“Reimagining better worlds is what is going to get us through the Strange Times”: A. J. Fitzwater – The book launch of No Man’s Land

Last night at Scorpio Books, publishers Paper Road Press and author A.J. Fitzwater launched their book No Man's Land to a happy throng of readers:

No Man’s Land is a historical fantasy and a love story set in the golden plains of North Otago, in the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. Inspired by feminist and LGBTQ+ history and family memories of North Otago in wartime, A.J Fitzwater has turned a piece of forgotten women’s history into a tapestry of furious pride and love that crosses cultures, countries and decades.

A.J.'s speech was so brilliant - a deep consideration of art, history and our Strange Times - that I asked if we could publish it here for you. A.J. kindly agreed.

A.J. Fitzwater's launch speech

How does one talk about a personal achievement like the release of a book, when the overwhelming narrative of the moment is suffering, pain, and rage?

CoverHow does one talk about history, personal and political, when we’re living through an historic shift. Trying to link the two is an experience in futility and ego.

I began writing my notes for today the way I usually do. Talking about my personal journey, the peeling back the layers of feminist speculative fiction and queer history that had been made invisible to me, the connection between Russ and Tiptree and now I wanted to make, the things I wanted to write I thought missing from the world but were only hidden by received narratives about women’s writing.

It’s difficult to celebrate joy when there is not a heck of a lot of it going round.

And that is where art and creativity, where speculative fiction can weave its special magic.

Speculative fiction is an incredible place to channel one’s understanding and feelings about the world through a hope and change filter. It has helped me understand parts of my personal and political journey, not just through an academic understanding of the canon of marginalized people, but also through the found family, friends, and communities that assisted in the reformation of and reflection on my socialization and history.

But I don’t want this to be a celebration of one book, one achievement, one person. Part of that hope and change I’ve been learning about is that one story, one book, is not just a singular narrative. I stand upon a world of literature written by queer people, by marginalized genders, sometimes, often times, hidden in the margins, upheld as the singular (white) voice that speaks for all women, and under masculine pen names until the threads of history could be unpicked and rewoven.

This story wouldn’t exist without the shoulders I stand beside – I don’t believe in standing on someone’s shoulders as a metaphor for creative growth. Again, part of that relearning experience - it’s about deconstructing hierarchy and competition within literature. The place of MaGe people (I’ve just learned this term and I’m testing it out – isn’t it grand?) isn’t Highlander Theory: swinging swords for heads, there can be only one. This is a communal conversation across time and books, around and through people, identities, cultures.

CoverI could say this book starts with the collection of history Diane Bardsley brought together in her book In A Man’s World: The Land Girls 1939 to 1946 but it goes back further than that. It starts with the land girls themselves, and the queer people who lived, loved, died, and survived through world war. It’s about the history of queer people in Aotearoa New Zealand which was hidden from me by internalized and external fear and hatred. It’s about what is deemed the RIGHT parts of our history. It’s about revisiting the narrative around women’s contribution to history, how it was made boring and meritocratic, so women had only singular ideas about achievement and place.

This book was also created through the wisdom, support, and gifts of literature people before and around me gave to the world. You won’t hear their voices in the story, but know Butler, Jemisin, Piercy, Griffith, McCaffrey, Tepper, Wilhelm, Coyote, Anders, Russ, Tiptree, and so many more known and unknown surround my words and persistence with their strength of shoulder.

And as the dedication suggests, this book is also built upon and around the history of queer people seen and unseen. For the ones who lived loud, joyous, and fearless. For the ones who needed the safety of the closet. For the ones who fought on many battle fronts, and for the ones who quietly made a safe space for others. For the ones who always knew. For the ones who had to learn and work their way to it when the words and concepts were not a given. For the understanding that our modern concepts of queerness are a relatively new refound thing, rooted in deconstruction of white empirical binaries and boundaries.

I’m getting a bit heavy there. But these are heavy times. And recognizing the work of hope, as DeRay McKesson calls it, has been the foundation of the calls for reformation, abolition, and reconstruction. For the justice for black lives lost. For the justice for trans lives. This is hard work that’s been done by marginalized communities for decades, for centuries. Some of us are new to this, and it’s up to us to listen first, and pass the mic where we can. This is what I’m alluding to here. It’s about listening to stories and experiences as TOLD by the MaGe people who lived them.

Of course these things are not easy, considering the gatekeepers and the privilege afforded certain voices. I recognize in this instance I am one of them, with my white privilege, my access to education, my currently able status, and fourth wave feminist teachings. Don’t just read my story, get into the stories connected to it. Rabbit holes are wonderful things, as Alice can attest. They can also be terrible and hard things to fall down, ripping at the seams of your perceived reality. Decolonizing and degendering the mind is a lifelong effort, but it gives one an expansive view, so many more ways to bring justice and belonging to the world.

Lightening the load, within speculative fiction this work of hope can look like this. It can look like She-Ra and Steven Universe. It can look like the Broken Earth books, Ann Leckie, Nnedi Okorafor. It can look like Afro-futurism and Pasifika-futurism. It can look like just ten years within queer speculative fiction making a huge difference to the breadth of stories told, on top of ten years before that, and ten years before that, and so on back through Russ and Delaney and Wollstonecraft. It can look like stories still to be rediscovered.

Reimagining better worlds is what is going to get us through the Strange Times. Speculative fiction shows us how to survive pandemics and dictators, how to create communal and climate justice, how to create worlds where queer people move free upon the morphing weight of their history. It also wishes the brutal opposite upon us. Speculative fiction creators are not a monolith of dreamers – some use it to harden the status quo, as a weapon of hate.

But if you want to dream harder and better, look for the clues and signposts in speculative fiction, for the community, the family, the options. If you want the joy, there’s that too – joy is a political act for survival.

So, may you find your joy, justice, and hope that brings you through and helps you make sense of these strange times.

No Man's Land

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper

Photos of the book launch

No Man

More about A.J. Fitzwater