Dykes Outside the Box

One of the best-kept secrets in Lesbolandia is power couple Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, doyennes of fantasy fiction. We sat down earlier this month and talked about writing, relationships, and the virtues of operating outside the box.

Kushner and Sherman met at a Boston science fiction conference in 1985, when Delia was living in Boston and shopping a novella that would turn into her first book. One of the people to whom she was directed was Ellen, who was living in New York but had, unfortunately, just left her editing job. She gave Delia a hand anyway, and when Ellen moved to Boston a few years later, they became friends. In 1992, they finally began dating.

Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman lead a fantasy life

It was a natural match. They both belonged to a new generation of writers that drew from a variety of sources including pre-Raphaelite painters, Victorian novelists, and “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” — in addition to fantasy icons C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Where they broke from those old masters was in their recognition that “we did not have in us what they had in them,” Kushner explained. “We’re not English. We don’t go for long country walks. We all kind of grew up in the suburbs and were living in our 20s in bad neighborhoods in the cities.”

The result was what one reviewer dubbed “fantasy of manners,” later also called “mannerpunk.” The setting is urban and, like in Dickens, often seesaws between high society and the criminal class. Books may have swordfights, but the plots more often hinge on social intrigue. The wry witty tone owes a lot to Jane Austen. Kushner’s novel “Swordspoint” has become a classic of the sub-genre.

Associated with the movement and with each other, Ellen and Delia are much sought after to appear as a team at conferences and workshops. They’ve become the traditional featured writers for the New York Review of Science Fiction’s December “Family Reading.” This year’s event was held December 14 at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art.

The gallery featured digital renderings of their book jackets, story illustrations, and wedding photos, including one of an enormous wedding cake. They’ve actually been married twice — to each other. The second time was at Delia’s instigation in 2004, so they could “become part of the problem” if Massachusetts tried to repeal its high court’s decision and dissolve queer marriages.

The crowd at the gallery seemed nonplussed by the whole lesbian thing. There was a mix of ages, races, sexual orientations, the conventional, the chic, and the ultra geeky. The diversity was remarkable for segregated New York, but not necessarily for the science fiction and fantasy world. One of their fans told me he’d been attracted to fantasy in the first place because it was all about “the Other,” and that’s what he was — young, queer, black. As Sherman put it, speculative fiction is mostly about exploring “the fluidity of human identity and what it means to be a human being, and not necessarily just a man. Or a woman.”

Gender is central to their work. After writing her cult novel “Swordspoint,” focusing on two gay male characters in their 20s, Kushner began writing “The Privilege of the Sword,” a sequel set 20 years later, exploring the same society, but this time through the eyes of a teenage girl. The description of what it’s like for Katherine when she puts on pants for the first time is pretty extraordinary. Delia’s young adult novel “Changeling” sends a young girl on a quest through a folkloric version of New York that includes mythical figures like the Mermaid Queen of New York Harbor, who could just as easily be a biker dyke with spiky orange hair, black vest, and nose-to-tail tattoos.

But while fantasy writers may respect the hard to categorize “Other” in their literature, publishers are not so crazy about books that blur the genre boundaries. If you do fantasy fiction, stick to the conventions. Ditto for other genres like historical novels. At the same time, too many mainstream readers won’t approach books in the fantasy section at all because, as Kushner explained, they have fantasy cooties. But label the same books magical realism and stock them elsewhere, they’ll gobble them up. Putting stuff into boxes keeps readers — and books — from crossing over.

Delia, Ellen, and some of their friends have founded the Interstitial Arts Foundation to promote art that crosses genre borders and help writers present themselves to the marketers. The point is not just to sell books, but also to publish good writers who have read widely and bring everything that they have experienced to what they’re writing. “That’s how literature grows. That’s how art grows. By bringing things in, and making something new of it.”

Sherman could as easily have been making an argument for diversity in biology or music or even politics. The idea filters into their joint “Swordspoint”-set novel, “The Fall of the Kings,” which is partly a critique of a political class guarding its homogeneity and the lengths the powerful will go to preserve their privilege. If magic had been called religion in the book, and it had been set in contemporary America, this portrait of a society engaged in censorship, spying, torture, and intrigue wouldn’t have been categorized as fantasy at all, but instead pure realism.