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literature

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Russ, Joanna (b. 1937)  

Science fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ was born February 22, 1937, to Bertha Zinner and Evarett I. Russ, and grew up in the Bronx. She claims, "I spent my childhood half in the Bronx Zoo and half in the Botanical Gardens." In 1953 in high school, she was one of the top ten Westinghouse Science Talent Search Winners. Russ received her B.A. with High Honors in English from Cornell University in June 1957, and her M.F.A. at Yale University School of Drama in June 1960.

Russ came out about 1969, the subject of her only non-science fiction novel On Strike Against God (1980). After teaching at Cornell University, SUNY at Binghamton, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, Russ became Professor of English at the University of Washington (Seattle). She suffers from back problems and writes standing up.

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Russ's science fiction began to be published in 1959. According to Russ, her 1967 Alyx story marked a change: "I had turned from writing love stories ... to writing stories about women in which the woman won." Russ continued the Alyx series with Picnic on Paradise (1968) and The Adventures of Alyx (1986). Her friendship with the gay science fiction writer Samuel Delany has influenced her writing throughout her career.

Two of Russ's science fictions changed the genre and created controversy. Her 1969 short story, "When It Changed," appeared in 1972 and won a Nebula Award. In first person, the story depicts a human with a wife and daughters on a colonized planet, living through the first hours of regaining contact with earthmen. After several pages, readers realize that the narrator is female, that all the people on this planet are lesbians. Russ uses role-reversal (a woman as husband and narrator) and the misogyny and of the spacemen to call into question the necessity of gender roles.

Her novel The Female Man (1975) opened new possibilities of form as well as content for science fiction. Russ magnified the sf convention of parallel histories by bringing together the same woman as she exists in four different lives--oppressed heterosexual Jeannine from a United States in which the Depression never ended; Joanna (note the author's name), an unmarried university professor from a culture like ours; Jael, an assassin from a world where the sexes are literally at war; and Janet Evason from a utopian lesbian planet.

Written in a "lyric" stream of consciousness style that Russ discusses in her essay "What Can a Heroine Do?" The Female Man is a funny and serious book about what is wrong with patriarchy and how to fix it. Russ links her anger at inequality and her humor: "wit is a kind of rage, a form of hostility."

The anticolonizing fiction We Who Are About To... (1977) continues Russ's experimental lyric feminism: A space ship crashes, the survivors try to start a colony and fail, and the older woman protagonist, who resists, kills the others and finds her own meditative way to die. During the 1970s, Russ also published And Chaos Died (1970) and The Two of Them (1978).

Russ has worked mainly in the sf short story during the subsequent two decades, publishing three collections: Extraordinary People (1984), The Zanzibar Cat (1984), and The Hidden Side of the Moon (1987). Striving for compression, Russ's short stories are dense and delightfully perverse twistings of generic conventions: a lesbian gothic tale, for example, and a ghost story in which a daughter learns to mother herself.

Russ's criticism began in the general aesthetics of science fiction and moved to passionate feminist critiques of science fiction and other literatures. Her essays on "What Can a Heroine Do?" "Images of Women," and "Amor Vincit" are central to feminist sf criticism. Her book How to Suppress Women's Writing is a witty catalogue of reasons why literary history denies the existence of women's writing: her husband wrote it, she wrote it but it wasn't really art, and so on.

In Magic Mommas, Russ treats broad issues of women's and gay and lesbian liberation, returning to science fiction in the essay on Kirk-Spock pornography.

Jane L. Donawerth

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

"Joanna Russ." Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Larry McCaffery, ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Moyan, Tom. Dream the Impossible. New York: Methuen, 1986.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Donawerth, Jane L.  
    Entry Title: Russ, Joanna  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 27, 2011  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/russ_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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