June 29, 2018
Samuel Delany to Kathy Acker: “Basically I think most talk of both conscious and unconscious approaches to writing generally more mystificational than not”
by Ian Dreiblatt
Ok, time for something great.
In a Facebook post, legendary author Samuel Delany has shared a twenty-five-year-old letter that he wrote to his friend Kathy Acker.
Delany can be described as many things. He’s the “sex radical, afro-futurist, and grandmaster of science fiction” who in 1977 gave us what is still the most perceptive and beautiful review ever written of Star Wars. He’s the author of more than twenty novels (start with 1984’s Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, which will fascinate and pulverize anyone with a heart), and plenty more works of memoir, criticism, and theory. In Strange Stars, digital jukebox ghost Jason Heller writes that in Dhalgren, another of his best-known books, Delany “use[s] narrative circularity and self-referential text to render his parable of American dystopia a work of profound disorientation.”
As for Acker, she was the impossibility-loving punk author and Salman Rushdie chess opponent who gave us such grimily resplendant books as Blood and Guts in High School and Pussy, King of the Pirates. We are very excited indeed to be publishing Kathy Acker: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, edited by Amy Scholder and Douglas A. Martin, this December.
A contact of Delany’s found the letter, which was handwritten on a piece of red paper, folded into a copy of his book They Fly at Çiron in Acker’s library. It’s dated July 28th, 1993, and it reads:
Dear Kathy —
Got your fine and provocative letter. Next week when I and my word processor are not a hundred-fifty miles apart I’ll answer it. (Basically I think most talk of both conscious and unconscious approaches to writing generally more mystificational than not. However they talk about it, most writers I suspect actually do the same thing.) Am doing a reading to night — but am competing with Bill Gibson (who’s reading for free in the park!) so I don’t expect lots of people.
At any rate, I’ll write soon.
Love and stuff—
PS — Thanks for My Mother D!
(The postscript refers to Acker’s 1994 collection My Mother: Demonology. Bill Gibson, of course, is the Canadian-American author of Neuromancer, which came out the same year as Stars in my Pocket and, like that book, foresaw the internet. Today he lives peaceably under the administration of President Hillary Clinton, and—this is true—once served as Canadian TV’s archetypal hippie.)
In a note posted alongside the letter, Delany recalls that he and Acker had gotten to know each other after, on learning that they were fans of each other’s work, Delany’s friend Robert Morales introduced them. In 1996, Wesleyan University Press was preparing to reprint Delany’s 1976 novel Triton as The Trouble on Triton, and he asked Acker if she’d be willing write an introduction. Delany writes:
So she did. The Introduction talked about the Orphic aspect of the book — very intelligently, I thought. I called her up again and asked her if I could work out fee for her with Wesleyan UP, and she said she wouldn’t hear of it. She was honored to have been asked. Clearly we had a mutual admiration society, going. So I had a large bunch of flowers sent to her address, just as a gesture. (She didn’t know they were coming.) And she left a thank you message on my phone that the flowers had arrived at the perfect moment “to make a very sad girl feel a lot better.” I later learned from Neil Gaiman, that she had received them on the same day or the day after she had gotten the news of her cancer diagnosis.
(In 1996, Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer. In November 1997, at the age of fifty, she died of it.)
Delany adds one more memory:
I’d first met her at a reading we did together at Brown University with a whole host of other writers. I remember she walked into the room where we had all gathered—for some reason, she was the last one to arrived—and announced, “Does anyone know where I can get 50 thousand dollars?” Kathy was five years younger than I was, but I often felt when we were together, she was five years older — and the fact was, I’d never heard a writer make that kind of entrance into a group before. It was kind of startling. I believe the writers were either gay writers, or gay-sympathetic writers. One of the other writers there was a lesbian writer named Rebecca Brown, whom I had met and kind of instantly bonded with, and since I hadn’t the faintest idea where a writer went to get 50 thousand dollars (I think the reason had something to do with medical costs), I was a bit non-plussed.
(Presumably but unconfirmedly, the Rebecca Brown in question is the Lambda Award-winning author The Gifts of the Body and The Last Time I Saw You.)
This, clearly, is all wonderful. More wonderful still are the many various, challenging, nourishing, weird, sometimes brutal, sometimes gorgeous, constantly luminous books of Samuel Delany and Kathy Acker, which you should read all of, again or for the first time, immediately.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post repeated the commonly-held view that William Gibson is the inventor of the word “cyberspace.” This idea is in general circulation, but, in a friendly note after the publication of this piece, Delany disputed it, saying the word was in fact coined by Bruce Bethke. “Write Gibson,” he added. “He’ll tell you.” Pending that eventuality, we have every reason to believe Delany, who was there at the time, and who deserves to prevail in most any argument on the basis of having written Aye, and Gomorrah, Heavenly Breakfast, and any number of other books no other mind could have produced. As Delany has himself recently written, “The problem of separating information from misinformation is the great problem of the 21st Century.”
UPUPDATEDATE: It would also have been nice if the original piece had congratulated Delany on winning this year’s Locus Award for his novelette The Hermit of Houston. It will sit beside a huge number of other recognitions, including four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, a Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame induction, and the J. Lloyd Eaton Lifetime Achievement Award in Science Fiction.
UPUPUPDATEDATEDATE: Strike the preceding! William Gibson did, indeed, coin the word “cyberspace.” He does not, however, appear to have coined the word “cyberpunk,” which he is also sometimes credited with originating. It’s that word that Bethke seems to have invented. Some have credited the great Gardner Dozois, who died last month, but Dozois seems more to have popularized the term (by using it in his 1984 Washington Post piece Science Fiction in the Eighties) than created it. Delany quoted a letter from author Michael Swanwick, which explains, “Bruce Bethke has claimed to be the first one to use the term Cyberpunk in print and Gardner used to say, ‘Let him have the credit. The word has never brought me anything but tsurris.’ Cyberpunk was the title of a Bruce Bethke story that predates Gardner’s usage. But his ‘cyberpunk’ doesn’t refer to the literary movement or to cool fictional hackers. It was ‘punk’ in the sense of ‘snot-nosed punks’ and his characters were obnoxious teenage hackers (‘script bunnies’ they’d be called today) who get their comeuppance when they’re sent to juvenile detention. By the father of one of them! So I honestly believe it’s an identical-looking word but not the one we mean when we say ‘cyberpunk.’ Not that I’m anxious to fight anybody about it.” In unrelated news, taking a morning to email with Samuel Delany about the origins of the word “cyberpunk” is highly, highly recommended.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.