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Sunday 30 September 2001

Meditation on 9/11

by Candas Jane Dorsey

I have been reading the posts on a couple of listservers of SF writers, FEM-SF and SFCanada, both of which have provided me with islands of sanity and intelligent discourse amid the jingoism, neo-theologism and bellicosity of mass response to the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11. And over days and weeks I have been thinking about actions and motivations, guilt and innocence. I don't know if I have any answers but I have a lot of questions.

Once a Jewish friend was talking with me about how he had been told over and over about the Jewish martyrs who were killed or had tongues cut out or some awful thing because they refused the Inquisition's demands (I think it was their demands) to speak the holy name of god. My friend said, "I would have said the word, and stayed alive. It's just a word. But is there a line I would refuse to cross, even if I had to die?" We pondered that question with no answers then and I have pondered it often since. Where is the line?

For personal ideological reasons I would not wear the hijab, as Amy Thomson is doing as a sign of solidarity, though I admire her for conceiving of a meaningful action for her and following it through respectfully by checking with the people at the mosque, and for "living out loud" her commitment to action. But I have asked myself: when would I wear it?

More extremely, I would not wear the burqa in solidarity (not that anyone has asked me to, but what if...?) because I think of it as symbolic of the repression of women—but would I wear it if I were ordered to by the government, and the alternative was death? Yeah. I'm not brave enough not to. Would I wear it if by doing so I could smuggle something helpful in to Afghanistan, or do something helpful there? Yeah, maybe, if I were brave enough. There's no way of telling whether I'd be brave enough. Deep character is the reaction of character to crisis. I haven't had that part of me tested.

Recently in discussing the idea of "the war of love" with someone at a gathering of people, we expanded fancifully on the idea of a cadre of volunteers willing to bear aid and seeds and help into Afghanistan even if doing so meant the threat of death. If there were enough people, we reasoned, it would be impossible to kill everyone. If people are willing to die for hate, how better for love? As I reflected on whether I could carry such an action through, despite my fear and my exaggerated sense of my own worth, the woman I was talking with, who is in her late 50s or early 60s said, "Send the old women. The world is done with us anyway." I thought of Le Guin's speech at WisCon, I thought of Tiptree, and also I imagined post-menopausal women as a great army marching on those young Taliban solders. Would we wear the burqa then? So that they would have time to recognise us as their grandmothers rather than killing us as disobedient infidels?

I also remembered M.J.Engh's Arslan, an eerily relevant book now, and her theory or a character's theory therein stated that the great rage against women in the Middle East comes from the coddled male child being turned over at the age of five or so to the cruel men's world and the sense of betrayal felt toward the mother, the female, from that time on. I wondered if being the same as their mothers and grandmothers would help. Would being in the burqa help? Is an army of women easier for women-haters to kill? Easier to kill in or out of the burqa?

(Tangentially, this leads me to wonder: what if men wore the hijab or the burqa, on purpose, in solidarity? But that's another whole discussion.)

This is the kind of thing going through my thoughts as I drive around the city. Also thoughts like those many have expressed about safety. Nalo Hopkinson wrote: "Last night I went out onto my balcony, which is on the 23rd floor of a building in downtown Toronto. Beautiful clear night. I happened to glance over to my left, where there are a number of bank towers, probably about 80 storeys high. And all of a sudden I was imagining over and over what it would be like if they were to be suddenly destroyed. The cement wall of my balcony started to feel nowhere near secure enough, and the clear night sky felt as though I were going to fall into it. I had to go back inside." I am ashamed to admit it but the images of the planes hitting those towers hit me more closely than the scenes of desert wars and torn villages. I am a city person. Mind you, the scenes of soldiers dodging through suburban garages around minivans in Bosnia also struck me in the same way, so it's not just that I think North American lives are somehow more important. But I do admit and I do feel ashamed to admit that I had, on some emotional level, bought the myth of safety.

Now, mind you, I bought it as a Canadian, buying into the Canadians-as-peacekeepers mythos, but I also have known for a long time that anyone looking at the affluence that we take for granted here would be hard pressed to distinguish it from the larger affluence south of the 49th parallel—and it would look just as obscenely overinflated, despite the fact that our balloon-of-calories (remember the good parts of Sheri Tepper's WisCon speech?) is less than a USian's. I am poor by Canadian and Nordamericano standards, yet compared with someone who has the cloth s/he stands up in and a jerry can to carry the water 20 miles from well to family, I am obscenely overindulged. And I know how to work the system so I can travel internationally...

So I would always say, before this last couple of weeks, that when the revolution of the have-nots happens, and I'm up against the wall, on one level I'll deserve it. I may protest at the time—but perhaps not convincingly, since I didn't don a simple sari and go somewhere and do something to help other people stay alive.

However, now, that's some kinda naiveté all right. Because the fact is, I share the guilt on so many levels that denial was the only real option for staying alive amidst it—and denial is about 100% less possible than it was September 10.

Is shame functional? Is guilt functional? Is innocence (in either sense of the word) possible any more?

The myth of safety: I notice with some dark amusement that Hollywood is reconsidering disaster movies, which depend on the illusion of safety to make their ever-increasing extravagance of destruction entertaining rather than alarming. Better to wipe out the genre than to require a continent full of people in denial to reconsider their group delusion and replace it with something closer to truth.

Yet the weird thing is that as a queer, left-wing-political, middle-aged woman with a pretty clear idea of what my life would have been like born anywhere else, or born here with a different skin colour, I didn't think I had bought that mass delusion. I was already feeling unsafe. Knowing that being out and queer means that if the ultra-conservatives take over, I'll be one of the ones herded into the cattle trucks—yet still, feeling that as a citizen, a clever person, a writer I have some resources to combat prejudice. Using those resources. Writing books to try to make people understand that child abuse and violence and meanness are wrong. Doing local social action. Standing behind others who do global social action by gifts of money, letters written, etc. Etc. Etc.

Now, that all seems small risk, compared with the huge rage which fueled the actions of September 11.

(—And, I must also say, compared with the huge sense of risk I feel as a person, a Canadian, a North American and a world citizen as George W. Bush announces war, and I realise that there is nothing I can do to (effectively) get in the way of the war machine. In that way, Bush scares me more than bin Laden, the putative source of the September 11 attack, because bin Laden knows who the enemy is, and is very clear about expressing it, whereas Bush, Blair and co. (including our Prime Minister running to keep up with the big kids), are willing to fire into the crowd, unmindful of "collateral damage", in the hope of hitting someone culpable.)

All my thoughts would just be subjects for essays or private reflexion, were not the problem of fiction before me. Gary Wolfe's interesting essay on the Locus Magazine website ( addresses SF and its relevance or lack thereof to the events of what he calls "Black Tuesday". I don't even think of it as an SFnal problem. I already think SF as it is narrowly conceived is a largely USian phenomenon, an American language many non-Americans learn to speak fluently. I am concerned with the wider problem of literature in general.

I had just got to the point that I was strong enough to give up the distractions and the self-imposed penances and community services of my life (which before now I had discovered that on some level I felt I had to do to justify the "self-indulgence" of writing) and to look at devoting more and more of my time to writing alone. I was just believing in myself enough to do that. Now... how important is writing compared with more direct ways of saving the world? Will the point of view that writing is a direct way of saving the world work any more?

I suspect that I am not the only one, that all of us who on one level or other bought the idea of safety to have to reconsider our approach to our writing. Our illusions have been brutally shattered yet again. The problems of creating a moral fiction—an ethical stance—arise again. The simple problems. The difficult problems.

Can one live in idealism without illusions?

Can I write today, tomorrow? Is making literature possible today? Tomorrow? Next week?

Is anybody listening? Will it do any good?

Candas Jane Dorsey is the author of Black Wine and the forthcoming A Paradigm of Earth. She does not intend to give up writing.

(This piece is slightly revised from a posting made on FEM-SF on 26 September.)

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