“Out of Ohio” is our interview series featuring notable LGBTQ+ individuals born and raised in Ohio who are now out in the wider world using their voice and talents to make a difference.
Long before Westeros, there was Riverside.
In her acclaimed fantasy classic Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner created characters you want to meet, streets you (carefully) want to explore, and a literary world of artfully chosen words you want to call your own. Heck, you know you’re writing pretty good stuff when Time Magazine heralds your work, placing it squarely on their list of “The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.”
And from whence came Ellen Kushner who crafted that best dam’ swordsman in the world? Why, she’s from right here in Ohio, of course!
The Buckeye Flame spoke with the award-winning writer, performer, and cultural maven about her Cleveland upbringing, the (sometimes unsung) women of the fantasy genre, her public radio acumen, and whether we should all attempt to write a book with our spouses.
First, give us your Ohio background.
I grew up in Cleveland. My mom is from Cleveland Heights, born and bred. Then when I was two, she and my dad, who had just completed his medical training, moved back to Cleveland because the family was there. That’s where I lived until I left for college.
When I first reached out to you, your immediate response was laden with affection for Cleveland. How would you describe that affection?
It’s partly the affection of an exile. When you get out into the big world, people have all sorts of misconceptions about Cleveland. As a result I’m very proud to be from here. And my family is still there, my parents and my brother and his family, so I’m still tied to it.
Let’s talk about fantasy genre. How have you seen the genre evolve with regard to LGBTQ+ representation?
You know, it’s always been there. The first I’m really aware of was a guy named Thomas Burnett Swann, who was publishing in the 60s. Do you know him?
He wrote male romance based on classical or biblical stuff and there was always an element of fantasy in it. He had one about David and Jonathan. In that one, I think Jonathan is a literal fairy with wings who doesn’t fit in. They were really bizarre, but they were published.
If you want to go back further, there was no genre called fantasy. Genres exist because of marketing. When Tolkien was such an enormous hit financially, the publishers went, “Wow! Where can we get something like this?” And there followed about five or so years that nobody who had been influenced by Tolkien had anything ready to publish, so they had to publish older works like Swann.
Both science fiction and fantasy have been open to the “what-ifs” and queerness has always had its place in that. To get a little bit more modern, there were queer characters in some earlier stuff. Often they were villains. Once you get into the late 70s, gay male queer culture was very dominant, particularly in New York City, which is where all the publishers lived. We had women’s music festivals and stuff, so there was a way in which queerness became a part of popular culture and that was reflected in the writing.
Well before me, there was certainly Marion Zimmer Bradley —she’s fallen into disrepute, but her books were the first that many of my queer friends encountered and saw themselves in. She finally hit the bestseller list with The Mists of Avalon, but she had dozens of books before that. For me, it was Joanna Russ and Elizabeth A. Lynn — Lynn’s Tornor books are gorgeous, and were a real landmark — they really should be better known! They wrote really good books. And then I came along and somehow hit the big time and I still don’t know completely how or why. <laughs>
How would you describe the publishing industry in that sector for female writers?
There were great, great female writers in the world already when I started writing. Some of them were bestsellers. Some of them weren’t. I don’t what it is about popular culture that erases the women.
Anne McCaffrey . . . [Ursula] K. Le Guin started publishing around then too. These women were there, they were good, and people loved them. Joan D. Vinge, Vonda McIntyre, Suzy McKee Charnas …C.J. Cherryh… Andre Norton—yes! a woman! She took a non-gendered name on purpose—Suzette Haden Elgin…trans woman Rachel Pollack…the great, great Tanith Lee…and, of course, Octavia Butler. They weren’t only read by women either. Any notion that there are no women writing in that space is utter bullshit.
Nowadays, there are extraordinary women writing very successful fantasy. N.K. Jemisin, Zen Cho, Kate Elliott, Nnedi Okorafor, Robin Hobb…Maybe the public doesn’t know about them because their books have not been made into movies and TV? But that’s about to change, as you’ll soon find out!
I was weaned on Katherine Kurtz.
A-ha! She had sexy, evil gay villains.
You recorded years and years of Sound & Spirit episodes on WGBH. What did you learn most about yourself through that public radio series?
That’s a great, great question. I majored in anthropology in college for about a year, and that really opened my eyes to cultural relativism. And I embraced that really warmly.
Humans are humans the world over. The way that they express the great human needs—rejoicing, mourning, birth, motherhood—really has to do with cultural artifacts and it really just depends where you are. But everyone is going to do it. Humans just fulfill those needs in different ways.
Personally, one of the reason the show worked so well is that I’m not a journalist. I’m a storyteller. I approached all of these different cultures as a novelist and was always trying to get myself and my listeners to get into that topic of what it would like to be this bunch of people, whether it was nuns in the middle ages or African bush tribes in 2002. What is it like to be them and look at them from the inside rather than the outside?
After the show ended, WGBH kept over a hundred of our programs online. That’s not there anymore, so I’ve begun putting up my favorites for streaming on my up on my website.
I always enjoy chatting with a fellow gay Jew. You have done so much work exploring the intersections of faith and identity. How has Judaism played a part in your identity journey?
It’s been huge all my life. My mother is what we call “Conservadox,” pretty observant and very educated. She can read the Bible in the original and made sure I could as well. I went to Cleveland Hebrew schools and when I dropped out, she tutored me at home. I was brought up in a pretty religious family with her. (My dad is the wise-guy, New York Yiddish guy. They said it was a mixed marriage!) So that’s the way I grew up, and I took it very seriously.
When I got to New York in college, I discovered the Reconstructionist movement, and there was a rabbi here in New York, Alan Miller, at the SAJ synagogue, who had the range and erudition of a college professor. Every single one of his sermons was like one of my college courses! So that grabbed my interest again.
But it was also generational. At the time, the Reconstructionists were exploring what they called a Jewish renewal, reclaiming the stuff that was considered too weird for modern America in the 50s: the customs, the rituals, the sensuality. Jews who came to America first generation wanted to appear as goyish as possible. Even though they kept the customs at home and had serious religious services, there was an overlay of WASP-ishness to it.
My generation said, let’s not do that. Because we weren’t threatened by the specter of being immigrants. We were free to explore that again. So that really brought me back to serious observation of Judaism as opposed to just a sense that it was just an ethnicity and I ate corned beef.
Because of my mom, I feel a mission to explain Judaism as I see it to the greater world. Even Jews don’t always get Judaism. Some of the best work I did was to try to explain it in my own way, both on my radio show, and in my children’s book, The Golden Dreidel.
Now, Ellen. It is age-old advice to never work with your spouse, advice you apparently have chosen to ignore when you co-wrote a book with Delia Sherman. How have you navigated that?
[laughs]Well we only did one major thing together, which was a novel which actually we did first as a novella for the first gay anthology series. Do you know about that series?
OK, well, let me tell you. So Delia and I were good friends before we became romantically involved. We really knew and were supportive of each other’s writing. She loved Swordspoint, so we were making up more characters about the next generation. She’s got a background in history, so she wanted to know more about the history of the country. So we made up all this stuff about it. One day, I said, “Hey–if we wrote this down we could get paid!” <laughs>
At that time, we knew that Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel were doing a three-book anthology: one was science fiction, one was fantasy, and one was horror, all about queer characters. So we wrote the story “The Fall of the Kings” and submitted it to them. They bought it. So we were in this first fantasy anthology.
Then we said, “We cut so much out of this to make it a short story. Let’s put it all back in and make it longer.” And that was of Fall of Kings.
Delia and I had just started living together. We realized later that we negotiated all of the new couple stuff through the medium of the writing. We learned how to negotiate with each other as a couple through the writing process. It’s almost backwards from what you would think. When we finished the book, we realized we knew how to talk to each other about difficult subjects that did not have to do with the book.
So then obviously there will be some sort of upcoming Ellen and Delia dating workshop at the Learning Annex or something?
[laughs]We have known other couples who ask for advice. One couple wasn’t a sexual couple, but were really close friends. And they wanted to write together but they were scared. I said, “Just try it. If it doesn’t work, you can stop.” But people who have told me that they don’t think they can write with their partner? I tell them, “You probably can’t. Don’t do it.”
Finally, what advice do you have for LGBTQ+ Ohio writers who want to get their words out there for everyone to see?
My advice is three words and a punctuation mark: Why not you? It has to be somebody, why not you?