The Tiptree Symposium: Performance of Gender

Tiptree ExhibitThe emotional high point of the Tiptree Symposium held at the University of Oregon last weekend was listening to Ursula K. Le Guin read the letter she wrote to James Tiptree after learning that Tip was also Alice B. Sheldon.

It was a letter of friendship, of compassion, of playfulness that assured Alli/Tip that Ursula would continue to be a friend and colleague. Given the difficulties that the “big reveal” caused her (him), the letter must have brought relief. It brought a few tears to the eyes of those listening to it some forty years later.

But the program included many wonderful moments, beginning with the keynote from Tiptree biographer Julie Phillips. James Tiptree, Jr. The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is a superb biography, one that gets at the heart of Alli/Tip and keeps you reading breathlessly even when you know what happened next.

U of Oregon students from a course on feminist science fiction read from some of Tip’s voluminous correspondence with other writers. Ursula was joined by Suzy McKee Charnas and David Gerrold on a panel moderated by Karen Joy Fowler discussing their relationships with Tiptree and the intersection of feminism and science fiction that happened at the same time.

There was a panel of publishers discussing both the way things worked in Tiptree’s day and the way they work now. Tiptree Award motherboard members and former award jurors talked about how the award came about and how it continues to grow because it has always been defined in terms that can be interpreted in growing ways by the jurors each year.

Jeff Smith, who is the guardian of Tiptree’s legacy, donated her papers to the University of Oregon. He was interviewed – or maybe grilled – by some of the students about what he knew about her work. I think he was very pleased with the job the Oregon library had done in both displaying the papers – there’s a nice exhibit in the Knight Library – and in organizing this symposium.

Two recordings provided more high points. The first was a recording of “The Women Men Don’t See,” perhaps Tiptree’s most famous story. Even though I’ve read it many times, I found listening to it gave me new perspectives.

The second was a group of recordings Alli Sheldon made, one a quite funny critique of Heinlein. Listening to her voice, which was low in tone and affected by the cigarettes she smoked, I found myself thinking of how it evoked the sound of many women of her generation. Lauren Bacall sounds like that in To Have and Have Not. My mother – born eight years after Alli – sounded like that.

It was interesting to me how much of the discussion seemed to revolve around, or come back to, the idea of performing gender. Certainly many people see James Tiptree, Jr., as not simply a byline, but as a person created and performed by Alli Sheldon. Or perhaps one might say a side of her that came into full fruition behind the veil of a male name.

Several women mentioned the concept of performing femininity as something they have dealt with. It seems likely that Alli Sheldon performed femininity at various times in her life in the same way that she performed Tiptree.

Toward the end of the second day, Julie Phillips said something that resonated with me. For Alli, “Tiptree was a strategy for getting out of her body completely.” I’m still pondering that sentence.

For those who regret missing this weekend, there is good news. The University will hold more of these events, one in 2016 on Joanna Russ and a third in 2017 on Suzy McKee Charnas. (The library has papers from both authors in its collection of the work of women science fiction writers.) I gather that they plan to use the name Tiptree Symposium for these events, borrowing the name much as the Tiptree Award has to indicate the complexity of gender in the world of fiction.

Of course, such an event could not go one without a good party, and the Tiptree Award motherboard made sure it had one. A good time was had by all, me included. Here I am in a picture by Nina Kiriki Hoffman having a lively conversation with Suzy McKee Charnas and L. Timmel Duchamp.

Nancy Suzy and Timmi



The Tiptree Symposium: Performance of Gender — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Amazing Stories | AMAZING NEWS: 12/13/15 - 'in this theater that I call my soul, I always play the starring role'* - Amazing Stories

  2. I too was especially moved by Ursula Le Guin’s reading the letter to James Tiptree, her reply to the forced disclosure of his female person. This symposium may stand as a kind of reply on behalf of so many–that is, an acknowledgment not only of an important talent but also of her suffering. At this point in our cultural history we could too easily be caught up in a sense that “of course” Tiptree’s split identity is not just acceptable but really of interest to all of us. Remembering what she faced and renewing Le Guin’s wonderful response seems of special value.

    • Yes. I came away with a real sense of how important it was for her to be Tiptree and that the revelation caused her grief for deeply personal reasons, not just because of the reaction in the community.