Boldly Going: FEMSPEC carves out an imaginative niche

Cleveland Free Times, April 5-11, 2000

By TONI K. THAYER

In a tiny windowless office on an upper floor of the high-rise Rhodes Tower on the campus of Cleveland State University, a group of women come together to discuss transcending boundaries, expanding realities and creating new frontiers. 

Professor Batya Weinbaum, an energetic, earthy woman with an easy smile and a penchant for the surreal, co-founded and edits Femspec , a new journal of feminist speculative fiction published under the auspices of CSU. Her daughter, Ola Weinbaum, is also present, sometimes distracted by a Winnie the Poch computer game, sometimes participating energetically in the discussion. Ola contributed drawings to the Girls section of the first issue of FEMSPEC. CSU students Joy Howard and Christine Borne complete the gathering and fill up the cramped space. 

The journal means something different to each of them. For Weinbaum, it is nothing short of an effort to fashion a new academic discipline. As a creative writer whose experimental and imaginative work did not fit within the confnes of mainstream fiction ("I didn't think I was writing in a genre until I tried to get published'); as a feminist whose interest in the non-real did not fit within the confines of many feminist presses and journals, and whose interest in feminism was similarly out of step with the sci-fi and fantasy community; and as an academic who saw few outlets to explore these issues, Weinbaum was finally provoked to create such a forum when she and FEMSPEC co-founder Robin Anne Reid realized their experiences were not unusual. At an impromptu meeting of female writers and scholars in a San Antonio hotel room in 1997, thev shared tales of their publishing woes and their speculative dreams for their writing, their scholarship and the world, and they resolved to invent their own solution. 

For Howard and Borne, who help with the administrative work and try to get a little editing and writing in when they can, FEMSPEC is a convenient avenue for pursuing the first steps of a career. For Borne especially it has serendipitously come during a period of her life when she has begun to define herself and her dreams. To some degree the journal's subject matter has helped her in that task. For Ola, FEMSPEC is perhaps a symbol of future possibilities. To me, the outsider, it is an exciting experiment in bridging the gap between academia and the outside world.

In the first issue of Femspec, published last fall, there were critical essays on sex role reversals in Star Trek, a Soviet-era sci-fi novel by Eugene Zamyatin, and the art of Mexican surrealist painter Bridget Tichenor. There was fiction by critic Marleen S. Barr, poetry by Christina Springer, girl-written sci-fi (illustrated by Ola), and "ovuminal work' in the form of an excerpt from Samuel R. Delany's Trouble on Triton. ("Ovuminal" is a term coined by University of Vermont Professor Susan Ann Comerford to counter the more usual 'seminal.') 

In the second issue, due out this month, there promises to be an equally diverse range of offerings. Among other things, there will be a short script by local feminist playwright Linda Eisenstein, a poem on the Circe myth by Barbara Ungar, a short story by Ruth Setton (whose first novel, The Road to Fez, will be published bv Counterpoint Press next year), an article by Brian Attebery about the differences in male space and female space in utopian fiction, images of the sculpture of Brian Moas, and a girl's review of the illustrated book Dinotopia

Upcoming special issues, each with its own guest editor, will cover topics including Native American writing, Asian-American writing, Jewish women's magical realism, race and culture, Xena. and my personal favorite, girl power. 

Right now the print run is very small (at 500 copies, the second issue will double the number of the first) and the budget is very low, but Weinbaum maintains hope for more funding, more subscriptions and, someday, publication by a university press. Even more, she wants FEMSPEC to become a resource and a place of community for widely scattered but like-minded writers, scholars and readers. 'We want to be multidisciphnary," she says. "We want to be read by people who are writing, whether they're in academia or not." 

And she'd really like to sell you one of the blue FEMSPEC coffee mugs that seem to have colonized the office shelves like so many little alien pods.