Delivered May 25, 2014, at WisCon 38 in Madison, Wisconsin:
I would like to thank Nene Ormes, firstly, for her warm introduction of Rupetta to you, and for her role on the jury. I would also like to thank all of the jury members: Ellen Klages, who acted as the chair, Jayna Brown, Gretchen Treu and Christopher Barzak.
I would like to extend my thanks to the Motherboard of the James Tiptree Award, especially its founding members Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, not just for their role in this year’s awards, but for their vision in establishing the award, and their ongoing commitment to bringing the works that the Tiptree jurors uncover to the world.
I would also like to send out a special thanks to the indefatigable Jeanne Gomoll, who has been an amazing support and become a dear friend. Her warmth and good cheer have made the process of organizing my trip to Wiscon a pure joy.
Finally, I would like to thank my publishers. Many authors express gratitude to their publishers. In this instance, however, this is more than just a duty I feel I need to fulfill. My gratitude to Ray and Rosalie at Tartarus Press is heartfelt and sincere. I cannot thank them enough for bringing this work to publication. Rupetta was rejected many times before it found a home. It was rejected because it had too many women characters, because it had too many queer characters, because some speculative fiction publishers felt it was too literary for them, while some literary publishers felt it was too speculative. Rosalie Parker, at Tartarus Press, believed in this work from the beginning. She and Raymond Russell, her partner at Tartarus Press, are the fairy godmothers of this book. I cannot thank them enough for their faith in the work, and their hard work in bringing it to publication.
Rupetta begins on November 11, 1619. This is not an accidental, or incidental choice. On that night, almost four centuries ago, a young man by the name of Rene Descartes had three dreams that inspired him—over the rest of his life—to attempt to develop a new, comprehensive method for perfecting human knowledge.
One of his correspondents – Poisson – writes that around this time Descartes planned to build several automaton driven by magnets. Specifically, he had envisaged constructing a dancing man, a spaniel chasing a pheasant, and a flying pigeon.
It is no coincidence that my novel, which deals in part with some of the same philosophical problems that interested Descartes, begins that night.
I want to acknowledge Descartes tonight because he also—incidentally–inspired three of my own dreams, or wishes.
I figure, as this year’s winner of the James Tiptree Award, along with all of the other amazing gifts I have received, I get to claim three wishes.
When I studied Descartes and his work when I was at university, I learned that he was the father of an illegitimate child, Francine. The daughter of a friend’s housemaid (Helena Jans van der Strom). Very little is known about the relationship between Rene and Helena, except that she became his servant. I learned that Descartes planned to have the child removed from her home and her mother in Amsterdam and taken to France to be educated. Unfortunately, Francince died of scarlet fever when she was five years old, in 1640.
Some biographers have claimed that her death haunted Descartes for the rest of his life. But his grief interests me far less than the grief of Francine’s mother.
Rupetta is in some sense a book about compromised mothering. About non-conforming mothers. About mothers who are separated from their children. About grief. And longing.
My first wish is that we—and by we here I mean feminists—learn to speak about mothering in new, honest, complex and powerful ways. Not as an essential aspect of femininity, because it is not that, or as a biological right, but as a process we, as women, are often part of; a process many of us experience as both a source of power, and a means of oppression. As an intimate and deeply private process, and a very public role.
Descartes is, of course, perhaps most famous for the ideas he laid down in his Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy. It is here that he decides that the only thing we can know without any doubt is that we are thinking beings.
That we think, and therefore we are.
My second wish is that we will continue and finally complete the work of undoing the false assumption expressed so powerfully by Descartes that it is our minds—our intellects—that are our only Truth. That our bodies are merely the vessels in which we live. I want to find a way to convince you to understand that we think with our bodies, and feel with our minds.
That we feel, and therefore we are.
Finally, I want to tell you a story that is not necessarily true, but it’s a good story and that, after all, should be enough. In the last years of his life, Descartes was summoned to the court of Queen Christina of Sweden. He was to act as her tutor and intellectual companion. He travelled to Sweden by ship.
Descartes had told the captain and crew that he was travelling with his daughter. No one aboard ship, however, had heard or seen her during the voyage. One night, a terrible storm overtook the ship. The waves were as tall as mountains. The sailors were afraid for their lives. Overcome with terror, and seeking some kind of magical cure for the sea’s fury, the sailors entered Descartes’ cabin. There, they discovered a cabinet, inside which was a living doll: a replica of Descartes’s dead daughter. According to one source, she sat up and turned to face her visitors.
The sailors took the mechanical Francine up on to the ship’s deck and threw her overboard.
My third and final wish is that, one day, we will find a way to encounter the new, the unfamiliar or uncanny, without fear or superstition or terror. That we will not, in that moment when the stranger sits up and turns to us, hurl stones or throw them overboard. But instead find a way to open our minds and hearts and embrace that strangeness on its own terms. With courage, and grace, and full acceptance.