Locus Online
April 2007

Saturday 21 April 2007

Dear Locus Online,

I begin this letter about Blacksburg and Virginia Tech with a great sense of déjà vu. During that previous time of national mourning, I frantically typed my emotions to Locus Online as the smoke emanating from the burning towers wafted into my Manhattan apartment and I could not decide if it was best to look at the television screen or the framed window view. I have not yet fully recovered from 9/11. If necessary, I could immediately begin to respond to that event in a manner almost as vehemently heartfelt and fervent as the response which appeared here six years ago. (This response is included within the April 17 Locus Online highlights from the last decade posting.) I love New York. My love for this city springs directly from the fact that I do not love Blacksburg.

Last night I asked Randy Cohen, the person who writes the New York Times Magazine's "The Ethicist Column," how I could right now describe Blacksburg and Virginia Tech from my particular not positive perspective. His answer was immediate. "It is not possible," he said.

Cohen is absolutely right. Yes, I have something to say about Virginia Tech. I taught in the Tech English Department for fourteen years and the place has crossed my mind at least once a day during the approximate decade since I left. I went so far as to base a great deal of my novel Oy Pioneer! on my experiences there. I could write an entire sequel solely in response to seeing George W. Bush standing in front of the Burruss Hall administration building. But it is now impossible to write anything about Virginia Tech in the humorous satiric vein that permeates Oy Pioneer! It is now impossible to write anything about how I feel about my Virginia Tech reality. Now is not the time to comment about the fact that, as the science fiction academics who know me personally are aware, this reality concerns the relationship between Tech and my work as a feminist science fiction scholar. Anger does not at all coincide with mourning.

With the truth of my perspective directly articulated, I think that the best way for me to serve the Locus community is to juxtapose my familiarity with Virginia Tech and my expertise as a literary critic who specializes in science fiction. My purpose, then, is to try to explain the horrendous tragedy in terms of such science fiction tropes as estrangement and alienation. I will also relate the tragedy to pedagogical considerations involving the new implications for teaching students who create extreme forms of science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing. It was impossible for me to write my 9/11 piece in a dispassionate voice. I must be dispassionate now. The vehement straight from the soul immediacy I expressed in my 9/11 piece, and which I could replicate in relation to how I feel about Tech's response to my feminist science fiction publications, has absolutely no place here. I have honestly stated that this personal reaction exists. You will not hear about it further. I think Randy Cohen would approve.

* * *

Cho Seung-Hui, by all accounts, was exceedingly estranged and alienated from the Virginia Tech community. Please know that Blacksburg is an isolated, rural, self-contained (self-contained to the extent that it almost resembles a glass dome covered outer space exploration colony) town populated by an overwhelming WASP majority. Upon arrival at the age of twenty-six, as a Jewish New Yorker, I did not at all fit in. But I could pass: I have blue eyes and a WASP surname. I can well understand how twenty-three year old Cho Seung-Hui, who could never look like an all-American male, might feel like an extraterrestrial in Blacksburg. The homogeneity characterizing Blacksburg is extreme. Not one black student was ever enrolled in any class I taught there — and this included the freshman composition classes which reflected the general student population. The typical Tech faculty member and administrator looks like a clone of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld — or Karen Hughes. The "Drill Field" which has been so prominently displayed all week has nothing to do with dentistry pedagogy or oil exploration. This campus focal point is a large oval space in which uniformed student cadets march in formation drills with rifles perched on their shoulders. The Radford Arsenal is a short drive from Blacksburg. In science fiction terms, Maureen Dowd has coined a term which pinpoints the prevailing Tech culture: "Bush World."

I have traveled alone throughout the world, and happily spent three years teaching in Germany and Austria. I felt more alienated in Blacksburg than I ever felt in any foreign locale. True, Duesseldorf is not, say, Great Neck, New York. Even if Duesseldorf is rather devoid of Jews, it is also devoid of cows. Perhaps the extreme lack of difference which characterizes Blacksburg — the community's propensity to equate heterogeneity with the strange — caused a seriously mentally ill foreign born young adult to turn to untenable violence.

It has been reported that Cho Seung-Hui's actions were premeditated. The Virginia Tech faculty, with very few exceptions, reflects Blacksburg's almost monolithic white population. (Before proceeding further into the realm of explanation offered in terms of pure conjecture, I wish to say that, during this immediate moment of national and personal mourning, it might be too early to offer a theory to explain the atrocity. With the hope that I am within the boundaries of good taste writing just after the Virginia Tech baseball team, in an effort to return to normal, played its first game, I will continue.) I notice that the four deceased faculty members are all characterized by what is alien and Other in relation to the WASPs who predominately populate Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. G. V. Loganathan was a person of color; Livia Librescu was a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor: Jocelyne Couture-Nowak was a French-Canadian French instructor; and Jamie Bishop, the son of our own Michael Bishop (claims of professional distance aside, I am in tears as I type), was a German instructor. It can be no accident that these four faculty members are foreign in relation to prevailing Virginia Tech culture. (For clarification purposes, I again stress how difficult it is to find more than token Otherness in relation to the Tech faculty. When in search of a friend who could understand my Jewish New York culture, the closest I could come was a WASP rural Pennsylvania born theater professor who wrote a dissertation on Jewish humor — and I considered myself very lucky to have found him! Based upon this experience, I was immediately struck by the fact that all the murdered faculty members did not fit the Tech faculty norm. I hope it is permissible to say that, in addition to being a foreign language department member, Jamie Bishop, based upon his photo, looked more like a wonderful and cool Woodstock participant than either Cheney or Rumsfeld.) Those who can be positioned as the WASP oppressor did not form the crux of Cho Seung-Hui's murderous objective. I believe that he carefully studied the Virginia Tech class schedule with an eye toward finding foreign-associated professors who would be concurrently teaching in close proximately. I believe he wanted to kill "the alien" because he was a profoundly disturbed person who so greatly suffered from being alien in Blacksburg. I believe he pinpointed his alien-in-relation-to-Tech foreign teaching staff quarry that would assemble at a particular early afternoon hour in Norris Hall. He shot these particular allegedly pinpointed teachers and the random students who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. My thinking is in accordance with what the psychologist Franz Fanon calls the "colonized mind," that is internalizing white male power, identifying with it, and killing people like yourself.

Nobody can account for the reason why Emily Jane Hilscher was Cho Seung-Hui's first victim. In terms of my hypothesis about the alien, she certainly does not visually fit the female WASP stereotype. (I have read hate language filled Internet speculation that she might have been Jewish.) Hilscher's ethnic background aside, I think that I can explain why Cho Seung-Hui targeted Hilscher in terms of what I have been saying about Virginia Tech culture. I think it is best for me to allow Evelyn Wolfson of Wayland MA, the author of a letter which appeared in the New York Times, to support the explanation I will offer. This is Wolfson's complete letter: "It was shocking to hear that Virginia Tech officials say they did not shut down the campus in response to the first shooting because they believed that it was just [italics mine] a domestic quarrel. It sounds as if they were accustomed to domestic quarrels on the campus being settled by shootings and they are therefore not worthy of anyone's attention? What kind of excuse was that?"(April 18, A22). It had, at first, been "just" some female students who had complained about inappropriate harassment. It then became "just" the tech military-emphasizing university's feminine humanities English department faculty who had complained about a male student going under desks to take pictures of his female classmates' bodies. In terms of the presence of a single dead female body, it became "just" "a domestic quarrel." What kind of excuses are these? My answer: unjust sexist ones.

It has been explained that shooters do not pause in mid-massacre. Hence, in addition to choosing Hilscher because she too looks like an alien, I think that Cho Seung-Hui picked a female to be his first victim in order to make a statement about how Tech responds to that which is Other in relation to white male patriarchy. He knew that one shot dead female would be treated as, well, "just" one shot dead female. No need to shut down the campus. Wolfson, who I assume is unfamiliar with Virginia Tech administrative culture, speaking in her direct female Jewish northeastern blue state voice, is shocked. I'm not.

Cho Seung-Hui had time to commit murder in the morning (and, hence, augment the shooting practice which he had already undertaken at a Blacksburg shooting range), go to the post office to mail his film (on tax due day! — which is meshuganeh in itself), and arrive at Norris Hall during the hour he had appointed. He correctly anticipated that one female shooting victim would be seen as no reason to interrupt campus business as usual. I find the complete media silence in relation to the sexism-based connections I have made to be as chilling as the pervasive coverage of the image of him holding a gun in each outstretched black gloved hand. This image is highly important in science fiction terms. Cho Seung-Hui, who prepared for his role as mass murder by doing body building exercises, turned himself into the symbol of the alien foreign born immigrant Other in relation to America who succeeded in America beyond all reasonable expectation: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cho Seung-Hui made a movie of himself as the star of the science fiction action hero violence film he had made real. He cast himself as the powerful terminator, the person as shooting machine. In Virginia Tech World, particularly the Drill Field space where academic buildings (Norris Hall in particular) are lined up like so many sitting ducks around the military infused veneration place of real rifles, Cho Seung-Hui had finally become Top Gun.

I will presently refrain from comparing the Cho Seung-Hui gun-in-hands hyper-masculine action hero image to that of the theatrical spectacle of Bush on the aircraft carrier. Instead, adhering to the avian sitting duck metaphor I have just used, I will turn to a kinder gentler famous Bush image: the one where he is carrying a large turkey on a tray during his Thanksgiving surprise visit to the American military base in Iraq. Bush handed me a way to relate him to Virginia Tech on a silver platter. The Hokie is the all pervasive name of the football team symbol of Virginia Tech; members of the Virginia Tech community call themselves Hokies. A Hokie is a castrated turkey. (For true; I couldn't make this up.) When I saw the televised image of Bush standing on the Drill Field, I saw the consummate picture of Virginia Tech world becoming one with Bush World. Birds of a feather flock together. He went to Blacksburg immediately. Mentioning him now is, hence, fair game.

Bear with me a little longer please in relation to my asking questions in relation to Tech potentially purposefully ducking the issue of cultural alienation in relation to its pervasive white male hegemony. Why are Lucinda Roy and Nikki Giovanni the only Tech professors who I have seen appearing on CNN (the network I have watched at length) to speak about Cho Seung-Hui? Tech English professor Edward Falco was also his creative writing professor. Why has Ed failed to appear on CNN? What about all the male professors outside of the English department who taught Cho Seung-Hui? Where are all of his male professors who have not appeared on CNN? Certainly, they have not been abducted by aliens! On CNN, the Tech faculty spokespeople have consisted of nothing other than all Lucinda and all Nikki all the time. Conjecture: Is someone trying to blur the truth of Tech's male hegemony by communicating to viewers the subliminal suggestion that Virginia Tech is an Appalachian branch of, say, a woman's college such as Barnard?

Soledad O'Brien directly asked Lucinda if the Virginia Tech administration is at fault. Lucinda, even after she was directly questioned again, ducked the issue. (The Duck Pond, like the Drill Field, is an iconic Virginia Tech campus image.) Will no Tech professor go on record to criticize the administration? Does the entire faculty agree that the administration was not in error? Livestock are housed behind the Duck Pond. Will the sheep look up?

* * *

I wish to insert the fact that I knew deceased Tech Professor Livia Librescu. I contacted him when I was a young Blacksburg denizen who was desperately seeking someone who was not named Susan — or some other quintessentially American appellation. (I am in tears again.) It is customary to offer a remembrance of the deceased at Jewish memorial services. It is appropriate to offer light, even jovial, anecdotes. Hence: I missed Jewish companionship in Blacksburg to the extent that I cold called a Jewish person even though I did not know him. One of my colleagues (I think it was Jed Bob Zwiffel) told me that he reckoned that there was a Jew in the Engineering Department. So I picked up the phone, dialed Livia Librescu's number, and told him that I was a Jewish Tech faculty member who was freaking out because my department secretary had never ever seen a pumpernickel bagel. (My parents packed bagels in the Jewish food care package they routinely mailed to me in Blacksburg. This is all absolutely true; I would not dare to write in my Oy Pioneer! voice now.) I told Livia that I had to talk to a Jew immediately if not sooner. He invited me to his house. Livia Librescu was a warm, kind, caring, lovely, lovely, lovely man. I am exceedingly upset about his death. When his picture stared at me from the computer screen as being among the dead, I broke out into hysterical sobs. (I am in tears now.) I cannot imagine what the family members of all of the deceased people must be feeling.

* * *

This is the aforementioned pedagogy section.

We all now know that Lucinda Roy responded in this way to the particularly problematical nature of Cho Seung-Hui's writing which Nikki Giovanni had brought to her attention: she tutored him herself. (I like and respect Lucinda and Nikki. It was beyond surreal — something beyond description — to see them on television under these circumstances.) Targeting students due to the nature of their creative writing is an exceeding dangerous precedent — especially in regard to students who write extreme forms of fantasy, science fiction, and horror literature. Students can now become afraid to create this type of genre fiction. This situation forms the creative writing version the country's fascination with Don Imus' firing raises. Who has the right to say what? Who has the right to write what? When is the line which demarcates the acceptable in regard to communication crossed?

If Stephen King enters a time machine, appears in Nikki's class as a young student, and writes as he customarily does, could Lucinda as department head justifiably remove him from class? Or, more generally speaking, consider this possible story opening: Once upon a time, feminist extraterrestrials killed all the male human astronauts who landed on their feminist utopian planet. Should the author of this sentence be barred from Cape Canaveral because she poses a clear and present danger to male astronauts? [Please know that on the evening after I wrote this sentence, Larry King reported that a shooting incident had occurred at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I did not for a moment worry that a feminist science fiction writer was responsible for this act.] Or, more personally speaking, the penultimate scene of Oy Pioneer! describes the feminist protagonist's extraterrestrial clones arriving in spaceships to circle the Blackhole State University administration building. Thus it is. What would happen if Marleen S. Barr had written this scene post April 16, 2007 instead of when she was thirty-four years old?

Cho Seung-Hui's actions have implications for teaching extreme genre fiction texts as well as students' creation of extreme genre fiction writing. He was a student in a horror literature class where "the students studied movies like "Friday the 13th" and read Stephen King and Patricia Cornwall novels. 'We had a whole discussion on serial killers,' said one student.... Mr. Cho never spoke during the discussion, she said, but he took notes" (New York Times, April 20, p A20). A college student planning to become a serial killer who quietly takes notes during a classroom discussion about serial killers belongs to the genre of comedy, not horrific reality. I find it almost unbelievable that text I quote above is derived from a Times article about reality, not a part of a New Yorker cartoon. This Times article also mentions that the Horror Literature course Cho Seung-Hui participated in was "new, offered the first time last fall." No innocuous sentence this. I know that to this day genre fiction haters are alive and well and living in the Virginia Tech English department. The faculty member who proposed this course faced the horrors of academic politics when trying to get it approved. English professors who are genre fiction haters, now hear this: do not even think of using the Virginia Tech tragedy as a means to end genre fiction teaching in your department. My career path attests to the fact that enough tsuris in regard to genre fiction scholarship has sprung from one head of the Virginia Tech English department. I have lived long and prospered after leaving there — and I have continued to teach and write about feminist science fiction. No man has ever been harmed as a result of seeing feminist science fiction movies, reading feminist science fiction texts, and reading my feminist science fiction criticism. The story of Cho Seung-Hui and the horror fiction class is an aberration. My husband, an alien French Canadian is, for example, confident of this fact. He shows no fear in relation to being married to an expert on feminist separatist extraterrestrials who kill male humanoids.

Back to the pedagogical future — seriously. The solution, I think, is to consider students behavior, not their writing. Any professor can at any time ask a student to leave a classroom based upon inappropriate classroom behavior. Accordingly and properly, Nikki also told Lucinda that Cho Seung-Hui had behaved exceedingly inappropriately in her classroom. Nikki has stated that she threatened to resign if he remained in her class. I must offer conjecture again. Obviously, Lucinda informed the Virginia Tech administration about Cho Seung-Hui's extreme writing and inappropriate behavior. I surmise that she was forced to begin private tutoring under the duress which, as she said, caused her to use the name of "a dead English professor" as a pre-designated distress code with her assistant, because the Virginia Tech administration refused to agree to expel Cho Seung-Hui from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. [Subsequent to offering this hypothesis, I learned that it was not, in fact, conjecture. The Times reports that "[o]fficials at Virginia Tech on Thursday defended their decision to allow the gunman in Monday's rampage to return to campus after he was released from a psychiatric facility, even though they were aware of his troubled mental history and potential for violence" (April 20, p. A21).] Oy!!

Why did the administration allow a male student who inappropriately used a cellphone to take pictures of female students during class fail to remove him from the university community? I insist that either you expel the offending student or you treat him/her like everyone else. It is wrong to make special categories for particular individuals. Cho Seung-Hui was placed "off to the side" (New York Times, April 19, A18) in a Virginia Tech English Department creative writing seminar. He said this in his tape: "You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option." The Virginia Tech administration, in light of Nikki's letter about resignation, forced Lucinda into a corner and gave her the wrong option.

Randy Cohen's response to my question looms large as I type. I will say nothing about what I personally know about why this response to a male's inappropriate actions in regard to women would be par for the course for the Virginia Tech administration. I will say nothing about what horror even the mere thought the name of a particular dead English professor evokes in me. And, if in fact Lucinda did use that particular man's name as a distress code — well this would, to my mind, be beyond the imaginative power of even Stephen King.

I conclude with what the tragedy can teach us about how to go forward with teaching science fiction, fantasy, and creative writing. The dangerous visions student writers produce should never ever be used against them. It is always acceptable to have an extraterrestrial yell "fire" in a crowded flying saucer. It is never acceptable to fire a plastic zap gun in the face of one's classmates or teachers. Any university personnel member who uses her/his professional power to adversely impact upon students should be fired. These were the rules which were in place before we had ever heard of Cho Seung-Hui. There is no reason to change them now. The idea that it is possible to create an absolutely secure campus environment is a fantasy.

* * *

Randy Cohen would say that, although I must be silent in reference to my personal response to the Virginia Tech administration, I am absolutely free to articulate my response to the United States administration. Although it has nothing in particular to do with science fiction and my stated intention for this essay, I want to say this — merely because I can and I have not yet heard it said: Why do shot college students rivet the nation for days while no one bats an eye vis--vis their contemporaries who are soldiers shot in Iraq? Why did George W. Bush, who did not ever attend one funeral of any soldier shot in Iraq, see fit immediately to go to Blacksburg? I mourn with all of my fellow residents of Blacksburg because I am, after all, someone who is, in part, formed by that community and by Virginia Tech. I also declare that my fellow Americans who have fallen in Iraq do not deserve to be lost in media space, relegated to an anonymous black hole state.

* * *

I am crying. When I began to type, I thought that I could be dispassionate and speak only as a science fiction criticism professional. Not so. I am kidding myself if I claim that I feel absolutely no love for Blacksburg. After years of thinking about Virginia Tech, I have just now, at this very moment, realized this truth. And a new truth: my close friend former Tech English Professor Ruth Salvaggio and I used to entertain ourselves by from time to time adding to our conversational fantasy story about how Blacksburg was becoming ever more like Manhattan. Our fantasy has really come to pass. There is no difference between the spontaneous memorials which appeared in Blacksburg and the ones which appeared in Manhattan on 9/11. Blacksburg and Manhattan are the sites of two of the most heinous atrocities which have ever occurred in recent American history. Blacksburg and Manhattan are sister cities. Ich bin eine Blacksburger — in metaphor, in fiction, and in fact.

This letter about Blacksburg ends exactly how I ended my letter about 9/11 to Locus Online:

"I am pushing the send button.



PS To Blacksburg, with love.

My postscript reads as the dedication I could never have written when I began this letter. Since I am writing for a science fiction publication, I want publicly to present this piece as a peace: I forgive all the feminist science fiction criticism haters I closely encountered in Blacksburg. This forgiveness, in celebration of art for Art's sake, even includes one particular "dead English professor."

I conclude with words Livia Librescu would immediately understand. With respect to and for the dead and their families: L'chaim.

Marleen Barr

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