I stumbled across Colette on Twitter one day and saw that she had released a new version of her novel Nightmare in Silicon. Shamefully, I had never come across the original novel, but the description instantly had me intrigued – a feminist scifi exploring gender identity and what it means to be human? Sign me up!
I was particularly fascinated to learn why an author would want to revisit and rewrite a previous novel – especially one that received such immense critical praise upon release.
You identify as both an author and an activist. How important is fiction to the world of activism and how do you think this will change/continue in the future?
I think it’s probably most important to the next generation, children and teenagers who are encouraged to read more and are influenced by YA books that are tackling human rights-related issues, like The Hate U Give or Love, Simon. So in a few years, a decade, their views will likely be more inclusive than what we’re seeing now. A lot of us as adults get caught up in the toxic news cycle, especially in election years, and it feels like that “reality” is what matters, whereas the world of fiction we escape to via Netflix or whatever is just that – an escape.
But the two seem to be coming together more, with audiences calling out books like The Continent for its racist characterization, and the trend of sensitivity readers who help writers to be more inclusive. And agents seem to be seeking out marginalized voices more too. I feel like Orange Is The New Black is a great example of activism and fiction becoming one – I remember the force of the (spoiler alert…) season where Poussey gets shot, right as the Black Lives Matter movement was becoming huge in the real world. And the author of the book, Piper Kerman, started an organization to help women in prison. We’ve also seen more people talking about scifi as a vehicle for the future we want to see in terms of social values, not just technology. I went to an Octavia Butler-themed event in Oakland on that topic. So it does all connect.
Your debut novel, Nightmare in Silicon, explores identity through the loss of your protagonist’s physical body. Science fiction usually uses such tropes to explore the question of what makes us human – but you chose to take this further and use it as an opportunity to explore gender identity. Why?
I wrote Nightmare in Silicon when I was developing my own newfound identity as an adult in the “real world” and working through my own relationship to gender. I didn’t want people to treat me differently in every scenario because I was a woman. I didn’t even know if I wanted to identify as a woman. I didn’t want to be a man either. I just wanted to be a human. That’s how Nightmare in Silicon was born. It wasn’t some academic take on transgender experience – far from it. I liked the idea we could live without gender, escape it and all of the sexism it creates. What if we really could all just be the same? See each other as the same. Of course, in the book, Ymo is the only gender-neutral person, so she faces more prejudice than anyone, ironically. I drew from my experience shaving my head when I was 20 in Ohio, how a store clerk greeted me cheerily from behind a clothes rack and then looked terrified when she actually saw me. Feeling like a freak growing up in a conservative area. If Ymo had simply entered a robot body, I still could have explored the “freak” aspect of her inhuman appearance. But maybe for me, I felt like a freak because I didn’t fit in with the traditional idea of what femininity was, even if I was outwardly feminine.
I learned about mind uploading online and started reading Donna Haraway and other cyberfeminist texts as I wrote Nightmare in Silicon, but my ideas ended up being very different from theirs. I actually met Donna Haraway once at UC Santa Cruz, where I went to college and where she was a professor. She insisted we couldn’t get rid of gender, and that she liked “being a girl.” It was hard to find anyone who understood my vision of gender.
I was going into chat rooms and using the internet regularly for the first time from 18, and I liked when people assumed I was a guy (even if that said more about their tendency to attach malehood to people by default when there was no explicit femininity). Maybe Ymo’s robot body was a way of extending that mystery to one’s everyday physical existence. Nowadays the internet doesn’t allow for much anonymity (or they will sic the Catfish crew on you), but back then it was great to explore, even if I didn’t go so far as to create a fake profile with some dude’s photos.
We have been reading quite a few feminist dystopian novels in recent years. Why does this sub-genre suit feminist takes on the future of society so well? Do you think this indicates movement in the right direction?
As an American, I want to say it’s because of Trump, which is even more depressing to think about. That this terrible antifeminist reality we’re living in stifles our imaginations and worlds of escape as well. Also since The Handmaid’s Tale was revamped for TV, it could have created a sort of postmodern trend. I remember the protagonist in The Handmaid’s Tale as very victimized, and my main character Ymo in Nightmare in Silicon – while she was a sassy, rebellious character – was in other ways victimized as well. But I believe we have to envision the world we want to see too. And believe it’s possible. That goes beyond just inserting more female, trans, or black people into the same old narratives. Or just slapping a happy end on that doesn’t make sense for our world. A lot of fiction is cathartic for authors, so it may be authors (and readers) trying to work through this MeToo stuff and admit that yeah, there is still a problem. We’re not in a postfeminist world, not by far.
What other authors/books in the speculative fiction space do you think are making positive (feminist) steps? Why are these particular titles/authors so effective?
Is it bad I can’t think of anything off the top of my head? I live under a rock though and mostly read nonfiction or the occasional classic. I haven’t been keeping up with the latest in feminist speculative fiction, though I learned of some examples after participating (online now) as a speaker in the feminist scifi conference WisCon in May. N. K. Jemisin also leads dialogues about these issues on social media and the queer dystopia Docile by K. M. Szpara really stood out to me this year as well.
Nightmare in Silicon is now out in a digital remix edition. Why did you want to release an updated version of the novel? And why should readers buy themselves a copy?
I learned about sensitivity readers at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York last year and loved the idea, so I hired two readers to give me PC feedback on the original book. When I started writing Nightmare in Silicon, I don’t think the word “nonbinary” even existed – it was just being coined around then. A decade and a half later, I was concerned that there could be some potentially offensive things in the original – namely, I was afraid some of it may have been racist, or at least ignorant. I was writing this book when I’d moved from the mostly-white suburban area where I grew up to a mostly-black urban area and it was my attempt to depict this new environment. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t pigeonholing Eo as the “black friend” trope, among other things. I ended up discovering some ways I could be more inclusive of nonbinary or trans readers as well. I never intended to rewrite the whole book, but I made quite a few small edits (i.e., altering the use of the dangerously presumptuous “flesh-toned,” cutting out Ymo body-shaming her “fat days”).
I actually think Nightmare in Silicon is more important than ever within feminist discourse today, when it’s considered questionable to even talk about cervixes for fear of alienating trans women who don’t have them. Ymo gets cervical cancer in the book (which the sensitivity reader seemed to take issue with), and there’s a lot of Ymo questioning her gender identity in a way that doesn’t fit with the current discourse of transgender and nonbinary people. It seems we have much more power to choose our identities in the growing list of checkboxes on forms. So it’s still seen as important to be entrenched in a specific identity with its requisite pronoun on our Twitter profile, rather than all of us simply asking “Is this really so important that we be a gender at all?” My vision with Nightmare in Silicon was a world without gender, or at least one person trying to live without gender as a step in that direction. This whole process working with sensitivity readers has inspired me to start writing a sequel that I hope will address more modern-day concerns about gender fluidity, and that utopic vision I had for a genderless world.
Colette Phair is the author of Nightmare in Silicon, which won the Chiasmus Press First Book Competition, and which Alan Moore called “a toxic-shock torrent of bad energy and beautiful language.” Her short fiction and articles have appeared in The Apocalypse Reader, Bitch Magazine, 3:AM, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Colette has also written marketing and fundraising materials for progressive organizations focused on international development, women’s rights, environment, and civic engagement. You can find more of her work at http://www.colettephair.com or follow her at http://twitter.com/colettephair.