I was ten. I was still terrified of what might be hidden under the bed or in the closet or anywhere else that made hiding easy. What I knew of the world that didn’t hide from the light was bad enough. What concealed itself must be worse.
I was in my bedroom. Somewhere outside of that, my parents were probably fighting. They might have been taking a break. Somewhere beyond that was a new school, a new set of kids who didn’t like the same things I did, who didn’t talk the same way I did, who didn’t even play the same games I did. Nowhere around me were the water and the trees that always accepted me.
All that mattered less than it had an hour or two before, because I was reading Lore of the Witch World by Andre Norton. I’d been reading fantasy all my life–mythology, the creatures and deeds tales of writers like C. S. Lewis, fairy tales–but this was the first time I held grown-up fantasy in my hands. This was the first time I saw people, and particularly women, dealing with both the trials of daylight (war, displacement, rape, disability, being outcaste) and the half-seen creatures of shadow. And they succeeded. Not easily, but they succeeded.
I needed that just then, perhaps more than anything in the world.
Now, I write fantasy sometimes. At that point, it was written into me. Nor am I alone, which I think is part of the uproar over Ginia Bellafante’s dismissive comments about sex being used to pander to women, who would otherwise turn up their pretty little noses at fantasy. We’re being told to chose which part of our identity is the valid part. Are we women, or do we like fantasy? It’s a silly, impossible question, and we’re not going to stand for it.
There is a bit of irony in this for me. The woman who wrote fantasy into my consciousness started writing at a time when “women didn’t write fantasy”. They did actually write it, of course, and publish it, but they did so under male names. Even Andre Norton, whose name is ambiguously gendered, published her early, science fiction stories as Andrew North.
So in honor of the woman who taught me that fantasy isn’t just for children and that the dark can be managed, here is one of those early stories. An excerpt:
Steena was strictly background stuff and that is where she mostly spent her free hours—in the smelly smoky background corners of any stellar-port dive frequented by free spacers. If you really looked for her you could spot her—just sitting there listening to the talk—listening and remembering. She didn’t open her own mouth often. But when she did spacers had learned to listen. And the lucky few who heard her rare spoken words—these will never forget Steena.
She drifted from port to port. Being an expert operator on the big calculators she found jobs wherever she cared to stay for a time. And she came to be something like the master-minded machines she tended—smooth, gray, without much personality of her own.
But it was Steena who told Bub Nelson about the Jovan moon-rites—and her warning saved Bub’s life six months later. It was Steena who identified the piece of stone Keene Clark was passing around a table one night, rightly calling it unworked Slitite. That started a rush which made ten fortunes overnight for men who were down to their last jets. And, last of all, she cracked the case of the Empress of Mars.
All the boys who had profited by her queer store of knowledge and her photographic memory tried at one time or another to balance the scales. But she wouldn’t take so much as a cup of Canal water at their expense, let alone the credits they tried to push on her. Bub Nelson was the only one who got around her refusal. It was he who brought her Bat.