Amal El-Mohtar

Crossroads and Coins: Naomi Mitchison and TRAVEL LIGHT


Given the whole begin as you mean to go on thing, I’m delighted this went live yesterday: my post on Naomi Mitchison and Travel Light for NPR Books’ “You Must Read This” series.

I’ve been gushing to anyone who’ll listen about Naomi Mitchison and this particular book since Karen Meisner gave me a copy for my birthday in 2011. It was the darkest part of an awful year, and I remember just sitting on my bed alternating between stunned silence and sobs when I finished it, reading the last page over and over, feeling an intense dislocation between where I was and where I felt I ought to be.

I found a used copy of Memoirs of a Spacewoman, and after reading it almost immediately bought another so I could lend one out without fear of losing it. It didn’t hit me in the way Travel Light did, because it’s not that kind of book; if Travel Light is a book for the child that lives within an adult, Memoirs of a Spacewoman is for the adult, ruminating on responsibility, communication, compassion, exploration, relationships. It’s also less a plot-driven novel than it is a rambling travelogue that stops more than it ends, but with episodes of which I never tired and that produced in me real fear, elation, and sympathy.

Not being very well read in classic science fiction I nevertheless had a sense of space odysseys always being connected to an imagined benevolent imperialism, to do with colonies and terraforming and so on–the stuff Ursula LeGuin said, in “A Citizen of Mondath,” seemed to be “all about starship captains in black with lean rugged faces and a lot of fancy artillery.” But here was a book that was not about that — that was about confronting feelings of revulsion in oneself in order to communicate with different life forms, to strive always to understand them, and to leave them alone.

I’ve got a copy of The Corn King and the Spring Queen to read next, courtesy of my Glaswegian’s parents, and after that — I live about an hour away from the National Library of Scotland, so whatever I can’t find used on the internets I should be able to find there. I’d like to make 2014 a year of reading Mitchison. Doing so while living in Scotland seems like just the thing.

I genuinely wish I could have met Mitchison. Thinking of Elizabeth Barrett Browning saying that she “looks everywhere for grandmothers and see[s] none” — Mitchison is a woman I would love to count as a grandmother. It breaks my heart that we are always rediscovering great women, excavating them from the relentless soil of homogenizing histories, seeing them forever as exceptions to a rule of sediment and placing them in museums, remarkable more for their gender than for their work.

Most of the writers whose work I love and read today are women. I want them and their writing — ten years from now, fifty, a hundred — to be remembered, and more: to be ubiquitous. To be common knowledge. To spawn imitators and adjectives, “Mitchisonian” to match “Tolkienesque.” I want them to be studied for their excellence and influence in their chosen genres. I want boys to grow up reading and loving them as a matter of course.

I want to feel like this isn’t a huge amount to ask.