We had the good fortune of connecting with Lisa Yaszek and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lisa, let’s start by talking about what inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who strive to create better futures for all. For me, this includes the work of both activists and artists. We live in a moment marked by a new chapter in the civil rights movement, a new wave of feminist collaboration including both cisgender and trans women, and a new generation of ecologically-minded, politically-outspoken youth from across the world. What’s particularly exciting is that so much of this drive for change is led by people who identify as women! Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founded Black Lives Matter; Georgia’s own Vandy Beth Glen filed the lawsuit that extended federal protections against sex or gender discrimination to trans people; Greta Thunberg is the face of an entire generation that demands immediate action against climate change. There is a lot of risk in challenging the social and political status quo, but these women do it in clear, clever, and creative ways that have already had their own, immediate effects on how we think about our relations to each other and to the Earth itself.
Of course, action that causes meaningful change doesn’t happen in a vacuum–and that’s where artists come into play! Science fiction has been a particularly useful genre for artists who want to explore how the various scientific and social arrangements we enact today might lead to different worlds of tomorrow. And–perhaps not surprisingly–women and nonbinary artists are at the forefront of science fiction innovation today. African-American author N.K. Jemisin is the first speculative author of any race or gender to win the field’s prestigious Hugo award four times in a row for stories that connect social justice to both urban infrastructure and environmental practices; Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders’s award-winning blog IO9 and podcast Our Opinions are Correct (not to mention all their marvelous stories!) remind us that science fiction isn’t just about boys and their toys, but has room for practitioners of all scientific, social, and sexual persuasions; Meanwhile, digital artist Elizabeth LaPensee’s critically-acclaimed side-scrolling video game “Thunderbird Strike” inspires players to learn how they can help save Turtle Island (aka North and Central America) both online and in the real world. Taken together, these artists remind us that we have to be able to dream of different futures before we can take steps to create them.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m a Regents Professor at Georgia Tech, and what distinguishes me from many other scholars is my field of study: science fiction! I’m fascinated by science fiction as a “global language” that all different kinds of people use to convey their ideas about science, society, and the future across centuries, continents, and cultures. I’m particularly interested in the recovery of lost voices in science fiction history and the discovery of new ones from around the globe. Most of my research and teaching revolves around speculative art created by women, Black authors, and scientists, and I’m fortunate because I get to write books about all these wonderful artists and then share my ideas in the popular press.
Right now I’m really excited about my work as a science fiction editor. Like most literature professors, I started out writing about other people’s stories. My first book, The Self Wired, explored the works of well-known authors and film directors anyone can find on their own. But my second book, Galactic Suburbia, was a recovery project in which I explored the hundreds of science fiction stories written by women in the 1940s and 50s, when women supposedly weren’t doing that kind of thing! About halfway through that book, my editor wistfully noted that it would be awesome to republish all those stories I was writing about, since they were clearly celebrated in their day, but the only people with current access to them were scholars like myself working in university archives (most early science fiction was printed in fragile and disposable magazine formats that haven’t stood the test of time very well, with the exception of select, carefully preserved collections). As I looked over the reviews for Galactic Suburbia, I realized that a surprising number of other people also wanted to read those stories, and then a few strategic email exchanges confirmed that a surprising number of those long-lost authors’ agents and family members were excited to get them back in the public eye.
I knew that with my combined academic and literary connections, I was uniquely poised to make it all happen. That lead to Sisters of Tomorrow, which reprints science fiction stories, poems, science columns, editorials, and artwork by the women who helped develop modern science fiction in the early 20th century and to my current work as a science fiction editor for the Library of America, where I produce the Future is Female series. The first book in that series, The Future is Female: 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, showcases some of the most thematically-provocative and stylistically daring stories published by women in the American science fiction magazines of the 1920s-1960s. I’m currently working on the second volume, which will focus exclusively on the rise of a self-defined feminist science fiction community in the 1970s. What’s different about this volume is that most of the authors we’re looking at are still alive, and many are on social media! My research assistants joke that it’s like time travel to bounce back and forth between the ragged and rebellious fanzines these artists produced in their youth and their polished, if still fairly provocative, social media feeds today. But I tell them, that’s always exactly the excitement of this work for me! We get to imaginatively travel to another world, then return to our own with new perspectives. All while enjoying what my friends in the community call “ripping good reads!”
I’m also excited by the fact that I’m at a point in my career where I can share my ideas with the greater science fiction community and the public at large. This work is especially fun because while I’m often interviewed for my specific expertise in women’s science fiction, I also get to connect science fiction to all different kinds of cultural phenomenon! For instance, I’ve talked about science fiction and immigration with the Washington Post; science fiction and the history of spices with Food and Wine Magazine, and most recently, science fiction and fashion design with Fashionista.com. I’ve also served as a science and culture expert on shows including the AMC mini-series, James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction; the BBC4’s Stranger Than Science Fiction; and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. It’s fun to show people outside of academia what we really do, and I love getting science fiction artist and fans’ thoughts on my work! My favorite moment came when I did a guest spot for the kids’ science show Brains On, and the kid host firmly told me it was silly to debate the ethics of time travel, since if it existed she would just go back and fix all the bad things before they happened. I thought that was brilliant, and I want to take her with me to every faculty meeting I attend in the future. We need more people who can cut to the heart of matters like this!
I got to the place where I am in my career today by taking chances on the road less traveled and by seeking out communities of like-minded people along the way. As an undergrad, I exchanged the “safe bet” of a career in advertising in my home state of Michigan for the uncertain delights of graduate school in Wisconsin. In retrospect it wasn’t that big of a move, but I’m from a family that all still lives within a few dozen miles of each other and that had never sent anyone to graduate school, so from that perspective, it was like moving across the galaxy! When I completed my PhD at the University of Wisconsin, I once again exchanged the safe bet of continuing to teach English in Madison for a science and literary studies postdoc at Georgia Tech here in Atlanta–despite the fact that at that time, postdoc in the humanities were almost unheard of, and my colleagues worried that pursuing “edgy” academic work at a technical institute would ruin my chances of ever obtaining traditional academic work.
When the professor I came to Atlanta to work with retired, I took a chance on applying for his position, even though, once again, well-meaning friends cautioned that shifting my research focus to science, society, and science fiction might hinder my career. And of course, the process never ends! Just a few years ago, I decided to end my successful, well-paying career in academic administration because I had the opportunity to take on new work as a science fiction editor and public intellectual. In some ways that decision was scarier that some of my early ones, simply because I had so much more at stake by then, including a professional reputation and a family to support. But I’m so glad I took that chance! We may have a little less money now and I still work mad hours day and night, but I sleep twice as much and every day of work is a joy. In a world where we attach a lot of our identity to our labor, that’s incredibly important! And so the lesson I’ve learned from all of this (and honestly, I’m still learning today) is that it’s important to be open to unexpected opportunities, They often challenge our conceptions of ourselves and our worlds, which can be scary, but the they also teach us a lot about ourselves and create the possibility of truly new and perhaps even better futures than we ever dreamed.
I do think that following the offbeat path is easier–and certainly more fun!–when have a community that supports your growth and change. That community can come from anywhere, but looking back on it, I realize that in my case, it’s often come from other professional women: in high school I was saved from utter boredom (and set on the path to grad school) by a group of teachers who sent me to the libraries and museums that ignited my love of art, history, and education; in graduate school, the women in my writing group provided everything from editing advice to hot meals to loving reassurance that they would visit me if I took that weird postdoc in Atlanta (which they did–and one of them even joined me on that same postdoc!) Finally, I knew I’d chosen the right academic path when the first generation of women science fiction scholars–many of whom had to give up tenure-track job security to help create the field of science fiction studies back in the 1970s and 80s–welcomed me with open arms, wrote the reviews that allowed me to get tenure, and then celebrated that success with me, The takeaway from all of this is that cliched as it seems, community really matters! More importantly, you need communities behind you that share your values and your vision for the future. They don’t have to be your only communities; it’s good to have access to different people with different ideas, that’s how we grow as individuals and as societies. But we also need to be around people who see and accept us as we are, and who inspire us to become even better versions of those selves. I’m honored to say that I’m still friends with all of these wonder women who have helped shape my professional journey, and I hope my work does them justice.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I love when friends visit us in Atlanta–my husband and I are both from northern parts of the U.S., where nobody knows much about life south of the Mason-Dixon line, other than what they (mis)learn from bad tv. It’s fun to help our friends see how exciting and diverse life is here. So the first thing I would do if a friend were visiting (I’m assuming this is after the majority of Americans have been vaccinated and we’re beginning to hit our post-pandemic stride) is take them on a tour of all the great food our city has to offer. In terms of restaurants, we’d start at my Grant Park neighborhood joint, Dakota Blue (their veggie chili is just as good as it looks on the show Georgia Traveler!), then move on to upscale barbecue at Wood’s Chapel in Summerhill (their meaty greens are literally mouthwatering) and then to the exquisitely prepared Caribbean dishes at Negril Village in Midtown. I’d also want to show off some of our food halls–especially East Atlanta’s We Suki Suki and the food hall at Ponce City Market–as well as our big world markets out on Buford Highway and in Decatur. I practically lived at Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market when I first moved to Atlanta, and it’s been fun introducing our son to it as he’s hit his tweens and gotten interested in cooking.
One of my favorite things about moving to the south has been the fantastic weather–we can play and eat outside almost all hear round. I remember taking my parents to midtown to eat sushi under patio heaters in February when I first moved to Atlanta twenty years ago; they still talk about how mid-blowing the whole experience was to people from the upper midwest who are used to snow through May! We have all kinds of amazing outdoor experiences to check out in Atlanta so if a friend came to visit I’m not sure where we would start…. maybe with a bike ride on Atlanta’s beltline, both through the well-developed parts in midtown where we could check out shops, restaurants, and parks and through the wilder parts where I live on the south side of the city and where all kinds of wildflowers–and outsider art–flourish. I’d also take my friend to the Skyline Park on top of Ponce City Market, because who doesn’t love to play mini-golf with skyline city views? We’d wrap up the day with a night at the Starlight Six Drive-In on Moreland Avenue. Not only is it one of the oldest continually-operating drive-ins in America (founded in 1949!) but it still has a beautiful old school neon sign and first run movies for very reasonable prices. All sound is broadcast by radio so you can set up a picnic outside your car and enjoy films under the stars.
Finally, I’d want to introduce my friend to the Atlanta arts scene. This would definitely include a visit to the High Museum. I’ve always wanted to do one of the Friday night jazz events, and what better time than when a friend visits? We’d also check out a show at Dad’s Garage (my son would surely hope for another D&D parody show), and the Center for Puppetry Arts–if my friend had one or more small kids, we would definitely do one of the make-your-own puppet workshops. And if this friend was as much of a science fiction enthusiast as I am, I’d hope they would time their trip to coincide with our of our great conventions–MomoCon on Memorial Day weekend, OnyxCon in the summer, Dragoncon on Labor Day Weekend, Multiverse and SUBSUME in the fall or the Atlanta Sci Fi Expo and Outer Dark Symposium in the spring. And if my friend somehow managed to visit in a week when we aren’t holding a con, we’d go tour the Silver Scream FX Studios for a hauntingly good time! The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’d like to dedicate my Shoutout to Kathy Goonan, the first science fiction author with whom I made professional connections and who quickly became a close personal friend. Kathy was warm and funny, quick to laugh and slow to judge people. She cared passionately about the mind and how we educate people to become citizens of the future–something she participated in herself as a Montessori teacher and taught others about in her work as an artist and science consultant. To spend time with Kathy was to re-center yourself in the world. My dear friend passed earlier this year after a long battle with myelofibrosis, but I imagine she is already enjoying her journey amongst the stars with the same delight that she enjoyed her time on Earth.