J. A. Lawrence: Looking at Life from the Other Side

Interview

Editor’s Note: It has come to our attention that the DA Greece membership roster holds a wealth of skills, life experiences, and viewpoints. Our hope is to introduce as many as we can to inspire the rest of us. We started with Athens/Tulsa poet Paul Hickman, and here we capsulize the long, amazing, life and works of Athens member, Judy Blish. Your suggestions of someone to interview are welcome.

Our DAGR member and long-time activist, Judy Blish, has just published her collected short stories. Most went to print under her nom de plume, J. A. Lawrence. Sci fi fans recognize both names. And that’s just the surface of The Other Side of the Surface. Robin Rafaelifys' very-compressed interview with Judy follows, as well as the video chat with Judy and her step-daughter, Beth Genly. Beth is an activist and author in her own right, and incidentally, the daughter of the late sci fi name, James Blish.

By Robin Rafaelidys

Most of us don’t remember when we actually began to think for ourselves. Perhaps it was the the war that awakened the consciousness of Judy Blish (nee Lawrence). Born in December,1934, she experienced WWII as a child. From radio and newsreels at the movies, she knew who the “bad” and “good” guys were. “Then Truman,” she says with loathing, “dropped the bomb.” Judy was 10 and beginning to process, “If this, then... that.” Suddenly there were no good guys.

After years at various boarding schools, Judy went to live with her mother in New York City and attended the High School of Music and Art. She recalls the teachers as wonderful and progressive. In the face of the McCarthy hearings, they marched in the local May Day parades. She later attended Hunter College and graduated from the Columbia School of Painting and Sculpture.

After a frustrating period teaching art (What else can you do with that degree and eat?) in a public school, where her appreciation of and attempts to foster creativity in “challenging” students was entirely thwarted, she turned to a period of office work.

Eventually, she made her way into the world of children's book illustrating. This was also frustrating because there is little room for personal creativity. Generally only black and white was used and she was given a “prescription” for each picture. She had happened to start reading some science fiction and, in a twist of fate, she met someone who knew someone who .... and she ended up creating a fabulous feathery costume to wear to the 1963 National Sci-Fi Convention in Washington DC. It was at her second Sci-Fi gathering, that November, that she met James Blish, and the Sci-Fi world gained an illustrator.

Sadly, James began his giant struggles with cancer almost immediately. As he was recovering from his first surgeries, they moved to DC for two years. This is when Judy began her pattern of creating congregations out of voids and formed a theater group called The Rogues' Gallery. In 1965, James, dressed carefully in super-square pinstripes and a Homburg, with Judy in heels, so as not to be mistaken for hippies, attended a Peace March where they stuffed the guards’ rifles with flowers.

After a year back in New York, when Nixon became president, the Blishes called it quits in America and moved to a small village outside Henley-on-Thames, England. Here Judy began to write as well. In 1975, James lost his fight with cancer.

As a distraction Judy took a two week trip to Greece. Like so many of us, she returned, and returned.

Enjoying Athens much more than the English countryside, Judy sold everything and moved to Greece in 1976.  Being in another country, and not an English-speaking one (she did take Greek classes offered free at the Greek Forum of Migrants) she found a community in the Multinational Women's Liberation Group. Not yet an avid woman's-libber, Judy put her energy into the production of an essential guide to Athens for English speakers.

The classic Network Directory to Greece, covering everything from doctors and social agencies to butchers’ charts, came out in 1983. In 2017, the remaining copies were acquired and deposited in university archives. These would be a treasure trove of information about the ex-pat world of Athens in the 80's! Through this group Judy made many acquaintances and along the way joined Democrats Abroad GR.

Judy still lives in the wonderful, but crumbling, former schoolhouse she found in the Thission area back then. About five years ago, her landlady died and Judy feared she might be uprooted. In another twist of fate, the son who inherited the property called one day and asked, “Are you any relation to James Blish?” Being a Sci-Fi fan, he happily retained Judy as a tenant. Which brings us to her most recent book, a collection called The Other Side of The Surface.

The title story is a riposte to the famous story by James Blish, “Surface Tension,” which is included in an appendix. In it, James considers a world where humans are transformed into various life forms in order to colonize new planets. The protagonists, now microscopic water creatures, tell the story from the point of view of conqueror or colonizer. Judy takes a different perspective in her title story, telling the same tale from the viewpoint of the rotifers, the enemies. Incredibly, rotifers have hit the news recently as a 24,000 year old frozen sample found in Siberia came back to life in a laboratory!

And for the Greek point of view, one of the sections of this newest book is called “Mezedakia” and includes the stories, “The Haunting of Ano Paleopolis” and “The Unknown Islands.”

Judy’s Greek point of view, her writing/editing skills, and that habit of looking at things from the other side of the surface have served DA Greece well over the last decade. Whether salads for a July 4th picnic or suggestions on organizing, Judy contributes. When there’s no time to write, she’s proofed articles for newsletters. A wide reader of issues alerts, Judy’s brought them to leadership’s attention or posted in the DAGR Issues group on Facebook. Still a member of the Greek Forum of Migrants, she’s been a main interface on migrant issues. Her interest in environment, plastic pollution in particular, and the young activists driving change, predict involvement in the forming-up global Climate council. Or maybe the also-forming Seniors council … if she can spare time from her next book, the autobiography, which will be a little longer than this article!

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It was a treat and privilege interviewing Judy Blish. I only wish I had space to share more – I've left out so much, including the cats! ~ Robin H Rafaelidys, 14 June, 2021