Shimmer #22: Alix E. Harrow

Rosie the Riveter (Norman Rockwell)
Rosie the Riveter (Norman Rockwell)
Tell us how “A Whisper in the Weld” came to be.

I wish I could say the story-stork deposited this idea at my doorstep in a blinding flash of inspiration, but really it came out of my discovery of the digital LIFE Magazine photo archives and a mounting resentment towards Rosie the Riveter.

Don’t get me wrong — Rosie is part of our Big National Story, symbolic of everything from wartime grit to feminism to industrial might. And what a triumphal story it is. Rosie exchanged her apron for a pair of coveralls, saved the American economy, gave working women a public face, and never once smudged her perfect makeup.

But see, that’s not true. Rosie is a liar. Middle class white women didn’t happily whip off their aprons and work in factories — the real Rosies were overwhelmingly already working women from lower class backgrounds. They were the rural white poor, the recent immigrant, the African American women. And they weren’t seen as the first step in a new era of gender equality; they were temporary substitutes for men, supposed to happily return home once the war was over.

And perhaps most of all, their work wasn’t the kind of work that left you looking like a damn celebrity at the end of the day, with a cute little red kerchief around your hair. 1930s and 40s factory labor (especially in sectors like steel production) was brutal. The Progressive Era gains in terms of unionization and safety largely went out the window under the pressure of wartime production.

So then you’re left with a very different image: Poor, nonwhite women working because they desperately need the money, in dangerous conditions, with no real hope of advancement or permanence. Not so much a sign of progress as a sign of industrial capitalism’s increasingly long arm.

Anyway. Then I saw these pictures. And the story-stork made a visit.

 Can you tell us about your current writing project?

My working title for this current piece “Holy Baby Jesus Teaching is Time-Consuming,” because I’m teaching three African history courses for the first time this year. So non-curriculum types of writing have slowed to a trickle.

I do have a story coming out at the end of this year in Strange Horizons, though! “The Animal Women,” about race and the late sixties and eastern Kentucky and a little girl with a Polaroid camera.

The story I’m actually working on right now is a much odder bird — like the kind of bird that got stuck on an isolated island and had weird island-evolution things happen to it and is probably flightless now. It’s called “The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage.” It has 28 footnotes and a completely fake bibliography (why???), and it’s about…American imperialism? And the process of culturally colonizing landscapes, rendering them legible, domestic, and profitable? Based on a long and too-cozy relationship with Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes and James Scott’s Seeing Like a State in grad school?

Or at least, it’s attempting to be about those things but, you know, it’s probably flightless.

You wrote a review of Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite that originally appeared on The Other Side of the Rain, and can be found currently at SF Mistressworks. How much does the idea that “Women are not aliens” figure into your own work?

Gee wilikers (wait, no one says that) you read my review! The Other Side of the Rain is my oft-neglected book review blog, for interested parties.

So, Nicola Griffith’s thesis in Ammonite — that a planet full of women would function suspiciously like a planet full of humans — is one of the most succinct and crucial lessons my early science fiction reading ever taught me. I’m not saying it’s the only or first book that ever did that, but it was the book my Mom handed me when I was fifteen that stuck.

Not at all coincidentally, the rest of the books my Mom handed me as a kid (Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robin McKinley) were precisely the kind of transformative, powerful fiction that will make a teenage girl not only believe that women aren’t aliens, but come to know it on some fierce, molecular level. And begin to see the vast constructions of power and privilege we all operate within, and the ways people make their lives beneath and between them, half-hidden and half-rebelling.

What I’m trying to say is that the women-aren’t-aliens-and-neither-is-anyone-else idea is too big, too formative, not to be in my writing. Also my Mom has great taste in books.

We want to know more! Tell us two true things about yourself and one lie.

I can probably beat you in ping-pong. I have never shown any other signs of hand-eye coordination.

The first three stories I’ve ever written all featured mysteriously speech-impaired protagonists (Isa’s impediment is…being dead?). It’s almost like I was compensating for my crippling fear of dialogue, or something.

I am an alien.

What’s in your CD player / iTunes / Spotify / 8-Track?

Well each story thus far has spawned a playlist, born out of procrastination mixed with genuine research, and “A Whisper in the Weld” has been by far the most awesome.

It sort of became a two-hour history of black pop from the 1940s-60s, falling heavily on the phenomenal-female-vocalist end of things. So I can whole-heartedly recommend: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Billie Holiday, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Dinah Washington, Sister Wynona Carr, and Nina Queen-of-My-Heart-and-the-Universe Simone. I mean, just look at her.

Other favorite things: Shovels & Rope, Brown Bird, Josh Ritter, The Felice Brothers, Old Crow, Gregory Alan Isakov, Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown (dudes, it’s a socialist folk-opera retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice), and this guy right here.

And maybe some 90s pop playlists whatever man don’t judge me.


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