Welcome to Dr. Kathryn Allan's blog! I'm an Independent Scholar of science fiction and disability studies (specializing in cyberpunk, feminist SF, and SF TV & film). I'm the proud co-editor (with Djibril al-Ayad) of Accessing the Future, a disability-themed SF anthology; editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure; and the inaugural recipient of the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. My PhD thesis is awesome: Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk SF [pdf]. Follow me on Twitter @BleedingChrome.
Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day (or BADD for short), and this is my first year participating. For those of you new to my blog and my work, when I’m not running Academic Editing Canada, I’m busy with my independent scholarship in disability studies and science fiction. I recently wrote a post about my disability identification, “Fragments: Disability, Community, and Me,” if you’re curious, and many of the posts on this blog deal with my reflections on being a chronically-ill graduate student, and how that experience informs my research today. I also edit science fiction (SF), and I want to mention some good news right away— because I’m super proud of it—that Accessing the Future, an anthology of disability-themed speculative fiction stories that I co-edited with Djibril al-Ayad, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly!
There are many things that I could write about when it comes to my experiences of ableism, but I thought I’d share some of my observations as an independent scholar invested in bringing disability studies into science fiction studies. At the moment, I am frustrated with the genre academic community's engagement with disability—it is still such a marginalized conversation outside the handful of us who work at this intersection (mostly grad students and recent PhDs).
There are many oversights and microagressions I have witnessed or encountered in my role as scholar and writing about them in any specific detail feels unsafe and “unprofessional.” I know that this is ableism at work. I can say that I have felt devalued in my interactions with a few journal editors. I have made requests for accommodation on presentation times that were entirely ignored. And I’ve had to withdraw an accepted paper at a conference because its scheduling was so mishandled. These are just a few incidences that have affected my ability to fully participate, and I have heard many, many more examples of ableism from my disabled academic friends and peers. It is extremely common to hear, for example, in all kinds of academic and casual conversations, professors using ableist language, like “lame” and “crazy,” to describe unpopular or unusual ideas and people. This language hurts.
Articles addressing disability in any meaningful way are infrequent finds in genre journals—and, if they do appear, most of them are locked behind paywalls where I (and everyone else who lacks access to university journal databases) cannot read them. While I appreciate the difficulty of scheduling large, multi-track conferences, it is frustrating that the few papers about disability are often placed on panels about “otherness” or monstrosity (this has happened twice to me). It seems that genre conferences do not know where to effectively place a disability studies paper and this is a problem. It makes talking about disability in a sustained, critical way (that intersects with feminist, queer, anti-racist, and such other important concerns) that much more difficult.
While Disability Studies is becoming less marginalized in science fiction studies, there is a long way to go for it to move from a momentarily interesting “hot topic” to an actually active and engaged conversation that does not rely on a small handful of people to constantly bring it up. Since I started presenting on disability in SF at conferences (though I am not able to attend more than one or two a year I do follow what’s going on online), I have learned just how new and marginal disability studies is in the academic genre community. For example, the Science Fiction Research Association’s annual conference theme this year is “The SF We Don't (Usually) See: Suppressed Histories, Liminal Voices, Emerging Media.” Although many axes of identification were included in the original call for papers (CFP), there was no mention of disability! It took the wonderful Ria Cheyne to point out its absence before “disability and ability” were added to the CFP. Furthermore, there are no papers, from what I can tell from their conference program, that directly address disability. This is an all too common scenario that I have seen played out too many times.
Additionally, in a practical sense, there needs to be more people talking about disability and calling out ableism because so little is actually happening to improve the working conditions for a countless number of disabled graduate students, adjunct/sessional and tenured faculty, and administrative staff. Just check out some of the stories on PhDisabled (which is an amazing resource for disability recognition and advocacy). Conference organizers need to work harder in ensuring that their venues are fully accessible and in developing clear policies around accommodations for people with disabilities. Journals need to be open access and available on a variety of platforms.
I can’t speak to how other academics are trained in graduate school, but I know that for me, the process of interrogating cultural truths was held up as a foundational goal. I also know that when I see an absence of knowledge, especially one that causes or reinforces existing harm, I feel an obligation to speak up and say, “this is something we need to be talking about.” This is how I feel about the representation of disability in science fiction. There are very few popular SF texts that show realistic depictions of disability, whether it be physical or cognitive disability, chronic illness, or neurodiversity. It is a niche topic in terms of academic study but literature and film (and all media) show us what is and what is not possible. SF is an important place where cultural producers and consumers think through what kinds of lives matter and who gets to take part in creating the future world. I believe that genre scholars have a responsibility to meaningfully and significantly engage with disability—both theoretically and practically—sooner than later.
It’s time for a project update! I’m always kind of surprised that I manage to get scholarship and creative stuff done, but apparently it happens.
Last year started off with a research bang with my Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. I am finally ready to start delving into the 100s of letters I scanned. While it is true that I have been preoccupied with other work, the delay in getting back into this research was more due to the need to have mental distance from it. I was unprepared for how emotionally overwhelming I would find the research—the letters I was reading (from Le Guin, Russ, Tiptree, Delany, and many more amazing SF writers) brim with the lives of the people who wrote them. Given that I am an “emotional sponge,” I soaked up everything I was reading. Apparently, I needed nine months for things to get quietly sorted in my head so that I can now focus on drawing out conversational threads most relevant to my research interests. While I intend to incorporate some of my findings in a chapter on feminist SF in my planned book (more on that at the end of this post), I’m excited to see what other projects will spring from it.
One of those projects, actually, is an upcoming chapter titled, “Becoming Adult, Becoming Other: Anomalous Embodiment in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle.” I’ll post more details about that piece (and the edited collection by Sherryl Vint and Mathieu Donner that it will belong to) as the publishing details become finalized (as it is still in process). You can also read an interview I did with Alice Evans (of the CSWS) about the fellowship and my archival research.
In terms of notable scholarly publications in 2014, my “Disability Studies ‘101’” is in SF 101: A Guide to Teaching and Studying Science Fiction. It’s available as an ebook for a few dollars. [I’m also considering republishing it here on my blog, for free for all to read, if it doesn’t end up in the next issue or two of the SFRA Review—that decision will be discussed in an upcoming blog post]. For 2015, I am eagerly awaiting the April publication of Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media by awesome editors, David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu. I’m honoured to be a contributor with my chapter, “Re-imagining Asian Women in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk” (make sure to check out the super cool cover at the link). And while not a scholarly essay, I’m proud of the blog post I wrote about Misha’s Red Spider White Web for tor.com’s “That was Awesome: Writers on Writing” column last fall.
In just a few weeks, I am off to my favourite conference ICFA. I had originally planned on presenting a paper on disability in feminist SF along with organizing a panel on archival research in the field of the fantastic. Due to scheduling issues, however, I withdrew my paper and will be focusing my energies on the archival research panel. It feels a bit strange to not be delivering a paper this year, but I have good reasons (which are, again, being written up in an upcoming post).
Of course, the biggest news is Accessing the Future! Co-edited with Djibril al-Ayad, our disability-themed speculative fiction short story anthology is in the finishing stages. Accessing the Future will be published this summer (ah!) and it is amazing. While you wait for the summer publishing date to arrive, read one of the many blog posts Djibril and I wrote during our successful crowdfunding campaign. Working on this anthology has been life changing for me (and, yes, there will be posts coming about that too). Check out the awesome Table of Contents over at The Future Fire’s blog and look at the fabulous cover art by Robin Kaplan (below).
My next goal is to start, in earnest, writing a book on disability representation in science fiction once I am back from ICFA. I have set out two timelines for myself—one has me finishing a full draft by this time next year, and the other is accelerated, with a full draft come late fall. I do need to keep working (running Academic Editing Canada, which is work that I really enjoy, especially as I continue to receive more challenging and interesting client projects), so I’m keeping a flexible schedule of deadlines ahead of me. But still, a book! It’s hard to imagine such a huge undertaking coming together but since I also felt the same way about Accessing the Future (and Disability in Science Fiction), I know that it is possible.
I’m going to try to keep Bleeding Chrome blog better updated throughout this year. Writing leads to more writing, and it is helpful for me to keep engaged with other people and work out my thoughts in a more public space. So 2014, all things considered, was a darn good year, and 2015 is looking just as interesting and challenging. I’ll let you all know how it turns out!
For the past several months I’ve been working on an essay about my fraught (for me) position in the disability community as a person with (undiagnosed) chronic illness and (diagnosed) mental health issues. I have placed “undiagnosed” and “diagnosed” within brackets because I do not like these words. They don’t work for me but because they carry such a heavy dual weight of medicalization and disability community identity I spend a lot of time worrying about them. I haven’t been able to finish more than fragmented paragraphs describing my disability experience—I guess this is because my understanding of it is also fragmented. My notes on this essay-in-progress are sentences and phrases that litter all of my electronic devices and have spilled into a notebook where I write by hand when I can no longer sit at my computer desk or hold my phone comfortably. I am unable to write that essay and so I am writing this one.
I’ve started and stopped the process of medicalization—the request for a diagnosis—for well over a decade. I have not always received the help I needed. After going through a long series of ill-informed, over worked, or simply misogynistic and lazy doctors, I gave up trying to seek a diagnosis when, six months after I completed my PhD, the doctor I was seeing refused to accommodate my request for a disability benefits application nor offer any other help than the advice, “hang in there.” After nearly five years of “hanging in there” (which I think I’ve done pretty damn well at considering everything) I am finally seeking a diagnosis again. It’s a slow process and I am not interested in rushing it. I do not expect there to be a diagnosis. I expect to be told that my physical problems are all in my head, of my own making. I expect to hear the words “less stress” and “more exercise.” And then I will do my best not to break down into tears at this dismissal of my knowledge of my own body and mind because to do so would prove them exactly right.
When we ask one another to declare ourselves we too often do so with the expectation that the other person will have the same words that we do. When it comes to my experience of myself as chronically ill, I have found time and again that this language of disability does not fit comfortably in my mouth or settle easily in my mind. At a moment of existential crisis a few months ago, I read Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “The Story of My Work: How I Became Disabled” and I was calmed. She writes: “When our embodied ways of being in the world come to be understood as disabilities or when we understand our way as disabled, we then enter the category.” Perhaps my own awareness is enough. While I see myself in the category of “disabled” as Garland-Thomson defines it, I know that for most people who see me, I do not fit their conception of disabled. I look “too well” (because when I’m not well, I am at home and no one, other than my partner, sees me). I often speak of disability in academic terms (because it’s the language that first taught me to understand my experience). I also don’t introduce myself—in person or online—by way of my health status. In fact, the more unwell I feel, the less I will mention it. While many people find community by disclosing their physical and mental disabilities and illnesses, this has not been the case for me until very recently. And the number of times I have found understanding and support are still outweighed by a life’s history of exclusion and isolation.
The truth of the matter is that I am scared and anxious a lot of time and I don’t know what to say. Part of this is due to brain chemistry and part of this is due to experience. I am still figuring out how to piece together all of the truths of my life, how to speak the right words, how to connect. I don’t have any finishing thoughts about my experience with chronic illness and the disability community. There are only partial revelations and contradictory understandings. I know that I need more people in my life than I have right now. I need to read more disability studies theory and science fiction books. I need to write more (in both creative and academic ways). Fragmentation and uncertainty are exhausting, and no matter how hard I try to make my peace with them, I need solid things right now. This post is an anchor.
Seeing as my independent scholarship is coming along better than I imagined, I proposed a paper AND a discussion panel for my favourite conference, ICFA (International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts). Both were accepted and I'm already dreaming of the Florida sun in March, smearing on ridiculously strong sun screen, chasing lizards, and swimming in the pool at the con hotel. And doing all that other fun conference stuff too. Below are the abstracts for the paper and the panel. The title of my paper is a play on James Tiptree, Jr's short story, "The Women Men Don't See." [UPDATE: I have withdrawn my paper due to scheduling issues].
The Disabilities Men Don’t See: Genetic Engineering, Medical Experimentation, and Institutionalization in Feminist Science Fiction
To date, most discussions of feminist science fiction (SF) address the subgenre’s engagement with the sexed and gendered body (and, to a lesser extent, the raced and classed body). Despite these necessary readings, I argue that there needs to be greater engagement with the representation of disability in feminist SF. In this paper, I trace some of the ways that feminist SF has shaped the conversation of disability in SF through narratives of genetic engineering (e.g., Joanna Russ’s The Female Man), medical experimentation (e.g., James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”), and instutionalization (e.g., Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time). Framing my discussion with disability studies theory, I will attend to Alison Kafer’s insistence that we must examine what is unsaid or assumed about disability in the creation of an ideal feminist utopia (74, Feminist, Queer, Crip). While the feminist SF writers of the 1970s (and the 1980s) often imagined the problematic “defeat” of disability in their visions of a “better” future, I propose that they nevertheless opened up a space to challenge what it means to be a visible “non-normative” or “deviant” body in a heteronormative and ableist society. More recent intersectional feminist SF works, such as Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl (2002) and Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (2005), have since taken up the complex relationships that exist between disabled, gendered, and racialized forms of marginalization. This paper ultimately advocates for the integration of disability studies—and a rejection of any future founded on the (medical) exploitation and erasure of people with disabilities—in feminist SF scholarship.
Archival Research in the Field of the Fantastic
As the field of fantastic embraces intersectional ways of reading, more scholars (at all levels) are engaging with interdisciplinary forms of pedagogy and research practices. Archives of fantastic literature (e.g., novels, zines, pulp magazines, etc.) and the personal papers (e.g., correspondence, fan mail, manuscript drafts, etc.) of authors in the field offer rich sites of investigation that still remain largely untapped. This panel will address issues around the growing interest in archival research, taking up such questions as: What collections are available and at which institutions? How does one develop a project that makes use of archival research? What are the funding opportunities available for archival research? What are the best research and pedagogical strategies to practice while in the archives? How does one make use of archival materials (e.g., navigating copyright/permissions)? What are some of the latest discoveries coming out of archival research in the field of the fantastic? As they discuss these points, the panelists (Kathryn Allan, Gerry Canavan, and Josh Pearson*) will also share some of the insights and findings from their recent and ongoing archival research projects.
*It is possible that another panelist may join us.