For realz. That good.
One of a stack of books I got from the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award Council as part of the monster job of doing their website and award database, a stack of which I have only begun to dent by reading Julie Phillips’ excellent biography of the award’s namesake, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Strange after working for the Council for five years I hadn’t read anything of or about Tiptree (in book form, I mean), so this was a comprehensive drowning in one of the most brilliant, talented, over-achieving, plain weird science-fiction writers I’ve come across. It actually reads like science-fiction.
Grim science-fiction at that. There’s a hopelessness in her regard of life that is present from her earliest memories as a child up until her suicide at age 71 in 1987, a sense of already being old, of being already too late, of barely, only temporarily keeping at bay the entropy of the universe. Besides this comprehensive existential misery, her experience of daily life was equally as an outsider. Whether as a woman, lesbian or bisexual (or at least definitively not straight, even if she never acted on it), incapable of conforming to the social proscriptions of her gender, physically ill at ease with her body – by current nomenclature she would be claimed as both queer and trans, but she evades even these generalisations – in the entirety of her identity and sense of self is the impossibility of belonging, of feeling at home in the world. And this too collides with the unusually privileged life she had, as a child of wealthy Chicago socialites, travelling to central Africa, later in the Women’s Army Corps in photointerpretation, chasing German scientists (and so brushing alongside the history of space flight), then joining the CIA, later earning a Phd in psychology before embarking not as Alice Sheldon, but as James Tiptree, Jr. as an award-winning science-fiction writer.
It’s difficult to reconcile that charmed life with the gloom, my uncharitable self thought a cup of harden the fuck up wouldn’t have gone amiss, and yet without the protection that life afforded a woman born in 1915, it’s unlikely she would have been any different than the great mass of women at that time, pushed into marriage, second-class citizens, expected to breed, and any signs of dissatisfaction, of wanting the life the other half lived, squashed out with drugs and disapproval. Or, with her exceptional intelligence, curiosity, empathy, would have been rubbed out all the more definitively.
I haven’t read a biography for a long while, possibly one on Wittgenstein was the last. Julie Phillips does a remarkable job tying research, notes, letters, conversations, a life, into a coherent story. It’s perhaps telling, and vindication of Sheldon’s decision to write under a male pseudonym that she is so little known and regarded today. If we’re going to thrown names like Ursula Le Guin or Phillip K. Dick around when talking about sci-fi, or even the ’60s and 70’s New Wave, Tiptree deserves the same recognition.
Late-2012, I helped Dasniya and Hartmut Fischer with the video for their performance, Die Liebe und ihr Gegenteil oder Mädchenmörder Brunke – Eine choreografische LeseVerbindung. Some of this was collecting their own video of rehearsals, some was joining them on trips around Berlin by ferry or Ring-Bahn, and some was cutting it all together. The performance happened first in Tübingen at Club Voltaire, then again in a different form in Berlin at the Club der polnischen Versager. Hartmut had the unpublished manuscripts of Thomas Brasch, a Jewish Berlin playwright, writer, and director, which are what appear tied up and suspended in the middle part of the video. The first part is Dasniya and Hartmut organising the papers, which arrived as an unsorted mass in an old suitcase. The third part, on the Spree ferry goes past where Brasch used to live in Mitte when it was East Berlin. Finally, we three went on a ride on the S-Bahn, arriving at Ostkreuz just as the sun was setting. It’s not an especially spectacular piece of video, but it does represent – or document – a period of my life in Berlin, as well as parts of the city of Berlin itself. Mostly it’s silent.
Last week I was helping Hartmut and Dasniya, filming along the Spree around the Berliner Ensemble, for a project on the Berlin writer, Thomas Brasch. We met again this morning (after a surprisingly fast training ride through Tegelwald), to photograph and film some more. Tying up piles of manuscript, including Mädchenmörder Brunke, something about 2000 pages being sent by fax … well, they did the tying and stacking, I just messed around with camera and ended up with 15 minutes of hopefully useful footage and another gig of images.
In the first winter of Berlin for me, my poverty and the hanging dread of unwanted return to Australia were I to not remedy it both were alleviated by my sublime almost-dachgeschoß looking south-east over Bötzow Brauerei and on down the low hill across the city as far as Kreuzberg. That winter, a whole month from December’s solstice was met with days of clear frozen sky and opalescent sun, and I lived on Brussels sprouts and Chinese five-spice. Hardest though, was a lack of books, even though my small zwischenmiete was lined with shelves. Then, as now, my german was far too mediocre.
I did plunder those books for names though, and pulled out the occasional one in english, which I subsequently swallowed whole. One name I found recently returned, three years later.
Annamarie Schwarzenbach, the kind of beautiful trouble I fall to, likely because I wish I was myself that, yet I am quite acquainted with the creative paucity such habits tend me towards. Still … “Fast cars, drugs, Lesbianism, Berlin in the 30s, fleeing to Central Asia, Afghanistan, affairs with the daughters of important and famous people …” what more can I say than I did in January three years ago?
Firstly, I don’t have to suffer the lack of her in english. I found an email some months ago reminding me of that post and … The email led to more going back and forth, (even reeling in Dasniya via a thread to Alte-Kantine) and finally on Friday, immediately after my new tyres, to the bus of Café Pförtner where I met Isabel Fargo Cole and Lucy.
Books changed hands.
Isabel has very kindly given me a copy of Annamarie’s All the Roads are Open: The Afghan Journey, of which I can say little beyond my delight; her and there! I took a pause from all my Afghan and Central Asian reading entirely because of the utter lack of women in the frame, and yet my attention keeps drifting towards there … Afghanistan, Iran. I won’t be reading this for a couple of weeks at least, as I have a throbbing mass of China reminding me that I deserted them for science-fiction.
And so I discovered Annamarie Schwarzenbach, who to a certain kind of Berlinerin is probably quite famous, yet in English I would suppose is largely, almost completely unknown. None of her many books are in print in English if even translated, and at most she gets mention in biographies of Thomas or Klaus Mann, or miscellaneous encyclopaedias.
Needless to say, of course I’m quite in love.
And intend to learn more German just to read her. Fast cars, drugs, Lesbianism, Berlin in the 30s, fleeing to Central Asia, Afghanistan, affairs with the daughters of important and famous people, and so many books she wrote…