Author spotlight: Roquia Sakhawat Hussain

Rokeya Sakhawat HussainImagine it: India. The year is 1880. Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India sits on her golden throne. The East India Company and the Great Rebellion are things of the past, the British Raj is in full swing, and British troops are stationed everywhere, it seems.

Sir Richard Temple, in India in 1880, writes that

…under the plastic touch of western civilization, the face of the land, the economic conditions of the country, are undergoing modification, and the religious ideas, the moral sentiments, the social habits, the political aspirations, of many classes of the people are changing fast. Whether these movements shall be for better or for worse, must depend on the conduct of England under the guidance of an all-wise Providence. Wonderful as India has been in her past, and is in her present, she will be equally wonderful in her immediate future.

A family photo from northeastern India, c.1880's

A family photo from northeastern India, c.1880’s

It is clear that Temple’s future “wonderful” India was predicated on the persistence of British rule, but by 1880 social reform was in the air. The Hindu middle class had become less tolerant of racism and more aware of India’s history as a great civilization, one that could, and would, flourish again on its own terms. On the other hand, the recalcitrant Muslim population of Bengal had only just begun to come to terms with the Raj and all it had to offer — education, employment, and infrastructure.

In this year of tea and turmoil, a girl is born in the village of Pairabondh in Bengal, in what is present-day Bangladesh. Her name is Rokheya Khatun, and she is Muslim. She will be raised in seclusion and denied formal education, though she will study Bengali and English at home. At the age of sixteen she will marry, but she will not sit still. In 1909 she will open a school for girls in Bhagalpur, Bihar and later moved to Kolkata, where it became the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School, which still operates today. She is a feminist, a writer, a social worker, and she is one of the grandmothers of science fiction.

She wrote two feminist utopias: Sultana’s Dream, published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in 1905, and Padmarag, published in 1924. It is Sultana’s Dream, with its shift from one world into another — a world of solar heat, atmospheric adjustments, laser beams, and air-cars! — that is one of the early examples of science fiction. Sultana’s Dream is gloriously, unabashedly, feminist, as are all of her works. The Sultana, uncomfortable at being out among the crowds unveiled in this strange world, is reassured by her companion:

This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here.

Sultana’s Dream was not the beginning of Begum Roquia’s literary career. Her first published piece, “Pipasha”, appeared in 1902 in the journal Nabaprabha. In 1903, “Alankar na” appeared in Mahila. She went on to publish articles, novellas, essays, and poetry, ending with Abarodhbasini in 1931. She also founded the Islamic Women’s Association, establishing herself as one of the first Islamic feminists, and was recognized as one of the leading writers of her time.

During her lifetime she witnessed the failed partition of Bengal, the creation of the All India Muslim League, the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, and the Purna Swaraj, the Declaration of the Independence of India. She witnessed, and she did not sit still. She, and others like her, helped pave the way for the Indian Independence Movement, which in 1947 achieved its goal of complete self-rule.

Roquia Sakhawat Hussain died in 1932 on the 9th of December, a date now celebrated in Bangladesh as Rokeya Day.


or so you say: Amazing Stories

This post was supposed to herald a “letters to the editor” section on the WWAH website, and it does, but as with everything about this project, one cannot scratch a surface without falling down a rabbit hole. I begin to wonder if every single story ever published in SFF has its own story behind it. My intent with “letters to the editor” was merely to show that women have been reading, and commenting upon, science fiction and fantasy during the hundred years WWAH covers. I thought it would be interesting to see what we have had to say throughout the years, and I chose this particular letter at random out of a selection of letters written by women to the then editors of Amazing Stories from its own or so you say feature.

Amazing Stories July 1961

The letter to the editor (below) is taken from the July 1961 issue of Amazing Stories, which at the time was edited by Cele Goldsmith. It is a response to Isaac Asimov’s story “Playboy and the Slime God,” (later reprinted as “What Is This Thing Called Love?”) which appeared in the May 1961 issue of Amazing Stories. This story was commissioned to satirize an article that had appeared in the November 1960 issue of Playboy magazine.

Mike Resnick, in his introduction to (the book) Girls for the Slime God (Wunzenzierohs Publishing Company, 1997), calls the Playboy article “a wonderful tongue-in-cheek piece of nostalgia about all those old science fiction pulps that featured BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters, for the uninitiated) ripping the clothes off the heroine, and usually sporting titles like the one the article itself bore.”

Amazing Stories had its own reaction to the article:

…We at Amazing felt kind of sorry for the Playboy people. You know, no more really exciting stuff in the sf mags, and all that. How’re you going to get your kicks any more if these sf writers start talking about cultural taboos instead of heaving breasts? Compassion is our middle name. We commissioned one of sf’s most sex-appealing writers to create a story especially for the insatiable Playboy, and to prove to him that sf has not forgotten that S-X is the most important thing in the universe.

And then one Mrs. Patsy Ruth Wilson had something to say about everything:

Dear Editor:

Aw, come off it now! You and Asimov may understand Slime Gods and BEMs, but you certainly don’t understand women. Take “Playboy and the Slime God,” for instance. Now, if that slimy alien had evidenced any lustful intentions toward what’s-her-name, the woman would have fought to the bloody death to defend her (doubtful) virtue. However, since the aliens so clearly found the Earthwoman’s charms nonexistent, her womanly pride would not have rested until she had been able to seduce them, in some fashion. She would have retained no interest in the Earthman, however exciting he might be; and what’s-his-name was as exciting and appealing as a dead cockroach. Rather, the woman would have persisted until she had participated in some fashion in the creative processes of the aliens. If these processes had indeed been so individual and private, i.e., budding, that the Earthwoman could not “cooperate,” as Asimov so quaintly put it, then the woman would at least have wormed her way into the monster’s confidence until she was allowed to witness the activity and participate to the extent of giving frequent, detailed, and probably conflicting instructions to the alien as to how he/she/it/they should conduct the event.

The matter of aliens and Earthwomen will be an interesting problem, if it ever arises. Having dominated man–emotionally, sexually, intellectually, culturally, physically, psychologically, sociologically, and economically–Earthwoman would not be able to keep her hands (figuratively and literally) off any alien whose sex could possibly be construed as masculine or partly masculine. Women, depending on their characters, would be making “men” out of aliens or “monkeys” out of aliens–or both, if there is any real difference. But, then, that’s something a mere man could not understand. Or perhaps it’s something men don’t really care to face up to.

Mrs. Patsy Ruth Wilson
Ft. Worth, Texas

Regardless of what you might think about the contents of Mrs. Wilson’s letter, one thing is clear. She cared about what she was reading.

It would be unfair to end this post without including the response to this response, a short quip by Norman M. Lobsenz, the then editorial director of AS, who says:

Why, it’s something NL faces every day. If women are going to react to aliens as Mrs. Wilson suggests, this raises the question of how alien females would react to earthmen. Same way, probably. Therefore hard radiation is the least of the problems facing our intrepid astronauts.

Publisher Spotlight: Ros de Lanerolle


AAM supporters protest at a match played by a white South African tennis player at Wimbledon. On the right is Dorothy Robinson, Anti-Apartheid Movement Secretary in the early 1960s. Also in the photograph is AAM founder member Rosalynde Ainslie. Photo copyright Morning Star.

Ros de Lanerolle was the managing director and commissioning editor of The Women’s Press from 1981 through 1991. Born in Cape Town in 1932, she later moved to London, where in 1960 she became one of the founding members of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) in Britain.

While it is her work with The Women’s Press that interests us here, Ros was also an editor of Revolution Africaine, of Souvenir Press, and she did freelance editing for Heinemann’s African Writers Series. She wrote The Press in Africa: Communications Past and Present (1966), as well as two pamphlets, Unholy Alliance (1962) and The Collaborators (1964), all to bring awareness to the atrocities of apartheid. She was also a founding member of Women in Publishing, and co-originator of the Orange Prize for Fiction for women writers. Ros herself won the Women in Publishing Pandora Award for her significant contributions to raising the status of women in publishing.

A fundamental principle of women’s publishing has been the idea of space for those who have not had space in the mainstream. (“Publishing against the ‘other censorship’”, Ros de Lanerolle, Index on Censorship, Vol. 19, Iss. 9, 1990)

We in SFF may know The Women’s Press best for its science fiction series, a line which gave us reprints and originals by Joanna Russ, Tanith Lee, Suniti Namjoshi, Lisa Tuttle, Suzette Haden Elgin, Octavia Butler, and many more. This series, helmed by Sarah LeFanu, reached its zenith under Ros de Lanerolle’s management of The Women’s Press, but it was merely one part of the press’s whole during those years.

The Women’s Press was founded in 1978 by Stephanie Dowrick. Backed by Naim Attallah, with whom Dowrick shared formal ownership, it became Britain’s leading women’s publishing house. Ros replaced Dowrick as managing director in 1981, steering The Women’s Press in a new direction:

The accession of Ros de Lanerolle to the managing directorship of The Women’s Press in 1981 signalled a reorientation of the house’s list spurred by de Lanerolle’s own political interests. As a South African and a seasoned anti-Apartheid activist, she expanded The Women’s Press investment in new Commonwealth and third world women’s writing and in addition presided over the firm during the time of its greatest success in 1983 with the British publication of Alice Walker’s bestseller The Color Purple. (Mixed Media: Feminist Presses and Publishing Politics in Twentieth-Century Britain, Simone Elizabeth Murray, 1999. p137)

According to the journal of Canadian poet Ellie Epp, Ros was “sacked” from her position at The Women’s Press in 1991. This is unfortunately true. The Women’s Press, under de Lanerolle’s direction, dedicated a “significant portion of its list… to promoting writing by women from those minority groups marginalised by early-second-wave feminism: black women, women from ethnic minorities, working-class women, lesbians and disabled women” (Mixed Media, p140). Yet we find, in late 1990, Attallah blamimg the press’s financial losses on an “over-concentration of the Women’s Press list on risky third world writers” (p138), rather than on the publishing recession of the time. Ros attempted a buyout; it was rejected. Attallah then offered her a lesser position with The Women’s Press, which she refused.

The results were catastrophic: de Lanerolle was forced by Attallah to resign and to accept a redundancy payout; Attallah appointed himself the firm’s interim managing director; five of the small press’s senior editorial, publicity, and rights staff resigned in solidarity with de Lanerolle… (Mixed Media, p138)

In a 1991 letter to Spare Rib magazine, Ros writes, “the major disagreements between Mr. Attallah and the majority of the workers at The Women’s Press were not simply about losses but about what we published and how we ran the company”.

After leaving The Women’s Press, Ros co-founded, with Gillian Hanscombe and Alison Hennegan, a new feminist publishing company called Open Letters, “a publishing house owned and run by women for women, which aimed to ‘bridge the gaps between academic disciplines, between feminist theory and practice and between those writing and reading within academic institutions and those outside.'” Open Letters had hardly begun when it, too, fell victim to the recession. We will never know what Ros might have done next. In 1993, two years after leaving The Women’s Press, Ros de Lanerolle was taken from us by cancer.

Author spotlight: Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins

Pauline HopkinsPauline Hopkins is someone we should know. Granted, the body of her work was not science fiction nor fantasy. Her legacy to us is one title, Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self, first published as a serial novel in the November 1902-January 1903 issues of The Colored American Magazine. Born in Maine in 1959, Pauline eventually became the editor-in-chief of that same magazine, as well as being a shareholder on the board. She was replaced in 1904 by John C. Freund and Booker T. Washington, in what is described as a “hostile takeover”.

We claim her novel, Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self, as proto-science fiction, as “the first Lost Race novel by an African-American author”. In it we meet Reuel Briggs, whose “place in the world would soon be filled; no vacuum remained empty; the eternal movement of all things onward closed up the gaps, and the wail of the newly-born augmented the great army of mortals pressing the vitals of mother Earth with hurrying tread. So he had tormented himself for months, but the courage was yet wanting for strength to rend the veil.”

“Oh Poverty, Ostracism! have I not drained the bitter cup to the dregs!” he later says, and then he goes on to have an adventure, and Pauline (after far too many years in obscurity) goes on to be one of the many mothers of science fiction.

But let’s stop for a moment and reflect on this “hostile takeover”, because that is also relevant to our work here. In this, I think we should let Pauline speak for herself:

As I am not a woman who attracts the attention of the opposite sex in any way, Mr. Freund’s philanthropy with regard to myself puzzled me, but knowing that he was aware of my burdens at home, I thought that he was trying to help me in his way. I was so dense that I did not for a moment suspect that I was being politely bribed to give up my race work and principles and adopt the plans of the South for the domination of the Blacks.

[Taken from Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution, Lois Brown, 2008]

If you read this Wikipedia article on The Colored American Magazine, you will find that “Hopkins sensed that Freund had conspired with Booker T. Washington to replace her as editor — to quell her outspokenness on racial matters, which in that era, was a prevailing taboo in the minds of many whites.” The problem appears to be that Pauline wanted to look back at African-American history, to encompass all that black Americans had been, as well as to look forward to all they could be. Freund, perhaps, wanted to promote what he, and his white audience, believed black Americans should be.

Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self, was Pauline’s last novel, and according to her bibliography it seems that her work tapered off there, although she did go on to write several articles for The Voice of the Negro and New Era Magazine, which she edited in 1916 with Walter Wallace. New Era Magazine survived for two issues. Pauline died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1930.


This isn’t a book I necessarily want to write. It’s certainly a book I wish I didn’t feel as though I had to write. In a perfect world, we’d already be aware of the full extent of women’s presence and influence in SFF. We’d recognize some, if not all, of the people I’m presenting as well as we do that of, say, Isaac Asimov. This is not to say that women have not claimed a space in SFF. Of course we have. We know Alice Bradley Sheldon, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and Ursula K. Le Guin. And yet, we’re still more likely to be remembered for our skirt than for our work, if we’re remembered at all.


It also seems to me that for every step we take forward, we are pushed two steps back. This has never been more clear than it is with this year’s Hugo Award nominations. And so, despite our long history of presence and influence in SFF, our work is not done yet, and that is why WWAH exists.

About WWAH

vintagerocketWe Were Always Here is the working title of a book in progress, one intended to highlight the efforts and achievements of women working in the field of science fiction and fantasy throughout the years 1900-2000. This book will focus on the authors, editors, agents, publishers, poets, and fans of influence from all corners of the world, bringing to light the vibrant voices that have contributed to what has historically been seen as a male-dominated field.

The working title for this project was taken from Camille Bacon-Smith’s The Women Were Always Here: The Obligatory History Lesson, 2002.