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Laura Lam first crossed my radar when her debut novel, Pantomime, came out in 2013; notable for being a YA novel with an intersex bisexual protagonist, I was not a fan. Since then, the publisher, Strange Chemistry, has gone under, leaving a number of horror-stories in their wake about author treatment and editorial standards; but Pan MacMillan picked up the Micah Grey trilogy and republished the first two books last year, with Masquerade, the last book, out for the first time ever this week!
SPOILERS follow for the Micah Grey trilogy
The first two books of the trilogy (I have my copy of Masquerade, of course, but haven’t read it yet!) follow Micah Grey as he tries to escape from his noble family, first by joining a circus (in Pantomime, which also recaps his life to the point of running away, and why he did so) and then as part of a magic show (in Shadowplay, which draws on some of the themes of Pantomime and fleshes out Micah’s past). Micah is an intersex person who usually identifies as a man and uses “he/him” profiles; due to the prejudices of his society, he is in the closet, and when he comes out to some of the other key characters, there are a variety of reactions. Some are, of course, painful queerphobic rejections, which are rather distressing to read but are portrayed without much sympathy for the person rejecting Micah; but there are also reactions which are completely accepting of Micah, and those are portrayed well and beautifully. Similarly, bisexuality seems to be largely a fact of life in the circles Micah moves in; he has some internalised queerphobia from his noble upbringing, but there doesn’t seem to be any biphobia or homophobia amongst the characters we meet in his adult life.
Laura Lam has since also gone on to write some fascinating near-future science fiction, in the Pacifica series; the first of these, False Hearts, came out last year, with Shattered Minds to follow in May.
False Hearts is one of the best books about an investigation into a crime involving a cult in a near-future setting to have come out in the last year (there were enough to say that, yes); it’s a fun fast-paced and thoughtful story that really digs into some cyberpunk ideas and stylings, including the use of neurohacking. But it’s mentioned here because the protagonist is queer, very openly and happily bisexual, in a society where sexuality doesn’t seem to be an axis of oppression; this is a book that is very willing to engage with a variety of sexualities and, indeed, gender identities, although that latter category is far less foregrounded. The semi-sequel (set in the same world, but with different characters), Shattered Minds, looks set to be equally exciting!
Finally, as mentioned yesterday, Laura Lam is one of the essayists included in the Nasty Women collection, which also features a variety of takes on feminism – including some explicitly about queerness!
But now that I’ve told you about why you should be reading Laura Lam’s work, here’s a chance to win one! I have TWO copies of the new paperback edition of Pantomime to give away, anywhere in the world; see the link below to enter! This giveaway will be open until 00:00 GMT on March 16th!
With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever for women to share their experiences. We must hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. Nasty Women is a collection of essays, interviews and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.
People, politics, pressure, punk. From working class experience to sexual assault, being an immigrant, divides in Trump’s America, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, Repeal the 8th, identity, family, finding a voice, punk, role models, fetishisation, power – this timely book covers a vast range of being a woman today.
Nasty Women is a phrase that, of course, became popularised by now-President Trump during the election campaign, referencing Hillary Clinton, his (more qualified, more honest, BETTER) opponent in the Presidential election; in the wake of the horrifying election of the Misogynist-In-Chief, new Scottish independent press 404Ink decided to put together a collection of essays by “nasty women”.
It’s an interesting collection; Nasty Women consists of 22 essays (although the ARC I’m reviewing only included 20), by a mix of authors from different backgrounds – women of colour, a woman with disabilities, women talking about a variety of religious experiences, and a trans woman (namely, punk rock icon and Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace). As a whole collection therefore, it’s usefully intersectional; rather than focusing on a specifically cis, white, Scottish, Christian/nonreligious experience of being a woman, it contains a variety of different ways of being a woman.
It’s also got a variety of different approaches to essay in it; Laura Lam’s essay, for instance, is genealogical, looking at the history of the women on her side of the family, while Elise Hines’ essay is autobiographical, about her own experiences and history, and Alice Tarbuck’s essay is a historical survey of witchcraft and foraging as feminist praxis. Nasty Women, by taking in all these approaches, creates a more interesting and varied collection than any one form alone would, and allows for a variety of answers to the implied question of the title: what is a nasty woman?
There are some essays I want to single out for specific comment, but with 20 in the book, that obviously can’t be all of them. The one I found most interesting and engaging was Ren Aldridge’s ‘Touch Me Again And I Will Fucking Kill You’, a look at gendered sexual harrassment in the punk community, both the music and activist sides; taking a broad look at sexual harrassment as it is manifested on a community that often hails itself as progressive, and how the perpetrators of it are protected, and how that is changing slowly, it is a fascinating essay on a particular manifestation of a gendered heirarchy. It is also notable for being the essay most concerned with inclusivity; Aldridge puts an asterisk by “woman” throughout to demand the reader considers what the category means, explicitly invokes nonbinary people and trans women, and talks about issues of cisnormative and ciscentric thinking as well as misogyny.
A second essay I really want to pull out for its excellence is that of Claire L. Heuchan, ‘Black Feminism Online: Claiming Digital Space’. A mix of personal autobiography and discussion of racism and misogynoir in online (feminist) discourse, it really brings into stark relief the way so much of feminist discourse is centred around, and assumes, whiteness; and the way misogyny aimed at black women, online especially but hardly absent in the offline world, differs from that aimed at white women. It’s an interesting piece that also talks about carving out a space for oneself; Heuchan talks about the way she came to be a blogger and online presence, to the extent that she is known now for her work as Sister Outrider. I do need to add a caveat to this endorsement, though, and one that stands in stark contrast to the previous essay; while the essay, thankfully, does not reflect this, Heuchan is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and outspokenly so on the blog this essay is about; for an essay collection with only one trans contributor, her inclusion can be seen as an error in judgement, regardless of the excellence of her essay.
Nadine Aisha Jassat’s essay ‘On Naming’ takes a different approach to looking at being a woman of colour in a white supremacist world; Jassat talks about the way her name is perceived and read by a white-dominated society, the way people make assumptions based on it, often racist ones, and the way it is often mangled by strangers and what that means to her as a person. It’s a fascinating essay on the importance of naming to identity, and the importance of claiming and asserting one’s name as an assertion of identity; one I perhaps overidentify with, albeit along a different and distinct axis.
The final essay that is a display of stand-out excellence is that of Bella Owen, ‘Liberation or Segregation’; it is the only essay in the collection to discuss disability, and it discusses it through a mixture of analysis and personal autobiography in a way that really drives home the ways that Owen has had to deal with an albeist society putting restrictions on her. The specific venue for much of the essay is music gigs, which are a theme running through many of the essays, but Owen’s experience of being a disabled woman at them is obviously different to that of Laura Jane Grace as a trans star, or Elise Hines as a music photographer who is a woman of colour. The specific and the general experiences drawn out in this essay are really noteworthy in that they are also stories we are rarely told, so it is good to have them seen.
No collection will be all gems, though, and two essays just did not work for me. The first felt simply badly written; Alice Tarbuck’s ‘Foraging and Feminism’ appears to be trying to emulate the writing of Nan Shepherd, who it praises, and Robert MacFarlane, which it dislikes rather strongly, but falling somewhere between into a kind of poetic nothing, which while making some strong points along the way, and ending on a powerful note, has a tendency to descend into some very strange romanticisations of the past and of certain historical practices as feminist in a way the evidence presented in the essay doesn’t seem to support.
The other is Chitra Ramaswamy’s ‘After Expecting’; while this is an excellent essay where it limits itself to Ramaswamy’s experiences of pregnancy, when it talks about wider issues of pregnancy, it falls into a couple of (common) errors. The first is a kind of mysticism around pregnancy that it seems to also want to dismiss, as if it is necessary and intrinsic to a woman and a deep secret, even while demanding that it be made more open and understood. The other issue reflects a failing noted above, of a failure to register trans issues; the essay suggests that “while death happens to all of us, birth happens to women.” Either this is suggesting that only women are born or, and it seems this is likely what Ramaswamy means, that only women give birth – which, of course, is not true, and erases AFAB trans people.
A final issue to bring out with the volume is an uneven use of content notes. It is unclear whether these were added by the editors, or requested by the authors, but a number of the essays which talk about sexual violence in various forms have them; however, those which include (necessary and relevant use of!) racial slurs, sexist language, etc, do not, and not all the essays which include passing mentions of sexual violence have content notes. Nasty Women could easily have paved the way and demonstrated an excellent and consistent approach to content notes, it is intead rather a mixed bag on that front.
However, despite some shortcomings, Nasty Women maintains a high standard of excellence across its essays, and has some really good insights into the lives of women; as Margaret Atwood says, it is “[a]n essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.” I highly recommend it to you, and am looking forward to seeing what 404Ink do next.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on an ARC of the book provided by the publisher, 404Ink, which does not include essays by Kaite Welsh and Anna Cosgrave. I put money into the Kickstarter that funded this volume, and I helped organise the launch of the book yesterday (6/3) at my place of work. Laura Lam, a contributor to this volume, is a friend.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
The Women’s March(es) on Saturday, assembled around the world in protest at a racist, misogynistic, transphobic, queerphobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, hateful bigot’s inauguration as President of the United States of America, were a moment in time when huge numbers of people mobilised for shared progressive, or at least not regressive, goals, coalescing around a specific US event as a pearl around a piece of grit. That movement is already starting to dissolve, inevitably, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to talk a bit about where I’m going to be investing my political energies…
Because I’m in Scotland, this is going to have a distinctly Scottish flavour, but there are likely to be equivalent issues to work on in your locality; I’m going to lay out, in reasonable detail, what I’m going to be campaigning on with specifics related to Scotland, but sadly, misogyny, transphobia, queerphobia, and racism, aren’t uniquely Scottish. This is less prescription than description and inspiration!
First, and closest to my heart, the Scottish National Party, in their 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Election manifesto, pledged to reform gender recognition laws in Scotland so that they are “in line with international best practice for people who are Transgender or Intersex”, and to “build on and improve the standalone protocol that’s been developed in Scotland for people seeking gender reassignment” (SNP Manifesto, Diverse but Equal section). As a trans person myself – I’m enby, thanks for asking – this matters to me; under current circumstances, there is no way to get legal recognition outside the gender binary, and even within the gender binary, it requires a complicated process involving various others agreeing that one is sane, correct about one’s actual gender, et cetera. This is ridiculous. The Irish system follows something far closer to international best practice: an adult can declare to the government that they are of a certain (binary, at present) gender. The government recognises their decision. The end. The SNP have the power, with the support of either the Greens or Liberal Democrats (or Labour, if they’re so inclined) to pass a measure through the Scottish Parliament to make this law; they have the power to recognise nonbinary people in law; they have the power to smooth the road to transition, and to improve the funding of Gender Identity Clinics (the Sandyford Centre in Glasgow has a 12-18 month waiting list. I’ve been on that list since May). So far, no bills to do this have been brought forward; I intend to keep pressuring my MSPs, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, to change that by developing proposals to put forward either in this or the next Parliamentary session, ie by the end of 2018.
Secondly, the Scottish Government, like the Westminster Government, has proven reluctant to require comprehensive, inclusive sex & relationships education (SRE) be taught in all schools. A number of Scottish schools are religious institutions; these have a very patchy record on the teaching of SRE, which isn’t to set aside the supposedly secular institutions which, either through bigotry in the community or the hangover of Section 28, fail their LGBTQI pupils. The TIE Campaign, which has the support of a number of SNP MSPs including the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is pushing the Scottish Government to pass legislation requiring compulsory, comprehensive, inclusive SRE in all schools; so far, the SNP, despite committing to the idea (see that section of their manifesto mentioned above again), have not yet brought forward any concrete proposals, despite a number of possibilities having been advanced. I intend to push my MSPs to bring something forward for a vote in the Scottish Parliament within this Parliamentary session.
Moving to something with less direct personal impact on me, in the wake of a xenophobic, race-baiting EU referendum last year and the elevation of neo-Nazi (no, I won’t call them alt-right) voices by the election and inauguration of Trump, the humanitarian crisis that is the way we in the West treat refugees is continuing, and worsening thanks to hard-hearted political leaders. While the Scottish government does not have the power to set refugee policy for the UK, it has made it clear that it stands with refugees and would welcome many more to Scotland’s shores; under both David Cameron and Theresa May, however, Westminster has charted a very different, much less compassionate course. I am going to get more involved in Refugees Welcome, an organisation aimed at both lobbying politicians and supporting those refugees who do actually manage to enter the UK, to try to push a more compassionate vision of British society.
I’m also going to be talking about a lot of other causes in littler ways, because I’ve only got so much energy and these are the three I want to invest it in most; Scottish Independence has a great, strong team working for it, I’ll lend my shoulder occasionally but the heavy lifting is being done already. Black Lives Matter is a vitally important cause, but not one it’s easy for me, as a white person in Glasgow, to directly involve myself in, except at protests; I’ll try to turn out for those when I can; similarly, #NoDAPL. Environmentalism is also an incredibly important concern for the whole world, but it has a whole political party dedicated to it, whereas trans rights are at the front of no one’s minds at present.
These are the issues I am choosing to prioritise. I hope you are all choosing different ones; I’m focusing on these because others are focused elsewhere; but like I’ll lend you a helping hand, I’d be grateful if you lent us one too. There are too many important issues for one person to be involved in all of them; I’d really like to hear what the issues closest to your hearts are.
And remember. Be the fascist-punching gif you want to see in the world.
ETA a shout out to tireless activist and fast, solid friend Erin Lynn Jeffreys Hodges!
Let’s get this out of the way: I’m asking for money on Patreon. This post is about explaining why I’m asking for money, and justifying asking for money. You don’t have to give me money. You don’t have to do anything with your money you don’t want to! I won’t be offended! But I thought I should lay out my reasoning a little. And to start with, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Gollancz publicist and vlogger Stevie Finegan, aka SableCaught, who recently made this video:
(Transcript on her tumblr)
What I do here is labour. That is’s labour I do out of love makes it no less labour than my paid work as a bookseller, which I also do out of love; no less than the events I organise at work for authors I adore, for which organising I am paid; no less than writing a novel, which we all (I hope) agree authors should be paid for. It is effort, and time, and not always pleasant, especially when writing negative things about a book by someone one knows and likes. It is, in fact, work, and work is not necessarily its own reward.
I’m looking at a slightly different aspect of paid-for blogging than Stevie, though; while her subsequent video was directly paid for by one sponsor, in advance, I am asking you for money. Neither of these is intrinsically more honest or better a method than the other, I hasten to add – one is simply more open to me! I am doing this because I’ve blogged before, more than once, in more than one space, and fallen off the bandwagon. There is no positive reinforcement, no feedback, for blogging the way there is for, say, tweeting; at least not on the same scale; and writing a post takes more time than even a long tweetstream does. So not only is this labour that is expected to be its own reward, it can be lonely labour, too.
So, why put out my cap? As mentioned earlier, I work as a bookseller. The book industry is, as we all know, going through interesting times, and has been for a while; being a part-time employee in a bookshop keeps body and soul together and (thanks to a generous staff discount) in books, but at times rather tightly so. A little breathing room afforded me by your patronage would be a relief in those tighter times, and as someone with depression, that extra anxiety taken away would be a boon to my productivity here.
However, the greater reason, prompted by Stevie’s video, was that it’s positive reinforcement. Every time I post a review, or an essay, I’ll get a direct reward; every time I get a reward, I’ll know it was for doing the work, and that’s an incentive to do the work, even when it’s hard (and writing reviews, as any reviewer will tell you, often is hard), even when I don’t want to do it (no one wants to criticise their friends!), even when it seems pointless to do it (see also, depression). The Patreon sponsorship will reward me for doing the work, and thus, I’ll do more work, with reasons to do that work – especially once people build up an expectation of posts; extrinsic pressure to do the work, plus a reward for doing it? Yes, that’ll do.
So, in sum? Please put some money in the cap, and help me blog!
Finally, a disclaimer about sponsorship and bias. As Stevie says, sponsorship means you’re paying for my time, not my endorsement; I’m not going to pretend a work by someone who sponsors me is better or less problematic than it is (or conversely, a work by someone who doesn’t worse or more problematic!).
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…
Max Gladstone is the author of the amazing Craft Sequence, the first-or-fourth installment of which came out on Tuesday, titled Last First Snow. Since Dr Liz Bourke turned me on to the series, back with Three Parts Dead, I’ve been a huge admirer of the diverse, brilliantly-executed, fascinating, urban economic-legal fantasy that Gladstone has been writing, so I jumped at the offer of a guest-post from the man himself when offered it.
On asking Twitter what the topic of the post should be, the overwhelming response was “bees”; as an alternative, I asked about Gladstone’s choice to write from marginalised viewpoints (most notably, a disabled trans woman of colour in Full Fathom Five). It turns out that, as only a writer of his calibre could, he managed to meld both topics into one in this essay…
I suspect most people feel more or less the same when they’re being chased by bees.
So, no shit, there I was, in rural Anhui province, in China. After a relatively sedentary first year in the country, I’d taken up running, inspired and a bit intimidated by my roommate Wyatt, fresh off the cross country team at college. I never reached Wyatt’s lofty peak of fitness, but every other day I’d dutifully don shorts and sneakers and plod out through the canola fields behind the school, over the little ridge past water buffalo and cabbages, and carry the circuit around ’til I reached the main road again.
That spring, the canola fields bloomed into a carpet of yellow, and I discovered that the local beekeepers brought their hives to gather pollen from those flowers. Right along my running path.
Now, I’m not allergic to bees, but I had some bad bee-related experiences as a kid, and I’ve been nervous around the critters ever since. But I knew better now, I told myself. Bees smell fear, and a smooshed bee releases a pheromone-type chemical that attracts other bees. So don’t be afraid, and don’t smoosh bees, and you’ll be (hah!) fine.
The first day after the hives arrived, I breathed through my nose, and ran right past. A few bees buzzed around my head for a while, but the swarm did not descend. I’d grown as a human being! I’d survived!
The second day, I ran past again, and again the bees showed little interest. By the fourth run, the whole deal seemed old hat.
My fifth run took place on one of those hot and viciously humid days I’d had too much of growing up in Tennessee. I didn’t want to run, or do much of anything except lie in the shade. I even showered, thinking, it’s cool, I’ll skip the run today. But then Wyatt came back from his run, smiling and cut and flush with health, and, fine, dammit, on go the shorts and shoes and out the door go I. Down the hill. Out the front gate. Off the main road, and through the canola fields.
It turns out my shampoo smells like flowers.
The bees noticed.
At first a few buzzed over, turning tighter circles around my head than they had before. That’s fine. I’m cool. I’m cool.
More came, their wings a high-pitched whine in my ears. Ten, maybe. This is, um. My skin’s crawling. Twenty. Forty. Bees land and wriggle in my hair. By reflex, I try to brush them away—and by accident, smoosh.
Have you ever heard two dozen hives notice something all at once?
To me, they sounded like Hells’ own Angels revving up to kick my ass.
The next, it can’t have been more few seconds, felt like much longer. I’ve never run that fast in my life, and I was running ahead of a dust storm made of bees. I was stung. A lot. I couldn’t run faster than they could fly. Just as the cloud was about to pass me, I dove off the road into a bush, crouched with my head covered, and hid.
This makes no sense—I know it makes no sense—but I remember the bees flying right past me down the road, in a coherent black phalanx. Maybe the Bee Goddess took pity. Maybe I’m making that bit up. I don’t think I am. I was in, at the time, let’s dignify it with the expression “a heightened state of consciousness.”
When the bees passed by, I picked the dead ones out of my hair and their stingers out of my skin. I limped home, tended my welts, and found an alternate running trail until the hives moved on. I did not die. Had I been allergic to bees, I would have been in trouble—but I was just stung, and afraid. Probably people with more traumatic bee experiences in their past might have been more afraid; probably people more hard-core than I would have been more level-headed about the whole affair. But I suspect that (controlling of course for allergies) different folks’ experience of that situation would have fallen along a psychological axis that isn’t much dependent on, say, their sexual orientation, gender identity, or racial background.
We live in a cool moment in fiction, especially speculative fiction: people are standing up and demanding to see more of themselves in books, and taking issue with stories that get their experiences wrong. As someone interested in justice, and as someone who has always read stories from a wide range of authors, backgrounds, and cultures, I love this moment. I’m seeing more books drawing from more wells than I ever remember. These conversations and developments draw us closer to a true literature of liberation. (Or ‘escape,’ if you’d prefer.)
So what can I do to help, as an SF practitioner? Privilege, I have it—my only competition in the Privilege Olympics is my demographic clone who happened to grow up capital R rich. For Christ’s sake, I’m a straight, white, cissexual, heterosexual, monogamous Yale man. Cole Porter wrote whole musicals lampooning people like me. I can—and do—boost, and promote work I love by people the system slants against. I can be an activist and advocate. But I’m worse at all that other stuff than I am at writing books. And if I did all that other stuff better, but focused my books on people who look, speak, screw, and believe exactly like I do, well, I’d be using my greatest powers—skills I’ve spent my whole life developing—to be part of the problem. And to make matters worse, I’d be writing about a world that does not exist, a fantasy within a fantasy. Young writers are told time and again in this business that they only get one big conceit per novel, and I’d rather mine be “wild fantasy magic with dragons and stuff” than “depressing monoculture.”
So, what does that leave?
Well, let’s start with what I can’t do. Where I am now, being who I am, I can’t write Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I can’t write Song of Solomon. I haven’t lived the life to write those books. I could try—maybe—but it would take immense research, enormous compassion and negative capability, heroic effort, very patient beta readers, and I’d still probably screw everything up.
But I know what it feels like to be chased by bees. And I know what it feels like to grind at a problem for weeks and break through. I know what it feels like to get the shit kicked out of me. I’ve loved. I’ve fallen. And I’ve seen enough of the world, I’ve spoken with enough people, I’ve read widely enough, and I’ve seen enough sympathy in enough different folks’ faces when I describe my Great Bee Race, to trust my intuition that, while different people from different backgrounds may handle the same situation differently, or describe it differently, there’s a lot we humans have in common.
It helps that I like writing thriller plots—setting characters tense challenges of the “find the murderer” / “stop the disaster” / “figure out the truth” variety, and chasing them around the proverbial map. Those plots aren’t that different from a swarm of bees, if you think about it: stakes are high, consequences immediate, and as a result, differences between people tend to get compressed. It’s still, of course, important to get those differences right—choices made under pressure reveal and unwrap character. But immediacy helps bridge the gap between people, too. The swarm of bees, the ticking bomb—they’re not universal, but they help.
When I was first spinning the ideas that became Three Parts Dead, I read some heated discussions online about how few black women main characters there were in fantasy; those informed Tara, no doubt. Thinking the challenge through I felt like I was up to writing a young black woman who was brilliant, ambitious, desperate to get out of her hick home town, confronted with an overwhelming job—I have personal experience with most of those things, and as I embroiled her in a thriller plot, I felt more confident about writing the parts of her character my experience didn’t cover. That’s not enough, but no one book is, or can be, enough. I can write someone awesome, though, and hope it helps.
The same approach informed my development of a non-anglo culture in Two Serpents Rise, melding authoritarian dynamics I knew from my time in China and environmental issues from Los Angeles and religious and cultural signifiers from Mesoamerica. Ditto for Full Fathom Five, in other ways. And by Last First Snow, my most recent book, I found I’d filled a world with people who were not me!
None of the folks in my books “just happen” to be the people they are—I research, I listen to people, I beta my manuscripts widely, I develop compassion and negative capability, I ask, I listen. I work hard to get right the experiences that are beyond mine. I hold my books up to the light when they’re done, and try to ask, honestly: what am I doing here? When I build a character who differs from me in some significant facet, I try to respect those differences; if I don’t, I’m just being a bad writer.
And then, once I have my characters, I set the bees on them.
Last First Snow came out from Tor Books on 14/7/2015. My review of it is forthcoming. The blurb:
Forty years after the God Wars, Dresediel Lex bears the scars of liberation–especially in the Skittersill, a poor district still bound by the fallen gods’ decaying edicts. As long as the gods’ wards last, they strangle development; when they fail, demons will be loosed upon the city. The King in Red hires Elayne Kevarian of the Craft firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to fix the wards, but the Skittersill’s people have their own ideas. A protest rises against Elayne’s work, led by Temoc, a warrior-priest turned community organizer who wants to build a peaceful future for his city, his wife, and his young son.
As Elayne drags Temoc and the King in Red to the bargaining table, old wounds reopen, old gods stir in their graves, civil blood breaks to new mutiny, and profiteers circle in the desert sky. Elayne and Temoc must fight conspiracy, dark magic, and their own demons to save the peace–or failing that, to save as many people as they can.
Elizabeth Bear has long been one of my favourite writers, as readers will know; her upcoming novel, Karen Memory, is one of the books I am most looking forward to in 2015, and comes out on February 3rd. Given Bear’s outspoken feminism and her tendency towards female protagonists, I’m delighted to be able to present to you a piece by her on the strong female protagonist, and the problems thereof.
Hi. I’m Elizabeth Bear, the author of Karen Memory, a new steampunk Weird West novel out from Tor. And I’m here to talk about failure modes in the theory and practice of creating the “strong female character,” specifically as it relates to female protagonists in science fiction and fantasy.
Or possibly, to rant about very concept of the “strong female character,” because it’s a catchphrase I’m starting to get really tired of. (I think Kate Beaton sums up why pretty well here)
Specifically, my problem is that the idea that a female lead must be a “strong female character” leads to a whole complex of other problems. So here’s an inexhaustive survey of some of them, and some suggestions on how to avoid the traps.
There’s the “She’s not like other girls” problem. (One of the things that I liked very much about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that while the protagonist is a Chosen One, part of the point of the narrative is that she is like other girls. She just, you know, has superpowers. I have other problems with the show, but that’s neither here nor there.) This is related to the Smurfette problem—where there’s only one female character in a male ensemble, and so that woman has to be all women, and exemplary in every way. (There’s usually one black guy, too, who stands for all black people everywhere.)
These characters never seem to have female friends, somehow. Possibly because they just can’t relate to other women with their hair and their nails and their silly giggling.
Then there’s the brittle-and-mouthy problem, which is particularly epidemic in urban fantasy, and has to do with writers attempting a sarcastic noir voice and a hard-boiled protagonist who takes nobody’s nonsense—and winding up with somebody who you would chew your arm off to get away from at a cocktail party. Except they would never be invited to a cocktail party, because they tend to provoke a fight in any conversation they get into, since it’s a cheap way to generate tension. These characters wind up making most of their own problems, frankly, because their only means of interpersonal communication is getting in people’s faces.
These characters never seem to have any female friends, either. Or maybe one. Somebody who enables their undiagnosed and untreated personality disorders.
(It is perfectly possible to write a female character with an attitude problem and have her work quite well. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski leaps to mind as an example: she’s defended and sharp-edged and patrols her boundaries ferociously. But she’s also capable of realizing what she is doing and making a conscious effort to step the hell off. Self-awareness fixes a lot of characterization ills. And she has a number of female friends. 😉 )
Next on the list, there’s the thing the internet has dubbed Trinity Syndrome, which ranks as the characterization trope I hate most in the world. It’s generally identifiable when a totally cool woman shows up in the first act, is awesome and competent, mentors the ineffectual male hero, is generally better-suited for his job than he is… and by the end of the third act has lost all purpose in life except to hang on his arm and step aside so he can have her job. It’s the GIs coming home after WWII all over again. How to Train Your Dragon II, I’m looking at you!
These women never have any female friends because they are usually the Smurfette, too.
Last but not least, there’s the ever popular madonna/whore dichotomy, where women are either pure and innocent and defined by men, or self-actualizing and evil to the core. You can google that one if you want more information, because even typing “madonna/whore dichotomy” makes me tired to the bone.
They never have any female friends either, unless they’re mothering them.
So. You want to write about women, and you want to avoid falling into these traps. How does a well-meaning person go about it? (And it’s not easy! These roles and tropes are ingrained into the very fabric of our society, into the stories we grow up learning how stories work from. They feel superficially satisfying because we’re programed to expect them on a deep cellular level! No blame, as the I Ching says.)
Well, to escape the trope, we must learn to interrogate the trope. We have to stop thinking of our female characters as Strong Female Characters and let them be people. And more, let them be people on equal footing with the male people—in terms of agency and desires, at least, if not in terms of social expectations. (Heck, one way to show a woman’s strength is to show her dealing with the exhausting nonsense and the extra work that comes as part and parcel of being a woman.) (And heck, let’s see some roles go to strong characters who are trans, or who reject gender binary completely.)
There’s no particular magic to writing a Strong Woman that doesn’t apply to writing all people. The end.
Let’s have Strong Characters, by which I mean strongly characterized characters, people with foibles and strengths and bad habits, regardless of their gender and their sex.
Thanks Bear, for that amazing piece of writing, and excellent guide to how (not) to write female characters!
Elizabeth Bear was the recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005. She has won two Hugo Awards for her short fiction, a Sturgeon Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Bear lives in Brookfield, Massachusetts.
Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
Karen Memory came out February 3rd. My review is forthcoming.