Aliette de Bodard is one of those fantastic writers whose short fiction has won huge plaudits, but whose first novels – the Obsidian and Blood trilogy – largely sank into obscurity due to publisher mishandling; she is also someone I hugely admire and am a friend of. Her new novel, The House of Shattered Wings, came out from Roc in the US yesterday and will come out from Gollancz in the UK tomorrow; I reviewed it last week, and absolutely loved it, especially the politics of the novel. Aliette is herself currently at Sasquan, but her publicity blog-tour continues apace – and I asked her to write about one of the things dear to this blog: gender and diversity…
I’ve been trying to write several versions of this post and always found myself staring at the screen. Writing a blog post pointing out all the ways that my book is diverse feels very embarrassing to me: I’m a basic not-loving-the-limelight introvert, and the previous drafts of this all sounded far too smug and self-satisfied for my personal taste–as in “see how wonderfully diverse my cast is and how progressive I am?”
And hum. I just can’t.
So I’m just going to talk about process, and about diversity and me.
I was a voracious reader as a child, consuming books from the library at a rate that had my parents torn between pride and alarm; and devouring everything from historicals to mysteries to SFF, without making many distinctions of genre.
It took me a long, long while to realise that what they all had in common, and the narrative that they were engraving into my brain, was that people like me did not get to go off on adventures, or to feature much in stories. And when they did, it was often in stories that didn’t quite speak to me: I love Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, but as an allegory of the Vietnam War it falls flat, because my Vietnam War, the one in family memories, isn’t a grand rebellion against cruel colonists, but a confused and half-untold story of conflicting loyalties and difficult choices on the way to independence, of families torn apart and exile, and of a litany of heart-breaking losses. So, even if you do have nominal diversity, narratives and stories can widely vary depending on who is telling them.
When I started writing SFF, for the longest time I had to fight against myself. Against that narrative that white people, white males, white Westerners, were suitable heroes, and everyone else was not. And I wish I could say all I had to do was be aware of that to overcome it, but prejudice is like the air you’re breathing: it’s really really hard to set aside; and you can have the best of intentions and still perpetuate a harmful or thoughtless narrative.
I had to go about it piecemeal: to have women characters and protagonists, to have POC characters and protagonists, to have Vietnamese characters and protagonists (that was a big hurdle to clear: it’s hard to describe the sheer stomach-clenching terror of getting these wrong, of giving everyone a wrong impression of the culture, and of being taken to task by my family for making a mess out of it); and to tackle other axes of marginalisation I’m less intimately familiar with (queer characters, …).
I don’t write stories with checklists of “ooooh let’s have a woman here and let’s have a POC here etc.” I want to write stories that speak to me (especially to ten-year-old me, who sensed something was missing and couldn’t put her finger on what!). But equally, I’ve become aware that it’s very easy to fall back into prejudice. If I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, my characters revert to my mental default.
When I was writing The House of Shattered Wings, my novel of a devastated Paris with Fallen angels, magicians, alchemists and witches, one of the things that I tried to pay particular attention to was gender roles. I know I have a tendency to revert to “type” (aka cliché) when not giving some thought to what’s happening. Due to years of schooling myself, I now tend to have all my primaries default to female: I saw nothing wrong with having Selene, a political leader and head of a major House of Fallen angels and magicians, be a woman who usually wore men’s clothes (and to have this situation be so usual), and nothing wrong either with Madeleine, my House alchemist and resident geek, being one. My third main character, a Vietnamese immigrant and ex-Immortal, was originally called Isabelle, until I realised this was a really skewed gender balance, and switched her with a male Fallen angel named Philippe. Other female notable characters included two further major political leaders, and a badass archivist with a key plot role (and long-time lover of Selene!).
So I had this slightly smug feeling that my cast was female-dominated; in fact, a quick head-count showed that it was about 70% male and 30% female, because whenever I needed a character who appeared only for a few scenes, I would reach for a male one! I had to hastily rewrite the entire secondary cast to switch genders here and there: the end result is about balanced (but note that I still had the feeling my cast was overwhelmingly female. It’s a known effect of prejudice: anything that strays from the default appears to loom larger than they really are).
One of the things I also wanted to do with the novel was to have a universe in which there was little sexism, because prejudices fell mainly on axes of race (white/non-white), magical nature (Fallen angels vs mortals; within Fallen angels, how powerful they were; within mortals, whether they were good at magic or not) and power/safety (who had safety in a devastated city, and who could offer it to others). So I had to check, once again, that I wasn’t perpetuating sexist ideas that came from our universe: Selene, the head of the major House, struggles in her leadership role and doubts herself, and I had to make very sure she wasn’t doing that because she was a woman, but rather simply because she was young, untrained, and trying to do justice to her powerful master Lucifer Morningstar. She’s in a tense relationship with many of the other heads of Houses, and again, this couldn’t be because she was less powerful than them (another cliché of women being weaker and less competent than men): she’s actually in a dominant (though increasingly unsteady) position, and she knows it.
All of this hopefully feels natural and unforced in the novel: a lot of it was forethought, and pulling out clichés by the root when they occurred (and relying on kindly beta-readers to take me to task for my prejudices!) . I won’t say I’m 100% happy with the way it turned out: already, I can see places where I would do things differently, and I’m of course not totally sure that my best intentions didn’t result in some horrible misstep.
But that’s as it should be: because diversity is a process and not a state, and because I’m always, always learning; and hopefully doing slightly better every time!
House of Shattered Wings is out from Roc as of yesterday, and from Gollancz as of tomorrow; my review & the blurb:
Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.
House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.
Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…