Transcript for Samuel R. Delany on "The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction"

Jim Fleming: Samuel R. Delany has been described as American Science Fiction's most consistently brilliant and inventive writer. Delany didn't waste any time launching his science-fiction writing career he was a published author before he turned twenty. In the decades since 1962 Delany's published many novels and short stories. He's won four Nebula awards and two Hugo's award. In 2002 he was inducted into the science-fiction hall of fame. Delany's non fiction includes the essay collection, The Jewel Hinged Jaw, notes on the language of science-fiction. Delany is a sentence lover as he tells Steve Paulson.

Samuel R. Delany: The sentence because it's made up of a string of words. That string is flexible. You can do things with the sentence and the sentence can signal more things than individual words can. Back in the  1890's Mel Arma said very famously poetry was made of words and for many people at the time this was a revelation. Because, people doing the Victorian era and even up into the Edwardian, had tended to think of poetry as made out of sentiments. And that somehow the language was a transparent wall between sentiments and expressions. And of course it's not. It's the mediating material that actually makes a poem a poem. Makes a piece of prose a piece of prose rather than a poem and makes it either a good poem or a good piece of prose or a poor poem or a poor piece of prose. Makes a  Single words don't do this. Groups of words do. Groups of words form cliches, groups of words are original that's why you need a full sentence at the minimum to express yourself with any source of fluency.

Steve Paulson: Uh hum. So I'm wondering how this plays out then when you write science-fiction. Whether there is a particular way that sentences are constructed in fact, you've talked about science-fiction as a play of codack conventions.

Delany: Well the point is the various genres are distinguished by the  kinds of sentence conventions that they appeal to. Prose puts the words together in one particular form. Poetry puts them together in another form. When the words are put together in poetic form you listen to them differently you pay attention to them differently. When they are put together in a prosaic form again you pay attention to them in a different kind of attention to them. And it's the same sort of thing with science-fiction. The kinds of examples that I frequently use are things like “then her world exploded”, if you say that in a piece of naturalistic fiction it's a metaphor for for the emotional state for one of the female characters. However, if you say that for a piece of science-fiction, you have to retain the possibility that it might actually mean that a planet belonging to a woman blew up. Because, there are the alternate meanings in science-fiction that are allowed in. There are different kinds of things that you can say. When you start looking at a whole range of specifically science-fictional phrases with  specifically science fictional interpretations to them. What you find is in science-fiction again and again collections of words that are metaphoric in naturalistic fiction are taken literally when they occur in science-fiction. And it produces a different range of possible meanings.

Paulson: I'm going to ask a little bit about your background. From what I've read you were a prodigy. From early on you were a voracious reader

Delany: Back when two dollars and fifty cents get you a ride on the bus. (laughter)

Paulson: I want to ask about something else that I read about is that apparently when you were quite young you went off to see a lot of tutors and  psychologist because, your spelling was really bad and your hand writing was bad.

Delany: I think much more to the point rather than being a prodigy I was also severely dyslexia. And so I had some severe learning, on the one hand I tested off the chart you know as far as IQ is concerned. But by the same token I couldn't spell the word paper three times correctly in a row. so I had to do a lot of extra work on my spelling and my writing.

Paulson: Had you been diagnosed as dyslexic from early on or did that only come later?

Delany: Well no as a matter of fact they did not diagnose anybody as dyslexic back then. People weren't even sure that dyslexia actually existed.  When I was a child I read voraciously and I read everything you got within twenty feet of me I would read it. Then I'd sit down and try to write something and it would be practically illiterate. And, they were pretty sure initially that this was attention getting behavior of some sort and it wasn't. It was a perfectly honest learning disability. It was not till I was about twenty one when they begin to realize, no there really is something that they could call dyslexia and I had it.

Paulson: Did that make a big difference to you once you had that understanding?

Delany: Oh yes it did, yes it did, it did because I mean for instance, I never knew whether it was attention getting behavior and I just didn't understand it myself. It was a very confusing thing to have.

Paulson: So given your difficulty of putting words to paper, to actually spelling things. I'm wondering if that affected your development as a writer? If it sort of changed your way of writing?

Delany: Obviously I think it does. For one thing you have to get, you get into the habit of  rewriting things. Because, in order to do what dyslexic do so cavalierly, you have to rewrite everything you write. Every paper or piece of writing that you write you have to rewrite it five times just to get what people call the basic mechanics correct. That's what you have to do, you rewrite a lot.

Paulson: You were the first major African American science-fiction writer I think its fair to say

Delany: Yeah, uh hum

Paulson: In language I mean, we've been talking about language was paramount, to sort of the way you thought about writing. Do you think you brought something new to the table there that really didn't exsist in science-fiction at the time?

Delany: I read a lot not only in science-fiction but I also read a lot of literature and I think I was perhaps willing to play with all sorts of rhetorical approaches to story telling that not only were associated with dare I say with hack writing but also literary writing and I tried to use them all. The results I hope were slightly more interesting stories that were told in a slightly more interesting way.

Paulson: Now we've been talking about how you were really a pioneer n various ways. Your use of language, the fact that you were this African American writer in a genre that you know that there really weren't black writers at the time. You've also identified yourself as gay

Delany: That's right yes

Paulson: For a long time I mean since you were an adolescent. How does sexuality form your work.

Delany: A great deal, from one end to the other. (laughs) Very much so

Paulson: Have you found that the genre that you've often written in science-fiction, was that  an especially good genre to explore questions about sexuality especially for a gay man? I mean, someone who was sort of writing about things that perhaps early on were really not out there yet in main stream culture?

Delany: It's interesting that the stories that first won awards Ion and Gommarah and then Tilesx  that have something to do with matters gay. It's as almost as though the science-fiction writers of America which is not a particularly gay organization. Nor at that time was it a particularly gay friendly you would have thought it was down right homophobic if you look at some of the articles that appeared in their regular news letter. But, it nevertheless it seemed like some of the constituency  of the organization were almost hungry for this kind of story so that when these two stories came out more than a year apart although there were other stories that I had written too. These are the stories that seemed to attract all of the attention. And the ones that you know yeah walked off with the awards.

Paulson: Uh hum, well I know some science-fiction writers kind of reject being characterized in that particular genre, as if it ghettoizes them. I guess I'm wondering if its still useful to talk about the science-fiction genre and you know to make distinction between


Comments for this interview

Like Samuel R. Delany (Anna-Marie Booth, 09/09/2012 - 10:40pm)

Loved the interview! Just happened to catch the latter part of it.
Mr. Delany's expressions are so poetic.