Worldcon 2009

“I don’t speak Klingon”

Planned Guest of Honor Speech

Worldcon, August 2009


I originally wrote this for the Worldcon 2009, which took place in Montreal and for which I was a Guest of Honor. This was at the time we thought I would be giving a Guest of Honor Speech (we changed our minds later).

However, since I slaved over it, I thought “why waste it?”. And so, here it is for your reading pleasure.

My name is Elisabeth Vonarburg and I don’t speak Klingon.

I do speak English, though, more or less. But just in case, I brought my Faithful Igor, who will translate the less intelligible parts if needs be.

In fact, I love the English language. I loved it first, and learned it much on my own because it was the language of Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (whom I didn’t know was a Canadian and a Montrealer, at the time, when I was living in France. In that respect, France is not very different from the States : lots of Canadians get lost in the shuffle. Hey, they speak & write in English, don’t they ? More or less.)

Then I loved it because at the end of the Sixties, I had gone through all the SF & Fantasy I could find in French, and the only way to get my fix was to read in English (I was then on the highest doses ; it had to be a big fix).

And so I read SF&F in English quite fluently. Which mainly means there is a helluvah lot of four syllables words I know the meaning of but not how they are pronounced.

But I write in French. I can translate my own fiction — to the utter dismay of my dear translators, Jane Brierley first and now Howard Scott, as they have to slog through it afterwards — but I can’t write directly in English. Because a writer’s native tongue is her Motherland.

Now what about her Fatherland The Checkbook ?

Well. Being a French female writing SF in French in Quebec, Canada, is not exactly conducing to making the Fortune 500 list. In fact, writing SF&F in French or any other langague than American English is kind of the dumps. Unless, you’re from the Roc — the Rest of Canada, for you Southerners — or the UK. More or less.

So why do we do it ? Because we really, really want to. Because we really, really, love it. Because, most of the time, we can’t imagine writing anything else (maybe Fantasy, but…)

It has its advantages, mind you. No agent, editor or publisher is pushing my face into the meatgrinder, publish-or-perish is not really an issue, I do write what I want and need to write, a luxury that only esteemed colleagues who’ve been massively successful in the Fatherland can afford.

And I want and need to write SF — even my recent foray into historical fantasy has consisted in building a parallel universe, and if felt not much different from what I do when I write SF. Except, with dragons.

Why SF (and why, you might say, that kind of fantasy?) ? Because I was a curious child, and I still am : whywhywhywhywhy ? Howhowhowhowhowhow ? And SF is extremely liberating for the inquisitive mind : you can invent your own answers, and always ask the next question, as Ted Sturgeon was fond of saying. If you’re very lucky you can even invent really new questions.

Why SF ? Because I tried to write the so-called real literature, and it sucked. The autobiographical novel I wrote at sixteen was turning extremely bad for the protagonist, despite my best efforts to make her beautiful, happy and loved by all, — the little get wanted to off herself ! It scared me to death and I never finished it. Poetry… that didn’t turn out so well either. All that was too close. My navel seemed so big, I could have drowned in there ! I needed something that would be at the right distance from my own life, something I would be able to write while pretending it wasn’t about me-myself and I — at least for a while, just long enough to learn the craft, and know better. For some it is detective novels, travelbooks or the breeding of pink chihuahas. For me it was SF, because serendipity put it on my way just then, in my golden age, which for me was sixteen.

And suddenly I was twenty --, and the allure of SF was getting thin : too much testosterone. Oh, yes, there were writers like Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith or Phil Dick, more balanced ; or unbalanced the right way, if you will. But somehow something was missing from my SF, voices which I only found occasionally, few and far between. And suddenly I was twenty-one, twenty-two… not such a big jump, you’d think, but it was, because it was 68 — yes, I am one of those — and while the world was a-crashing at my door, The Left Hand of Darkness had come a-knocking too, translated in French.

And that was The Voice. The last in a series of women’s voices, the last grain of sand, the one that clinched it, that made me definitely aware. Hey, guys, I am, like, a woman, and I want to write, like, that kind of stuff. Because it can be written. It has been. It is allowed.

Sometimes, you need that. You need books, and authors, who somehow give you permission to write. Oh, I’d been writing for a while, but not really thinking that it mattered. Sure, it was my secret garden, my lifeline, the only way I could survive the dreary university years. But coud it matter to anybody else ? Naaaah. And SF was nice, it took me breathtakingly away, while making think sideways, in an underhanded manner, checking the underpants of reality and finding them lacking, or even missing (oh !), but I could never write anything that mattered enough to me that I would arrange my life in order to do it.

But now there was. And I could. And I would.

And I did.

Now, being a woman in the Sixties… in the Seventies… Eighties… in the Nineties ?… er…. anyway, it’s not a walk in the park. Well, more for some than for others, indeed. But even for whose who have parks and walking apparel, it’s like walking with a pebble in one shoe, and you can’t take the damn thing off !

Except in SF. In SF, you can imagine the shoe off. Thought-experiment it to death and come up with alternate shoes, alternate people, alternate societies, a whole other universe. And then come back, and look at this one and see how it could change. Make it change, even, in your own little teeny bitsy way. One reader at a time. Now and then. Few and far between. Like I have been changed and keep on being changed by science fiction.

All well and good, noble even, but the more readers you get, the more chances you have that your seed will fall on good ears (er…). So, I diligently kept on writing in French, was at some point published in French, made a lot of mon… er, no, wrong universe.

Oh, oh, what is an aware, conscientized but Motherland/Fatherland bifurcated writer to do ?

Serendipity struck again, with someone carrying the Holy Grail to my door : a translator offered to let me work with her and translate me! Goodness Gracious ! And she did it marvellously well too, by Jove. I was published in the UK and in the States, by Toutatis ! I almost won the P. K Dick Award with a translated novel.

I even had an agent.

I was beyond myself.

Then I quickly got back where I belonged, when that short-lived fluky aberration stopped and desisted.

But hey, I was home. I had reached my unspoken, secret dream : being published, and more to the point read, greeted and appreciated by the very writers who had nourished me, people I loved and respected, like Judith Merril, in the Canadian anthology Tesseracts, or in Tomorrow thanks to the dear Algys Budrys, who left us this year, alas. And all the colleagues I was later to meet in person too, my fellow Wisconites, the members of the Feminist Secret Cabal — mwhahahahahaha.

All this is still there, even if I woke from the dream. You can’t live in a dream. So, back to work. And work for any writer is writing, in whatever language you happen to live in. French is were I live, where we live, here in Quebec, most of us…Yes, like everybody else, we’d love to be heard around the world, but what is the sound of one hand clapping ? (unless it’s the left one, perhaps.) So, we’re always coming home to the mother tongue, the only one that speaks true. And I am always coming home to science fiction, the one genre that allows me to speak true also, playing, experimenting, learning, asking the next question, telling myself my own story and marvelling when it can touch and pollinate others, here, there and anywhere, in whatever language. For we can touch some people, some of the time, and to me, it’s a hell of a lot. Here, and now, I am he and you are she and you are me and we are all together.

Can you feel anything when I do this ?

Copyright © 2009 by Élisabeth Vonarburg