Sarah LeFanu: The Writer Who Travelled From Outer Space to Mozambique Via Bath

Since discovering it, I've kept an eye on Sarah LeFanu's work, which combines depth and diversity, intelligence and wit.

I was rebuked for loving science fiction at school, told to read proper literature and then taken aside by my teacher Mrs Yates and quietly advised to check out Doris Lessing's magisterial Shikasta series. There are many millions of women and girls like me, who love science fiction but hate the traditionalist misogyny which snipes that women can neither write nor fully understand it because we are, to corral some classic putdowns, unable to conceptualise, to invent or manage ideas, create or interpret technology, to balance inner emotion with outward action, be objective, be radical, understand science, rise above petty concerns, comprehend broad-context perspectives let alone reflect them, construct complex narratives, imagine anything beyond what we see immediately before us, extrapolate, originate or innovate.

I'm not going to turn myself inside out by submissively persuading womanhaters that we can, after all, do these things: they can go to hell. Science fiction is and always has been heavily populated by women writers and readers. If they are less well-known, less recognised by prize committees, less covered in the media, less interviewed, less commissioned for appearances and trips and special projects, less mentioned in off-the-cuff recommendations, less favoured with film and TV adaptations, it is because of a misogynist, man-worshipping mindset which ignores or outright denigrates and insults women's intellectual gifts while using our sexual, menial and administrative labour.

These days, countless sites aggregate references, reading lists and analyses celebrating the women who write what I call etcetera fiction - science fiction, science fantasy, urban fantasy, space opera, weird stuff, gothic tech, cyberpunk, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, we all know what we're talking about - and acknowledging their influence and originality. What emerges from reading these sites and the women's books is that the women of science fiction have always led, not followed; have provided impetus and energy, not imitation or support; we have defined the genre instead of padding out the negative space.

I believe that science fiction is a feminist form in the sense of providing an unlimited space in which to construct and examine radical yet authentic alternatives to patriarchy in form, in plot, in vision and in voice. The fact that some science fiction writers might choose to replicate patriarchal forms and justifications even within such a liberating and empowering genre - say, by ignoring women altogether, by homophobic and gender clichés, by replicating rape culture and rape myths, by featuring women only as objects to be used for sexual services, labour services or emotional comfort services - says something about their own misogyny, but we needn't concern ourselves with that. It is women, not men, who innovate artistically, because as we are ignored or mocked in everything we do and discriminated against in existing structures, we are at liberty to do what we like, to seek the new. Ursula Le Guin calls it "dancing at the edges of the world." Women are always at the forefront of the avant-garde and of revolutions both political and cultural; and when the momentum has been created by women's free labour and passion, when it is time for money, power and status to be given, for the radical energy which created huge social or cultural shifts to be structured and organised, women are pushed aside and exploited, often by ideological 'allies', with a transparent aggression that is always shocking to witness.

An early, pre-Net work which powerfully asserted science fiction women's strength, originality and artistic excellence, despite our erasure from official history, was In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction by Sara LeFanu. It is a classic, a milestone work which puts women back into the history from which we've been scored out, and is essential for anyone interested in writing, in the canon, in women, in genre and in history.

Since discovering it, I've kept an eye on Sarah LeFanu's work, which combines depth and diversity, intelligence and wit. As a director of the Bath Literary Festival she championed women writers, overturning our under-representation (depressingly, many of the festivals and events which ignore women are themselves programmed by mincing, man-worshipping geisha females - every feminist knows the type) and also giving international authors a platform. Incidentally, I once asked a colleague what Bath was like and they drolly said, "Ladies and tea-houses" - exactly the interpretation Austen, who hated the place, would have given 200 years ago.

Sarah LeFanu is also the author of two radio dramas, Thin Woman in a Morris Minor and Death Bredon, and editor of numerous fiction anthologies, including one which showcases new South African writing. She has written a biography of the writer and traveller Rose Macaulay (an Amazon link to the Kindle edition is here) as well as a very interesting and funny parallel diary, Dreaming of Rose, which charts the progress of that project and reflects on the art and craft of biographical writing in general.

However, it is LeFanu's biography of Samora Machel, who became Mozambique's first President in 1975, which demonstrates definitively her seriousness and insight as both a researcher and a writer. Published a few months ago, S is for Samora is a rich and inspiring non-fiction narrative which tells multiple stories: of a country coming to independence and liberation after Portuguese colonial rule; of revolutionary energy and activism being converted into established government; of the connections between activism, enfranchisement and freedom, resistance and dominance; of struggle and war in a world of vested interests and politics both visionary and tactical, bent and honest. It is also partially a story about LeFanu herself, not in the sense of making petty personal revelations but of direct witness and political sympathy: LeFanu was in Mozambique from 1978 to 1980, meeting Samora during her stay.

S is for Samora is the story of a country and consequences, the clarity of purpose at the beginning muddied by confusion when Samora died in a mysterious plane crash after a little over a decade in power. The Machel myth is easy to understand and admire: the nurse from a farming family who became a military leader with the Mozambican Liberation Front and was an international political player during the ideological lead-up the Reagonomic, Thatcherite, Soviet years of global bloc politics.

More interesting to me is S is for Samora's meditation on wider issues, looking at southern Africa's multiple histories and examining the possibility of creating wholly new societies based on the coming-together over various emotional forces: defiance against colonial exploitation, racial division and economic abuse; hope for a functional, proud, egalitarian, inclusive and unexploitative future; determination to create a future which is radically different from the past; and fear of the new vision imploding, fragmenting or being crushed by more powerful outside interests. The book demonstrates that a man's life is not divisible from his society's life, that every nation-state is connected to the world context and that a country's transformation might rest on an individual's vision. In this way, S is for Samora raises a specific story to a universal level while lifting Sarah LeFanu to international prominence.

S is for Samora by Sarah LeFanu is available now and published by Hurst.


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