A.J. Fitzwater's most recent publication is a short story in Clarkesworld titled “Logistics.” (You can find it here or link through the cover photo.) Due to some interesting connections, I reached out to A.J. with some questions about their story and take on its specific topic in the hopes of starting some conversations in our SFF community around writing apocalyptic fiction, bodily functions in fiction, accessibility in conventions, and even writing workshops.
Hi A.J.! So, tell everyone a bit about yourself.
I broke from a clutch of eggs borne by the great golden dragon ... wait, that's going back too far. Not all dragons have the claws to hold a pen, but a fire kept churning in me, and I flew the skies until I could hone the narrow blade of my flame. That is to say, I wasn't always a writer. I wanted to BE one, but I didn't have the life experience or an idea of what I wanted to write about until my 30s. I dabbled with a correspondence course, some contests, and romance writing in my 20s, but nothing ever clicked, and I focused on flying the skies for a while, putting together my pride.
It crept up on me, a combination of things: a growing understanding of academic feminism and application to real-world activism, volunteering at PodCastle, writing some radio play scripts, and the approaching doom of age 40 (which ended up not being much doom at all; it turned out to be a great year). Some of my path twist towards writing might have had to do with facing mortality from surviving a natural disaster.
"Logistics" is about a non-binary person looking for tampons--and other sanitary products--in a post-apocalyptic world. As you've described on your blog, you got the idea from a talk I gave last year at Worldcon (“Where are the Tampons? The Estrangement of Women’s Bodies in Apocalyptic Fiction”), but I'm curious to know about the development of the initial idea.
Since my earliest reading, whenever I've consumed science fiction and fantasy, I always wondered "Where are the toilets?" That evolved into asking "How does this heroine get on having her period on this epic adventure?" There have been few and far between references to menstruation, usually with regards to the person suffering terrible pain or trying to get pregnant. There's never been the banality, the logistics (hah!) of dealing with it. As a feminist, I'm also very pro-reproductive justice, which includes access to sanitary products and destroying discrimination/violence against people for a natural part of their health. Your talk at Worldcon solidified the idea that I wanted to put this feminism and naturalness into a story.
How did the protagonist develop? The apocalyptic situation? The world itself that you created? The narrative structure? I’m curious about the choices your made and why you made them.
I chose a non-binary character because of the trans-access-to-bathrooms debate (it's not a debate, it's bullshit; denying people access to bathrooms is denying people the right to exist in public), and I have trans/nb friends who have spoken about the difficulties of changing sanitary products in public toilets. I want to help expand the discussion about reproductive justice for trans, genderqueer, and non-binary people.
I chose an apocalyptic setting because to me it mirrors the forced-scarcity model of late capitalism that we are currently living through. The tampon/luxury tax is also bullshit: sanitary products are not a luxury, they are a necessity. Like access to bathrooms, denying access to sanitary products to lower-income people is about having access to public space and being able to live their lives freely.
I came to the diary/confessional YouTube style of delivery through how I wanted the plot and character to evolve. My character, Enfys, is travelling alone for logistical (hah, again!) reasons, as well as suffering from anxiety and PTSD. They want to connect with the rest of the world, even if what they're recording is their last will and testament, but they’re terrified of connecting face to face in case they transmit the disease (they are immune, but a carrier), or come across people who want to hurt them. In some ways, the disaster mirrors Enfys's loss of a queer community and lives through violence, suicide, and AIDS. Their quiet character arc finds them understanding this is a new world, and with the new communality being experienced the world over, things are changing for the better in that respect.
The digital delivery of connection has its basis in reality. My experience of living through a natural disaster was very much social-media based. In the weeks after the 2011 earthquake, I was stuck at home a lot (injured), and connecting for information, resources and companionship on Twitter and Facebook. I also played a lot of online games, giving me community and escape. We've also seen over the last decade the rise of social media as a news- and information-delivery system in the wake of revolutions and disaster, and how certain conservative groups wish to circumvent that egalitarian tool with twisting it to propaganda uses. I wanted to imagine a different kind of apocalypse which has more of a basis in our current reality—where the danger comes from misinformation and neglect rather than Wild West-style armageddon preppers (though I do so very much love Mad Max: Fury Road).
Your story is set in Europe, but you live in New Zealand. How do you think geography affects our take on apocalyptic fiction and/or SFF in general?
New Zealand's speculative fiction has a history of exploring the dystopia because of our sea-locked borders. If a world-wide disaster ever did occur, one where the rest of the world can't reach us, we'd be SOL with regards to access to food, medical supplies, resources, and varied expertise. A can-do attitude is part of our nature, but we are only a few million people. One of my favourite things to speculate about in a NZ-based apocalypse is how we'd get between the islands—we currently only have air and sea options. I dabbled with that idea in one of my stories "Splintr", in which the characters ended up on South Island beaches or mountain tops, with the North Island headlands tantalizingly out of reach.
I chose a European setting because so many apocalypse stories are set in North America, or a Wild West-style geography: desert, wide empty spaces devoid of resources. I wanted to show wide swathes of farmland and resources right at the fingertips, they just needed to be organized. Beauty and chaos together. I was also rather amused at the thought of places like Disney Paris burning, a metaphor for the burning down of capitalism.
The focus of my talk and your story is bodily functions and how they are (not) represented in apocalyptic fiction. What is your take on the lack of representation of these issues in fiction, especially genre fiction?
Stopping to poop or change your tampon gets in the way of good action. Refusing to put focus on bodily function I feel is a holdover from puritanical, religious, and patriarchal norms, the dehumanizing on the not-male. When I think about the representation of toileting in any sort of fiction, men's bathrooms and peeing is a very hierarchical, toxic-masculinity situation (men checking penis size at a urinal, who can pee longer, stylized violence/threats, eg: throwing open doors, threatening to throw someone out with pants down). Pooping is usually used as a punch line ("pull your pants up", flushing heads in bowls, smell). Women's toilets are usually shown as a social or vanity place; you never actually see or hear a woman doing the business.
Creating a space for bodily functions in epic fantasy is problematic: digging latrines is seen as a punishment or slave work. As for bathrooms on space ships? Where are the toilets on the Enterprise? They have sonic showers and mirrors, but where the hell does Picard poop? And with all that sex Troi has to endure, I sure hope she has good birth control. I mean, what DOES birth control in the 23rd century look like? If (male) SF writers in the 21st century don't know what birth control/sanitary products look and act like, how the hell can they write it into the future?
Now that we are talking about it and writing about it, what do you foresee happening with the topic in our writing community? Or will it be the "flavour of the month"? In the end, what do you hope for the future of SFF?
I see menstruation being more normalized (slowly) in fiction rather than on TV, though this is slowly changing. Recently, for example, a scene on Jessica Jones had Jessica go to a public toilet, discover she had her period, and ask a stranger for a tampon. I also see this kind of scene repeated in TV shows and movies with young women (eg: in high school), which helps normalize the idea women a) need access to products, especially quick and cheap/free, b) can help each other in this situation. I'd like to see this further normalized for older women—stories about menopause that aren't punchlines or horror stories, and stories about pregnancy that aren't body horror and are part of a loving, engaged community.
I see reproductive justice as a topic in feminist/inclusive speculative fiction getting more coverage as we integrate the rights and realities of women's and trans/gq/nb lives. We have great work to build upon: for example, Joanna Russ in "We Who Are About To..." and Octavia Butler, who wrote extensively about reproductive justice in her fiction, especially for black women. I don't think it will be "flavour of the month"; it's something feminist writers have always integrated in their work, though the details have become more extensive in the last decade or so. I believe this also has to do with the rise of queer and POC speculative literature; queer and POC writers have helped break down barriers and normalize bodies that have been othered.
The understanding of and normalization of othered bodies in speculative fiction has always evolved, even if it moves in fits and starts as the world grapples with change. Even in the last few years that I have been seriously writing I have seen a huge shift in the types of bodies and bodily functions that are portrayed. So long as there is a real-life fight for reproductive justice, there will be a fight to portray reproductive justice in speculative fiction, as literature helps mirror and make sense of the real world. Alongside all my other feminist enquiries, it will remain a key theme in my work. I take inspiration from other feminist speculative fiction authors, and I hope we can support and uplift each other in this respect.
Recently on a Twitter DM you said, "I was having a daydream over the weekend of getting you, me, and Connie Willis on a panel to talk about repro/menstruation justice in SFF ;)" and want to know more about it this daydream and your ideas for reproduction & menstruation justice.
Last year at our New Zealand natcon, I moderated a panel called "Future of a Spacewoman". We came out of it with the subtitle "Periods in Spaaaace!" We talked a lot about what the biological realities of menstruation and reproduction may look like in humanity's future in space, and where we see, and want to see, that in speculative fiction. There is not much research on this because of the focus on male normalities as astronauts (hello, the glorious Mercury 13), and I would LOVE to attend a panel with scientists or doctors who are looking into these issues.
I chose Connie Willis because of her Hugo-winning story about periods shaking the establishment up (26 years ago!). I thought you, me, Connie Willis, other feminist and queer authors who write in the same themes, and a scientist all on one panel about reproductive justice in speculative fiction would be something really different at a con—examining the past, present, and future. I have never attended Wiscon, so I am unsure of how extensively this may have been covered there. (Hello, anyone have access to papers/recordings of this type of topic? CONTACT ME!)
I also get a kick out of the idea of the word "PERIODS" being splashed across a con programme, to annoy certain conservative writers....
Inclusivity and accessibility have become important considerations in SFF lately, especially at conventions in the UK, where I attend cons (there may be improvements on this in the US, but I’ve not been to a con there in years so can’t speak to it). What progress do you see, and what suggestions or advice would you give to con runners, workshop organizers, fan group moderators, etc.? Do you have a ‘dream’ set-up for any of these situations?
Inclusivity, accessibility, and safety are incredibly important to me when I consider conventions. A few years back I signed John Scalzi's safety pledge, which stated I would only attend conventions with a clear safety policy and follow through. Even before then I made a point of lifting up the conversation about harassment at conventions. Since then, I've put my actions where my mouth is, and have worked on the security team at some of our national conventions. We also have a New Zealand team bidding for Worldcon2020, and I have offered to be on the safety team; whether I'll be helping with policy or a grunt on the ground (or both), that's yet to follow through, but I have made my intentions clear. We need to be a better, inclusive space.
The conversation, expectations, and standard for inclusiveness and accessibility has changed remarkably in the almost 10 years I have been paying attention to the SFF industry. I feel the romance publishing industry and our own conventions like Wiscon have led the way: women, POC, disabled people, and queer-led spaces, working hard for feminist change. Some conventions are doing better than others, but people are making it clear now: harassment and lack of access will not be tolerated. Social media is making sure that any problems have a spotlight shone on them, often in real time, and problem people/cons will not get away with it any longer. Sure, a convention/space can carry on regardless under the old, terrible ways of doing things, but don't expect people to attend or throw their money at it.
My suggestions and dream set up go hand in hand: Ramps. Roll-in bathrooms in hotels and convention centers. Accessibility team. Sign-language translators. Assigned spaces in convention panels/rooms for the hearing impaired, wheelchairs, and those with mobility issues. Accessible devices and assistance for the vision impaired. Better programmed time for people with mobility issues to move between convention spaces. Quiet space for the neuroatypical. Safe space for POC. Queer safe space. People from the communities affected consulted and/or part of the planning team. Rigorous anti-harassment policy and immediate, transparent follow through of reports, with a choice of genders amongst safety officers. Zero tolerance for people's past behaviour if they haven't shown signs of follow through. Moderators with an understanding of harassment protocols and a firm hand to shut problem people down (this goes for online spaces as well). Well trained security staff.
If this all sounds too difficult and expensive for a convention/space, then I don't want to know them. The base line has been so low for so long. A space that's easy access, safe, and welcoming for everyone is the bare minimum. Then we can build from there.
A final thing we have in common is attendance at Clarion. For writers out there considering applying to Clarion or other intensive writing workshops, describe your experience and what benefits you think it had on your writing career.
Clarion is INTENSE. It's the most academic intensive thing I've ever done. Mentally and physically exhausting, but absolutely worth it. I made great friends there, and the tutors have been wonderful about supporting my career since.
I've had discussions with disabled, autistic, and introverted people about the intensive nature of Clarion, and while the admin does their absolute best to accommodate all needs, the very nature of our allistic, abled world is a hindrance. It's not right, and it sucks. For example, in my class we had a student who used a wheelchair, and they weren't able to access all the places we went around the city or even campus.
Clarion is also expensive. For overseas and lower income students, this can be a barrier. They do their best to provide scholarships. While I recognize my monetary privilege, even with the scholarship I received (The Leonard Pung scholarship for an attendee 40 or over), I had to invest quite a few thousand dollars in the experience (including expensive international air fare, and exchange rates while I was there). I was lucky enough at the time I had the finances to do it. Also, if I had the opportunity to go now, in this harsh political climate and regime the US is under, I don't think I would. I am refusing to attend Wiscon in solidarity (and fear for safety) until the current regime is disestablished (though this reaaaally hurts—I miss all my friends and mental nurturing so bad!).
The positiveness of attending Clarion is ongoing, some of which will become more apparent in the arc of time. I have great support networks. It gave me a huge step up in the quality of my work in a short time. It looks great on the CV when people talk about the quality of authors that come out of the system (and some superstars!). It gave me better focus on what I want to write. And I felt SEEN by people who matter to me. But I recognize it is only one path a writer can take in the speculative industry. It may not work for some. It's not necessary to become part of the industry. There are many support systems for emerging writers, this is just one.
Thank you to A.J.! If you want to know more, A.J. can be found on Twitter @AJFitzwater and at their Pickled Think blog.