A tribute to Judith Merril

A Tribute to Judith Merril

Élisabeth Vonarburg


When I was a little girl, the first stories I read were myths,  folk-tales and legends from all over the world.  And I knew what I  wanted to be when I’d grow up: I wanted to be a hero.

But then again, I also knew I was not a boy.  Things being what they  were, I may have regretted it now and then, but somehow I managed to  survive — almost all little girls do.  They become teenagers, and  then women, who read stories written mainly by men about men, and  somehow, they manage to get their fix of heroism, by identifying with  the male heroes. Of course, that doesn’t go without some rampant  identity problems, but at the time I didn’t think much of it.  It was  the Fifties, in the French countryside, not exactly the cutting edge  of social revolution.

At the beginning of the Sixties, however, I was beginning to feel  uneasy.  The universe is a well-known, well-understood, nice, cosy  and limited place, they’d told me, in school and out of it.  Things  are what they are, they said, it is like that, it has always been  like that, it will always be like that.  But somehow, it didn’t feel  quite right.  Oh please, it couldn’t be right?

It was the mid-Sixties now, after all, something was blowing in the  wind, and I was not immune.

That’s when I discovered science-fiction.  Not as a woman, but (I  thought) as a more or less unsexed spirit yearning for freedom, for  new, unknown, dangerous, exciting things.  That’s when I began  feeling that, after all, I might be able to realize my childhood’s  dream: there was definitely a possibility for heroism in  science-fiction, the old-fashioned way. Finding treasures and wisdom,  saving universes, fighting dragons — and even better, making friends  with them…

That’s when I first met Judith Merril.  Somehow.  Actually, I met a  story — “That Only a Mother”.  Later I would meet other stories,  other women — Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, Catherine Moore,  Katherine MacLean…  But this one was the first.  And it was  different from everything I’d read before — even Ted Sturgeon’s  stories, which I loved the best.  Oh, there were no fancy space  adventure, no disguised knight in shining astronaut’s suit, and the  dragon was almost as metaphorical as they come in any other type of  modern mainstream literature.  There was a mother, a father, a  daughter and nuclear energy.  It could have been here & then.  But it  was different, I didn’t know why, or how.  Somehow, even though it  was taking place in a world so like our own, it opened other spaces  in my mind.  Somehow it had… a different voice.  And I began to  listen for that voice in other SF stories, first without knowing what  I was looking for, then with a heightened awareness — not so much as  I came upon Judy’s other stories (very, very few were translated in  French at the time), but when I read some of the stories she’d helped  get in print.

By then I had a very definite idea of who Judith Merril was.  She was  one of the very few women I could look up to in Science Fiction, as a  woman reader and as a fledgling woman writer.  At that time Science  Fiction was very much a Man’s Land — still is, although thanks to  Judy and some others, we don’t feel as lonely there as we used to.  But Judy was there.  I was proud of her… even though I didn’t know  much about her: like all American SF writers, she was a  quasi-mythological being for me.  Somehow, she was even more  mythological than the other, male American SF writers: she was a  woman who wrote and published and criticized science-fiction! You see, by that time, after intensive readings of all the  science-fiction I could find (and there was a lot of it in France,  even then), I was beginning to feel uneasy again, caged again: all  those male voices, all those male stories… More than uneasy: I was  feeling betrayed: To me, science-fiction was the literature which was  not afraid to ask questions, all the questions in the world (and in  other worlds!) — but as far as women were concerned, science-fiction  only seemed to have a lot of answers, the same ones I had heard over  and over again in my books — and in my life.  It was like it was,  like it had always been, like it would always be.


Except for women writers, of course.  And that’s when I really began  to understand what it was that I heard in Judy’s stories, and in the  stories of other women who were writing science-fiction.  Science  fiction is about the Other, mostly — and there was a lot of that in  it for me, reading all those male stories.  Meeting with the Other is  fine, but too much of it can be overwhelming — especially when you  begin to feel that there are different sorts of Others, and that you  are one!  Judy’s voice, and the other women’s voices, where the voice  of this other Other, the Other that looked like me — and I  desperately needed to hear them.

That’s when I left France and Europe, to come to Canada — which my  imagination bred on Jack London and Fenimore Cooper saw as the land  of adventure, and also the land of opportunities.  Somehow, indeed, a  lot of things seemed possible here.  So when I heard that the fabled  Judith Merril was living in Toronto (my God, she was real!), and  since I was organizing a SF convention, I rashly invited her.

And she came.

And we met, face to face.

And that’s it.  Almost.  Even today, I wouldn’t presume on saying we  are friends: we don’t know each other personally that well, we  haven’t even met very often…  Sometimes I feel that our essential  link is of a somewhat rarefied nature: being Writers, you know, being  Writers of Science Fiction, and being Women Who Write Science Fiction.

But then, I see Judy as I saw her that first time in Chicoutimi, I  hear her deep, beautiful, echoing voice as I heard it then, I see her  smile, I see her dance, and I know there is something else, something  deeper.  What Judy taught me, more than any other female SF writer I  have met, and perhaps more than any woman I have met, period, it’s  that you can be the heroine of your own life.  And when I say  «heroine», especially in relation to Judith, I know, and you know,  that I am not talking about some sweet pale blond helpless thing  wringing her hands at the top of some tower.  But I won’t say «female  hero».  Be a heroine.  That’s what Judith taught me.  Be all you can  be, yes, and in order to know what that is, always ask questions.  Always be open, but never surrender.  Never stop to grow — in every  direction, among as many different worlds as possible.  And never  stop giving, even when it’s hell.

For that, Judy, for being that unwavering, demanding, generous beacon  for my spirit and for my heart, as you are also for so many others,  thank you.

This tribute was part of a general tribute which was given to Judith  Merril in Toronto, in 1997, while she was still with us in the flesh.

Copyright © 1997 by Élisabeth Vonarburg