Interview: Judith Berman

By Victoria McManus

Judith Berman Photo

Photo by Michael Wakely

Judith Berman's short fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, and Black Gate, garnering both critical acclaim and a place on a number of award and best-of short lists. Writing in Asimov's, Paul Di Filippo praised Lord Stink and Other Stories, her 2002 chapbook from Small Beer Press, as "evoking the best of Ursula Le Guin." Ace Books published her first novel, Bear Daughter, in September 2005.

Her often-cited essay on current trends in the field, "Science Fiction Without the Future," which Bruce Sterling has called "probably the most important piece of science fiction criticism in the last ten years," received the Science Fiction Research Association's 2002 Pioneer Award. A linguistic anthropologist by training, Judith has published in a number of venues on Native American myth and translation. Her website is at judithberman.net, and she lives and works in Philadelphia.

Victoria McManus: Bear Daughter is based on the cultures of Northwest Coast Native Americans. You had in-depth anthropological knowledge of these cultures before you began writing the book. How much of this information came readily to hand when you began writing, and what required further research? You've said the world of Bear Daughter is an alternate to our own; how did you integrate the facts of these real cultures with your own ideas? How much did the pressures of plot and character affect your choices in this regard?

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Judith Berman: Bear Daughter is indeed inspired by the indigenous traditions of the north Pacific coast at a number of levels, from the details to its thematic core. The sources, however, are incorporated into the book in combinations and configurations never found in the real world, and mixed up with the influence of Old World traditions. And all of the source materials, Old World and Native American, were subsidiary to and reinterpreted in terms of the situation of Cloud and her quest—what you could reasonably call the demands of plot and character.

And yet there's a back and forth: Cloud's story, and its theme of what could be called the problem of the self-as-body, arose out of my responding to, and reflecting upon, Northwest Coast literatures and worldviews over the course of the many years since I first encountered those traditions.

The plot, setting, and cast of characters each have a somewhat different relationship to the source materials. Characterization is the area least based upon external sources. The characters of Bear Daughter evolved with the story and its world, and they are who they turned out to be.

As for plot, models for the overall story arc were probably more non-Native than not. These include, of course, the quest plot as it's evolved in genre fantasy—as opposed to, say, quest plots from Native literatures—which in turn has many sources in Old World heroic and mythic traditions. Perhaps more important, though, were particular European fairy tales: that of the girl who has to rescue her brothers turned into swans; and that group of tales featuring an ogre or wizard whose source of power, or sole vulnerability, the heroine has to find in its locked and hidden box. Other conscious Old World models were the journeys into the underworld of classical and Norse mythology, and especially The Odyssey—except that I have a female protagonist journeying through supernatural horrors and wonders while trying to find the way home.

Pieces of the plot, however, do have a pretty specific source of inspiration in Native traditions. Here some examples would be Cloud's first encounter with the horrific spirit Huntress, her sojourn in the upper world, and the back story of the book, Cloud's mother's marriage to the bear king. The structure and rules of Cloud's universe—the world-river, the doors into and out of the world, the nature of spirit masks, etc.—is to a substantial degree derived from Kwakwaka'wakw cosmology of the 19th century, although it is also embellished, at times heavily, by my own imagination and by additions from other coastal traditions.

As for setting, I decided long ago for a number of reasons not to try for "authenticity" in that regard. Some characteristics might appear to point to real-life Native groups—as for example when I talk about northerners versus southerners. But my intention was to make the people and communities unlocatable, to not correspond to any real historical or present-day setting. Cloud's home, Sandspit Town, while perhaps more "northern" than not, has characteristics that derive from traditions up and down the coast. Where I used house or personal names found in Native tradition I tried to pick ones that are very widely distributed among many groups. I otherwise tried to avoid direct portrayals of anything that I understood to be traditional hereditary property.

And yet, contradictory as it sounds, I also attempted to be meticulously accurate in the depiction of many aspects of the world, especially with everyday particulars—e.g., what a slow match might have been made of, or how to patch a canoe. (This is the area where, unlike the mythic narratives, the source materials are not carried in my head and where, as a result, I had at times to do a fair amount of research.) The ecology and landscape are that of the coastal British Columbia I've known since childhood. As opposed to the book's own plot, I think every story mentioned in the book does have a counterpart, albeit by no means an exact one, in real Native traditions.

And, while Bear Daughter is fundamentally about my own personal concerns, I wanted to be as true as possible to the worldviews contained in the indigenous sources. Notions that profoundly influenced how I conceived of Cloud's story include the view that the world of nature is the origin of spiritual power; the idea of the fundamental, equal importance in the world of both the predatory and life-sustaining spiritual powers; and, finally and perhaps most crucially, the way in which spiritual power is seen as embodied—it's not just immanent in the body, but is body. So flesh is spiritual essence wrought into a shape, it is a transformation made by means of spiritual power. The meat that animals give us as food is spiritual and social sustenance as well as physical nourishment, and, as we might now phrase it, all ecological transactions—all movements of matter and energy through the ecosystem, all eating and being eaten—are also spiritual transactions.

(I carry a footnoted version of Bear Daughter in my head, and I'm going to try to write the notes up for my website—although there are a lot of them.)

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One thought experiment that I undertook while writing Bear Daughter was to consider analogies between the historical Northwest Coast peoples and the early Anglo-Saxons or Greek city-states, cultures where some of the greatest works in our literary canon—the Homeric epics, Beowulf—were gestated. A ton of very significant differences exist between all those groups and between their literatures, but it's interesting to think about, say, who gets called a king. How many people do they "rule" and what sort of influence or authority is bound up in the notion of leadership? It's notable that early explorers in North America commonly used the word "king" for leaders of communities and groups, like the Saxon kingdoms or Greek towns in Homer's time, numbering in the thousands, while now such Native leaders would be termed "chiefs." There's been derogation via terminology that affects what qualities our imaginations are willing to impart to Native people.

So as I'm thinking about the source stories and their original context, while I'm picturing life in Halibut or Storm House in Bear Daughter, I'm also imagining some of my ancestors or perhaps yours sitting around the open fireplace in an Anglo-Saxon king's post-and-beam wooden hall, in the company of others of his household, listening to a poet recite some precursor of Beowulf while the smoke rises up through the smoke hole and into the night.

VM: In the acknowledgements to the novel, you thank various cultures for their contributions, in their own language. In general, what are your thoughts on cultural "borrowing" or "appropriation" in genre fiction?

JB: I thanked the storytellers who had recounted the stories that had influenced and affected me so strongly. The issue of using material from indigenous or other colonized cultures isn't, to me, a simple one. Not all Native people have the same opinion on the subject. I've heard one Tlingit carver say, about white carvers working in the Northwest Coast style, that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." On the other hand, some Native writers have said that no one who isn't from an indigenous cultures should write about them at all, or use any materials from them.

Part of this latter response, as I have heard it framed, is the feeling that you, the writer or artist from the dominant culture, are profiting by the intellectual and artistic labors of others; it's another form of colonial exploitation. Then there's the way Native characters, cultures, etc., tend to be used as highly stereotyped vehicles for the outside author's own issues—like sunny Italy and passionate Italians in all those British novels and films. Italy will survive British novels, but for historically colonized peoples who might not have as large a megaphone, it's more difficult to push back against being flattened into someone else's symbol, especially when the culture has been under attack in so many other ways. Then there's the issue of outsiders writing about sacred matters, or about knowledge that's restricted within the indigenous culture. And there is anger at how frequently, and egregiously, outsiders get things wrong.

I don't myself think there's a prescription fitting all situations. For writers from the dominant cultures not to notice indigenous traditions at all seems like another form of colonialism. I grew up between two Indian reservations, only a few miles from the boundary of one of them, and in retrospect it's astonishing to me the way in which Indians were socially invisible in my home town.

At the same time, artists' and writers' responses to indigenous traditions can progress from benign noticing and being affected by through being influenced or inspired by, and by the time you have reached using material from indigenous traditions you are already in danger of misusing it.

I do believe in the possibility of a respectful middle ground between acknowledgement and recolonization, where artists and writers can be inspired by indigenous cultural materials, can even use images or motifs or ideas without exploitative intentions or (I hope) consequences. But I don't know how to draw a boundary around that middle ground except to think about how I might feel if it were my traditions an outsider was writing about. And there, so much would depend on how it's done. Whether Bear Daughter lies in that middle ground is, by definition, for others to decide.

One thing I want to stress, especially since I've worked in this area for a long time as an academic and some might suppose that imparts some representational authority to my fiction, is to make clear that this story does not and is not intended to represent an authentically Indian viewpoint, or depict an authentic Indian universe. Some people are already misunderstanding this. It's one of the reasons I didn't attempt to make Cloud's world ethnographically or historically accurate. It's one of the reasons why I've used terms and tropes from genre fantasy, as for example "kings" and "wizards" rather than "chiefs" and "shamans" (terms that I think for many white people impart a frisson of "Indian mystique").

The cover that Ace gave the book, while it's very pretty, is problematic in this regard, and not just because Cloud to me looks rather Caucasian. The publisher wants to tell potential readers what to expect inside, many of whom will be genre readers. For most genre readers, the symbols on the cover that say "Indian" are already in quotes; they know what's inside will be a stew of historical source material and made-up stuff. But not everyone will know the symbols are meant to be read that way, or will like the fact that they're used at all. It's a fine line to walk.

Eileen Gunn asked me what would be the most positive reaction from Native people that I could wish for. What I would hope is that they would read and enjoy Bear Daughter in a frame not unlike the one in which I read The Lord of the Rings, or, say, Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. These are works of literature that draw extensively on some of the ancestral traditions of my culture (as well as on the traditions of some of those who persecuted my ancestors). I enjoyed these books enough to be curious about how they used and altered their source materials. But I never took them as attempts to represent any northern European tradition.

If nothing else, I'd hope that all readers, if they did not already possess it, would put Bear Daughter down with an expanded view of the imaginative splendor of the source traditions. And if they didn't like what I did with the sources, they would go away with a determination to do it right. At bottom, where literature is concerned, I'm of the conviction that—as with free speech in general—more literature, better and more persuasive literature, is the best response to literature you don't like.

VM: Cloud is a reluctant hero throughout the novel, which runs counter to most coming-of-age novels in the genre. Did you start out with that intention for the character?

JB: Absolutely. She had to be, given that the tension between bear and girl in her nature is the dramatic core of her story.

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I wouldn't say reluctant heroes are rare in genre fantasy in general. There's a relatively common trope of the young hero shying away from a feared destiny, or from a fearful passage that is the only route to adulthood. A recent example that immediately springs to mind is Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin.

Perhaps Cloud is unusual in the way that she remains reluctant and angry to the end of her quest. But that's also dictated by who she is.

VM: Did you have specific thoughts on gender you tried to convey in Bear Daughter? (Cloud herself is a gawky girl in human life, a dangerous berserker in her bear mask; Thrush, a victim of rape and domestic violence who nonetheless makes choices about her own fate; and Winter, a powerful wizard.)

JB: There is one strand of Bear Daughter that is all about gender, but not in any ideological or programmatic way. Bear Daughter is a sequel of sorts, both in theme and in the reappearance of some of the characters, to my story "Lord Stink" (Asimov's, August 1997, reprinted in Lord Stink and Other Stories, Small Beer Press, 2002). "Lord Stink," which tells about Cloud's mother's abduction by the bear king, is in part about the consequences of disrespecting the body and its passions and processes.

Back when I finished "Lord Stink," I knew I wanted to write some day about the surviving cub from that union. The specific catalyst for Bear Daughter, though, was a review of Reviving Ophelia—a book I've never read, though I probably should!—that discussed how, for some girls, the onset of adolescence can be psychologically devastating. This strongly resonated with my own experience. There is a time where you are bigger and stronger and more intellectually and emotionally mature than boys, and then your body changes and you become culturally female, and a female object, in a way you weren't before. And then, as boys mature, you lose your relative strength and even your cultural right to be a powerful body—especially to be a more powerful body.

So Cloud's story, the grizzly bear turning into a smallish and very pretty adolescent girl, reflects my own personal argument with cultural notions about femininity and gender, and the way gender is culturally embodied—the way culture conditions how we experience our own bodies. And it reflects my thoughts about how the culturally gendered body can be at odds with other aspects of the self-as-body, including sexuality and other primal emotions and appetites like rage or hunger. And finally Cloud's story raises unanswered questions I have about what might or might not be determined biologically by the male or female body: for example, the so-called maternal instinct or that peculiar form of male rage, recently explored in Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle, that seeks to annihilate what is most loved.

All the women in the book, human and spirit, had to be true to themselves as characters. But at another level I did intend that they provide opportunities for Cloud to think about ways of being both female and strong, especially in contrast to her most important model of femininity—her mother, the beautiful Thrush, who fails her at so many turns.

Thrush is very good at fulfilling her social role and, as part of this, excels at the public performance of gender. But she has never known how to connect to the part of her self that lies in her body—to any of her primal appetites or emotions. That includes the parental love that would make you, without a moment's thought, throw yourself in front of a truck to save your child. Thrush is always loving, but she isn't very effective.

Winter, the seer, I envisioned as a much more complete person aware of both sides of her nature. Cloud views her as hard and unsympathetic. But Winter, in addition to being the stronger and more self-reliant personality, is more domestic and more involved with her children, is a more genuinely capable mother, than Thrush has ever been. Winter is not so much lacking in sympathy as she is challenging Cloud to a maturity the latter doesn't yet possess.

Of the human women in Bear Daughter, one of the most important for Cloud is one you don't mention—her Aunt Glory. A reader described her to me as "a heroic character masquerading as an annoying relative." On the one hand, Glory is a woman whose allegiance is to proper behavior and traditional roles. But her notions about what's proper lead her to take in Cloud, protect her from the most powerful and violent man in their community, and assume the task of civilizing the bear child. And she can't help coming to love Cloud.

VM: What's the most difficult technical challenge you've addressed in your writing? One example, I feel, is the multiple points of view in "The Fear Gun" (Asimov's, July 2004).

JB: That's the most difficult challenge I've undertaken to date. It's a novelette with seven different viewpoint characters, several of them quite unreliable. Each character has incomplete knowledge of the facts, each narrates one section, and all of this is strung together, and has to work, as a reasonably straight sequential narrative. I'd hoped to set up the transitions so that at the end of each section, the POV character of the next section is coming onstage, along the lines of Richard Linklater's movie Slacker. But other demands of the narrative forced me to abandon that plan after the fourth section.

Of the stories I've written, "The Fear Gun" is also the one in which genre cliches are most in the reader's face, and yet contradictorily the genre furniture (e.g., aliens, spaceships, telepathic animals) is offstage much of the time. Needless to say, it was very hard to make this work at all, and from reader and reviewer comments the story evidently comes off as darker and grimmer than I intended.

The SF novel I'm working on right now, tentatively titled Invisible House, has a different set of technical difficulties. Formally, it's much simpler than "The Fear Gun." It has a single third-person POV and a relatively straight sequential narrative. But I'm having to do a fair amount of research into astronomy and astrophysics, both for plot reasons and because I'd love to have interstellar space be as much a real place as forest and sea are in Bear Daughter. Even more challenging is getting inside the head of the protagonist, who's very different from Cloud. Ari is a largely unsuspecting math genius whose peculiar talent is connected to a form of synaesthesia that she possesses: the textural and tactile experience of sounds.

The synaesthesia is based on my own. I'm adding to this the observed fact that many mathematicians are also musicians, and I'm also drawing on several women I knew in college with exceptional math abilities (and who, perhaps contrary to expectation, had perfectly normal social skills).

I myself am no math genius and have forgotten much of what I once knew, but somewhere in advanced calculus, when I was at last liberated from the burden of having to come up with numerical answers and entered more conceptual realms, math became more like language. It especially became more like the abstract patterns of grammar. In those, strange to say, I find aesthetic pleasure, and I also experience them almost tactilely.

I've been following with great interest the ongoing research about sex differences in language, math, and science. Of course such research deals with the statistical properties of groups, rather than with the kind of exceptional individual I imagine my protagonist to be. Still, it's a curious fact that for math and spatial abilities, left- versus right-handedness proves a more significant factor than sex.

So I have to pull these strands together and integrate them with other aspects of Ari's character, and with her situation and the stresses she's under.

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VM: Your novel-in-progress is science fiction. Is your approach to writing SF different from writing fantasy?

JB: I'd say that the most important literary dimensions are the same. Good prose is good prose. In both you have the same requirement for complex, engaging characters, interesting themes, and a compelling plot.

Evoking the sense of wonder is also important in both SF and fantasy. But they part company in where you find it. I'd argue that in fantasy, the sense of wonder is connected to the experience of beauty, often expressed in mystical, magical, or spiritual terms. Obviously the grotesque is very important, too—perhaps equally necessary. But a work of fantasy that does not somewhere provide beauty, whether naively or with sophistication, whether in its objects or its characters, in its events or its setting, on its surface or in its emotional or dramatic depths, is going to disappoint its readers. Even a work dominated by the grotesque like Perdido Street Station isn't an exception to this rule; Miéville just mixes up beauty and the grotesque in unusual ways. Although I didn't frame it that way at the time, I certainly thought a lot about both beauty and the grotesque, and their cathartic interplay, in writing Bear Daughter.

Beauty can be found aplenty in SF, but it's not mission-critical, and writers use many other qualities, for example extremes of scale, to evoke the sense of wonder. What for me is distinctively hard about writing SF are the additional rules you have to follow on top of the demands of ordinary storytelling, which can be challenging enough. You have society- and world-building from the ground up. You have to have some grasp of science in a number of fields, and you have to be able to extrapolate creatively and intelligently. You have to integrate all that into the narrative without huge awkward expository lumps, and without hurting the brain of the reader who isn't as conversant as you've become about the minutiae of string theory.

In some ways producing first-rate SF is like composing in sestina or sonnet form instead of free verse. It's not easy to write a sonnet in which the requirements of the form enrich the result, rather than merely draw attention to themselves. Because of the extra burden SF has to carry, I think it's harder there than in fantasy to balance the demands of the form with the literary dimensions.

VM: Did you make up your own stories when you were a child? When did you begin putting stories on paper? What do you think drives this impulse?

JB: Some years back I found a little chapbook in my parents' house that I'd written and stapled together when I was maybe five or six. So, I started at least that early. The story in the chapbook was about a "golden horse," and one origin of the writing impulse, for me, is the love of creating and contemplating wonderful—wonder-full—images. When I was a child I loved such elements in fairy tales and myth: the glass mountain, the winged sandals, the bull with a magic tablecloth in his ear.

Another source was my desire to be a character in the narrative. It was a lot harder back then to find stories where girls went on adventures, where they got to fly with the winged sandals or ride up the glass mountain. And then there's the problem that you can't always be reading. We went on a lot of long car trips when I was a kid, and reading in cars gives me motion sickness. So I very early started telling myself stories on such trips, or when falling asleep at night, making them up as I went along. Some of these were rewrites of books or TV shows with more and better female characters inserted into the story, but I also made up stories from scratch.

I don't know what ultimately lies behind the impulse to write fiction, speculative or any other kind. For me there isn't anything more addictive, interesting, or plain fun than imagining stories. I compulsively and almost unconsciously make up stories about people I pass on the street. I'm also compelled to write and become hateful and depressed if I can't. But, although writing does have considerable pleasures, it can also be painful and frustrating. As Howard Waldrop says: "Writing is hard."

VM: What genre book do you wish you'd written, and why?

JB: Hmm. I have favorite books but no single best-loved or most-admired one. Books that I greatly enjoyed reading aren't necessarily the ones that have had the biggest influence on me, and the ones that have been most important for me at one time aren't necessarily the ones that would be my favorites as of this moment. The Left Hand of Darkness is one example. It had a profound impact on me as a teenager, but now I read it much more critically and uncomfortably, especially its portrayal of femaleness.

The problem is, I can adore a book as a reader, become completely engrossed in it and completely enamored of its characters, but once I start to contemplate it I start thinking, well, I would have made this character more important and I would have cut this section, and I would have had the protagonist be less, or more, self-absorbed. As a preteen and teenager, I read The Lord of the Rings countless times, but I always hated the shortage of women characters and felt driven to make up my own (for example, I had a protagonist who was a female member of Gandalf's order). I loved most of Podkayne of Mars, but even as a child I loathed the ending. (I wouldn't have liked Heinlein's preferred ending any better.) Neuromancer—cool ideas, very cool writing, disappointingly weak plot. And so on.

Some fantasy and SF books that have been, in one way or another, at one time or another, touchstones for me: The Left Hand of Darkness, LoTR, Philip K. Dick's Ubik, E.R. Eddison's Mistress of Mistresses, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness, John Crowley's Little, Big, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony. The book I just finished: Karl Schroeder's Permanence. Right now I'm working on M. John Harrison's Light. It's not a book I would think of writing or would be able to write, but I want to write SF this good.


Victoria McManus Photo

Victoria McManus majored in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College and completed her Master's in Anthropology at Temple University. Her previous work in Strange Horizons includes interviews with Gregory Frost and Ann Tonsor Zeddies. Currently, she edits reviews and articles for The Broadsheet.