How scary are utopian worlds
Laurie Penny on Feminism & Books: "Utopias Are Not Good Stories"
She shaped modern feminism, now she also writes short stories. A conversation about the power of science fiction and being a role model.
Laurie Penny: "It's about everyone working together to make a better world possible." Photo: Horst A. Friedrichs
taz: Ms. Penny, when people write about you, you are often given the addition "one of the most important feminists of our time". Would you sign that?
Laurie Penny: Really? So I think that I am only perceived that way in Germany. It's a great honor. But I also believe that it can be dangerous to be told that you are special. Especially when it comes to women's politics.
Because it is a popular way to weaken us women by turning us against each other. And that's easy to do when you turn our debates into a competition. According to the motto: who is the best? Fortunately, I don't really have to fight this fight. When I go back to England or the USA, where I lived for a while, nobody there knows who I am.
How do you explain your success in Germany?
When I came to Germany last year to advertise my non-fiction book “Untold Things”, I immediately noticed that something was completely different in Germany. I almost had to act like a celebrity. I would say I was just in the right place at the right time.
The woman: She is 29 years old and studied English literature at Oxford. She lives in London as a feminist book author, journalist and blogger.
The work: Her texts mainly revolve around social injustice, pop culture, gender and internet politics. After five non-fiction books, her short story volume “Babies and Other Stories” (Edition Nautilus) will be published in early March.
Isn't that a little too modest?
I do not find. That was my feeling back then. I went to all of these events and found that the people in the audience had come because of me, but not only. They also wanted to meet each other to discuss certain topics. That was a new challenge for me because I had the feeling that I suddenly had to give these people a good show. I wanted to make the connection between them and create a special moment.
How did you do that?
I studied ballet and pantomime at university - and wasn't particularly successful in either. But I unpacked these stage skills on my promotional tour. It should no longer be just about my ideas, every event should be an experience. Maybe you can compare all of this with the hype surrounding Roxane Gay and Lena Dunham in the USA? There is never one person alone who expresses all the ideas of a generation. But sometimes a person becomes a symbol of these ideas.
So would you say that there was a lack of feminist identification in Germany?
I think the topic in Germany was occupied for a long time by people who belong to a different generation of feminists, above all Alice Schwarzer. Please do not misunderstand me. The work of these feminists was very important. But there wasn't a young German feminist on the spot when my book came out. I also suspect that my lyrics just sound very good in the German version for some reason.
I am an anarchist. In this respect, I envision a future in which social, ethnic and gender equality prevail.
Is it true that you are planning to move to Germany?
I would love to move to Germany! For now, I'll be staying in London a little longer. But I want to come over soon. There is so much exciting and exciting happening there and Berlin is simply the international city of our time; what London was ten or fifteen years ago. New ideas are discussed in Berlin and people there feel free enough to make a new kind of politics.
They proclaimed the lazy women revolution several times. When was the last time you lay lazy on the couch and peeled lint from your belly button?
This is the classic case where my advice is: Do what I say, not what I do. I work all the time. But I try to take better care of myself and at least sometimes take a day off. Last week I even took a trip to the country like a normal person! I think if you are a driven perfectionist like me, you should at least get a few hobbies that you are absolutely average at. That's why I play the guitar. I'll never be better than mediocre at that, some chords are extremely difficult for me. So I just don't play songs that have these chords in them. It's still fun that way.
The first sentence of your most recent non-fiction book “Ineffable Things” was: “This is not a fairy tale”. Now you are bringing out a volume with short stories, some of which seem very fairytale-like. Do you enjoy fiction more than non-fiction?
Not really. I've been writing journalistic texts for so long that it's very easy for me to do it. Fiction is a much bigger challenge. As a journalist, I primarily comment. It's about finding my own voice, my own position. Fiction works the other way around. You have to get out of your own head, develop different voices and characters.
What is it that appeals to you?
Some things and ideas can simply be conveyed better with fictional stories. My stories are clearly political. I want to be part of a whole new movement of writers that has established itself on the net. Voices that were completely marginalized in the classic literary scene are now able to create their own worlds of thought online. Besides, I'm just a gross nerd. I love science fiction.
Why didn't you write a novel?
I'm currently writing a novel. But that's a much bigger endeavor. First I wanted to find out if I could do that at all. I've always written, even as a child. Up until my teenage years, I always assumed that I would later become a novelist. That all changed when I had an eating disorder and had to be hospitalized for it. After that, I just couldn't get into fictional writing, even after I recovered. When my father died suddenly a few years later, politics suddenly seemed so insanely irrelevant for a while. I didn't feel like dealing with it. My grief was too deep. So I started writing stories again. Lo and behold: I could still do it. And I found it very healing.
When you write stories, your thoughts are freer, much more unbound. I have a lot of followers. . .
Almost 127,000 users follow you on Twitter. . .
. . . and they examine every word of my journalistic contributions very carefully. That doesn't happen so much with fiction. The worst thing anyone can say about a novel is: I didn't like it.
In one of your stories, an engineer builds a mechanical baby to avoid birth pain and possible postnatal depression. Can robots really help women achieve equality?
The application of science and technology can help gender issues enormously, especially when it comes to biology and reproduction. A future in which women can have a say in science policy would be a great advantage. Most people say that the internet is the most important invention of the 20th century. But at least as important were the changes in reproductive technology, that is, the ability to prevent and have an abortion. Resistance to this is correspondingly strong, for example in the USA and Ireland. And fictional stories can potentially have a greater impact on society on this topic than simply giving your opinion.
You are not the first feminist writer to attempt to technically solve the biological disadvantages.
No of course not. I am heavily influenced by other feminist science fiction writers such as Marge Piercy. And the idea of an artificial uterus, with the help of which women no longer have to give birth themselves, came up with the author Shulamit Firestone as early as 1970. The exciting thing is that to this day it has been dismissed as a completely ridiculous idea. Science fiction can change that.
They really believe?
Sure, take Star Trek, for example. Much of what you see there was completely unthinkable in the 1960s when the series started and has long been realized today. All the cell phone technology, for example. Still other ideas, such as the economic system, still seem futuristic today. There is no money in "Star Trek". Everything is made using replicators. Nobody has to go hungry. But we don't talk about that.
What are you getting at?
Science fiction affects our imagination. So far, this has primarily affected technical innovations. Many can imagine that robots will meet our basic needs in the future. We have read and seen that many times. But hardly anyone can imagine a world in which women no longer have to give birth to children with the help of their bodies or in which they occupy central positions. That says a lot.
Even so, your short stories seem rather pessimistic. Do you prefer dystopias to utopias?
Not necessarily. But I don't like stories with an easy ending. Utopias are often not good stories, as historical utopias also show. A good story takes tension and obstacles to overcome. It's difficult when the world is great.
We would still like to know what Laurie Penny's utopia looks like.
Oh god! I can talk about it for hours.
Shall we try the short version?
I am an anarchist. In this respect, I envision a future in which social, ethnic and gender equality prevail. In addition, the idea of the common good is realized in this future. That is, all resources are shared. Because it is like this: every idea that a science fiction author develops reflects his political attitudes. And if you are convinced, as I am, that a future is not possible without the principle of sharing, then that will flow into it. To put it more simply, I think that utopia is the search for utopia.
What do you mean?
It's not about achieving a perfect world. That is not possible anyway. It's about everyone working together to make a better world possible. At the moment, the prevailing idea is still a capitalist growth vision, although this has long since turned out to be a lie. Even so, this vision is the basis of our dreams. So we have to come up with a new idea that is different from it.
In all of your short stories, the main character is female. And in the vast majority of cases it is about the relationship between these protagonists and their job. Why?
I am very interested in the question of how work influences our lives. You cannot think about gender and power issues without thinking about this issue. I'm currently on the jury for a book award and therefore have to read a lot of novels. One trend is that many women writers deal with the topic of work. In the past, people didn't talk about problems in everyday work and the emotional struggle that goes with them.
Now why you too?
I am a leftist writer. Of course I want to talk about money and economics. I work freelance, but it hasn't always been that way, and I know a lot of people who are not lucky enough to be in a job that makes them really happy. At the same time, however, I am of the opinion - and I often argue about this with my political friends - that fictional writing is primarily about telling a good story that entertains people instead of instilling their own convictions with all their might.
But would you say that good writing also has to be political?
No. However, science fiction is automatically political. Bad science fiction too. Because you always imagine a future that relates to reality. And even if someone writes about emotions and intimate relationships, for me it is political, simply because the private is political. The difference is: you don't necessarily have to have a thesis or an agenda when writing. Rather, I believe that it is more likely to lead to poor writing if you are already absolutely sure what each reader should read from the work.
Indeed? In one of your stories you describe a world in which goblins are second-class creatures and are discriminated against by humans. That sounds pretty educational.
I don't think fiction should be educational. Instead, it should allow people to form their own opinions. That's why I shy away from simple answers. This particular story is based in many ways on my own experiences. That's why the story is about an important school exam. I had to write an endless number of them myself and I have a very specific opinion on them. But my opinion is not central in this case. I don't write a column.
In another story you tell of a man who traveled into the future with the help of a time machine. The past it comes from appears in it as a creepy place. Do you find the here and now so bad?
In my eyes, the past is always a terrifying place compared to the future. A hundred years ago, abortion and homosexuality were illegal. Women were not allowed to vote and you could die from simple inflammation. Likewise, there are a lot of things that seem normal to us today, but that people in a few generations will no doubt find outrageous. If then there will still be people.
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