women’s groups essential skills, make my voice heard in meetings in Parliament House.

I should have listened to you and put my writing above this work, but at that stage, I was so tired of no one seeing my writing, and I had a voice in women’s matters and . . .  it turned out that I cared too much about making a difference and I didn’t realise that the sacrifice in being an activist was myself. It was a different kind of invisibility. This was a mistake you didn’t make. You were paid for your army work. The most I got for my activism was a strange curriculum vitae and occasional free sandwiches. Service for a Jewish woman is supposed to be its own reward, apparently.

Many women (not all women—that would make it too simple) are prone to invisibility. I am so good at highly intellectual invisibility that I was almost recruited into a very particular government agency. I was fortunate that major events in Europe were happening, and they needed someone with more ground experience than me. The interview though, and my realisation that I did not want to be in anyone’s secret service, that I want an open visible life, is why I became an activist. I was valued as an activist and I had some wonderful experiences (and some terrifying ones), but . . .  I was still not visible. Nor paid. My work was for others and the rewards of them went to people who strode forth and said, “I want this.” There’s a particular type of person who can do that, and I envy them. They claim the shadows, but they’re not accustomed to living there.

These were the years when I thought of your work as reflecting a past that we were happily beyond.

My twenties and thirties were my naïve period. You can see that in my fiction. Illuminations and my early short stories assume that invisibility is curable and that happily-ever-after is possible for most of us. One of the reasons I took a break from publishing (a fifteen-year break) was the realisation that you were right, Dr. Sheldon, and I was disastrously wrong. I could help others, but I couldn’t help myself. Without someone to push me into daylight, I was caught by the shadows. Our society punished me for walking into sunlight boldly.

I look around now and see the same pattern in the communities in the arts. There are a few token visible minority artists and writers, and they are given rewards for the rest of us, just as someone else was rewarded for my work on women’s issues. It’s as if our society has a natural limit to the number of pieces of recognition or the number of people to whom recognition can be given when those people are outside the mainstream.

I don’t believe that we should be invisible. I write solutions to invisibility into all my fiction. That’s where Ms Cellophane came from, and The Time of the Ghosts. I owe you this, Dr. Sheldon. You helped me realise that it might be miserable and lonely from day to day, but finding solutions and giving narratives that show other people what’s happening has to be a constant.

Cultural solutions are as important as political solutions. Personal solutions are the hardest of all, for there is loneliness in being someone who lives and breathes the need for change and who is not from a majority culture or male or well-incomed. That was the greatest lesson you taught me. I’m going to be alone for a lot of my life, simply because I want the life of others to be better. It’s not OK. It will never be OK. But I can live with it. You kept your creative self half-hidden by a male name, and I don’t have to do this. We are improving. It’s two steps forward and one step back, but I don’t have to hide my identity and I don’t have to hide its political agenda.

It may be another lifetime before women like me get noticed, where we don’t have to tell ourselves half-lies like “We do this work for others; we don’t need to be seen” in order to keep a modicum of balance in our lives. Without all that you were as a person and as a writer, Dr. Sheldon, I’d not have done the work on the ground, and nor would other women I know. We’d be looking at six lifetimes, not one.

I’d have followed other paths without your fiction. I’d have written highly intellectual literary novels, perhaps, or become a high school principal. Maybe those other paths would have been good. Certainly they would have gained me more paid work, for I’m someone who gets shifted forcibly to the borders wherever she is. This is the price of challenging without being a Name.

You were able to challenge through your fiction because you took that male name. You were able to do all that amazing other work because you did it invisibly. I’m at that halfway place where I don’t have to hide, but where I’m seldom visible. I could write the most challenging article of the year and readers will tell me “I’ll take a look at it someday” and tell me so, three times, as a panacea.

It’s not a simple position to be in. Yours wasn’t a simple position to be in.

You’ll always be an influence on my life. On days like today, when I am invisible (for today I am exceptionally invisible), I shall focus on the work one can do when invisible. And on those very rare occasions (such as at Loncon in 2014) when I am allowed to be myself in public with no hesitation, I shall celebrate.

In the meantime and forever, I shall work towards others being able to have more choices and in giving them support. I will give up the invisibility, but I will not give up my sense of service. And I shall continue to write my strange little novels with six layers of meaning and two layers of politics (one very visible and one . . .  less so) and a small group of readers will understand and everyone else will continue to not see me, for this is 2016, and 2016 is a time of limited visibility.

Thank you for writing the precise work you wrote. Thank you for being with me from my childhood. You are a writer I always wanted to be, not only for your writing, but for all the different parts of you.

Gillian Polack has eleven books (five of them novels) and seventeen short stories published. She was awarded a Ditmar in 2010. She has recently finished a project on how writers think of history and how they use it in their fiction. She can be found at and on Twitter @GillianPolack.
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27 Jul 2020

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