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Judith Berman
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Mailing Date:
28 July 2005

Locus Magazine
Judith Berman: Zombies and Spaceships
Judith Berman grew up in Moscow, Idaho, and attended Bennington College in Vermont and majored in anthropology, Russian, and comparative literature, graduating in 1979. After working as an editorial assistant at W.W. Norton, she began graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her Ph.D. in anthropology in 1991.

Berman's first story, "The Year of Storms" in 1995, was followed by "Lord Stink" (1997), third-place Sturgeon winner "The Window" (1999), "Dream of Rain" (2000), 2005 Sturgeon finalist "The Fear Gun" (2004), and "The Poison Well" (2004). Her chapbook Lord Stink and Other Stories appeared from Small Beer Press in 2002, and her first novel, Bear Daughter, is coming from Ace in 2005. She won a Pioneer Award from the Science Fiction Research Association for her 2001 essay "Science Fiction Without the Future".

She lives with her husband John Holland and their young son Sam in Philadelphia, and is a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Photo by Beth Gwinn

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Excerpts from the interview:

“A friend of mine asked me why I'm seemingly unable to write anything that doesn't have the undead or some kind of spaceship or mythological figure in it. Why that kind of thing, as opposed to realism? I don't know, except that I can point to my early reading. I'm uncomfortable reading about things that are absolutely imitative of life, while other people are drawn to it; it's almost a necessity for them.

“Though nobody realized at the time, I think Calvin and Hobbes was a defining cultural moment, in that it changed the way mainstream American culture thought of fantasy -- not necessarily genre fantasy, but the way the mind worked. Calvin's mental landscape was a fantastic landscape.

“Realism is an inadequate literary technique for describing human experience, because our inner life does take place in a fantastic landscape. Dreams are the extreme manifestation of that, but in waking life every minute you're having fantasies.

“Fantasy is in some ways about a person's internal nonrealistic life, and science fiction is about the external. Life is getting less and less realistic all the time, as we move into the future. In fact, realism has had kind of a short shelf life, in the larger scheme of things. To me there's nothing wrong with realism as part of the palette, but it's pretty restrictive. And that's the intellectual argument for why I love zombies and spaceships!”


“I would like to say my novel is not Native American. There's this big can of worms about cultural misappropriation. Some Native American commentators feel that no white people should write about Native people, use their material, or in any way profit from a culture which is not only not their own but which our culture has been trying to suppress or eradicate for the last 300 years. It's something I've thought about a lot as I've worked with this material and written the book. I feel a certain sympathy for that point of view, but at the same time, as a writer I don't see how you can look at these things and not respond. What I say in the Acknowledgments of Bear Daughter is that the book was inspired by these Native American stories but it's not about real Indians, past or present. It's not a retelling of the stories so much as a response to the material. Part of the Surrealists' art was a response to indigenous art. You can't look something like that in the face and not be changed by it, and if you have that urge to write or paint or whatever, it's going to come out of you. You do have an obligation to respond to it thoughtfully and to look past your own culture's stereotypes.”


“A lot of people, both in the field and outside of it, believe that fantastic literature is closer to the primitive, in a lot of different senses of the word -- closer to the primitive inside yourself, whatever that might be: the subconscious, the child. Children's literature and culture is expected to be, is allowed to be, much more creative and fantastical than adult literature. I think that's an evolutionary or developmental narrative imposed upon the fantastic, which in fact is everywhere in mental life.

“The question in folklore is often whether or not people believe in the myth. My argument would be that generally that world is very different from the one in which fantastic literature is written and finds its audience. Fiction is a category in our culture that doesn't necessarily exist in other cultures. In a genuinely mythic culture the myth is perceived as real, but in our postmodern, globalized universe where the reader has no contact with the teller, most people read myth as fantastic literature. In what I'll refer to in shorthand as 'true mythic' societies, you're essentially sitting across from the teller at the campfire. It's oral, direct, real. And I think most writers of the fantastic would be very uncomfortable in that kind of tradition. We would view many mythic societies as fundamentalist because the worldviews can be very closed, though not all of them are.”

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