My mother moved in June, after seventeen years in her home. In the process, she uncovered a stack of boxes filled with my middle- and high- school books and papers. When I visited her in July, I found them waiting for me in her new basement, ready to be sifted and winnowed.
Some boxes held random collections—an essay about Catherine the Great, unsent letters to friends from science summer camp, calculus quizzes with big fat C-minuses and D-pluses scrawled in red, journal entries written on pieces of paper of all colors, sizes, and weights. I had trouble keeping a writing notebook when I was in high school. Instead, journal entries about my pain and short stories about heroines who looked and acted just like me—only stronger and smarter—were written on the paper closest at hand and then tossed into piles, or folded into books and forgotten.
The boxes full of books held more surprises than I expected. I remembered spending the eighth grade reading every Xanth book published to date. I remembered my early-adolescent fantasies about Skeeve or Aahz (or both) from the Myth series. But I had forgotten about all the Xanth and Myth knockoffs I'd read. Wow. I read some of the worst prose ever penned when I was between the ages of 12 and 15.
As I picked up my copy of Valley of the Horses, I felt the binding crack in six or seven places—all of them filled with throbbing manhoods, deep shafts, and other things that made me giggle. I first read that book when I was twelve, riding in the back seat of the car as my father and stepmother drove the twelve hours between Buffalo, New York, and Madison, Wisconsin. I remember being entranced and terrified. What if they could read my mind? What if they knew that while they listened to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen, I was reading about throbbing manhoods? Terrifying.
But not so terrifying that I stopped reading, and not so terrifying that I didn't read certain parts over and over again. I'd known the facts about the plumbing and such long before, and had read and blushed at innuendos and sex jokes in books for almost as long, but that book was the first thing I encountered which gave . . . details.
I'd forgotten about The Illuminatus! Trilogy too. When I lifted it out of the box, it fell open in a couple strategic places; I was flooded with memory. Ninth grade. English class. Smuggling the book out of my bag. Passing it, with a couple of dog-eared pages, to a friend. Seeing her read, then pass it along to someone else. Then that person to someone else. I spent the whole day terrified of getting in trouble. The book was returned to me by the end of the day. It looked as if it had aged fifty years between second period and the dismissal bell.
How do nonreaders find out about sex? Movies? Gossip? Cable? I have no idea.
Those books weren't the ones that taught me my most important lessons about sex ed, however. For those lessons, I give credit to authors like Sherri Tepper, Marge Piercy, Ursula Le Guin, Suzette Haden Elgin, and many others. When I discovered them, they filled a hunger I hadn't know I'd had. Those books taught me lessons about gender, power, and feminism long before I encountered those notions in a classroom. I loved those books and I love them still.
As I picked them out of the boxes, they didn't fall open to specific pages. Instead, their bindings were soft from rereadings. Many of their pages were falling out. As I held them, I remembered how I wanted to be as strong and clear-sighted as Marjorie from Tepper's Grass. I remembered how Le Guin's Always Coming Home inspired a summer of fruitless attempts to duplicate her creation in a novel of my own (none of whose drafts exceeded ten pages). What would I have done without feminist science fiction? Where or when would I have encountered those ideas? I can't imagine my adolescence, or the rest of my life, without them.
I was lucky, too, to be living in Madison, Wisconsin, and lucky to have a friend who had been attending WisCon, Madison's feminist science fiction convention, since she was a little kid. She took me to my first WisCon in 1991, where I witnessed the awarding of the first James Tiptree Jr. Award to Eleanor Arnason and Gwyneth Jones.
Over the next few years, the Con and the Tiptree Award introduced me to a wealth of writers who challenged and shaped my ideas. Nicola Griffith, Maureen McHugh, and Mary Doria Russell are just a few of the names that come to mind. The Tiptree Award, combined with the Con's panel about the best science fiction of the year, informed anywhere from a third to a half of my reading throughout the end of high school and all of college.
If the influence has faded, it has only been because I moved across the country and haven't been back to Madison over the Memorial Day weekend, when the Con meets, since. (And, okay, the humiliating memory of the panel I served on, spouting my ridiculous ideas about the death of sexism, might be part of why I've never gone back to WisCon. Every time I remember that young, arrogant, and very silly self, I want to crawl under the nearest table. It has been ten years now, and my embarrassment may have faded to tolerable levels. Maybe.) I do keep track of the Tiptree winners, making a point of picking up their books whenever I can.
The boxes in my mother's basement have been weeded down to four. They are sitting there, waiting for Eric and me to road-trip up and drive them back home. I'm looking forward to having them back. There are some teachers I'd like to revisit.