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[SOR] L. Timmel Duchamp’s “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.”

March 8, 2016

I admit to having entirely unreasonable expectations when it comes to themed short fiction anthologies.

The reason I have such high standards is that themed anthologies have always struck me as fantastic critical instruments in so far as they allow editors to frame specific ideas, explore cultural moments, expose important dynamics, and generally make substantial contributions to the cultural conversation. Given that anthologies can be used to articulate sophisticated critical arguments, it always strikes me as a wasted opportunity whenever an editor contents themselves with lumping together a load of stories about magical cats or big dumb objects.

While my personal gold standard for this type of anthology has always been books edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessell for Tachyon publications such as Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, The Secret History of Science Fiction, and Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, I also have a lot of respect for the somewhat less editorially contentious anthologies pushed out by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer.

The reason I say “less contentious” rather than ‘less controversial’ is that while the VanderMeers certainly strike identifiable critical poses, the tend to be rather shy when it comes to either arguing their corner or suggesting that their choice of stories might in some way be definitive. It’s as though they were trying to engage with certain critical conversations whilst refusing to either make eye-contact or speak in anything but uncontentious generalities.

For example, despite Sisters of the Revolution being “a feminist speculative fiction anthology”, the closest we get to a discussion of Feminist SF or its place in the history of science fiction is some waffle about the New Wave and a paragraph that is so evasive as to be almost impenetrable:


The two decades [after the New Wave] represent a period in which competing impulses sought to push differing views of what science fiction could be: a kind of retrenchment and conservatism measured against an attempt to build on the triumph of the 1970s. The rise of a predominantly U.S.-based humanism was perhaps too moderate to be considered particularly progressive or conservative, while the infusion of cyberpunk allowed some women writers additional freedom but otherwise, at least initially, could not be considered a space for creation of feminist science fiction.


What is this overly-moderate US-based humanism to which they refer?

The only thing that springs to mind is the way that the US Democrats and the UK Labour party internalised the logic of neoliberalism and shifted so far to the right that the ideological differences between parties almost disappeared. While an accurate description of mainstream political discourse during the Clinton and Blair administrations, this clearly does not hold true of the 1980s and even if it did, it’s not clear why the marginalisation of left-wing discourse would result in the abandonment of feminism as a popular approach to the creation of science fiction.If we are going to talk about the removal of Feminist SF from the cultural conversation then let us use terms like ‘institutional sexism’, ‘commercial cowardice’ and ‘flight to academia’ rather than polite euphemisms like “U.S.-based humanism”.

Compare the evasiveness of the VanderMeers to Jeanne Gomoll’s brilliant account of why Feminist SF slipped from view in the 1980s. Here’s her response to Bruce Sterling’s editorial from Mirror Shades, a critically substantial themed anthology that provided many people with what they believed was definitive view of Cyberpunk’s position in the history of science fiction:


With a touch of the keys on his word processor, Sterling dumps a decade of SF writing out of cultural memory: the whole decade was boring, symptomatic of a sick culture, not worth writing about. Now, at last, he says, we’re on to the right stuff again.

All the people who were made nervous or bored or threatened by the explosion of women’s writing and issues now find it safe to come out and speak out loud of their dissatisfaction. Of course, it’s safer to criticize generally (“It was a self-involved, me-decade,’ and nothing worthwhile was created”) than to say specifically what they mean. (The women writers of the 70s bored me because I didn’t care about their ideas; I felt left out. “They wrote it but it was a boring fad.”)


Neither of the VanderMeers are critics and so it seems unreasonable to expect them to throw their pint glasses over the balcony in an effort to start a fight about the history of science fiction. However, it would have been nice to have seen a more robust articulation of the problem this anthology is purporting to solve, namely the fact that works of Feminist SF were cruelly overlooked for a grotesquely long period of time.

Thankfully, while the VanderMeers’ introduction may be under-powered when compared to the many excellent books that have been published about their chosen topic and time period, the stories they have chosen are generally excellent and a good place to begin discovering a criminally overlooked period in genre history. In fact, the anthology’s opening story is one of the best short stories that I have ever read.



“The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp


Timmel Duchamp’s “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” was first published in 1980 by something called Pulp House: The Hardback Magazine. The story is framed as a memo written by a journalist for circulation among the members of a group fighting for free speech in journalism. This framing device means that, aside from being broken down into a series of chapters, the story also features footnotes encouraging the reader to flip back and forth through the story as they progress.

Far from being a simple verisimilitude-gathering gimmick, framing the story as a memo sets up a tension between the linear progression of events comprising the story’s plot and the journalist’s constantly changing feelings about the events she is describing. I’m commenting on this feature of the text first as I think the meat of the story lies in the journalist’s shifting attitudes rather than the events she describes.

The story is set in an unspecified near-future where the American government has decided to criminalise all of the writings, thoughts, and speech acts of a particular woman referred to only by the name Margaret A. We are never told the exact reasons why the words of Margaret A. have been forbidden but Duchamp devotes quite a lot of space to the details of her imprisonment:


The twenty-foot steel fence reinforced with coils of razor wire and topped by a glass-enclosed, visibly armed guard post cut off view of everything outside the compound but the hot dry sky. (The southern California sun in that environment seemed stiflingly oppressive.) Several hard-eyed uniformed men carried automatic rifles. Was it possible they thought we might attempt to spring Margaret A.? My consciousness of the eyes of such heavily armed men watching, waiting, anticipating shook me, making me feel like a jeweller opening a safe for robbers, fearful that with one “false” (i.e. misunderstood) move I would be a dead woman. Because Margaret A. is not a “criminal,” one forgets how dangerous the government has decreed her to be.


Aside from physically locking her up and removing all record of her words from the world, the government has also created an absurd system of linguistic isolation ensuring that only people who have been carefully vetted, rigorously trained, and extensively brain-washed are allowed to hear Margaret speak. Even then, her speech is limited to non-political subjects and brutally censored by government-employed monitors and experts.

Duchamp doubles down on the grotesque absurdity of this situation by exploring all the ways in which the American government have tried to reconcile their treatment of Margaret A. with a wider commitment to free speech and liberal values. Thus, we are told that while the American government retains its commitment to free speech, it has amended the constitution to specifically deny Margaret A. this right. The government also congratulates itself for not killing Margaret A. and much is made of the fact that her compound on the grounds of an air force base is quite comfortable and features a small garden:


It’s not so bad, I thought as I surveyed the first of Margaret A.’s two rooms. I noted the cushions softening the pair of wooden chairs with arms and was astonished at the beautifully executed woven tapestry covering a large part of the ugly toothpaste-green wall. It’s not as bad as most jail cells, and is certainly far better than the underground dungeons in which most political prisoners are kept, I reminded myself. It occurs to me in retrospect that I probably wanted to believe that Margaret A. lived in tolerable circumstances so that the chances of her hanging on as long as it took to achieve her release would be reasonably high.


For me, this passage captures the essence of the story in that you can almost smell the cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, the journalist knows that the government is brutally mistreating Margaret A. On the other hand, she also wants to believe that the government is behaving in a reasonable fashion.

You can sense the tension between her principles and the cultural narratives that have been forced upon her by the government. The stuff about wanting to Margaret A. to survive as long as possible in captivity is just a defence mechanism, a way of resolving the tension between truth and fiction. “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” is all about that tension, the false consciousness born of the need to reconcile ourselves with the things that governments do in our names.

Duchamp explores the ways in which governments engineer our consent by positioning the journalist as someone who entered the field of journalism specifically in order to speak directly with Margaret A. Indeed, as part of its attempts to portray its treatment of Margaret A. as humane, the government allows the press an annual photo opportunity in which a hand-picked news team comes in to interview and photograph the dissident. I stress the hand-picked nature of the selection process as the narrator repeatedly asserts how she went out of her way to not criticise the government in an effort to protect her candidacy:


I kept myself as clean of suspect contacts as any working journalist can. When finally I was selected for one of Margaret A.’s photo-ops, Circumspection has been rewarded, I congratulated myself.


The narrator wants access to Margaret A. but in order to gain access to Margaret A. she was forced to internalise the values of the system that keeps her imprisoned and isolated:


I bore with the strip and body cavity search without protest, of course, since journalists are commonly obliged to endure such ordeals when entering prisons to interview inmates. (I’m sure colleagues reading this know well how one attempts in such circumstances to put the best face on an awkward, uncomfortable situation). Nor did I protest the condition that the Bureau of Prisons be granted total editorial power, for obviously the Margaret A. Amendment might otherwise be flouted.


Every time the narrator makes a breakthrough and realises that her government is a corrupt tyranny, those internalised values reassert themselves and she begins looking for reasons to forgive the government:


I comprehend afresh how extraordinary the apparatus of her silencing is – that so many resources are being devoted solely to that end, and how much credit, actually, they grant her by finding it necessary to protect themselves against the words of a woman who had been a single mother and middle school teacher without party affiliation or organization.


All throughout the story, Duchamp does amazing work with adverbs: Actually, Obviously, Certainly. Words denoting common sense whilst encouraging the reader to accept the unacceptable.

The beautiful thing about the narrator’s continual movement back and forth between passive acceptance and active scepticism is that the character is aware of the fact that her perceptions are and always have been managed. She knows about the ridiculous steps taken to ensure that none of Margaret A.’s words make it out into the world, she knows about the steps taken to ensure that only government stooges get to meet Margaret A., and she even knows about the little tricks the government uses to fog the mind, interrupt recall and ensure that it is almost impossible for people to keep Margaret A’s words in mind. The narrator knows about all of these techniques and still she allows those exculpatory adverbs to creep into her thought and speech.

Seeing as the story is framed as a memo and the narrator draws our attention to all the ways in which the government tries to disrupt any attempt to remember Margaret A.’s words, it is entirely appropriate that the narrator’s meeting with Margaret A. should be one enormous blur. Having jumped through all of the hoops and submitted herself to countless humiliations, the journalist finds herself in the position to achieve her life’s goal in the form of a real conversation with Margaret A. However, the second the two women are sat facing each other, the journalist’s indoctrination takes over:


I looked back at Margaret A. and frantically tried to recall the first question I had planned to ask her. But nothing came, my mind had gone blank. Panicking, I blurted out the first question that popped into my head: “Who cuts your hair for you?”


The final act of the story is undoubtedly the strongest as the journalist struggles to recall Margaret A’s words and leaves feeling as though the meeting had been nothing but an uncomfortable anti-climax.

On their way out of the air force base, the journalists are subjected to some questions designed to de-programme them and disrupt their memories of the interview. The team joke about the absurdity of the security procedures but their effectiveness becomes obvious when the producer makes her opinions heard:


After several moments of listening in silence to the discussion, our producer disagreed. “The woman’s a destroyer,” she declared. “She’s so damned sure of herself and her opinions that only the most confident people would be capable of resisting her subversive incursions.”


The story’s conclusion takes place a number of weeks later when the producer suddenly comments that:


“Professional journalists can’t afford to be susceptible to subversion”.


Previously quiet and depressed, the producer’s use of the word “afford” prompts the journalist to reflect critically on her life, her job, and the role of journalists in refusing to question a corrupt and tyrannical government.


Does she understand at all what she’s saying about the use of the word “afford”.


This is a call back to the moment in which the journalist happened to ask Margaret A. about whether or not she misses her daughter and Margaret A. takes this to be a question about whether or not she regrets refusing to keep her mouth shut:


Could I have afforded to pay the price silence would have exacted from me? It is always a question of determining what lies at stake in what ones does or omits to do. Undoubtedly you yourself forfeited your privacy for the sake of taking part in this photo-opportunity. I wonder if you have weighted the price of your presence here today.


While the journalist did not make anything of the remark upon first hearing it, the ideas touched upon by Margaret A’s analysis lodged in her memory until the producer’s hideously right-wing remarks finally joined up all the dots.

The story concludes with the journalist being hounded first from her profession and then from the country as she works up a critique of journalistic complicity that hinges on the idea that journalists are being asked to pay too high a price for continued operation. The fact that journalists should be expected to surrender both their privacy and their editorial control is neither obvious nor certain, it is a political reality imposed upon them by the government. By reflecting upon the different uses of the word “afford”, the journalist has expanded her political imagination and realised that things need not be the way they currently are. With a single word, Margaret A not only radicalised the journalist, but set her free.

The first time I read through “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” I imagined it to be a story about cultural memory and the way that people with power can control the cultural conversation by aggressively framing debates and obscuring real alternatives from view. I suspect this is due to the fact that I had been reflecting on the VanderMeers’ introduction and my views on the history of Feminist SF. However, upon re-reading the story it occurred to me that this was a liberal reading of a story about political radicalism. “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” is not an academic critique of cultural hegemony but an exploration of the psychological processes involved in becoming a political radical.

The exact nature of Margaret A’s beliefs and statements matter a lot less than what she represents and in this respect I suspect that Margaret A is a fictional representation of Nelson Mandela. How many people did Nelson Mandela inspire simply by virtue of remaining alive? How many of those people were able to access the substance of Nelson Mandela’s thinking? Sometimes becoming a radical is just a product of watching someone take a stand. Sometimes taking a stand is enough to remind people that things could be different.

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